Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: 'Comic Book Fever: A Celebration of Comics 1976-1986'

It may be hard to fathom in an age when adults literally get violently angry about reading bad reviews of the latest big-screen superhero explosion fest, but there was a time when comic books were lighthearted, fun, and almost exclusively intended for children. They could thrill to Superman’s escapades and laugh at Casper’s antics without the requisite shovelful of “darkness” and “grit.” The Dark Knight might hawk Hostess snack cakes in full-page ads and Spider-Man might team up with SNL’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Comics could also be just as complex and artfully illustrated as they are today, but they were still generally aimed at kids.

George Khoury— and his guest writers, such as Mary Skrenes and Roger Stern— celebrate and eulogize the era in which comics transitioned from child to adult-child fare in his new book Comic Book Fever, presenting a series of topical articles focused on the decade between 1976 and 1986. It begins with Captain America’s goofy bicentennial patriotism, the last gasp of Harvey comics and Archie’s wholesome frolics, moves through a more thoughtful period in which Marvel and the Hernandez Brothers (Love and Rockets) introduced progressive ideals into superhero adventures, and ends with the inevitable “maturing” of the form with Alan Moore on the left and Frank Miller on the right and buckets of blood and aimless cynicism splattered everywhere in between.

Khoury only really criticizes the dark turn comics took in his final pages, but his writing about the industry’s more carefree, youth-oriented days is so celebratory that he makes his preference clear throughout Comic Book Fever. There are certainly few “serious” studies of comics that would make room to laud such wacky side roads as Jack Davis’s “Streetball” ads for Spalding, Rock & Roll comics, toy-based comics (Masters of the Universe, Rom, GI Joe, Strawberry Shortcake...), Colorforms, and Dynamite Magazine. Those of us who don’t take comic reading so deathly serious will relish binging on this nostalgia feast. There’s also fascinating drama in many of these stories, such as the troubled creations of the iconic Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic and Marvel’s KISS series.

Khoury also emphasizes the fun side of the medium in his presentation. Every page of Comic Book Fever overflows with images of comics pages and covers, advertisements, and memorabilia: toys, place mats, pencil cases, lunchboxes, records, greeting cards, and so on. I remember being a kid ogling all this stuff at my local Heroes World, a comics shop chain that Khoury lovingly profiles in his book. I have much fonder memories of thumbing through issues of Star Wars there than I do of seeing Batgirl getting shot through the spine in The Killing Joke. There are innumerable online forums for those who prefer the latter. Comic Book Fever, however, is for kids like me.

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 329

The Date: August 24

The Movie: Peeping Tom (1960)

What Is It?: The tale of  a serial killer who photographs his victims at the moment of their deaths using a dagger concealed in his camera’s tripod. By emphasizing the link between sex and violence, director Michael Powell took his content several ticks beyond even Hammer’s controversial pictures. The film was ravaged by U.K. critics and butchered in the U.S. where it was dumped in the grind houses. That’s rough treatment for perhaps the first film to examine the filmmaker’s responsibility in presenting violent material to audiences, as well as the audience’s own dicey desire to look at the sick and the horrible.

Why Today?: On this day in 1891, Thomas Edison patents the movie camera.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 328

The Date: August 23

The Movie: Better Off Dead (1985)

What Is It?: Savage Steve Holland was John Hughes for the kids who huffed glue at the back of the class, and Better Off Dead is his undisputed masterwork. Teen angst embraces surrealism as John Cusack broods over girls and cars, eats Franch fries and meals that look like puke and slither of their own volition, skis deadly slopes, and hangs out with his middle-aged high school chum Curtis Armstrong.

Why Today?: On this day in 1985, Better Off Dead hits theaters.

Monday, August 22, 2016

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 327

The Date: August 22
The Movie: All That Money Can Buy (1941)
What Is It?: Screenwriter Stephen Vincent BenĂ©t adapts his own story “The Devil and Daniel Webster for RKO pictures with a classic turn from Walter Huston as “Mr. Scratch,” the Devil who does his day in court to argue for the copyright on Eddie Arnold’s soul. Look out for the original Cat Woman, Simone Simon, as one of the devil’s minions!
Why Today?: On this day in 1952, the Devil’s Island penal colony is closed for business.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 326

The Date: August 21
The Movie: The Blood of the Poet (1930)
What Is It?: Jean Cocteau unfiltered as he steps around anything resembling a plot to revel in avant garde magic tricks. One artist can’t shake the mouth that keeps traveling all over his body. Another takes a disorienting trip through the looking glass. A snowball fight turns tragic. A card game starts gruesomely and just keeps getting worse. The Blood of the Poet should be as well known as Un Chien Andalou. If only Black Francis had written a catchy tune about this one…
Why Today?: Today is Poet’s Day.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

366 Days at the Drive-In: Day 325

The Date: August 20

The Movie: The Baby (1973)

What Is It?: For most of its 85 minutes, this tale of an adult baby and his weirdo family is really hard to assess. The premise is wack-a-doo, but the rather excellent acting from the totally committed cast and the moody direction by seasoned T.V. director Ted Post kind of rule out the possibility that it’s a bad movie. Still, it’s hard to peg as a good movie, because the raw ingredients—a twenty-something man crawling around and cooing like a six-month old, his mother’s hard-to-swallow motivations, his sister’s increasingly strange behavior, a baby-sitter who gets a little too into Baby’s urge to breastfeed—seem to sound the “bad movie” alarm. The Baby doesn’t divulge its true quality until its final reel, which reveals a completely unexpected twist that is— no exaggeration— brilliant.

Why Today?: On this day in 2013, director Ted Post dies.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Review: 'Return of the Jedi: The Original Topps Trading Card Series Volume Three'

Like the movie it chronicled, The Empire Strikes Back: The Original Topps Trading Card Series Volume Two ended on a cliffhanger. Instead of the movie’s lingering questions of parentage, the books’ cliffhanger was “Will Volume Three suffer from the same issues as Volume Two?” The problem with Abrams Books’ second volume in its compilations of classic Star Wars trading cards is that it shrank the images down way too much, reducing its reproductions of Topps’ Empire Strikes Back cards to a size smaller than that of the actual cards. Pages were overwhelmed with wasted white space while you needed a magnifying glass to see those images of the most visually arresting Star Wars movie.

Well, the cliffhanger has now been resolved, and the news is much better than Luke’s discovery that Darth Vader really is his dad. The images are once again back to the oversized dimensions of those in Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Card Series Volume One. That’s great news because although Return of the Jedi does not have the artful visual style of its predecessor, it does have the most interesting looking menagerie of aliens of any Star Wars picture, and you get to ogle the likes of Jabba the Hutt, Bib Fortuna, the Gamorrean Guards, Nien Nunb, Admiral Ackbar, Sy Snootles, and the rest in all their weird glory in Volume Three.

The fact that Return of the Jedi provided many of the trilogy’s most interesting stills—stills that are arguably more interesting than the film, itself—helps to mitigate the fact that the overall presentation is a bit less interesting this time around. There are none of the outtake, behind-the-scenes, or production art images used in the Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back series. Gary Gerani, who wrote the cards’ original captions, seems less enthusiastic this time too, providing far fewer of his witty and colorful comments than he did in the first volume. In the plus column for Topps, the image quality is vastly improved for Return of the Jedi (images on Star Wars and Empire cards tended to be extremely grainy and often blurry) and the card backs feature neat character illustrations. In the plus column for Abrams is the fact that the pictures are no longer being presented at microscopic size. It makes one wish for a fourth volume in Abrams’ series called The Empire Strikes Back: The Non-Tiny Original Topps Trading Cards.

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