Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


CORTO MALTESE AND THE GILDED HOUSE OF SAMARKAND. StudioCanal, France, animated film, 2002. Original title: Corto Maltese: La maison dorée de Samarkand. Based on the graphic novel by Hugo Pratt. Richard Berry as Corto Maltese (voice), Patrick Bouchitey as Raspoutine (voice), Catherine Jacob as Marianne (voice). Directors: Richard Danto & Liam Saury.

   Native: Ever since you whites came nothing has gone right for my people.

   Corto Maltese: Every race has its specialty. That’s what we do best.

— “The Ballad of the Salt Sea”

   Hugo Pratt is the Italian comic book industry, one of the most recognized and respected figures in Europe, and increasingly recognized here. He began his career with the super hero, the Ace of Spades and is best known for his long running western, Sgt. Kirk, about a white soldier living with the Indians and for Pyle, a war comic taken from the writings of Ernie Pyle. He is at once the Jack Kirby, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Harold Foster of the Italian comics.

   Like many comic book artists and writers around the world, his greatest influence was Milton Caniff, his Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. You can see the artistic influence in his drawing style and brushwork, but also in his storytelling techniques, at once cinematic and picaresque. This is truest of his greatest creation, the soldier (or should that be sailor) of fortune and Seven League booted protagonist of his most famous works, Corto Maltese.

   But where Pat Ryan, Steve Canyon, Scorchy Smith, Smilin’ Jack, or even Frank Godwin’s Connie were straight shooting all-American heroes out of Hollywood central casting Corto Maltese is not.

   In Corto Maltese, Pratt combined his interest in history, exotic but realistic locations, and adventure with his mordant humor, deep suspicions about the West and his own country’s Imperial past in colonization (this runs deep in Italian popular literature predating Mussolini’s ambitions, dating at least to Emilio Salagari’s tales of Malay pirate and anti imperialist Sandokan), and a protagonist out of Joseph Conrad as much as Terry and the Pirates. Corto would be more comfortable in the company of Lord Jim, Nostromo, or Conrad’s Captain Marlow than Pat Ryan, Connie, or Flip Cochran, though he would not be misplaced with the Dragon Lady or Burma, or for that matter the Spirit’s Sand Saref and P’Gell. He trips over more femme fatales than Philip Marlowe.

   The closest thing I can find to compare this too would be Alvaro Mutis’s books Maqrol and The Adventures of Maqrol. There is no one in American or European comics or animation quite like Corto Maltese. He gives new meaning to unique.

   The stories take place in the early Twentieth Century between the turn of the century and the 1920‘s encompassing the First World War, the Russo Japanese War, the massacre at Musa Dagh, the Irish troubles and countless other adventures in Southern Europe, Arabia, Africa, Russia, Manchuria, Ireland, and all points exotic, often told in relation to a search for treasure (Alexander’s gold, El Dorado, …).

   Along the way Corto meets historical figures like T. E. Lawrence, Jack London, Mustapha Kemal, Enver Pasha, and his mad friend, Rasputin. Not to mention mysterious women ranging from orphans to seers from witches to murderous actresses to the queen of fairyland — as well as her husband Oberon, Puck, Merlin, and a talking raven. Things can easily get dreamlike and surreal in Corto’s fevered backwaters and he is always meeting mysterious women who don’t seem to be entirely of this world, however earthy their attractions.

   He also runs into a wide range of natives, some good, some noble, some evil, some angry, in short, humans, not stereotypes.

   Tall and dark in a peaked cap with Elvis side burns, and wearing the uniform of a ships captain of the era and with an earring in one ear, Maltese’s adventures are best read in the rich detailed color editions with Pratt’s otherworldly water colors. Not that the black and white isn’t just as startling. The animated series follows the rich water color look of Pratt’s work with extremely effective beauty. It is easily the most beautiful animated series I have ever seen.

   The animated series has so far stayed close to Pratt in style and color scheme, and while the animation is limited, it is also rich and eye catching. I’m not sure I have seen anything quite like it outside of a feature film.

   The Gilded House in Samarkand refers to a Turkish prison in Samarkand where Corto’s friend Rasputin is held. Gilded, because the only escape is through the Golden Dreams of opium enhanced sleep, well, for anyone but Rasp (Corto’s nickname for Rasputin).

   And yes, Corto Maltese is the type of hero whose best friend is Rasputin, the mad monk.

   You should know dreams play a great role in Corto Maltese’s adventures, fevered, drugged, from concussions, mushrooms; the mystery of the series tropical and other exotic locations are always part of the story.

   T. E. Lawrence’s “Beware of those who dream in the daytime, for they will make their dreams come true,” might almost be an epigraph for all of Corto Maltese’s adventures.

   In Samarkand, Corto is in Rhodes on the trail of the lost treasure of Alexander, stolen from Persia and Cyrus the Great. He is already in trouble as the story begins, mistaken for the traitorous Turk Chevet who is part of the Turkish schemes of Kemal and Enver Pasha to re unite Turkey after its collapse following allying itself with Germany in the first war. Not only do the Turks think he is Chevet, so do the Armenians seeking revenge against Chevet and Enver Pasha who was responsible for the Turkish genocide against the Armenians.

   After stealing a map and evading both sides and the police Corto sails east for Samarkand to free his friend Rasputin and seek the treasure, but not before a seeress named Cassandra predicts a curious and enigmatic future for him.

   Along the way he picks up an odd lot including a murderous sexually precocious actress who he rescues from the Turks in Tarsus, and is paid to escort a young Armenian girl. He will have a fevered opium dream he shares with his mad murderous friend Rasputin across great distances, hide out with whirling dervishes, get caught between the Russians and Turks at war in Samarkand, witness the death of Enver Pasha, dance in the streets with Rasputin, and in the cold heights of Kafiristan reach the cave where the treasure allegedly waits haven see the treacherous Chevet fall to the Russians like his master.

   If you get the idea this is not a Saturday morning animated series and Corto Maltese is neither Terry and the Pirates or Indiana Jones, you are right.

   Rasputin (having just escaped death with Corto at the hands of Chevet and Enver Pasha and dancing in the streets of Samarkand): Are we mad?

   Corto: No, just happy, I think.

   At times surreal, fevered, enigmatic, beautiful to look at, poetically written, maddening, and exciting, the Corto Maltese films are unlike any other animated series you have ever seen or likely will ever see. I’m not sure it is for everyone. It certainly isn’t Disney, but it isn’t Ralph Bakshi either. It is intelligent, intriguing, demanding, and enigmatic, like its laconic hero, and you may not be quite ready for animated characters with this much depth or animated stories this complex or ambiguous.

   There are episodes available on YouTube in English — only half hour episodes though. The original Italian episodes offer full stories, or there are French language episodes of complete titles in multiple parts with English subtitles. Unless your Italian is good I recommend the latter, though you might want to dip your toes in with the English language episodes. Among the full serials available are The Gilded House in Samarkand, The Ballad of the Salt Sea, The Celtics, Under the Capricorn Sign, and Corto in Siberia (each runs about eighty minutes total). Whether they are available on DVD or not I don’t know, but they are certainly worth the effort to at least get a taste.

   Saturday morning was never like this.

   For that matter, nothing on American television and few movies were ever like this.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY. Ealing, UK, 1947. Googie Withers, Edward Chapman, John Slater, John McCallum, Jimmy Hanley, John Carol, Alfie Bass, Jack Warner. Written by Angus MacPhail, from the novel by Arthur La Bern. Directed by Robert Hamer.

   I hate to keep doing this, but here’s another movie few if any of you ever heard of that you must go out and watch immediately, if not sooner. Dealing with twenty-four hours, dawn to dawn, in an east-end London neighborhood, it’s crammed with sub-plots more criminous than you might think: an escaped convict (John McCallum) hiding out with an old girlfriend (Googie Withers), a few crooks who have pilfered a warehouse trying to dispose of the loot, and a wonderfully patient and droll British cop (Jack Warner) tracking things down, all this set against a detailed background peopled with characters who seem wonderfully well-realized.

   No one is unusually good or bright or heroic, nor compellingly nasty; just ordinary folks making mistakes (the stolen loot turns out to be crates of roller skates) and muddling through.

   With all the characters and their interrelations, this could have easily have gotten very confusing, particularly since everyone speaks in an East End argot hard for a stranger to decipher, but director Hamer (remembered for Kind Hearts and Coronets and part of Dead of Night) sets it all pretty straight, mainly by differentiating the cast so clearly. John Slater is particularly effective as a predatory bookie given to fits of charity (but not too many) and Hanley, Carol and Bass make a memorably inept trio of bungling burglars.

   Then too, there’s a beautifully understated scene where Withers is trying to provide for her fugitive boyfriend: she digs deep in a drawer, comes up with a carefully wrapped ring she’s been keeping ever since he gave it to her years ago, so he can pawn it. And what happens next is too good for me to spoil for you. Suffice it to say that everyone involved manages to reveal character and get the point across with a muted pathos I found quite moving.

   And then there’s the ending, a sardonic arrest in a pub (“Have one for the road boys.” “We aren’t leaving.” “Oh yes you are.”) followed by a riveting chase that just about defines film noir: all rain-swept streets, dark alleys, and a tense finale in a train yard.

   This is filmmaking at its absolute best, and one you should not miss.

THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


JONATHAN LATIMER – The Lady in the Morgue. Doubleday Doran/Crime Club, hardcover, 1936. Reprint editions include: Pocket Books #246, paperback, 1944. Dell Great Mystery Library, paperback, 1957. IPL, paperback, 1988. Film: Universal, 1938 (Preston Foster as Bill Crane, Patricia Ellis, Frank Jenks as Doc Williams).

   William Crane, private eye, is at the morgue in Chicago to try to discover the identity of a young woman who is a resident of that temporary dwelling place and is believed to have committed suicide. The body is stolen, the morgue attendant is murdered, and the police blame Crane for both crimes.

   Crane also has the misfortune to be considered the body-snatcher by two gangsters, both of whom want the corpse for difforent reasons and don’t care what happens to Crane as long as they get the body. The gangsters think the body is one individual, while Crane’s clients think she’s someone else.

   Crane and his colleagues, Doc Williams and Tom O’Malley, are on the verge of, if not well into, alcoholism, and the main wonder of the novel is how they keep functioning full of liquor and without sleep. Still, they do manage to find the corpse — where else but a graveyard — and cart it back to the morgue, where the corpse suffers the indignity of having her head removed and Crane is nearly murdered.

   As might be imagined, this is a rather ghoulish novel, but surprisingly amusing also. And not bad detection on Crane’s part.

   One does wonder, though, how the corpse, several days after her demise and having under gone embalming, for reasons inexplicable — why embalm a corpse that is to be burled illegally? — can still be in a state of rigor mortis.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 4, July-August 1987.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TAZA, SON OF COCHISE. Universal International, 1954. Rock Hudson (Taza), Barbara Rush, Gregg Palmer, Rex Reason (as Bart Roberts), Morris Ankrum, Ian McDonald, Jeff Chandler (Cochise, uncredited). Director: Douglas Sirk.

   Directed by Douglas Sirk, Taza, Son of Cochise is an above average, although unforgivingly predictable and formulaic, mid-1950s Western. Rock Hudson, in a somewhat early role, portrays the title character, Taza, one of the Apache leader’s two sons. Unlike his brother, Taza wants to maintain cordial relations with U.S. government. But it’s not going to be so easy. Not when his brother, Naiche (Rex Reason), and rival Apache leader, Geronimo (Ian MacDonald), both are inimical to his peaceful intentions towards the Whites.

   There really isn’t anything the matter with Taza, Son of Cochise. The plot makes perfect sense, the actors are all more than competent, and the outdoor scenery transports the viewer to the American Southwest. It’s a perfectly fine escapist adventure.

   And yet one gets the feeling as if one as seen this all play out before.

   You know what I mean: good Apaches (on the side of the Whites) face off against renegade warlike Apaches (on Geronimo’s side), all under the watchful eyes of the U.S. Cavalry led by the alternatingly competent and clueless Captain Burnett (Gregg Palmer). Then there’s the love interest, Oona (Barbara Rush), a beautiful Apache woman that both Taza and Naiche lust after. Taza, Son of Cochise is a competently made film, no doubt about it. It’s just not a particularly daring one.

   It’s worth keeping an eye out for Jeff Chandler in an uncredited cameo as Cochise, a character he portrayed with distinction in 1950’s Broken Arrow.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


“THIRTEEN CLOCKS.” An presentation of The Motorola Television Hour, ABC-TV, 29 December 1953 (Season 1, Episode 5). John Raitt, Roberta Peters, Basil Rathbone, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alice Pearce. Based on a story by James Thurber. Director: Don Richardson. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   Somebody attempted to make a case this year for including early TV shows on the program, but the case was not made for me by this offering. According to the notes, this adaptation of James Thurber’s children’s book was the “first full-length play with music ever done for live television.”

   The music was undistinguished and although I have a great deal of tolerance for whimsy, it was sorely tried by this musical. Rathbone looked old and tired, and Hardwicke’s character frequently dozed off. I’m not sure he was always dozing off in character.

         

COLLECTING PULPS: A Memoir, Part 14: Weird Tales
by Walker Martin


   Three years ago I discussed the Frank Robinson Collection auction which was organized by Adventure House. The biggest lot at that auction was the complete Weird Tales collection which sold for a quarter of a million dollars. Yes, that’s right, as in $250,000.00. Then we fast forward 3 years and again Adventure House held an auction for a complete collection of Weird Tales, only this time the set got zero bids. I believe a discussion of this auction will show not only what occurred and why one set sold and another set did not sell, but also we will learn how pulp collectors have changed over the years.

   As with the Frank Robinson auction, this recent auction which was held on May 1, 2015, also did not generate much comment on the various discussion groups that I visit online. I know as a long time fiction magazine collector, I certainly want to talk about such subjects, in fact I’m starved for conversation and I guess that’s one of the reasons that I continue to post my pulp collecting memoirs. People have been collecting pulps for over a hundred years now, ever since the first one was published in 1896. I’ve been at it for over 50 years and I feel it’s important enough for us to continue posting articles and commenting about what happened during the time these fiction magazines ruled the newsstands.

   I also feel it’s very important that we continue to support the two major pulp conventions, Windy City and Pulpfest. I’ve attended both over the years and have had many interesting conversations about the pulp era. At Windy City in April I had the opportunity to view the Weird Tales set which was on display behind the Adventure House tables. I also eagerly bought the $10.00 Weird Tales collection auction catalog. Published by Adventure House this is a 40 page full color description of the 274 issues. True, only 239 covers are shown but all are listed by condition in the back of the catalog. In addition to the 274 issues published during 1923-1954, the catalog also lists the 79 issues of the revived Weird Tales that were published during Summer 1973 to Spring 2014.

   So this was a major auction of perhaps the most talked about, most famous pulp title of them all. It was advertised on the Adventure House website, emails were sent out announcing the auction, and a full color catalog was available for only 10 dollars. Why was it a flop? Why no bids?

   Well, of course the most obvious reason is the fact that the minimum bid was set at $60,000. But if the Robinson WT set of three years ago sold for 250,000 dollars, how come this recent set could not attract $60,000? Well you know the old saying in real estate: location, location, location. In the pulp and book world, it’s: condition, condition, condition.

   The Robinson collection was almost perfect. White pages, newsstand fresh covers, complete spines. Weird Tales was called “The Unique Magazine”. Well, the Robinson set was truly “unique”, definitely the best condition set of Weird Tales in existence. It could and did command a premium price.

   So what was wrong with the set offered up for auction in May 2015? What prevented it from even getting one bid at the $60,000 minimum? The catalog described several good points such as blood red spines(they usually are faded), high quality paper, and custom made tray cases to hold each volume. When I viewed the set myself at the convention, I was impressed by all of the above. Unfortunately the following faults have to be mentioned:

1. The first 45 issues, March 1923 through June 1927 are bound in 10 blue volumes. Personally, I think using blue was a mistake. I have a set bound in red and it looks more impressive. But this is just a personal preference. The main problem with bound pulps is simply that many collectors won’t touch them at all. And those that will accept bound copies want a significant decrease in the usual price.

   In the first paragraph I mentioned how pulp collectors had changed over the years, and this is one example. It used to be that old time collectors, guys who actually bought the magazines off the newsstands, loved to have their pulps bound. It gave them a look of respectability and the garish magazines looked more like a sedate book that they could proudly display on their bookshelves without being sneered at by other collectors and even non-collectors. Pulp collectors nowadays don’t think like this at all. They want the individual issues and they don’t like them bound.

2. Because they are bound these first 45 issues, which are very rare and expensive, only rate a good or good minus as far as condition.

3. Most issues in the early 1930’s have Scotch tape or clear tape on the head and foot of the spines. This was another practice that many of the old time collectors followed. I’ve seen pulps ruined with masking tape, discolored scotch tape, and even electrical tape. One guy even used stamps to close tears in the cover. Pulp collectors back then evidently thought nothing of closing and repairing tears with all sorts of tape. Now of course collectors frown on the use of tape.

4. The tray cases are a very good idea and look nice. Unfortunately several of the cases show water damage.

   In my opinion, the above points prevented a high minimum bid and certainly explain why no one started off bidding at the $60,000 level. It’s too high a figure for a set in this condition. Perhaps a lower figure would have encouraged some beginning action and the final bidding might even have reached a high level. Perhaps a minimum bid of $20,000 would have been better but then again, you run the chance of the set going for such a figure and I guess the seller would consider that unacceptable.

   I used to have a set of Weird Tales for many years but that was back in the days when you could buy issues for $5.00 each. Back in 1968, when I was discharged from the army, I had two big goals in my life: to get a complete set of Black Mask and a set of Weird Tales . I managed to do both within a few years. Since then I’ve seen many extensive runs of WT and I’m not even sure that it’s that rare. It seems that everybody, like many SF collectors, saved their copies! It’s really a pretty magazine, a thing of beauty.

   My present set is not complete because I no longer care about the early issues of 1923-1925, most of which I find not that readable. My present set is a bound set from 1926-1954. I’ll tell the story about this set and it will illustrate the differences between the old time pulp collectors and the newer pulp collectors who never really bought any of the magazines off the newsstands.

   In the 1980’s, Harry Noble, who had been buying pulps since the early 1930’s, decided to put together some bound sets of his favorite SF and fantasy magazines. He did this with such titles as Astounding, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Fantastic Novels, Unknown Worlds, and of course, Weird Tales . He had trouble finding an inexpensive binder but finally found someone who would bind several magazines into one volume for a low price. Harry didn’t really care about the early issues, not only because they were not that readable, but also because they were too expensive for him to buy. But 1926-1954 he could handle and he started to his project one volume at time.

   But some of his issues were coverless and he borrowed copies from my set of individual issues and made color Xerox copies of the covers. There were at least a dozen, maybe more issues that were bound with Xerox covers. As a second generation pulp collector, I tried to talk Harry out of binding the pulps. Some of the issues were in really nice shape and it was a shame to see them bound with trimmed edges. But Harry was from the first generation of collectors and he liked the look of the bound volumes.

   Harry worked on this project for almost 20 years, up until his death at age 88 in 2006. He had prior warning that his illness was terminal and at the 2006 Pulpcon he told me and several other friends that he was dying. He welcomed us to visit his house and buy his extensive collection of pulps, books, and vintage paperbacks. Which we did. I made four such trips buying his sets of Western Story, Astounding, Short Stories and other items.

   One day, at dinner at my house, a group of us were having dinner and the subject of the Weird Tales set came up. Harry said he wanted $10,000 for the bound in red years of 1926-1954. I pointed out that not only were the most expensive issues missing, but the set was bound which was a problem as far as value was concerned. Also I knew from personal experience that at least a dozen issues had Xerox color covers. I also remembered that there were a few other issues with pieces missing out of the covers.

   However, I said I was willing to pay $5,000 considering the flaws, etc. Another well known, veteran collector also said he thought it might be worth $5,000 but no more. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t even sure it was worth the 5 grand. Harry, who loved bound sets, was justifiably upset of course. In fact, he said he would throw them in the dumpster before selling them for $5,000. One of our friends got a laugh by saying to tell him which dumpster because he would be there.

   I figured that was that but a couple weeks later, I got a call from Harry. He had tried several other collectors and bookstores and no one would pay the $10,000. I’m pretty sure they would not even have paid the $5,000. Harry said if I still wanted them I could have the set for $5,000 and I accepted. He didn’t last much longer and died in December of 2006. So ended a 40 year friendship.

   But I still have Harry’s bound set and it looks beautiful bound in red in the master bedroom. But I’d still rather have them unbound!

Editorial Note: This video produced by Adventure House of the Weird Tales collection they were offering may not stay online for long, but at least for now, it is still up:

Reviewed by Mark D. Nevins:


LAWRENCE BLOCK – A Ticket to the Boneyard. Morrow, hardcover, 1990. Avon, paperback, 1991.

   After the uneasy settling-in of Out on the Cutting Edge, number seven in the Matt Scudder series, in which Block seemed to be working through what to do with his newly sober protagonist, A Ticket to the Boneyard goes full-throttle adrenaline.

   It’s really nothing like the prior books in the series, and I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or a bad thing — it may to some extent depend on what comes in the next few books. This novel introduces James Leo Motley, an almost super-villian-like bad guy, and the novel is a brutal game of cat-and-mouse as Motley has promised to destroy Scudder “and all his women.”

   In some ways Out on the Cutting Edge reads a little more like a Travis McGee novel than a Scudder — or maybe that’s just me, because the Scudder series is quickly joining McGee as one of my favorite of all time. While the action is relentless in Boneyard, Block does make time for the introspection and interior monologue that make these books so special. I have to say that at points the violence here was so shocking it almost put me off (I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a book I thought was really good), and in the hands of a lesser writer it wouldn’t have worked. Block really gets the fear going in this one.

   I sometimes like to quote especially effective passages (usually more “literary” ones) in books I enjoy, so here’s one from Boneyard:

    “I slept for around five hours Monday morning and woke up hung over, which didn’t seem fair. I’d slopped down quarts of bad coffee and watered Coke and breathed in acres of secondhand smoke, so I don’t suppose it was out of the ordinary that I wasn’t ready to greet the day like Little Mary Sunshine, but I liked to think I’d given up mornings like this along with the booze. Instead my head ached and my mouth and throat were dry and every minute took three or four minutes to pass.

    “I swallowed some aspirin, showered and shaved, and went downstairs and around the corner for orange juice and coffee. When the aspirin and coffee kicked in I walked a few blocks and bought a paper. I carried it back to the Flame and ordered solid food. By the time it came all the physical symptoms of the hangover were gone. I still felt a profound weariness of the spirit, but I would just have to learn to live with that.”

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