Monday 27 July 2020

Nostalgic For My Childhood - More Summer Specials

A couple of years ago, having had a conversation with Dude (where he expressed amusement over the things I had to contend with when I was his age - including, but not limited to, very few available video games, cameras you had to carry separately and phones that were wired to the wall), I blogged about one great thing I had that he didn’t - the Summer Special (you can find the blog post here).
As I explained then, children’s comics now aren’t a patch on what they were back in the 70s and 80s (and before that, even).  Modern titles, sealed in plastic bags and littered with free gifts, have very little in the way of comic strips or stories (in fact, most seem to consist of quizzes) but back in the day the likes of IPC and DC Thomson produced a raft of weeklies that catered for most tastes (published on newsprint with a splash of colour).

Those weeklies, in turn, gave us the Summer Special to look forward to.  A one-off edition of our favourite title, it was thicker and more colourful and the perfect reading accompaniment to a long car journey or a lazy afternoon in the back garden.

Comics historian Lew Stringer suggests (on his blog) that “today’s retailers dislike them because they occupy valuable shelf space for too many months” which didn’t bother newsagents in the 70s - Summer Specials were especially popular at seaside towns because they were pretty much guaranteed sellers, with a new batch of kids every week who’d need entertaining.

Here are a few more from my golden-era of reading them (the late 70s into the early 80s) - what were your favourites?
1978 - Starlord (which I wrote about here) barely lasted long enough to justify its Summer Special!
1979 - war comics were a big part of my childhood

Once again, thanks to Lew Stringer for the history (see also David Barnett’s excellent blog piece at The Guardian).

Monday 20 July 2020

Old School Horror 8: Death Tour, by David J. Michael

The eighth, in an occasional thread, of blog posts celebrating those cheesy, sleazy old-school pulp paperbacks from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  Yes, we’re not talking great art here but these books have their place - for better or worse - in the genre and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time, I'm looking at a novel that not only appears to switch genres halfway through but is a classic example of exploitation artwork (ie, misdirection!)...
cover scan of my copy - NEL paperback edition, July 1980
It was crazy but it was a story.
The five students who specialised in weird features for the college paper needed a story badly when they heard about alligators infesting the city's sewers.

With a stolen map of the sewer system they climbed down a manhole into an underground world of fetid pools and sludge-filled tunnels.

In a dark territory that played host to black rats and hideous reptiles their reporting mission turned into a nightmare as death sprang from the evil-smelling gloom ...


To start with, I'll address the elephant in the room.  This is called Death Tour and an alligator features on every single cover version there is (see more below).  If you're looking at this thinking "yay, a creature feature!" then, seriously, I'd advise you to move along now.

Still here?  Well that's an excellent decision because I picked this up expecting a creature feature and, far from being disappointed, found a lot to like.

Tom Marsh is a journalism student and member of a campus production group called Five-Star, whose regular feature Touring has become a hit in the University paper.  His partners-in-crime are Mary Malgren (also his girlfriend), overweight (and over-bearing) Cherry, Krevitch who does the photography but seems scared of his own shadow and the mentally impared Hunk who, it later transpires, isn’t a student at all but offered once to help carry their equipment and is now a member of the team.  A stock-in-trade of the horror novel (see also The Losers Club in IT), this little gang of outcasts works well together and we get some nice bits of history, later in the book, fleshing out their back stories.

The group is trying to work out which feature to work on next as Tom walks Mary home.  Clearly in love with her, their relationship is hampered by her father, a misanthropic alcoholic who controls her life and hates intellectuals (and plenty more besides) since his wife left him for a French teacher five years before, who expects Mary to be at his beck and call.  Mr Malgren (who has the great quote "The world is fine, but people stink") is the supervisor at the local sewage plant and, according to Mary, has just been bitten on the leg by an alligator, though he wants to keep that very quiet.  Tom realises this is their next assignment, attempts to butter Malgren up to get enough information on the sewers layout - and Mary secretly photocopies the plans - and then Five-Star launch their expedition.

Of course, nothing goes right and that’s not even counting the stories of people going missing in the tunnels.  Frightened by a turtle and “oversized goldfish” (a carp) in one of the holding tanks (more pet shop crazes, flushed away by their owners), they then derail an underground train before discovering they’re not alone in the sewers, as a shambling, white-haired troll who eats roasted rats seems intent on killing them.

The first half of the book enjoys a leisurely pace, taking its time to introduce the characters and their situation and works really well, especially their interplay.  Once they move underground, the pace picks up and Michael uses the locations and atmosphere well, especially the “things” in the water and the first appearance of the troll.  As the body count starts to rise (it’s obvious who the survivors will be from fairly early on, but at least one of the deaths took me by surprise), there’s a neat little twist that shifts the emphasis of the book and then we head off into proper horror territory, the victims pursued by a mad killer.  Brisk and to the point (the edition I read is all of 156 pages), this is good fun (so long as you don’t expect it to be a creature feature), populated by characters you care about and gleefully gruesome in its set pieces, while never outstaying its welcome.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

* * *
Not much is known about David J. Michael, even from the usual reliable sources (such as Will Errickson’s excellent Too Much Horror Fiction), though he published at least one other book, A Blow To The Head, in 1970 (reviewed favourably, as his first novel, in volume 30 of Best Sellers: From the U.S. Government Printing Office).  The New York Times Book Review liked it (check out the cover blurb - "Sheer, shuddering horror!") and the San Francisco Examiner wrote "Terrifying, it's a spine chiller" (on the back cover) while Kirkus were less complimentary, though our views on the first half are very similar.

The book is mentioned (along with a full-page reproduction of the Don Ivan Punchatz cover) in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell and even makes an appearance in Stephen King’s excellent Danse Macabre (which I wrote about here) - when discussing Harlan Ellison’s excellent Croatoan, he calls Death Tour a “funny/horrible novel”.
Bobbs-Merill hardback, 1978
The novel appeared in hardback, from Bobbs-Merrill Co, in August 1978 and in Signet paperback (with the Punchatz artwork) in 1979.  New English Library, with cover art by Bob Martin, published the novel in July 1980.
Signet paperback, 1979
I wonder what Mr Michael did next...?

For a few years now, I've been collecting old 70s and 80s paperbacks (mostly horror), picking them up cheaply in secondhand bookshops and at car boot sales and slowly building a collection.  My friend (and fellow collector) Johnny Mains once told me that charity shops sometimes pulp old books like this because the market for them is so small - I understand why but I think it's terrible.  We might not be talking great art here but on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis (too much cheese isn't good for anyone's diet), I'm going to review these "old-school" horrors (and perhaps include some bonus material, if I can find it).

Monday 13 July 2020

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Poster Magazines part 2

Last year, I blogged about "poster magazines" I remembered from the 70s and 80s (you can read the post here).  It seemed to touch a chord but I was just as surprised to find people my age who'd never heard of them, so I thought I'd show a few more.

Poster magazines were essentially A4 glossy colour magazines which folded out into a (large) A1-sized sheet.  One side would be the magazine (with articles and plenty of photographs) while the reverse would be a giant poster and, depending on what you’d bought, the image might be a person, an action scene or the film poster.  I had several and most kids I knew had at least one huge poster on their wall.
A selfie (with my disc camera) from 1986, featuring the
For Your Eyes Only poster
The possibilities were endless.  Dez Skinn (before he created Starburst magazine) produced Monster Mag which featured gory movie stills from the likes of Hammer Films and Amicus.  Music was a big draw (singers and bands alike, as well as musical styles - my friend, the writer Mark Morris, remembers having punk ones on his wall).  You could pick up magazines devoted to TV series like Star Trek (a whole run of them), The Six Million Dollar ManDoctor WhoSpace: 1999The ProfessionalsThe HulkBattlestar Galactica and Planet of the Apes.  Film tie-in's were especially popular - if it was a blockbuster (and the 70s and 80s were full of them), there'd be a poster magazine on the newsagents shelves sooner rather than later (featuring the likes of Star WarsSuperman and James Bond).

spacemonstersmag reckons the magazines died out in the 1990's, which is a shame.  I still have a few in my collection (though not on the walls of my study) and think they’re great fun, another nostalgic item for film and TV fans of a certain age.

Did you have any?  Which ones were on your wall?
I think I might have mentioned before that I was a huge fan of The Six Million Dollar Man.
I reckon the first thing that went through your head when you saw this was either "Flash, ah-ah..." or "Gordon's alive?"
As you can see from the picture above, I had this on my wall for quite a few years.  I wrote a retrospective on the film, which you can read here.
One of the first "properly scary" horror films I saw on video, which I wrote about here.
As well as the posters, this also included 50 behind the scenes nuggets (with pictures) - I was in my element!  I previously wrote about Return Of The Jedi here.

you can read the previous poster magazine post here

Monday 6 July 2020

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin (a review)

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 genre (autobiography, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan (though if you were a fan, you'd probably read this long before now...)
Steve Martin has been an international star for over thirty years. Here, for the first time, he looks back to the beginning of his career and charmingly evokes the young man he once was.

Born in Texas but raised in California, Steve was seduced early by the comedy shows that played on the radio when the family travelled back and forth to visit relatives. When Disneyland opened just a couple of miles away from home, an enchanted Steve was given his first chance to learn magic and entertain an audience. He describes how he noted the reaction to each joke in a ledger - 'big laugh' or 'quiet' - and assiduously studied the acts of colleagues, stealing jokes when needed. With superb detail, Steve recreates the world of small, dark clubs and the fear and exhilaration of standing in the spotlight. While a philosophy student at UCLA, he worked hard at local clubs honing his comedy and slowly attracting a following until he was picked up to write for TV. From here on, Steve Martin became an acclaimed comedian, packing out venues nationwide. One night, however, he noticed empty seats and realised he had 'reached the top of the rollercoaster'.

BORN STANDING UP is a funny and riveting chronicle of how Steve Martin became the comedy genius we now know and is also a fascinating portrait of an era.

I'll start this with the confession that I missed Steve Martin's stand-up - the golden period of Saturday Night Live and his groundbreaking shows came before I was able to either see or properly understand them.  Delving back into memory, I think I was first aware of him from The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains, two films that really tickled me at the time and continue to do so. The former was probably on BBC2 one night, the latter featured Kathleen Turner and following her turns in Romancing The Stone and Body Heat, she was a major crush of mine in the early 80s, who led me to a lot of interesting films.

Having read Wild & Crazy Guys by Nick DeSemlyn (ostensibly about SNL it also features quite a bit on Martin), I decided to pick up his autobiography and I'm really pleased I did.  A slim volume, it charts his early life in the 40s and 50s, in a home dominated by a father generous in everything but his affection.  Martin escapes as soon as he can in the 60s, first to Disneyland where he works in the magic shop and learns the craft and then to San Francisco, where he starts performing.  His act slowly develops as he sticks to his guns and goes against the grain (he writes his stand-up was “10 years spent learning, 4 years spent refining, and 4 years spent in wild success”), finally hitting the big time in the mid-70s.  Around his burgeoning career, he was also in right place at the right time for a lot of things, from his girlfriends (he dated Mitzi Trumbo and was invited to dinners with her dad Dalton) to his comedy friends, while being part of (but slightly removed from) the zeitgeist.

Told with a lovely dry wit and a searing honesty, this is a cracking book, not only revealing Mr Martin as painfully shy but also a genuinely nice bloke, while proving how tough comedy can be (he tapes his acts, then reviews and analyses them in depth to work out what got laughs and what didn’t).  His decision to stop stand-up in 1981 and move into films is explained and the book pretty much ends there, which really made me eager for volume 2 of the biography (which, as of writing this, hasn’t appeared).  He does, however, complete the story to date (the book was published in 2007) explaining the situation with his family, which is both heart-warming (with his sister) and made me well-up (his parents).

Interesting, intriguing, funny and sad, this is the perfect autobiography and I’d highly recommend it.