Hatcher’s Junk Drawer #10: Revisitations

I guess this is a sort of sequel to Itching and Scratching, except this is more about things I DID actually finish but haven’t returned to in decades. For some reason I’ve come across several of them in recent weeks and thought I might as well build this week’s column around them.

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Roy Thomas has a new book out. Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian.

The title is a little misleading; it gives the impression that it’s a sort of definitive fictional biography of Conan, incorporating not just Robert E. Howard’s works but all the additional pastiches in prose and comics. (Honestly, I’m not sure that such a book is even possible at this point, but if it was, Roy Thomas would probably be the guy to attempt it.)

But that’s not what this is. No, this is an issue-by-issue behind-the-scenes look back at Roy’s first tenure on Conan comics at Marvel. For those of us that read those comics when they were coming out and are interested in that history, it’s fascinating. Especially since back then sword-and-sorcery was still relatively new to the Marvel comics audience, and would not come to dominate paperback spinner racks until a couple of years later, Roy had to spend a lot of time explaining to his colleagues what he was doing. You can make the case that the later omnipresence of those paperbacks was about equally because of the work of Frank Frazetta and Roy Thomas each did in the early seventies, and it’s interesting to hear what Thomas himself has to say about it all.

For those wanting gossip, I’m sorry to tell you he always takes the high road, though he gets a trifle defensive at times (There was a Comics Journal interview with John Byrne once where he jeered at Thomas for being the “Super-Adaptoid,” incapable of doing anything but adapting other people’s work, and clearly Thomas is still smarting over it.) Volume One covers the first fifty-one issues of the monthly color comic, with an occasional detour to Savage Tales and Savage Sword, but generally the magazine comics are not mentioned much here; this is mostly about the Thomas originals. Definitely check it out if you’re a fan, though despite the back cover copy, I don’t know that it’s worth it if you aren’t. I certainly am, so I’ll be back for Volume Two.

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Hard Case Crime sent me their latest, Donald Westlake’s Brothers Keepers.

Of all the Westlake books Hard Case has sent me over the last few years, this is far and away the funniest. The blurb: What will a group of monks do when their two-century-old monastery in New York City is threatened with demolition to make room for a new high-rise? Anything they have to. “Thou Shalt Not Steal” is only the first of the Commandments to be broken as the saintly face off against the unscrupulous over that most sacred of relics, a Park Avenue address.

But that doesn’t really do it justice. Hero and narrator Brother Benedict is a monk in the (fictional) Crispinite order, one of only sixteen monks in all. Their monastery is a building in midtown Manhattan, built by the original monks on leased land. Benedict is horrified to discover that the building will be demolished along with the rest of the block they live on. This order has a prohibition against travel unless absolutely necessary, so the thought of moving creates all kinds of chaos. They have a legal right to stay, according to the lease, but the lease is suspiciously missing. They hatch increasingly frantic plans to somehow stop the demolition but are thwarted everywhere they turn. Finally in desperation Brother Benedict tries to appeal directly to the millionaire that owns the land, traveling all the way to Puerto Rico, and falls in love with his daughter Eileen. Hilarity– and mayhem– ensues, as Benedict falls prey to worldly evils. “A week of sex had awakened a hunger in me that had been dormant for a long long time….married sex is sanctified, and adulterous sex is condemned …. that leaves much of the world’s sex in Limbo.”

The story seemed vaguely familiar to me and finally I remembered that my old friend Anne-Marie had been after me about it in college. I think she even bought me a copy at one point. The time would have been about right… this is another one of Hard Case’s ‘forgotten classic’ entries. The original hardcover book came out in 1975 and it certainly deserved a wider audience.

The Mysterious Press did another re-issue in the 1990s.

That didn’t get a lot of traction either; for that matter, I can’t tell you why I never got around to reading it myself although the covers really aren’t selling the idea very well and that might have had something to do with it. I much prefer the latest one.

Despite its new home at Hard Case, it’s not that pulpy. There is a fair amount of action and mystery, but the comedy is what drives the thing; and the love story, despite the biting satire, is rather sweet. It would make a wonderful movie and honestly I can’t figure out why it never became one; something in the vein of Sister Act, maybe, but way, way better. Two thumbs way up.

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The last one is a little involved. Some of you may recall how, in elementary school, I first fell in love with mystery fiction through the juveniles sponsored by Alfred Hitchcock (as described here for those that missed it.)

There is a little sidebar to that literary excursion. At the drugstore, next to the comics spinner rack, nine-year old me often saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Well, after falling swooningly in love with the Hitchcock offerings in the school library, I was intensely curious about the magazine. Hitchcock’s was one of the digest anthologies that were the last gasp of the old pulps, one of the character/celebrity-based ones you used to see like Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine and The Saint Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Since I already was familiar with the Hitchcock brand from the books, or so I thought, I figured I’d try the magazine. I risked sixty cents on one and it blew my mind.

For one thing, it was a lot nastier than the grade-school books I’d seen. Clearly, the editorial mission statement was to emphasize stories concluding with a vicious E.C. Comics-style zinger, often more horror than mystery. The first story in the magazine was about a husband whose wife joins a demon cult and when he tries to prove it’s all a put-on it turns out that it’s real. There were a couple of short tales that featured criminals accidentally murdering the wrong person instead of the intended victim. There were hard-edged police procedurals with ironic twists at the end. I knew that all this was a little over my head and not intended for kids, but I hadn’t quite realized HOW not-for-kids it was until Mom found it and angrily threw it away. She never did that even with my comics, and she hated those. But Hitchcock’s she treated as though it was porn.

I’d already read it, and it had creeped me out a little, so I wasn’t as bitter as I might have been. The memory of the stories stuck with me over the years, and I even ended up stealing a gimmick from one of them: one of the police stories had turned on tracking a fugitive based solely on a thirty-second gap in a travel schedule. I didn’t remember ANYTHING else about the story but the incredulous question at the end, “And all you had to go on was that thirty-second gap?”

Last year, trying to come up with a Sherlock story for the MX anthologies, for whatever reason that little half-memory came back to me and that ability to extrapolate from a schedule struck me as a very Holmesian skill to have. So I built a story around it and The Adventure of the Vanishing Diplomat appeared in the collection that came out a few months ago.

The mystery I wrote ended up turning on a completely different gimmick, but that vague memory of the cop and the thirty-second gap was what triggered it. (Book available here. End of self-serving plug.)

The whole episode got me remembering that old magazine and wondering if I could find it. All I remembered was that it had a green cover. But I had a moderately limited range of years that it would have had to be available for me to have found it while I was in third or fourth grade. It was a monthly, so figure at most thirty-six possibles.

I had a couple of other clues… I remembered the title of the nasty cult story, something like Shadow in the Reflection or something like that. And the cop one was probably Edward D. Hoch, one of the Captain Leopolds.

Finally this idle curiosity grew to the point where it became active. I decided to Google around and see if I could find it. Took about half an hour trying different search terms, but by God, I turned it up. March 1971. Green cover.

By now I really had the bit in my teeth over this, so I started looking to see if any back issue dealers had it for sale. One did, and for less than ten dollars. It arrived a few days ago. Almost fifty years later, but I got it back. Take that Mom!

I read it all again, cover to cover. My memory was better than I thought. The mistaken-murderer stories, one set on a golf course with an adulterous couple, and the other with a man taking out a blackmailing mistress, were essentially as I recalled them. The creepy cult story was “The Shadow in the Mirror” by George Chesbro.

And it was quite chilling, despite the vaguely dorky, cartoony illustrations.

The ending was, I am certain, what Mom found so vile that she threw it away. The skeptical husband, John, ends up bound and helpless on the cult’s sacrificial altar.

“It’s so unfortunate that you would not listen,” Lazarus was saying. The man did not limp as he walked over to John, and he was not wearing his glasses. His eyes were black pools of ink, with no pupils, and shadows moved there, sisters of the shadows on the table. He motioned to someone just beyond John’s line of vision… Joanna was naked, her body glistening with sweat and some foul-smelling ointment. The shadows in her eyes writhed and danced as she raised the knife into the air above his chest. A scream bubbled soundlessly in John’s throat.

…okay, yeah, that’s probably not appropriate for a nine-year-old.

My memory was pretty good on the other stuff too. There was indeed a Captain Leopold story in the magazine but that’s NOT the one with the time gimmick. That was “Farewell Gesture” by George Grover Kipp.

It’s a completely different story than I remembered; it’s the tale of Detective Doug Temple’s last three days on the job before retiring, and his determination to clear the last case on his desk. Most of it is about dogged legwork and forensics. But the gimmick is still the same, and the quote is almost as I remembered it:

Henderson scratched his head in wonderment. “And the thirty seconds the truck was out of our sight was all you had to go on in the beginning?”

Doug sipped his coffee. “That’s about the size of it. I really wasn’t sure anything had happened, but
I knew that it could have. I just kept checking on the possibilities.”

Anyway, I enjoyed revisiting this particular magazine a great deal. I don’t think I’ll be going after any others– for one thing, it’s a little too spendy, as they are six or eight bucks each even on the low end– but I might look into some of the hardcover Hitchcock’s anthologies one of these days.

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And there you have it.

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Back next week with something cool.

12 Comments

  1. Louis Bright-Raven

    “For those wanting gossip, I’m sorry to tell you he always takes the high road, though he gets a trifle defensive at times (There was a Comics Journal interview with John Byrne once where he jeered at Thomas for being the “Super-Adaptoid,” incapable of doing anything but adapting other people’s work, and clearly Thomas is still smarting over it.)”

    Yeah, that’s about as accurate a description of Roy as can be. Roy is more apt to be coy about things, or ‘neutral’ in how he presents things, trying to present things as more of a historian. Even when he clearly colors with his own bias or perspective, he tends to qualify it as “This is how *I* remember / view it; others will probably tell you a different version.” But there are definitely people (Byrne, Neal Adams, Jim Shooter) who over the years have gotten under his skin from time to time and he will on occasion go off about them.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, I remember reading that interview with Byrne in CJ about 10 or so years ago (I was going through a phase in which I was reading all of the CJ interviews I could find online, which turned out to be quite a few) and yeah, he made some really dickish comments about several other comics creators, not just Thomas. In particular, he made some really disparaging observations about George Perez – which I guess he walked back later, because now, at his site, he only speaks about Perez in superlatives.
    I’m not as big a Conan fan as many others, so I’m hesitant about throwing down the cash for that book, but I’m sure I’d find it fascinating all the same. And speaking of Conan, as well as your observation about being too young for those stories in the Hitchcock magazine, I was probably a mite too young (11-12) when I started reading the Conan prose books by Howard and others.

    Anyway, you’re right about the Hard Case cover really selling Brothers Keepers – if there’s any hint of sex in the book, the cover should feature a scantily clad woman somewhere on it. I may give that one a try, although Westlake’s humorous books have been hit and miss for me: I read one of his Dortmunder books (Why Me?) which I thought was cute and amusing, Trust Me On This, which I mostly liked, and Two Much – published in the same year as Brothers Keepers – which I absolutely hated.

  3. Shalla-Ballerina

    That Thomas volume looks interesting. I enjoyed his essays that were printed in the back of Dark Horse’s Chronicles of Conan volumes. This seems like the same behind-the-scenes stuff, but in more depth (?) given the page count.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    Byrne is living in a pretty big glass house on that point, given the bulk of his work is on other people’s creations (and his own properties were highly derivative of his Marvel work). While part of me would like to hear Roy cut loose and dish dirt, the other part applauds his diplomacy. It’s a little easier to take his side at face value, compared to someone like Jim Shooter, where you know there is definitely another side to what he is saying.

    I wasn’t a major Conan reader (came to it later, thought it was okay; Warlord had more of a sense of humor, which drew me in more); but, it sounds like interesting reading.

    The Westlake book would make for a great movie, though he had so-so luck, with Hollywood. Point Blank is probably the best effort, though Hot Rock is fairly entertaining.

  5. Louis Bright-Raven

    Edo Bosnar: “Yeah, I remember reading that interview with Byrne in CJ about 10 or so years ago (I was going through a phase in which I was reading all of the CJ interviews I could find online, which turned out to be quite a few) and yeah, he made some really dickish comments about several other comics creators, not just Thomas. In particular, he made some really disparaging observations about George Perez – which I guess he walked back later, because now, at his site, he only speaks about Perez in superlatives.”

    I’d have to see exactly what you’re talking about regarding these alleged remarks about Perez by Byrne in whatever interview, Edo. I don’t recall any such thing, but I admit I didn’t read CJ all that much.

    In my experience with John Byrne and George Perez both individually and together at the same time, they’re friends who like to cut up and mock each other but don’t really have any malice towards one another or the other’s work. I’ve been witness to it, I’ve been caught directly in the middle of it with both of them critiquing my portfolio at the same time and both of them trying to figure out how the hell I can emulate both of them and blend their styles when I do my style. (“WHY are you doing HIS style / technique in that context there? You should do it MY way! LOL”) The only time or reasons I can think of where Byrne might have legitimately criticized him for is *maybe* George’s fetish interests may have put him off somehow (though I really can’t see it because John’s certainly no prude), or maybe during the period in the 1990s where George was being a complete fuck up and being unprofessional – not delivering on projects, missing deadlines, bailing on projects he had committed to, other issues which George himself owns outright and has acknowledged in interviews that he was being a fuck up at the time, and so I doubt he’d have any issues being called out about that by Byrne or anyone else, because it’s the truth.

    One of the things about John Byrne is that it can be difficult to get the tone of how he’s saying something when you’re reading it in print, and so maybe you don’t pick up the playfulness / humor. And since so many people have a “JB was a dick to me my family / my friend/ my pet” story (half of which are just made up bullshit), there’s an assumption that anything he ever says that might be perceived as a slight must be him being a jerk. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t ever say stupid stuff that is legitimately offensive (far from it – he does have a propensity for it and it’s only increased as he’s aged and people have become so easily offended), but I do think that some of what people complain about him is much ado about nothing.

  6. Louis Bright-Raven

    Jeff Nettleton: “Byrne is living in a pretty big glass house on that point, given the bulk of his work is on other people’s creations (and his own properties were highly derivative of his Marvel work).”

    That last point about his creator owned stuff is just not true, Jeff. Let’s take a proper examination of Byrne’s numerous creator owned works:

    ROG-2000 – Comedy series originally published before he ever worked at Marvel.

    CRITICAL ERROR – Originally released in 1981 in THE ART OF JOHN BYRNE in black and white, colored and reprinted in the 90s by Dark Horse. Totally original SF.

    2112 and NEXT MEN (and M4 back up in JBNM) (1992) – Both were original series that were pitched as DC and Marvel projects (Next Men originally has ties to a project called “Freaks”, which dates back to 1986 and the deal Byrne signed with DC – if you have ever seen the lithographic print set for the History of the DC Universe, and you see the print by Byrne, the original designs for Jasmine and Aldus Hilltop are in that image; 2112 goes back to 1990 and was actually connected to a project called “TomorrowWorld” or “Futureverse” or something like that which Marvel eventually turned into their 2099 universe. Byrne took great pains to keep out or remove all of the DCU / Marvel U associated content OUT of those pitches and made it largely SF.

    DANGER UNLIMITED (1994) – Yes, a fair argument is that the flashback story was basically the Fantastic Four, and Byrne himself famously sarcastically quipped, “Well, since nobody’s doing FF these days, I thought I would”, so there’s an acknowledgment of derivation there. but most everyone dismisses the lead story, which is the future story where the Earth has been overrun by the alien Xelleri and has been terraformed to suit their needs, with humanity enslaved and all the super humans were killed.

    TORCH OF LIBERTY (back up in DU, 1994) – “He’s riffing his CAPTAIN AMERICA and NAMOR runs!” No he’s not- he’s just revisiting a generic trope in the American designed superhero fighting Nazis in WWII.

    BABE (1994) – “A She-Hulk redux- they’re both comedy superhero books with female leads so it’s the same thing!” *rolls eyes* If you can’t tell the difference between a book about a green 7 foot tall super strong female who herself is derivative of her male counterpart, who constantly breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience and is constantly thrown into ever increasingly humiliating situations, and is rife with obscure Marvel characters as both her sidekicks and opposition… and a comedic superhero book about a woman is who is in truth a merged being of six different women who are each trying to figure out how to ‘lead / front’ and is effectively a person suffering from Disassociative Identity Disorder and there is no fourth wall breaking… then there really is no hope for you.

    PROTOTYKES (1994) – “OMG! He’s ripping off the Metal Men!” 1) That’s DC, not Marvel. 2) No, he’s not ripping off the MM. If anything I’d say he got it from the 1984 animated series MIGHTY ORBOTS, and I’m not even sure he did that intentionally I think it was more subconscious / coincidental.

    THE HIGH WAYS – IDW. Original SF.

    STOWAWAY TO THE STARS – IDW. Original SF.

    COLD WAR – IDW. Time period centric Espionage Fiction.

    YOU GO, GHOUL! (Online comic) – At no time in his career at Marvel or DC did John Byrne ever do a comic about monster women functioning as a team a la “Charlie’s Angels”.

    TRIO and TRIPLE HELIX (IDW) – “One / Paper is a female Mr. Fantastic! Two / Scissors is… uh… er… well, nevermind that, Three/ Rock is clearly the Thing and he’s ripping off FF again! And he has that Nautilus character that’s clearly Namor, and he has that Pylon character which is clearly Colossus without the metal striations and Dart who is just another speedster character like we haven’t seen THAT before and APEX who is…” Stop. Just stop already.

    We’ve got fifteen different creator owned concepts here. Ten of which are either parody comedy, or are pure science fiction or espionage fiction and have nothing to do with the superhero genre whatsoever and had nothing to do with anything he ever officially did at Marvel or DC. The five series he did that were superhero genre (DU, ToL, BABE, TRIO and TRIPLE HELIX) of course were going to be ‘derivative’ of his Marvel / DC efforts, because basically anything superhero genre is going to be derivative of Marvel / DC to some extent.

  7. jccalhoun

    The idea of a kind of director’s commentary track for comics is appealing although I don’t know that I am that into Conan to pick up that book.

    I’m reading through Legion of Super-Heroes and I see Levitz hint at things that get dropped or not followed up on for a year and I would love to read about how that happened (the Legion of Super-Villains storyline, there’s a mention of a character at the Legion Academy who is isolated who I assume led to Tellus but I’m not sure. the Baxter/newsprint year, Lyle Norg showing up (Although I seem to recall a Giffen interview where he just drew Norg in and made Levitz deal with it))

  8. I met Byrne at the 1981 San Diego Comic-Con, and because I was a massive fanboy and the convention was only 5000 people, I got to spend a few hours over the course of the con loitering near his table, which he shared with Terry Austin. They were polar opposites in how they treated people, both fans and fellow pros. Byrne at one point went on an extended rant about how much he hated a particular inker, both the man’s work and as a person.

    He’s an asshole who deserves the obscurity he is currently consigned to.

  9. Louis Bright-Raven

    Yeah, you keep mentioning that 1981 encounter, Jim. You never say who the inker was or what the real gripe was, just that Byrne went on a tear about the guy and how it turned you against Byrne forever. I’d like to know exactly who he was bitching about. (I have my suspicions, but I don’t want to jump to any conclusions.)

  10. It was Joe Rubenstein. At least that one particular case, but he was generally insulting, dismissive, arrogant, sarcastic, and/or nasty to or about almost everyone he encountered or mentioned.

    Later on, I was at Rubenstein’s booth when somebody (not me) asked him about why Byrne was so down on him. Joe responded “it would be unprofessional to comment on that.”

  11. Louis Bright-Raven

    Yeah, I was thinking it had to be either Joe Rubinstein or Bob Layton you were referring to, given the time frame and who had inked him around that period of time. I *think* I know why Byrne went off, and while he may have had a valid point, I’m sure given how ranty he typically gets about inkers in the first place, he went overboard.

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