Junior Mad Scientist – Lab Notes

THAT ONE SPOOKY NIGHT – an interview/review with Grace Weber

September 10th, 2012 by Weber

Welcome back, everyone! It’s been too long — and I’ve missed you all too much for words.

But enough about me and you. Let’s talk about books.

David Huyck was just one of the creators I got to talk with this summer at the first-ever Chicago Alterative Comics Expo (CAKE). (It doesn’t spell out, I know. Just go with it.) One project he was excited about was his upcoming children’s book, THAT ONE SPOOKY NIGHT. There were no galleys of it available, but he was able to score me an advance copy. NICE!

After I read it, young Kidzilla, (A.K.A., “Grace”) got her eyeprints all over the pages. When she was done, I put her on the record and asked her what she thought:

Brad: You ready? Because I’m really recording now.

Grace: Yeah.

Brad: You want to say anything first?

Grace: No.

Brad: You want to get right into it?

Grace: Yeah.

Brad: OK. We’re talking about THAT ONE SPOOKY NIGHT, a new Halloween book for young readers written by Dan Bar-el and Illustrated by David Huyck. Grace, did you like the book?

Grace: Yeah.

Brad: Did you ‘like’ it, did you ‘like-like’ it, or did you ‘love’ it?

Grace: I ‘like-liked’ it.

Brad: What made it better than just a ‘like’ book?

Grace: How it’s written . . . and the pictures.

Brad:  So the story and the art. The first time we were recording this — and that didn’t work — you said that of the three stories, you liked one better than the others and you didn’t like one as much as the rest. Which one didn’t you like?

Grace: The first one.

Brad: The story about the little girl who mixes-up her costume broom with a witch’s real, flying broom. Why didn’t you like it?

Grace: I just didn’t like it.

Brad: Was it not an exciting story?

Grace: Yeah.

Brad: Would you say it was the weakest story of the three?

Grace: Yes.

Brad: Which one did you like the most?

Grace: The last one.

Brad: The one about the four human girls who meet the four vampire girls. Why?

Grace:  Because one of the human girls and one of the vampire girls got to be friends. And they didn’t like blood.

Brad: Would you give this book to your friends to read? And why?

Grace: Yes. Because it’s funny and scary at the same time.

Brad: Is there anything you would tell them about it? Anything about the story or the art?

Grace: No. I would let them be surprised.

Brad: What did you think about the art?

Grace: I think it was excellent.

Brad: What about the writing?

Grace: The writing was pretty good.

Brad: So you think the art is really the strong point in this book.

Grace: Yeah. Can we be done now?

Brad: Ah . . . sure.

And there you have it.

Since there were no comments for THAT ONE SPOOKY NIGHT up on Amazon, I was prompted to post my thoughts in my first Amazon review. Short but sweet. Check it out here — then order yourself a copy!


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Portriat of No One

February 20th, 2012 by Weber

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Hide Me Among The Graves (Book Review)

February 16th, 2012 by Weber

I’m a Tim Powers fan. Most of his books are my go-to reading when I’m in a funk or otherwise needing a jolt of industrial magic realism. I’ve given away more copies of Last Call and On Stranger Tides than I can remember, never expecting to get them back.

His books are a gold standard: the earlier ones (Skies Discrowned, The Drawing of the Dark, The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides) being full-on adventures, usually historical, involving secret histories that play with the facts for their own supernatural ends; the later ones (Last Call, Declare) continue to work with secret histories, though with more intricate plots and greater focus on the historical details.

Hide Me Among the Graves is no less intricately plotted or historically bent — or supernatural, for that matter — though this one fails to catch the same light.

Graves is somewhat of a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, Powers’ 1989 novel involving a hapless London doctor, John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and the nephilim  — that race of giants from the Bible, angel sired and of woman born — who, in this case somehow turned to stony creatures and now live off the blood of humans. In Powers’ version, nephilim are the basis of the vampire legend, but instead of killing the humans to whom they are married or are in other ways part of their family, the nephilim give them longer life and the ability to write great poetry. (There is a big difference between being family and being food and the nephilim are jealous creatures; anyone attached to their beloved either has her chest crushed or is drained and can come back as a vampire himself.) Naturally, the whole thing is a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea. All this takes place in Italy in the early 1800’s.

One of the lesser players in Stress was John Polidori, physician to Lord Byron and runner-up in the Villa Diodati Ghost Story Contest — his tale, “The Vampyre” coming in second to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Because of his employer’s notorious and scandalous reputation, Polidori was paid to keep a diary during their travels together, which he did, and which was later edited by his nephew, William Rossetti.

Polidori was a sub-minor character in Stress, portrayed as a dope and a wannabe, his literary aspirations leading him to seek a vampire and eventually becoming one — too bad for him since the nephilim were defeated by the end of the book and all the vampires turned to lifeless stone. The vampire Polidori was trapped a small, pointy black rock. Then, in 1845, he was able to regain himself thanks to a bit of exceptionally poor parenting by William Rossetti’s father, Gabriel, who gave the cursed stone to his fourteen-year old daughter, Christina.

Getting beyond the fact that an elderly father adores his daughter so much that he gives her the stone heart of a vampire along with explicit instructions on how to revive it , the daughter doesn’t seem to be the main character in this book, nor is anyone in the Rossetti family. Powers’ seems to want the main characters to be the son of the doctor from the first book, a woman with whom he had a one-night stand, and their own young daughter who is being pursued through London by Polidori. The Rossetti’s history is the backdrop and the family members are characters of varying importance in a story that ranges over forty years, roughly. And I do mean roughly.

There are moments — parts of chapters when the action picks up, where the stakes are evident or the emotion is tight — but they are too infrequent for the jacket copy to justifiably claim the story  is, “an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride,” or for Booklist to say it’s a “nail-biter” with “breakneck pace.” I will, however, agree it has a “labyrinthine plot [pulling] us through history, mythology, mystery, and horror with [Powers’] signature creative verve.”

Indeed. But for a novel about vampires, doomed souls, and the need to save one’s most-loved, Hide Me Among the Graves lacks an overall urgency or even a sustained tension. And in spite of the risks around them, the main(ish) characters never seemed to be in any serious danger. This could also be due to their being fairly standard Types in Powers’ world and, therefore, harboring no surprises. The supporting character who stole the show was Edward Trelawny — a surly old writer and adventurer, and a friend of Lord Byron’s who was, in his younger days, in thrall to the nephilim. Trelawny is a man who deserves his own book with the full Powers treatment.

As far as Hide Me Among the Graves goes, its lack of propulsion, sputtering narrative, and wandering focus are the same problems to be found in The Stress of Her Regard — a novel that, after several failed attempts to read over the years, I finally finished in anticipation of the new book. Reading them back-to-back seemed to reflect their flaws and refract their qualities, though qualities there still are.

Powers is a secret historian of the highest order, invoking the supernatural and fantastic to reveal the true engines of the world. His research and keen eye for the effects of wildly disparate — yet intimately twined — events is unsurpassed.

In Hide Me Among the Graves, Powers’ trademark play with the facts seems to have gotten slow & tight while trying to connect too many historical dots.


Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers goes on sale March 13, 2012.

Support your local independent bookstore.



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Audio Review: Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone

January 18th, 2012 by Weber

Flog me for an idiot — and for thinking this review was on the site when it’s been in the DRAFTS folder the whole time.

So, special thanks to the fine folks over at Brilliance Audio for sending the CDs and apy-polly-loggies to the same, O My Brothers and Sisters, for this  on-the-job fall down.



Having not heard any of Phil Gigante’s work prior to the F&L@RS recordings, I had no idea what to expect from his performance. Which is just as well, because it kept me from wondering how — or even if — he’d shoot for the infamous ‘Hunter Mumble.’

Gigante does, in a way, but not all the way — and that makes all the difference.

When performing Hunter’s words from the RS articles and related correspondence, Gigante delivers a clear and precise reading toward the lower end of his register. The words come quickly and in bursts typical of the good doctors rhythms on The Gonzo Tapes and in recorded interviews. And Gigante easily keeps pace with and conveys Hunter’s changing tone, knowing when to give a straight read, push some rage, or adopt a floating wonder about the future — that kind of verbal ellipsis Depp managed so well in the Vegas movie.

Reading from Jann Wenner’s intro and letters, or the material from Paul Scanlon, Gigante keeps it straight while maintaining an understated tension that may be a carry-over from his reading as Hunter or is his attempt to capture the energy of the time and place, and Hunter’s infectious whirlwind.

Whatever the rationale — and even if there isn’t one — it works. Brilliance Audio has done their typical high-end craftwork of assembling the right talent and crew for the job, making Fear & Loathing at Rolling Stone a terrific listen.

Browse the Brilliance Audio catalog and buy recordings here.

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Soul Train Host Was Former Chicago Cop

November 1st, 2011 by Weber

Would you ever peg this man as having been on the Chicago P.D. ?

Me neither.

Here’s the story from IMDB:

Discovered by WVON Radio personality Ed Cobb. In the mid-1960s, Cobb while driving ran a traffic violation and was pulled over by Chicago Police officer Don Cornelius. While officer Cornelius was asking him the typical traffic stop questions, Cobb noticed his unique speaking voice and told him that he was in the wrong profession. Cobb suggested that Cornelius come down to the radio station and make a demo tape. Don took him up on it and was hired as an announcer.

And some comments on it from the Don himself:

No, no. Never happened. How I knew Roy, for the record, was that I grew up in a three-story building on St. Lawrence Avenue next to a three-story building he lived in for a time.

But he doesn’t deny being a Chicago cop . . . .

Goes to show you never can tell.

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October 27th, 2011 by Weber

This just in from bookstore proprietor, publisher, and editor extraordinaire, Otto Penzler:

 I’m pretty jazzed right now. After two years of hard and often frustrating work, the website of my electronic publishing company is up and running. Click this link — http://mysteriouspress.com/  — if you’d like to see it and the terrific array of books and authors we’re offering. It’s the first day, so only about 40 books are up, but we’ll be adding hundreds more over the next few months.
Yours sincerely, Otto

For all you mystery fans with e-readers and i-Pads, Otto’s site has enough great titles to keep you busy for a good long while. And like he says, more are on the way.

Don’t forget: X-mas is coming on fast, and e-readers are cheap. Buy one, load it with mysteries, and give it to a friend. They’ll thank you.


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Book Review: Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone

October 24th, 2011 by Weber


Assurances were made that a review would be posted on the 24th. It’s still Monday for a few more hours and, after a day of brawling with myself over issues peripheral — but bearing no direct relation — to the book’s contents, I’m back to take another swing.

For the uninitiated or casually familiar, F&L@RS is a fine introduction to The Good Doctor’s non-Vegas Gonzo pieces and a good place to find some of his most incandescent writing. And while the book doesn’t illustrate the evolution of Hunter’s style and craft, these repackaged Rolling Stone articles showcase the results of both the writer and his editors, past and present, in creating finished pieces. It also traces the astonishing climb, stall, and flame-0ut of one of America’s most prolific, insightful, and unstoppable humorists.

Much of the material for this book appeared in the same or similar forms in Hunter’s other collected works, most notably THE GREAT SHARK HUNT. In fact, of the 40 or so articles and letters listed on the contents page, nine were in SHARK HUNT and fourteen in CAMPAIGN TRAIL ’72.

(N.B. — I say, “same or similar forms,” because, according to Paul Scanlon’s warm and excellent intro, he’s re-groomed some of the articles for the new book. While editorial nit-pickers and HST fetishists will no doubt have their jollies with it, I have no time for a full-on stare-and-compare. One day, maybe — but not today.)

Where SHARK HUNT takes a somewhat shotgun approach to the groupings, F&L@RS has the advantage of presenting the pieces chronologically. Following the timeline lets readers see how Hunter’s writing for Rolling Stone fed the success and growth of the magazine, and was responsible for the growth and spread of the Hunterfigure. Readers get to witness the Legend being being printed along with the Truth and bound together, for good and ill, in the public consciousness.

For the hardcore fan or HST scholar, F&L@RS ultimately holds no surprises, though there are two pieces worth particular mention. First, is the inclusion of, “Polo Is My Life” — one of the truly essential pieces of Hunter’s writing that has been MIA for too long. Second is the exclusion of “Dance of the Doomed,”  Hunter’s meditation and final word on the war in Vietnam. The real reason why this was left out is anybody’s guess.

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Book Review: Dear Creature by Jonathan Case

October 17th, 2011 by Weber

Somewhere between a Universal monster movie and The Merchant of Venice lies Jonathan Case’s debut graphic novel, Dear Creature. Would this rightly be considered a mash-up? There is no such mention in the enclosed marketing materials, so best not beleaguer the book with negative baggage. Especially since it doesn’t deserve it.

Indeed. Dear Creature is a rich romantic comedy –– fast, layered, funny, and tight –– proper adjectives to describe the writing, pacing, panel composition and line work. High praise for someone’s debut solo effort.

Case seems to have pulled from everywhere: some Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, a little Frankenstein, a handful of Romeo and Juliet, bushels of Dave Stevens, a weird slice from the Taming of the Shrew, some Harlequin Romance, even a bit of Calvin and Hobbes. And it works. The familiar hints of this and that neither overwhelm nor diminish Case’s fresh story of two gene–crossed lovers.

The art here is not subsidiary to the text. This is real comics, the Alchemical Blend I keep talking about that is the hallmark of fine sequential art storytelling. It’s doubtful that a collaborating artist or a brush-for-hire could have managed so successful a package. The crisp black and whites beautifully reflect the tale’s two emotional states: morbid despair and incandescent joy, Case’s clean pen tracing between the two, creating the space in which his characters breathe.

Read in a single sitting, Dear Creature had my full buy-in for every page –– except one. When the hero, Grue, escapes the clutches of a giant squid by tickling her, ah    . . .  “fancy,” shall we call it? . . .  I was completely yanked out of the story.

Not that the moment was too broad or even unnecessary. It might have worked if it wasn’t so jarringly out of place. There was no precedent for it. Plenty of slapstick in the panels leading up to it, but no hint of bawdiness. And while I’m all for the bawdy, it shouldn’t come in the middle of a harrowing sequence. That, and the fact that Grue quickly, ah “surfaces,” shall we call it ? . . . leaving the lady squid with her tentacle trapped in the hull of a submarine? Well, that’s just bad form.

What Case comes up with next is anybody’s guess. With any luck, he’ll be able to stick with long-form graphic novels instead of being seduced by the superhero monthlies. They lack soul; Case doesn’t need to lose his to those.

Either way, I’ll be waiting.

Hit Case’s Web site here.

Dear Creature page over at the MacMillan/Tor site

MacMillan’s Comics and Graphic Novel page — GOLD!

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Still Dusty

August 25th, 2011 by Weber

Smells like Teen Spirit

HUZZAH! Webmaster MIKE has everything moved over to the new host. But . . . none of the categories for the old posts came with.

I’ll be spending some days getting everything put back to normal. What that means for now is that if you’re looking for an older post, like the 24-Hour Comics or examining the phenomenon of the Carlos V candy bar, you might have do do some digging. The search bar works (as far as I know).

If there’s something special you need and can’t find it, just ask.

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Max Allan Collins and the Case of the Sucky Book Cover

August 25th, 2011 by Weber

The original draft of the Junior Mad Scientist review of Bye, Bye, Baby included a drubbing of book’s the less-than-stellar cover art that made crappy by association what was really a quality read. Rather than risk splashing the text while pissing on the cover, all discussion of the upfront image was removed and saved for later.

Wella, well . . . poking around Max Allan Collins’s Website, it seems the man himself is none too pleased with what will be people’s first impression of his latest work:

“I’ve stirred some interest and even commentary on my admitted displeasure with the cover to the new Heller. I am pleased by the quality of the photograph, and thrilled that my publisher ponied up for a major photographic shoot from the excellent Thalicer Image Studio. But because of fears that the MM estate might object to too overt a Marilyn image, the publisher chose what I consider to be the weakest (and certainly most historically inaccurate) of the photos from the shoot.”

Since the other cover options are not available for review, it’s hard to argue with him. And while the chosen cover is flaccid and dull, it manages to attract the eye and direct it around the primary sights. Here are the excised chunks of the of the original review with full analysis of how the image works.


HEADLINE –– Book Review: Bye, Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins


A good book with a bad cover is like a dead kitty on the tollway. Driving past it, you wonder who was supposed to be taking care of the forlorn thing, think it deserved better, then wonder how long it’s going to lay there. Max Collin’s latest Nate Heller memoir Bye, Bye, Baby is that dead kitty.

[Hey, it’s me again. Just so you know, the majority of the review –– all the stuff about how good the text is, etc. –– came from right here. OK, roll tape.]

Staged photos like this, especially on a fiction cover, are less effective than an auctioneer with a bad stutter. The photo on Bye, Bye, Baby lacks not only luster, but nearly anything related to the story inside. (The title is one of Marilyn’s songs from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; that point goes to Collins, not the book’s designers.) More than probably, the lack of relevance is due to Marilyn’s image or likeness being heavily copyrighted and/or trademarked, and the publisher not wanting to shell-out for using it. Not that I blame them; that kind of thing has got to be expensive. And with publishing costs being what they are today, if there’s a reason and a way to avoid adding to the overhead, all to the good.

Which gets us back to an illustrated cover. Any talented artist could have pulled off something really intriguing that more heavily hinted at, but didn’t show, the corpsified Marilyn, and for a lot less than the cost of staging a shoot.

And while there are several other gripes about the photo –– including the inaccurate death scene and the fedora-sporting geezer eyeballing the dead girl’s ass –– the time has come for it’s one and only good point: an effective use of space and white to guide the eye.

Stay with me here . . .

The starburst camera flash in the upper left corner attracts the eye and drags it across the white of the author’s name to the reporter’s black suspenders framing his white shirt; the V of his open collar, the shirt buttons, suspenders and the angle of his torso draw the viewer’s eye down to the second camera flash a fraction of an inch above the hot pink title –– also outlined in white. From here, the eye might go two directions: flick along the lilting title back to it’s beginning or down to read the single sentence synopsis below before taking in the title. The second scenario seems most likely because those letters are also in white.

Either way, the title will be read because the panicky-looking guy in the suit to the left, just under the flashblown C. His highlit hair, white teeth, white collar, the white slashes in his tie, the lapel button, the lined papers on the angled clipboard and the index finger of his right hand lead the eye down to the dead girl with the nice rack. And oh, look –– there’s a hot pink title between his finger and her chest.

Along with her ample bossoms (which are strangely free of cleavage), the dead girl’s glittering bracelet, satin sheet and telephone receiver conspire to draw the eye down and through the image. Note the ivory colors and off-white tones of the sheet, rug and phone. This is because the body is the eye’s final resting place (as it were), not where the eye should start.

But look how the angle of the girl’s knee directs the eye back up to the white camera flash again, and how the title gets in the way. Funny how that works.

Central to all this is the septuagenarian detective –– who looks nothing like the fiddle–fit Heller described in the book.

Sure, Heller wears suits — also sporty casual clothes, polo shirts, white jeans — and admits forgoing hats thanks to the trend set by JFK. Who this moist-eyed basset hound is supposed to be is anyone’s guess. LAPD, maybe? If you look reeeeeeeal close, he’s holding a badge.

So confused . . . .

Knowing the mechanics of the cover still doesn’t make readers/buyers unfamiliar, or even slightly familiar, with Heller or Collins want to pick it up. Because the cover is boring and displays almost nothing of the real mystery inside.

And why there isn’t a well-placed banner showcasing this as A NATE HELLER MYSTERY, I can only imagine. Most readers like a good series. The Heller memoirs may not be what anyone would consider a traditional mystery series, but after more than a dozen books, that’s pretty much what it is. When you’ve got a nice backlist, why not show it off?

For those who read it and recognize it, an author’s name can overcome uninspired, barely functional cover art. In some cases, the author’s name is all that’s needed: Stephen King, James Patterson, Amanda Quick, Dan Bown.

(. . . gag . . . ack . . . Sorry. Threw up a little in my mouth on that last one.)

Unfortunately, Max Allan Collins doesn’t have quite that level of recognition. Christ only knows why. It’s not like he doesn’t deserve it. Perhaps it has something to do with publishers wrapping his books in crappy cover art.

Still and all, beyond an author’s brand name, a good cover is what gets a book into people’s hands. Hell, even wine makers know this. Over the last several years, label design has gone through a major shift because what’s true of books is true of wine: buyers judge contents by what’s on the outside. (This is also true of mail-order brides –– though that industry has a narrower consumer base than the other two up for discussion.)

Good art on bad wine sells a lot of bad wine. Bad art on good books sells damned few good books.

Bye, Bye, Baby deserves much better than it got. Here’s hoping the paperback gets the right treatment.

(28 FEB 2012: comments section closed due to excessive spam. Please direct any comments to the address on the ABOUT page. Thanks. bjw)

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