Itching and Scratching

It’s like an itch you can’t scratch. Chances are, scratching it isn’t really worth it, but it nags at you anyway. I’m talking about books or movies or TV shows that you start, but for whatever reason, you can’t finish.

I’m not talking about abandoning something halfway through out of boredom or disgust. I mean those cases where you have every intention of reading the whole thing, or watching the whole thing, but you can’t. Sometimes you get interrupted. Sometimes it’s a thing you mean to get around to and then you lose the chance. Sometimes it’s just bad luck.

I know it seems unbelievable in the on-demand entertainment world we live in now, with YouTube and Netflix and Amazon, but back in the day, consumers of popular culture had a really limited window of opportunity. There was no such thing as home video: Movies were in theaters for a couple of weeks, and maybe later they’d be shown once or twice on TV, first on broadcast networks (there were only three.)

Occasionally afterward, they might show up on a local station (generally there were only one or two of those stations unless you lived in New York or Los Angeles.) TV shows premiered in the fall, reran in the summer, and that was it. If a series got enough episodes in the can to merit syndication, you might get another shot at seeing it on a local station during the afternoon or early evening a year or two after it went off the air.

Similarly, with comics when I was growing up, newsstand distribution was so wonky and terrible that a multi-part story was almost certainly never going to be possible for me to read in its entirety; which is why I hated to get to the end of the book and see “To Be Continued.”

Even paperback books were fairly ephemeral things, destined to be displayed only for a few weeks on a drugstore spinner rack until they disappeared; generally to be replaced by a new load of equally disposable books.

Sometimes these reprinted something a little less trashy that had appeared in hardcover… and I was willing to go to the library to find the hardcover version, but very often those were difficult to suss out because paperback publishers would repackage things so you had no clue what they were.

(One of these days I will write the Martin Caidin column documenting his love-hate relationship with his creation Steve Austin, but for now suffice it to say that the hardcovers were numbered completely differently from the paperbacks, and the paperbacks themselves were repackaged and renumbered three different ways, three different times. And you youngsters thought Marvel invented that trick.)

Anyway, I got to knock one of those annoyingly unfinished things off my list recently, which is what put me in mind of it. I thought I’d share a couple of examples in this space, just for the hell of it… including how long it took to get from the beginning to the end, and whether or not it was worth the wait.

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The Collins-Fletcher Dick Tracy. I got interested in this by reading an interview with Max Allan Collins in The Comics Journal back in the fall of 1982.

I was already a fan of the Collins/Beatty Ms. Tree, and I knew there were novels from Collins as well, but the Tracy connection was new to me. The interview was profusely illustrated with then-current strips featuring a guitarist named “Bony.”

It looked like a fun story, especially since I was spending a lot of time hanging out with folks from the local music scene.

Apart from all that, I really enjoyed the interview; I completely agreed with Collins’ take that Tracy should be a crime strip and all the Moon stuff with the Space Coupe and so on needed to go away, and I vowed to check out this new version of Tracy. Unfortunately, the local paper didn’t carry the strip… and 1982 was pre-internet, so you couldn’t read comics online like you can now.

Of course there were books reprinting Tracy strips, but not many, and they tended to be focused more on the classic Chester Gould stuff. In the early 2000s Checker started the Collins Casefiles series reprinting the Collins run on Tracy, but my local comics retailer didn’t carry them and I was too broke to get them back then anyway. So I just kind of put a pin in it and moved on.

Flash forward to last week. We were having the brakes done on the car (yeah, more car trouble; don’t get me started) and when I stopped by to reclaim it, they were still working on it. With half an hour to kill, I stopped by the comic shop in the next block.

This particular retailer only deals in back issues, no new stuff, and the books I might be interested in are all hideously overpriced, so I rarely set foot in there. But last week he had these on the shelf with some other comic-strip paperbacks he clearly considered to be junk.

The Collins name alone would have probably done it, but it was seeing Bony on the cover that made it imperative. I asked him how much he wanted for them and he shrugged. “Couple of bucks. I don’t know from Dick Tracy, man.”

Easy sale. I read them both in the auto shop’s waiting room while I waited for our car to be fixed. So from the fall of 1982 to last week makes it… let’s see… thirty-six years.

Worth the wait? Yeah, I think so. Especially for two bucks. The Bony story is actually a helluva lot better than I’d thought just from those half-remembered excerpts– he and his girl end up kidnapping Tess Tracy and Vitamin Flintheart. And the Angeltop story, which served as the audition piece for the syndicate that actually got Collins the gig in the first place, is equally wonderful.

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Star Trek’s Harry Mudd. Specifically, the episode “Mudd’s Women.”

Again, this will be almost incomprehensible to the younger folks among you, but Star Trek was not always an unstoppable entertainment juggernaut. Today it would almost be a challenge to avoid Trek in all its various incarnations, but once upon a time, it really was kind of an obscure cult thing. I first got into it through the books by James Blish adapting the episodes.

That was in junior high, when I was about twelve. For the longest time I thought there was only the one, non-numbered book. But then I found the third, fifth, and sixth at the drugstore and I was off and running. I accumulated all eleven, along with Blish’s original novel Spock Must Die! The local station was not rerunning the show at the time, so these paperbacks, and the animated Filmation cartoon, was all the Star Trek there was. Eventually I stumbled across the SF Book Club hardcovers at Cameron’s Books (by this time I was a sophomore in high school) and immediately upgraded.

By this time I was very familiar with the original series, and knew all the episodes… enough to know there were some odd omissions in the Blish books. He hadn’t adapted all the episodes. And there didn’t seem to be any new books forthcoming.

What had happened was that James Blish passed away in 1975 with several Trek manuscripts unfinished. And he had deliberately held back on Harry Mudd because he wanted to expand the Mudd episodes into a full novel. Eventually these projects were completed by his widow and the books came out in 1977.

I did not know that, though, since by then I had discovered girls and drinking and dope. I’d watch Star Trek still, if I ran across it, but for whatever reason I consistently managed to miss “Mudd’s Women.” It was the only episode of the show I hadn’t seen, and also it was adapted in the only Blish book I didn’t own.

Eventually I acquired the book in 1986, after I’d cleaned up; one of my ways of keeping busy during that raw, jittery year was rebuilding my book collection. I saw the actual episode the following summer– rented it at Blockbuster. So that was a stretch of time covering roughly fourteen years.

Worth the wait? Well… the Blish/Lawrence Mudd’s Angels is a pretty good book and the new stuff in part three is interesting. “Mudd’s Women,” like a lot of the original series episodes, has not aged well AT ALL. It succeeds mostly because of Roger C. Carmel as Mudd, and it’s no surprise they brought him back twice more.

(The animated episode, “Mudd’s Passion,” was actually the first Mudd episode I saw.)

Still, on balance, if I’d paid more than five dollars (my total expenditure for both the video rental and the used paperback) I’d probably say no. The later Mudd episodes are all superior to “Mudd’s Women,” even the animated version and the new Rainn Wilson ones on Discovery. But as it is, I’d say I’d rather have seen it than not.

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Blood and Lace. Long ago, before there was Saturday Night Live, the 11:30 pm time slot was given over to local broadcasters. Typically, they would run a horror movie hosted by some campy character like Elvira or something like that. (On cable, horror host Svengoolie is upholding this tradition, including the schtick comedy bits as commercial bumpers. I think he may be the last one.)

Where I grew up, down in Portland, Oregon, the horror movies reran on KATU’s Sinister Cinema, hosted by local radio personality Victor Ives, aided and abetted by fellow local DJ Jimmy Hollister in a variety of wigs and costumes.

This was where I first discovered Hammer Films, the Universal monster movies, all of that stuff. I even made my first acquaintance with Godzilla and King Kong through Mr. Ives and his friends.

In high school, I would often scrounge a few extra bucks babysitting for one or another of our neighbors on Saturday nights, and after the kids were safely in bed, I’d invariably end up watching Sinister Cinema. The catch was that sometimes — often– the parents would arrive home right at the climax of the movie and I’d miss the last ten or fifteen minutes.

There were two cases in particular where this was maddening because the movies were mysteries, and I was denied the solution. One was I Bury the Living.

This was actually a really tense little thriller, not nearly as lurid as the title suggests. I got almost to the end, when the killer is revealed and begins to confess, when the couple I was babysitting for arrived home and while we made small talk about the kids eating their vegetables and the dad counted out my wages, I was frantically trying to look around them at the television as the denouement continued to unfold. I think the police arrived to haul the murderer off as we headed out the door. (Years later, Stephen King would mention the film in Danse Macabre as being great, right up to the disappointing ending. He didn’t know the half of it.)

But I at least sort of got to see the end of that one, as the killer was revealed. The one that ate at me for years, though, was Blood and Lace.

This is a terrible, terrible movie. I want to make that clear up front.

But I was fourteen and Sinister Cinema was the only game in town if you wanted to watch TV late Saturday night. And Blood and Lace is kind of wonderfully hypnotic in its awfulness. It’s not laughably bad like Robot Monster, it’s more like WTF? bad. Where you have constant wait, what? moments like: what the hell possessed them to cast this entire movie with sitcom actors? Was it some demented scheme to make fast-fading star Gloria Grahame look good?

The plot goes like this: We open with a murder. A prostitute and her john are killed in bed by a hooded figure with a claw hammer, who then sets the house on fire. It develops that the murdered hooker had a daughter, Ellie (Melody Patterson from F Troop) who is turned over to a local orphanage since no one, including Ellie herself, knows who her father really was. Miss Grahame is running this sinister orphanage with the help of her hatchet-wielding handyman Len Lesser (Seinfeld‘s Uncle Leo) who murders any kids who are caught acting up and stores them in a deep freeze. It develops that Gloria Grahame is using these corpses as part of a demented experiment in re-animation.

Meanwhile, local detective Vic Tayback (Mel from Alice) is suspicious about the murder of Ellie’s slutty mother (seriously– the movie never misses a chance to remind us what a roundheeled whore the woman was) and fears the killer may target Ellie as being a witness. Meanwhile a mysterious scarred figure is stalking Ellie, and though he carries a hammer, he’s not the actual hammer killer.

No, it’s the clear implication that he was the john banging Ellie’s mom the night of the murder and the scars are from the fire. Not only did he survive somehow and is now seeking revenge, but it’s very possible he is Ellie’s missing father.

Part of the weird fascination this movie has isn’t just that it has so many sitcom actors working way out of their comfort zones, but that they are all– I mean ALL — playing characters who are utterly corrupt and awful. Even the good guys. Vic Tayback’s detective has a thing for under-age Ellie. The social worker assigned to Ellie (Milton Selzer, another 60s sitcom mainstay) is shown to be a regular customer of Ellie’s hooker mom. Even virginal Ellie herself is shown to be manipulative and vengeful.

Blood and Lace came out in 1971, and it was featured on Sinister Cinema in — I am pretty sure it must have been in 1975 or 1976, because babysitting money almost always went for comics at Sentry Market the next morning and those were my peak Marvel zombie years.

My initial time watching this movie, I got as far as the climactic scene where the scarred hammer killer has just taken out Uncle Leo and Gloria Grahame, and Ellie screams and flees, the scarred hammer assassin in hot pursuit….

–And then the couple I was babysitting for arrived home and I hastily shut off the TV, mostly out of embarrassment, and also for fear news of this hideous gorefest I was watching would get back to my mother somehow.

Because it was so bloody and nasty, Blood and Lace rarely reran in syndication and never during the daytime. So for years I was left to wonder, who WAS the mysterious hammer killer? Was it in fact Ellie’s true father? What is the secret Ellie has been struggling to remember?

It’s a measure of the inexplicable power of the thing that it nagged at me so. Even knowing how awful it was, I still wanted to see it clear to the end. I finally got to see it in syndicated reruns on cable here in Seattle in the late 1980s. A span of about thirteen years between the start and the finish.

Worth the wait? Emphatically not. The solution is moderately clever, I guess, and the twist at the end is completely creepy and stomach-turning. Overall it’s a movie that leaves you slightly disappointed in yourself for watching it. A clear candidate for The Hell Plaza Multiplex.

If you are currently overburdened with self-esteem, or just have that irresistible urge to jump in the mud, the whole thing is up on YouTube here.

It is also, inexplicably, available on Blu-Ray, but I don’t hate myself that much. If you do, I pity you. Horror historians occasionally cite it as “the proto-slasher movie,” but even those guys don’t say it’s good.

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Origins of Marvel Comics. Speaking of my peak Marvel Zombie years, that reminds me of this particularly tantalizing years-long wait. I bet I have a lot of company on this one.

This trade paperback, the first of the series of Marvel collections from Fireside Books, came out in 1974. I had seen it advertised in the comics themselves, of course, and just sighed. But then I saw the actual, physical book at a downtown B. Dalton’s and that galvanized me. It was attainable. That was a huge, huge deal for me. I saved lawn-mowing money and babysitting money for a month to acquire the staggering sum of $6.95 it took to purchase it. And when I had it in my hot little hands I read it to tatters, almost.

The way it was structured was this– each chapter began with Stan’s recounting of how he had created a particular title, then a reprint of the origin, and then to show how the title had evolved, there would be a reprint of a ‘new’ story.

The trouble was, a couple of those later reprints ended with the dreaded TO BE CONTINUED. The Thor story introducing the Enchanters….

It was easy to see why Stan had chosen it. The opening bit with Thor at the soda fountain telling the kids about Asgard was a nifty device to showcase Kirby’s vision of Thor and his world, and it certainly showed how the title had evolved.

But it still ended on a cliffhanger and there was no way to find the conclusion, since it reprinted a book that had been off the stands for years.

The new example of Dr. Strange, the introduction of Dormammu’s sister Umar, was also a cliffhanger, with the conclusion even more inaccessible.

Despite the title, the story was NOT finished, but ended with Umar on her way to Earth to wreak untold havoc.

I was not able to see what happened in either case; those stories were not reprinted and the back issues never showed at Future Dreams or Armchair Paperback Exchange or any of my usual haunts in Portland throughout the seventies, nor did I encounter them in college at Emerald City Comics. It wasn’t until the Essential volumes reprinting those stories showed up that I got to see the conclusions to those two.

Which made it a case of waiting twenty-eight years for the Dr. Strange story, and thirty-one years for the Thor story.

Worth the wait? Individually? On balance, no, not really. But the extra satisfaction of FINALLY getting to see how things turned out made a nice bonus with those Essential volumes.

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So those are mine. Curious to see if you all have any similar examples to share. Sound off in the comments.

Back next week with something cool.

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7 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Sinister Cinema, I remember that – not actually watching it, as I was a) too young and b) at the time my dad was pretty strict about TV watching privileges (on our crappy black-and-white set), esp. anything after about 10 p.m. However, by the time I was old enough to be interested, KPTV out of Portland had already started showing Star Trek – as I recall, that station ran it pretty regularly into the early ’80s.

    And as for the problem with those second stories in the Origins book, it’s the same case in Son of Origins, which was the first of those Fireside reprint books I had. In that one in particular, there’s the Iron Man story from Tales of Suspense in which Whiplash is introduced, and it also ends on a cliff-hanger. That’s an itch I still haven’t scratched…

    Anyway, one of the more notable instances of scratching this type of itch for me was Lin Carter’s Green Star books. Back in about 1980 or so, I got the first book, because I thought the cover featuring the guy riding a giant dragonfly was awesome, and I was in the midst of reading the Barsoomian books, and this looked like more of the same (it is). However, besides that one, the only other book in the series I ever found in local bookstores was one of the later ones (the third or fourth book). I got it in the hopes of finding the others but never did – I vaguely recall even starting to read it, but it was confusing because the main character was now in a different body (the main plot device is that the main character, a disabled guy from Earth, learns how to disassociate his mind/spirit from his body – astral projection, basically – and occupy a body in the world orbiting the titular green star) and the story was really dependent on the preceding book – after the first one they’re all really tied together plot-wise and you’re kind of lost of you just jump in somewhere in the middle. I should also add that a disorder I had back then, and still do to some extent today, is that I *always* have to start a series, especially books, from the first one – even in the case of serialized characters, where you can jump on at any point, like Conan or James Bond. So I put it down, and then kind of forgot about it for a while, so after I discovered really good bookstores like Powell’s up in Portland, I never went and sought them out, while by the time I got to college I was mainly reading more ‘serious’ stuff (and course-work and whatnot really cut my leisure reading to comics – occasionally.
    So fast forward to a few years ago: I managed to assemble all five books at relatively low cost, and finally read them all last summer. So that was an interim of roughly 37 years. Worth it? I’d say yes, even though as a middle-aged guy I could clearly see some of Carter’s limitations as a writer that I didn’t as a 12 year-old kid. Nonetheless, I found the books entertaining and was honestly a bit sorry when I got to the end of the last one – I wouldn’t have minded a few more books set in that world.

  2. Le Messor

    We were having the brakes done on the car (yeah, more car trouble; don’t get me started)

    Sounds like getting you stopped is the real issue!

    Mine was an episode of Battle Of The Planets. There was an attack of the plants from outer space, and I saw part one about three times when I was (10 – 12?) – but always missed part 2. Because of travel (directly or indirectly).

    Took me about twenty years (I’m not so good at tracking dates) to see part two.
    Was it worth it?
    Not a great episode, but I was glad to finally get to see the end.

  3. It’s definitely worth catching up on the Whiplash story, Edo. Stan Lee shifts writing duties to Archie Goodwin mid-story, and Goodwin really did a great run on the book.
    You’re lucky with the late-night horror films, Greg. When they were running Hammers Saturday night in my old home town, I was on night shift. No chance to see them. Very glad I’ve seen so many now.
    For me, the ending of Tarzan of the Apes fits in this category. During the later 20th century, Burroughs books would get reprinted, go out of print, get reprinted again; I found a copy of the ur-Tarzan book during one of the out-of-print periods and the cliffhanger ending devastated me. It was several years before Return of Tarzan satisfied the itch.
    I’m surprised about Mudd’s Women though. Trek recycled in syndication so much when I was a teen I could always catch a missed episode on the next go-round.
    I really enjoyed the Angeltop story. Partly because Tracy faced so many second-generation foes out for revenge, having Brow Jr. not want to get even was a nice twist.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    I think the first time I saw Trek was while visiting my grandparents, as none of our local stations carried it in syndication. I saw “I, Mudd” years before I saw Mudd’s Women; and, yes, the later episode was far better than the introductory one. I did watch the Trek cartoon, in the day, though somewhat haphazardly. I know I saw the Mudd one, then. Thanks to Filmation’s repeated use of stock footage, the episodes tended to blend together in memory. In the early 90s, when I found the VHS of the series, at a local video store, I rewatched and barely remembered a third of the episodes.

    For comics, my first Defenders issue was #28, with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and I fell in love with both teams. However, the story was concluded in #29 and 28 ends with half the team standing before a Badoon firing squad, with the other half materializing around the corner. It was 10 years, when I was in college and found a comic shop, before I found the ending. It wasn’t quite worth it, as the ending has Dr Strange make everyone else superfluous (happened a lot in the Defenders) and it set up the Guardians solo series, in Marvel Presents.

    For me, for quite a while, the holy grail was the ending of the Batman movie, with Adam West. I saw part of the film on tv; but, had to go to bed when the villains grab bruce and Miss Kitka. It was close to ten years before I got to see the whole thing, on a late movie.

    Now the longest stretch was for the tv movie, Earth 2, with Gary Lockwood. When it was broadcast, in 1971, I saw the beginning, when a family arrives on the orbiting space station and the child has his cap pistol taken away, tries to leap forward and grab it, and starts floating upwards, due to the lesser gravity. That was all I got to see. I never came across the movie again, until after the Warner Archive launched. I heard about it, was looking through the listings, and saw a few tv movies I recognized (including Genesis 2, with some other film’s still on the cover). Earth 2 was one of them; and, I took a chance (also bought Genesis 2). I popped in the disc; and, sure enough, there was the scene. Finally, after 40 years, I got to see the entire film! Was it worth it? yeah, actually; it was a pretty good movie, for a low budget tv effort. It was preachy sci-fi, and it has a kind of socialist air about it, which is probably why it didn’t get repeats or much syndication. Still, it has some great tense moments, some insightful sci-fi, and some good acting from seasoned character performers.

  5. Jazzbo

    When I was in junior high I got a grab bag of random comics from my LCS and it included the Eclipse reprint of Miracleman #2. It was one of the first comics I had read that showed that comics could have a more “adult” story. The issue actually starts in the middle of a story, so it was the beginning that I was missing for years. As I got more into comics I knew and heard more about Moore’s Miracleman, but back issue prices were always more than I was willing to pay. I finally got to read the beginning of the story when Marvel reprinted them all 5 years ago or whenever it was exactly. So probably a 20 to 25 year wait.

  6. Le Messor

    I’ve realised that this is actually the reason I collect comics – I’d read Alpha Flight #7, and when I found #8 on sale I bought it… things escalated quickly. (But it was only a few years between the itch and the scratch in that case.)

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