Saturday, September 21, 2013

REVIEW: The Beatles in Comic Strips

(Note: I wrote the following review in August 2012 for a comics website, but I withdrew it for consideration after the editor of the site, two months later, requested a rewrite.  I then submitted it to a Beatles website, that replied to me in early November 2012 that they would be willing to run the piece -- but I never heard anything back about it.  So-o-o, since it's been almost a year now since I wrote the thing, I figure I might as well run it here on my own blog.  Better late than never!  My thanks to JASON SACKS for having provided me with a review copy of this book last summer.)

The Beatles In Comic Strips

Authors: Enzo Gentile and Fabio Schiavo
Publisher: Skira Editore (
(Distributed in the USA by Rizzoli
International Publications, Inc.)

A review by Rob Imes
3 out of 5 stars.

The Beatles In Comic Strips by Enzo Gentile and Fabio Schiavo is a thick, 240-page hardcover book in full color that provides examples from around the world of the Beatles' influence on comics. The book was published in Italy, and there are pages here that most English-speaking fans have likely never seen before. It's an interesting hodge-podge of images from the collection of co-author Fabio Schiavo, covering the group's career from their explosive fame on the world stage in 1964 to the present day where they remain seemingly bigger than ever. There's also a large double-sided fold-out illustration poster in the book.

As noted in Gentile's introduction, the Beatles are well suited for the cartoon life. In the beginning, there was only their name (which drew the inevitable comparison to bugs) and their look (the moptop haircut). Ringo could be easily distinguished from the rest in a cartoon drawing by giving him a bigger nose, and (later) Lennon would always be wearing his familiar round granny glasses. Comics deal in shorthand identification (it's both a strength and limitation) since lingering over a panel too long slows down the flow of the narrative, and so the visual cues provided by the Fab Four works well for the speedy medium. Song titles (and lyrics like "Yeah, yeah, yeah"), iconic album covers, and the drama of their career itself have supplied an endless supply of references for cartoonists to mine over the years.

When I heard of the premise of this book, I was reminded of another Beatles book that I've had for many years, The Art of The Beatles by Mike Evans from 1984, which examined the group's influence on art as well as the group's own imagery. One short section looked at The Beatles in comics, and contrasted the 1978 Marvel Super Special titled The Beatles Story and the 1981 Look-In comics serial The Story of The Beatles. Evans wrote that "the Marvel treatment was unfortunately (and unintentionally) hilarious" due to its inaccuracies and poor likenesses, and consequently the three images from that comic shown in Evans' book were reproduced at tiny size. The Look-In serial, however, Evans praised as "the only worthwhile comic strip record of the Beatles," and a page from that was reproduced at full size. Although the expression "a picture is worth a thousand words" may have some truth to it, Evans' text accompaniment on every other page of the book explained to the reader just what he was looking at, and helped put the images in proper critical context. I learned a lot looking at that book, with Evans as the helpful guide.

In contrast, while The Beatles In Comic Strips is a feast for the eyes, the reader is thrown into a sea of images from around the world with less hand-holding (no pun intended) taking place. Like the Evans book, the Gentile-Schiavo book is set up chronologically, so that the older pieces are at the front of the book, the more recent ones at the end. There is also a timeline of the Beatles' career from 1960 to 2010, just in case the reader isn't sure what happened each year in Beatle history. (This suggests to me that the book may be aiming beyond the Beatle fan market and more at general readers who are less familiar with this basic chronology of events.)

The text pages are separated from the image sections of the book, so that you get a page or two of description and then a smattering of visuals for the next half-dozen or so pages, and then the next page or two of text. This does cause the reader to have to double back to the text when they finally come upon the image that had been described. For example, a paragraph of text on page 30 titled "Across the Universe" (which is accompanied by a large photo of Jane Fonda as Barbarella) concerns the Italian science-fiction comics heroine Alika, and how the Beatles were portrayed in one issue. When a page from the comic is shown in the book, however, it is not until page 54. So, there is a lot of turning of pages back and forth for the reader to recall what was said about the comic being shown.

There is a wealth of Beatles-related images here published in comic books from 1964 to 2010. But each comic is represented by only one page (I counted two pages in a couple rare instances) regardless of whether the comics represented are more Beatlecentric than others. Each image is accompanied by a line of text giving the title and year of publication, country of origin, and occasionally the name of the page's creator(s). Sometimes the cover of the publication is shown at smaller size at the bottom of the page, too (usually obscuring some of the artwork in the process).

Since the material comes from all over the globe, the comics pages are written in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and so forth -- none of which is translated. So unless you are multilingual, there are a few pages in here that -- unless a Beatle is clearly shown -- you may wonder why it was selected for inclusion. Unfortunately, some pages were evidently thought worthy of inclusion if they simply mentioned the title of a Beatles song. For example, a Doom Patrol page from 2000 is included because Robotman calls a villain "the Sgt. Pepper of the senior set!" An Evil Ernie page from 1998 is here because a character says, "The first stop on our Magical Mystery Tour. Follow me. I have a limo waiting." Luckily I can read English and figure out why the page was included (slight though I may think that reasoning); I have less luck on some of the pages written in other languages. 

Another drawback for this reader is that the images accompanying the text pieces (as mentioned earlier, with the Barbarella example) are unrelated to the Beatles. To simulate the passing of the decades, text pages are accompanied by big photos (sometimes two-page spreads) of icons of the era that have nothing to do with the Fab Four, such as Charlie's Angels (the late 1970s), Michael Keaton as Batman (actually out of sequence, placed in the early 1970s section to represent the text talking about the 1970 Batman comic inspired by the "Paul is Dead" controversy), and so on. In all, there are 24 pages devoted to such non-Beatles-related photos. Again, their inclusion suggests a view toward appealing outside the Beatles fan market to a wider general readership.

(Page 72 shows the cover of Batman #222 (June 1970), but the comic is not discussed 
until pages 84-85, where it is accompanied by a photo from Batman Returns.  Huh?)

The good thing about this book is that even the most dedicated Beatles fan or comics fan has probably not seen most of these images before -- and even if they had, it's nice to have it all in one sturdy hardcover book. As I read the book, however, I couldn't help but wish its compilers had been more discriminating in their selections. In fact, it got me thinking that a proper anthology of the best Beatles comics appearances would be even better than this book.

What got me thinking about this is when I saw how Alex Toth's 2-pager "Big Daddy's Word to the Wise" (from Big Daddy Roth #2, Dec. 1964) is represented in the book. First, Toth is not credited. Second, only the first of the two pages is shown; the second page, which predicts how the moptops will look in 1994, is omitted. Third, the dialogue balloon which mentions that the second page of the strip will show how the Fabs will look in 1994 is obscured by an unnecessary image of the magazine's cover (not Beatles related). The two-pager can be read in its entirety in Toth: "One for the Road" (Auad Publishing, 2000) and would be a worthy addition to an anthology collection of Beatles comic strips.

(On the left, the Alex Toth page in The Beatles In Comic Strips.  
On the right, the same page as reprinted in Toth: "One for the Road" in 2000.)

The front cover of New Voice Comics' 1991 one-shot Johnny is shown in the The Beatles In Comic Strips, but nothing from its interior, which consists of reminisces about Lennon's work from small-press cartoonists. Tim Corrigan's strip that closes Johnny in particular would be worth adding in full to a Beatles anthology (no pun intended) of comics. As would Craig Bartlett's one-page strip "Nothing is Real" (Centifugal Bumble-Puppy #1; Fantagraphics, 1987). The fact that Craig's strip isn't included in The Beatles In Comic Strips leads me to think that one-pagers like his were ineligible because that would have involved reprinting them in full. By reprinting only one page of a larger work, the Gentile-Schiavo book could avoid paying a reprint fee by having the republication qualify as fair use for a scholarly work.

There is another aspect of this book which the reader might wish to know about in advance: some of the selections might be in bad taste. At first I figured this was due to the different cultural norms of different countries, but there is some disturbing stuff in the homegrown comics as well. Page 148 has a lovely ink-brush illustration of the Beatles, but the (non-Beatles) front cover of the magazine in which it originally appeared is also shown, a color painting depicting a close-up of a woman's rear-end on a bed being tied up with rope by a man's hands. Why it was felt necessary to include this cover image is beyond me. 

 (Page 148 has the lads competing for the reader's attention with a bondage scene.)

Most of the other disturbing images involve the death of John Lennon. The cover of a 1980 Italian publication is shown on page 106, showing a scribbly drawing of Lennon (similar in style to his own artwork) crying "Help!" as what appears to be the muzzle of a gun blasts at him. Page 122 shows a 1983 Metal Hurlant cover of the Fab Four reunited, with Lennon depicted as a rotting corpse with skeletal arms draped around his bandmates. On page 180, Gentile/Schiavo writes about a 1994 cover (shown on page 164 -- see, I told you that you have to flip pages back and forth!) depicting "a John Lennon revenant who looms over his surviving colleagues with crooked glasses and a look straight out of Pet Sematary." Marvel had a storyline where four Skrulls adopted the guise of the Beatles, and on page 219 we are shown the splash page of a 2008 Captain Britain comic where "Lennon" is seen shackled and bloodied, at which his captor then says, "This Skrull has been tortured enough. Please kill it for now." To anyone who loved John Lennon, as I think most serious Beatles fans do, this is obviously a painful and unwelcome image.

There is seemingly a lack of affection in such irreverent depictions, which suggests to me that they may not even be the handiwork of actual Beatles fans, but of comics creators who decided to use (or exploit) the imagery of the Beatles for their own purposes. Again, I would contrast this with Mike Evans' Art of the Beatles book, where more discrimination and taste is on display throughout, and a feeling of real affection for the group. For example, in that book, we see the two versions of artist David Oxtoby's painting of Lennon, "English Rock." The first was painted in 1976 and depicts Lennon's profile against New York in flames. After Lennon's murder, the artist painted over this fiery vision, and replaced the background with a calm blue sky: Lennon at peace. The humanity of the artist is more evident there than in the "clever" appropriation of the group's image for cheap laughs or shock value. Perhaps this says something about the nature of comic books, however, even those in the high-minded independent and foreign comics scene.

My preference would have been for Gentile and Schiavo to have chosen the best material available, explained why it was worthwhile (as Evans did for the art in his book) and left the rest out. Having said that, some of the best comics about the Beatles are in this book; I just wish there was more of that shown, and that there was less of the rest.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Silent Movies and Me

A couple days ago, I happened to stumble upon a blog run by Jessica Keaton called "Silence is Platinum," which is all about the stars of the silent movie era.  I'm surprised that I hadn't stumbled upon it earlier, since Jessica's blog contains entries on several silent stars with whom I've long been fascinated, and about whom I still know little, even after all these years.

Given that Jessica has written around 200 entries, I thought it would be a good idea to organize the information into alphabetical order, so that any visitor could easily see at a glance what topics and individuals have been covered already.  (I seem to have a habit of thinking this way.  Back in the early 1990s, when I discovered that a Doctor Who program guide I had was lacking an index at the back, I compiled one myself.  Fortunately computers have made such indexing a lot easier!)

So, I spent yesterday putting together an alphabetical index of every entry on Jessica's blog.  That way, if you want to see who has been written about (or who hasn't yet been written about), it's simpler to find out: just see if their name is on the list.  I compiled this index for my own benefit, so I could go immediately to the entries that I was most interested in; but Jessica's blog is so well-done that you will find yourself becoming interested in some actors that you had never heard of before.

Two of my favorite blog entries that Jessica has written are her photographic travels to see the grave sites of deceased stars of the silent era.  In the posts titled "Grave hunting" (Sept. 2010) and "Grave Pictures" (June 2012), she visited the final resting places of such notables as Buster Keaton, Marion Davies, Clara Bow and Valentino, as well as less well-known names (but perhaps even more fascinating to me) like Pola Negri and Maude FealyIt may sound morbid, but such pilgrimages to these graves do allow the person of today to get about as close to the stars of yesterday as possible. And sadly some of the people who were involved in the early days of film have been forgotten, so it's great to see their names being recognized and appreciated by someone.

There are many other fascinating entries on Jessica's blog, offering tributes to a large number of people (both the famous and the forgotten), so check out my index for the A to Z list of them!


Although I was curious during my early teen years about science fiction/fantasy silents like Metropolis (used by Queen in their "Radio Gaga" music video) and Nosferatu, it wasn't until my late teens that I became a fan of silent film in general.  One of the first things to get my attention was seeing a photo of Clara Bow in a book about movies that was in my high school library.  The stark B&W photo made her almost look like a goth idol like Siouxsie Sioux, a refreshingly hard-edged alternative to the bland, pastel-colored visuals that were prevalent in the mid-to-late 1980s.  

I subsequently saw a postcard of the famous photo (at right) of Louise Brooks holding a string of pearls, much of her figure concealed by darkness, and I was hooked.  I got and read Barry Paris' biography of Brooks (as well as her autobiography Lulu in Hollywood, and the very first book about Brooks, Portrait of an anti-Star) and became fascinated with this early era of film history. I told a friend at the time that reading the Barry Paris book, following the story of her life from beginning to the end, felt like having a lifelong affair with another person, being with them as they went through the ups and downs of life.

In the early 1990s, I acquired one of my all-time favorite books: A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen by Daniel Blum, which was released in 1953 (a few years before serious interest in the artistry of the silent film era had gained acceptance).  What this book may lack in quality (since much of it consists of rows of tiny photos printed on non-slick paper), it more than makes up for in quantity!  One can really get lost in the past just by looking through this book, seeing stills from early films that in many instances no longer exist.

It was particularly cool to see photo stills that looked more modern than I had expected -- or conversely, a fashion trend that seemed bizarre to modern eyes.  Most of the leading men would be clean-shaven, even back then, but supporting character types would often appear with wild bushy whiskers on their faces.  (Whenever I see a film today that takes place during that period, such as Murdoch Mysteries, I often think that there would be a lot more whiskery men walking around.) 

The rise of the vamp in the mid-to-late 'Teens, most notably Theda Bara, was a vivid example of this -- a fashion or trend that dominated the scene but then disappeared, never to return in quite the same way.  Yes, there were other femme fatales later on, but usually not depicted in the fantastic, literally vampiric style of those early vamps.  When I saw a photo (not the one of her shown at left) in the Blum book of Valeska Suratt,  she was wearing a veil that was designed like a huge spider web, and I remember thinking it odd: "Is this what was considered sexy back in 1917?"  (Of course, in recent years, when I saw Lady Gaga's fashions, my first thought was "Ah, she's bringing the vamp back in style!")  Sadly none of Valeska Suratt's films survive today.

Back in the early 1990s, it was a little more difficult to see an old silent movie than it is today (with the advent of YouTube, etc.) and my viewings of them were limited to what aired on TV or what I bought or rented on videotape.  There were also mail-order dealers whose catalogs were filled with tapes for sale, but limited funds prevented me from pursuing that opportunity.  (Today, magazines like Classic Images are still published which contain numerous ads for such dealers.)  Fortunately, American Movie Classics (AMC) still played old movies back then, from whence I taped Clara Bow's 1927 film Wings, and Lillian Gish's 1928 film The Wind (which was preceded by a new introduction from Gish herself that you can watch here).  On Sunday morning, Comedy Central would air "Dead Comics Society," hosted by comedian Robert Klein, which would air (with commercial interruptions, alas) silent shorts by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon, among others, as well as later (talking) shorts by Charley Chase and Edgar Kennedy.  And of course Turner Classic Movies (TCM) would play silent movies each week, especially in their Sunday night at midnight slot.  I recall commandeering the family TV to see Erich von Stroheim's Greed one evening and watching it on the couch with my mom (not a silent movie buff)!

The appeal of silent movies to me initially lay with the simple fascination of being able to witness history -- things that had happened before recorded sound itself was a staple of the moviegoing experience.  But the more I watched, the more I realized that silent movies could touch the heart in a way that sound films often didn't, through the use of gestures that expressed feelings that words couldn't convey.  I recall first noticing this in the aforementioned Wings, when one of the pilots brings to a grieving mother the tiny good-luck bear that she had given her son.  I saw this as well in the modern sequence of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (the silent version) where two friends are in love with the same girl, and when she chooses one over the other, he gently squeezes the hand of his crestfallen friend in sympathy at his heartbreak.  Even some of the comedies, such as those of Chaplin and Langdon, were known to tug at the heart strings, utilizing the silent films' strength in stirring depth of feeling.

However, most of the silent comedies specialized in another strength: the humor of watching clever bits of business being perfectly played out on screen.  Physical comedians like Keaton and Harold Lloyd drew laughs for the zany pitfalls that befell their characters, somehow surviving to the last reel.  Although lines of dialogue can often help carry a gag over with the audience, too much can get in the way of the joke.  A simple title card sufficed to add a line here or there, to complement rather than slow down the symphonic movement of the figures.  One of my favorite silent film comedy sequences is one from a 1926 Charley Chase short called "Dog Shy" where he misunderstands an order to give "The Duke" (a dog) a bath, and proceeds to force a visiting dignitary into the tub.  The scene works on a few different levels: the humiliation of the Duke (and the undermining of his earlier boastings of his valor as he is dragged off by Charley) and the way in which Charley's behavior is presented as normal in his own mind (he was ordered to give him a bath) and lunacy in his victim's.  It's a slight entertainment, but the simple purity of the scenario still makes me laugh.

A happy medium between reading a book about silent movies and actually seeing a silent movie is when one can watch a well-made documentary on the subject.  In the 1990s, I used to love whenever PBS would air one of the British documentaries about silent film, such as "The Unknown Chaplin" "Buster Keaton, A Hard Act to Follow" or "Harold Lloyd, The Third Genius."  These and several other documentaries were written and produced by the great film historian Kevin Brownlow, whose work is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the silents.   Brownlow is best known for his book on the subject, The Parade's Gone By... (1968), but my favorite may be Behind the Mask of Innocence (1990) which looks at silent films in a sociological way, especially ones which were produced for that purpose.  My one regret is that I have none of Brownlow's books on my own bookshelf, having always borrowed them from the library!

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Kenneth Anger's two volumes of Hollywood Babylon.  While they have a very poor reputation (Jessica Keaton refers to it as "trash" more than once on her blog), and shouldn't be relied on for historical accuracy, they helped fuel my interest as I first became a fan of silent movies.  If you know someone who thinks silent movies are boring, Hollywood Babylon may change their mind.  (Especially the first volume, which is more amusingly-written.)  However, they are to silent film history what Perez Hilton and TMZ are to modern cinema: a fun, guilty pleasure but not to be mistaken for actual scholarship.


One of the great things about being alive right now is that we have access to materials at our fingertips that many researchers and fans of the past may not have had.  As more and more items from the past are scanned or uploaded to the net, our base of knowledge about the topic increases.  Information that has been buried in movie magazines from a hundred years ago can now be read anew with the click of a button.  Case in point: The poem shown above was published in the May 1915 issue of Photoplay magazine, credited to one "M. C. Davies."  Could this have been actress Marion Davies, before she was famous? According to Wikipedia, she made her film debut in late 1916. IMDB's earliest film for her is from 1917. And her middle name? Cecelia. 

How did I get access to a 1915 issue of Photoplay?  It's available online.  There are other websites which contain a numerous amount of magazines and newspapers that can be viewed on your computer.  And it seems that the more sites that pop up, the more information about (and photos of!) stars of the past become available, too.

One silent movie actress that hasn't yet been featured on Jessica Keaton's Silence is Platimum blog is one about whom I knew nearly nothing for over 20 years, but (thanks to the internet) have recently learned a great deal more about.  I first heard of (and saw a couple photos of) Valda Valkyrien in Daniel Blum's A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen book.  She appeared in a couple tiny photos therein, and that was pretty much it as to the information about her -- that I ever ran across, anyway.  However, since more old magazines have been scanned and uploaded to the net, more information is now available about her than I'd ever seen in print before.  (Although maybe I wasn't paying enough attention to the right publications.)  Since the old magazines can be read online, it's no longer necessary to have someone else filtering that material to the reader; the original magazine articles can be read for oneself.  On the other hand, not everything that appeared in the old magazines was the truth either, so the critical skills of a researcher and historian are still needed to sift through the data and find if the oft-told tales match the known facts.  

Fans can also use the internet to obtain books and magazines (the physical objects, not just downloads) about silent movies more easily than they might have done in the past.  I remember in the early 1990s at a B. Dalton bookstore seeing a new book about Natacha Rambova (who I knew about from Hollywood Babylon) titled Madam Valentino, but I didn't have enough money to get the book at that time -- and never saw it again.  In recent years, I saw that it was available on eBay, but again for more than I was able to pay for it.  Biding my time, I would search for it on eBay every now and then, until finally I found it from a seller for ten bucks and nabbed it.  The seller also had a book about Nazimova for around the same price and I bought that as well.  Of course I could have visited a well-stocked used bookstore and perhaps found them there as well (emphasis on "perhaps") but it was nice to be able to "shop around" for an item that is (or was) fairly obscure (as most items relating to silent film history are likely to be).  Old movie magazines can sometimes be hot items on eBay, though.  Last May, I was surprised to see a 1931 movie magazine sell there for $160, when the starting bid had been $25.00.

Perhaps that demonstrates a possible future: where these once-obscure, neglected things become more well-known, partly through the internet, and they become not-so-forgotten after all.  However, part of the appeal of silent movies (and other neglected artforms like radio drama) is that they offer an alternative to the prevailing tastes of today.  Both silent movies and radio demand a certain level of engagement on the part of the audience, so that it's likely they will never again enjoy widespread popularity as they had in the past.  No worries, though!  The fact that silent movies continue to be appreciated by new generations of fans (however small their number) bodes well for their survival in the years ahead.