Saturday, September 8, 2018

Batman Summer Spectacular 1978

Scott D. Parker

To commemorate the end of summer 2018, let’s take a trip back forty years.

The summer of 1978 was smack dab in the middle of one of my favorite pockets of my life. You see, Star Wars had debuted the year before and it consume much of my imagination. It had awakened in me a love for all things science fiction and I sought out as much as I could, eventually discovering Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A PRINCESS OF MARS. I had discovered the rock and roll superheroes known as KISS through their albums, comics, and trading cards. And every issue of Circus or Hit Parader magazine I could find.

And, of course, there was the constant: comic books. I have memories of certain issues—where I bought them; what kind of day it was—but not all. Interestingly, as summer 2018 wound down, I was drawn to a forty-year-old comic of which I have no memory buying at the time. But I also have no memory of buying it in the years since, so it’s a logical conclusion that my ten-year-old self forked over a dollar bill for this unique issue.

Officially issue fifteen of the DC SPECIAL SERIES, the 1978 Batman Spectacular boasted of 68 pages of content and no ads. In reality, you get to 68 pages by using both interior covers. This issue is a true gem of my favorite era of Batman’s history: the Bronze Age. More or less, the Bronze Age of comics ran from 1970 to 1985. For Batman, the Bronze Age started with the pairing of writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams in the early 70s to the publication of Frank Miller’s seminal THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. In the 1970s, Bruce Wayne moved out of Wayne Manor and the Batcave and took up residence in the Wayne Foundation building. He was a detective, a creature of the night, and, most importantly, still a man. He could be hurt, both emotionally and physically, and he was, including this book.

The Batman Spectacular features three tales. The first, “Hang the Batman,” was written by David V. Reed and pencilled by Mike Nasser. The story centers on the death, by suicide, of a famous author, Archer Beaumont. But Beaumont believed it was possible to communicate from beyond the grave, a belief given new relevance when various signs start popping up around Gotham City. A cryptic note admonishes the Dark Knight Detective to solve Beaumont’s murder or Batman himself will meet death. He investigates, gets into fisticuffs, and, no spoiler here, solves the case.

Reed’s writing is crisp, fast-paced, and typical of the type of story from the 1970s. He provides all the clues the reader needs to solve the crime along with Batman. But it is the visual way Nasser (now Netzer) drew the panels that really set this story apart. His Batman is lithe yet muscular. He rarely treats a single page with traditional panels and borders. He visualizes the entire page as a canvas, seeking out new ways to tell the story. And he gives you interesting angles. I read this tale twice in a row I was so enthralled by his art.

The second story is by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Michael Golden. It features Batman’s (likely) best nemesis, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Batman’s unwitting and unwanted marriage to Talia, Ra’s’s daughter. O’Neil co-created Ra’s with Neal Adams and this is a perfectly serviceable story, but it seems rather small. Ra’s is best when he’s trying to take over the world or do something for which he sees as right. Here, he’s just trying to steal some diamonds—in a manner fitting a James Bond villain. Golden’s art is as realistic as you could get from art in the 1970s, and helps elevate this story.

O’Neil redeemed himself with the third tale of this issue. Advertised as “Something New..Something Bold!”, “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” is a Batman story told in prose by O’Neil and illustrated by the great Marshall Rogers. All three artists are fantastic at creating interesting visual storytelling. Rogers drew a series with writer Steve Engelhart many consider to be among the best Batman stories every told. The scenes he draws for O’Neil’s story are, like Nasser’s very visually interesting and almost minimal despite the exquisite detail.

But that’s okay, because the real stars here are O’Neil’s words. Free from a traditional comic book story, O’Neil’s prose is lavish in detail and is spun like a magician. And the details provided give a glimpse of a Batman rarely seen on comic pages. In one scene, Batman confronts a brute who thinks he can best the Caped Crusader. “The Batman shrugged. ‘Take your best shot.’” I loved the noncommittal nature of Batman here, the hero who knows he’ll win, the hero who has confronted countless thugs who think they’ll be the one to take down Batman.

As a writer, I especially appreciated how O’Neil didn’t always conform to proper grammar to paint his pictures with words. “The footfalls stopped. Snick of lighter. Odor of tobacco.” That’s it. Sure, you could write a paragraph, but why when a short few words will do the trick. The way he describes Gotham City is also splendid.
It is a monster sprawled along 25 miles of eastern seaboard, stirring and seething and ever-restless. Eight million human beings live on streets that, if laid end-to-end, would stretch all the way to Tokyo, crammed into thousands of neighborhood from the fire-gutted tenements of Chancreville, where rats nestle in babies’ bedclothes and grandmothers forage in garbage cans,to the penthouses of Manor row, where the cost of a single meal served by liveried servants would support an immigrant family for a year. It is countless chambers and crannies and corners in bars, boats, houses, hotels, elevators, offices, theaters, shacks, tunnels, depots, junkyards, cemeteries, buses, cars, trains, terms, bridges, docks, sewers, parks, jails, mortuaries—the shelters of living and dead, millionaires and bums, fiends and saints.
Napoleon’s armies could search for a lifetime and leave places unseen.
An exceptionally energetic investigator could visit the likely ones in a month.
The Batman had less than sixty minutes.
Come on! You can see that as clear as any artist. O’Neil’s love of old pulp fiction, especially The Shadow, bleeds off the page. And how’s this description of Batman emerging to take on a couple of crooks in front of a movie screen: “The Batman, stark and implacable against the expanse of white, a grim figure congealing from the shadows.” So, so good.

I highly encourage you to seek out this issue. The entire thing has not been republished elsewhere. The Ra’s tale you can find in Tales of the Demon. The prose story is reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers and in Batmam: The Greatest Stories Ever Told.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Bad Reviews

By David Nemeth

When a book is published there are usually two avenues it could take: it can be ignored or it can get a smattering of reviews. If you are an author and you get your book reviewed that's pretty lucky. There are so many books published every day it is impossible that every one of them gets the attention they deserve. Then your reviews will be filled with praise or condemnation.

When I find a book I love, I'll pimp the hell out of it in person and on social media. But if the book is not so good bad, I'll stay silent on it except for my published review. Last week, I reviewed three books: one I felt was bad, one that failed me at the ending, and the third that I found to exceed my expectations. If you follow me at either Twitter or Facebook you probably already know that the book I loved was J.J. Hensley’s “Bolt Action Remedy” (Down & Out Books). I felt that Hensley had done so much right with his book that in essence a police procedural. I also enjoy Chris Orlet’s “A Taste of  Shotgun” (All Due Respect) but felt that the ending didn’t fit the book after all I'm only quibbling about five pages. The third book was one I could not even finish, Saira Viola’s “Crack, Apple & Pop” (Fahrenheit Press).  What I didn’t do for the third book was even post a link on social media about my review.

I get it, bad reviews suck. I hate writing them. Hell, I hate reading the book that forced me to write the review. But my hope with writing almost 200 reviews is that when I recommend a book by J.J. Hensley, Preston Lang, Marietta Miles, Chris Offutt, or Stephen Mack Jones, you will know I’m not blowing smoke up your ass . . . okay, there might be a little smoke blowing but that’s just called flowery prose. Yes, bad reviews may hurt, but I imagine great reviews feel way much better than a bad one.

Earlier this week, I published Jim Thomsen’s Shoulder Wounds. It was the second installment of his column where he reviews several books he’s read. Sometimes he likes them and sometimes he doesn’t. Things went haywire when the tweet I posted referenced a writer of a particular book that Thomsen didn't like, Thomsen wrote that her work for him "suffers from a sustained failure to lift off the ground and generate the sort of tailwind that makes the pages turn." A bad review and a social media call out. Apparently, this goes against social media norms and upset some people. As Thomsen pointed out in a later tweet, he could have equally gotten flack for subtweeting the author and subsequently accused of acting cowardly. After several days of thinking on this, I'm siding with Thomsen on this one. (But I'm also the kind of guy that doesn't understand the whole "don't talk ill of the dead" consideration.)

Where does all of this lead? For me, I will begin to post links to my reviews whether good or bad on social media. I won't hide behind the subtweet or the absence of social media any longer. Yes, bad reviews aren't what writers are looking for, but ask an author who has never gotten a review if they'd like a bad review or two. But also know this, every time I open a book, I am hoping that that book will be the greatest thing I've ever read. Every time.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Cannibal Noir

Scott's note: Dave Zeltserman guest blogs this week. Dave is the author of many crime, horror, and thriller novels.  His work can be unsparing and bleak. Yet he also writes the much lighter-toned traditional mystery stories (and one novel) about Julius Katz, a Boston detective who is brilliant and eccentric and very lazy.  Julius is a wine connoisseur who wouldn't solve much of anything if it weren't for his tiny computer more human than actual human sidekick, Archie.  So, clearly, Dave is versatile. He's also had a novel, Small Crimes, that was adapted as a film of the same name with Nikolaj-Coster Waldau, Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Jacki Weaver and Robert Forst.  Dave's newest book is called HUSK, and it's this he will talk about here.

So, Dave, talk to us...

Cannibal Noir

by Dave Zeltserman

Cannibal noir. What a title for an article! Just the thought of it makes me a little queasy, as I’m sure it does others reading this. I had the same reaction when I was invited to write a story for the upcoming anthology Skin & Bones that will be edited by Dana Kabel and published by Down & Out Books (original title was proposed to be Kannibal Cookbook.) But Dana had Lawrence Block headlining the anthology, and if I’m given the chance to have a story in the same anthology as Mr. Block, I’m damn well going to do it.

On reflection, writing a cannibal story wasn’t that outrageous. My favorite Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, Specialty of the House (based on the masterful short story by Stanley Ellin) has cannibalism at its core, although it’s done in a sly, bloodless way. And then there’s the most famous literary and film cannibal, Hannibal Lector, from Silence of the Lambs (as well as other movies, books, and a TV series), Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog, and movies including Eating Raoul, Delicatessen, and Soylent Green. And in a way, isn’t every werewolf movie cannibalistic? It might be a werewolf devouring his victim, but once the werewolf transforms back to human form, it’s the human who finishes digesting the meal.

But I digress. Or disgust?

Once I accepted that I was going to contribute to this anthology, I soon came up with a creepy idea that I liked and titled this story Sweet. As with Ellin’s story, it would be bloodless, although if my story were to continue past its ending, it would soon devolve into bloodthirsty savagery. But I stopped the cameras before then! Sweet has a woman named Melanie Sweet who’s pissed at her boyfriend for bowing out at the last minute on a trip to Vermont, and she decides to go without him. Along the way she picks up a hitchhiker named Jedidiah. Jedidiah had left his small New Hampshire village years earlier, and is hoping to be allowed to return home. Here he gives his reason:

“I wouldn’t call it homesickness,” he said. “I didn’t much care for the old customs. I wanted to live differently than they do, and I did okay. I’m good at carpentry, and made a decent living at that; also construction, and even some shipbuilding in Baltimore. But it’s your food I just can’t deal with any longer.” His expression turned more thoughtful as he continued to stare straight ahead. “I think your food would kill me if I stayed in your world much longer.”
“Why would that be?”
“Lots of reasons. The vegetables and wheat we grow are from seeds that haven’t changed any in hundreds of years. I can’t handle the mutated varieties that your world produces. They make me sick. The worst of it is in my village we’re raised as mostly meat eaters, and the meat you people sell in stores is like rat poison to me.” He laughed sourly and said, “Here I am talking your ear off.”
He certainly had loosened up from his earlier tightlipped self, and Melanie was glad about that. “I don’t mind at all,” she said. “I find what you’re saying unbelievably interesting.”
 “I’m not used to talking so much,” he explained, his voice weakening. “We don’t say much in my village. And I haven’t had much of anyone to talk to since leaving home.”

Melanie ends up taking him back to his small village, except it’s far more isolated than she had expected. After spending hours hiking deep into the backwoods, she learns far too late the truth about Jedidiah and his reason for wanting her to meet his family.

A funny thing happened after I wrote this story—an idea for a noirish horror novel that would be almost the flipside of this story burrowed deep into my brain and I couldn’t shake it. This idea soon became the only thing I could think about writing, and so I did. In this novel, Husk, Charlie Husk is out in our world collecting stragglers to bring back to the clan when he finds himself falling in love with his first intended victim, a young woman named Jill who had been left stranded at a Massachusetts Turnpike rest stop by her jerk boyfriend. Instead of putting her in a canvas bag and throwing her into the back of his van, he instead rescues her and drives her back to her apartment in Queens, New York. Charlie decides that as long as he has a chance to be with Jill, he’ll stay in our world and live as one of us, but he’ll soon be learning it’s not so easy to abandon the clan.

Husk has two of my favorite story elements—it’s centered around a creepy mythology and features a stranger trying to survive in a strange world. A cannibal story would naturally gravitate to horror when it’s from the point of view of the victims, but in this case where it’s from Charlie’s point of view, it becomes something different—a mix of noir and horror (and in this case, also a love story, or is a doomed love story?? No spoilers—you’ll need to read HUSK to find out!).

Mixing horror and noir isn’t new, and was done quite effectively in William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel. Husk, though, just might be the first cannibal noir. Will there be others? God help us!

Opening paragraph from Husk:

Labor Day weekend is always a good time to pick up students hitchhiking, but that wasn’t why I pulled into the rest stop on the Massachusetts Turnpike. While I had fourteen empty burlap sacks in the back of the van that needed to be filled before heading back home, along with more than enough rope and gags to take care of things, I didn’t expect to be picking up any of them here. While there’s always the chance of finding a hitchhiker at a place like this, it’s a small one and I was expecting that most of the stragglers I’d be getting would be in cities off the Turnpike. Hartford, Bridgeport, and if need be, New Haven. For this trip I hoped to get mostly students. They were generally healthier and leaner than the usual types – the prostitutes, drifters, homeless, and other such stragglers that I’d often have to collect. Students also tended to carry more books, clothes, and money on them than those others, all of which was good to bring back to the homestead. If I ended up needing those others to fill up the back of the van, I would. But I was hoping for mostly students.

Husk is available now. "the story is at once tender, brutal, fantastic, and vibrantly real. A unique and splendid novel." –Booklist, starred review

You can get Husk right here.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Limping on to my next project.

While I’m finishing and editing a work in progress, I can’t help but daydream about my next project. The storyline and characters seem exciting and death-defying. The setting is touching and full of memories. I’m going to move people. Connect. Once I’ve finished the project I’m working on, just as I think I’m going to jump in, …pfft. Zilch.

Before fingers touch keys, everything else needs to be done. Or so I tell myself. Clean the microwave. Curtain washing. Window cleaning. Sweeping. Teeth pulling. Forcible colon exams. I have a schedule, dammit. I avoid the computer like it has been manhandled by twenty-five filthy kindergartners after Halloween. 

Anything is better than nothing and so I begin with a clear idea of the beginning and the end. I bang out a few letters joined together. They seem to make a bit of since and that’s okay. Read it over and over. Begin to obsess.

After I blurp the first sentence or two down, I write the main character’s name on paper. If I’ve hit the sweet spot, I’ll start to obsess. When I wash the dishes, I think about my new story. Laundry. I imagine the childhood of my character or maybe a specific point in their life. I may not be writing, but I’m constantly thinking about the story.

The idea of binge-writing is romantic to me. Staying up all night, the darkness my only friend, writing like I’m possessed. However, the truth is I cannot stay awake past 10:00pm, unless it’s Walking Dead season. Burning the midnight-oil doesn’t work for me.

I always do better when I put myself on a schedule. I need to write every day, even if I write only one sentence or sit at the computer for five minutes. Staying in the mindset of the story keeps me engaged in the tale. I like to keep a p.c. file and a physical file of images and articles that feel important to the book. Ideas and inspirations.

My titles often come after I’ve written a majority of the story. I am horrible at titles. Horrible. I try to hold off until the last possible moment, hoping inspiration will come as the story flows.

If the general idea of the book is not forthcoming, I try and write the back-cover synopsis. It helps give me a sense of direction and solidifies in my head whether the story is worth writing.
If the story stays with me, haunts me, I know I should keep writing.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Guest Post: Roger Johns on Keeping His Series Character Interesting

I met Roger at a mystery conference a while back and we’ve been running into each other at similar events ever since. I always enjoy hearing about what’s happening with his police procedural series, which features Baton Rouge homicide detective Wallace Hartman. I love Wallace--a great, complex fully realized female protagonist--and since the second book in Roger’s series came out this past week, I thought now would be a great time to ask him to share how he’s taking his character forward in this next adventure. - Claire
When I conceived of the idea that eventually became Dark River Rising––the first Wallace Hartman Mystery––I wasn’t thinking in terms of a series. Only after I had completed the first draft did it dawn on me that my main character might have legs.
As much as I liked the idea, there was a touch of anxiety to go along with it. I had no idea how to keep a character fresh across a series of books. In non-series fiction, this is not a problem because the story and the character’s personal journey end at the same place––the final page of the book. But a series character without further room to grow becomes flat and uninteresting.
The solution to this problem, as illustrated in the books of accomplished series writers like the late Sue Grafton, is to have a character’s personal evolution occur very slowly while confronting her, in subsequent books, with the consequences of decisions she made in earlier books.
Understanding this killed off most of the anxiety and raised some interesting possibilities. I would let Wallace wrestle with decisions about things important to her that would also be important to most readers: family difficulties, personal emotional challenges, a romantic entanglement. And because she is a police officer, her profession would continue to shape her from book to book.
Wallace is a homicide detective who lives and works in Baton Rouge, a Southern capital city that has an interesting, sometimes dangerous vibe. Her work is intense, and it has positive and negative effects on her. Leaving her vulnerable to the negative effects has been the hardest part for me.
After two or three drafts, during which she seemed to effortlessly conquer all, while barely suffering a scratch, I realized I was thinking of her as nearly indestructible and superhuman. This was a mistake. Instead of making her appear powerful and capable, I had accomplished just the opposite. She looked unrealistic, almost cartoonish. Perhaps a consequence of the hundreds of superhero comic books I read as a youngster.
I should have known better. When, as a reader, I come across characters with seemingly infinite physical and mental capabilities, I stop taking the story and the characters seriously. Lesson learned: In the interest of realism, I would let the clash between the rigors of her profession and her innate resilience define her, rather than subject the reader to a contrived personality.
In the second book, River of Secrets, Wallace is dealing with two significant decisions she made in Dark River Rising. In the earlier book, Wallace emerges from a years-long period of self-imposed emotional exile that came in the wake of her husband’s death, something she feels responsible for because of a mistake she made. This transition plays out in the context of a romantic relationship that she didn’t anticipate.
But, as the reader will see in book two, this part of Wallace’s life proves to be a continual challenge. The demands of her professional life are often at odds with the demands of her personal life, and her struggle with these competing forces illustrates the importance of communication and forgiveness, and shows just how touch-and-go some parts of life can be.
Also in the Dark River Rising, Colley Greenberg, Wallace’s first partner when she became a detective, has been permanently sidelined with serious health problems. His abrupt departure from the police force propels Wallace toward a mindset of antipathy toward having a new partner because Colley was also her friend and mentor, and a new partner signals the finality of Colley’s exit, something she’s not ready to accept.
In River of Secrets, Wallace’s antipathy morphs into a low-level hostility toward her new partner which is aggravated by this new partner’s abrasive personality. As she learns to recognize and deal with the feelings Colley’s absence from her daily life has stirred up, she must also contend with the murder of a controversial politician that has polarized Baton Rouge and touched off waves of violence. Some of her experiences from Dark River Rising enable her to better deal with what she finds here, but she will also have new troubles and joys that will shape her for the future.

ROGER JOHNS is a former corporate lawyer and retired college professor, and the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books: Dark River Rising (2017) and River of Secrets (2018). He is the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year (Detective ▪ Mystery Category), a 2018 Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice Award nominee, and a finalist for the 2018 Silver Falchion Award for best police procedural. His articles about writing and the writing life have appeared in Career Author, Criminal Element, and Killer Nashville Articles. Roger belongs to the Atlanta Writers Club, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America. He is a member of The ITW Fearless Bloggers and, along with four other crime fiction writers, he co-authors the MurderBooks blog at You can visit him at 
River of Secrets is available at: