Thursday, October 30, 2014

Suspending Disbelief

It's interesting to think about where individual fans of science fiction and fantasy draw their respective lines in the sand regarding the Suspension of Disbelief. Star Trek fans, for instance, accept warp speed, matter transporters; telepathy and the occasional alien with god-like powers without batting an eye. Have somebody steal Spock's brain, though, and we throw a collective fit. (And well we should--that was arguably the original series' worst episode.) That simply goes a step too far and crosses the Suspension of Disbelief line. 

But then you'll occasional find a fan of the show who may criticize "Spock's Brain" for bad writing, but be perfectly okay with an alien race having that level of technology. 

There's always things that can strike us as "wrong" even when they are no more unlikely or unrealistic than other elements within a particular story. If the stories set within a particular fictional universe are good enough, then that universe eventually establishes its own rules (not all of the deliberately created) regarding what should or should not be allowed. Toss in something that doesn't fit within those rules and it just doesn't feel right.  

But because these rules aren't always explicitly laid out, individual readers can sometimes disagree about whether something does feel wrong.

I just read the novella "The Galaxy Raiders," by William P. McGivern, which was first published in the February 1950 issue of Amazing Stories. The protagonist is John Storm (no, not the Human Torch), a guy who was drummed out of the space service because he insisted Earth needed to prepare for an invasion from Galaxy X. Now, the Earth government has found evidence that Storm was right.

He's given command of a ship and sent to Jupiter to set up a base to watch for the invaders. But many in his crew still think the whole Galaxy X thing is nonsense and Storm is soon dealing with a potential mutiny. Then there's the girl who has stowed away on the ship to find a loved one who was once stranded on Jupiter. And another girl, already on Jupiter, controls an army of robots and expresses displeasure with the new arrivals.

When the aliens from Galaxy X show up, though, everyone is going to have to figure out how to work together in order to save the Earth.

I like the story. The various character developments are fairly predictable, but the tale is well-structured and the action sequences are exciting. There's a real sense of tension in the end when the surviving humans are desperately figuring out how to destroy an entire fleet of enemy ships. 

Here's where the Suspension of Disbelief issue comes in for me. Jupiter in this story is a habitable planet, with apparently Earth-normal gravity and atmosphere. I have no problem with this--I've written any number of times about my enjoyment of stories in which many of the planets & moons in our Solar System are able to support life. 

But the invading aliens are said to come not from another star within our galaxy, but from another galaxy entirely. Earth scientists have detected evidence of a war being fought in Galaxy X and have somehow deduced that Earth (revolving around one of millions of stars within one of millions of other galaxies) is the next logical target for whomever wins that war. 

Though I still like the story, that part bothers me. It seems "wrong" even within the parameters of a universe in which Jupiter is habitable. I think maybe the key is to keep the geography of the universe consistent with reality--even if Jupiter can support life, at least its still located where it is supposed to be. That helps establish an acceptable plateau for suspending our disbelief.

But the invaders coming from another galaxy and targeting Earth for no apparent reason pretty much ignores basic layout of the universe. That's why it bothers me.

But that's just me. For other readers, the Galaxy X issue might be just as acceptable as living on the surface of a gas giant. Certainly, its no less unrealistic when compared to real life.

Besides, "Galaxy X" has a better ring to it than "Planet X," so maybe it's all just as well. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Saber-tooth Tiger, a T-Rex, an Abominable Snowman and a Tribe of Angry Neanderthals.

Gee whiz, how many different deadly threats can you fit into a 14-page story? Well, according to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the answer is "a lot."

"We were Trapped in the Twilight World," was published in Amazing Adventures #3 (August 1961). A science major named Paul Harper postulates that the past, present and future all exist simultaneously in different dimensions. His professor pish-poshes this idea. But Paul lives in a Comic Book Universe, so its not surprising that he and his girlfriend Cathy soon stumble through a portal into a past dimension.

They are quickly menaced by a saber-toothed tiger. This is killed by an Abominable Snowman, but the Snowman then threatens them in turn.

Escaping from this threat, they then have to save a Neanderthal baby from a dimetrodon, but the ungrateful parents and their tribe are soon chasing them. They dodge a T-Rex, but get captured by the Neanderthals--who tangle them over a cliff to be eaten by a pterodactyl. Luckily, a nearby Cro-Magnon man with a bow and arrow chooses to help them out.

This is a fun story, setting up its premise quickly and then tossing the protagonists into a breathless non-stop adventure. The tale is basically an extended chase scene, with Jack Kirby's art work making it all look fantastic. And it might just hold the record for highest number of different threats per page (1 danger/2.8 pages) in comic book history.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

I haven't read this particular story, but this appears to be a flying saucer containing cavemen being attacked by a giant ape. That is inherently cool.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philip Marlowe: "Dark Tunnel" 8/18/50

Marlowe saves a random stranger from being beaten up in an alley. This leads him into a search for a missing girl. It all seems straightforward at first, but Marlowe soon finds himself in a desperate race to prevent a murder.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Every Bet's a Sure Thing

Recently, while listening to a Gunsmoke episode with William Conrad as Matt Dillion, I thought about Conrad's TV career. His biggest impact in the medium was probably the 1970s detective show Cannon. I'm pretty sure I saw a few episodes as a kid, but I didn't really have a strong memory of it.

So I went to the excellent Thrilling Detective website and looked Frank Cannon up. I stumbled across the information that one particular episode was based on a 1953 novel titled Every Bet's a Sure Thing, by Thomas B. Dewey. This was the second of 16 books featuring a Chicago-based P.I. named Mac. (It's one of the cases, like Spenser and the Continental Op, where we never learn the protagonist's full name.)

The entry on Mac talked about him as being "one of the must-read private eyes you've never heard of." Well, despite being relatively well-versed in the genre, I don't think I had heard of him before.
That was embarrassing. So I dug up a copy of Every Bet (having already Netflixed and watched the Cannon episode). 

And it was indeed a great book. To quote the Thrilling Detective entry: Mac's turf was Chicago, and he went down those mean streets (the actual title of one of his novels) toting a sensitivity and empathy, particularly for young people, that stood in stark contrast to the popular P.I. psycho-dramas of the time.

In this particular book, he doesn't spend much time in Chicago. He's been sub-contracted by a big agency to board a slow train to L.A. and keep tabs on a lady and her two young children. He isn't told why or told who the actual client is, but he decides the job is legitimate and goes along with it.

His first indication that it might be dangerous comes when one of the agency men is murdered soon after turning the job over the Mac. The next indication is when someone forces him at gunpoint to jump off the train while it's moving through Utah. 

By this time, he had struck up an acquaintance with the lady and her six-year-old son Roger. Mac's sympathy for young people and his paternal instincts are kicking in, especially since Roger has come to see him as a object of hero-worship. So Mac charters a plane and rejoins the train in Las Vegas. 

But trouble continues to stalk everyone involved. Soon after the train arrives in L.A., the case explodes outward to involve murder, drug smuggling, and missing children. Mac stays on the case
even when his immediate job is finished, working to make sure Roger and his baby sister are safe. Before he can manage that, though, he'll have to navigate a complicated labyrinth of danger and double-crosses. 

It was unwise, by the way, to watch the Cannon episode first. I knew a particular character was going to get killed before it happened. But the ending was significantly different from the book to keep the story from being completely spoiled.

Every Bet's a Sure Thing has a solid story, a real sense of danger during the action/suspense scenes and some great plot twists. I also liked its (for a P.I. novel) non-cynical outlook on life. There's a lot of brutal and despicable people in the novel and Mac is fully aware of this. But along the way, he is helped out by others who prove to be simply decent and dependable. It's a good balance, making the sympathetic Mac seem all the more believable. Mac will shoot a bad guy without hesitation if he has to, but he'll also take the time to tell a small boy a bedtime story. This is because he knows and accepts that there is both good and bad in the world--and he's chosen to be good. 

I'm glad to have discovered Thomas B. Dewey. His books are sadly out-of-print and my local public library doesn't carry them--I got Every Bet via inter-loan from the University of Colorado. But used copies are also available online, so I should be able to eventually bring myself up to speed on Mac's other cases. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Where DID that Giant Penny Come From?

The Batcave is arguably the coolest superhero hangout ever created. And no matter how many times DC Comics reboots its universe, the Batcave has always remained pretty cool. I'm not following the current DC reboot that began a few years ago, but hopefully that at least hasn't changed.

One standard and essential part of the Batcave is the trophy room. The exact contents change depending on the writer and artist, but the trophies that are always there are a dinosaur, a giant playing card and a giant penny.

I suppose you could argue that Batman--who would always be focused on his current case and uninterested in anything that didn't directly further his war on crime--wouldn't be bothered with keeping a trophy room. At best, he'd keep stuff in storage in case he needed any of it later on. But in a comic book universe, it is often more important to operate under the Rule of Cool than under the rules of strict logic. The Batcave without the giant penny simply isn't the Batcave.

The origins of these trophies have probably changed over the years, but the original explanation for the penny comes from Worlds Finest Comics #30 (Sept/Oct 1947), in a story written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane.

"The Penny Plunderers" introduces us to Joe Coyne, who as a boy made only pennies selling newspapers, as a young man lost his job because he gambled at work by pitching pennies and who's first attempt at a robbery netted him only pennies and got him sent to prison.

This is Gotham City, after all--so Coyne decides the way to reverse his failures is to adopt a criminal theme. He will only commit crimes that have something to do with pennies.

And, because this is Gotham City, he finds a gang willing to go along with him and his theme initially seems profitable. Setting up shop in a company that makes penny arcade machines, he uses a booby-trapped roll of pennies to release tear gas and rob a bank. Then he and his gang plan to rob a rare and valuable penny stamp from an exhibition--an exhibition that includes a giant penny on display.

It's here that Coyne and his gang first run into the Dynamic Duo. One of the gang is captured, but Coyne and the others escaped. When the captured gang member rats out the location of the hideout,
Coyne sets a trap. The informer is killed and Batman & Robin are trapped in a room that's filling with deadly gas. But Batman makes clever use of some items on hand (including a penny, of course) to rig a devise that sends out an SOS and brings the police to save them.

The final confrontation with the gang is a fun one, including Robin water-skiing behind the Batplane to catch the bad guys. In the end, Coyne is trapped in a room, unable to call his
gang for help because he doesn't have a nickle for the pay phone. All his has on him are pennies.(Breaking open the phone's coin box doesn't occur to him. Coyne never does quite reach true Criminal Mastermind level, does he?)

This is a fun story. Kane had his faults as an artist (sometimes his anatomy was a little out of proportion), but his overall style meshed nicely with the Golden Age Batman tales. And Bill Finger could always be depended on to come up with an imaginative and fast-paced yarn.

So that is the original origin of the giant penny, which Batman kept as a memento after the case was closed. How the Dark Knight got the thing into his Batcave without anyone noticing is another story entirely--one that no one has ever tried to tell. But perhaps what happens in the Batcave sometimes needs to stay in the Batcave.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Wild Bill Hickock: "The River Boat Killer" 2/13/52

Wild Bill and Jingles protect a steamboat sailing the Colorado River from sabotage and robbery.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Legendary Horn of Roland.

Those of us who love classic films often whine about remakes--especially when a film that is already pretty darn near perfect is remade into something awful. In my personal universe, no one is allowed to mention the 1976 version of King Kong within my hearing. As far as I'm concerned it doesn't exist. I won't say that I have the dismembered bodies of people buried under my floorboards because they dared acknowledge its existence while visiting my home. Or at least I'm not admitting it in any legally admissable way. But there definitely was NO remake of King Kong released in 1976. There simply wasn't.

I will tolerate the existence of the bloated 2005 version, because at least the film looked good despite its storytelling and pacing flaws.

But remakes aren't always bad. One of the most perfect films ever made was the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon. That was actually the third time the book had been adapted into the film. Two previous versions of Dashiell Hammett's novel had been made in 1931 and 1936. So here we have a case in which it took three tries to get it right. The remakes were necessary things.

That's not to say that the earlier films don't have their strengths. In fact, the 1936 version, titled Satan Met a Lady, is a fun film in its own right.

It's an odd little film It takes a brilliant hard-boiled novel and does the following:

1. It changes the names of all the characters. Sam Spade, for instance, is now Ted Shayne. Heck, it changes Casper Gutman (the fat man) into an elderly lady named Madame Barabas--who happens to be a well-known master criminal.

2. It changes the Falcon into the "legendary horn of Roland," which is supposedly filled with priceless gems.

3. Though it keeps the bare bones of the plot and vague parallels to the relationships between the characters, it changes the feel of the movie from hard-boiled to borderline screwball comedy. The various characters are still quirky, but not in a Film Noir-ish way. They're comically quirky.

Superficially, this sound horrible. But, if you don't think  of the movie as The Maltese Falcon, then all this works. Warren William plays Ted Shayne and its the sort of role William shined in. He's likeable, clever and charming--just as he was when he played other detective characters such as Perry Mason, Philo Vance and the Lone Wolf. Watching him fast-talk his way through the film, convincing the various villains one-at-a-time that he's working for them as he collects a fee from each, is a delight.

Bette Davis takes the Femme Fatale role. She hated this movie and was actually suspended by the studio for a time when she initially refused to do it. But she was a trooper and does a fine job in the role. The rest of the cast is great as well, especially Alison Skipworth as Madame Barabas--the only one of the villains who seems truly menacing.

It's interesting that an early version of Hammett's novel dropped its hard-boiled vibe and went for something more light-weight. That's not the only time this happened with the great hard-boiled writers. A few years ago, I wrote about Raymond Chandler's novels being adapted for films featuring established B-movie detectives, several years before more faithful versions of his novels were made that actually involved Philip Marlowe. It seems that after the Hays Code took affect, Hollywood was wary of the hard-boiled genre.

But Hollywood soon got over that and we had Bogart, Richard Powell and Robert Mitchum giving us classic Film Noirs. But before we got there, Satan Met a Lady proved that a more light-hearted romp through double-crosses, greed and murder was a worthwhile journey in of itself.

I've written about Warren William as the Lone Wolf a couple of times in the past. Now that I've written about him as (sort of) Sam Spade, I think I may keep going. Over the next few months, I'll do occasional posts looked at William as Perry Mason, Philo Vance and the arch-enemy of reformed thief Arsene Lupin.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tarzan, Dinosaurs and Pirates---Oh, My (Part 2)

When we left off last week, the Mad Arab was sailing towards a specific destination in Pellucidar along with several mercenaries and a crew of "Death-Cult" cannibals who worship him as a god. Tarzan had joined with a pirate ship commanded by the Cid and was in pursuit. Another mercenary was wandering around on his own. And Ayesha and her Pellucidarian warrior friend were flying off on a thidpar (a domesticated pterodactyl).

Well, things don't get any less complicated as the story progresses, but the storytelling and art remain top notch, so we're always able to keep track of everyone without any problem. As I mentioned last week, this is one of the elements of the story that really makes it feel like an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale. ERB often had several characters or groups of characters operating independently of each other, shifting the action from one to another at cliffhanger moments.

Beginning with Tarzan #19 (December 1978), Sal Buscema takes over the interior art from his brother John. (Though John continues to provide most of the covers.) In issue #20, Bill Mantlo takes over as writer, though he follows David Kraft's plot for the remainder of the story arc.

A big part of the story here is essentially a chase scene, with Tarzan pursuing the Mad Arab. But within this framework, alliances are shifting swiftly. The ape man has a falling out with the Cid and goes off on his own. The Cid then mistakenly thinks Tarzan has stolen his buried treasure and so pursues him. On the Mad Arab's ship, the mercenaries are divided on whether to obey him to get a cut of whatever power source he's after or double-cross him at the first opportunity.

Double-crossing Abdul Alhazred is no easy thing, though. Aside from his crew of fanatically loyal cannibals, he's also apparently immune to bullets.

Tarzan has a run-in with reptile-men and neanderthals, all of which leads to him hijacking a thidpar despite being tied up. This is seriously awesome.

In the meantime, Ayesha and her warrior friend (it's a sort of running gag that she doesn't learn his name until the end of the story) crash-land their thidpar on Pellucidar's small geostationary moon, where they are promptly captured by Mahars, the telepathic pterodactyls who were the main villains in the first two original novels. 

Ayesha and friend prove themselves to be awesome--especially the princess. She is not only able to resist the Mahar's hypnotism, but fights one by breaking off one of its fangs with a rock and then using this as a weapon to stab it. That is indeed double-seriously awesome.

It turns out the Mahars have built a sonic cannon on the moon, but that it is powered by a giant crystal located inside a city of pyramids in the Land of Awful Shadow--the land kept in perpetual darkness by the moon's shadow. While Ayesha and friend are destroying the cannon, all the other characters end up at the city. This now includes an army from David Innes' empire who are out to crush the Mahars. At first, the Mahars seem to have the upper hand, but a convenient dinosaur stampede abruptly shifts the odds.

It is the crystal that the Mad Arab wants. It's the source of his power and apparent immortality--with it he can conquer both Pellucidar and the surface world. Tarzan has been pursuing his enemy largely for revenge, but when the two finally face off in a one-on-one duel, the fate of the world is at stake.

But how can Tarzan kill someone who is apparently immortal?

From start to finish, this is an exciting and well-constructed adventure yarn. It juggles a lot of characters and conflicting character motivations, but does so with expertise and makes sure we are never lost. I also enjoy the use of Pellucidar's moon and the Land of Awful Shadow as settings--places that Burroughs never got around to exploring in the original novels.

If I were to get nitpicky, I would say that several characters are killed off or dropped from the story a little too abruptly during the last two issues, but that is definitely a nitpick. Over the course of nine issues, writers David Kraft and Bill Mantlo, along with artists John & Sal Buscema, tell an original story that builds on and shows respect for Burroughs' characters and settings.

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