Monday, September 15, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

Batman isn't in a position to send his uniform out to be professionally cleaned. So how much of his day does poor Alfred have to spend scrubbing the darn thing clean?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Michael Shayne: "The Phantom Gun" 8/6/48

Following a husband to find out if he's stepping out on his wife should be a simple job. But this one soon snowballs into a confusing case that includes Shayne being beaten, kidnapped, framed for murder and stalked by a killer with a sawed-off shotgun. All in a day's work for the tough detective.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

How to Escape from Prison in One Easy Lesson

I love those moments when I have some spare time and nothing to do; when I can pick up a short novel that I know can be read in less than two hours, lay on my couch and read it start to finish. That's the best way ever to relax. It might be a novelization of a Dr. Who television serial. It might be an early 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain (These were written for the paperback novel in the 1950s and were required to be exactly 180 pages long by the publisher.). It might be a pulp novel from the 1930s or 1940s.

The night before I wrote this post, it was The Vanisher, a Doc Savage novel from the December 1936 issue of Doc's magazine. Typical of author Lester Dent's best stories, it starts off with a bang and races through a series of bizarre plot twists and exciting action scenes before reaching its conclusion.

This one starts out with a prison break. A hunchbacked man (or woman--no one is ever quite sure) sneaks into the prison and breaks out twenty men who have all claimed to have been framed by an all-powerful criminal syndicate. He replaces them in their cells with twenty executives from various insurance companies, none of whom know how they got there. 

It's also a mystery how the convicts got out of the prison. And strange escapes happen throughout the story, with the hunchback or the escapees disappearing from rooms without a trace. 

I suppose its a spoiler to tell you that the hunchback has a short-range teleportation device, but if you haven't figured that out for yourself early in the story, then you aren't really trying. But that doesn't mean there isn't a strong element of mystery to the story. The identity of the hunchback and his motivation are all uncertain at first. It seems like the hunchback might be a good guy of sorts--he claims he wants the convicts to help him destroy the syndicate that framed all of them. But he's also willing to commit murder and use the threat of death to keep his gang in line. It's soon apparent that--whatever his motivation--he's not on the side of the angels. (I keep saying "him," but that's just simpler than saying him/her over and over again.)

Doc, Monk and Ham get involved fairly early. Doc visits the prison to investigate the mass escape, but a woman disguised as a reporter tries to kill him with a gun-rigged camera. But even her motivation is up in the air--is she a villain or is she being forced to work for the villain?

On top of all the, the insurance guys who had mysteriously turned up in the prison cells after the escape keep popping up unexpectedly, shooting at pretty much everyone with shotguns and machine guns. 

Doc gradually sorts things out, though at one point he's framed for murder and on the run from the cops himself. But, as is typical of the best Doc Savage stories, when the villain thinks he is one step ahead of Doc, it always turns out that Doc is actually two steps ahead of him.

If I were to quibble, I'd have to say that the conclusion of this story is too abrupt to be completely satisfying, but it is in toto a wonderfully exciting and appropriately bizarre Doc Savage story. It is, in other words, the perfect way to spend 90 minutes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

DO NOT mess with the nanny!

You see that wild-eyed young lady up there? That's Tillicum, an Indian lass who (through a series of odd adventures) ended up in King Arthur's England, helping take care of Prince Valiant's first-born son Arn.

The guy she's trying to knife to death is Boltar, a Viking warrior and her future husband. You do NOT mess with Tillicum. Even if she's in love with you, it's not a good idea.

And if you mess with one of her loved ones--well, there are easier ways of committing suicide.

Tillicum's Crowning Moment of Awesome is in a story arc from late 1952. By this time, she and Boltar are married and they've been allowed to bring Arn home with them for a visit. But the little scamp manages to wander off on his own, where he gets kidnapped by a band of villains.

She soon realizes that Arn is missing. Here, her considerable skills as a tracker come into play. Subtle clues (a crushed blade of grass--a torn spider web--a brook with the mud stirred up) soon tell her what happened and put her on the trail of the kidnappers.

But there was no time to return to her husband for help. Tillicum is on her own.

Which actually isn't a problem for her. Knowing Boltar will be searching for her soon, she leaves a clear trail behind her while closing in on Arn and the bad guys. When she catches up to them, she sneaks into the camp at night to free the boy.

You'd think that would be enough to satisfy her, but remember that you simply do not mess with anyone that Tillicum cares about.

While escaping from the camp, she deliberately leaves a trail that the kidnappers can follow while she doubles back along the route Boltar will be traveling. When they catch up to her, she empties a saddle with her a well-placed arrow. Boltar arrives in time to take out another villain with a thrown axe.

The story arc is a short one--running just five Sundays. But it is truly epic. Hal Foster was a magnificent storyteller, combining perfect art with well-written narration and characters who can only be described as glorious. Regular readers of the strip would have already come to love Tillicum in earlier appearances for her bravery, loyalty and intelligence. Her tempestuous courtship with Boltar had been touching, funny and oddly believable. And here her own short but dazzling adventure cements her place as one of the most memorable supporting characters in Prince Valiant's long run.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A new online article by me

Here's an article about the radio show Cloak and Dagger, which is adapted from the ebook I wrote about the show:

Cloak and Dagger article.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

Robots, dinosaurs and World War II. It's the perfect triumvirate of classic nerdiness.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: "Lily and the Colonel" 5/3/53

A grim story set during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, with the tale leading up to a horrific and effective conclusion.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Be brave and pure, fearless to the strong and humble to the weak."

It's well-known that Arthur Conan Doyle didn't want to write as many Sherlock Holmes stories as he did--he tired of the Great Detective and, besides, all the furor over Holmes was taking attention away from his historical novels. It was these that Doyle was most proud of.

And with good reason. The White Company (1891), for instance, is absolutely epic.

It's set during the years 1366/67, right smack in the middle of the Hundred Years War--in which England and France are fighting over control of France. The novel's protagonist, though, isn't a soldier. At least not at first.

Alleyne Edricson was the younger son of a nobleman who had been raised in a monastery. As the novel opens, we learn that he would just as soon stay there--content with a quiet life of religious observance. But part of the deal his now-dead father had made was that he would go out into the world for a year before making a final decision.

This leads Alleyne into adventure, war, danger, and the constant threat of death. He turns out to be pretty good at that sort of thing.

Doyle builds both his characterizations and his plot logically and effectively. Soon, various circumstances result in Alleyne serving as a squire to Sir Nigel Loring, a knight who is traveling to France to take command of three hundred archers known as the White Company. By now, we've also met an expert bowman named Samkin Aylward and a big guy known as Hordle John--two men who become Alleyne's best friends and
companions in adventure.

Doyle makes all of these characters seem real, giving them vivid personalities and believable motivations. Sir Nigel is especially notable--a small man getting on in years and with weak eyesight, he's still the best swordsman in Europe and he represents the best aspects of chivalry--always eager to gain honor in combat, but conscious of his duty to his king, his country and those who serve under him. A less talented author would have turned Sir Nigel into a wooden stereotype. Doyle presents him to us as a living, breathing person who just happens to be an epic hero. My favorite knight would still have to be Sir Roger de Tourneville, but Sir Nigel gives him a run for his money. It's a pretty close call.

Nigel's also got a beautiful, tempestuous and intelligent daughter. Alleyne falls in love with her, which means he'll have to prove himself to be worthy of knighthood before he can ask her hand in marriage. He'll get plenty of opportunities.

About two-thirds of the novel consists of Sir Nigel and his companions traveling to France to meet up with the White Company, but they have plenty of adventures along the way, including a fight against a pair of pirate ships while crossing the Channel and the desperate defense of a castle keep against a blood-mad band of peasants.

But as wonderfully exciting as all that is, nothing that comes before matches the battle scene that comes at the novel's climax. The White Company, greatly outnumbered, defends a hill against an overwhelming force of French and Spanish troops. It is one of the most intense and thrilling battle sequences I've ever read.

There's a lot of other aspects to the novel that make it so good. Colorful supporting characters; moments of true humor; small vignettes that give us a panorama of 14th Century life on many levels; prose that uses archaic grammar and is peppered with obscure words, but still flows along smoothly and is often a joy to read.

So I don't blame Doyle at all for saying that The White Company was worth 100 Holmes stories. I don't agree--I'm not sure Doyle ever fully appreciated just how awesome Sherlock Holmes is. But his historical novels should also be remembered fondly. They are the stuff that legends are made of.

You can access the novel online HERE.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Monster Society of Evil--Parts 1-5

The first and still arguably the best superhero serial was 1941's The Adventures of Captain Marvel, with a fun story, great special effects, and some tense cliffhangers. And it might have been the success of the serial that convinced writer Otto Binder and artist C.C. Beck give the format a try within the pages of Captain Marvel Adventures. What they come up with is one of the classic stories of the Golden Age.

"The Monster Society of Evil" is epic in scale, full of Binder's quirky humor and sense of adventure, all supported by Beck's perfect artwork. It brings all of Captain Marvel's arch enemies into one single plot to help the Axis win World War II--all of whom are being commanded by a new extra-terrestrial villain known as Mr. Mind.

Who is Mr. Mind? Well, most readers interested in my blog almost certainly know already, but imagine how much of a surprise and a delight he must have been to young readers in 1943. I don't think there had ever been a villain quite like him. There probably hasn't been a villain quite like him since.

It all began in Captain Marvel Adventures #22 (March 1943) and would run for two years and 25 chapters before coming to an end. It opens with a princess from India delivering one of two magical black pearls to the Allies. Put the pearls together and you can "pick up scenes and voices from anywhere," making it a valuable espionage tool.

The princess is promptly kidnapped by Captain Nazi and taken to India to recover the other pearl. Captain Marvel pursues. This starts a fast moving series of adventures. Soon, Captain Nazi is captured, but another villain Ibac gets away with the pearls.

Ibac is a great idea for a bad guy. He's normally an elderly and wimpy criminal named Stinky Printwhistle. But after a deal with the devil, he can say the name Ibac and become a super-strong man with the power of flight.

Ibac, by the way, comes from Ivan the Terrrible (terror); Cesare Borgia (cunning); Atilla the Hun (Fierceness); and Caligula (cruelity).

This moves the action to North Africa, where Ibac plans to sabotage the Allied military there. Captain Marvel puts the kibosh on this, but the pearls are aquired by Nippo, a Japanese spy. This brings the action of Hawaii, where Nippo tries to destroy Pearl Harbor by activating a dormant volcano. The spy is soon caught and Captain Marvel recovers the pearls.

But Mr. Mind and the other villains are still out there somewhere. Dr. Sivana pops up next, using a huge machine to alter the Earth's axis and bring on a new Ice Age. Using the pearls to track the mad scientist down, Captain Marvel destroys the machine. In a wonderful plot twist, Marvel belatedly realizes only then that he has to repair the machine and run it backwards to put the Earth back where it belongs.

By now, Captain Marvel knows that the mysterious Mr. Mind is running the show from behind the scenes. He tracks the villain to a dead planet located near the Moon. Marvel flies there and confronts Mr. Mind--who is an alien creature with a goat head.

 Except he's not--that's just a minion into whom Mr. Mind projected his consciousness. The real Mr. Mind is a robot.

Oops. No he's not. That's another minion. He must be this hideous octopus creature. No, perhaps he's this super-strong humanoid (with whom Marvel has an epic fight that destroys Mr. Mind's base).

No, he's not ANY of them! The real Mr. Mind escapes in a space ship to continue his villainous schemes. So Marvel still has no idea who Mr. Mind really is. And, despite having the wisdom of Solomon, he doesn't give a second thought to that tiny worm that dropped down on his shoulder at one point.

This covers the first five chapters (issues #22 through 26), all fun stories which--like all great serials--it fast paced and exciting from start to finish. My favorite of the five is probably from #26, in which C.C. Beck's vivid imagination is unleashed to create a series of magnificently designed minions for Mr. Mind.

But this IS just the first five chapters. As is traditional with all good cliff hangers, I'm going to break off here and wait a few weeks before returning to the story with a look at parts 6 to 10.

In the meantime, the Monster Society of Evil is available to read digital at Comic Book Plus. Start with Captain Marvel Adventures #22 and read on from there.