Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Late Great Joe Simon

Legendary comic book writer and artist Joe Simon died yesterday, 14, December 2011, at the age of 98.  With partner Jack Kirby, Mr. Simon created Captain America, The Boy Commandos, The Newsboy Legion, and The Fly. Messrs. Simon and Kirby virtually created the romance comic book genre with the title Young Romance in 1947. On his own Joe Simon created Blue Bolt, Brother Power, and Prez.

Joe Simon was born Hymie Simon in Rochester, New York on 11 October 1913. His mother disliked the name "Hymie" so much that she insisted on calling him "Joseph" until it was finally accepted as his name. Mr. Simon took to art while very young. He drew cartoons and comic strips for the newspaper at Benjamin Franklin High, which he attended. After he graduated from high school Mr. Simon took a job as assistant art director at The Rochester Journal-American. After two years he took job as an artist at The Syracuse Herald. At age 23 Joe Simon moved to New York City. His first job there was with Paramount Pictures, where he retouched publicity photos of movie stars. Mr. Simon also did freelance work for the various magazines published by McFadden Publications. It was the art director at McFadden Publications, Harlan Crandall, who recommend to Joe Simon that he could find plenty of work in the young industry of comic books. It was then that Joe Simon took a job with comic books packager Funnies Inc.

Among Mr. Simon's first comic books would be stories for a publisher who would have a significant impact on his life--Martin Goodman, the head of what would later become known as Marvel Comics. Joe Simon wrote stories for Daring Mystery Comics #1, January 1940. In doing so he created the characters The Firey Mask and Trojak the Tiger Man. While working for Funnies Inc. Mr. Simon's best known character may have been Blue Bolt, created for comic book publisher Novelty Press. Eventually Joe Simon would go to work for Fox Publications as an editor in chief, working on such titles as The Blue Beetle. It was at Fox Publications that Mr. Simon would meet artist Jack Kirby, the man who would become his business partner for many years and his friend for decades.

The team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon would leave Fox Publications to go to work for Martin Goodman at what would later become known as Marvel Comics. There Mr. Simon would become an editor; however, their biggest impact at the company, perhaps their biggest impact in the history of comic books, would be the creation of Captain America. It was in 1940 that Joe Simon made a sketch of a character he initially called "Super American." Mr. Simon decided the name would not work and soon renamed the character "Captain America." He gave Captain America a boy sidekick, named "Bucky" after his friend Bucky Pierson. Martin Goodman not only gave his approval for the character, but also dictated that he should debut in his own title (something unprecedented at the time). Captain America Comics soon became the company's best selling title (even selling more than such magazines as Time) and Captain America became the company's most popular character.

Unfortunately the success of Captain America would not guarantee that Simon and Kirby would remain with Martin Goodman. The pair believed that Mr. Goodman was not paying them the percentage of the profits from the character that he had promised. As a result the two of them moved to National Comics Inc. (one of the companies that would become DC Comics) in 1941. It was at National Comics Inc. that Simon and Kirby would revamp the characters of Sandman and Manhunter. It was also at National Comics that they would create The Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion. The team would also freelance for other companies as well, working on the first issue of Fawcett Publications' Captain Marvel Adventures.

During World War II Joe Simon enlisted in the Coast Guard while his partner Jack Kriby was drafted into the United States Army. With cartoonist Milt Gross, Mr. Simon would be assigned to create a comic book that would help drive up enlistment in the Coast Guard, Adventure is My Career. Following World War II Joe Simon and Jack Kirby resumed their partnership. The two would help Crestwood Publications develop a new comic book imprint, Prize Comics, under which they published a Western title, Boy's Ranch, and an early horror title, Black Magic. It was also under the Prize Comics imprint that the team created what is believed to be the first romance comic book, Young Romance. The team also created The Fighting American for Crestwood in 1954.

It would be a salesman at Crestwood who would encourage Simon and Kirby to found their own comic book company. Mainline Publications would founded in either 1953 or 1954. It would ultimately publish four titles: Bullseye (a Western title), Western Scout, Foxhole (a war title), and In Love (a romance title). Unfortunately, Mainline Publications would not prove successful and ended at the end of 1955. Worse yet, Crestwood Publications failed to pay Simon and Kirby for their work for the company. After the team's attorneys reviewed the company's finances, they determined Crestwood owed them $130,000 for work done over the past seven years. Crestwood paid them $10,000. At the same time the comic book industry was starting to fail in the wake of the moral panic over comic books in the early Fifties, which led to a slump in sales in the mid-Fifties. Simon and Kirby then dissolved their partnership, although the two remained friends.

While Jack Kirby remained in the comic book industry, Joe Simon went to work in commercial and advertising art. The two would reunite in 1959 when they collaborated on The Double Life of Private Strong and created The Fly at Archie Comics. In 1960 Mr. Simon founded the satirical magazine Sick, providing the magazine with material for over a decade.  In the Sixties he also worked as an artist for the advertising agency of Burstein and Newman. In 1964 he became the art director for Burstein, Phillips, and Newman. In 1966 Simon and Kirby reunited to work for Harvey Comics. There they revived The Fighting American for a single issue. Mr. Simon also worked on Harvey's titles Unearthly Spectaculars and Double-Dare Adventures.

In 1968 Joe Simon would return to National Periodical Publications (now DC Comics Inc.). There he created Brother Power the Geek.  In 1973 he teamed with artist Jerry Grandenetti to create Prez, a series about a teenage United States president. In 1974 Simon and Kirby reunited for one last time, working on a new Sandman title for National Periodical Publications. With Jerry Grandenetti, Mr. Simon would do two one-shots in the company's try-out title, 1st Issue Special: The Green Team: Boy Billionaires and Outsiders.

In 2003 Joe Simon reached an agreement with Marvel Comics whereby he would receive royalties for the merchandising and licensing of Captain America and he and the late Jack Kirby would always be credited as the character's creator.

If Joe Simon had only created Captain America and done nothing else, he would still have had an enormous impact on comic books. As it is, both in combination with Jack Kirby and on his own, Joe Simon would have an enormous impact on comic books in the Golden Age and later. In fact, it is quite possible that the only man to have more impact on comic books than Messrs. Simon and Kirby was the legendary Will Eisner. Not only did Simon and Kirby create Captain America, they also created the two most popular boy gang features (The Boy Commandos and The Newsboy Legion), created the first romance title (Young Romance), created an early horror title (Black Magic), and much more. Of course, the reason Joe Simon would have such an impact on comic books was simple. Both with and without Jack Kirby, Joe Simon's work was always excellent. In the Golden Age and later Mr. Simon created stories and art that was far ahead of many of his peers. Joe Simon was utterly unique in the field of comic books and I doubt the industry will ever see another writer and artist like him ever again.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bert Schneider Passes On

Bert Schneider, who was executive producer on The Monkees with Bob Rafelson and produced such films as Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Picture Show (1971), passed Monday, 12 December 2011 at the age of 78 from natural causes.

Bert Schneider was born on 5 May 1933 in New York City. He was the son of Columbia Pictures executive Abe Schneider. He attended Cornell University, but dropped out. He later went to work for his father, who was then the head of Screen Gems, the television division of Columbia Pictures. In 1965 Mr. Schneider left Screen Gems and founded Raybert Productions with Bob Rafelson. Raybert Productions' first project was the television series The Monkees. The Monkees  drew heavily upon The Beatles' movies A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), as well as the Marx Brothers' films, the French New Wave, and other diverse sources. Although The Monkees would not do well in the ratings, the show would prove to be a lasting success.  It would be rerun on both CBS and ABC on Saturday mornings before entering a very successful run in syndication. It would eventually be rerun on MTV in the Eighties, creating a whole new Monkees craze, and would later be released on DVD.

The success of The Monkees would lead Bert Schneider and Bert Rafelson into the motion picture industry. Their first film, Head (1968) starring The Monkees (directed by Mr. Rafelson), would bomb at the box office, but would later become a cult film with its fair share of critical acclaim. Their next film would be both a box office and a critical success. Easy Rider  (1969) was not only a box office success, but proved to be one of the most influential movies of the past forty years.

 Over the next several years Bert Schneider would produce several critically acclaimed movies over the years, including Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971), the documentary Hearts and Minds (1974), Days of Heaven (1978), and Broken English (1981). With Bob Rafelson, Mr. Schneider would win the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series for The Monkees in 1967 and, with Peter Davis, he would win teh Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for Hearts and Minds.

Bert Schneider was one of the mavericks who shook up Hollywood in the late Sixties. Along with such figures as Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader, Philip Kaufman, and others, Mr. Schneider was a leader in "New Hollywood," a movement in the late Sixties and the early Seventies in writers and directors controlled the creative content of their movies. As a result, films produced by "New Hollywood" often dealt with subjects never covered by the old Hollywood studios and even dealt with the counter-culture. In the end the American movie industry would be changed forever. Indeed, while the pioneers of the "New Hollywood" movement generally worked within the studios, the movement would lead to the development of the independent film industry as we know today.

Not only was Bert Schneider a leader in New Hollywood, but he produced some very influential films. Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, Five Easy Pieces, and even Head would have a lasting impact that is felt today. Indeed, the influence of all four films can still be seen in independent films to this day. All four films told unconventional stories on relatively small budgets, thus paving the way not only for New Hollywood but the independent films of the Eighties, Nineties, and Naughts.

Of course, here it must be pointed that, along side Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider was a revolutionary even when he was an executive producer on The Monkees. Too often The Monkees has been dismissed as a mere imitation of A Hard Day's Night. Not only did The Monkees actually owe more to Help! than A Hard Day's Night, but it would go far beyond either film in terms of surrealism and stylistic touches. The Monkees incorporated touches from the French Nouvelle Vague and often utilised such techniques as slow motion, fast motion, solarisation, distorted focus, and so on. Not only was The Monkees utterly unique at the time it first aired, but there has never been another show quite like it since its debut.  The show would have a lasting impact, particularly in the development of rock video.

Speaking for myself, I have to say I cannot measure the impact Bert Schneider probably had on my life. He produced three of my favourite movies of all time: Head, Easy Rider, and Five Easy Pieces. What is more, he produced my favourite sitcom of all time, The Monkees. Ironically, it is probably The Monkees that had the most impact on me. Not only would the show influence my tastes in sitcoms for the rest of my life, but it had a huge impact on my tastes in music as well. If I am a power pop fan today, it is not only due to The Beatles and The Who, but due to The Monkees as well. I then owe both Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson a good deal for what I am today.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gift Ideas For the Vintage Male

The holidays are a time of gift giving and it is often the case that people are puzzled as to what to buy the men in their lives. Fortunately, this is much easier if one has a vintage male in his or her life. While the average male can present even other men with problems when it comes to buying gifts, the vintage male is much easier to buy for.

Of course, here I suppose I should define what a vintage male is. A vintage male is a man who is not only fascinated by earlier eras, but whose tastes often run to those eras too. While most vintage males have a broad interest in the past, they will usually gravitate towards one era or another. Using myself as an example, while I love the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, it is the Sixties that has always fascinated me. Most of my favourite bands come from that era, including The Beatles (my favourite band of all time), The Who, The Kinks, The Monkees, and so on. Many of my favourite movies also come from that era, particularly British kitchen sink dramas and other British films form the early to mid-Sixties. I even love the fashion from the era. Given a choice between dressing like Fred Astaire in the Thirties or Terence Stamp in the Sixties, I would choose to dress like Mr. Stamp. Regardless, the fact that most vintage males are drawn to one era over others makes buying gifts for them relatively easy.

Before I go on to what would be good gift ideas for vintage males, I should point out what not to buy as a gift for a vintage male. I know this is true of myself and it seems to hold true for most of my fellow vintage males, but it is a good idea to follow when buying gifts for them: except for clothing and toiletries do not buy them anything practical. Unless the vintage male in your life simply enjoys working in the shop or fixing things, do not buy them tools. As much as Black and Decker in their adverts might like you to believe that all men would like nothing more than a band saw, chances are unless your vintage male is also Mr. Fix-It, the gift won't be appreciated. My attitude towards such things is twofold. First, I can buy tools myself. Second, to me buying a tool for a man is something like buying a blender for a woman--it's a gift based on gender stereotypes that shows not much thought was put into the gift!

Ruling out anything practical as a gift for the vintage male, then what should one buy him? I think the following are good ideas.

Books: Books are perhaps the easiest gift one can buy the vintage male. Not only do most vintage males I know love to read, but since they are usually interested in certain subjects and certain eras, they are very easy to buy books for. Using myself as an example, I have a small library of books dealing with Swinging London (everything from the Mod subculture to the Kray Twins), as well as a rather large number of biographies on various movie stars. When buying books for a vintage male as a gift, then, one simply buys books on what interests him. If the vintage male in one's life is a huge fan of The Who, then he will probably appreciate books on the band. If the vintage male in one's life always fancied Grace Kelly, then he would probably appreciate a biography on her.

Of course, so far I have discussed non-fiction. Fiction can be a bit trickier when it comes to buying gifts for the vintage male. Most of us have our favourite genres of fiction we read and others that we cannot stand. This can become even more complicated when one takes into account the various authors a vintage male might like or dislike. As an example, I have loved fantasy fiction since I was a lad. I love Michael Moorcock, Stephen R. Donaldson, and, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien. That having been said, I think fantasy author Terry Brooks is a total hack. In other words, just because a vintage male likes novels about vampires does not mean he will appreciate The Twilight Saga as a gift! If one considers buying a vintage male fiction, then, one should not only learn what genres he likes, but what authors as well!

Classic Films or Television Programmes: Speaking for myself, I would rather have a DVD of a film I dearly love from the $5.00 bin at WalMart (or the equivalent at Tesco in the UK) than an expensive piece of jewellery I might never wear. One of my most prized Yuletide gifts I ever received was a set of episodes from The Adventures of Robin Hood my brother gave me several years ago. He only paid about $5.00 to $6.00 for the set, but I prize it more than I would have a much more expensive gift. The reasons are simple. The Adventures of Robin Hood has been one of my favourite shows of all time and it shows that my brother actually put some thought into the gift. Indeed, those episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood actually helped me get through a very bad break up several years ago!

Of course, here I must point out that when buying classic films or TV shows for a vintage male, one must take into account his tastes in film and television. This goes beyond catering to the specific eras in which he in interested, but also take into account the particular genres he likes. For example, let us say one is buying a DVD as a gift for a vintage male who is fascinated by the Forties, but who also likes science fiction and dislikes romance movies. The vintage male in our example might well appreciate a DVD of Forbidden Planet, even though it was released in the Fifties, more than he would a copy of Now Voyager, even though it was released in the Forties (personally I love both movies). Quite simply, one should be familiar with a vintage male's viewing habits before buying him any DVDs!

Classic Music: Just as I would rather have a DVD of a favourite movie than a much more expensive gift, I would also prefer a copy of a favourite album than a much more expensive gift. Most vintage males love music and like me would appreciate a CD of their favourite album. That having been said, in some ways buying music as a gift is in some ways trickier than buying movies. In my experience musical tastes tend to vary more in people than tastes in any other medium. What is more, musical tastes in any given person can be very broad, embracing several different genres of music, to very narrow, embracing only a few or even one genre of music. Using myself as an example, I have very broad tastes in music. While my favourite genre of music would probably be power pop, I also love heavy metal, mid-20th Century pop (think Doris Day and Frank Sinatra), jazz, rhythm and blues, and many others. In fact, the only three genres I actively hate are rap, modern day country, and disco, and there are even a few songs in the latter two genres I like. I would be as happy with Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours as I would My Chemical Romance's Danger Days: The True Lives of The Fabulous Killjoys. That having been said, not every vintage male has tastes as broad as mine. I have a friend whose tastes run, quite simply, to classic rock. He likes Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and most all rock 'n' roll produced before 1980. His tastes really don't go beyond the classic rock genre, so that buying him a Frank Sinatra album, let alone a Snoop Dog album, would probably be a very bad idea!

As with DVDs, then, one should know something of a vintage male's tastes in music before buying him an album as gift. One of my most prized Yuledite gifts as a lad was my first copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which my sister bought me. I don't think I would have appreciated it quite as if she had bought me a Conway Twitty album...

Alcohol: Most vintage males appreciate the finer things in life, so that unless he is a teetotaller, he will appreciate fine liquor as a gift. Here I must stress the word fine. Even if the vintage male in one's life drinks Budweiser regularly, I doubt he will appreciate a case of it for Christmas or Hanukkah. Again, as with movies and music, one should put some thought into a gift of alcohol. Tastes in liquor tend to vary from person to person, even brother to brother. My favourite liquor is Tennessee bourbon, although I also enjoy wine and mead. My brother doesn't particularly care for bourbon, Tennessee or otherwise, and very much prefers mead or wine. And when it comes to wine, he prefers white wine to red wine. One should obviously find out what sorts of liquor a vintage male likes before buying some for him as a gift.

Here I must point out that when buying liquor as a gift that quality is not always equal to price. Here in Missouri our German wineries produce many fine wines that taste much better than the more expensive wines produced in the California wineries (all of which taste like vinegar to me). The fact that more expensive liquor often does not taste as well as less expensive liquor also holds true for bourbon, gin, vodka, and practically every sort of alcohol under the sun. That having been said sometimes cheap alcohol does taste much worse than the more expensive alcohol. I would not giving recommend giving MD 20/20 to anyone except perhaps to one's worst enemy.

Of course, with alcohol one has concerns that one does not have with DVDs or CDs. Quite simply, one should never give liquor as a gift to anyone with a drinking problem.  Obviously giving Jack Daniels Black Label No. 7 to an alcoholic is not a good idea.

Clothing: As I pointed out above, most vintage males love the finer things in life and this includes clothing. Indeed, it is one of the few practical gifts that a vintage male would appreciate. The problem is that clothing can cost a good deal, making it a very impractical gift if you are on a limited budget. A good three piece suit can cost $600 to over $1000. Even a fine shirt can cost anywhere from $25 to over $100. Obviously a lot of clothing would be a very expensive gift if one is part of the middle class. That having been said, however, this does not mean that one cannot buy clothing as a gift. While this is not true of all vintage males, many of us appreciate ties, the finest of which can be bought even if one is on a budget. While suits may be out of the reach of most of us in the middle class as a Yuletide gift, one can often find very good shirts through EBay, Amazon, and other online venues at a much cheaper price than one would in the stores. I've actually found Ben Sherman shirts at EBay for $15 that would generally run for as high as $79 in a store.

Here I must point out that as with music and DVDs, one should take into account the tastes of the vintage male for whom one is buying. My fashion sense runs more towards the Mods of mid-Sixties England, so that a skinny tie or a Ben Sherman shirt would be ideal for me. That having been said, if a vintage male's favourite era is the Forties, he might appreciate the skinny tie, but he might not care much for a Ben Sherman shirt! Beyond taking into account tastes in clothing, I must add one more caveat with regards to buying clothes as gifts for the vintage male. Do not buy him socks! It seems to me that among men socks are perhaps the least appreciated gifts of them all. I suspect it goes back to when we were all lads and the first Christmas gift from our parents we always opened was, well, socks! Men, like boys, would rather have toys.

Jewellery: If television adverts are to be believed, jewellery is something men give women. That having been said, men like jewellery too, especially vintage males. Of course, as with clothing, jewellery can sometimes be costly. Obviously the average person is not going to be able to afford to buy the vintage male in his or her life a diamond ring. That having been said, there are many more affordable choices. A ring with the vintage male's birthstone will be more affordable than one with, say, a ruby or a diamond as the stone. Similarly, there is a wide array of jewellery available to men that is not traditionally worn by women. Very handsome tie tacks and cuff links may be found at affordable prices and may often be more appreciated than a more expensive ring, especially if the vintage male in one's life loves clothing.

Of course, when buying jewellery for the vintage male, one must take into account his tastes. I have always preferred silver to gold  and I have never liked big, gaudy stones. My brother tends to prefer gold to sliver, although like myself he doesn't care for big, gaudy stones. Similarly, while some men might love cuff links, they might not particularly care for rings. One should definitely go to the trouble of finding out what the vintage male likes in jewellery before buying him any.

Toiletries: Most vintage males I know like to be clean and like to smell good. Various toiletries would be a good idea as gifts for the vintage male. Of course, here I must add a word of warning. Since cologne is one of those stereotypical gifts we all seemed to buy our fathers as children, no toiletry should ever be the only gift one gives a vintage male for the holidays. Even if the vintage male for whom one bought the cologne or bath wash appreciates the gift, the fact remains that it could be perceived as a gift to which one did not place much thought. If one is going to buy  vintage male cologne or another toiletry as a gift, then, make sure it is to accompany another gift, such as a DVD, CD, or shirt.

Of course, here I must point out that tastes in cologne and other toiletries tend to vary more even than tastes in music do. And often women and men will disagree on what smells good. I had a girlfriend who loved the smell of Axe (Lynx in the UK). Personally I think it makes one smells too perfumey--I much prefer Old Spice! If one wants to buy any man cologne, let alone the often more picky vintage male, one should probably find out what he likes first.

Here I must stress that this is hardly a complete list and vintage males do vary a good deal in what they might like as a gift. Among the various things I like are old guns, but I very seriously doubt that every vintage male would appreciate a vintage Colt M1911 as a present! While I think the advice I offer above is quite good, the best piece of advice I can offer anyone seeking to buy a gift for a vintage male is simply to get to know his interests, what he likes and dislikes, and what he thinks would make a good gift. If one does that, chances are he will appreciate any gift one buys him. And he will certainly like it better than a band saw or another pair of socks!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Alan Sues R.I.P.

Comic actor Alan Sues, best known as part of the cast of Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, passed on 1 December 2011 at the age of 85.

Mr. Sues was born on 7 March 1926 in Ross, California. As a teenager he jumped a fence at Paramount Studios and watched a scene from Holiday Inn being shot. It made such an impression on him that he decided to go into acting. Alan Sues served in World War II in the United States Army. He studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Mr. Sues made his debut on Broadway in 1955 in Tea and Sympathy. He made his movie debut in The Helen Morgan Story in 1957. In the Sixties he appeared in such films as The Wheeler Dealers (1963), Move Over, Darling (1963), and The Americanisation of Emily (1964). On television he appeared on The Twilight Zone, The Wild Wild West, The Doris Day Show, and Love American Style. In 1968 he joined the cast of Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. His best known characters on the show were Uncle Al the Kiddie's Pal, a children's show hot with a constant hangover, and Big Al, an overly effeminate sportscaster. While on Laugh In he began appearing in commercials for Peter Pan Peanut Butter as a very flamboyant Peter Pan.

In the Seventies Alan Sues appeared on Broadway again in Sherlock Holmes, playing Professor Moriarty. He appeared in such shows as CHIPS. Time Express, and Fantasy Island, as well as the movie Oh Heavenly Dog.  In the Eighties he was the voice of The Dragon in The Reluctant Dragon (1981) and he appeared in the movie Snowballing (1984). He appeared on television in The Brady Brides and Punky Brewster. In the Nineties he guest starred on Sabrina the Teenage Witch and in the film Lord of the Road (1999). In 2009 he appeared in the film Artificially Speaking.

Alan Sues was one of the reasons that Rowan and Martin's Laugh In remains a classic. He was outrageously funny, with humour that just seemed to come non-stop. This suited him perfectly to the fast pace of Laugh In. Mr. Sues' flamboyant brand of humour was put to good use elsewhere as well, whether it was the commercial for Peter Pan or his bit as the Court Clerk in Move Over, Darling. He was a very funny man and he will be missed.