Saturday, December 31, 2011

Out with the Old, and In With the New (or visa-versa?)

It's a new year in Krazy Kat's "heppy land, furfur away"! (Click on the cartoon for a larger, more legible version.)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Puttin' on the Ritz!

It's almost 2012, but here at Shades of Gray, we're gonna party like it's 1929! :)

Here are some party tips from Clark Gable

And Harry Richman has a little advice/demonstation ready for us as well.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Celebrating Wonder Woman, Part Four

A few more images of the Amazing Amazon, as the year of her 70th birthday comes to a close.

By Mike Sell
By Brandon Peterson
By Chris Samnee

By Geoff Isherwood

By Al Rio

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Two careers cross in 'King of the Underworld'

King of the Underworld (1939)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Kay Francis, James Stephenson, Jessie Busley, John Eldridge, and Raymond Brown
Director: Lewis Seiler
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When her husband (Eldridge) is killed in a raid on a gangster hide-out and is revealed to have been their physician of choice, Dr. Carole Nelson (Francis) has her reputation tarnished and career destroyed when no one believes she was ignorant of his activities. When she discovers the gang is hiding in a small town, she relocates there as well, in the hopes of finding the means to clear her name. When Carole discovers the megalomaniac gang-leader (Bogart) has kidnapped writer Bill Forrest (Stephenson) to force him to write his biography, she knows that more is now at stake than just her reputation and livelihood--the gangster is not going to let Bill live once the book is finished.

When "King of the Underworld" was made, Humphrey Bogart's star was on the rise, and Kay Francis' was quickly falling and burning out. Some sources indicate that this film was cast as it was because Warner Bros. executives were trying to force her to abandon her contract because of the non-glamorous nature of the part, and because she was given second billing to an actor with a far lesser stature than she had obtained. But, like the character she portrays in this movie, and like the strong women she had built her career on playing during the 1930s, Francis kept plugging on against the odds and in defiance of those who would bring her down. Despite the best efforts of studio suits, Francis still comes across as every bit the movie star that she was.

Part of the reason that Francis comes off looking so great in this movie is that Bogart's character, Joe Gurney. is a stereotypical, brutish and socipathic gangland thug with the mildly interesting character quirk of being obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte, and considers himself the French general's modern-day intellectual counterpart. Of course, Joe doesn't really understand half of what Napoleon did during his lifetime and some houseplants are smarter than him, but what he lacks in intelligence he more than makes up for in animal cunning and brutality. Joe's gang isn't much smarter or classier than he; at least "Scarface" had George Raft playing a gangster possessing an air of class and intelligence... Joe Gurney's gang seems is a collection of dim bulbs with Joe merely being the smartest and toughest guy in a collection of idiots. He is so dumb that I kept expecting one of the other gang members to shoot him and take over when it became apparent their hideout had been compromised.

As a launching pad for stardom, this was not the greatest of choices... but, for Bogart, "High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon" were just around the corner, and with them finally came the great parts he'd been begging for.

Francis, on the other hand, portrays a character whose only flaw is that she is a little too trusting of the people close to her. She is brilliant, sensitive, and possessed with an unwavering sense of personal honor... and a sharp mind married with a drive to succeed with her honor intact that the likes of Joe Gurney wished he had. These traits not only let her outsmart petty "community leaders" in the little town she relocates to, but also outsmart Joe and gang in a clever, if mildly far-fetched way.

The best part of this movie, in fact, is the interaction between Joe and Carole. These are very tense and suspenseful scenes, because both Bogart and Francis were great acting talents and they both conveyed their characters so strongly that viewers have a sense throughout those scenes that this could all end very badly for Carole at any moment.

Francis' Carole is so stubborn that her drive to clear her name won't be stopped. Bogart's Joe is such a vicious monster that when he is being gregarious it feels forced and that he would rather kill someone than walk across a room. Each scene they have together feels like the unstoppable force is about to collide with the unmovable object with all the disaster that would follow such an event.

These two great screen talents are what makes this movie worth seeing, as it emerges as proof of the fact that great actors can transcend the material they are working with. It features Francis' last great role at Warner Bros. even though it was intended to be a bad part, and Bogart takes a bad part and makes it spectacular.

This review is part of Forever Classic's Humphrey Bogart Blogathon (Bogarthon?). Click here to see links to other entries.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Celebrating Wonder Woman, Part Three

Continuing our month-long celebration of Wonder Woman, with some of the best black-and-white illustrations of her ever digitized.

By Leonard Kirk
By Thomas Yates
By June Brigman
By Carlos Anda
By Al Rio
By Ben Dunn

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Eduardo Barreto & Sinbad's Unfinished Voyage

When the criminally under-appreciated artist Eduardo Barreto passed away last Thursday (December 15) 1 at the all-too-young an age of 57, one of the unfinished projects he left behind was "Sinbad and the Coils of the Serpent", a graphic novel he was pitching to publishers in colaboration with writer Christopher Mills.

Here are some character designs he created for that project. They show more clearly than any words I could write that another great talent has left us.

And here is a neat portrait of three famous characters from the comic book publisher Barreto was perhaps most closely associated with in the minds of those who loved his art.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Forgotten Comics: Jake Thrash

Jack Thrash (Malibu Graphics 1989)
Writer: Barry Blair
Artist: Dave Cooper
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

During the 1980s, Barry Blair and Aircel Comics were front and center for the "black-and-white boom"... and Blair rode the wave as the "black and white bust" crashed onto the shores of comics publishing during the 1990s and ended a very exciting and creativity-filled time in the North American comic book industry... a time of such creativity and comics in such a spread of genres that had not been seen since, perhaps, the 1940s. And at the rate things have been doing in the years since, i don't think we'll ever see it again.

Writer/Artist Barry Blair
Aircel Comics published some of my favorite comics of that period, and Blair created, wrote, and/or drew many of them. I eagerly awaited the arrival of each new isssue of "Samurai", "Elf Lord" and "Dragon Ring"/"Dragon Force" when those titles were at their height, either as black-and-white comics, or, for a time, color. In fact, I first became interested in game design as possible income source when an idea for an RPG (which was my main vocation from 1993 to 2003, and which continues to be a strong sideline) that could be serialized in the back of "Elf Lord" struck me... and Eiwin Mark, editor at Aircel, seemed interested in the proposal.

The idea ultimately came to nothing as Aircel hit a rough patch during 1988 during the first signs of trouble in the booming alternative comic book market, was acquired by Malibu Graphics, and everything changed. Such is life. (Echoes of that approach to publishing an RPG have been present in NUELOW Games' recent "ROLF!" game line that I've been producing, and it may become fully manifested in a possible new product we are looking into developing... time will tell.)

The notion of an "Elf Lord" RPG wasn't the only thing that fell by the wayside during Aircel's transition. There was the extremely interesting three-issue mini-series "Jake Thrash", a cyberpunkish dark future story about a drifter squaring off against a group of man-eating mutants to save the lives of some young thrill-seekers too dumb to stay out of the bad parts of a war- and toxic-waste scarred urban sprawl. The overall tone of the series, and personality of the title character, was as if the main character from "For a Few Dollars More" had been transplanted from the grimy wild west to an even grimier and wilder dark future.

Two full-color issues of "Jake Thrash" were published in 1987, then sky-rocketing printing costs forced Aircel Comics to convert their titles back to the black-and-white they had started as, the operation was acquired by Malibu Graphics... but the third chapter in the tale of "Jake Thrash" never appeared, an apparent victim of changing market conditions and business decisions.

But in 1989, Malibu Graphics published a "Jake Thrash" graphic novel that collected a six-page teaser that had appeared in several of Aircel's titles prior to the debut of the aborted mini-series, the two issues that had seen print, and the lost third issue between two covers. It was a handsomely designed book that mostly did the material proud. Some of the gray-scale art is a bit muddled, but in general what had been intended to be elaborately colored pages--Aircel's color comics were amazing for what was industry standard at the time--comes across nicely. Dave Cooper's unusual line-art almost looks better this way, so, in the end, a black-and-white Jake Thrash might be been best after all.

Like is so often the case when revisiting something we loved when we were young, I found that reading "Jake Thrash" again 20+ years later, it's not quite as perfect as I remembered it, but it's still much, much better than many modern comics I've had the misfortune of flipping through in bookstores of late. Barry Blair's dialogue is clunky in many spots, and there are times when Dave Cooper's presentation of a fight scene or chase scene is a little hard to follow, but these are minor flaws in what is, generally speaking, a pretty intense reading experience. Blair and Cooper are far more effective and clear in their story-telling techniques than many modern artists and writers and it's a shame that I have to list this book under the "Forgotten Comics" heading.

I find it to be doubly a shame, because, even though I now see the imperfections in Blair and Cooper's work, the scene I remembered the clearest from the book was exactly as I recalled it, and I still consider it one of the greatest comic book moments I've ever read:

Barry Blair passed away in 2010 after spending his last few years drawing comics that can generously be described as "adult comics" or "erotica." His output declined steadily in quality from the mid-1990s on, and Cooper has left the comic book field in favor of children's book illustrations, but during the 1980s, both men produced some excellent material. I will have to revisit more of it in this forum.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Princesses of Mars, Part Seventeen

We return once again to that far-away and long-ago world where Martian princesses battle creatures while nearly naked.

By Sanjulian

By Buzz

By Mike Hoffman

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Milla Jovovich Quarterly:
Milla and the Gentleman Who Fell

Here's the video for "The Gentleman Who Fell" off of Milla Jovovich's 1994 album "Divine Comedy."

(BTW, if you can explain what's going on in the video, you're a smarter person than I.)

Milla models, sings, kicks monster butt, and poses awkwardly above a fireplace with a guitar. Is there anything this woman can't do?

Celebrating Wonder Woman, Part One

In December 1941, Wonder Woman made her first appearance in "Sensation Comics". Seven decades later, she remains the most iconic superheroine of them all.

Every Wednesday this month, I'm celebrating the debut of Wonder Woman with a selection of artwork by illustrators famous and not so famous.

Happy 70th birthday, Wonder Woman! You don't look a day over 25!

By Jose Luis Garcia Lopez

By Mike Wieringo

By Adam Hughes

By Chris Samnee

By John Byrne

If anyone out there who can draw wants to get in on the Wonder Woman celebration, feel free to send me a picture as a jpg or gif attachment at stevemillermail [at] :)

For more Wonder Woman pictures, visit Steven Lee's online gallery of comics art.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Will the black-gloved killer face the music?

The Black Glove (aka "Face the Music") (1954)
Starring: Alex Nicol, Eleanor Summerfield, John Salew, Ann Hanslip, and Paul Carpenter
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An American band leader on a European tour (Nicol) becomes a murder suspect after he is the last known person to see a murder victim (Hanslip) alive. Using a mysterious bootleg recording as his only clue, he sets out to find the murderer.

While spooky black-gloved hands in movies have become associated mostly with Italian murder mysteries, they were presaging villainy and mayhem in films from all nations as early as the 1920s. The association with Italians come to a large degree from their persistent overuse by Dario Argento, but they are on display here both in the American market title and during the murder sequences in a British film.

Although, from a story perspective, the film isn't unlike something that might have been created by Argento, as its full of characters behaving oddly and downright stupidly because the plot dictates it. And the plot is loose to say the least, held together mostly by coincidences.

However, unlike the Argento films that post-date this one by more than a decade, this film is blessed by the superior direction of Terence Fisher. Once again, Fisher takes a modest creation and deploys all its parts in a manner so efficient that he so smooths over all the weaknesses so as to make them almost irrelevant.

Between eliciting a strong performance from lead Alex Nicol and the way he makes sure that the film keeps moving at a lightning-fast clip, you hardly have time to notice the film's shortcomings. Heck, Fisher keeps it moving so fast that even the musical numbers, which in many similar films bring things to a stand-still instead of driving them forward.

"The Black Glove" is another one of the nearly forgotten couple dozen black-and-white crime dramas that Hammer Films produced during the 1950s and 1960s in collaboration with American production companies, first with independent producer Robert Lippert and later Columbia Pictures. Like almost every film Fisher helmed, it is well worth a look.

Christmas with the Monsters!

The moment before Frankenstein's Monster kicks Dracula's ass for opening his Christmas present early... again!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Picture Perfect Special:
Princesses of Mars, Part Sixteen

And now for another trip to Mars, where the princesses continue their battles against monsters and clothes.
By Frank Brunner
By Michael Dooley
By John Heebink
By Bruce Timm