27 November 2019

The Busytown Neighborhood in New-York

Every December the New-York Historical Society lays out a big model train set to visit, and this year’s design celebrates the centenary of Richard Scarry’s birth by sending the trains through Busytown.

The museum’s webpage doesn’t have any images from the display, but Time Out offered the photo above, showing that Scarry’s characters appear as little flat cutouts direct from his illustrations. (Rather than, say, three-dimensionally modeled adaptations.)

There are also “custom-made Busytown vehicle-themed benches” and larger “Busytown characters” for selfies. Busytown is of course a going commercial concern, licensed from Random House. Given how hard most of its inhabitants work at their jobs, such marketing doesn’t violate the Busytown spirit in the least.

Weekend storytimes will feature Scarry’s books, including The Night Before the Night Before Christmas, and on 14-15 December Scarry’s son and collaborator, Huck Scarry, will get busy sketching characters and talking to visitors.

24 November 2019

Tom Lyle and the Robin Miniseries

In 1986 Tom Lyle, an aspiring comic-book artist in his thirties, went to a comics convention in Philadelphia. There he met Chuck Dixon, a young writer who was scripting Air Boy for Eclipse. Based on Lyle’s samples, Dixon got him the job of penciler on a related title, Sky Wolf. In a chat with Comics Interview magazine, Lyle credited that as “the event that triggered my career” in comics.

Lyle was recruited by DC Comics to draw Starman in 1988. After a couple of years, as he was wrapping up that assignment, Lyle asked Batman group editor Dennis O’Neil if he had any openings. O’Neil was planning a miniseries focusing the newly created Robin, Tim Drake.

“I’ve never been real thrilled with the Robins,” Lyle told his interviewer. “Dick Grayson, the original Robin, I couldn’t have given a flip about when I was a kid; it was like, ‘Get out of the way, kid, I want to see Batman.” But a job was a job.

O’Neil’s team wanted to make Robin into a martial-arts expert, so they needed a writer who understood the martial arts. Lyle suggested Dixon. He got the assignment and went on to be DC’s most productive writer of the decade. (On the occasion of his 40,000th comics page in 2017, Bleeding Cool noted Dixon wrote 106 issues of Robin, 89 issues of Detective Comics, 77 issues of Nightwing, 46 issues of Birds Of Prey, and 22 issues of Catwoman, to name a few.)

Dixon and Lyle’s first issue of the first Robin series carried a cover date of January 1991. The character of Tim Drake had been created by Marv Wolfman in issues drawn by George Pérez, Jim Aparo, and Norm Breyfogle, and his costume was designed by Neal Adams. But Dixon and Lyle’s portrayal fleshed him out by showing him on his own. Lyle was especially good at portraying Tim as a thirteen-year-old, lithe but not a powerhouse, the littlest guy in the fight who needed to think harder than anyone else to stay alive.

In the gritty, pouched, and overpumped 1990s, Robin was the equivalent of counterprogramming on broadcast television—standing out by doing something different. And it worked. According to Lyle, DC expected to sell about 200,000 copies of the first issue of the Robin miniseries. Instead, it sold three times that number.

DC asked the Dixon-Lyle team for a second miniseries about Tim Drake going up against the Joker, issued at the end of 1991. Then came a third, featuring the character the Huntress for an interesting contrast. That was the height of the speculative boom, and those magazines are festooned with holograms and other gimmicks.

Dixon and Lyle also collaborated on issues of Batman and Detective Comics showing Batman and Robin together. One of those magazines introduced Stephanie Brown as the Spoiler, who went on to become Tim Drake’s love interest, a fan favorite, and eventually Robin and Batgirl herself for limited periods. Lyle was also the artist for the first Robin Annual and the 1992 public service ad in which Tim decides to learn the facts about AIDS.

During that time, Lyle also plotted and penciled the early issues of The Comet for DC’s Impact imprint. In 1993 he started working for Marvel Comics on Spider-Man stories. That same year, DC launched the Robin monthly series with Dixon as regular scripter.

After another ten years or so, Lyle left monthly comics to become an art teacher at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Earlier this year he suffered an aneurysm, and last week he died, aged 66. Friends and fans have set up a Go Fund Me page for his family.

15 November 2019


Let’s imagine that Donald Trump paid millions of dollars—assuming he actually has that much money to spend—to officials of a foreign government to announce a criminal investigation into his leading political opponent.

The officials didn’t even have to conduct the investigation. After all, Trump doesn’t criticize notoriously corrupt regimes, has cut the budgets of international anti-corruption programs, and is ignoring multiple laws and norms in the US. But for these millions of dollars Trump clearly wanted a big public announcement of that criminal probe that would damage his opponent.

Obviously, that would be a crime: bribing a foreign government for political purposes.

Now let’s imagine that Donald Trump took $391 million that the US Congress had allocated for a particular program and diverted it for his own political benefit. Again, that would obviously be a crime: a form of embezzlement and abuse of power.

Donald Trump did both those things at the same time.

07 November 2019

The Real Legacy of He Walked by Night

He Walked by Night didn’t influence The Third Man, but it definitely did influence American popular entertainment.

To start with, it appears to be the first movie that includes a scene of self-surgery. The bad guy stitches himself up after being shot, using a mirror and a lot of grit. I’ve seen variations of that scene in The Terminator, Ronin, and Master and Commander, but this might be the original.

Even more clearly, He Walked by Night gave birth to the most visible and long-lasting form of the dramatized police procedural. It even starts with an announcement that the story was based on real crimes, and that “names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

One of the supporting characters in the movie is a police lab technician played by Jack Webb. He’s young and almost winsome in the role.

At the time, Webb’s most prominent parts were as the star of the radio dramas Pat Novak, for Hire, about an unlicensed investigator who works at a pier, and Johnny Madero, Pier 23, about a pier manager who undertakes investigations. As was standard in hard-boiled mysteries, the cops in those stories were at best a rival for the hero, at worst a hindrance.

While working on He Walked by Night, Webb met the movie’s technical advisor, Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn of the Los Angeles Police Department. Their conversations and the movie’s format gave Webb the idea of creating a radio drama about a police detective, inspired by real crimes and portraying realistic law-enforcement techniques.

The LAPD also loved that idea and got behind it. Dragnet premiered in June 1949 with Webb in the starring role of Sgt. Joe Friday. It ran for more than eight years on radio. For most of those years, a version also ran on television for nine years, and there was a movie adaptation as well. Then the TV show was revived in 1966 with a TV movie and more than four more years of episodes. Webb expanded the procedural franchise in the 1970s by producing Adam-12 and Emergency!

Dragnet made Webb’s Joe Friday character a national icon, cementing his image as an actor and even his politics. That means it’s very striking to see him play a different personality in He Walked by Night, or to hear him as a cornet player during Prohibition in the fine radio drama Pete Kelly’s Blues.

06 November 2019

Going Deep for a Climactic Chase

He Walked by Night is a 1948 police procedural that gets better as it goes along, largely because the original director, journeyman Alfred L. Werker, left the project and the up-and-coming Anthony Mann took over.

The cinematographer, John Alton, stayed the same, so the whole movie has the same look. It’s a noir docudrama. Many of the opening scenes have no more zip than an educational film. But scenes with the bad guy, played by Richard Basehart, are strong, and the climax is terrific. The police chase the killer through the Los Angeles sewer drain system. Mann and Alton used light and dark, angles and shapes, tracking shots, and sound with no music to build up tension.

The sewer chase immediately brings up a comparison with The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and released the following year. Did a B movie produced by a British-American distribution company that had just got into production influence that prestige project filmed in Europe with an international cast of stars? The similarity is striking, but it’s just a coincidence.

Producer Alexander Korda recruited Graham Greene to write a new screenplay for Reed after they had worked together well on The Fallen Idol. Korda had the idea of setting a story in Vienna, its policing divided among the Allied powers. Greene had one sentence in an old notebook about someone spotting an old friend a week after attending his funeral.

In early 1948, Greene traveled to Vienna to research and come up with more. Discussions with various people gave him two ideas: black-market penicillin and patrols of the city’s old sewer system. Greene went to Rome and drafted a novella incorporating all those elements, then adapted his prose into a screenplay. Filming on The Third Man began in October.

Meanwhile, Eagle-Lion Films was making He Walked by Night, inspired by the case of murderer Erwin Walker. In April 1946, after a shootout with police, Walker had escaped through Los Angeles’s storm drains. He did the same thing the following month. Walker was finally arrested in December 1946 in his apartment, the police having received a tip-off.

According to The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, the original scenario for He Walked by Night didn’t include scenes of the killer in the sewer. Instead, the climax was a chase at the Los Angeles Coliseum, which Werker probably filmed in the spring of 1948. When Mann took over, he reworked the screenplay. He and his chosen writer, John C. Higgins, changed the climax to be an extended capture in the storm drains. Those scenes were a technical challenge, but Alton and Mann captured that footage in reshoots in July 1948.

In November, Eagle-Lion released He Walked by Night in Los Angeles. That same month, Orson Welles arrived in Vienna and performed in a few shots of The Third Man. One of those involved going down into the sewer. But Welles famously balked at filming underground surrounded by actual drain water. The company had to build sewer sets in London and film the movie’s climax months later. Still, that timing shows how the sewer scenes of The Third Man were already mapped out by the time He Walked by Night was released.

Thus, the two movies’ chase scenes through drainage systems developed independently, each based on real events. Both scenes take advantage of the darkness and watery reflections of underground drainage tunnels. But they end up offering a strong visual contrast that reflects the two cities above. LA’s drains are all modern concrete, with smooth surfaces and sharp angles and arcs. Vienna’s Old World tunnels (or the studio reproduction of them) are bumpy brick and stone, filmed at vertiginous tilted angles. And both scenes are excellent.

03 November 2019

Restorative Young Justice

I was intrigued by the news that Brian Michael Bendis was reviving DC Comics’s original Young Justice team, featured from 1998 to 2003. I didn’t pick up the comic books, however, because I was already confused enough by the publisher’s continuity changes in recent years. The alternate universes that got us to this reboot seemed even more tortuous.

I’ve now read the first collected volume of that series, Young Justice: Gemworld, and I’m just as confused as I anticipated.

Bendis has indeed restored the core of the original team: Tim Drake as Robin, Conner Kent as Superboy, Bart Allen as Impulse, and Cassie Sandsmark as Wonder Girl. In addition, he’s added three more girls, versions of established heroes/trademarks: Jinny Hex, Amethyst, and Teen Lantern (leaving out the original Young Justice’s Secret, Artemis Arrowette, and later members). Bendis has also established that the team has always been part of this DC universe’s history but wiped from memory by a bunch of hand-waving—the same hand-waving that brought those characters back together. But as for the story itself, it felt thin.

Of course, the original Young Justice series was far from deep. Launched by Todd Dezago and then taken over and scripted almost entirely by Peter David, it was a sitcom. It had catch phrases, laugh lines, villains and supporting characters whose names were based on puns. Sure, there were many moments of teen angst and very special episodes and all that. But fundamentally that series didn’t take itself too seriously. This team formed because a bunch of young superheroes liked hanging out, not because they had a crucial mission or psychological need. That’s why the unorthodox artwork of Todd Nauck worked.

Bendis has restored the group, but he hasn’t restored that tone. To be sure, these first issues are devoted to reintroducing and introducing the team through one breathless flashback after another. But I recall only two jokes fondly, one of them repeated and the other almost lost in small panels.

The new series doesn’t need to follow the same path, of course. So far, however, there just isn’t enough adolescent drama (as in Teen Titans at its best) or threats to this world (as in the intermediate, TV-spin-off Young Justice magazine) to make up for the loss.