Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Books, Mary 12, 2010

Pop culture maven Steven “Booksteve” Thompson has published more than 5000 posts on various websites and blogs over the past
eight years, mainly at BOOKSTEVE’S LIBRARY. His writing has also appeared from Bear Manor Media and he has worked behind the scenes on various books over the past year. In spite of all this hard work, he remains technically unemployed. He can be found
in Northern Kentucky living with the world's most understanding wife, the coolest son ever, a dysfunctional dog and at least two cats.


I’m known for an interest in old television and comics so I chose for my review a novel that combines the two…literally. Batman Vs. Three Villains of Doom by the pseudonymous “Winston Lyon” was originally published in the year of Batmania, 1966. To the best of my knowledge, it was the very first prose appearance of Batman and Robin and it isn’t at all bad. It is, however, rather an odd bird in and of itself.

Although ostensibly a tie-in to the then-new and phenomenally hot Batman TV series, Batman Vs. Three Villains of Doom is in actuality a bizarre hybrid of parts of that series and the more serious (by comic book hero standards at least) 1950’s DC comics stories of the Dynamic Duo.

The author seems to have been given at least some access to the TV series or perhaps simply early scripts as we have the familiar bust of Shakespeare opening the Batcave entrance, Alfred (who was deceased at that time in the comics!) protecting the characters’ secret identities from Aunt Harriet and over the top scenes such as Bruce Wayne reading and memorizing every story from a score of daily newspapers.

On the other hand, we also have the Batcave entrance being in the Wayne Manor living room as opposed to the private study, the batsignal displayed on the side of the tallest building in Gotham and we are introduced to “Inspector” O’Hara, the Irish cop.

As for this book itself, there’s a natural tendency to presume that it might be the source material for the Batman feature film that was made and released before the end of the year but it was not. There are three of the same four villains from the movie, there’s a yacht and there’s a scene where the Caped Crusader has to get rid of a bomb but the similarities end there. “Lyon” would, himself, go on to also novelize the Batman movie, but that’s another book and another story.

At 128 pages, this is a short novel but nicely laid out. In the beginning we are shown a conference of criminals in which the Joker, the Penguin and the Catwoman are all introduced as competitors for crimedom’s “Tommy Award,” a gold-plated tommy gun, to be presented for killing Batman. Tellingly, the characters are all described as they looked in the old comics instead of their television incarnations, with the Joker being tall and thin (a description that would never have fit Cesar Romero!) and the Catwoman having a “smoothly furred leotard” and a long green cloak.

Batman and Robin have already gotten wind of this confab, however, and arrive to break it up, capturing Catwoman in the process but being themselves bested by the Penguin. We then see Penguin take his shot at winning the award with a long, realistically paced chase scene and a genuinely thrilling blimp crime.

When the Tuxedoed Terror inevitably fails in his ultimate quest, the Joker takes his turn. It is pointed out that this is the truly insane Clown Prince of Crime from the early comics or as he returned in the 1970’s. The Joker is genuinely scary in some of his scenes, both to the other characters and the reader as well.

Finally, just when you think it should be over, an escaped Catwoman returns to the plot with the deadliest trap yet for the Caped Crusaders.

“Deadly” is a good word for the criminals’ intentions here, by the way. On the series, the serious consequences of the villains’ attempts at “getting rid of” Batman and Robin were always downplayed and even sugarcoated. Here, that is most definitely not the case. For example, the Joker tricks Robin into leaping at a dummy and then immediately opens a trap door beneath them so that Robin will fall directly into corrosive acid a mere five feet below him! How he survives that very realistic and scary trap is the biggest stretch of credibility that the reader is asked to buy in the entire novel.

Which brings us to the biggest fault of Batman Vs. Three Villains of Doom—it can’t make up its mind as to how serious it wants to be! The parts of the book that play like a straightforward crime story are the best with the author giving almost noir-ish descriptions of settings and fight scenes. On the other hand, the concept of “camp” as popularized by the TV series seemed to completely throw him and he instead relied on a vague Mad-style (or maybe Cracked-style) parody feel in the book’s few attempts at actually treading that fine line.

“Winston Lyon,” by the way, was the pen name for former comic book writer William Woolfolk. Woolfolk had worked on many comic heroes beginning in the 1940’s including Blackhawk and the original Captain Marvel. He even claimed to have coined the latter’s “Holey Moley!” catchphrase. Two heroes he had not worked on before, though, were Batman and Robin.

By the early 1960’s, Woolfolk won praise as one of the main writers for the long-running television legal drama, the Defenders. He became a successful novelist both as Winston Lyon and under his own name, eventually even hitting the bestseller list, a feat his daughter, Donna Woolfolk Cross, would repeat many years later with her 1996 novel, Pope Joan.

Batman fans all have their own idea of how the character “should” be so this unusual and unique combination of serious and silly versions may not appeal to everyone but taken as a product of its time I found it immensely entertaining and, for the most part, very well written by an author who seemed to have quite a good feel for the characters. I wish he had written more Batman stories!

Batman Vs. Three Villains of Doom, with its Adam West cover, was originally published in April of 1966 and is long out of print. If you’re intrigued, however, you can generally find inexpensive copies through EBay, Amazon, Abebooks and all of the usual Internet sources.

Ed Gorman is the author of TICKET TO RIDE and the short story collection THE END OF IT ALL. You can find him here.

Forgotten Books: Trauma by Graham Masterton

Forgotten Books: Trauma by Graham Masterton

Graham Masterton has had one of those long, prolific careers that fall to writers of the first rank who have never had the break they deserve. He's certainly a finer writer and better storyteller than many of the people on the bestseller lists. He's always been more popular in Europe than the U.S. despite boxcar loads of great reviews he gets here.

If you doubt my words I suggest you pick up a paperback called TRAUMA, which was nominated for a Best PB Edgar several years ago. The storyline follows one Bonnie Winter, middle-aged working class woman who sells cosmetics for a company called Glamorex and runs a business that cleans up crime scenes after the police are done with them.

But that's not all. In the course of this novel we see that Bonnie has one other task, that of trying to hold a family together that has drifted apart to a painful degree. I can't recall any suspense novel of recent vintage that so powerfully depicts a woman coming to realize that her life is loveless and wasted. I'll pay Masterton the highest compliment I know--I think Margaret Millar would have loved this novel.

This being a Masterton novel there is an ominous and disturbing undertow of supernatural dread as well. Bonnie begins to find
strange black caterpillars at the crime scenes she cleans up. She will eventually learn of their significance through a series of violent scenes that are breathtaking in their savagery.

Masterton concludes by tying Bonnie's affection for her Glamorex boss, a decent and attentive guy, into both the familial and supernatural subplots. The climax is shocking and unforgettable.

I reviewed this novel when it first appeared. At the time I said that for all that so many current literary writers try to capture the essence of our time, their work looks shallow compared to what this brief sad volatile novel accomplishes. I still say that.

Paul Bishop
Bill Crider
Mike Dennis
Martin Edwards
Evan Lewis
Steve Lewis-Marvin Lachman
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
Chris LaTray
Todd Mason
Scott Parker
Eric Peterson
Rick Robinson
Kerrie Smith


R/T said...

Patti, here is a belated addition to your collection of "forgotten books" Read about it here at Novels, Stories, and More.

Naomi Johnson said...

Thanks, Ed, I have to add Masterton to my reading list for sure.