Monday, February 27, 2017

Short Take: Under the Skin

The sf-horror film Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer, isn't a thriller. It's an austere, deliberately paced character study about an earthbound alien (Scarlett Johansson) who begins to fancy that she's human. During the film's first act, she drives around the Edinburgh area picking up men. Promising sex, she takes them to an abandoned house where they are captured and disincorporated into plasma. The reason is never explained. However, the alien becomes fascinated with the human form she's adopted. She also begins to take pity on the men she preys on, and she develops a curiosity about human pleasures such as food and romantic love. She eventually finds herself fleeing the other aliens who accompanied her. Unfortunately, there's not a cheerful or affirming moment in the entire film. Johansson's performance isn't very expressive. By design, it runs the gamut from low-key to deadpan. The other actors, almost all of them non-professionals, don't make much of an impression. Glazer maintains a dour tone, with sunless imagery that emphasizes the windswept cold and wet of Scotland in autumn or late winter. The glumly ascetic take-me-seriously manner mutes the sensationalism--the picture is sex and violence from beginning to end--but it also empties the film of any emotional weight. The film is an impersonal, pretentious undertaking. The screenplay is credited to Walter Campbell and Glazer, from a novel by Michel Faber. Daniel Landin provided the gray-hued cinematography. The eerie, discord-heavy score is by Mica Levi.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

At Comics by the Date: January 1951 to February 1951

This week's entry at Comics by the Date features comics published in January and February of 1951. The publications include work by Walt Kelly, Harvey Kurtzman, Alex Raymond, and many others. Click here to read the post.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Jim Shooter Victim Files: Mary Skrenes

Mary Skrenes, born in 1947, came to the comics industry by happenstance. While a student at Nevada Southern University (now the University of Nevada at Las Vegas), she became friends with artist Alan Weiss. They both worked on Rebel Yell, the campus student newspaper. Skrenes, at various times, served as the paper's advertising editor and business manager. Weiss was an art editor. In the summer of 1969, she accompanied Weiss and his girlfriend Pami Texler to the Comic Art Convention in New York. According to Weiss, she made some contacts at the convention, and soon after began writing scripts for DC Comics' romance editor Dorothy Woolfolk (That Kid 177). She also began doing work for Joe Orlando, who edited the company's mystery-horror line. At some point after the convention, she relocated to New York City.

Skrenes' work began appearing on newsstands in the spring of 1971. Her first published comics story appears to be "Nobody Loves a Lizard!", illustrated by Don Heck. It was included in the Orlando-edited The House of Mystery #192 (May-June 1971). The issue was published on March 9. Her next published effort, also for Orlando, was Weiss's professional debut as a penciler: "It's Better to Give...," featured in The House of Secrets #92 (June-July 1971), and published on April 1. The first story she published under Woolfolk appears to be "Too Proud for Love!", illustrated by Werner Roth and Vince Colletta. It appeared in Young Love #87 (July-August 1971), which came out on May 1. Other stories scripted by her or in collaboration with Steve Skeates appeared over the next couple of years in the aforementioned Orlando titles, and in The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love, The Sinister House of Secret Love, and Girls' Love Stories.

Skrenes appears to have ran into a number of problems with proper credit for her efforts. Her work for Dorothy Woolfolk was published without a byline, and her initial efforts for Joe Orlando appeared under the pseudonym "Virgil North." Weiss felt the reason was most likely sexism.

I could be wrong, but Mary might've been the only female writing romance stories, or any other kind of stories [at DC], for that matter--certainly the only female writing horror stories. That's why she had to have a male pseudonym." (That Kid 177)

According to Steve Skeates, Skrenes eventually had a falling out with Orlando. As a result, his scriptwriting collaborations with her at DC were solely credited to him (Shwirian 83).

Skrenes wouldn't get a professional credit under her own name until early 1974, when "Warrior's Dream," a collaboration with Skeates that was illustrated by Gray Morrow, was published in Archie Comics' Red Circle Sorcery #6 (cover-dated April). Her first solo byline without a pseudonym was for "The Casket of Hsien Hang!", with art by Paul Gulacy and Duffy Vohland. It was published in Marvel's The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #5, cover-dated October, which came out on September 3, 1974. Her first official byline in a DC publication appeared the following year. It was for the Elongated Man story "The Mystery Man Who Walked on Air!", illustrated by Dick Giordano. The story, done for editor Julius Schwartz, was featured in Detective Comics #449, cover-dated July and published on April 29, 1975.

Apart from a few contributions to the underground/independent comics anthologies Star*Reach and Wimmen's Comix, Skrenes' comics work for the rest of 1970s was at Marvel. In comics circles, her name became inextricably tied to Steve Gerber, a scriptwriter and editor who at the time was one of comics' rising stars. Gerber had entered the field in mid-1972, almost two years after Skrenes, to take an editorial position at Marvel. As was typical of Marvel editorial staffers of the time, he supplemented his income with freelance scriptwriting for the publisher. After a few months, he left his staff position to script and edit titles on a freelance basis full-time. Gerber first worked with Skrenes in 1975 in his capacity as editor of Crazy magazine, Marvel's answer to Mad. Shortly thereafter, she accompanied Gerber to a pitch meeting with Marvel publisher Stan Lee (Crazy Days 62). Along with a series starring Howard the Duck, a character Gerber co-created for Marvel in 1973, Gerber and Skrenes proposed an offbeat superhero feature that came to be called Omega the Unknown. Lee approved both titles for publication. The first issue of Howard the Duck, cover-dated January, was released on September 23, 1975. Omega the Unknown, with a cover date of March, debuted on November 25. According to Skrenes, in an unpublished excerpt of an interview with Sean Howe, she and Gerber co-plotted the stories for both books (Howe email). However, she only received credit as co-writer for her work on Omega.

The two series are among the most noteworthy of the publisher's output during the 1970s. The Howard series, with its mix of existential themes, media parodies, and action-adventure heroics, became a minor pop-culture sensation. It received mainstream-media coverage, which was something unheard of for most comic-book projects. The feature was also spun off into a daily-newspaper strip, and eventually a radio serial and a live-action film. The Omega series didn't enjoy anywhere near that level of attention, but it quickly gained a cult following. The tone and pacing, at least during the initial issues, were far more characteristic of mystery-themed science fiction than superhero comics. The celebrated novelist Jonathan Lethem, who scripted a 2007-2008 reworking of the series, had this to say about it in an interview with the comics website Newsarama:

Omega floored me [...] I thought it was fantastic. Those first issues, when Gerber and Skrenes were really allowed to do what they wanted to do and were building this incredible story full of all sorts of weird implications and possibilities... I simply thought it was the best comic book I’d ever read. (MacDonald)

The Omega series was cancelled with its tenth issue, which was published on June 28, 1977. All accounts say the reason was low sales. According to Gerber, Marvel editor-in-chief Archie Goodwin called him to let him know of the decision (Crazy Days, 65).

The cancellation marked Mary Skrenes' departure from the comics field. A few months earlier, around the time work on the final issue was completed, she left New York and moved back to Nevada. Apart from a Howard the Duck inventory story that was published in 1978, her name would not appear on any new comics material for almost thirty years.

In 2003-2004, she collaborated (uncredited) with Steve Gerber on the scripts for the DC Comics series Hard Time. She was credited as co-writer with Gerber on the Hard Time Season Two series published in 2006. She has done no work in comics since.

So, where does Jim Shooter figure into this? It seems Mary Skrenes had left the comics business several months before he took over as Marvel's editor-in-chief in January 1978.

To answer that, let's back up to the final issue of the original Omega series. The episode ended with series unresolved. A footer caption on the final page reads: "The story of 'Omega the Unknown' will be concluded in a future issue of 'The Defenders.'--Steve, Mary, [and] Jim [artist Jim Mooney]."

Two years later, in the summer of 1979, the storyline was wrapped up in a pair of Defenders episodes. However, Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes had not worked on them. The scripts were credited to Steven Grant.

In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe offered this explanation:

An ending to Gerber and Skrenes's Omega the Unknown saga, repeatedly promised in letters columns and repeatedly rescheduled, was finally written without its creators' input. "It just got to the point where we couldn't work with Shooter anymore," Skrenes said. "He was screwing with us and punishing us and trying to have somebody else write it, like they always did with Howard." Omega was killed off an issue of The Defenders. Gerber and Skrenes swore to each other that they'd take their original plans for the character's ending to their graves. "I'd heard for years," Skrenes said of Shooter, "'Mort Weisinger gave this guy a nervous breakdown.' And they make him an editor, and it's like, he didn't get the memo that we get to do what we want with the book." (207)

For several reasons, the possibility that editorial interference from Jim Shooter (or anyone else) thwarted Gerber and Skrenes' efforts to write that Defenders Omega finale came to seem increasingly unlikely while I was researching "All Quacked Up," my history of Gerber's business relationship with Marvel. It struck me that Skrenes was most likely talking about matters related to the original Omega series, not the promised wrap-up in The Defenders. I was able to ask her about it on Facebook last October. Here is the exchange:

That confirms she was talking about the Omega series. The Defenders story couldn't have been a point of contention before she returned to Nevada.

Shortly thereafter, I contacted Howe and told him that Skrenes effectively said she'd been quoted out of context. He sent me extended excerpts from the interview, and his confusion over what she was talking about is understandable. She repeatedly jumped back and forth across the timeline, and there were irrelevant tangents besides. The "It" in the "It just got to the point..." is never clearly defined.

Skrenes did indicate to Howe that she was approached to write The Defenders Omega finale, and since Howe clearly assumed the Shooter complaint explained why it didn't work out, he didn't press her on it. That led me to follow up with her. Here's that exchange:

So Jim Shooter did not derail Gerber and Skrenes' work on The Defenders Omega finale. Mary Skrenes never had any intention of working on it in the first place. Steve Gerber's various problems at Marvel during 1977 and 1978 (all chronicled at length in "All Quacked Up") meant he couldn't work on it, either. Gerber confirmed that these conflicts with Marvel prevented his working on The Defenders Omega finale in a 1999 interview with Jon B. Cooke (Crazy Days, 62).

But for all that, what was the story behind The Defenders Omega finale as published? This is Steven Grant's recollection, from a 2014 email:

[The announcement in the final issue of Omega] triggered months and months of The Defenders getting letters about nothing BUT “When will Omega wrap up in The Defenders?” [...] Editor Al Milgrom could stand no more. Then-regular writer Ed Hannigan wanted nothing to do with it, because he figured nothing he did would please Gerber’s fans [...] I happened to walk into the office at the time, Al asked me if I’d do it, and I, just starting out and not thinking about my career much past when the rent was due, said okay, [and] could I have two issues instead of one? Al asked Ed, Ed said sure, and Al gave me my one instruction: do whatever I want as long as Omega is dead and not coming back by the end of it. For better or worse, everything else in the story was my idea. Nothing came from anyone at Marvel. No one at Marvel wanted anything to do with it [...] Jim [Shooter] had nothing to do with the Omega story that I’ve ever been aware of. That was Al and Ed wanting to clean house.

That leaves the question of Shooter's editorial interference during the original Omega series. Since it's now clear that this is what Skrenes was actually talking about, let's elaborate on her complaint. Skrenes said Shooter "was screwing with us and punishing us and trying to have somebody else write" Omega. This is obviously a reference to the fill-in episodes, respectively scripted by Scott Edelman and Roger Stern, that were published in Omega the Unknown #7 and 8. This is supported by these statements in her interview with Howe. The italicized parts were not included in his book:

And they make him an editor, and it’s like he didn’t get the memo, that we get to do what we want with the book. He took us off for an issue, then we got it back for an issue.

Jon B. Cooke asked Gerber about the matter in his 1999 interview. This is the exchange:

COOKE: Why didn't you and Mary write two issues of the book?

GERBER: Scheduling problems, probably. It had to do with the schedule on Howard the Duck and on other things. I just got too busy at some point or another. The book wasn't taken away from us for those two issues. There were just other things I had to do--it may have been the Kiss book, now that I think about it--that interfered with the schedule on Omega. (Crazy Days, 65)

Gerber was clearly not upset about the fill-in issues, and saw them as a necessity because of other demands on his time. He certainly didn't think he and Skrenes were being screwed with or punished, or that the fill-ins reflected an effort to give the series to another writer.

Scott Edelman's recollection is in accord with Gerber's. Edelman also didn't see the fill-in issues as being anything other than a solution to a scheduling problem. Further, it was not his impression the series was being taken away from Gerber and Skrenes and given to him and/or Roger Stern. From the account he wrote for his website:

[T]he book was in danger of missing its printing schedule [...] Jim Shooter was determined to crack down on what was referred to in those days as the Dreaded Deadline Doom. So Shooter took Roger Stern and me out to dinner and told us that we were going to write the next two issues of Omega, basically overnight, allowing the hero to have adventures while making sure nothing important was left changed about the characters at the end of either issue.

Roger Stern also remembers that he was just helping out with a scheduling problem. From a 2006 interview with George Khoury:

I was a warm body, I was there on staff, and I could string sentences together in a way that made at least a little sense. That’s how I wound up writing [...] an issue of Omega the Unknown, when Steve Gerber fell behind on some deadlines.

Skrenes complains that Shooter "didn't get the memo that we get to do what we want with the book." I don't think that "[getting] to do what we want" extends to abruptly putting a bimonthly series on hiatus for six months because she and Gerber were busy with other things. Such a move is financially untenable for a newsstand periodical. Gerber understood the fill-in issues were a necessary compromise.

It should be noted that Shooter at the time was Marvel's associate editor, not the editor-in-chief. He probably could not unilaterally order substitutions on books, particularly those with regular creative personnel. Those decisions would most likely have been made in consultation with editor-in-chief Archie Goodwin, who was then Shooter's supervisor, and production manager John Verpoorten.

If Gerber and Skrenes felt Shooter was out of line about this or any other matter, they would have certainly been able to address their grievances with Goodwin. If they weren't happy with how Goodwin handled their complaints, Gerber's relationship with publisher Stan Lee was probably good enough to discuss the problems with him. Any editorial decision Shooter made with regard to Omega was with the approval, explicit or implicit, of Goodwin, Lee, and even Gerber. Gerber certainly appeared on board with running fill-in issues with the series.

One can of course sympathize with Skrenes' anger over the fill-in issues. She's also entitled to dislike Jim Shooter or anyone else for any reason. It's undoubtedly aggravating to watch someone arrange for other people to work on what you understood to be an exclusive project. But the world of newsstand periodicals is also a world of compromises, and there will always be compromises made to ensure a printing deadline is met. Enforcing those compromises when they're called for doesn't make Jim Shooter or any other periodical editor a villain. They're just doing their job.

Works Consulted

Cooke, Jon B. “Steve Gerber’s Crazy Days.” Comic Book Artist, Feb. 2000: 66-79. Rpt. In Comic Book Artist Collection, Vol. 3. Ed. Jon B. Cooke. Raleigh: TwoMorrows, 2005. 83-88.

---. "That Kid from Out West!" Comic Book Artist, Comic Book Artist Collection, Vol. 1. Ed. Jon B. Cooke. Raleigh: TwoMorrows, 2000. 170-187.

Edelman, Scott. "Omega the Unknown #7 (March 1977)." Undated. Link.

Gerber, Steve, Mary Skrenes, Jim Mooney, et al. Omega the Unknown Classic. Rpt. Omega the Unknown #1-10, 1976-1977, et al. Ed. Jeff Youngquist. New York: Marvel, 2005.

Grant, Steven. Email to author. 13 Mar. 2014

Howe, Sean. Email to author. 16 Nov. 2016.

---. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.

Khoury, George. "The Roger Stern Interview: The Triumphs and Trials of the Writer." Oct. 2006. Link

MacDonald, Heidi. "Exclusive: Read Jonathan Lethem's Omega the Unknown #1." 22 Feb. 2008. Link.

Martin, R. S. "All Quacked Up: Steve Gerber, Marvel Comics, and Howard the Duck.", 26 Apr. 2016. Link.

--- and Mary Skrenes. Comments. Steve Gerber RIP Facebook page. 1 Oct.- 21 Nov. 2016. Link

Schwirian, John. "The Unique Vision and Voice of Steve Skeates, Part 3." Back Issue! 34. Jun. 2009. 81-87.

Related posts:
  • The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files
           -- Introduction
           -- Tony Isabella
           -- Steve Englehart
           -- Gerry Conway
           -- Len Wein

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Short Take: The Red Balloon

Writer-director Albert Lamorisse’s lovely 1956 short The Red Balloon is the best kind of children’s film. It doesn’t condescend to younger viewers, and it doesn’t insult the intelligence of older ones. The story tells of a small Parisian boy (Pascal Lamorisse, the filmmaker’s son) who finds a balloon tied to a lamppost on his way to school. He unties the balloon and takes it with him. The day isn’t over before it’s clear the balloon has a mind of its own, and has become very loyal to the boy. It follows him wherever he goes. The two find that friendship can often be at odds with propriety, and it can also be a target for the ugliness of envy. The climax and epilogue are a conspicuously Christian allegory, and it’s a tribute to Lamorisse’s grace as a storyteller that these latter sections never seem hackneyed or overdone. The most effective aspect of his treatment is the extraordinary use of locations. Most of the film was shot in the working-poor neighborhood of Montparnasse, and the hard-edged social-realist visuals act as a tonic for the material’s sentimentality. The picture is sweet without ever feeling mushy. The documentary quality also makes the magical aspects of the story all the more effective. Everything feels so true to life that the uncanny doesn’t seem the least bit discordant. The cinematographer was Edmond S├ęchan. Maurice Le Roux provided the excellent score. Among the film’s many honors are the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’or, and the U. S. Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The running time is 35 minutes.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Short Take: The Cotton Club

The Cotton Club (1984), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, seems to want to be about anything but The Cotton Club. The legendary Harlem nightclub’s roster of entertainers is awe-inspiring: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, and many, many others. It was perhaps the center of American music and dance during the Jazz Age. But the film doesn’t build the story around the club and its exclusively African-American performers. The picture is mainly about a romance between an Irish-American cornet player (Richard Gere) and a young gangland moll (Diane Lane). The intrigues of the period’s organized-crime figures account for most of the subplots. This is perhaps the whitest treatment of African-American subject matter in the history of Hollywood. It’s not even very good for what it is. The leads are dull, and the love story is poorly developed. The gangster material is too convoluted to be interesting. As for the African-American dancers and musicians, they are squeezed in around the edges. They're also a mixed bag. Gregory and Maurice Hines have the largest roles, but their tap routines rarely rise above the mediocre. However, Lonette McKee delivers a fine rendition of the torch song “Ill Wind,” and Honi Coles leads a terrific tap ensemble in a scene set at the Hoofers Club. One may object to Coppola’s handling of those numbers--McKee’s singing is imposed over a montage of gangland killings, and the dancing by Coles and his cohort was unforgivably sliced and diced in the editing room--but the performers still come through. These few worthwhile bits are all this deeply disappointing film has to offer. The large cast also includes Julian Beck, Nicolas Cage, Joe Dallesandro, Laurence Fishburne, Allen Garfield, Jennifer Grey, Fred Gwynne, Bob Hoskins, James Remar, Diane Venora, Gwen Verdon, and Tom Waits. The screenplay is credited to Coppola, William Kennedy, and Mario Puzo. Stephen Goldblatt provided the cinematography. The elegant production design is by Richard Sylbert.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

At Comics by the Date: November 1950 to December 1950

This week's entry at Comics by the Date features comics published in November and December of 1950. The publications includes It Rhymes with Lust, by Arnold Drake and Matt Baker. It is frequently mentioned as a candidate for the first North American graphic novel. Click here to read the post.