Friday, May 30, 2014

Oscar Dystel, Bantam Books president

Oscar Dystel, Bantam Books president, dies at age 101

Oscar Dystel died May 28, at age 101. 

In 1954 he was hired as the president of Bantam Books, at that time a failing enterprise. A year later the firm was turning a profit, and when Dystel retired in 1980, the firm was earning $100 million yearly.

Dystel was responsible for printing best-sellers like Valley of the Dolls, A Catcher in the Rye and Jaws, as well as exerting influence over the cover art and presentation of the Bantam line.

He oversaw the acquisition and publication of many books that were part and parcel of being a sci-fi reader in the Baby Boomer era: Doc Savage (The Motion Menace, Doc Savage No. 64, September, 1971, is in the shelving just beside Dystel's left hand in the photo scanned above) and Star Trek being two of the most prominent series. 

But if you read Louis L'Amour Western novels, you also were reading Bantam titles. Same thing for so many of the 'fringe' books of the 60s and 70s: Chariots of the Gods, Limbo of the  Lost, The Devil's Triangle, Beyond Earth....

The Bantam Story 1970 and The Bantam Story 1975 images courtesy of the Fred Pfeiffer Artist blog

And chances are, many of the Bantam Books you read featured striking cover illustrations by James Bama, Bantam's top artist and a major reason behind the success of so many titles. 

And if you read A Seperate Peace, or anything by Herman Hesse, then you were most likely reading a Bantam Book..........

I think that tomorrow, when I'm out running some errands, I'll stop by the used bookstore on Seminole Trail / Route 29 here in Charlottesville, and see if I can find some neat Bantam Books among the shelving........

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: Steel Shivs

Book Review: 'Steel Shivs' by Bernard Sorkin

 3 / 5 Stars

'I'll shiv you in. I'll shiv you in. You dirty wop, you."

"I'm gonna get you, you bastard. I'm gonna get you, Steve, you wop."

"Wait till I get you, you bastard guinea, Steve Beta. I'll kill you ! Kill you !"

'Steel Shivs' certainly starts off on a promising note of Ghetto Action. It's the mid-50s, and in the tough Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, Steve 'Swifty' Beta is being pursued by a large, homicidal girl hopped up on dope. A girl brandishing a switchblade knife. A girl who is comfortable using Ethnic Slurs.

Steve Beta succeeds in escaping a knifing. But it turns out his problems are only starting. For Steve is trying to turn his life around, to provide for his blind, elderly mother and his younger sister Betty, who, like Steve, make the best of things in a cramped, roach-infested apartment in a public housing project (not explicitly named, but probably the Red Hook Houses projects). 

Although Steve is on probation from a robbery charge, he's no longer in the gang life; he's got a job as a janitor in a jewelry store.

But Steve has come under scrutiny from the toughest, most violent gang in the neighborhood: the Tamaracks. Marked by their red-and-black color insignia, and their use of custom-made, extra-large switchblade knives, the Tamaracks run dope for the syndicate. And they aren't shy about murdering anyone who crosses them.

Tiny, the vicious leader of the Tamaracks, gives Steve Beta an ultimatum: Steve is to help the Tamaracks rob the jewelry store where he works. When Steve refuses, he finds his life in danger. And Steve can't turn to the cops for aid, because in Red Hook, there's no lower form of life than a Squealer..........

'Steel Shivs' (142 pp), published by Pyramid Books in May, 1962, fits comfortably within the Juvenile Delinquent sub-genre of postwar Pulp Fiction, the sort of paperback pulps that were epitomized the Gold Medal line from Fawcett. The front cover of 'Steel Shivs' has a blurb referencing the primordial juvie gang novel, Irving Shulman's 'The Amboy Dukes' (1947).

By the mid-50s, Red Hook had come to represent the epitome of the New York City crime-infested neighborhood, thanks to the movie On the Waterfront (1954). Voyeurs and poseurs made the pilgrimmage to the neighborhood to drink in the seedy essence; for example, in 1954, Harlan Ellison allegedly joined one of Red Hook's more violent teen gangs, The Barons, an experience he documented in his 1958 novel 'Web of the City' (aka 'Rumble').

As a juvie novel from 1962, 'Steel Shivs' doesn't stray too far from the formula. While the lurid cover blurbs promises a novel that deals with - and maybe even celebrates - depravity and violence, the story's main emphasis is on Steve's journey to redemption, a journey made with the help of a trio of older Jewish men who understand that not all the Red Hook kids are innate hoods and reprobates: Ben Rabin, the kind-hearted manager of the Red Hook Play Center; Jacob Becker, the owner of the jewelry store, and a man who decides to give Steve a badly needed second chance; and Al Flanz, the rough-and-ready Narc who investigates dope peddling along the Waterfront.

I won't disclose any spoilers, save to say that the ending of 'Steel Shivs' is rather predictable.

The verdict ? 'Steel Shivs' is a competent example of old-school Ghetto Action, but not a must-have.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Classic Space: 1999: To Everything That Was

Space: 1999 : To Everything That Was
edited by Andrew E. C. Gaska
Archaia / Black Label September, 2013

‘Space : 1999’ premiered on Britain’s ATV channel on September 4, 1975. The series, which eventually lasted for 48 episodes until November 1977, was produced by the UK studio ITV.

Outside the UK its appearance was irregular; in the US, the major networks refused to purchase the show, and it wound up being syndicated, with the first episode airing in selected viewing areas in the Fall of 1975.

I never watched any episodes, as the show was never featured on the four channels (PBS, NBC, ABC, and CBS)
we had access to at my house back in those ancient days of television. By the standards of the time the show was very costly to produce, and the lack of advertising revenue in the US was probably one of the reasons why a third season was never filmed.

Also, Space: 1999 wasn’t very good.

As part of the promotion and marketing for the show, Charlton comics launched both a color comic book, and a black and white comic magazine, for Space: 1999. The b & w magazine premiered in the Fall of 1975, with a November, 1975 cover date, and ran for 8 issues, until October, 1976. 

The contents for some issues can be downloaded as .cbr and .cbz files from here.

The first issue of the color comic also bore a November, 1975 cover date, and ultimately lasted for 7 issues until November, 1976. A series of reprints and one-shots also appeared on a sporadic basis.

So….this brings me to ‘Classic Space: 1999: To Everything That Was’ (304 pp., Archaia, August 2013). It’s as weird a book as its title.

Apparently, editor and Space: 1999 Fanboy Andrew Gaska decided to pick selected stories from the 1975 – 1976 Charlton b & w magazines, colorize them, and republish them as part of this ‘remastered’ volume from Archaia Black Label, an indie digital comic / graphic novel publisher from Chicago who may be best known for publishing the ‘Mouse Guard’ comics. 

Archaia also publishes entirely new content for the Space: 1999 franchise, content also edited by Gaska, some of which has been compiled in another graphic novel titled ‘Space: 1999: Aftershock and Awe’.

‘Classic Space: 1999: To Everything That Was’ is carefully packaged to avoid indicating to the potential reader that its contents are 40 year-old black and white comics, comics that have been ‘reimagined’ to give the impression that they are new content. 

For example, Gaska includes no Table of Contents, and there is no copyright or licensing information to divulge what issues of the original Charlton magazines the ‘reimagined’ stories are adapted from. The end pages of ‘To Everything’ do feature a cover gallery of some of the issues of the color comic and the comic magazine (with date, pricing, and number information deleted), but there is no ancillary text to notify the reader which ‘reimagined’ stories are associated with the depicted issues of the Charlton comics.

Gaska’s approach to the Space: 1999 franchise is one that is therefore carefully calculated to provide enough Ambiguity of Attribution to give the impression that ‘Creative Director’ Gaska is the writer and creator of the contents. I don’t agree with this approach, and neither, it seems, do a lot of sf comics fans; one reviewer at remarks that:

This book/limited series ([i.e., ‘Space: 1999: Aftershock and Awe’] is far superior to the intellectual and artistic raping that Gaska gave the Charlton Comics' Space 1999 series in the deplorable To Everything That Was.

So, with the backstory properly introduced, it’s time to ask, just how good – or bad - is ‘Classic Space: 1999: To Everything That Was’ ?

My opinion is that the stories Gaska picked for representation here are no better, and no worse, than the other sf comics, based on licensed properties, that were issued steadily throughout the 70s. Comics like Gold Key / Western’s ‘Star Trek’ series, Marvel’s ‘Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction’, or Marvel’s ‘Logan’s Run’ series, among others.

Comics Code restrictions, along with the obvious restrictions placed on licensed properties, meant that the stories are rather bland and unremarkable. The usual sf tropes are present: sentient computers that attempt to trick our crew via the use of simulations of medieval-era fantasy adventures; descendents of the Aztecs living alive and well on a far-off planet; a planet inhabited by plant-life that is not as passive as it seems; etc.

The colorization of the original artwork relies on a muted palette, with an emphasis on Earth Tones, which means that it’s a bit difficult to see just how well-done the original artwork actually was. Some of this original artwork (referred to by Gaska as ‘visualizations’) was done by industry legends such as Gray Morrow, and a young John Byrne. 

It seems to hold up well in this reprinting, although at 6 ¾ inches x 10 ¼ inches, the dimensions of ‘Classic: Space 1999’ are considerably smaller than those of the original Charlton magazines, which means that the artwork and text are reduced in size and older readers are probably going to need glasses to make out the text.

Summing up, it’s hard not to conclude that the ‘Space: 1999’ comics franchise would have been just as well served by being reprinted, in chronological order, in the same style and formatting that Marvel and DC use for their older comics, including the ‘Essentials’ and ‘Showcase’ formats. 

‘Classic Space: 1999: To Everything That Was’ is really only for the hardcore fanboys.