R.I.P., Robin Williams


I heard some folks in their 20s talking about Robin Williams this morning. They were bemused and befuddled by all the attention around his suicide (he was found dead at his home yesterday, at the age of 63). I didn’t say anything to those kids, but I wanted to tell them.

I wanted to tell them about how Robin Williams hit us in the ’70s. This guy didn’t “emerge,” he EXPLODED into pop culture like a string of firecrackers under our collective seat. “Mork & Mindy” was one of the top TV shows in the country in its first season. His “Tonight Show” appearances were let-the-kids-stay-up, capital-E Events. His stand-up shows were legendary. Wherever he went, gleeful anarchy was sure to follow. Nobody seemed more alive.

I wanted to tell them about the ’80s and ’90s, with that long string of movies: not just “Mrs Doubtfire” and “Dead Poets Society,” but “Good Morning Vietnam” and “The Fisher King” and “The Birdcage” and “Moscow on the Hudson,” a new film every year and sometimes five. Some were crap, most were pretty good. A few were classics. And his talent and presence were what made all of them tick.

He could be funny as hell or creepy as fuck. Like all great clowns, he could make you cry through your laughter. And like all great clowns, he had demons. We all knew it, but he always was so awesome that every time we heard about it (the coke, the drink, depression, rehab) we were sure he’d beat it, this time for good. We were really rooting for him.

So after all that, to hear that it got him anyway… The world has been robbed. It’s like we all lost a favorite uncle or a personal friend, someone said on Twitter. We really did. And to have it happen so close after Philip Seymour Hoffman, a similarly tortured man who inspired deep feelings in many of us, well that’s just like a kick to the teeth. How could this have happened again? Why couldn’t anyone stop it? Who’s next, and how do we save them?

That’s what I wanted to tell those kids. If your first conscious awareness of Robin Williams was as the star of “Death to Smoochy,” well then I guess you would be confused. But this guy… He was something else. And it really hurts to lose him.

Comic Review: Buckaroo Banzai – Return of the Screw

Buckaroo Banzai: Tpb Vol.1: Return of the Screw
Buckaroo Banzai: Return of the Screw by Mac Rauch

My rating: 3.25 Stars

More lectroids! More jet car! More cryptic non-sequiturs!

At the end of the 1984 cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a sequel is promised for the superhero/rockstar/surgeon: Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League. But Buckaroo was too weird (and too poorly marketed) to find a mainstream audience, so the second movie never happened. There was buzz many years later about a TV pilot, but that too fizzled on the drawing board. For decades, Buckaroo fans were left wondering about Hanoi Xan and his league of evildoers, until Moonstone Books stepped up with Return of the Screw, a comic book miniseries that finally continued the saga in 2006.

Written by Earl Mac Rauch, Buckaroo’s creator (with creative input from film director WD Richter), Return of the Screw is based on “Supersize Those Fries,” the unmade TV movie. The story is in-your-face bizarre, a torrent of overlapping scenes, goofy plot twists, and terrible puns. Potato-powered death rays? An assassin in a pickle suit? Sure, why not? But so much happens here, and so quickly, it’s all but incomprehensible until the action-packed third issue finally connects a few of the dots… but not all, of course: this is still Buckaroo Banzai!

Pacing and structure aside, there’s some pretty good stuff here, especially when sidekick Perfect Tommy is in the frame – of all Buckaroo’s associates, he gets the best material. We finally get to meet Xan and a few of his minions, as they team up with a familiar bad guy to make the world miserable. I love the artwork. And this trade paperback edition has some terrific extras: character dossiers, alternate covers, interviews, and conceptual designs from the TV project.

Moonstone and Mac Rauch published a few more Buckaroo Banzai stories after this one, which are collected in Volume 2, No Matter Where You Go, There You Are…. I’m interested to see how they further expanded Buckaroo’s zany fictional universe, even if Return of the Screw was a bit of a letdown.

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Book Review: Speak to Me of Death

Speak to Me of Death: The Selected Short Fiction of Cornell Woolrich, Volume 1
Speak to Me of Death: The Selected Short Fiction of Cornell Woolrich, Volume 1 by Cornell Woolrich

My rating: 5 Stars

The world of Cornell Woolrich is dark. No, darker than that. The kind of dark that sinks into your guts and creeps up to your brain, filling you with an awful, smothering dread.

The fifteen stories collected here describe paranoia and madness, doomed criminals and ordinary men caught in desperate situations, usually of their own making. They are page-turners of the best kind, so loaded with white-knuckle suspense and yawning despair that I frequently caught myself pausing mid-scene, muttering “no no no, don’t do THAT!,” almost afraid to move on to the next paragraph, yet utterly compelled to do so.

These are not realistic stories. They hinge on coincidence and irrationality, or 90-degree turns from normalcy. They tell of a capricious world ruled by a cruel, taunting fate. You may be an ordinary, law-abiding citizen today, Woolrich warns, but you could be a dangerous, deranged killer by morning.

Not all of the stories are brilliant, but the many gems far outweigh the two or three middling ones. A few of them became more famous in later versions: “Speak to Me of Death” was expanded into the novel Night Has a Thousand Eyes and “It Had to Be Murder” is the source of the Hitchcock masterpiece “Rear Window.” The Centipede Press paperback edition is beautifully designed and subtly sequenced, with a creepy cover, high-quality paper, and a durable, sewn binding. It’s a terrific collection inside and out.


Dead on Her Feet
Dusk to Dawn
Rear Window (a.k.a. “It Had to be Murder”)
Murder in Wax
Post-Mortem (a.k.a. “Death Wins the Sweepstakes”)
Speak to Me of Death (basis of “Night Has a Thousand Eyes”)
The Corpse and the Kid
The Death of Me
The Living Lie Down with the Dead
The Night Reveals
Three O’Clock
Wardrobe Trunk (a.k.a “Dilemma of the Dead Lady”)
Finger of Doom (a.k.a. “I Won’t Take a Minute”/”I’ll Just Be a Minute”)
The Corpse Next Door

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Book Review: 20th Century Photography

20th Century Photography
20th Century Photography by Museum Ludwig Cologne

My rating: 5 Stars

When buying photography books on the cheap, one generally gets what one pays for. But Taschen’s budget editions break the mold. This fat little hardcover (760 pages) is both a handy reference work and an inspirational launching point for further exploration, perfect for people like me who love photography but don’t yet have a deep historical grounding.

The material is wonderfully diverse. 278 artists — from Ansel Adams to Piet Zwart — are presented alphabetically, covering the whole of the 20th century and ranging widely across genres and styles. There are nudes and abstracts, portraits and architectural studies, studio still life and “decisive moment” street scenes. The 860 photographs are all drawn from the collection of the Museum Ludwig in Köln, so German photographers are particularly well represented.

The book is a joy to browse despite the small reproductions, and the biographical sketches, although dry, are informative. I’m sure I’ll refer to this book often as I continue my photographic education.

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If these yarns were trash — and millions of parents must have regarded them as such — then they were the best of all kinds of trash. They were trash for connoisseurs of trash. Trash for people who understood just how good trash could really be.

Don Hutchison, The Great Pulp Heroes

Book Review: The Man Who Shook the Earth

The Man Who Shook the Earth
The Man Who Shook the Earth by Kenneth Robeson

My rating: 3.5 Stars

Original publication order: #12 (February 1934)
Bantam reprint order: #43

Doc and his crew face off against a typically bizarre enemy: a fiend who is using an earthquake machine to murder prominent mine owners in Chile. The story opens with a bang, has a drawn-out middle section and limps into a rushed ending. I feel like author Lester Dent missed an opportunity here: this could easily have been one of the best novels in the series, but it never quite gets where it’s going.

Dent may have been experimenting a bit: the style is a bit more leisurely and expansive than previous stories, and the story is longer than average. The flip side is that it’s unfocused. Tough gal “Tip” Galligan has all the marks of an exciting character but is wasted after her initial scene. I’m still scratching my head over a minor villain who appears midway through the book and is promptly killed off. And the evil plot behind the story is revealed far too late and wrapped up far too quickly, as if Dent himself didn’t figure it all out until the very end.

Oh well. An “average” Doc Savage story is still a good time. I just thought this had the makings of a classic, and it didn’t live up.

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Book Review: Brand of the Werewolf

Brand of the Werewolf
Brand of the Werewolf by Kenneth Robeson

My rating: 2 Stars

Pulp lore has it that when Bantam Books reprinted this Doc Savage story in 1965 (fifth in their weird reprint order), it proved to be the best-selling title in the series. This can only be because of the exciting cover art, because that’s the only worthwhile thing about Brand of the Werewolf.

This story, first published in January 1934, was the eleventh Doc adventure. It is notable for the introduction of a new character: Doc’s cousin Patricia Savage, “a two-fisted woman who could go out and do things.” Like Doc, Pat is bronze-haired, easy on the eyes, and smart as a whip, although she lacks the lifelong intensive training that has converted Doc into a superman. When Pat’s father is murdered by a gang searching for a mysterious ivory cube, Doc and his friends find their vacation to British Columbia diverted into a game of cat-and-mouse with the killers.

This is one of those Doc novels where the racism of the era gets in the way of the story, at least in the early chapters (a black train porter and two First Nations characters each get some embarrassing dialogue). But it isn’t much of a story to start with. Once you get past the cube and the presence of Pat, this is a run of the mill lost treasure story with a second-rate villain, too much dependence on bulletproof vests, and a hack ending that raises more questions than it answers. And those drawn in by the cover will be doubly disappointed: there’s no actual werewolf in the story, but the Bantam reprint does put a huge (but predictable) spoiler right in the blurb.

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