Monday, October 26, 2015

Guest Review - When comics guys write “real” books: Stephen Englehart’s The Point Man

Karen: Today we have a guest book review from our pal Edo Bosnar looking at comic writer Steve Englehart's science fiction novel, The Point Man. Take it away, Edo.

When comics guys write “real” books: Stephen Englehart’s The Point Man

It’s always interesting to see a “normal” book written by a comics writer, especially when it’s not just a merchandising tie-in featuring superheroes or other characters from the comics. Some efforts like this can be found in the Weird Heroes books (that I wrote a post about not long ago), with, say, Archie Goodwin, Elliot Maggin and Stephen Englehart writing short stories featuring original characters.

In The Point Man, Englehart introduces Max August, a Vietnam vet who works as a popular radio DJ in San Francisco. His on-air persona – he goes under a pseudonym, Barnaby Wilde – is sort of outsized and outgoing, while in real life he’s more subdued, and, except for a friend or two, keeps mostly to himself. It’s in the sanctuary of his home that he discovers his distinctive lion statue is stolen and replaced by a virtually identical replica. It’s one of his most beloved possessions as it was given to him when he was still a boy by his uncle; unbeknownst to him, it’s also a magical talisman, which is why it was stolen.

Rather quickly, August gets drawn into a tangled situation in which an attempt is made on his life (a mind-controlled out-of-towner shoots at him while he’s working his DJ gig in one of those street-view radio studios), the FBI questions him because it’s investigating the sexy yet mysterious new manager of his station, he meets an apparently centenarian wizard (who’s also the manager of a popular singer, who in turn eventually becomes his love interest) and he learns that it’s all part of a plot to usher in a reign of chaos by another wizard named Wolf Messing (who was actually a real person (, although, obviously, not really a wizard – more like a charlatan – and already dead for about 6 years when this novel was published). Max soon decides that he has to become a wizard-in-training to best deal with the entire conundrum (and just to pique everyone’s interest, I should note that part of the preparations for the big showdown with the bad guy involves tantric sex).

The Point Man is a pretty solid read all in all. It combines elements of suspense/espionage thrillers with horror, and at a few places the story even evokes the X-files a bit, because one of the FBI agents specializes in “weird cases” (although unlike Mulder and Scully he’s rather unlikeable). Also, the magic, wizards and August’s decision to learn the supernatural arts out of necessity are all quite reminiscent of Dr. Strange. On a 5-star scale, I’d give it about a 3.5, mainly because there are a few points at which the story drags a bit (mainly due to overly lengthy exposition). Also, the use of US/Russian Cold War politics as a plot device was a nice touch, but it also dates the story quite a bit, and may throw some readers out of it … although just the fact that the protagonist is a popular rock radio DJ sort of dates the story as well, I suppose.

I think fans of Englehart and/or Dr. Strange and other magic-based heroes might get a kick out of this book. Englehart fans might also be interested in knowing that more recently (starting in 2009), he wrote several sequels: The Long Man, The Plain Man and The Arena Man – which I have not read. (The Point Man was also reprinted, but I snagged a copy of the original 1980 paperback, which has the awesome cover art by Richard Corben).

I actually wanted to open the discussion up to other, similar efforts by comics guys: I know that, for example, Don McGregor, Mike Barr, John Byrne, Alan Moore, and, quite recently, Irene Vartanoff, as well as comics writers who became well-known mostly after the Bronze Age, like Chuck Dixon and Greg Rucka, wrote prose books. Has anyone read any of these, and what are your thoughts?


Humanbelly said...

Really nice job bringing a neat, overlooked topic like this up to the front, edo-!

I think Gerry Conway was the first comics author I was ever aware of who took a shot at straight novel-writing-- mostly 'cause they made such a big deal of it on the Bullpen Bulletins page. But I don't think I've ever read anything that wasn't tied to comics or another franchise.

THE POINT MAN, here, may not be wholly my own cup of tea. I'd say one criticism I'd have with Englehart in general is that, w/out a steady, pragmatic editor he's capable of running with a wild idea for almost any element or character he comes up with. And then you just get exotic-idea overload. He and his buddy Gerber both had this in common, I daresay. As we've sort of discussed, this is a major pitfall in comics in general-- and it's also a big problem in a lot of popular series (Harry Dresden; Harry Potter; Buffy; etc, etc). A variation of the ol' "Bigger is Better" upward spiral. It sounds like he's almost starting right off at that point with this book. Buuuuuut I also haven't read it, so I'm certainly not the fairest judge.

I've read a couple of Peter David's Star Trek novels (quite good, I recall), and I enjoyed his Hulk novel (WHAT SAVAGE BEAST)-- but those aren't at all appropriate to the discussion here. Are these writers' talents truly genre'-specific, or are they able to jump over into prose works entirely of their own creation?


Anonymous said...

When I was a kid (and really into Killraven/War of the Worlds) I was desperate to read Dragon Flame, but it was obviously one of those fabulous items advertised in American comics that I'd never actually get hold of.
Nowadays, I think I might have dodged a bullet there:)....

I've read Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore, which is really good and I'm looking forward to Jerusalem (due out next year - I can't believe it!) but otherwise... can't really think of a comic writer I'd particularly want to read a novel by. All the same, I'm open to suggestions and appreciated the review, Edo.

The other side of this would be proper writers doing comics, no? Samuel Delany springs to mind. I keep meaning to check out Jonathan Lethem's take on Omega the Unknown... anyone read that? Is it any good?


Redartz said...

Thanks for the review, Edo! Not an area I'm experienced in; I've read "Ultimate Spider-Man" (a text anthology of stories by a variety of writers), but as for original subject matter, I got nothing.

Sean- that Omega treatment by Lethem sounds interesting; if you read it let us know what you think...

Edo Bosnar said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.
HB, Englehart actually kept the storytelling pretty tight here, in the sense that he didn't go off the rails and bog down the narrative with too many extraneous concepts. So in terms of ideas and plotting, the storytelling is pretty tight.

Sean, the thought of an 'opposite' post, i.e., "proper" writers doing comics, also occurred to me, and I thought of Delaney (and Harlan Ellison) as well. But in the case of those two writers, I haven't read any of their comics work, at least not that I recall.
By the way, I know Lethem's Omega tends to get universally praised in the comics blogosphere, but I've read it and I'll just say I was pretty underwhelmed and leave it at that...

Anonymous said...

You might well be right, Edo, as the same blogosphere seems equally enthusiastic about the work of Grant Morrison, which shows just how off the mark the comics uni-mind can be; plus, Gerber's original Omega wasn't exactly brilliant to start with. So I guess that's why I haven't tried too hard to get hold of the Lethem take (although I'm still interested and will keep an open mind)

I really like Alan Moore's stuff, but generally the more literary (for want of a better word) approach to comics he influenced leaves me cold. Actually, Moore aside, I don't think "comic book writers" have ever really brought much to the form - sometimes they can work well in collaboration, but most of the best comics have been the work of a single writer/artist (ooh - a bit of controversy there)


Anonymous said...

Cool review, Edo. I like Englehart's comics work (most of the time), but I didn't know he'd written any "real" books. I've been meaning to check out Peter David's Star Trek stuff, but I haven't gotten to it yet...which is strange because I love PAD's comics work.

I've always thought that comics themselves would read well as full-length novels, but the few examples I've seen don't seem to work all that well. But I'd love to read a series of novels retelling the origins of the Marvel Universe...or maybe a series set in the 70s, very streetwise and a bit noirish; oh well, I guess we have the Netflix series for that (though they aren't set in the 70s, obviously).

Mike Wilson

Martinex1 said...

Thanks for the review Edo. Again, another example of a work that I had no idea existed.

One question, did any version of Mantis show up in The Point Man?

Edo Bosnar said...

Mmmmmmmm, nope, Martinex, can't say that any character in the book reminded me of Mantis...

Russ said...

This is out of the usual orbit, but I've been thinking about old Murphy Anderson comics lately, for obvious reasons, and his frequent collaborator, Gardner Fox, had a massive number of books published, historical, science fiction and (under pseudonyms) romance and soft porn.

The really interesting one I recall is Lou Cameron, who was a fantastic artist of horror comics and, I think, Classics Illustrated. He somehow ended up being a very prolific novelist, also using various pseudonyms. He wrote a ton of novelizations of movies and television shows like How the West Was Won and Kung Fu. He was an award-winning writer of Western Fiction, and created the incredibly sleazy adult Western series Longarm in the late 70s, which ran for a couple of hundred volumes at least.

Both of these guys went pretty far afield of their comic book beginnings and were sometimes great, sometimes mediocre. But you never got the feeling that they were pretending to be "real" writers as I did from some of the comics guys who didn't seem equipped for substantive work. You don.t want the reaction to be "that's pretty good, for a comic book writer."

Edo Bosnar said...

Russ' comment above reminded me of another "opposite case" situations that I'm ashamed to admit I didn't think of right away: Alan Brennert. He's a rather successful screen-writer and novelist who dabbled in comics for a while in the late '70s and '80s, and he wrote what is probably my favorite Batman story, "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne" from Brave & the Bold #197. I actually have a few of his prose books sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read (another reason to be ashamed).

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