Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Falcon: "The Case of the Jack of Diamonds" 9/7/52

On radio, the Falcon was a private eye named Michael Waring who was occassionally recruited by the government to do some Cold War spying in Europe. Consequently, Waring finds himself in London for this episode, where he becomes involved in a case involving blackmail and murder.

Les Damon does a fine job playing the Falcon, but what makes the episode really work was the supporting characters involved in this particular adventure. This includes the world's most nervous and uncertain blackmailer who is being egged on by a ruthless femme fatale. Well-written and well-acted, these characters helped give what was otherwise a pretty standard whodunit some real personality.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Now THAT'S a cool team-up!

Badman's Country (1953) is sort of like the "Jason and the Argonauts" of Westerns. The Greek myth took all the major mythical heroes and tossed them into the same adventure. It was a story that perhaps codified the idea of heroic team-ups in the storytelling traditions of Western civilization.

The film takes Pat Garrett, Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson and tosses those four into the same adventure. Of course, Earp and Masterson did work together in real life, but this particular story is a part of the Myth of the Old West. Which is just fine by me, because if Pat, Bill, Wyatt and Bat didn't team up in real life, then real life just isn't good enough.

The movie opens with Pat Garrett and his future brother-in-law on their way to Abilene. Pat is famous for his part in the Lincoln County wars and (in particular) for killing Billy the Kid. But now he wants to pick up his girl in Abilene, head to California and start life over without the violent baggage his reputation often brings him.

But that reputation is hard to outrun. He's ambushed outside town and, soon after, five gunmen are in town looking for him. One of those gunmen is the Sundance Kid.

In fact, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are the main villains in this story. But remember this is 16 years before Newman and Redford would turn them into likable anti-heroes. Here, they are thugs and killers with a large gang of thugs and killers to back them up.

Pat Garrett needs help. Fortunately, Buffalo Bill is in town recovering from being injured by... well, by a buffalo. Earp and Masterson soon show up as well, summoned by telegraph from Dodge City.

But by this time, Butch Cassidy has the town surrounded and cut off from further help. He's after a large amount of money being shipped by train to Abilene. Pat runs a con on Butch to convince the outlaw the money is already in town, hoping to lure the Wild Bunch into a trap. But that would mean getting additional help from the townspeople. And the townspeople (or at least the mayor) is willing to do just about anything--including cutting a deal with the bad guys--to avoid a fight.

It's a fun movie, with George Montgomery doing a fine job as Pat. There is perhaps a little too much screen time taken up by Pat worrying if he has the right to marry and put his wife in potential danger--with a 68 minute run time, there really isn't time for the characters to waste whining about their personal problems. But that's a minor complaint. For the most part, the story moves along briskly. The them of the movie--that there is sometimes an obligation to show courage in the face of danger--is a strong one.

The movie can also be enjoyed on a meta level. Remember that Pat Garrett is the killer of Billy the Kid, something that's mentioned in the movie as an important part of Pat's reputation. Pat's ally Wyatt Earp is played by Buster Crabbe, who played Billy the Kid in 13 B-movies during the 1940s. (36 films if you count the movies where the character was re-named Billy Carson.) Watching Badman's Country, you half-expect Pat to yell out "Billy! You're... you're alive!"

Also, the Sundance Kid is played by Russell Johnson. Johnson was a great character actor, but he's so set in our minds now as the Professor from Gilligan's Island, that it adds an extra level of enjoyment to watching him play a completely different role--especially when he's a villain.

Butch Cassidy, by the way, is played by Neville Brand. It is always worthwhile watching any movie in which Brand is a bad guy.

And between the two of them, I'm pretty sure Brand and Russell Johnson could kick Newman's and Redford's butts.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Heroes punching Heroes, Electricity and the Plague

The coffee table next to my couch has a shelf running along the bottom of it. Since bookshelf space in my home is always at a premium, this shelf has become the living space for many of my Marvel Essential and DC Showcase black-and-white reprints. If I could afford the higher price, it would be a home for Marvel Masterworks and other color reprints, but until I meet and marry a wealthy heiress (which would have the added bonus of getting servants to clean my bathroom), I sometimes have to settle for what I can get.

Not long ago, I was on the couch and finished reading a book. So I reached over and grabbed an Essential without looking. Thus, today, I have a review of a randomly chosen Spider Man story.

Amazing Spider Man #187 (December 1978) was co-plotted by Marv Wolfman and Jim Starlin, with Starlin also providing the layouts and Bob McLeod doing the finished art. It's set one issue after Spider Man has been cleared of criminal charges that have been following him around ever since the deaths of Norman Osborn and George Stacy.

But being a free man doesn't keep Spidey out of trouble. Needing money (to pay for expenses relating to Aunt May, as usual), he takes a job from J.J. Jameson to find out why the government has cordoned off a neighborhood in New Jersey. Scouting around, he soon encounters Captain America.

It is, of course, a long tradition to have heroes fight each other for at least a few panels before teaming up. In this instance, though, it's a little contrived. Cap tells Spidey he has to leave but won't explain why. Spidey gets stubborn and the two trade blows before Spidey realizes Cap is trying to protect him from something. He web slings away (or at least pretends to).

That Peter can have a bit of a temper sometimes is an established part of his personality and Marv Wolfman is an excellent writer who clearly gets the character. But the brief fight here is forced--there's simply no good reason for Cap to start snapping orders rather than calmly explain as much of the situation as he can, since he knows from experience that he can trust Spidey. On the flip side of that, Spidey knows he can trust Cap and that the shield-slinger wouldn't be helping to cover up anything nefarious.

Still, the art is nice, especially the panel I'm showing to the left.

With Spidey supposedly gone, Cap heads for a power plant. Flashbacks explain what's going on--a child has been kidnapped for ransom, but that child also needs medical treatment. The disease is contagious, hence the evacuation.

His kidnapper is Electro, who is doubling up on profits by combining the kidnapping with a thug-for-hire assignment of blowing up the power plant. Electro has no idea the child is carrying a communicable disease.

The reveal of Electro as the villain is supposed to be a surprise, since he stands with his face in the shadows for several panels before we see who he is. That might have been more effective if Electro's name hadn't been PLASTERED ON THE FRONT COVER OF THE COMIC!

It sounds like I'm being critical of the story, but it is overall a fine effort--a solid single-issue yarn that would also have been at home in an issue of Marvel Team-Up.

Electro nearly gets the drop on Cap, but of course Spider Man has stayed in the area. They double-team poor Electro (the guy is such a loser that you almost feel sorry for him) and get away with the kidnapped kid.

Electro, in the meantime, panics when learns he's been exposed to the plague.He tries to absorb all the electricity in the plant to burn away the disease, but ends up blowing himself up along with the power plant. He really is a loser. (He is believed to be dead, but its not surprising that he managed to survive, appearing in a Marvel Two-in-One issue within a year.)

This era of Spider Man stories isn't as strong as the Lee/Ditko/Romita era from the 1960s and early 1970s, but the tales being told were still entertaining and the cost of comics was such that impulse buying based on a cool cover was an option and you felt that even an average tale gave you your money's worth. And, even if it was a bit contrived this time, it is oddly fun to see Captain America punching out Spider Man, isn't it?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

These one-man attack craft are pretty nifty looking, but based on the title of the story they appear in, they might not have been all that safe.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: "The Man Who Stole the Bible" 5/5/50

A salesman staying in a New Orleans hotel takes the Gideon Bible from his room. For unknown reasons, this leads to multiple attempts to kidnap him and get the Bible.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

"This John Sunlight was a weird, terrible being."

Watch/Read 'em In Order #75

Unlike their comic book counterparts, arch-villains in the pulp magazines rarely made return appearances. The Pulp Universe is a violent one and few bad guys survived their encounters with the good guys.

I think Shiwan Khan and the Voodoo Master each fought the Shadow three times, but most of the other cloaked vigilante's opponents didn't live past the denouement. --

Doc Savage--Street and Smith's other popular hero--was a lot less prone to use deadly force, but his villains had a habit of dying as well. But there was one guy--John Sunlight--who gave Doc a very disconcerting time and managed a return appearance.

Fortress of Solitude, by Lester Dent (writing under the usual pen name of Kenneth Robeson) appeared in the October 1938 issue of Doc's magazine. This is the story in which we meet the brilliant by downright creepy John Sunlight.

By the way, I would guess that many readers of this blog already know this, but Doc had a Fortress of Solitude five years before Superman set up shop in the Arctic. Doc needed an isolated spot to lose himself in occasional research without being disturbed. He also needed a place to store some of the more dangerous super-weapons he regularly took away from mad scientists and would-be conquerors. So,with the help of some Eskimos, he built a "strange blue dome" in an unexplored Arctic wilderness.

But then John Sunlight breaks out of a Siberian prison camp, hijacks an ice-breaker while using other convicts as crew and--during his getaway--stumbles across the Fortress. He takes the Eskimos prisoner and spots one of them using the secret entrance into the otherwise impenetrable dome.

Not long afterwards, in New York City, the Soviet ambassador, who had put Sunlight in that prison camp, is suddenly disintegrated. This draws the interest of Doc Savage. Along with Ham, Monk and Long Tom, Doc is soon running down clues and avoiding several assassination attempts. But as Doc gains information, the usually imperturbable hero is disconcerted. He gradually realizes that someone has gotten into the Fortress and is using some of the nastier stuff stored away there. He realizes he might be up against an opponent he cannot beat and who just might be able to conquer the world.

Lester Dent is at the top of his game with this one. The twists and turns in the plot come at lightning speed as the story follows the peculiar but consistent logic of a Doc Savage yarn. Doc runs several successive cons on Sunlight and the other villains that would make a Mission Impossible team feel like witless amateurs. The action sequences, particularly the climatic battle, are superbly written.

John Sunlight is a downright frightening villain. He's arguably as smart as Doc, but he's a complete sociopath--a man who is driven to dominate others and who is so skilled at generating fear that he can bring the toughest men in the world to their knees by just talking to them.

Dent drops other fun characters into the story. Two circus strong women named Titania and Giantia work first for Sunlight, then help Doc, then rejoin Sunlight, then try to kill Sunlight--always motivated by their desire to protect their petite little sister Fifi.

Monk and Ham, as usual, spend a lot of time insulting each other or competing for Fifi's attention. In other novels, their antics are usually amusing. Occasionally, Dent missed his mark and its a little tiresome. But in Fortress of Solitude, Dent's sense of humor was running at high speed along with his sense of adventure. Monk and Ham's scenes are hilarious.

The novel ends with the Fortress back in Doc's hands. Sunlight has apparently been killed by a polar bear, but this can't be confirmed. And a number of super-weapons are missing. It's not hard to guess that John Sunlight will return.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Nag... Nag... NAG!

During the 1950s, when comic book readers were in-between super-hero crazes, there was a lot of cool stuff published. Arguably, the coolest stuff was being published by EC Comics, who were not shy about experimenting with comics about a wide variety of subjects. Their war stories, in my opinion, represent their best stories. But they produced a lot of other quality stuff as well.

Piracy first saw print in 1954, running for a mere seven issues. Like most EC books, each issue had four 6- to 8-page stories that often used twist endings and were illustrated by some of the best artists in the business.

Most of the tales were set during the Golden Age of Piracy, though there were quite a few set in other time periods.  But even those Golden Age stories were often given unusual slants.

Piracy #4 (April-May 1955) leads off with a 7-pager titled "Pirate Master," with art by Reed
Crandall. Here we are introduced to the ruthless, sadistic and aptly named Captain Satan, who captures a merchant ship and puts the crew to death in various cruel ways. He learns that there are a couple of women on the ship as well, though he hasn't personally seen them yet.

What made Captain Satan such a cruel man? Well, he conveniently starts musing on his life story and provides us with a flashback.

At one point, he had been a blacksmith, working hard to provide for his wife and mother-in-law. Every day, he was confronted by the older woman's constant and unending NAGGING! Never satisfied, never happy,she verbally and ruthlessly stripped her son-in-law of any happiness or chance for contentment.

So, when he's shanghaied aboard a pirate ship, he suddenly realizes that he's better off. He's escaped HER at last. So he happily embraces a life of piracy, demonstrating an unmatched cruelty and eventually becoming captain of his own ship.

And now here he is--master of his own fate--a leader of men--with the power of life and death over the two women captives.

Anyone familiar with EC's twist endings knows that poor Captain Satan was doomed at this point. Of course the women turn out to be his long-abandoned wife and mother-in-law. And Mom is still in good practice as an expert nagger. The mere sight and sound of her causes his backbone to melt away and turn him back into the spineless victim he had once been. He doesn't even try to argue as he rows off with his family, followed by the jeers of the men who had feared and respected him mere moments before.

The ending is, perhaps, predictably, but it is fun nonetheless, with Crandall's strong artwork giving the story a much stiffer backbone than its protagonist had.

This issue is downloadable as a PDF HERE.

Next week, we'll return to superheroes to join a webslinger and a shield-slinger on a adventure.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

Classics Illustrated #131 from 1956. The artists is unknown, but he was good. I really like that under-the-wagon view of the burning wagon in the distance.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: "Border Town" 12/13/49

Jack Webb plays a down-and-out actor who stumbles across a wad of counterfeit money and makes the unwise decision of trying to sell it in the border town of Juarez.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Don't Accept a Gift from the Future!

I'm serious. If you find a technologically advanced device from the future lying around, just walk away. It doesn't matter how beneficial the device might seem. It doesn't matter if it can grant you wealth or immortality or bringing about world peace or eradicate disease. Just leave it there and walk away. If you pick it up and use it, IT WON'T END WELL!

We have a couple examples from science fiction that proves this. The first is "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," by Lewis Padgett (actually a pen name often used by SF writers and husband/wife team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore when they collaborated).

Published in the February 1943 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, it begins with a human (or perhaps someone no longer quite human) experimenting with a time machine. Using two old boxex of toys left over from his youth to test his machine, he sends one back millions of years to the 19th Century. The other goes back almost as far, ending up in 1942.

The story centers mostly on the 1942 box (though astute readers will know from the title who finds the 19th Century box). A seven-year-old boy named Scott finds the box. He and his two-year-old sister Emma begin playing with the toys. What neither they nor their parents (at least at first) realize is that the toys are educational as well as fun. The trouble with that is that it is teaching the kids a non-Euclidian method of thinking. In other words, the kids are soon able to look at the world around them in ways that adults, who are already conditioned to Euclidian logic, cannot see or understand.

This might not be a good thing.

"Mimsy Were the Borogroves" depends a lot on our understanding that kids don't by nature see the world the same way as adults. They have to be taught as they grow to understand how the world works.

So when it becomes apparent that Scott and Emma see the world in an incomprehensible but still valid way that no adult can understand, the story becomes satisfyingly creepy. The ending, at least from the point-of-view of the adults, is inevitably tragic.

"The Little Black Bag," by C.F. Kornbluth, was published in Astounding's July 1950 issue. I love the back story in this one. In the future, most people have become... well, really stupid. Fortunately, there's a small number of really smart people who keep society going. They do this by creating technology that any idiot can use properly. For instance, a doctor's little black bag contains surgical devices and medicines that can be easily used, with very clear instructions on how to use them properly. If you can read the enclosed instructions, you can effectively treat just about any injury or disease. So the doctor who uses the bag might very well be an idiot, but the bag will help him treat his patients properly

When one such bag is inadvertently sent back in time to the 20th Century, it's found by an alcoholic former doctor named Bayard Full. At first, he plans to hock it for booze money. But when a woman offers him two dollars to treat her sick child, he stumbles over the fact that it can be used to heal just about anything.

Circumstances bring him into partnership with a greedy young lady named Angie, who wants to use the bag to treat rich patients and perform cosmetic surgery. But Dr. Full has rediscovered his sense of ethics. Though he and Angie work together for a time treating the sick, he plans to turn the bag over to scientists for study.

Angie objects to this plan. Her objections lead to... well, they don't lead to anything good.

"The Little Black Bag" is a fun story with a unique premise and it follows its own internal logic impeccably. But it has tragic ending. The tragedy in both these stories is dramatically appropriate and brings them to emotionally satisfying conclusions (as "good" tragedy in fiction always does).

But it does teach us that devices sent from the future are always bad news. That device doesn't have to be a killer robot looking for Sarah Conner. It could be something that seems innocuous or even beneficial. So when you see that obviously valuable machine from the future lying at your feet, just turn and walk away. Don't even look back.

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