Monday, 21 January 2019

Nostalgic For My Childhood - The Crunch comic at 40

Forty years ago this week, D.C. Thomson launched a new comic called The Crunch (cover dated 20th January 1979), edited by Bill Graham.  Warlord aside, it was a bit more brutal than their usual fare in, according to some, an attempt to compete with rival publisher IPC’s 2000AD.  At the time, ten-year-old me wasn’t too bothered, I was just happy I’d found a new comic after the demise of my much-loved Bullet comic the previous December.
The first issue, with its free black wristband and selection of stickers, declared itself “a whole new experience in boys' papers! It's for the boy of today - packed with never-before told stories with true life features on the men who have faced the crunch in their lives.”

The lead strip was Arena, where a corrupt 21st Century government treated those who spoke against it as criminals and sentenced them to fights to the death in an arena.  The next story featured Bearpaw Jay, a bounty hunter known as The Mantracker who was not averse to bending the rules to get his man.  I loved this strip, which was violent, well paced, occasionally amusing and often brutal (in that first strip, an innocent bystander got shot in the guts by a bank robber, which wasn’t something you saw every day), all beautifully drawn by Alberto Salinas.  The Kyser Experiment was a bit tamer, where Dr Kyser performed experiments on a football team to try and make them unbeatable.  The Walking Bombs (they kind of did what you expected them to) opened with military leaders being blown up by a nuclear explosion, which set the scene perfectly (and featured cracking artwork from the always dependable Denis McLoughlin).  I was never a fan of Hitler Lives! and I now can’t tell if that’s because the storyline didn’t interest me (which is likely) or the artwork of Patrick Wright left me cold.  Who Killed Cassidy, featuring a conspiracy around the assassination of American president Jack Cassidy, rounded out the issue.

Over the course of its run, Crunch (I don't think I ever used 'The...') also showcased some other terrific strips.  Crag featured the eponymous Detective Sergeant, framed for a bullion robbery he wasn’t involved in, who escaped from prison to bring the real criminals to justice.  The Hit Man concerned Hugh Marston, an undercover government enforcer who went around the world bumping off various baddies, with great espionage tropes (coded messages, secret rooms and the like) and ingeniously designed weapons - I loved it.  The Mill Street Mob was another favourite, a school based strip (The Mill Street Comprehensive), that was absolutely perfect for me as I prepared to move from Rothwell Juniors to Montsaye Comprehensive (I don’t remember having the same level of adventures as they did though).  There was also Clancy And The Man, Programmed To Kill, Plague 2000 (which seemed to blend elements of Damnation Alley and 2000AD’s The Cursed Earth), Space Wars, Striker From Nowhere, Starhawk and Operation Omega.  It also featured Ebony who, according to Billy O’Brien at his Starhawk site was “not only the first female action heroine in a boys comic but also black, which was groundbreaking stuff for the time”.  Ebony, an agent of the British Special Mission Squad, had been created by Bill Graham for a new girls comic which never happened but the character was "was too good to waste, so I brought her into The Crunch."
Top - The Crunch mission statement.  And yes, the badge in issue 3 was a skull on a big pin (can you imagine the fun if they tried that today?)
bottom left - Andy working on his letters page - bottom right - the first issues sticker selection
As well as a whole host of special features on sporting heroes, stunts, examples of bravery and true-life tales, Crunch featured that staple of seventies comics, the letters page.  In this case, it was The Crunch Question, hosted by ‘Andy’ (the man in the photograph was actually a D.C. Thomson editor called Euan Kerr), who offered advice to the boys (and occasionally girls) who wrote in.  The letter of the week won a 'super calculator' while all the writers featured got £2 (it doesn’t say if that was cash or postal orders, though I’d bet on the latter).  Andy, who was generally helpful, was obviously toeing the party line though, often taking the side of parents and teachers and admonishing those writers who wanted to be out playing football with their mates rather than learning the piano.
Two of the "hero galleries" - Starhawk from issue 39 and The Hit Man from issue 46
I liked Crunch a lot but unfortunately lost my copies over the years.  I picked up a few off ebay but then found some (along with the Bullet's I wrote about here) in a retro shop in Whitby and bought a load.  Re-reading those issues was great fun, not only as a nostalgic blast but also a chance to realise how well presented - both in terms of writing and artwork - they were and how unfortunate it is that kids today, like Dude, are missing out on this kind of thing.

Unfortunately, as often happened, there weren’t enough fans like me at the time and Crunch ended with issue 54 (cover dated 26th January 1980).  It merged with Hotspur on 2nd February 1980 (their issue 1059) and while I hung on for a while, the older comic was too tame and most of my strips quickly disappeared.  There were never any annuals or summer specials, though some characters appeared in the 1983 Hotspur annual.  Sadly, The Crunch now seems almost forgotten today.

Ebony leads the charge at the end of the line...
One of the banes of my childhood life, as a much-loved comic gets absorbed into another...

I have very fond memories of the comic, the characters and the great cover art and the stories still stand up really well, making for a thoroughly entertaining read.

Happy 40th, The Crunch - you certainly entertained this "boy of today"!


Sources:
Lew Stringer’s “When It Came To The Crunch”
UK Comics Wiki
The Starhawk Crunch site
Down The Tubes interview with Bill Graham

Monday, 14 January 2019

Happy Birthday, Caroline Munro!

Back in the mid-70s, on an advertising hoarding in Corby, I saw my first ad for Lamb’s Navy Rum and fell instantly in love with the model on it.  She had a pretty face, long dark hair and her wet-suit was zipped to her belly.  A little while later, with some school-mates, I went to see The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad and there she was, my first crush!  Later still, Dad took me to see The Spy Who Loved Me and there was the Lamb’s Navy Rum girl, pouty and pretty and trying to kill Bond.

That woman was, of course, Caroline Munro and as she celebrates her 70th birthday, here's a little appreciation.
Caroline Jane Munro was born on 16th January 1949 in Windsor, the daughter of a solicitor.  She grew up in Rottingdean, near Brighton and attended a Catholic Convent School, where she sang in the church choir.

Her original intention was to be an artist and she attended art school in Brighton.  “I wasn’t very good,” she said in interview.  “A friend at the college was studying photography and he needed somebody to photograph and he asked me. Unbeknownst to me, he sent the photographs to a big newspaper in London. The fashion photographer, David Bailey, was conducting a photo contest and my picture won.”

Caroline had won The Evening News’ ‘Face Of The Year’ content, which led to her modelling for Vogue magazine at the age of 17.  David Bailey cast her in his film G G Passion (1966) and she moved to London to pursue modelling, becoming a cover girl for fashion and TV adverts.  She also recorded backing vocals for a record, Tar And Cement, in the company of Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker.  A small part, as a voluptuous Guard Girl in Casino Royale (1967), led to a one-year contract with Paramount Pictures, who cast her as Richard Widmark's daughter in A Talent for Loving (1969).  During the making of the film she met her first husband, actor/musician Judd Hamilton and they married in 1970.
In 1969, she began a lucrative 10-year professional relationship that garnered her a lot of attention.  “I am remembered most as the calendar girl for Lambs Navy Rum,” she writes on her website.  The adverts - featuring Caroline looking feisty in a variety of scenarios - were plastered all over the UK, appearing in magazines, on billboards and even drip mats in pubs.
Sir James Carreras, of Hammer Films, saw her on a billboard outside Victoria Station in London and invited her for a screentest, quickly putting her under contract (she was the only actress to ever officially sign with the studio).  She first appeared as Vincent Price’s dead wife in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), before playing an early victim to the Count in Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972).
Dracula A.D. 1972
She was offered the lead role in Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971) but turned it down because of the required nudity and she kept that stance throughout her career, even refusing a lucrative offer from Playboy magazine.  “I’m not prudish,” she said in a 2007 interview, “and people can do what they want.  Just for me, it was a personal choice, it’s something I didn’t want to do. Plus, I think it’s more ‘what you don’t see’ that’s more interesting.  For me, it’s nice to have a little mystery.  Maybe I’m an old-fashioned girl, a little bit, anyway!”  Her Hammer contract was fulfilled with Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974), in which she played the barefoot gypsy girl Carla.  It was originally intended to become a long-running series but the huge success of The Exorcist (1973) effectively killed the low-budget horror market Hammer called their own.  She was offered the lead role in Vampirella (it was never made) but turned it down because of the nudity required.
Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter
Brian Clemens, who’d written and directed Captain Kronos, helped her get the role of Margiana, the slave girl in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), for which he wrote the screenplay.  The experience of working on the film and especially with Ray Harryhausen, was a good one - “it was lovely,” she said in interview, “like work-out-of-work and I was very lucky to have done that.”  She is now a Trustee of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation.
The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad
She also appeared in I Don't Want to Be Born (1975), At the Earth's Core (1976) with Peter Cushing and Doug McClure and The New Avengers episode The Angels of Death (1977), notable for a fight between Caroline and Joanna Lumley's Purdey.
As a nurse in The New Avengers
At The Earth's Core
Caroline’s highest profile role was as Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), the bikini-clad henchwoman of Karl Stromberg who is also the helicopter pilot trying to kill Bond in his Lotus Esprit (whilst tipping him what I consider to be the sexiest wink in cinema).

The Spy Who Loved Me
In order to take the Bond film, she turned down the role of Ursa (which went to Sarah Douglas) in Superman (1978).  Following the global success of the film, she was offered roles in Force 10 From Navarone (1978) and The World Is Full Of Married Men (1979), both of which she turned down because of the nudity required.
Starcrash
Caroline continued to work through the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in British and European horror and science fiction films.  She took the lead role in Starcrash (1979), made her first American film with Maniac (1980) and followed that up with The Last Horror Film (1982) which was produced by her husband Judd Hamilton.  Their marriage broke down in 1982 and, after turning down a role in the US daytime soap The Bold And The Beautiful (“I didn’t want to move abroad”), she became a hostess on the British gameshow 3-2-1 (“I never guessed any of the riddles,” she told The Guardian in 2002, “but then neither did Ted”) and appeared in rock videos with Adam Ant (Goody Two Shoes) and Meatloaf (If You Really Want To).  Moving back to film, she appeared in Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984), Slaughter High (1986) (which was produced by her new partner, George Dugdale and suffered from having thirtysomething actors play teens) Paul Naschy's Howl of the Devil (1987), Jess Franco's Faceless (1988) and Demons 6: De Profundis (1989), which would be her last major film appearance.

She married Dugdale in 1990 and retired from acting to raise her two daughters.  “I took a long time off to have my girls,” she said in interview.  “I had [them] late and in that time everything changes and, of course, you’re not offered the roles.  I took, really, ten years off.”
Caroline, Dude and me, the NEC, November 2011
After making more films in 1990s and beyond, she became a regular on the convention circuit and remains very popular today.  I was lucky enough, with Dude, to meet her at the Birmingham NEC for the Memorabilia fair in November 2011 (which I wrote about here).  Awe-struck in her presence, Dude filled the gap when she said “hello” and they started talking to each other.  I did manage to tell her how much of an honour it was to meet her (I thought telling her she'd been my crush since I was 7 might be out-of-order) and she was lovely, chatting easily to both of us and posing for a photograph (her suggestion, when she noticed my camera).  It might have taken me a long time but I did end up, however briefly, with my arm around Caroline Munro and she was as lovely as I could have ever hoped.

"The career was wonderful. I never sought anything, really, I never pursued anything. I was not ambitious. It came to me."
- Caroline Munro

as Stella Star in Starcrash




Taken in Sardinia, during the shooting of The Spy Who Loved Me, 1976

My prized autograph - Dude suggested I get the picture of Caroline with Roger Moore but I chose this one...




Happy birthday, Caroline!

sources:
MI6-Hq: Caroline Munro
xojane.com - Caroline Munro
Interview with Caroline Munro (2007) at An Actors Notebook
Caroline Munro Official Website
Dark Side Magazine - Hammer Glamour: Caroline Munro
The Horror Princess: Caroline Munro by Mark Iveson
My blogpost about meeting Caroline
Wikipedia

Monday, 7 January 2019

Hell Ship, by Benedict J. Jones (a review and Q&A)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
1944, The Malacca Straights; Blood slicks the deck of a Japanese ship as a terrible ritual is enacting to aid the failing Imperial Forces against the Allies. The ritual rends the very fabric of our world giving access to another realm beyond the ken of man.

Nine survivors from the torpedoed Empire Carew are left adrift in a lifeboat but after weeks in the water they find haven on an abandoned ship they find floating in a strange fog – The Shinjuku Maru.

Nine souls are heading straight for hell.

The Shinjuku Maru has been there before…

The Empire Carew is torpedoed in The Malacca Straights in 1944.  Nine survivors make it to a lifeboat (a motley crew comprising three seasoned sailors, a rookie officer, a radio operator, a singer and her manager, a cook and an Australian nurse) but then spend weeks existing on it with no supplies until they come across The Shinjuku Maru, a ship floating in a strange fog.  They board it, to find blood on the decks and no crew on board and then things start to go from bad to worse.

I like variety in my horror and have no problem mixing the quieter, supernatural stuff with the lurid, over-the-top style so beloved of paperback writers in the 70s and 80s and in that regard, Jones is my ideal writer.  Having read his Slaughter Beach, a cracking piece of pulp, a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, I was looking forward to this and wasn’t disappointed, even though it’s a completely different beast.  Opening with a harsh and harrowing prologue, it sets about introducing the crew of the lifeboat and the characters leap off the page, instantly living and breathing.  We share their predicament - resorting to shooting seagulls to drink the blood before they eat them - and it’s a relief when they finally spot the ship.  Here, though, the novella really moves into horror territory and Jones makes the best of his restricted location, ramping up the sense of tension, isolation and claustrophobia, while hinting at darker forces gathering in the shadows in the corners of rooms.  When hell finally does break loose - and it properly does - the pace whips you through the pages, as our crew is split up and picked off, featuring bone crunching violence that is brutal, realistic and never gratuitous.

Scary, thrilling, often amusing (especially in the interplay between some of the characters) but above all relentless, this has a great pace and a superb sense of location, which is well realised and maintained.  If you’re looking for a grim and gruesome horror novella, this is ideal and I highly recommend it.

* * *

I enjoyed the story so much, I decided to ask Ben some questions about it and he was gracious enough to answer.

MW:   You’ve included a powerful author’s note, stating this is a fiction but based on atrocities that occurred during World War Two, but what led you to write the novella?

BJ:   I actually came across the atrocities while researching the basic idea for Hell Ship – which was initially to be set on a German surface raider in the Second World War. I quickly realised that setting it in the far east would work better. The more I read of the massacres and also of the “hell ships” used to transport allied POWs the more I was struck by the question of why. In some ways the rituals are a way of me trying to give a “why” to it all even though none really exists and it is simply an illustration of how inhumane man can be to his fellow man in certain times.

MW:   How much research was involved?

BJ:   A fair bit. Some things I knew already from reading and previous research but I was drawn to find out more about the merchant seamen during World War two. My family is originally from the north east of England and we have strong ties to the Merchant Navy, as well as the ship building industry and the Royal Navy. Once I started researching shipwreck survivors I came across some really interesting accounts and all that fed into Hell Ship – including that of Poon Lim who spent 133 days adrift.

MW:   The prologue, in particular, is gruelling.  How uncomfortable was that to research and write?

BJ:   It was imagining those nightmarish conditions that really spurred me on to write the story. It just seemed so raw and visceral, and once I tried to put myself in the heads that set me off writing. There was very little re-writing done to the prologue once I had it down. I was lucky that it was just one of those pieces that “wanted” to come out onto the page and I’m delighted by the way it has been affecting readers.

MW:   Your characters leap off the page - which of them was your favourite to write?

BJ:   Probably Busby. Originally Connolly was intended to be more of a “hero” type but as the story came together he faded into the background somewhat as other characters pushed to the fore. I really like the relationship between Busby and Snell – one of the early scenes between them on the life boat came to me fully formed and I always knew where that pair were headed. Lily and Conrad were another pair of characters that I enjoyed exploring but their relationship was somewhat different, revealing itself to me as I wrote it rather than something I had thought out beforehand.

MW:   I liked the Busby/Snell rapport too and thought that worked very well.  Now The Shinjuku Maru is an excellent location.  Did you base it on a real ship, or did it all come from your imagination (and if so, did you create a map of it)?

BJ:   It was a composite of several of the merchant ships that were really used by the Japanese to transport prisoners. I think the main design came from a refrigerator ship. I did starts making a map for it but soon realised that as things turned “weird” the Shinjuku Maru was a bit more fluid that most ships anyway…

MW:   What’s next for you?

BJ:   There’s a new Charlie Bars novel slated for release early in 2019 and I am beavering away on various other projects as well.

* * *

Benedict J. Jones is a writer of crime, horror and westerns from south-east London.  Perhaps best known for the Charlie Bars series of neo-noir novels and the splatter punk novella Slaughter Beach, he can be found online at benedictjones.com and is great company at Cons.


Thursday, 27 December 2018

My Creative Year 2018

Continuing a tradition (now in its sixth year), here's my annual look back at 2018 from a creative standpoint.
During the year, I wrote one short story (Brooks Pond), which Tracy Fahey was kind enough to ask me for (see below for more details), as well as a load of essays for this blog (which is always enjoyable).  On the novel front, I began sending my submission package out in April and, although I had two requests for full ms (which is good), I didn't garner any agency interest (which, obviously, is not good).  I'd already started working on Novel2 by then but, after the agency feedback and responses, I shifted to a new idea, a more high concept one and once again plotted it while walking with David Roberts and Pippa.  Novel3 (as we came to call it) has been a very enjoyable process (I finished the first draft - 138k words in 104 days - just before Christmas) and hopefully I'll have whipped it into shape by early next year so I can start approaching the agencies again.  Wish me luck!

* * *
I had three short stories published.

The first, Chihuahua, appeared in In Dog We Trust, a charity anthology edited by Anthony Cowin from Black Shuck Books.  It was launched at Edge-Lit 7.

The second, The Taste Of Her, appeared in Best British Horror 2018, a NewCon Press anthology edited by Johnny Mains.  Launched at FantasyCon, it featured Johnny's pick of the year and took in my story, which originally appeared in my second collection, Things We Leave Behind.

The third, Brooks Pond, appeared in The Black Room Manuscripts Vol. 4, published by The Sinister Horror Company and edited by Tracy Fahey & J. R. Park.  A charity anthology, in aid of Refuge, it was also launched at FantasyCon.
The NewCon Press Best British Horror signing - Ian is asking us to point out which writers are in it, for signing purposes, not who ordered the fish finger sarnies.
from left - Ian, me, Hal Duncan, Laura Mauro, Ian Watson (he's not in the anthology but wanted to put his hand up), Andy West and James Everington.
The Sinister Horror Press Black Room Manuscripts 4 signing
from left - Phil Sloman, Ben Jones, Terry Grimwood, Marie O'Regan, Jim Mcleod, James Everington, Steve Bacon, me

* * *
My novella, Drive, was re-published by Near To The Knuckle (an imprint of Gritfiction Ltd) on February 5th (following the closure of Pendragon Press), with spanking new cover art.

* * *
Drive was reviewed by Unlawful Acts who called it "a taut pulpy horror novella filled with suburban fears of aimless violence [which] would pair well with a weekend filled with watching ’70s B-movies." (full review can be found here)

Drive was also reviewed by Mixxit Reviews who wrote "There were twists and shocks.  There were lots of things that happened that I was not expecting, that actually made me shout in my head OMG PLOT TWIST!" (full review can be found here)

Kendall Reviews liked The Taste Of Her calling it "a vicious tale of revenge.  Expertly plotted in only a few pages.  Again, not Horror per se, but certainly has the power to shock." (review here)

* * *
In February, Sue Moorcoft & I were guests on Brookes' Brew, on Harborough FM, talking books, writing and music.  I wrote about it here and if you want to listen to it again, you can do so on this link via mixcloud.
me, DJ Phil Brookes and Sue

The Crusty Exterior managed to meet up again, in Leicester this time, in April.  Along with the regulars - James Everington, Phil Sloman, Steve Harris, me, Steve Bacon and John Travis - we welcomed new members Timothy Jarvis, Jay Eales & Linda Nagle.  We had a great day, lovely weather, great conversation, two cracking bookshops and a lovely curry to finish up with.  Even better, plans were made for more meets!  My report on the day is here.
In Victoria Park with, from left, Steve Bacon, Phil Sloman, Jay Eales, John Travis, me, Linda Nagle, Steve Harris, Tim Jarvis and James Everington

In September, along with Sue Moorcroft, Louise Jensen and Darren O'Sullivan (all great people and writers), I was part of the first Meet The Authors Q&A event held at The Core at Corby Cube.  It was a fantastic evening, which I thoroughly enjoyed and our sold-out (sixty plus people) audience seemed to like it a lot too.  I wrote about it here.
from left - Darren O'Sullivan (this writers/audience selfie was his great idea), Louise Jensen, me, Sue and Joe Flavin, our moderator and director of The Core

* * *
I attended 3 great Cons in year.  The first, Edge-Lit 7, was held at The Quad in Derby on 14th July (see my report here), followed by FantasyCon, held at The Queen Hotel, Chester from 19th to 21st October (see my report here) and then Sledge-Lit 4, held at The Quad in Derby on 24th November (see my report here).
At Edge-Lit 7 with, from left, Ross Warren, Steve Harris, John Travis, me, Blaize Harris (seated), Peter Mark May, Lisa Childs, Terry Grimwood, Dion Winton-Polak
At FantasyCon in the Jubilee Room with, from left, Tracy Fahey, Duncan Bradshaw, Peter, Steve Bacon, Penny Jones, me, Neil Williams, Michelle Williams, James Everington
A FantasyCon triple bill - big picture (by Dion Winton-Polak shows Dion, Jim Mcleod & me), 
top right (pic by Ian Whates) is me, Peter Mark May, Kathy Boulton with her back to the camera and Francesca Tristan Barbini
bottom right (pic by Phil Sloman) shows Dion, me, Ross Warren, Steve Harris & James Everington
At Sledge-Lit, with Donna Bond, Peter and Sue Moorcroft
* * *
I'm feeling confident for 2019 too, as I plan to crack on with the novel and have ideas bubbling away for more.  There are no short story appearances planned for the year but if anyone wants to ask me for one, I might be tempted!  Whatever happens, I'll keep you updated as how things go.

As always, thank you so much, dear readers of this blog, for all your support in 2018, especially those who bought, read and liked my work - I really do appreciate it.