Author: John Ostrander

John Ostrander: Watching the World Burn


 “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  – Alfred to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight

To be honest, I think that’s ISIS, especially after the violence in Paris on Friday night.

One of the things I’ve gathered about them from my reading is that they are an apocalyptic cult. They’re looking for the end of the world. Yes, they are Muslim and quote and believe a very literal version of the Koran. But they also believe and are working towards the end of the world. Christianity has had and does have its own apocalyptic cults (e.g. the Rev. Jim Jones in Jonestown) and I read an interesting and, I think, apt, analogy somewhere, suggesting that ISIS is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity.

The purpose of terrorism is, of course, to cause fear in your enemies but I think it’s also to provoke reactions. To make the governments affected (or allied) “clamp down.” Donald Trump thinks the Paris assault proves the necessity of the wall he wants built, although he has not explained how a wall between America and Mexico would keep out ISIS terrorists.

There are and will be those (especially on the right) who will call for military action. That may be what ISIS wants; such actions could increase the number of volunteers – and money – that flows to them. And there’s that end of the world thing – provoke one last great battle. Hey, Christianity has the Book of Revelations and that has a similar scenario. Whoever’s version you listen to, it’s pretty sure that they feel that God/Allah/Jehovah/Whomever is on their side.

Part of me wants that military action against ISIS. I got very angry (again) with the violence. I wanted, I want, that violence visited upon those who planned it, who ordered it. I want it Biblical, baby, with fire and brimstone. I may be agnostic but I was raised as I was raised and that’s part of it.

Problem is, this was born out of violence. We helped launch ISIS with our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are victims and refugees and some of them, not all but some, are a result of our adventuring. ISIS has a lot of weapons that come from the US of A, gleaned when the Iraqi troops that we trained ran away, dropping everything behind.

We need to figure out our response and it needs to be a reasoned response, not from the gut or shot from the hip, because the Paris attack is guaranteed not to be the last such atrocity. There will be more and sooner or later some attack will come to our shores. No amount of rhetoric from the right or the left will prevent it. We’d best be prepared and think about how we want to respond when that attack comes. Remember, the other side is not looking for world domination; they’re looking for apocalypse.

Or we can all sit back and sing along with R.E.M. –

“It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”

John Ostrander and The Humbug Murders

Humbug MurdersI’m a big fan of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I try to read it every Christmas, I watch multiple versions of it during the holiday season (including a half hour animated version starring Mister Magoo), and in my acting days I performed in the annual theater production of it at Chicago’s Goodman Theater. For the record, I played in the all-important parts of Mr. Lean, Fred’s friend number 3, dancing man, and ensemble.

Coming across a mystery called The Humbug Murders – An Ebenezer Scrooge Mystery by L.J. Oliver, I was quickly drawn in. Not without some hesitation; the notion of Dickens’ notorious miser acting as a detective rattled my chains a bit. Still, I decided to give it a chance.

For the most part, it works. L.J. Oliver is a pen name for Scott Ciencin and Elizabeth Wilson, both of whom are experienced authors. Sadly, Ciencin died in 2014. The story takes place in 1833 when Scrooge was still a relatively young man, only a few years removed from his days working for Mister Fezziwig. The story includes quite a number of characters from different Dickens’ novel as well as a young Dickens himself, still a reporter at this point.

I usually have trouble when authors place characters and creators in the same story. For example, I’ve seen Sherlock Holmes stories were Arthur Conan Doyle is also a character and it is said that Doyle is the “literary agent” of Doctor Watson. These arrangements suggest that the author didn’t have the imagination to create his/her own characters and, as an author, I dislike that insinuation.

Also, I had to reconcile the Scrooge in this mystery with the Scrooge I knew from A Christmas Carol. That was a bit difficult. It was hard to imagine the Scrooge that I already knew having had the experiences he had in this story and still becoming the same man. However, I simply decided that this was the Scrooge of an alternate, parallel dimension. Hey, I work in comics; alternate dimensions are an everyday occurrence where I come from.

In The Humbug Murders, Old Fezziwig, Scrooge’s former employer, has been brutally murdered. (The story has a goodly amount of rather graphic violence and touches on some lurid depravity, all of which may bother some folks.) Scrooge is a suspect and finds himself drawn into the mystery. A masked murderer calling himself Humbug is guilty of the crime and Old Fezziwig’s ghost (of course there are ghosts in the story), appearing to Ebenezer, says three more deaths will follow and that Scrooge himself will be the last victim. Unless, of course, the killer can be caught first.

The authors know the era and the locale, especially the less savory neighborhoods in London. They also know their Dickens and sometimes get a little cute in borrowing lines from A Christmas Carol. It sort of shouts “See how clever I am!” It also took me a little out of the story which an author should never do.

The reveal is a little difficult, requiring the killer to monologue in order to bring it all together. Scrooge himself, although a keen observer of humanity, doesn’t really uncover Humbug’s identity. The lead female character also comes across as a bit of a Mary Sue – the somewhat idealized projection of the female author.

Mostly, it’s a good mystery although I did spot the true killer some fifty pages before the reveal. It didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book, however. The ending promises a possible sequel which I wouldn’t mind reading although, since Mr. Ciencin died, that may be problematic. It was not a waste of my money which, no doubt, Mister Scrooge would consider a high compliment.

3.5 stars out of five.

John Ostrander: The Spectre – What Was I Thinking?


Halloween was yesterday (if you’re reading this on Sunday); a time of ghosts and ghouls and little children strong arming adults for candy under the threat of “tricks.” Oh, also when the Great Pumpkin rises from a really sincere pumpkin patch to bring toys and presents to good little children all around the world. Or so I have been told.

And, of course, it’s time for ghost stories and horror stories and tales of things that go bump in the night and I’ve told a few of those myself, notably Wasteland. My most successful foray into the genre, though, probably was the run I did on The Spectre with Tom Mandrake for DC Comics back in the 1990s.

The Spectre was an interesting amalgam of both supernatural and superhero. Created in 1940 by Superman creator Jerry Siegel and artist Bernard Baily, the central character was hardnosed plainclothes detective Jim Corrigan who falls afoul of mobsters and is murdered. He’s sealed into a cement filled oil drum and dumped in the river. His soul, however, is unable to rest and an entity called “The Voice” sends him back as a vengeance-seeking ghost, a.k.a. The Spectre.

As the Spectre, Corrigan has unimaginable powers and abilities. And therein lay the problem. The only being more powerful than the Spectre would be God and only on days when God had been eating his Wheaties. How do you mount a credible threat to someone like that? If there is no risk, there’s no suspense and no story. The bad guy does bad things and the Spectre shows up and dispatches him, usually in a grisly fashion.

The Spectre never lasted long in his own series, although there were several attempts. The common wisdom was that you had to reduce the Spectre’s power to make a story. The problem with that was, in so doing, you lost some of the spectacular visuals that made the Spectre what he was. Why bother?

Tom Mandrake and I had been partners for a while, working on GrimJack and then on The Fury of Firestorm. The latter series was ending and we were looking for something new to do together. Both of us were long time fans of the Ghostly Guardian (as the Spectre was known) and campaigned to get to play with him. DC was leery; a recent attempt at doing a Spectre ongoing had been cancelled only a relatively short time before.

“Give him to us,” Tom and I told DC; “We know how to make him work.”

Editor and friend Dan Raspler took up our cause and got DC to agree based on our past track record together and how we pitched our concept for the relaunch.

It wasn’t the Spectre that we changed so much as it was his human counterpart, Jim Corrigan. Different versions of the story resurrected Corrigan and even set him at odds sometimes with the Spectre persona, which had taken up residence in Corrigan’s body. I felt that Corrigan himself had become something of a wimp. So, first of all, Tom and I declared that Corrigan was dead and had been dead since the 1940s. That was his tragedy. Sometimes, he fooled himself into thinking he was alive but he was, in fact, dead.

Second, Corrigan had been a plainclothes police detective back in the 40s. He was hard-boiled. Go back and watch the police movies from back then; hell, go read the early Dick Tracy strips. Hard, tough, and not afraid to use violence and even death to achieve justice. This, we felt, was why he was given the power of the Spectre and informed how that power was used. The Spectre may have had the power of a god but he had the perspective of a mortal man, a very flawed mortal man.

We decided that “The Voice” was short for The Voice of God and the Spectre himself became the Wrath of God. In a way, he was an aspect of God, specifically of Jehovah – and a very Old Testament Jehovah at that. The Spectre had been the Angel of Death that had culled the first born of Egypt. At one point, the Spectre entity rebelled against mercy and so it was decreed it that it had to be united with a human soul in order to walk the Earth, the theory being that the human could temper the Wrath of God. However, when you had a human as liable to rage and outrage as Jim Corrigan, that wasn’t always true.

This enabled us to keep the spectacular visuals and outrageous stunts, the iconography that gave readers a reason to come to the Spectre in the first place and still allow us to construct stories. The Spectre wasn’t vulnerable but Corrigan was.

Corrigan was also weary; since the 1940s he had tried to eradicate evil and the world had only gotten darker. He was very near despair and facing an existential crisis. That also gave us a platform for our stories; we asked questions on the nature of punishment, despair, and redemption. We posed ethical and theological questions. I was less interested in giving answers to those questions, which I felt the readers could and should provide for themselves.

This is all very cerebral. I know. What really made the book sing was Tom’s artwork. This is the character that Tom Mandrake was born to draw and over and over again I looked for situations that played to his myriad strengths. Hey, as they said in The Producers, “When you got it, flaunt it, baby, flaunt it!”

What added to the run were the covers; each issue had a different artist and each artist presented their own interpretation of the character, often telling their own story in one image. Likewise, the letter page (helmed by Peter Tomasi who started as the assistant editor on the book and later became the book’s editor) also delved into the topics raised by the story, creating an interesting discussion between Pete and the reader. All in all, it was quite a package.

We went on for five years and we learned that our run was nearing an end. We were given a year’s notice and permission to wind up the story our way. This is really rare. Corrigan had grown during the run of issues we did and, in our last issue, he gave up being the Spectre to go on to his final reward. That’s also unusual. With that ending, we were able to tie up our entire series and make it all one story. It completed what Tom and I were doing in a way that one rarely gets to do.

Tom and I are playing with the horror genre again as we work on Kros: Hallowed Ground. We’re both very excited by it; this is the first time we’ve played with the horror genre together since The Spectre. Expectations may be high; The Spectre was one of the high-water marks in both our careers. We feel confident but not cocky. The Spectre was very much of its time and where we were in our careers but I think it also stands up today. Two TPBs have been issued from DC gathering some of the early issues; I hope they go on to collect the others as well.

All false modesty aside, I think it’s worth it.

John Ostrander: A Good Penny

Episode 104

I usually don’t watch horror films or TV shows, and that might surprise some people. After all, I’m known to have written some horror stories, such as DC’s Wasteland. My standard response is that I would rather give nightmares than get them. A bit flip perhaps, but largely true. I have an active imagination (from which I make my living) and the concepts and images from a horror story can stick in my head long after I’ve seen the show.

For example, I went to see The Exorcist when it first hit the movie theaters and, oh my, it played heavily on the atavistic fears of my Roman Catholic altar boy choir boy upbringing. I slept that night with the lights on despite being of college age. Actually, I was in bed but I didn’t sleep that much. Part of me was convinced that the ol’ debbil was gonna git me.

This is an explanation of why I didn’t watch Penny Dreadful when it first showed on Showtime. Recently, however, I got a chance to get caught up with the first two seasons. I didn’t binge watch them; the most I could take was two episodes at a sitting. I found them too unsettling.

The show is set in Victorian London and deals with a number of supernatural threats. A team of sorts is drawn together including an African explorer (Sir Malcolm Murray), his mysterious African servant (Sembene), a witch (Vanessa Ives), an American gunslinger (Ethan Chandler), Dorian Gray (of The Picture of fame) and Doctor Victor Frankenstein and his Creature(s).

If that sounds reminiscent of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, well, it is… in concept. It is also extraordinarily well done. The show’s creator is John Logan and, I believe, he has also written all the episodes. You may know Mr. Logan from his work on other movies such as Skyfall and the upcoming Spectre, as well as Hugo, Rango (such an odd and interesting film!), and Gladiator among many others. A very talented writer and that talent is in full display here.

The production values are first rate – the sets, the costumes, all the details. Think Downton Abbey with vampires. The cast is also primo – and you have an odd James Bond connection with Timothy Dalton (Bond at one time) playing Sir Malcolm and Eva Green (who was Vesper Lynn in Casino Royale) joining John Logan. Harry Treadway, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, was also in the TV mini-series about Bond’s creator, Fleming.

Josh Hartnet portrays Ethan Chandler, the American gunslinger with a dark and secret past. Despite that past, the character is one of the most decent persons in the show. Sembene is portrayed by Danny Sapani who shares a Doctor Who connection with Billie Piper (Brona, Lily) who, of course, was Rose Tyler on Doctor Who. (Yes, I’m nerding out.) You see quite a bit more of Ms. Piper here. Quite a bit more.

I don’t know Reeve Carney who appears as Dorian Gray, but he’s very effective in a very unsettling role.

My favorite character, however, is Frankenstein’s Creature, played by Rory Kinnear (another Bond connection – he’s been Tanner in the last few Bond films). He is a monster, yes – he can be brutal and murderous and full of rage. He is also the most heart-breaking character in the show. He knows what he is and, by his very appearance, knows that he has no place where he fits in. He suffers most from ordinary humans (who can be the biggest monsters in the show). His longing, his despair, his rage all make him, as one character says of him late in the second series, the most human of them all.

The reason I like the show so much is the characterization. All the characters have multiple levels and all are flawed. My own theory is that you can’t really experience horror unless, on some level, you sympathize with the characters. If you don’t feel something for them, you won’t feel anything for what happens to them. You can be shocked, yes, but you don’t really feel anything. What is the point if you don’t feel? Horror is something that happens to people that we know. There can be sensation, sure, but if you don’t identify with those going through the horror, it means nothing. It’s just incident.

I should probably also mention that there is violence and sex and nudity (both male and female, although mostly female); this is pay-cable TV, after all. If any of that might bother you, give the show a wide berth. None of it ever seems gratuitous to me. I should also mention that the second season is even more unnerving than the first. A third season is projected for next year and I approach it with both anticipation and dread.

I realize that I’m late coming to the Penny Dreadful party but I think the show can be streamed and certainly it’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray so I feel justified in recommending it which I do most heartily. If I was writing horror for TV, this is the type of story I would like to tell.

John Ostrander: New Boys In Town


Well, it’s been a few weeks since Stephen Colbert assumed command of The Late Show and Trevor Noah has taken the reins of The Daily Show. In both cases the hosts are taking over from prior hosts who had long tenure at their respective shows (David Letterman and Jon Stewart). The new boys have been there long enough now to form some opinions.  Admittedly, they’re just my opinions but this is my column.

I want to start with The Daily Show and Trevor Noah. To be honest, this was the one that was of greater concern to me because I really loved watching Jon Stewart. I felt that he (and the show) had an important role on television. It was very funny and had a real point of view and delighted in deflating personalities and kicking other networks and other media up the butt when needed (and it has been an ever increasing need over the past few years). Jon Stewart had a keen eye and a well developed sense of outrage to go with his highly developed sense of comedy.

Could Trevor Noah compete? Could he fill those shoes? Would The Daily Show still be a must-see show for me?

Trevor Noah, for those of you who don’t know, is a South African of mixed race parentage. In fact, at the time when Noah was born in 1984, apartheid held mixed race marriages to be a crime. He’s been an actor as well as a comedian. He joined The Daily Show in December of 2014 and was there only a few months when it was announced he would be Jon Stewart’s successor.

So – how’s he doing?

Very well, I think. He is easy and relaxed. He has a knowing smile that he flashes frequently during the broadcasts. He is sharp, witty, and in command. He has shown himself to be adept at interviews which account for at least a third of each show. He is also skilled at playing the straight man for the group of loonies that make up The Daily Show’s corps of correspondents. That’s a significant trick and one that Jon Stewart was very good at playing.

Is the show different? Somewhat, but it still feels like The Daily Show I knew and loved. For me, it’s still something I want to watch.

Stephen Colbert also used to be on Comedy Central as the star of The Colbert Report, a spin-off from The Daily Show. (He had been a correspondent with Jon Stewart.) The Colbert Report was even more satirical with Colbert playing a version of himself that parodied right wing commentators such as Bill O’Reilly and those populating Fox News.

Sometimes he was so good at it that I couldn’t bear watching; a lot of right-wing commentators give me mental hives. The Bush White House evidently bought into the gag and made the mistake one year of inviting Colbert to host the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. That was a large mistake on their part. Using his TV persona, Colbert blistered both President Bush (who was seated only a few feet away from him) and the media. The primary audience was not terribly amused but the tape of it went viral and the rest of us liberal pinko commie types gasped, laughed, and cheered. It was a brave and bravura performance.

I’ll be honest. I always liked The Daily Show with Jon Stewart more than I liked The Colbert Report. I admired Colbert tremendously but The Daily Show made me laugh more. So I had questions when it was announced that Colbert would be taking over for Dave Letterman. The big question was – could he escape the shadow of his own Colbert Report persona?

I think he has and he hasn’t.

Some of the bits Colbert has done on The Late Show could have been done on The Colbert Report. Stephen still likes to grab the mike and sing, usually with his guests. He doesn’t have a bad voice but I don’t think he’s as good a singer as he evidently thinks he is.

When the show started, Colbert would come out dancing, doing high kicks and girly twirls which I found disconcerting. He’s stopped doing that now and that’s for the better. He was also his own opening announcer and the show now has someone else doing that job which I think is a better transition.

His first guest and his first interview was George Clooney who is usually a great guest. He’s very entertaining and can tell wonderful stories and you just point him in a direction and let him go. Colbert, however, was into doing some kind of schtick and it really hobbled Clooney. I’ve seen this continue off and on.

However, I think Colbert is evolving as an interviewer. He had Oprah Winfrey on last week and they got into a discussion of faith and belief.  I’ve noticed when he has guests on like that we see more of Colbert himself. He is evidently a man of deep belief and, with Winfrey, the interview became a conversation. He listened and responded, she listened and responded, and we got to listen in. I think that’s how interviews on these types of shows should be – conversations.

Every host on late night TV has their own persona and it’s a question of how comfortable we are with those personas. We need to at least feel we’re getting something genuine about the interviewer. I don’t always get that with Colbert but I think he’s relaxing more into his new role and we may see more of it.

He also has interesting segments I won’t see elsewhere. He often has young entrepreneurs on, people doing things that I never heard about before. I think they’re geared for a younger demographic and that’s okay. It’s a question that most late night TV will have to face – how do they attract the generation that is more likely to be on the Internet?

His musical segments are also varied. There’s been a few too many older musicians who have bad cases of old man’s voice where they sound like aging echoes of who they were and some up and coming people who I don’t know and find it hard to summon an interest. However, he gets the occasional interesting performer as well. For example, he paired Misty Copeland, the first African American prima ballerina for the American Ballet Theater who danced while master cellist Yo-Yo Ma played. That was sublime.

Another musical guest was Michelle Dorrance, a tap dancer who won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. She gave Stephen a tap lesson (which was great) and then performed with the house band, Jean Baptiste and Stay Human (who are very good). That’s new, that’s different, and very interesting.

Any late night show needs to find a way to stand out from the others, make people want to stay up to see it while, at the same time, be what they want to watch just before they go to sleep. I think the more Colbert shows of himself and the further he gets away from his old persona, the better his show is going to be.

Right now, I think both he and Noah Trevor are doing good jobs. I like The Daily Show a little bit better, I admire The Late Show a little more and I’m interested in seeing what they will be like as the hosts get more settled in.

But I really need to get to bed earlier! Sighhhhhh.

John Ostrander: Damn you, Stephen Colbert!


On The Late Show on Thursday night, Stephen Colbert celebrated the Cubs winning the wild card spot in the MLB playoffs (they beat Pittsburgh) by declaring that the Curse of the Goat was now broken and that the Cubs would go on to win the whole enchilada.

Mr. Colbert, how could you? You lived in Chicago for eleven years. I know that, at that time, you studied improv with Charna Halpern and my old writing partner, Del Close. You know the dashed hopes and numbing despair experienced by Cub fans. And just when the Cubbies had won their first playoff game in Twelve Years, you had to flout the Curse of the Goat and even eject from your show a goat that had been in the front row of the audience. The goat clearly did not want to go but you had to repeat the incident that first brought the Curse of the Goat down on the Cubs.

For those of you who don’t know, back in 1945, when the Cubs made one of their few appearances in a World Series, saloon keeper Bill Sianis (owner of The Billy Goat Tavern, a famed watering hole in the lower level of Michigan Avenue), was ejected from Wrigley Field along with his pet goat. Some say the Cubs owner, Phillip K. Wrigley, objected to the smell. Of the goat or of Sianis, I’m not sure. Sianis swore that the Cubs would never win a World Series again (accounts differ slightly but that’s the gist of it). And they haven’t. Of course, they hadn’t won a World Series in the 40 odd years leading up to that but perhaps the curse was retroactive. Who knows with curses?

Sianis himself tried to reverse the curse in later years; all sorts of rituals and exorcisms have been done to no effect.

I’m a life-long Cubs fan, Stephen. I had no choice in the matter. I was born on the Northside of Chicago; that locks me into the Cubs. The Southside is for the White Sox and the West Side – well, who knows or cares. They’re free agents; they may support St. Louis as far as I know.

The Cubs have not won a World Series in 107 years. My aunt, who lived to be 101, was alive the last time the Cubs did that. She was barely one-year old. That’s how long we’ve been suffering and waiting.

Every so often, it looks as if our luck is going to change, that the Curse will finally be broken. In 2008, they had the best record in baseball. There wasn’t anyone the Cubs couldn’t beat. In the first round, they were swept by the Dodgers. Didn’t win even one game. The Goat laughed. Baaaa-ha-ha!

In 2003, they were in the playoffs against the Florida Marlins. They were leading three games to two, they were at Wrigley Field, they were leading 3-0 in the 8th inning with two out, and a fan named Steve Bartman, sitting in the front row on the left field foul line, saw a ball headed his way. Trouble is, it was a playable ball and the outfielder, Moises Alou, had a chance to catch it. Bartman made a play for it, too, and tipped the ball. Alou didn’t catch it and a collective groan went up from the Cubs’ fans in the stadium and watching it on TV. We knew the Curse has struck again. The Cubs went on to lose the game and the series. Bartman had to be escorted out of Wrigley Field by security for his own protection.

And somewhere the Goat laughed. Baaaa-ha-ha!

And you, on your show, proclaimed that the Curse of the Goat was now broken and guaranteed, Guaranteed that the Cubs would win it all this year. You should know better. You should respect the Curse, respect the Goat, and don’t start celebrating before the season is over.

If/when the Cubs fail again, Cub fans are going to remember you taunting fate, Stephen Colbert. You are going to be the new Bartman. Your ratings will plummet in Chicago. You won’t be able to come back to the city to visit old friends, not that it will matter; they will shun you and your hubris.

Of course, there is the possibility that you’re right. That slim, ephemeral hope that comes back to life every time that the Cubs enter the play-offs, that glimmer of possible victory that enters every true Cubs fan’s heart, may finally be realized. And you will have called it. You will be able to lead the Victory Parade down LaSalle amidst the cheering throngs.  It will be a great moment of victory and you can claim it because you called it.

And then what will happen?

The team’s owners, emboldened, will move the Cubs out of the friendly confines of Wrigley Field to a new stadium, possibly in the suburbs, possibly in another city all together. They will maximize their financial potential.

And, shorn of their identity as baseball’s most lovable losers, the symbol of futility and the unending patience of the true fan, the Cubs will become just another baseball team.

Damn you, Stephen Colbert!


John Ostrander Cons Around in Baltimore

Baltimore Comic ConSo, I wasn’t here last week. Some of you may have noticed. So, where was I? At the Baltimore Comic Con (BCC), which was dandy, and I enjoyed it very much. Usually when I’m gone somewhere around the deadline for this column, I’m supposed to get it in earlier and most times I do. This time? Just screwed up the time. What can I say? I’m (mostly) human.

Lots of my fellow columnists here at ComicMix have already done their columns this week on the BCC last week. Mike Gold, Emily Whitten, Martha Thomases, and Molly Jackson all contributed. Marc Allan Fishman wrote about an aspect of the BCC and he wasn’t even there. Makes you wonder what I could add to the (comic)mix. I wondered too, but Mike has already speculated I would probably write about the Con and I wouldn’t want to make a liar out of him.

One of the big pleasures of the Con was getting to see so many of my old friends. I shared a table with my bro, Timothy Truman, and he was considerate enough to bring his wife, Beth, who is a real treat. I hadn’t seen Tim in ages and Beth for even longer; she gave me a great hug and if that isn’t a great way to start a Con, I don’t know what is.

I had dinner with them the first night and we ran into Mike Grell who joined us. In fact, we were going to have a First Comics reunion of sorts over the weekend. In addition to Tim and Mike and Grell and me there was the two Marc/ks, Wheatley and Hempel, and Joe Staton. We even got our picture taken together to commemorate the occasion. The Mighty Gray Panthers of the real First Comics!

In addition, there were all the fine people over at the ComicMix table such as Martha Thomases, Glenn Hauman, Evelyn Kriete and Emily Whitten. I’d never met Emily in person before; she’s delightful and sat to my left at the Harvey Awards on Saturday night. I hatched an idea for a project with her and you’ll hear more about it as we get that act together.

There were lots and lots of other old friends there such as Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor and my old Suicide Squad editor and ComicMix reviewer Robert Greenberger. I want to take this moment to acknowledge how much Squad owed to Bob. He’s the one who suggested the title to me and helped guide it through its debut and onward. Take a bow, Bob.

As I mentioned, I was also at the Harvey Awards on Saturday night, sitting between Emily and Mike Gold. Vivek Tiwary was the host; I’d never met him before (among an amazing list of accomplishments, he wrote the graphic novel [[[The Fifth Beatle]]]). He was very personable, very enthusiastic about comics, and very generous when he introduced me (I was a presenter). I got to follow both Russ Heath and Jules Feiffer as they accepted their inductions into the Harvey Awards Hall of Fame. These men are legends and, if you don’t know them, go Google their names or look them up on Wikipedia.

And I followed them! Ye gawds. Well, at least I didn’t stutter.

As you may have read elsewhere, there was something of a controversy at the BCC. Some of the comic book guests charged for their autographs and some didn’t. Neal Adams charged 30 bucks per autograph; Mike Grell was also charging a much smaller sum and he donated what he made to The Hero Initiative.

I didn’t and I do not charge for autographs; I never have and I doubt I ever will. This is not to suggest any sort of judgment on those who do. Neal is a legend in the industry and an unquestioned leader in the fight for the rights of freelancers. He’s a long standing hero of mine, both as an artist and as a champion of our rights.

My rationale for not charging is pretty simple: the fan bought the book and it had my name on it and that has supported me. If they want me to deface it with my autograph, it’s the least I can do. Yes, I know that some dealers get them signed and then re-sell them on eBay or some such. I don’t think I ran into many of them, if any, while I was at the BCC. I can’t really sort out the dealers from the fans and I don’t bother trying. If others see the matter differently, so be it. This is just how I do it.

I want to say that the fans were wonderful. They were knowledgeable and enthusiastic and warm and friendly. There were all ages, too. Lots of kids, which wasn’t so true a few years ago. That was wonderful to see and hopeful for the industry.

I think it was Mike Gold who defined the BCC for me: it was really comics orientated. Other Cons are very orientated to the media guests. BCC had some but the main thrust was comics. It also seemed very much like family; other cons, such as NYCC, feel more like business. That’s okay, too; it’s New York City and that’s appropriate. In Baltimore, however, it felt like old times in the industry to me, in between the Con, the fans, and my friends. I think maybe that’s why I really enjoyed it.

I didn’t get a chance to see much of the city, which is usual for me at Cons. What I saw was interesting and nice. I ate a lot of crab which I take it is what one is supposed to do in Maryland. I think I’ve had enough Old Bay Seasoning for a while.

In short, it was a great weekend and I’m so glad to have been invited. It had been maybe two decades since I had last been there; I hope not to make it so long again. Of course, if I did, I’d be really old. Geezer City.

Thanks to all who made it a good time/ I hope we can do it again soon.

John Ostrander: Michigan Political Theater

House of Cards

I’m from Chicago. Most of you already know that. I grew up in the days of Mayor Richard J. Daley (the first Mayor Richard Daley) and the Chicago City Council of his era so I’m used to the concept of politics as theater, as popular culture. The rest of the country is catching up; the Republican Debate last week scored really high ratings for CNN. Some of the big TV shows such as House of Cards and Scandal also score well.

Given my upbringing I’m somewhat a connoisseur of political dramedy. Years ago, in one of the early visits to NYC, I read that a NYC borough president was caught in a scandal and committed suicide. I’m afraid my first rather uncharitable reaction was, “What a wimp.” I was from Chicago; when our politicians got caught and convicted, they would try to run their political fiefdoms from inside the prison and/or run their wife/brother/dog in the election to keep their seat warm until the malefactor alderman got out of the pokey.

I’ve been living in Michigan now for a number of years and we have our own set of entertaining politicos. In a state were over 60% of the population was polled and said their first priority was the state fixing our lousy and dangerous roads and bridges, the legislature has been unable to get together on a sane way of financing that fix without gutting things like education. They’d get close and then – whoops! – it was time to take a few weeks off. This, however, is simply incompetence; as I said, I’m from Chicago and I have higher standards for real political theater.

Recently, however, there has been an incident that has risen to my lofty standards. It involved two Republican members of the House of Representatives, Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat. Both are Tea Party activists and devout Christians who are self-proclaimed proponents of “traditional” marriage values. (Courser was also the representative for my former district, Lapeer.) And, of course, the two were having an affair.

Still, despite the delightful odor of hypocrisy, the affair still didn’t reach the bar for me in regards to political corruption. There was nothing really new or compelling in all this. It’s what happened next that really started making it entertaining.

Todd (the God) Courser decided to “leak” a phony e-mail saying that Courser had been caught having gay sex with a male prostitute. The “reasoning” was that it would “inoculate” Todd and Cindy if allegations of their affair came out.

Don’t ask me to explain it. I’m just reporting it.

This Dynamic Duo were using their offices and their staffs to help get this e-mail out and some of them refused. It was improper use of state funds and services. And, of course, the truth came out in all its jaw-dropping glory.

There was an investigation, Courser and Gamrat admitted to everything but asked to be censured and not expelled, there was a huge official report, and the whole messy debacle came to a head this last week. Courser resigned just before he could be expelled but Gamrat hung on to the end and got the boot. A new election was set to fill the now empty seats.

All this is fun and interesting to an old Chicago political junkie like me but it’s what happened next that raises the whole thing to Chicago level chicanery.

As of Friday, the last day for candidates to file, both Courser and Gamrat declared themselves as candidates for the very seats they just lost. That is Chicago style politics!

And they say, you can’t make this stuff up. I think if I tried to make a story that did all this, the editor would tell me it was just not believable. (Except for Mike Gold – Mike’s another old Chicago boy and he could easily cite three or four historic events that were much worse.)

Part of me is perverse enough to wonder if I should work in Courser’s and/or Gamrat’s campaign. You know; just as a way to say “thank you.” They made me nostalgic for the Chicago of my youth. I could even devise a campaign slogan: “Don’t let those bastards in Lansing tell you who can represent you! Vote Courser/Gamrat! Let the affair continue!”

Sigh. It seems like the old days all over again. I miss Chicago.

John Ostrander’s Big Coming Attractions


Having written last week about the movies I saw this last summer and really enjoyed, I might as well this week talk about what’s coming up in the movie theaters between now and the end of the year. Which ones look interesting and which ones I’m really looking forward to.

The latter is the easiest to identify – Star Wars Episode VII, The Force Awakens – and the next entry in the James Bond saga, Spectre.

Star Wars is a gimme. I’ve been a Star Wars fans for a loooooong time and I labored in George Lucas’s vineyard for about ten years, doing a passel of comics. Yes, those are now in the process of being taken out of continuity but, OTOH, they were never A Canon, which meant Lucas could disregard them at any moment.

The Force Awakens is going to do what I really wanted after Episode VI came out – it’s going to tell me what happened next. When I really like a story, that’s always what I want – what happened next. GL decided to go back and do a prequel about how we got to the start of Star Wars. Okay, that’s what interested him but not me so much.

Oh, and he dicked around with the whole “Did Han shoot first?” question. It was never a question until Lucas dicked around with it: Han shot first. Why he needed to dick around with that, I don’t know. His first answer was the correct one. However, I’m wandering off topic.

How interested I will continue to be with the Star Wars franchise will depend on this next movie, but there is no question I’m going to see Episode VII.

The other big film in the fall season is the next James Bond movie, Spectre. I’ve become a big fan of Daniel Craig as Bond; in fact, I will go so far as to speak heresy and say he is now my favorite Bond. (I hereby apologize to my buddy, Kevin Hatch, but there it is.) The last Bond film, Skyfall, cemented that for me. The director on that, Sam Mendes, is back with Craig for Spectre which evokes the organization that was Bond’s usual Big Bad. This might be Craig’s last outing as Bond and, if so, will make it all bittersweet but also something I absolutely must see.

There are other films that have attracted my attention for one reason or another. None of them are anticipated with quite the same fervor for me of the Star Wars and the Bond entries but they have caught my eye. The ads for The Intern look interesting. Anne Hathaway with Robert De Niro as a widower/retiree who becomes her intern on her company. The two seem to play together well and it looks entertaining.

Black Mass looks as if Johnny Depp has remembered he can act instead of just messing around and that interests me. The Martian has Ridley Scott doing sci/fi again with Matt Damon as his lead. That’s a combination I find attractive. Likewise, Bridge Of Spies has Steven Spielberg directing Tom Hanks in a spy story. I could go for that.

Carol, with Todd Haynes directing Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mare, in a 1950s piece by Patricia Highsmith about a lesbian romance. Doesn’t sound like my usual cup of tea but the combination of story and artists makes it intriguing. I wish I could say I was chomping at the bit to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 but I haven’t seen Part 1 yet so it’s not high on my must-see list. Trumbo, on the other hand, is about the famed screenwriter blacklisted in the 50s for (allegedly) being a Communist sympathizer and that one I do want to see. There’s also a version of Frankenstein coming out with James McEvoy and Daniel Radcliffe that seems to be calling to me. Maybe. I want to see some reviews first.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are doing Sisters and the title and those two actresses are enough to catch my attention. Oliver Stone is directing Jason Gordon-Levitt in Snowden, the story of the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Could be interesting.

And that brings us to the end of the year and the dawn of 2016 and the film I really want to see next year is, of course, Suicide Squad. However, I’ll try not to get ahead of myself.

There may be other films that I discover as we go along. Some I won’t need to see on the big screen; some will work just as well on my TV. Some will be disappointments, some will be surprises. And your list may vary.

In the meantime, I’m popping the popcorn.


John Ostrander’s Summer Movie Wrap-Up


Labor Day 2015 is upon us. Technically, the season’s change on September 23rd but for all intents and purposes, summer closes shop right after Labor Day. The summer movie season is over and the fall seasons are gearing up. Among things to look forward to is the new Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, coming out around Christmas. However, we’re going to look back at the offerings from last summer, specifically the ones I saw and most enjoyed.

I freely admit I haven’t seen all the cinematic offerings that were out. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation got missed, for example. I saw a fair amount, though, and I’m prepared to talk about those. You should be prepared for spoilers since I may reveal plot elements. That’s okay; you should have seen these films by now anyway.

There are six films on the list – Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Tomorrowland, Inside Out, Jurassic World, and Mad Max: Fury Road. All entertained me, some surprised me, and I’ll want all of them on disc for repeated home viewing, some more than others.

Remember: these are my opinions. Your mileage may vary.

Avengers; Age of Ultron moved the whole Marvel franchise forward and, together with Ant-Man, rounded out Phase 2 of the Marvel Conquers the Cineplex movement. The Avengers film had everybody and then some (played by their usual thespian counterparts), and included the Falcon in the mix and debuted Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision, always a personal favorite of mine. The Big Bad was the nasty computer program in the crisp robotic shell, Ultron, voiced by the always silkily threatening James Spader.

Did I like it? Yes. Did I like it as much as the first Avengers film? No. It seemed more disjointed to me. There were also odd additions – a possible budding romance between the Black Widow and Bruce (The Hulk) Banner (?). The suggestion that Black Widow had relationships with most of the other male members of the Avengers (because – why?). The fact that Hawkeye has a wife and kiddies out in the hinterlands. None of it seemed very central or even germane to the plot and seemed only to pad it out.

On the other hand, it also had the return of Nick Fury and, at a key moment, the original SHIELD Helicarrier, which I loved. The big fight at the end went on a bit long and didn’t always make a lot of sense. Nonetheless, I enjoyed all of it.

Ant-Man was the surprise to me. Like last year’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy, I would not have bet you money going into it that I would enjoy it so much. But I did. Paul Rudd was a hoot and I bought his heroic side when it surfaced. Michael Douglas took the Famous Older Actor In a Surprise Supporting Role that Robert Redford did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Marvel/Disney really can afford just about anyone it wants to get.

Ant-Man may be better suited to the movies than the comics. The shrinking man and large objects around him works better on the screen than the page. I may be looking forward to this Blu-Ray even more than the Avengers one.

Tomorrowland is based, conceptually, on a portion of Disneyland but, like the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, is so much more entertaining than it needs to be. Part of that can be traced back to Brad Bird, who directed it and co-wrote the screenplay. You may know Bird better as the director on Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and others.

The film stars George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, and Britt Robertson as the spunky young gal who is the center of the story. The city of the title exists in a fold between time and space and it’s where the dreams of the future become real. It’s in danger of being corrupted and made prosaic by those who think they are saving it. What it needs is dreamers.

I love this film because, ultimately, it is so hopeful. It’s about the necessity of hope and that’s a message I think we need more of these days. It’s far from a perfect film but it’s message really appeals to me.

I’ve written before about Inside Out, the latest offering from Pixar. Quick summary: very inventive and imaginative, heartfelt, psychologically true (IMO) and wonderfully realized. I loved it.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Wow. Intense. As reboots go, stunningly successful. Tom Hardy makes a great successor to Mel Gibson and looks very much like him in the early Mad Max films. Charlize Theron kicks major league ass. George Miller is astounding. He’s seventy years old, it’s been thirty years since he last directed a Mad Max movie, and this film had so much raw energy, imaginative action sequences and filmmaking derring-do that you would have thought he was a much younger man taking over a sagging franchise. There’s lots of things that call back to the earlier Mad Max films while, at the same, time, laying claim to it all for a new generation of filmgoers.

Jurassic World. It’s been more than twenty years since the first Jurassic Park movie and about fourteen since Jurassic Park III (which, for the record, I preferred to Jurassic Park II although, from reports, Steven Spielberg did not.) This is essentially another reboot of a franchise although, strictly speaking, it does follow in continuity from the first one. It was a thundering successful relaunch; it made just buckets and buckets of money. It also marked Chris Pratt’s emergence as a bonafide and believable action film star. Oh, he was the star in Guardians of the Galaxy but his Peter Quill was a bit of a goofball as well; he had a strong streak of coyote in him. In Jurassic World, there is a young Harrison Ford feel to Pratt. Charismatic, strong, and a star.

One of the problems for Jurassic World is that, when we see the dinosaurs, there isn’t that same sense of wonder we had in the first Jurassic Park. The plot in Jurassic World mirrors that – the park itself is having problems because having dinosaurs is no longer “new” – not so much of an attraction — so the Powers-That-Be manufacture, by blending DNA strains, a whole new – and very deadly – form of beast. And, of course, it escapes. Jurassic World pleases us, it entertains us, but it doesn’t –- it can’t — give us that same sense of wonder, of discovery, that the first Jurassic Park did.

So – which of these was my own personal favorite? I enjoyed them all but there’s no question that Inside Out is my pick. It’s not a reboot, it’s not a sequel, it’s not another link in a cinematic chain; it’s fresh, it’s engaging, it’s funny, and it has its own truths to tell. Tomorrowland comes in second for the reasons I’ve already given. Like Inside Out, it is something new and fresh and that scores a lot of points with me.

So – how was your summer?