Saturday, September 16, 2017

Son of Houston-con: An Old-School Comic Convention


Scott D. Parker

It’s not everyday you get to meet a man who helped open your eyes to a larger world.

About a month or so ago, I was in my local Bedrock City Comics store to see if they had any of the old western pulp magazines featuring Texas Ranger Walt Slade as written by Bradford Scott. They did and I bought one. On the checkout counter was a flyer for something called “The Return of Son on Houston-con.”

Now, longtime comic readers will note the checkerboard along the top edge
reminiscent of DC Comics from the 1960s. That alone caught my attention and intrigued me. Other than Comicpalooza back in May, all the other comic conventions were cancelled or postponed this year, so I was more than happy to see what this con was about. And for $5 for two days? It was almost like theft.
The other thing that lodged in my brain was the venue. It was a hotel. The first conventions I attended here in Houston back in the late 70s and early 80s were in hotels. Nothing against the way cons have evolved over the decades—with the expansion of what’s on sale to the cosplaying—but there was something cool about a small con. As I walked into the hotel last Saturday, I held hope that the con would be a throwback to the cons of old.

And I was rewarded.

Son of Houston-con was entirely held in two, non-contiguous rooms. One room featured toys. I bypassed that room when I first got there because I want to see the comics. They were there, all in one not-too-large room. Bedrock was there and much to my happiness, owner Richard Evans brought all his pulps! Naturally, I snatched up the remaining Thrilling Western titles featuring the adventures of Walt Slade. (I discovered an interesting story, “The Sun Rises West,” and read it first; here is my take.) I also gravitated to the dollar boxes of another vendor. Slowly, I made my around the entire room, reveling in all the vintage material, including this, a program from Houstoncon ’71. What the cover doesn’t reveal is that Kirk Alyn, the first live-action Superman from the 1940s serials, was the featured guest.

After a walkaround of the toy room—which had an original Six Million Dollar Man 12-inch action figure and the Evel Knievel scramble van—I was just about to leave when a man asked if I had enjoyed myself. I said yes, very much. He wore a name tag so I started asking him questions about the folks who organized the event. Turned out the name on the tag was the same name on the original flyer: Don Price. Very graciously, he told me a bit about the history of the original Houston-con back in the day—he attended that 1971 show; turned out the program was his—and the comic book collecting community here in Houston.

And then he dropped the name Roy.

Immediately my mind reacted. “You don’t mean the guy who owned Roy’s comic shop on Bissonnet?” [Right near Murder by the Book for folks who know where that shop is located.] Price said yes and offered to introduce me to him.

Now, for the younger folks who read these posts, y’all know there is such a thing as a comic book store. Throw in digital and there’s a myriad of ways to get every comic you want. But back in the day (gosh I sound old) the only place to get comics were spinner racks at grocery stores, drug stores, and convenience stores like U-Totem, 7-Eleven, or Stop n Go. And if you missed an issue, especially one with a cliffhanger, well you simply missed an issue.*

My grandfather who lived near Roy’s Memory Shop (that was the official name) would always drive me around to the various convenience stores in his neck of the woods. One day, I saw a shop with spinner racks near the front window. Not only that, his painted sign featured the Human Torch. What must this store be?

I walked in and it was nirvana. This was a store whose sole purpose was to sell comics and memorabilia.
 For a kid who devoured comics, this was heaven. Every time I visited my grandfather—probably once a week—he would take me there. It was in Roy’s Memory Shop I learned what day comics were released and was able to ensure I didn’t miss an issue. Once I learned stores like Roy’s Memory Shop existed, I never had to worry about comics again. I found one in Austin when I was in school there, another in Dallas, and again back in Houston with Bedrock City and The Pop Culture Company.

All of that is background and prelude. Mr. Price introduced me to Roy Bonario last week. I am an adult now, but some of my childlike wonder at discovering his store returned when meeting the man himself. I was able to tell him how much his store meant for a young kid like me and thousands of other kids over the years. He began talking about past Houston-cons, the business of collecting, and how much fun he had in talking with fans over the years. It was quite a moment.

Have y’all ever had a chance to meet your “Roy” and tell them how much what they did meant to you? I’ve had one other moment like this. It was up in Denton, Texas, and I was attending The University of North Texas for grad school. It was an evening class in the history building and we were all hustling to get to our lectures. A man, older than men, was walking in the lobby and his face was instantly recognizable to me. It was George King, my 10th grade world history teacher. He was the one responsible for igniting the fire of history within me. I had the opportunity to remind him who I was (he said he recognized me), why I was there, and that he was the one who flipped on that history switch.

*World’s Finest Comics #246 was one of the comics I bought from a spinner rack at a Stop n Go near my grandfather’s house. The lead Batman/Superman story was a cliffhanger. I scoured all those convenience stores for #247 but never found it. Many years later, guess where I found #247? You don’t really need me to answer that, do I?

Friday, September 15, 2017

Best Crime Headlines of the Week

I have had a hell of a week. I've driven up and down most of California twice, and by the time you read this, will likely be doing it a third time. I've got sick family, a sick cat, and then I thought it would be fun to have food poisoning. All while the husband is out of town for work and I'm taking care of the kid one on one. In short: I've needed all the laughs I can get.

The news is rarely a place for laughs, but I did find a few gem headlines this week.

Woman admits to using county cash to buy her pug a tuxedo (The world's most adorable crime).

Martin Shkreli is Jailed for Seeking a Hair from Hillary Clinton (I had to read it three times before clicking just to enjoy it. Of course it's a misleading headline, I knew it would be. But it's kind of poetic).

Sweet & Stylin' Bandit Convicted in Second Trial on 50 More Counts (Fifty more counts of being so stylish it should be a crime).

DNA From Man's Poopy Shorts Leads to His Arrest (no words for this one).

Dancing around in a bra in front of your neighbors may be weird, but it's not a crime, court rules (No, this one isn't about me).

At least a couple of these could work as writing prompts (though I wouldn't want to think about Shkreli long enough to write about him).

Thursday, September 14, 2017


By Steve Weddle

In 1944, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity hit the screens. I have not seen the movie, but I am told it is very good. This film noir directed was co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and was based on James M. Cain's 1943 novella of the same name, which originally appeared as an eight-part serial in Liberty magazine.
Fred MacMurray starred as an insurance salesman, while Barbara Stanwyck was the housewife who wants her husband dead.
The lovely and talented and Edward G. Robinson was the insurance man looking for fakes.
The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards, which means you had to call it a film. But it lost every one of them, so you can call it a movie, after all.
Everyone loves the movie, and it frequently makes Top 50 best of lists.
In honor of the movie’s seventy-third anniversary, we take a look at those involved and ask “Where Are They Now?”
Billy Wilder directed many movies and died at the age of 95. He's in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles.
Raymond Chandler, who wrote the screenplay with Wilder and has a cameo as "man reading book," said a funny thing. This is the funny thing he said: "As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published." He died in 1959 and is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery, in San Diego, California.

Fred MacMurray went on to success in the television program, My Three Sons, in which he played a father who had three sons. MacMurray died from pneumonia at age 83 in 1991. His body was entombed in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. Mary Astor is also buried there, as is Spike Jones. It is a very popular place to bury deceased people who were famous.

Barbara Stanwyck went on to star in a show called "The Barbara Stanwyck Show," which was hosted by Barbara Stanwyck. She died in 1990 and her ashes were scattered from a helicopter over Lone Pine, California.

Edward G. Robinson testified before the House Un-American activities Committee, naming Albert Maltz, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Frank Tuttle, and Sidney Buchman as commies.  His body is at Beth-El Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Deserve's Got Nothing to Do With It

Some wisdom relayed from SF writer Cat Rambo on the Twitters this week:

"Don't be a jackass."

Seems simple enough, but in the often ego-driven world of writing, some don't get the memo. Some writers think the best way to make a name for themselves is to slam other writers publicly. This can be a new writer who thinks that anyone doing better than they are must be a brown-noser or worse, or it can be an established writer with a vendetta against a best-seller who goes on a diatribe about their series at public readings, unaware--or worse, apathetic--that they are insulting the taste of readers sitting in front of them.

Are we not allowed to criticize? Of course not. I prefer to not be a critic, but I don't hold it against writers who are also critics. Sometimes, your honest opinion of a book will get you spit on, like when Richard Ford spat on Colson Whitehead at a party, for a bad review. Now Mr Ford, an old Southern white dude who also shot a book written by a woman who gave him a bad review and mailed it to her, was lucky Mr Whitehead isn't the fighting type. In my opinion he should have left that party wearing his ass for a hat, but most writers don't have the privilege to think they can get away with spitting on other writers and sending them terroristic threats. But they'll sure badmouth you at the bar or on social media, right before they ask you for a favor.

This is the kind of writer who grouses about how the system is unfair and stacked against them in particular instead of well, all of us. This is not to say writing is a meritocracy, or luck doesn't have a big part to play. A lot of success rides on luck, and publishing isn't fair. But it works better for you if you're not a jackass. This means saving your angry rants about how so-and-so doesn't "deserve" what they got. For one, even the insiders don't know all the work (and luck) that makes a successful book or career. If they did, they'd pick winning books all the time. The second, in the immortal words of William Munny, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

We can be a catty bunch, writers. Some of us are insufferable and smug. Some people like that kind of character. Some people also like white chocolate. So far, it hasn't kept me from enjoying real chocolate. It's akin to that person who can't let others enjoy something, without explaining to them why it's wrong. You're not going to change any minds. Unless you want to change those minds to think you're a jackass.

Now, because some writers have made a career out of rants, some new writers think this is The Magic Way to Success, and for some privileged few, it may be. But for most of us, writing more, working to write better, and behaving professionally will work better in the long run. Especially when you find out that the writer you called a hack is editing that anthology you want to be in, or curating an imprint, or has become a book critic for a major periodical, and they have to choose between you and the pleasant person who helps other writers regularly.

And it's not just social media. If you don't think people repeat what you've said over too many drinks at the con, think again. The ass you jack may be your own.

So I'm going to end this with one more movie quote, from a favorite of mine. Harvey, starring James Stewart:
Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be," — she always called me Elwood — "In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Graham Greene was a Difficult Man

I love memoirs about writers by other writers.  They can be catty, gossipy, filled with spite and jealousy, or (not as much fun) they can be reverential.  Not often are they all that balanced. But I just read one that does have that balance - Greene on Capri, by Shirley Hazzard.  Hazzard had a long acclaimed career, and she writes about her friendship with Graham Greene from the years she and her husband, the critic Francis Steegmuller, like Greene, stayed for long periods on the Mediterranean island of Capri.  Greene owned a house there, as did Hazzard and her husband, and over the course of their time on the island, she got to know Greene well. He was, to put it bluntly, a thorny type of person, which I guess comes as no surprise if you've read his books.  A contrarian to the bone, impatient, restless, blunt sometimes to the point of rudeness.  Not exactly someone who generally held women in high regard.  But to his friends (and women he apparently respected, like Hazzard) he could be warm and generous, a good listener.  Hazzard captures the various sides of this complicated person, and she weaves her Greene remembrances into a look at the very rich literary history of the island. It's had quite a history, Capri, dating back to the 11 years Roman emperor Tiberius spent there by his own desire, ruling the entire empire from this rocky place. It's the place, later, where Jean-Luc Godard shot his great film adaptation of Alberto Morovia's novel Contempt. A lush Mediterranean place with a fascinating history, and this book is a knowing idiosyncratic look at a peculiar man, Graham Greene. He's long been among my favorite writers, and I really enjoyed Hazzard's nuanced take on him, with all his knots and less than likeable features. 

His writing method, by the way, for those interested in what Greene did to be such a prolific writer (26 novels, 2 volumes of autobiography, travel books, plays, many short stories, essays, lots of movie scripts), was a daily writing goal of 500 words a day.  He described his method himself in his book, The End of the Affair:
"Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene. Every now and then during the morning’s work I count what I have done and mark off the hundreds on my manuscript."
Damn, when you put it like that, Mr. Greene, it sounds easy.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Original Spin

It's been well over 17 years since I started writing what became my first published novel. I set a simple goal for myself, which was to finish a draft. I'd started so many "manuscripts" before that I'd abandoned that I realized the next step in my growth was finishing one.

During that time, I was terrified of reading other books. I was afraid that I'd pull a book off the shelf and discover that someone had already written my idea.

At that Ypoint, I needed the confidence boost of bringing a project to completion and the pressure of being completely original or perfect was too much. I compartmentalized. I told myself every day, "Just write the story" and that's what I did. I also told myself not to worry about if it was good (although I hoped it was). I set one clear focus, and that enabled me to stay on course.

Once I had a draft, having a manuscript draft wasn't enough. I wanted it to be a good manuscript draft. Then I wanted it to be appreciated... I wanted to be published.

I think that my approach was actually a very good one. What I find from working with new writers is that many of them have decided they want to be published, and then they write something thinking that it will garner them a big publishing deal and critical acclaim.

Yes, I had to learn about the publishing industry. I still had to learn how to revise my work and make it marketable. I just had this period of time before all of that when I was in love with the writing process and enjoyed immersing myself in my work.

I wrote a story I was passionate about, and I spent time with characters I loved, but I do know what it's like to read submissions. I saw a headline earlier about a man dying in a freak elevator accident, and the article pointed out this was the second death from an elevator accident recently.

I groaned. I thought, "Somewhere, some poor editor is about to get a slew of stories about freak elevator deaths."

You might be thinking, "Yeah, right!" but I assure you that all too often, something connects with a lot of people around the same time and you find yourself reading submission after submission that have similar themes.

If you've submitted a story or manuscript and had it rejected with a note about how it's just too similar to other submissions, I assure you, the editor isn't lying. All too often, I find myself choosing between Gala and Yellow Delicious when picking an apple for publication. And I find that the stories that end up standing out for me do so because the story is original.

That doesn't mean you can't write a story about revenge or a heist or something that's been done before, but there are a couple of critical things that will set your work apart.

One is the writing. We get better the more we write, and honing your skills is important. Although I do occasionally get paid to edit other people's work for them, it's my least favorite type of editing work. I firmly believe that any serious writer will learn to make their own corrections because they take their craft seriously. In some cases, writers are getting rejections and self-published writers are getting bad reviews, because the writing isn't that strong. That is a valid complaint.

The other is infusing an original perspective into your work. Something that sets it apart. Seriously. Want to know a memorable crime fiction show? Whitechapel. The lead DI is not a rogue cop who goes out on his own, spends half his time climbing into a bottle, and has already messed up his marriage and role as a parent. Nope. He's single, smart, leads a team and cares about the people he works with. He does have OCD and finds himself trying to leave his office and needing to flick the light on and off again and again as part of his compulsion.

I know that for myself, I've gotten bored with the same old, same old. Noir is so much more than watching the downward spiral of someone who's already inside the drain. It's the essentially decent person faced with misfortune after misfortune contributing to bad decisions that were the best of all the bad decisions they had, and still end up destroying their life.

Don't just write what you think is popular and well sell. Write what you are passionate about. Take your story and put your twist on it. You'll love spending time writing because you love your characters and story. And you'll be more likely to gain the interest of editors and agents who are looking for a story that stands out.