Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Tarzan: "Cathedral of the Congo" 9/20/51

I've been to Africa a half-dozen times as a short-term missionary, but I've been lucky. No one's ever garroted me to death.

The missionary who appears at the beginning of this Tarzan episode isn't nearly as lucky. He gets strangled by a couple of thugs about a minute into the story, caught in a dirty alley in a small town along the Nile River.

The thugs find a letter telling them who their victim is. They also learn he was planning on meeting a lady missionary just arriving in Africa--the lady is bringing funds to help build a big church in the jungle.

This leads to a nefarious plan in which one of the thugs impersonates the guy they just murdered with the hope of getting hold of the money. But their plans go awry when Tarzan takes passage on the same small river boat upon which the ersatz preacher and the lady will be traveling.

It's an effective, well-constructed story with a nice bit at the end emphasizing that the size or shape of the church doesn't matter as long as the worshipers in it are faithful. I'll have to warn my friends still in Africa about dark alleys, garrotes and fake preachers, though. Or at least tell them to make sure Tarzan is hanging around if they go out for a walk.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Casting the Movie while Reading the Story

A big wolf called "Old Gray" has been killing cattle--sometimes for food and sometimes for fun--for years, but no one has ever managed to catch him. But a tracker named Brink is going to give it a try. Brink's not interested in the five thousand dollar reward being offered by local ranchers. Tracking is simply what he does.

"The Wolf Tracker," written by Zane Grey in 1930, is an atmospheric and suspenseful short story with a fascinating protagonist. Brink doesn't hate wolves or take bloodthirsty joy in killing. Instead, he's a solitary man who enjoys being alone in the wilderness, pitting his skill against the animals he tracks. Brink will spend the next six months on the trail of the wolf and not consider a second of it to be wasted time.

From the story: Brink had only dim remembrance of home and family, vague things far back in the past. He never loved a woman. He had lived apart from men, aloof even when the accident of life and travel had thrown him into camps or settlements. Once he had loved a dog. Seldom did his mind dwell on the past, and then only in relation to some pursuit or knowledge that came to him from the contiguity of the present task. 

I like Grey's novels, though I sometimes feel he can be a little too verbose in his prose. But under the discipline of a short story, his descriptive powers are excellent and, as we follow Brink in his six-month quest to find and kill the wolf, we are immediately caught up in the quest along with him.

What's neat about the story is its realism regarding Old Gray. Many "man vs animal" stories portray the animal with human-like intelligence and cunning. It's not wrong to do that if it makes a good story, but here Zane Grey takes a more realistic approach. Old Gray is smart and cunning--but he's not a person. When the hunt reaches its climax, the wolf reacts as you would expect a desperate animal to act.  There's no clever tricks to be played on the man. He's not really an equal opponent to Brink, because he can never match a human being in intelligence. "The Wolf Tracker" plays that up, but does so without losing any dramatic tension or making the conclusion any less stunning.

I don't believe "The Wolf Tracker" has ever been made into a movie or TV episode. A quick search did not turn up an episode of  the 1956-1961 Western Zane Grey Theater with that title, though I suppose it might have been adapted with a different title. While I was reading it, though, I began to picture a specific actor as Brink. It seems to be that if the story had been dramatized in the 1960s or 1970s, Charles Bronson would have been the perfect choice for the lead role.

Bronson was acting in the 1950s, of course, but I don't think he was quite grizzled enough to play Brink at that point in his career. For a 1950s Brink--maybe Randolph Scott.

If the story had been filmed soon after it was written in the 1930s, then I'm not sure. Gary Cooper, perhaps--but his natural friendliness might block him from really bringing across Brink's solitary nature. Gee whiz, the decade that brought us the best actors ever and I'm having trouble casting a specific role?  That's downright embarrassing.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Night of the Shadow

Cover art by Nick Cardy
It's well-known, of course, that one of the major influences in the creation of Batman was the Shadow. In fact, Bill Finger lifted the plot of the first Batman story from a Shadow novel that had been published a few years earlier. He wouldn't have suspected that both characters would become iconic and still be active decades later. 

When DC Comics had the license for the Shadow in the 1970s, they quite wisely kept him in the 1930s. (A later attempt to move him into contemporary times is better left undiscussed.)  It's too bad DC never did a story set on Earth-2, where we could have had a Shadow/Batman team-up with both men in their prime.  

But Earth-1 Batman had a few chances to meet his inspiration. In Batman #253 (Nov. 1973), he was helped from the sidelines by a retired Shadow. I haven't read this one myself--it's never had been reprinted and the original is always out of my price range. But a plot summary from the DC Wiki tells me the Shadow hinted he would indeed become active again.

Gee whiz, the guy apparently ages well. He was a World War I vet, which means in '73 he would have been (at best) in his late 70s. 

He next visited Batman in an issue I do own--Batman #259 (December 1974). Here we learn that the future Caped Crusader briefly met the vigilante when Bruce Wayne was still a runny-nosed brat.

It happened when a "Boy Genius of Crime"named Willy Hank Stamper robs a bank in Gotham. The Shadow shows up and blasts down several of Stamper's gang. The crook takes a hostage, but stumbles into a few more innocent bystanders on the way out of the bank--including Thomas and Bruce Wayne. Poor little Bruce is terrified by the ensuing gun battle.

That terror isn't helped much when Bruce sees his parents  gunned down in Crime Alley a few months later. 

Now lets jump ahead a few decades. Following up on information that someone is planning on stealing a priceless tiara, Batman encounters an older Willy Hank Stamper, who seems to want to get revenge on the various bystanders he blames for getting himself caught and sent to prison for most of  his adult life. Batman nearly catches Stamper fairly quickly, but the need to deal with a medical emergency prevents this. 

There's an attempt on Bruce Wayne's life soon after. Then that tiara goes missing, but someone leaves a clue that sends Batman to the scene of the bank robbery from his childhood.

He does find Stamper there. A thug with a gun wouldn't normally be a serious threat to the Dark Knight, but the location and the sound of pistol shots causes Batman to revert to crybaby mode.  It' is only the sound of spooky laughter that pulls him out of this and allows him to subdue Stamper.

Yes, that was the Shadow's laughter. He'd been around the entire time, leading Batman back to this location, where the younger hero then proved his worth.

The meeting between the two heroes is fun and insightful, especially a moment in which the Shadow offers Batman a gift of a pistol, which Batman declines. "Sure I admire him.. I've been inspired by him... But I'm my own man."

It is very possibly the first time Batman's aversion to firearms is codified as a part of his psychology rather than just a part of superhero tradition. 

The story was written by Denny O'Neil, who was also writing DC's The Shadow at the same time. That O'Neil clearly gets both characters is obvious and one of the reasons the story is so good. Irv Novick does a fine job with the interior art. 

That's it for now. Next week, we'll follow along with two of the most successful pirate hunters in history--Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

She's a ghost. He's a guy who apparently doesn't know how gravity works. It's not a good start for a relationship.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Adventures by Morse “City of the Dead” 1/8/44 – 3/11/44

Carlton E. Morse was one of the jewels of radio’s Golden Age. A skilled writer, he is perhaps best known for creating and writing the serial I Love a Mystery, a blood-and-thunder adventure show in which a trio of adventures traveled the world solving mysteries, slugging it out with bad guys and rescuing beautiful girls. (He also created and wrote the popular soap opera One Man's Family.)

I Love a Mystery was a great show. Morse had a perfect sense of just how much information to pass on to his listeners in each episode, gradually building up tension and suspense throughout each multi-part story arc. The three protagonists were fun as well—stalwart Jack Packard; Texan and (self-proclaimed) ladies’ man Doc Long; and the very English Reggie York.

I Love a Mystery ran in the early 1940s, then had a very successful revival in 1949. Sandwiched in-between these two runs, though, was a syndicated show titled Adventures by Morse.

A half-hour show, Adventures alternated between 10-part and 3-part story arcs. The main characters were pretty much clones of Jack Packard and Doc Long. Re-named Captain Friday and Skip Turner, their personalities were exact duplicates of Jack and Doc.

But that’s okay, because they’re just as fun to hang around with. “City of the Dead” is the premiere adventure (and, in fact, doesn’t involve Skip at all). A ten-parter, it takes place in a remote cemetery, whose caretaker happens to be Captain Friday’s father. When apparently inexplicable things start happening, the old man calls in his son (a private investigator) to look into the matter.

What follows is a convoluted but ultimately satisfying yarn involving a phantom church bell that starts ringing at irregular moments; several murders; disappearing and reappearing bodies; graves mysteriously dug open and then just as mysteriously filled in; arson, kidnapping; deadly booby-traps; and a half-million dollars worth of hidden pearls. There’s an oddly dressed man who doesn’t seem to be quite human wandering around the graveyard and letting out eerie howls. Everyone involved seems to be up to something either secretive or downright nefarious, including Captain Friday’s dad.

It’s a delight to listen to from beginning to end. As is typical in Morse’s stories, all the apparently supernatural aspects of the case turn out to have “rational” explanations, but that doesn’t make the spooky parts any less spooky. By the end, Captain Friday has it all figured out, but it actually takes him the entire last episode to explain it all to everyone. The good captain knows how to milk the suspense himself, though, so his explanation is as entertaining as the events leading up to it.

Listening to a serial such as this one requires self-discipline—not because it’s hard to listen to, but because one is tempted to go straight from one episode to another. But it’s more fun to limit yourself to one episode per day; to allow yourself to experience the pleasant suspense of a good cliffhanger. Few writers did cliffhangers better than Carlton E. Morse.

Click HERE to download or listen to the first episode of the serial.

The remaining episodes can be found HERE.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

An Unusual Pairing of Guest Stars

For the second time inside of a month, I'm going to talk about a TV show. I used to whine and complain a lot about how awful television is because it killed old-time radio and usually isn't as effective a medium for good storytelling. In fact, I still whine and complain about that a lot. It think that's why I never get invited to parties anymore.

But while writing for this blog over the last decade, I have found myself from time to time obligated to admit that there occasionally was some really good stuff on the small screen.

An episode from Have Gun Will Travel's second season is evidence of this. Broadcast on December 27, 1958, it is a pure delight. And it brings us the oddest pairing of guest stars that might ever have appeared together.

 The episode begins with Paladin (Richard Boone) attending a performance of Othello in San Francisco. Impressed by the leads, he invites them to dinner. He then learns they have accepted an engagement in San Diego, which was then a rough cattle town. Paladin warns them of potential danger, but the actors are unable to recognize the fact that these dangers are real. San Francisco, after all, is a large and cultured city. So the rest of the so-called "Wild West" can't be that bad, can't it?

The actors are beautifully played by Vincent Price and Patricia Morison, who bring just the right notes to their roles. Yes, they are making a dumb decision in going to San Diego, but it's not out of stupidity. We never doubt that they are skilled actors and relatively intelligent people. But they are naive and unable to see past their own romantic view of the world.

Paladin rides to San Diego ahead of them and wrangles a job working security for the saloon at which the actors will be performing. That was actually one of the neat things about Have Gun Will Travel. Clients often came to Paladin, but just as often he would search out employment after learning of a potentially dangerous situation somewhere.

Anyway, the saloon owner is Morey Amsterdam. So we have Morey Amsterdam and Vincent Price together in the same story. For no particular reason, I just think this is way cool.

Anyway, the actors show up and are shocked--SHOCKED, I SAY--to discover that they are being advertised as cheap vaudeville performers and that the theater is actually a saloon. They initially decide to pack up and leave. But a local gunfighter (with a reputation for maybe--just maybe--being faster than Paladin) is somewhat smitten with Patricia Morison and threatens to tear up the saloon and kill the owner if the performance is cancelled. The actors, in the meantime, decide to stay and ram some culture down San Diego's throat, but only after publishing insulting remarks about the gunfighter in the local paper.

So Paladin has to see that the performance goes on--that no one gets shot--and that the saloon remains intact. It's a job that's not made any easier by the fact that the actors still refuse to accept the idea that their lives are really in danger.

It's a fun episode, with a light-hearted feel that does not distract from a real feeling of danger at the right moments. And it's got Vincent and Morey on the same screen together. That is way cool. I still can't explain why. It just is.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ship of Crawling Death

I always liked Boomer--one of the supporting characters from the original Battlestar Galactica. He was in most episodes and probably followed only Starbuck and Apollo as the best fighter pilot in the fleet. It was probably Herbert Jefferson Jr's performance that made Boomer a likable and fondly remembered member of Galactica's crew, giving the pilot a aura of competence, courage and dependability.

So an issue of the Marvel Comics adaptation that gives Boomer center stage is something to welcome. Battlestar Galactica #15 (May 1980) did just this.

As was often the case, Walt Simonson and Roger Mckenzie came up with the plot, with McKenzie writing the script and Simonson doing the breakdowns. Klaus Janson did the finished art. Together, the three men created what is an effective and downright terrifying little horror story.

It begins with Boomer, his usual wingman Jolly and nurse Cassiopeia in a shuttle, with Apollo flying escort, checking out a derelict spaceship. They had picked up a faint distress single from the craft and there was always hope of finding fuel and food--both of which the human fleet are chronically short on.

But the mission gets scary fast. The ship turns out to be an old battle cruiser. When the humans approach, the ship's guns open fire on them, but then stop as soon as Apollo tries to get radio contract. But then the ship goes silent.

Boomer suits up, flies over and blows his way in through an airlock. But inside, he's attacked by a swarm of monsters. Liberal use of his laser and a few concussion grenades keep him alive.

Moving farther into the ship, Boomer finds a room full of human corpses. One woman, the ship's commander, is still alive, greeting the pilot with an encouraging "Get off this ship of death!"

She lives long enough to tell a pretty tragic tale. After the Cylons had destroyed the colonies, the Galactica gathered up whatever survivors could be found, forming the ragtag fleet that has been fleeing the Cylons ever since. But, inevitably, they had missed a few survivors.

These people managed to scavenge up a ship of their own, then set out to find the fleet. By the Cylons had left behind one last, brutal trap, seeding the colony planets with deadly germs. This had the effect of killing the crew and mutating vermin aboard the ship into the monsters that Boomer had encountered earlier. The crew had been dying one by one.

But we are not done with the tragedy yet. The woman turns out to be Commander Adama's wife, who had been presumed dead after the initial Cylon attack. Boomer is able to tell her that Adama is alive. He does tell her a fib when the conversation gets to her children. He opts not to tell her that her youngest son Zac had been killed.

She dies. Boomer sets the ship to self-destruct and fights his way back out. Then he tells another fib--informing Adama and Apollo that there had been no survivors.

This is a really strong story. The emotions are real and we are given some relief from the emotional downs of the story in two ways: First, Boomer's determination to live while fighting his way through the monsters is noteworthy. Second, Adama's wife is given a hope spot before dying by learning her family is still alive.

The Simonson/Janson artwork complements the story perfectly.

So this issue works as an exciting action-adventure tale, a horror story, and an effective character piece.

But it's another tragic story in a long line of tragic stories I've been reviewing recently, isn't it? Over the past month, we've visited several times with the Hulk to see him cheated of a happy ending on several occasions, then watched Jonah Hex get murdered, stuffed and placed on display. I didn't plan that, but we need to move on to something more upbeat.

So next week, we'll look at a team-up between Batman and the pulp character that inspired him--the Shadow. That should be fun and upbeat. A super-violent vigilante.... um... working with a character famous for his... er.. incredibly tragic backstory. So, yeah. ... fun.

Gee whiz.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Tarzan: "Stolen Jewels"--7/5/1951

Tarzan, partially for a lark and partially to prevent a war, attends the wedding of a wealthy ruler. He ends up playing detective when the wedding is preceded by a rotating set of thefts and false accusations. Why aren't weddings in real life that interesting?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Plague Ship

Read/Watch 'em in Order #78

Gee whiz, I don't know why I never read the Solar Queen novels before. They are more fun than a barrel of space monkeys.

In Sargasso of Space, the crew of the independent merchant ship Solar Queen was instrumental in helping clean up a band of space pirates, so they have claimed trading rights on a remote planet as a reward. It's the sort of contract that the big merchant companies usually leave to the independents because profit margins are thin. 

But the planet has proven to be the source of a valuable jewel, so a ship from one of the big companies (Inter-Solar) shows up and tries to muscle in on the trade, despite the overt illegality of this. And trading with the natives on this planet is already a tricky and sometimes dangerous thing. For instance, several of the Queen's crew must help the natives fight an amphibious race of reptilian frog-crab things at one point. Later, the Inter-Solar men use the traditions of the natives to rope the Queen's captain into a duel. Interstellar trade is literally a cut-throat business.

The world-building here, by the way, is really fascinating. The native culture on the planet is believable while still being very, very alien.

Our point-of-view character is still Dane Thorson, the Apprentice Cargo-Handler and still the youngest guy on the crew. As in the first novel, we see that Dane is still learning. In fact, early on, he makes a serious mistake which only the dumbest of luck turns to the ship's advantage. But Dane is intelligent and willing to learn from his mistakes.

Another parallel to the first novel is that Dane is not the automatic hero--he's a capable member of the crew, but only one member of that crew. Other crewmen contribute to the Queen's success according to their own capabilities and specialties. This continues to be a strength in these stories, creating a sense that the Solar Queen is a real ship that operates in a realistic manner.

At the same time, Dane is given several moments to shine even more so than in the first novel. It's obvious that Andre Norton is still setting him up to one day become a leader of men, taking him through a tough and dangerous learning process in order to get him there.

The crew staves off the efforts of Inter-Solar to muscle in on the trade, but ends up in a situation where they have to carry a cargo to Earth and return within a relatively short period of time. This would have been doable, but soon after they lift off, members of the crew start to get sick and drop like flies.

This is the premise for the bulk of the story. The sickness aboard the ship soon leaves only Dane and three other of the youngest, least experienced crew still on their feet. Whey are they apparently immune? What is the source of the sickness? If it's a plague, they might be banned from landing on any inhabited planet or even forced to fly into a sun.

Why is the ship's cat suddenly terrified of certain sections of the ship? That bit of weirdness is, in fact, one of several clues that help the young crewmen figure out what is going on. (A useful cat? Well, this is a work of fantastic fiction.)

But figuring out the reason for the illness isn't enough. The Solar Queen has been declared a Plague Ship AND (because the Queen grabbed supplies from an Inter-Solar emergency station) a pirate ship. In order to work everything out, the young crew is going to have to hide out in the radioactive ruins left over from an atomic war; kidnap a Medic to treat the sick crew; and commit what could be considered an act of terrorism in order to get their side of the story out to the public.

It's a wild plan worthy of Captain Kirk that leads up to a truly exciting action set-piece.

We're not yet done with the Solar Queen--I'll be reviewing at least one more book in the series eventually.

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