Monthly Archives: October 2015

Existential Thrillers by Mike Baron


In an existential thriller the protagonist is doomed. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear is the archtype. “In a squalid South American village, men are hired to transport an urgent nitroglycerine shipment without the equipment that would make it safe.” You come to know these men and care about them, especially Yves Montand’s character. Yet you know their heroic efforts are futile. They know it too. You can see it in their faces.

William Friedkin followed The Exorcist with Sorceror, a remake of Wages of Fear. This is white-knuckle film-making at its best as the mismatched Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, and Francisco Rabal struggle with ancient trucks and harrowing rope bridges across bottomless chasms while transporting  nitroglycerin to an out-of-control oil fire. Sorceror is red meat for socialists who can condemn not only capitalism, but racism and colonialism as they wait for the inevitable denouement.

The Naked Prey directed by and starring Cornel Wilde, is another great ET. The twist here is that he actually survives the movie, which you would never guess from the harrowing introduction. It’s difficult to believe he was allowed to get away with these scenes of African torture in 1965. These are not your father’s noble savages.

Sam Peckinpah directed two of the greatest existential thrillers, The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The Wild Bunch, like Ride the High Country and The Ballad of Cable Hogue, is a eulogy to the dying west, in this case a group of aging, over-the-hill train robbers looking for their last big score. Peckinpah eschewed pretty boys. The faces of William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are portraits of stubborn desperation, covered in sweat and bristles. Near the climax, when the scumbag general slits Angel’s throat and Holden automatically shoots him dead, all action freezes. Hundreds of the general’s cutthroat followers can’t believe what just happened and there’s a chance they’ll let the Wild Bunch walk out of town. Borgnine looks around, chuckles goofily, and they open up in one of the bloodiest shoot-outs in cinema history. They’re doomed, but they’re going down guns blazing.

Warren Oates makes a similar decision at the climax of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah’s cracked existential masterpiece. Alfredo knocked up the daughter of a rich man, who promises $50,000 to anyone who brings him Alfredo’s head, setting off a treasure hunt among such spectacular low-lifes as Gig Young and Kris Kristofferson. Oates’ seedy piano player plums the death of Mexico’s sewers on his way to collect but when the pay-off comes, Oates chooses to kill the fat cockroach who has caused so much heartache with his cynical offer.

The most recent truly great existential thriller is The Grey, in which Liam Neeson’s gang of oil field roughnecks crash lands in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. A pack of wolves gathers and starts picking them off one by one. The Grey has a unique beauty as well as a story that will pin you to your seat.

Salt Lake City Comic Con written by Mike Baron


Thanks to the good offices of my partner Steve Rude the Salt Lake City Con had me as a guest, but were unable to give me a hotel room. I stayed with my new publisher Lawrence White, for whom I am adapting my novel HELMET HEAD. Lawrence lives with his large, extended family in West Jordan, a suburb of Salt Lake. When Lawrence learned his neighbor was on dialysis and  circling the drain due to lack of a replacement organ, Lawrence gave him one of his kidneys. That’s the kind of guy Lawrence is. He works full time. His charming wife Lay works full time. And his son works full time. His anthology POINT BLANK has been up on the internet for awhile, but Lawrence has asked me to step in as editor for his new line of comics.

The Salt Palace was chock-a-block but the only publisher with a booth was Top Cow, even though attendance hit 150,000. I sense the big publishers pulling back in an effort to tighten their belts. There were also tons of new artists selling posters and prints and most of them were very good. I sat next to Tomy Knight from Toronto, who with his brother paints superheroes similar to Greg Horn. Tomy has no website. He’s not on Facebook. He goes to the cons, puts out his wares and rakes in cash from surprised but delighted attendees who have never heard of him. You will search in vain for his images on the internet. There were many other artists of similar quality.

I counted three double-wide baby trams. You’d think these people had never been to a con before. Friday night I supped with James Artemus Owen, a man who goes out of his way to help others. James drove from his home in Arizona so that he could bring the CHAIR. If you go to his Facebook page, you will see the CHAIR. James always wears slacks, a white shirt, and a nice vest. This is known as branding. Jim Steranko also brands, and never appears without a snappy three-piece suit. Saturday was crazy. Cosplayers set a Guinness World Record for the most cosplayers in one place. Dude and I met to discuss future Nexus stories. I ordered a martini. It arrived in a thimble. I asked the waiter if some had spilled and he said, “I’m sorry, sir. Utah state law requires that cocktails may not exceed 20 cc.”

And then suddenly it was all over! The Salt Lake City Con has come out of nowhere to become one of the largest comic conventions in the country. It seems there are more comic conventions than ever, often two or three on the same weekends. Yet the readership has not expanded. Why? I don’t know. But I do know that placing spinner racks in movie theater lobbies is a good idea. The only reason this doesn’t occur is because of the impossible knot of uncooperative theater owners, publishers and distributors who can’t agree.