Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE SECRET HISTORY OF MARVEL COMICS

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This large hardcover book focuses on little-known areas of the Martin Goodman publishing empire, which included the various comics companies that became Marvel Comics. The title is a little misleading because the history it details is not secret, and the spotlight is on the pulp magazines put out by Goodman, with the comics taking a back seat. Last year I read “Marvel Comics, the Untold Story” by Sean Howe, which is much more focused on the comics company, though light on details about the 1940s and 1950s, which are the main focus of this book, so they do fill different niches. The Howe book is better written, this one tends toward bombast and sensationism, and some of the information is repeated in different sections, but on the whole it’s not a bad book, and for someone like myself interested in the pulps and their connections to comics, it’s well worth reading.

Much is said about Martin Goodman, and in some ways this is close to biography for him, except that Martin’s immediate family did not contribute, so many stories and opinions are second or third hand. Still, a picture of the man and his working methods does emerge, and it’s not particularly attractive. Even Stan Lee has a hard time finding good things to say about his former boss. I’m sure this is one reason why the family stayed away if they were asked. Like the Howe book, this one has almost no images from the comics, with the Captain America one on the cover and one early comic cover being about the only exceptions. I know Marvel declined to give permission to Howe unless they could have control over the text, and that may have been the same here.

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Instead the book is profusely illustrated with art and covers from the Goodman pulp magazines (and a few other types like large-size slicks and digests) in black and white and in color. After the main text by Blake Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, which comprises about the first third of the book, there are lengthy artist profiles featuring art from the pulps and magazines by artists mostly known for their comics work. Jack Kirby is first up with the longest section (and the only artist mentioned on the cover). While it’s interesting to see this early work, much of it probably collaborations with Joe Simon, I didn’t find it all that appealing for the most part. The art printed poorly on the old interior pulp paper to begin with, and the style is not as dynamic as later Kirby work. Some of the other artists represented interested me more, like Alex Schomburg (with surprisingly sadistic examples), Bill Everett, Frank R. Paul, Al Williamson, and even some cartoons by Artie Simek.

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The pulp covers are great, many with paintings by J.W. Scott, who filled the “favorite cover painter” role for Goodman like H.J. Ward did for Harry Donenfeld’s pulp empire, though the example above is by Norman Saunders, a painter I like better.

If you’re looking for lots of info on the Marvel Comics of today that really began in the 1960s, this book will not help you much. For that the Sean Howe book is much better. If you’re interested in art and magazines of the 1930s-1950s, you’ll find a lot more here for you. And, of course, learning about the company bosses can be enlightening too.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: PREACHER’S BOY by Katherine Paterson

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© Katherine Paterson, illustration © Barry Moser.

Robbie Hewitt lives an idyllic life in a small Vermont town at the very end of the 19th century, but he would not agree with that assessment. He’s the son of the town preacher, and therefore burdened with expectations of how he should act. Everyone expects him to be “good.” Robbie has no natural talent for that. He leans the other way, prone to mischief, with a hot temper and the fists to back it up. When a visiting hell-and-brimstone preacher declares that Armageddon is fast approaching with the end of the current century, Robbie decides he has to act fast to get in as much adventure as he can before then.

Robbie’s best friend Willie is a good accomplice for many things, but when Robbie happens on a drunken drifter and his sarcastic daughter living in a half-collapsed shack in the woods, Robbie decides to keep them a secret from everyone. That’s a decision he’ll come to regret. Meanwhile, the town’s two rich boys are always on Robbie’s case, making it harder than ever to at least try to be good. In a fight with them, he goes too far, and decides to hide out with the drifter until things blow over. That leads to more trouble.

This is the first book by award-winning author Katherine Paterson that I’ve read, and I enjoyed it. Her character is a bit like Huck Finn in some ways, but entertaining and real. The period is well depicted, too. Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE EXTRAORDINARY EDUCATION OF NICHOLAS BENEDICT by Trenton Lee Stewart

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© Trenton Lee Stewart, cover illustration © Diana Sudyka.

This is a prequel of sorts to the author’s trilogy about the Mysterious Benedict Society telling about the childhood of Nicholas Benedict, the father-figure and benefactor of those books. I enjoyed reading the trilogy, but found this book to be even better.

Nine-year-old Nicholas is a boy burdened and blessed with very unusual attributes. On the negative side, he has narcolepsy, which causes him to fall asleep suddenly and irresistably especially when stressed or emotional. For a young orphan about to start life in a new orphanage, this is quite a hazardous thing. On the plus side, Nicholas has a brilliant analytical mind and a charming personality (when given the chance to show it) that have helped him overcome many obstacles in his life up to now. The three large, strong bullies known as The Spiders, a headmaster who treats him like a mental deficient, and other staff that aren’t much better are soon making the boy’s life in his new home even more miserable than he expected. John, one good friend, surfaces, but even he must keep his contact with the new boy low key. Like all the children, his every move is monitored by The Spiders.

Amid the terrible life Nicholas finds himself in, there are some glimmers of hope. For one, the orphanage is rumored to hold a valuable hidden treasure. Nicholas, John, and another friend they meet from a nearby farm are determined to find the treasure and use it as a way out of their troubles. But the headmaster is also looking, and The Spiders are always ready to make trouble at every opportunity.

Author Trenton Lee Stewart’s Benedict Society books were very plot driven. In fact they were largely a series of puzzles through with the characters moved. There are some puzzles in this book, but the story is more character driven, and the depiction of a very brave and smart boy with serious health issues and social troubles is very well done. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better example of how a brilliant mind works from the inside. Imagine if the Sherlock Holmes stories had taken us into the Great Detective’s thought processes. Stewart makes that work admirably for Nicholas. Also, the plot is much less predictable than in the previous books, and the emotional journey is deeper and more satisfying.

You don’t have to have read the other books to enjoy this one. In fact, as a prequel it makes a fine starting point. Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: ERNESTINE TAKES OVER by Walter Brooks

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Walter R. Brooks is best known for a lengthy series of humorous talking animal novels written for young readers, most featuring Freddy the Pig and the Bean Farm. Less known is a series of short stories he wrote about a talking horse that was the inspiration for the “Mr. Ed” TV show. I particularly love the Freddy books, and I’ve always been curious about this one adult novel he wrote, so I recently bought a copy.

At first it seemed an amusing comic novel with a fantasy element, the sort of thing that Thorne Smith made a career of, and not too far from Brooks’ other work. Fred Thompson is an advertising executive working for his father-in-law in Manhattan, while at home he and his wife go to a lot of parties where drinking, smoking and sophomoric pranks are the common activity. His crowd obviously has some money, and are pretty spoiled, but none so obviously as Fred’s wife Ethel, who treats her husband with sarcasm and disdain and seems to find him a big disappointment. Fred is equally disappointed in how things have turned out, and puts his large imagination to work creating an imaginary woman that would be the perfect party date for him. Soon he can actually see this woman, who he names Ernestine. They carry on conversations and begin to have some adventures together at parties. Before long, she is quite real to Fred and other people at the parties begin to see her, and talk to her as well. Ernestine keeps getting more real and more independent, and Fred finds it harder and harder to control her with his own mind, as she seems to be equally open to the (usually naughty) thoughts of others.

Fred’s wife Ethel does not take well to this, and when Ernestine shows up one morning in Fred’s bathroom while he’s shaving, Ethel leaves him. The rest of the book is Fred’s struggle to control Ernestine, through increasingly harsh and even physical means, and to get his wife back. Brooks posits Fred as a mild and pliant fellow who needs to learn to “handle” women, and Ernestine is his training ground. When he eventually begins to treat his wife the same way, she seems to find new interest in him, leading to more adventures and hijinks and eventual reconciliation.

I found the book disappointing, and I can see why it hasn’t been reprinted. Brooks’ humor in the Freddy books is much more appealing, and I found his ideas about adult relationships expressed here to be unfunny at best and appalling at worst.

Not recommended.

And Then I Read: RICK AFIRE! by David Severn

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David Severn was the pen name of David Unwin, son of the publisher Stanley Unwin (Tolkien’s publisher). He wrote many novels for children, and this is the first. The early books are holiday adventure stories somewhat in the style of M.E. Atkinson, nothing too heavy or deep, but fun reading for kids. His later books were more thoughtful and imaginative, but I like all of Severn’s work that I’ve found.

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Here’s the endpaper map with most of the scenes of the story on it. I always feel I’m in for a good time when I see something like this.

Derek and Diana Longmore are two children from London coming to stay with friends at a small country farm, where the twins, Brian and Pamela live. The four are allowed to roam the nearby countryside, and one of their early explorations into slightly scary Gibbet Wood reveals an odd bearded man camping there. The four decide to investigate him, and eventually they meet Crusoe, a young man from the city who enjoys camping on his own on summer holidays. Before long they are all friends and sharing knowledge of things like a family of young foxes in the Wood. One night a hay rick bursts into flame, causing all the people of the area to gather. The farmers are naturally angry about this, so much of their hard work ruined, and suspicion falls on Crusoe as the culprit. The children go on a quick and dangerous race into Gibbet Wood to tell Crusoe an angry mob of farmers is after him, and rescue their friend. Then all five begin a new investigation to find out who really set the rick afire. That takes them to more adventures and unexpected meetings with some unusual characters.

There are four more books about Crusoe and his friends, all good reading and recommended, if you can find them.