American History Comes Alive—Part One

It was more than three years ago when Hill & Wang publisher Thomas LeBien told me that he wanted to do a graphic history volume that told the story of America through its most important documents, and asked me if I was interested in taking on the assignment. Of course I said “yes.”

I knew that I wanted to narrate the stories with a character, mostly because history books with omniscient narration are, basically, textbooks. This was to be an ancillary text, enrichment on the subject, and so I wanted someone to tell the stories and walk the readers through the living corridors of our history.

Initial false starts included using a bookworm or a mouse to narrate, the idea being that one was stuck in the Library of Congress and bored, and so begins to read some of the vast trove of historical documents the LoC contains. But that skewed too young; the book is aimed at students in grades 9 through 12, as well as a general adult audience.

I asked longtime comics historian and illustrator Arlen Schumer to do some spec work for the project. We batted a few ideas around, and then I said, “You know what, give me Uncle Sam bursting through the Declaration of Independence, looking at the readers, like he does in James Montgomery Flagg’s famous recruiting poster, and saying “Read this book!” Arlen ran with the concept and did a brilliant series of cover roughs. (Unfortunately, H&W decided not to use them . . . but that’s a different story for another time.)

Now I had my embodied narrator to take us through American history. I spoke with several agents about writers and illustrators, and a couple of young, talented people were recommended. I even sent one a contract, but ultimately it didn’t work out—we had differing visions for the book.

So I told the publisher I was thinking of asking Ernie Colón to illustrate. Ernie had already done a bestselling volume on the 9/11 Commission Report for H&W with Sid Jacobson. And to script, I suggested Ernie’s wife, author and teacher Ruth Ashby (who was my first editor in books when I made the switch over from periodicals). Although Ruth had never scripted a graphic continuity before, she is intimately familiar with the field, and had already done many books on various aspects of American history.

Ruth and Ernie had never worked together on a graphic project before. How did it all work out? Well, the simple answer is “Buy the book and see.” But the short answer is “Splendidly!” And the reviewers seem to agree.

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I spent time over the Memorial Day weekend catching up on the current genre films. I saw Spider-Man 2 and the latest remake of Godzilla. Here in New York, to see these in a first-run house, it cost $17.50 per seat. Yes, the seats were reserved in advance online. And yes, the showing was in 3-D. But, really.

One of these movies was worth the price of admission. The other was not.

I think Spider-Man 2 was the best live-action, full-length comic book I’ve ever seen.  The script is canny. It blends together at least three plot threads from the original Spider-Man comic book continuity, exceedingly, and fan-pleasingly, well.  The fx work is superb. I remember way back when the big marketing line for the Christopher Reeve/Marlon Brando version of Superman was: “You will believe a man can fly.” Well, they kind of pulled that off . . . more or less.  But the true strengths of that movie are the performances of a phenomenally talented cast, and John Williams’ score. You didn’t really need to believe a man could fly; you only needed to feel it was possible.

Spider-Man movies have a different, or perhaps an additional, standard to meet. Not only do you have to believe that (the Steve Ditko version of Spider-Man) can web-sling his way around the city essentially faster than a yellow cab, you have to believe that Spidey’s interactions with the citizens of New York are real. That’s a CGI Spider-Man interacting with actors; in some scenes the real people are probably talking aloud on an empty sound stage in front of a green screen. The effects and editing are superb. I never had my focus interrupted with an observation that this-or-that effect was being used in a scene or shot. (Something I routinely DO look for/at, as a result of having edited a sci-fi movie magazine—Starlog—for almost nine years.)

There are no surprises in the plot, but then again, that is what the fans want. To see the comic books they loved come alive on screen, exactly as they should.

Godzilla, on the other hand, is a quarter-of-a-billion dollar mess. No, not the beast itself. This visual rendition of Godzilla is magnificent. It is BIG; it is fierce; it is unconquerable. That is the main pleasure to derive from this version. The story is garbled. There is no attempt to have it make sense. The science, what there is of it, is garbage. It’s message—so clear in the original: atomics are bad—is lost.

Go and find a digital version of the original Japanese film (Gojira), where the monster is a metaphor for the horrible evil of unleashing atomic weapons on innocent civilians—which had happened to the Japanese only a few years before. The film was recently remastered, restored, and released into the American market. It’s like seeing the original Hong Kong versions of Bruce Lee’s early films. It’s the real deal.

(Hint: If Raymond Burr is in it, you’re not looking at the original.)

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The Scariest Movies

My list of scary movies concludes with a chiller that is not gothic but rather psychological horror. It pits an innocent, naïve young, female FBI agent-in-training against monumental evil. Directed by Jonathan Demme, for me, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is as scary as it gets—right up there with The Shining.

Brilliant, Oscar-winning performances from Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins may be the ultimate pairing of cinematic innocence and corruption. Hannibal (“the cannibal”) Lector is right up there with the all-time scariest characters on film.  In her ultimate confrontation with the serial killer that Lector has agreed to help her find, Clarice (Foster) looks lost and helpless—a sacrificial lamb about to be slaughtered. Right up until she hears a telltale click, spins and puts a bullet through the bastard’s chest.

Okay, there you have the 7 scariest moves that I ever saw. They were meant to scare us, and they succeeded brilliantly. But there is one other movie I have not mentioned. It was not a horror movie, or a thriller, or sc-fi or, God help us, a slasher film. It is a Disney work—one of the early, wonderful, fully painted animateds. No, I’m not talking about Bambi, which surprised a lot of mothers around the country when their kids went to Saturday matinees and came home hysterical, totally traumatized by the scene in which Bambi’s mother dies in the forest fire. That was terrible, but I saw Bambi with my mother, so the fear of losing her was not scary to me. I mean, there she was, sitting right next to me, holding my hand.

No, the Disney movie that scared the bejeezus out of me was Pinocchio. At that time, Disney would periodically bring back their animated feature films for kiddie matinees, smart enough to realize there was a new audience for them every few years. I was seven when I went to see Pinocchio with my sister on a Saturday afternoon. She was bored. I was horrified.

There is this little boy, with no friends, cast into the world as an innocent. He is tricked and kidnapped; forced to work for a cruel master; abandoned, captured and even eaten by a whale. When he runs away from Stromboli, the puppet master, he is caught up with a couple of other “lost boys” and they are all promptly stolen away to Pleasure Island. Where those little boys who act like jackasses . . . turn into real jackasses. First, they grow ears, then a tail, and the next thing you know a little boy has been horribly transformed into a braying beast of burden.

Later, after the movie when I got back home, Mom asked how I liked it. I liked it a lot, I told her, except for what happened to poor Pinocchio and his friends on Pleasure Island. And she said something like, “Well, that’s what’ll happen to you if you’re not a good little boy.”

Nightmares? You bet. For years and years. Scariest movie I ever saw.

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Most of the scary movies on my list so far have been of the gothic horror variety—small groups trapped in small spaces . . . with a monster of some kind knocking them off, one at a time.

The next film on my list also of that genre. But it’s even more insidious than The Thing, Psycho, Jaws or Alien, because the monster is actually one of the small group of trapped people. From a kid’s perspective, it is at least as scary as Invaders from Mars, where an eight-year-old boy discovers that his parents have become aliens.

In this one, there are only three people trapped together, in the mountains, for an entire winter—one of which is a little boy. The other two are his parents. I’m referring, of course, to the cataclysmic combination of America’s best storyteller and one of America’s best filmmakers of all time: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, adapted from the novel by Stephen King. With the passing of Ray Bradbury, I think it’s safe to say that King is our greatest living teller of tales. And I think Kubrick was the apotheosis of American filmmaking in the second half of the twentieth century.

If you are a movie fan but not familiar with the films of Stanley Kubrick, rent them, download them, or find another way to view them.  Just to name a few: Paths of Glory (1957); Lolita (1962); Dr. Strangelove (1964); A Clockwork Orange (1971); The Shining (1980); Full Metal Jacket (1987). Wow.

In The Shining, Kubrick takes a brilliant ghost story by Stephen King and makes it scarier, more personal. We find out early on that Danny Torrence’s father has previously done physical damage to the boy, a combination of frustration and alcohol. And those were the good days for this family. Jack Nicholson’s descent into madness, along with the fact that the Overlook Hotel is haunted, let’s you know fairly early on that this won’t end well. The inevitability of doom is palpable, almost unbearable. King reveals in Doctor Sleep, the new novel that is a sequel to The Shining, that the Overlook is not just haunted; it is a place of evil. Kubrick got that in a heartbeat . . . and lovingly shared it with the viewers from that first overhead tracking shot of the family in its little car driving up to the mountains and away from civilization. You can almost see the sign floating above the hotel’s entrance, “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter.”

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So far, my list has included The Thing (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), and Psycho (1960). Now we jump ahead to 1975 for the scariest movie ever made by one of America’s best filmmakers of the past century. It is Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, Jaws. The script is terrific, the ensemble acting is wonderful, the editing is award-winning, and the fear factor in the film mounts steadily, at its own pace, bringing you to white-knuckled near-hysteria by the final scenes. A dread inevitability starts to take hold about midway through, and you are not certain that anyone will survive this experience—including the audience.

Spielberg did some nice Hitchcock homages, like the tracking shot of Roy Scheider as he’s sitting on the beach in a chair and he spots a shark fin in the shallow waters. I love that the shark has its own musical theme, which precedes its appearances just to let you know it’s time to be scared again. And when “Bruce,” the name given to the mechanical shark that played stand-in for the great white, is finally seen in all of its horrific glory and enormous length, you shrink back in your seat and are convinced that this brave, mismatched trio of would-be heroes are all going to die. Then you laugh when Roy Schieder reacts to it by saying, “You’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.” But it’s gallows laughter. (It’s also one of my all-time favorite lines of movie dialogue.)

Jaws, too, has the classic gothic horror set-up of a trapped group being knocked off one at a time. The first time I saw the movie I was convinced that they would all die—and I knew better, having read the novel. How scary was the film? People stayed away from beaches that summer in droves. And the summer after that.

Next up on my list is another film that uses the classic gothic horror set-up, only this time in outer space. It is Ridley Scott’s best film, the brilliant Alien from 1979. This movie is scary from the opening shots of the deep-space mining and cargo vessel Nostromo waking up, along with its crew, as it nears a planetary destination. Not only is the creature in this movie scary, it gets scarier as it grows—which it does, of course, by steadily eating members of the crew.

Part of Scott’s tour de force is how he handles the Ripley character, played by Sigourney Weaver. Despite the presence of macho men on board the ship, it is Ripley who ultimately saves the day, defeats the bad guy and gets to go home. But first, of course, she must conquer her fear; then she must face up to the monster. Then, just when you think “it’s safe to go back in the water,” (a phrase still in the lexicon, thanks to Jaws), when Ripley is at her most vulnerable, the monster reappears and has her trapped in an even smaller space, with nowhere to run. She must defeat it with her steely nerves and keen mind.

And then it’s over. And Ripley goes back to sleep. But you know that she will have bad dreams. And she does.

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My list of seven scariest movies—those that scared me most— started with The Thing and Invaders from Mars, both of which I saw as a child. Before I get to the third film, a word about “slasher movies.”

This sub-genre is all about immortal maniacs who violate the bodies of (mostly) young females and other innocent people with all kinds of sharp and deadly instruments. I think of them as “slice-and-dice” movies, and I don’t like them at all. Certainly a couple of good ones have been made, such as the original Nightmare on Elm Street, but mostly they deal in craven excesses of blood and guts.



Ironically, the next film on my list may be the granddaddy of this genre, but the scares are not drawn from buckets of blood or the removal of body parts in 3-D Technicolor. It was filmed in black and white; only two people are killed; and the scares come from the acting, the cinematography, and the superb editing. It is Alfred Hitchhock’s Psycho, which I saw when I was fourteen years old.

It was during the summer of 1960. My dad was on a two-week vacation, which meant my family was staying at a small hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains, home to dozens of small hotels and about a half-dozen major ones. The Catskills as I knew it —at that time also known as “the Jewish Mountains” and “the Borscht Belt”— is now just about completely gone. But when I was a kid, the dirt and hardscrabble roads revealed small enclaves around almost every turn. And so it was that my father thought it would be good to walk from where we were staying to a slightly larger hotel about a mile away, which had a movie theater and was showing Psycho. Some exercise and a first-run movie before bed. What could be better?

Did I mention that these mountain roads were unlit? If there was no moon out, you walked by starlight and flashlight. On this night, the moon shone and so no one thought to bring a light. We left our hotel right after dinner, and it was still light out. Walking home, having been totally traumatized by Anthony Perkins and Alfred Hitchcock, clouds drifted over our neck of the woods. It became very dark. And my father thought it would be great fun to fall back a bit and then come up fast and say “Boo!” I believe that was the first time I ever soiled my pants after graduating from diapers.

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I just finished reading Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining. Doctor Sleep is an excellent read: not exactly a ghost story; not exactly a horror story; but enough of both to keep you away from small New England towns forever. I kept picturing the eventual movie as I read it. This led me to think about “The Scariest Movies I Have Ever Seen.”

I wrote down a list of seven films. What startled me is that I wrote them down in chronological order, without even thinking about when I had seen them. So, each has made a lasting impression, beginning with the 1951 classic, The Thing (From Outer Space).

This is classic gothic horror, but with a sci-fi twist. It isolates a group of people in a place from which they cannot escape, who discover there is a monster in their midst. First, of course, it kills the only supposedly rational team member—the scientist, who tries to befriend it. If it were true gothic horror, it would then have begun to pick off the rest of the trapped humans, one at a time. Instead, it attempts to kill the rest of the group en masse. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven the first time I saw it, and it scared the piss out of me.


In 1953, director William Cameron Menzies brought us the original Invaders from Mars. I first saw this one when I was about eight, and it gave me nightmares for years. A young boy, whose father is a scientist and who likes to stargaze, one night, from his bedroom window, sees a flying saucer land in a marshy area behind his house, not too far away. He wakes up his father, who grudgingly goes to investigate. Bad move.


Part of Menzies’ genius was to tell the story from the point of view of the little boy, played by Jimmy Hunt, who later discovers to his horror that his parents have been taken over by the aliens. Then he discovers that most of the other adults in his life have also been turned into emotionless zombie tools of the Martians.

At the end of the film, he and the last remaining adult he can trust manage to rescue his parents and destroy the aliens’ ship. A happy ending! But wait: He wakes up in the middle of the night, back in bed, and realizes it was all just a horrible dream. Whew! What a relief . . . until, at the very end of the film, he looks out the window again just to reassure himself that the world is back to normal, and sees the saucer once again landing in the marsh. Only this time it’s not a dream, ‘cause he’s just woken up!

I saw it with my older sister soon after it came out, which was just before that ending was cropped off because kids all over the country were having nightmares, just like me.

Okay, five more scary movies to talk about, including one adaptation from the works of Stephen King. Next time.

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The History of America

I’ve just completed work on a project that has taken three years to see through from start to finish. It is a remarkable graphic volume on American history that will be published by Hill & Wang this May. It is called, simply enough, Uncle Sam Presents: The Great American Documents, Volume One.

It is gloriously illustrated, in full color, by veteran comics artist Ernie Colon. Ernie’s is a long and brilliant career. He worked at Harvey Comics for a couple of decades, doing Casper the Ghost, Richie Rich, Little Lotta, etc. If you have ever read any of those wonderful titles, you’ve seen some of Ernie’s work. He also worked for the major superhero houses, but the grind-it-out system and in-house politics were never to his liking. He has been doing graphic novels for a while now, making a big, bestselling splash with the graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Commission Report. More recently, Ernie illustrated a beautiful, insightful graphic biography of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.

For Great American Documents, Ernie has illustrated the twenty document stories in the book—each document being its own chapter. Uncle Sam himself introduces the stories, and summarizes as well at the end of each. The stories bring American history to life, and take a new look at things. Fort instance, we explore the War of 1812 through the creation of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written by Francis Scott Key while he watched the British attack on Fort McHenry.

The volume is written by longtime editor and author Ruth Ashby, who has more than 30 books to her credit, many of them dealing with history and historical figures. Ashby, now a teacher of English at a small Long Island college, is uniquely qualified to write the stories, as she is also married to Ernie Colon. AND, she was my very first editor when I began working in books, at Byron Preiss Visual Publications.

Wanna’ learn about your country’s history and have a hell of a good time doing it? Read this book.

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On March 6th, Will Eisner would have been 97 years old. For the uninitiated, Eisner (after whom the major awards in the comic book industry are named) was one of the founding fathers of the modern comic book. His studio, Eisner and Eiger, produced the first comics that were composed of all new material. Prior to that, comic books were just reprinted syndicated comic strips from newspapers.

Eisner created “The Spirit”—as well as “Blackhawk” and numerous other titles. “The Spirit” was a separate, 16-page section that was inserted into Sunday newspapers. At its height, over five million copies of the section were sold every week. When Eisner was drafted into the Army in World War II, he created the illustrated Army Manual—the first time a graphic pamphlet was used to inform and instruct adults on very serious matters … like how to clean your rifle so it won’t jam when you need to use it. Yes, among many other innovations, he created the educational comic. In the 1970s, he also created some of the first and most innovative graphic novels.

This week, in the world of comics and cartooning, is officially known as “Will Eisner Week.” Many events are and will be held around the country and around the world in his memory and his honor. In NYC, longtime comics conventioneer Mike Carbonaro had a panel devoted to Will’s lasting impact and importance. I was happy to be asked to share my thoughts with those in attendance, along with longtime DC Comics creator Denny O’Neil and former Marvel Comics editor Danny Fingeroth.

I did not know Will long, I met him toward the end of his career, but I did get to do a couple of projects with him, including a CD-ROM (remember those?) on “The Spirit” back in 1995. He was focused, energetic, a gentleman, and the nicest, most enthusiastic guy I have every met. And his work certainly lives on, now finding a new audience through the efforts of Denis Kitchen and other who have reprinted much of Will’s wonderful graphic novel work.

Howard Z.

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I am pleased to announce that Z File has completed contracts to produce two wildly different titles for two new clients. Zenith Books has commissioned a nonfiction graphic history of the famously secretive Area 51. And North River Press has commissioned a graphic adaptation of its longtime bestselling business analysis book, The Goal. Written twenty-five years ago by Eliyahu Goldratt, The Goal has over 5 million copies in print, is taught in business schools, at seminars, and given to young executives-on-the-rise at business retreats by such people as Jeff Beezos, who recently recommended the book during an on-air interview.

Many people confuse Area 51, which is in Nevada, with Roswell, New Mexico. That’s because of the unsubstantiated belief that one or more UFO crashed at Roswell in 1947 and the remains of the alien craft—and its crew—were taken to Area 51 for further investigation and storage.  Some say—and have written—that the alien spacecraft was being, and continues to be, reverse engineered to reveal the secrets of its superior science.  Over the decades, the U.S. government has released three “official” explanations of the Roswell Incident. That fact alone has juiced conspiracy theories. All I can say about Roswell is the old Dylan line from his song, “Mr. Jones”: “[We] know something’s happening, but [we] don’t know what it is . . .”

Area 51, on the other hand, is America’s testing facility for next-generation super-planes. The U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Night Hawk stealth fighter, the B-2 stealth bomber, etc. have all been test flown there, along with the Predator Drone and a whole passel of next-gen drones we haven’t seen yet. And some other secret weapons, too. Area 51 is adjacent to the Nevada Test Range, where in the middle of the twentieth century the government exploded atomic bombs.

The history is fascinating, more than a bit scary, and centered on wonderfully All-American can-do historical figures like Kelly Johnson—test pilot extraordinaire.

Scripting the graphic history of Area 51 for Z File is Dwight Jon Zimmerman, who has written more nonfiction books on the military, combat, and military history than you can shake a UFO at. Illustrating the book is former Marvel and DC artist Greg Scott. This is going to be one hell of a ride. The current schedule calls for publication later this year. Stay tuned for further information. The art accompanying this blog is an early tease from the book’s Prologue/Introduction by Greg. I think you’ll agree that it kicks some major butt.

Enjoy. There’ll be much more later.

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