Thursday, January 08, 2009

There's a new zombie in town

I'm not an especially sentimental sort — as regular visitors here will attest — but it makes me sad to see the icons of my youth fade from view.

Just moments ago, I received an e-mail announcing the passing of Bob Wilkins, the longtime host of KTVU's Creature Features. I spent many Friday and Saturday nights in the 1970s and early '80s enjoying cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks with the urbane, bespectacled Mr. Wilkins and his eventual successor in the host's rocking chair, John Stanley.

More than four years ago, I waxed nostalgic in this space about Creature Features and its profound impact on my adolescent years. Rather than reinventing the torture wheel, I'll simply invite you to check out that Halloween 2004 post.

I was privileged to meet Bob Wilkins in person a few years ago, when he made what I believe was his final guest appearance at WonderCon. Bob was obviously in ill health at that time, so I was glad that I took the opportunity to express to him my thanks for all the hours of entertainment. I'm even more glad now.

Keep that coffin lid tightly closed, Bob. You never know what might be trying to get in.

Or out.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Chasing shadows

It's All Hallows' Eve here at SSTOL, and what could be more fitting for a Hallowe'en Comic Art Friday than a Common Elements creation spotlighting the answer to the question...

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"

That's The Shadow, of course — radio drama legend, pulp fiction kingpin, cinematic star, and yes, comic book hero. The mystery man's fetching accomplice is Tasmia Mallor, better known as Shadow Lass of the Legion of Super-Heroes. This umbral duo is brought together in the tableau above by artist Kim DeMulder. Although he's a gifted penciler, Kim is most familiar to longtime comics aficionados as an inker, on such series as Marvel's The Defenders (over Don Perlin) and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (over Paul Neary), and a five-year run on DC's Swamp Thing (over Phil Hester).

The Shadow first appeared in 1930, as the host of a radio program called Detective Story Hour. The character became such a hit that Street & Smith, the media conglomerate that produced the show, spun The Shadow off into a pulp adventure magazine the following year. Writer Walter B. Gibson, toiling under the house pseudonym Maxwell Grant, developed The Shadow into an intriguing blend of masquerading magician and gunslinging vigilante.

Despite the fact that the same company produced both the radio series and the pulp magazine, the print and broadcast versions of The Shadow diverged from one another in numerous respects.

In the pulps, The Shadow was an Allied spy and flying ace named Kent Allard who, after the First World War, staged his demise in order to battle crime as the faceless Shadow. The pulp Shadow had no superhuman powers, but carried out his crusade using practical skills gleaned from his former career as an espionage agent — in particular, mastery of disguise — plus a network of operatives who did his legwork and gathered intelligence.

On radio, however, where The Shadow gained a promotion from host/narrator to solo star in 1937, the hero manifested a variety of bizarre talents gained while traveling in the Far East — most notably the ability to "cloud men's minds so they cannot see him." Also, the radio Shadow's true identity was wealthy socialite Lamont Cranston (first voiced by a youthful Orson Welles), who in the pulps was an altogether discrete individual who merely allowed The Shadow to impersonate him when the situation called for it. (The pulp Shadow assumed dozens of false identities, of whom Cranston was but one.) The producers thought that the Kent Allard back-story, with its multiple personae and legion of covert assistants, would be too complex to translate to radio. Thus, the more straightforward "rich playboy / secret crimefighter" trope was used instead.

In the comics, The Shadow has enjoyed an interesting history. He starred in his own Street & Smith-published comic throughout the 1940s. DC later revived the character several times: in the 1970s, with scripts by Dennis O'Neil and art by the phenomenal Mike Kaluta; in the '80s, with an eclectic band of creators that included Howard Chaykin, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Kyle Baker; and in the '90s, in a series written by Gerard Jones and drawn by such artists as Eduardo Barreto and Rod Whigham.

As for Shadow Lass — no relation, so far as I'm aware — blue-skinned Tasmia (or "Shady" as she's often called by her fellow Legionnaires) arrived on the scene in Adventure Comics #365 (February 1968). (She informally debuted several issues earlier in a "flash-forward" sequence, in which she was depicted in an alternate future as the already-deceased "Shadow Woman." In that story, Tasmia was shown as having a typical Caucasian skin tone.) Her powers enable her to create and control darkness... a nifty talent to have on Hallowe'en, I would think.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Try not to engorge yourself on too many sugary treats, or play too many devious tricks. Because, if you do...

The Shadow knows!


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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Famous Monsters of Filmland

When I was a kid, I loved monster movies.

I say that to draw a distinction from modern horror films, which are roughly divided between slasher flicks and supernatural thrillers such as The Ring. I'm not, and never really have been, a fan of those genres. For my money, Hitchcock fairly well both opened and closed the book on slasher films with Psycho — one of my dozen or so favorite movies of all time — and pyrotechnic ghost stories just aren't my cup of tea.

But back in the day, movies had monsters. Frankenstein (which properly refers to the scientist, not the monster, but I use the name accommodatively here). Dracula. The Wolf Man. The Mummy. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. King Kong. Godzilla. Gamera the giant flying turtle. The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

You know... monsters.

And because movies had monsters, monster movie fans such as my younger self had Famous Monsters of Filmland.

For monster movie fans — and fans of science fiction, horror, and fantasy films in general — Famous Monsters of Filmland (often referred to simply as FM) was the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Ten Commandments rolled into one sensationalistic, hyperbolic, photography-packed magazine. Everything you ever wanted to know about genre films and the people who created them found its way into the pages of FM. Before there was an Internet Movie Database or a Wikipedia, FM provided one-stop information-shopping for youthful connoisseurs of frightening film fare.

Behind Famous Monsters stood a giant of a man named Forrest J. Ackerman. "Uncle Forry," as we legions of readers called him, edited and published FM, and wrote a fair amount of the material appearing within it. Ackerman is often credited, and I believe correctly so, as the father of modern fandom. Everyone who's ever attended a Star Trek, comic book, or science fiction convention owes a debt of gratitude to Uncle Forry, who first made obsessing over such things not only respectable, but marketable.

Forry Ackerman is also the guy who coined the term "sci-fi" as a shorthand reference to science fiction. (I'll let you be the judge of whether that was a good thing. But I believe the Sci-Fi Channel people should be paying Forry royalties, if they aren't already.)

From the time that I was ten years old until I began high school, Famous Monsters of Filmland was my near-constant companion — much to the consternation of my parents, who tended to look askance at my fondness for scary movies in the same way they detested my addiction to superhero comics and Star Trek. My friends and I would pore over every issue, and discussed in animated detail what we read.

In Famous Monsters, I learned of the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen and Paul Blaisdell. I discovered the makeup secrets of Lon Chaney, Senior and Junior, and the up-and-coming Rick Baker. I took peeks behind the scenes at Hammer Films and American International Pictures, two of the great horror factories of the '50s and '60s, and Toho Studios, home to all those wonderful Japanese monster films. I read about the genius of such visionary filmmakers as Roger Corman, George Pal, Samuel Z. Arkoff, Terence Fisher, and of course, Hitchcock.

When it came to monsters, Forry Ackerman not only talked the talk, he also walked the walk. His Los Angeles home, fondly designated "the Ackermansion," warehoused thousands of props, stills, and other items of memorabilia from the movies he loved. Back in the day, Uncle Forry would give tours to fans who dropped by for a visit. Next to Disneyland, the place I wanted to see more than any other on earth when I was a kid was the Ackermansion. Sad to tell, I never had the opportunity.

Though my interest in monster movies faded as I grew older — as did the monsters themselves — I am a film buff and pop culture fanatic today at least in part because of Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the movies it so lovingly chronicled.

Thanks, Uncle Forry. I hope you're having a devil of a Hallowe'en.

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