Thursday, August 25, 2016

Pirates and Pretty Girls


Sometimes, a movie's entertainment value increases when the actors in it seem to be having fun with their parts. Of course, I don't know that the cast of Buccaneer's Girl (1950) had fun. Maybe they were all completely miserable. But they give the impression that they're having a ball making the film. I prefer to believe this is the case. It's a fun movie.

Philip Friend plays Captain Kingston, who is tasked with finding the famous pirate Baptiste. But Kingston actually is Baptiste.

The situation is a bit convoluted, but the movie does a good job of explaining it. A ruthless merchant named Narbonne (Robert Douglas) employed a pirate named Baptiste to wipe out the competition and gain control of the shipping business in New Orleans. Captain Kingston catches and kills Baptiste, but doesn't tell anyone. Kingston takes Baptiste's name as a secret identity, then starts looting Narbonne's ships and using the proceeds to fund independent cargo ships and hire sailors who had been put out of work by Narbonne's monopoly.

But Kingston isn't the main character. That honor goes to Deborah McCoy (Yvonne De Carlo), a spunky gal who comes to New Orleans to work as a singer.

She's captured by Kingston/Baptiste when the ship on which she has stowed away is taken. She charms the pirate crew, gets on Kingston's nerves, escapes to New Orleans and meets Kingston again. When she has tumbled to his plan, she keeps quiet about what she knows. To the surprise of absolutely no one watching the movie, the two fall in love.



But in the meantime, Narbonne has also figured out what Kingston is doing. He lays a trap to catch the Robin Hood-eque pirate and see him hang. It's lucky for Kingston that he now has a girl friend who is willing to plan a jail break.

De Carlo is almost painfully pretty in this film and she is completely believable as someone who can make her own way in a strange city AND spring her boyfriend from jail when that becomes necessary. She also gets to belt out a few lively songs.

The supporting cast is great. Elsa Lancaster is hilarious as the owner of a sort of charm school that hires out Deborah and other girls to parties for eye candy and entertainment. (The movie's general air of innocence, by the way, helps to avoid implying that the girls do more than this, thus also avoiding any tasteless overtones.) Norman Lloyd is Narbonne's weaselly henchman and Henry Daniell is the head of the New Orleans police. All bring personality to their small roles.

Buccaneer's Girl is a convivial B-movie, made all the more entertaining by a cast that really does seem to be enjoying themselves. I really hope this is true. They earned their fun.



Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Matt, Natasha, Foggy, SHIELD and Hydra

Cover art by Gil Kane

Prior to Frank Miller's gritty retooling of Daredevil in the early 1980s, Matt Murdock was a 2nd-tier character. Because of my personal preferences, I'm not usually a fan of gritty retoolings and never regularly bought Daredevil after his life became horrible and unrelentingly tragic.  Also, he stole Kingpin away from Spider Man's Rogue's Gallery. Phooey!

But, to be fair, Daredevil was of uneven quality through the 1960s and 1970s. He had never developed a truly great Rogue's Gallery of his own and the stories were often a little dull. In fact, now that I think about it, I never did collect the title regularly.

Every once in awhile, though, there would be a gem in the rough. Beginning with Daredevil #120 (April 1975), writer Tony Isabella and artist Bob Brown (who co-plotted the story) brought us a very fun four-part action/adventure tale involving secret organizations, killer robots, giant bats, high-tech weaponry and Shea Stadium.

This was during a time in which Matt Murdock and Natasha Romanoff (The Black Widow) were in a romantic relationship and were struggling to figure out how to combine super-heroics with boyfriend/girlfriend stuff. This is made harder by the fact that the Widow absolutely loathes Matt's best friend Foggy Nelson. Foggy, while he was district attorney a few years early, had prosecuted the Widow for a murder she hadn't committed.

All the same, when Hydra agents led by a villain called El Jaguar attack a New Year's party and try to kidnap Foggy, she joins Matt in trying to stop them. Nick Fury shows up with some SHIELD agents as well. The bad guys are forced to retreat and Foggy is safe.

But why does Hydra want to kidnap Foggy? Because they've learned that Nick Fury is about to offer the chubby lawyer a position on SHIELD's board of directors.


Daredevil #121 gives us yet another attempt to snatch Foggy. This time, it involves a full-scale battle outside a Manhattan courthouse, with a Dreadnaught (a killer robot used by Hydra) making things particularly difficult for the good guys.

When the Black Widow is stunned and about to be killed by the Dreadnaught, Foggy sacrifices himself to save her. The issue ends with him in the hands of Hydra.


It's a really effective combination of action and characterization. The story is very well-paced--action set-pieces keep the story exciting, with exposition and character moments expertly seeded between the battles. Natasha now has to face the fact that a man she held in contempt had risked (and perhaps given) his life to save her. This leaves her pretty much obsessed with finding and rescuing him.

Cover Art by Gil Kane
Beating up scores of Hydra agents in DD #122 finally brings Natasha a clue--Hydra is apparently hiding out in a warehouse in Queens. The clue is probably a trap, but there doesn't seem to be any option other than walk into that trap. Daredevil and the Widow do so, getting into tussles with El Jaguar and another villain named Blackwing, who makes pets out of genetically-engineered giant vampire bats. Everyone needs a hobby.

Once again, the fight scenes are effectively choreographed and exciting, with the added twist in that Daredevil is forced to kill (albeit a giant bat rather than a human being) for the first time in his career. But the fight goes badly and the two heroes end the issue unconscious. We also learn that the current head of SHIELD is former crime-boss Silvermane, who was supposedly dead after drinking a Fountain of Youth formula and regressing into nothing back in Spider Man #75. It turns out he just sort of snapped back to an adult age later on. One can legitimately argue this is weak even according to the dictates of Comic Book Logic, but the rest of the story is entertaining enough to leave me in a forgiving mood.



The story concludes in Daredevil #123 (July 1975), with several successive and truly impressive plot twists. DD and the Widow have been taken to Hydra's real secret base underneath Shea Stadium. (How did Hydra build a secret base under a busy stadium that houses both pro baseball and football teams and therefore has no significant time when its not in use? Tony Isabella literally tells us not to ask.) From here, they watch via cameras as SHIELD raids the warehouse in Queens, with the telepathic villain Mentallo making sure they are real and not Life Model Decoys. The warehouse is blown up, killing Nick Fury and other top SHIELD officers.

Except they were LMDs, equipped with "thought tapes" to fool any mind-reader who might be "listening." Also, Daredevil has a tracker in one of his horns, so SHIELD is soon attacking the Shea Stadium base. Foggy gets yet another Crowning Moment of Awesome when he snatches a rifle away from a guard and blasts the chains off DD and the Widow. How Foggy suddenly became an expert marksman is something else I think were not supposed to ask about.


So we get yet another great fight scene, this one involving Daredevil, Black Widow, Widow's friend Ivan and a number of SHIELD agents going up against several super-powered Hydra agents and an army of mooks.


I appreciate the skill with which Isabella and Brown lay out the action, keeping things moving while giving just about every named good guy character a few moments in the limelight. Dum Dum Dugan and Ivan get to do some butt-kickin' along with Matt and Natasha.

Silvermane gets away, but SHIELD is victorious. And Foggy now has some first-hand experience to help him make his decision about whether to join SHIELD.


 There's another interesting thing about this story. Over the past few years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made Hydra a fairly well-known part of pop culture. They are a major and regular threat in that particular universe. But in this 1975 story, Hydra (though presented as a credible threat to humanity) was a relatively small drop in a large fictional bucket. Tony Isabella felt obligated to provide us with several pages of prose (divided between the first two issues of the story arc) to tell readers what Hydra is and review their history. I think its an indicator of just how large and intricate the Marvel Universe had become by the mid-1970s. After a dozen years of regularly introducing super powered heroes and villains, a secret high-tech terrorist organization that has made repeated attempts to destroy civilization was something we needed to be reminded about.

On the one hand, you can argue that this is why comic book universe should be re-booted from time to time--they otherwise become too large for the average reader to keep track of. On the other hand, the script here does an excellent job of bringing readers up to speed. If you didn't know what Hydra was (or even what SHIELD was), you are given the information you need to still follow and enjoy the story.

To re-boot or not to re-boot? It's a question that will be forever debated.

Cover art by Sal Buscema
 Next week, we return to Giant Robots vs. Giant Monsters.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Cover Cavalcade


Hot rod and race car comics were once a big deal. This one was published by Fawcett in 1951, with the art tentatively credited to Bob Powell.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Calling All Cars: "Execution of John Dillinger"  7/25/34

A dramatization of the gangster's career and death, produced only three days after he was killed by Federal agents outside a Chicago theater.

Click HERE to listen or download.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Perry Mason isn't the ONLY Lawyer in the World!


Read/Watch 'em In Order #69

Between the popularity of the Perry Mason novels and the success (both in terms of ratings and quality) of the classic TV series, other characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner are often forgotten. And that's too bad. Gardner created dozens of characters and I have yet to run across one of them I didn't enjoy hanging out with.

Ken Corning, for instance, is yet another lawyer--though his first adventure appeared a year before the first Mason adventure. Corning had a short but honorable career in Black Mask magazine in 1932 and 1933.

The stories have a different feel to them than the Mason tales. Corning is based in New York City, which Gardner portrays as corrupt--both politicians and cops are on the take. Corning has just set up shop as a lawyer, determined to accept only honest money.

This, in fact, is the title of his first adventure. "Honest Money" appeared in the November 1932 issue of Black Mask.

His client is a woman who was arrested for running a speakeasy. And she is clearly guilty of this. But if that were the only charge against her, Corning could probably get her off with a fine. But she's also charged with attempted bribery. This is particularly odd. The cops generally accept bribe offers. And why were they bothering to shut down a small, second-rate speakeasy anyways? And why did they do so in a hurry with incomplete information--it's the woman's husband who hires Corning and the husband is himself free because the cops didn't know about him.

And why is a political boss offering Corning a nice bribe to just plead guilty?

It's an odd case--made odder when the woman's husband is gunned down outside Corning's office. But a smashed fender on the dead man's car gives Corning a clue to what's going on. He sets up a trap, depending on one of the few honest policemen in New York to help him out.

If Corning can himself avoid being taken for a ride, he might be able to get his client freed.

Gardner shows a lot of skill as a storyteller when he wraps up the story. One bad guy is caught and a scheme is foiled, but most of the true villains are still free. That Gardner is setting up a story arc that will continue through more stories. Since the first three Ken Corning tales would appear in three successive issues of Black Mask, its likely that Gardner sold them as a package deal to the magazine.

Despite this, the ending is satisfying even when taken on its own. Corning has done right by his client, he's earned some honest money and he is here to stay, ready to buck the dishonest officials again and again when he needs to do so. The story works because Corning is victorious as an honest and honorable man, not because he saves the city in one fell swoop. Gardner constructs the plot and develops the protagonist in just the right way to make this work.

We also meet Helen Vail, Ken's beautiful and devoted secretary who can be depended on to go the extra mile to help him out. The dynamic is identical to what Gardner would also use with Perry Mason & Della Street, though Helen is a little more extroverted than Della. It's obviously a character dynamic that Gardner liked and found useful as a storyteller. We'll see Helen being even more proactive next time we check in on Ken Corning.




Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Cylons, Vipers, and Booby-Traps



I was overseas when much of  Battlestar Galactica aired, so I missed most episodes during its original run. Perhaps because of that, I didn't usually read the Marvel comic book based on the show. 

With art by Walt Simonson through much of its run, Marvel's Battlestar Galactica has a good reputation for doing solid, entertaining Space Opera. I do remember purchasing and reading one issue of it and my memory of that story was a pleasant one. This was BG #16 (June 1980) and I recently scored a copy off Ebay. Revisiting the story, I once again reaffirmed that I had impeccable taste for good storytelling even at a young age. 



"Berserker" was written by Roger McKenzie, who co-plotted the tale with Simonson and possibly Bob Layton. It picks up with Galactica and the fleet having gotten away from the Cylons, but they are now running critically low on fuel.

There's a highly volcanic planet nearby, which Commander Adama hopes will have the fuel they need. But there's also a Cylon early warning satellite in orbit around it. The Galactica sends out jamming signals to keep the satellite from sending out an alarm, but this has the side effect of messing up their own communications. So when a flight of Vipers (the Galactica's fighter craft) disappear after flying off to check out another space craft, no one at first notices.
To make matters worse, the satellite is linked to the planet's core, so if they deactivate it, the planet blows up, which would in itself give them away to the Cylons. So a team of techs has to deactivate this booby-trap before deactivating the satellite. This means first deactivating a number of anti-personnel booby-traps BEFORE deactivating the planet destroying booby trap BEFORE deactivating the satellite itself.

Simonson's art is noteworthy in helping to tell the story clearly and give us exciting action. I'm particularly impressed, though, with McKenzie's script. We need quite a lot of information dumped on us to understand the story, but this is done concisely and logically. We're told everything we need to know, but in dialogue that has a natural rhythm to it and without ever slowing down the fast-paced story.


The scenes with the tech crew working on the satellite are nicely meshed together with the bulk of the story, in which a Cylon ship of a design never seen before mercilessly rips into the Galactica's Vipers. A flight of three Vipers is quickly destroyed. Captain Apollo leads another flight of three into batttle against it.


Apollo's two wingmen are downed. Apollo himself tries the "reverse thrust" trick that worked countless times on the TV show, but the Cylon pilot second-guesses him. With his Viper damaged and heading for a crash-landing on the surface of the planet, Apollo turns the fighter craft duel into a test of laser pistol marksmanship. He drains his pistol dry with that one shot, but it works. He and the Cylon both crash-land.

The Cylon pilot is itself (himself?) a new design, who conveniently explains that he's one of seven prototypes for a advanced warrior. The design was actually too successful, so the Cylon leadership exiled them to seven different remote locations. The super-Cylon is now delighted to finally have the chance to kill stuff.

Apollo, though, out-thinks the Cylon one more time, using the wiring from his otherwise-useless pistol to knock the robot into a pool of lava. In the meantime,the satellite is deactivated and the planet turns out to have the fuel needed by the fleet.




The super-Cylons were meant to return. Or at least this one was--the story ends with a reveal that Apollo's opponent survived its lava bath. He really would have made an effective re-occurring villain. But a search of the Marvel wiki doesn't reveal any other appearances during the series' remaining seven issues. So the super-Cylons are still out there somewhere, waiting.... waiting...

"Berserker" is indeed solid, entertaining Space Opera, taking the intriguing premise of the TV series and using the essentially unlimited special effects budget inherent in Walt Simonson's art work and McKenzie's tight, expertly constructed script to tell a truly exciting tale. 

Next week, we'll return to Earth and learn what happens when SHIELD needs a new agent and decides to recruit... Foggy Nelson?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Mr. President  7/31/47

I'm leaving out the title of this episode because the fun of Mr. President was figuring out which president it is about over the course of the story.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Return of Lee Chan--Part 2


It was the end of the era. With 1949's Sky Dragon, Charlie Chan's career as a B-movie detective comes to an end.

It's an honorable end, though. Sky Dragon starts out with Chan and his son Lee on a passenger plane. When the crew and most of the passengers are knocked out with drugged coffee, Lee (who is training as a pilot) is able to keep the plane in the air until the crew wakes up.

But not everyone wakes up. A man guarding a large cash shipment has been knifed to death. The cash is gone and no where to be found--presumably dropped overboard by the killer with a parachute.

So the killer/thief has to be someone on the plane--someone who also drank some drugged coffee after committing the crime to cover his/her tracks. When the plane lands in New York, the local cops naturally ask Chan to help investigate.

The chief New York homicide cop, by the way, is played by Tim Ryan, one of those skilled character actors from the Studio Era that had a talent for playing tough cops and often got these roles. In a nice bit on continuity, this is his third appearance in the the later Chan films playing the same character.

In fact, the supporting cast as a whole makes the film a lot of fun. Included here is Noel Neill as a stewardess on the plane--a role she played between appearances as the first live-action Lois Lane in the two Superman movie serials. The plane's pilot is Milburn Stone, a few years before he moved to Dodge City in the Old West and took up medicine. Lyle Talbot is a passenger with a shady past who becomes a chief suspect.

The mystery is a good one and, relative to a Charlie Chan film, unfolds realistically as Chan and Lee do a lot of plodding footwork (shown as a brief montage) to track down some needed clues. But Chan gets to show off his brilliance as well--the climax back aboard the airplane has him pulling off several successive cons on various suspects to trick them into giving themselves away.

I am so glad that Keye Luke returned to the series in time to give us a few more visits with Number One son. Lee has matured a little, though he's still in many ways the son eager to please his dad. I don't know if Roland Winters knew the series was coming to an end, but he noticeably turns down the sarcasm he normally directed towards his kids and let us know that, in the end, Charlie Chan is a man who loves his children and takes pride in who they are.








Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Shotgun and Chicken


War comics in the 1960s largely shied away from Vietnam. It was a subject that I imagine editors thought was too controversial.

But Charlton Comics' war books did dip their toes into Asian waters from time to time. In 1967, Fightin' Marines #78 (cover-dated January 1968), we even got a regular feature about U.S. Marines fighting in the jungles of 'Nam.

I should say that this is the only story featuring these characters that I've read, so my comments will be based on that alone. If there was any evolution of the characters or overall theme, I simply don't know about it.

Anyways, the characters are a tough, veteran sergeant named "Shotgun" Harker and a young, reluctant Marine named "Chicken" Smith. Right away, we can conclude two things:

1. They have pretty cool names. "Shotgun Harker and the Chicken" has a definite ring to it.

2. The character dynamic reminds me a lot of DC's WWII-themed characters Gunner and Sarge.

Gunner and Sarge, by the way, had left the pages of Our Fighting Forces a few years earlier, but were soon to return as members of the commando team known as the Losers. Like Harker and Smith, this was a team featuring a tough, veteran sergeant and a young soldier who is very reluctant to fight but turns out to be really good at it. Gunner (like Chicken Smith) becomes his sergeant's go-to guy for dangerous missions.

Joe Gill is credited on Wikipedia as the creator of Harker and Smith, though the Grand Comics
Database has no writer credit for this premiere story. I have no idea if Gill or another writer was deliberately keying off Gunner and Sarge. It might have been a coincidence--the idea of a vet teaming with a newbie is, after all, a common one.



The story has nice art by Bill Montes and the plot gives us a good, straightforward war story. Harker and his men are fighting some Vietcong, who retreat down a tunnel. We immediately see that Harker is an aggressive warrior who effectively uses his shotgun. (By the way, my understanding is that a shotgun was indeed the weapon of choice for my U.S. soldiers and marines fighting in the thick jungle.) Smith is the reluctant one--when the enemy runs for it, he wants to let them go: "I'm no fanatic."

Harker initially pegs Smith as a coward, but soon realizes that, though Smith is a reluctant warrior, he is indeed a warrior. The enemy retreats down a tunnel too small to allow Harker to go after them. It's Chicken Smith who goes down the tunnel and smokes the Vietcong out with phosphorous grenades.

I love the panel you see above, where a clearly worried and surprised Harker looks down the tunnel after Smith has gone after the enemy. You can see his mind changing about his reluctant squad-mate.




So, when a mission to hunt down enemy rocket launchers comes up, Harker picks Smith as his partner.

The two have some adventures with North Vietnamese soldiers posing as South Vietnamese, I enjoy the moment when Harker realizes the soldiers are indeed the enemy because they don't wolf-whistle a passing girl.



In the end, they find the ammo stash for the rocket launchers and rig them to detonate in the tubes when the enemy attempts to fire them.


The character dynamic between Harker and Smith isn't original, but it's done well. Harker is written to be a little over-the-top ("I haven't enjoyed anything this much since my ex-girlfriend married a draft dodger back home!"), but this actually helps contrast him with Chicken Smith all the more effectively.

The feature ran through Fightin' Marines #108 (1973)--appropriately, this was the same year we pulled out of Vietnam. The first story simply ignored any controversy about the war to tell a character-driven war story. I'm going to steal someone else's comment from a comic book historians Facebook group to provide some more information on the series as a whole:

The Harker & Chicken stories were mostly straight-up combat adventures, as opposed to nearly all the other Charlton war series that had earnest anti-war undercurrents. I can remember at least one Harker & Chicken story that was jingoistic, where they had to show a visiting senator or journalist why they had to fight the Communists.

I'd love to see the Harker and Chicken stories reprinted in their entirety, though that is sadly unlikely. Other than stories featuring the Phantom and the characters eventually acquired by DC, much of Charlton's output seems to have fallen into comic book limbo. That's too bad. The quality of Charlton's comics was uneven, but they did produce some good stuff that deserves to be remembered.

Next week, we go from waging war in the jungles of Vietnam to waging war on a desolate alien planet.


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