Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

Tom Corbett Space Cadet: "Ice Cave" 2/21/52

An exploration mission to Pluto turns dangerous when one of the team goes missing while exploring a huge ice cavern.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

My New Favorite Alien

I read Hal Clement's classic science fiction novel Mission of Gravity (1953) some years ago--I think while I was still in the Navy. I usually have a clear memory of really, really good stories, even if it's been years since I last read it. One of my co-workers has often remarked about my "steel-trap memory" when we talk about books or films. Of course, I can't remember my parent's anniversary each year (pretty sure it's sometime in November), but by golly I can reel off the names of all the pilots in Luke Skywalker's squadron during the Death Star battle; or who drove what jeep in the Rat Patrol; or tell you the name of those twin girls who appear in crowd shots of the kids in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

You know--the really important stuff.

But for whatever reason, the details of the plot and the main characters in Mission of Gravity didn't stick in my mind. I have no idea why, because I just reread it and it is fantastic. The main character--an alien named Barlennan--is now my favorite alien ever, edging out Nessus the Puppeteer.

The action takes place on the planet Mesklin, which has a gravity of about 3 Gs at the equator and about 700 Gs at the poles. It has an 18 minute day and is cold enough for the oceans to consist of liquid methane. The atmosphere is hydrogen.

The intelligent species inhabiting the planet are 15-inch long centipedes who can not only live but thrive at the high-gravity poles. But there are things you have to get used to when you live in a 700 G environment. You never EVER leave ground level, because even a short fall can kill you. In fact, a dropped or falling object would accelerate so fast you wouldn't see it fall. Consequently, the idea of being up high is terrifying to the Mesklinites.

You can't throw anything because it won't go anywhere but down. In fact, you don't even have a word for throw. Or a word for flying, for that matter.

That isn't to say that Mesklinites can 't be adventurous. Barlennan is a merchant ship captain (his ship being a low-lying raft) who sails the seas, practicing the Mesklinite version of the spice trade to make a living. He even travels as far as the equator, where the gravity drops to a mere three times that of Earth, so he and his crew are careful not to pick up any bad habits involving heights or falls.

Barlennan is always looking for a profit, so when he meets a human being named Lackland, he learns English and makes a deal. Lackland is part of an expedition that had dropped a probe into the high gravity north pole, hoping to learn enough from this odd planet to develop anti-gravity. But the probe is broken and stranded. Though Lackland can move about in an armored suit in three gravities, he certainly can't travel to the 700 G areas. Barlennan agrees to make the epic voyage to recover the probe's information. In return, he'll get information that will help him better deal with Mesklin's often violent weather.

The ensuing journey (with the humans staying in touch via an audio/visual transmitter) is indeed epic. Barlennan and his men have to sail seas and cross lands that they had never before visited. Along the way, they encounter civilizations in the low gravity areas that can use thrown weapons or (in one case) have developed gliders. Between this and what he learns from the humans, Barlennan becomes willing to take chances involving heights and becomes slowly more appreciative of the advantages of learning new things.

Gee whiz, I like Barlennan. You can think of him as a merchant adventurer from Earth's Age of Sail and you pretty much have a lock on his character. He's brave, sometimes enjoys taking chances for the sake of adventure, always looks for a profit and has a little bit of the con artist in him. But he's not a human being, given to thought processes and attitudes that are different from the Earthmen he's helping.  Remember, he's a centipede and less than two feet long. If you saw him in your living room, you'd instinctively try to squash him. Not that you could possibly squash someone who normally lives in a 700 G environment.

So when he finds the probe but suddenly decides to change the deal he's made with the humans, we can't help but wonder what's what. Is there something about his thought processes we just don't get? Is Barlennan going to turn out to be the villain? Or has his appreciation of learning new things going to make him even more awesome than he already is?

Mission of Gravity is wonderful hard science fiction, giving us an unusual adventure story and alien characters who act like aliens, but with whom we can still identify.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Superman is Untouchable.

So did Superman change history or just help it along? And if he hadn't helped it along, what would have happened? 

Oh, sorry. I suppose I should explain what I'm talking about. We're going to look at a story titled "Superman Meets Al Capone," the back-up story from Superman #142 (January 1961). It's a story that was reprinted six years later in Superman #197 (June-July 1967). This later offering was an "All Clark Kent Issue," so the story was re-titled "Clark Kent Meets Al Capone."

It starts out with Superman going back in time to measure a dinosaur's footprint and confirm a scientist's theory that there was a dinosaur bigger than Titano the Super Ape. For those of you who don't know, Titano was a modern-day ape who was mutated to King Kong size and given kryptonite vision. Superman had tossed him back in time to the Dinosaur Age so he could live happily ever after.

Unfortunately, Titano shows up and manages to zap the Man of Steel with his K vision. Actually, you do have to wonder how a giant ape managed to sneak up on someone with several varieties of super vision and super hearing. And, for that matter, super smell. I doubt Titano smells like a bed of roses. But for the sake of moving an 8-page story along, we'll forgive this. Maybe Clark was distracted while thinking about how cool the big dinosaur must be. That's certainly what I would have been doing. 
Superman is weakened and goes off course while flying back through the time barrier. He stops off in Prohibition-era Chicago to wait until the kryptonite wears off completely before continuing home. He changes back to Clark while he takes in the sights. 

It's here that he meets a young Perry White, who is working as a shoe shine boy but needs to get a
scoop in order to get hired as a cub reporter.  To prevent Perry from recognizing him in the future,Clark takes off his glasses and puts a fake scar on one cheek. When a mobster then mistakes him for a crook named "Touch" Vincent, Clark sees a chance to help Perry get his scoop.

By the way, I hate to say it, but poor Perry was one butt-ugly kid. Oh, well, hopefully his mother loved him anyways.

And so Clark Kent joins the Capone mob. To ingratiate himself with Capone, he secretly uses his powers to hijack a beer truck from a rival gang, though he heat-visions the beer to turn it sour so Capone can't profit from the deed.

Capone then orders him to kill a cop. I like the trick he pulls off here: melting the bullets he fires at the cop with heat vision and using super breath to knock his supposed victim unconscious by sucking all the air away. It appears the cop has been shot when he's merely blacked out for a moment.

But the jig is up when Capone hears a radio report that the real "Touch" Vincent is still in prison. Capone figures Clark must be a Fed, prompting the mobsters to try to off him with bullets, knives and a high-voltage power line. But Clark is apparently "Untouchable!"

Clark leaves the story at Perry's shoe shine stand and leaves the 1920s before Eliot Ness can file a law suit for Cool Nickname Infringement.

It's a fun story, written by Otto Binder with the cleverness he always infused into his tales. It probably would have been a lot more fun if young Perry had been more directly involved in getting the story, but the point of the tale is to put Clark and Capone in the same room, so we'll forgive that as well.

But that darn paradox still makes me think. Was Superman (despite being displaced in time) an origianl part of Perry White's history? Did he simply help history along--in which case was anything he did necessary since it presumably would have happened more or less the same way? Did he change history? The last panel has Clark and Perry (back in the present) looking at the framed front page of Perry's first scoop. Was that specific paper always there, or did it fade into something different after Superman altered the time line? Perhaps Perry's first scoop was covering a garbage strike or something like that and Superman changed it into something else.

"Superman Meets Al Capone" seems to be a simple little story, but we apparently need a genius-level temporal physicist to work out all the implications. Where is Mr. Peabody when you really need him?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cover Cavalcade

Isn't Jimmy cheating here? He's in the stands--not a player in the field!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: "Violent Night" 3/18/54

A plantation owner on a Caribbean island must make a run for it when an old-enemy leads a successful local rebellion. The adventure comes to a tense conclusion when the rebel leader stalks his target through an old Mayan pyramid. Rock vs. Machine Gun hardly ever ends well for the man with the rock.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Howling Dogs and Dead Husbands

Read/Watch 'em In Order #53

We've visited with Warren William while he's solved murders as the Lone Wolf; as a Sam Spade expy; and as Arsene Lupin's nemesis. Now we'll drop in on him as he walks in the shoes of ace attorney Perry Mason for four movies.

Mason had only been around a year or so in 1934, but Erle Stanley Gardner had already churned out four excellent and popular novels in the series--the latest of which was The Case of the Howling Dog. It's this book that Warner Brothers used as a starting point for a series of Mason B-movies.

Gardner was unhappy with the films--disliking the way they departed from the books and annoyed that any offers he made to act as a consultant on the films was ignored. I'm not at all critical of Gardner for this--Mason was his baby and he wanted the character to be treated correctly. And this attitude paid off two decades later when Gardner personally made sure the Raymond Burr TV series stayed relatively true to the source material.

But, taken for what they are, the films are very entertaining. 

The movie does carry over several important plot elements from the book intact, but we see changes to Perry Mason pretty much right away when we discover he heads a huge law firm with many lawyers taking the less important cases and a regiment of secretaries fielding phone calls. He also has several private eyes directly attached to the firm. Alas, there's no Paul Drake to be found, though Della Street is still Mason's personal secretary.

But if you have an interesting case, you can still get Mason's personal attention. Millionaire Arthur Cartwright at first doesn't seem to be that interesting. He's complaining about his neighbor's dog howling all night long and wants a warrant sworn out against him. But what makes Cartwright a little more interesting is the new will he wants--leaving his fortune to his neighbor's wife. He also asks Mason if a will is still valid even if the person dies via execution for murder.

Well, after that, it's not that surprising that someone does indeed get murdered. But even before that, Mason and his detectives uncover shenanigans involving who is actually married to whom and who has been running around on whom. When the neighbor with the loud dog is murdered, Arthur Cartwright goes missing. The neighbor's estranged wife, though, turns out to be the main suspect, with Mason agreeing to defend her.

It turns out the key to proving her innocence involves figuring out why that darn dog had been howling all night long.

Warren William is always fun to watch in a B-movie. He gives the impression that he's enjoying himself immensely and carries us into the same mood. Though his version of Mason is different from the books, he does still have that fast-thinking determination to fight tooth-and-nail for his clients.

Mary Astor plays his client, which is fun in a movie trivia way. Two years later, William would star in a loose adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. Four years after that, Astor would play the femme fatale in John Huston's more faithful adaptation of that novel.

The film isn't perfect. Whereas the courtroom scenes in the novels are often the best part of the stories, here they seem a little contrived. And I'm not sure the ending explains everything quite as neatly as a murder mystery usually should. But the virtues trump the flaws, backed by an interesting plot and a cast of talented character actors.

I can see why Gardner didn't care for the movie series--heck, it's going to depart a little farther from the novels with each successive film. I'm a huge fan of those novels and a more faithful adaptation made in the 1930s would have been a wonderful thing. But the Warren William films create their own Mason sub-universe that's well worth visiting.

We'll eventually look at the three other films as part of the In Order series, at which time we will meet the 1930s Paul Drake--sort of.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Turok and Andar Have a Bad Day.

There are days when nothing goes right. Turok and Andar were reminded of this in Turok, Son of Stone #44 (March 1965), when they actually got out of that darn valley for a few minutes, only to have circumstances force them back in.

Their day starts quite literally with a bang, when a meteor hits the impassible cliffs that surround the valley. The impact tears a hole in the wall, but also leaves an intervening pit of lava and starts a fire that in turn starts a dinosaur stampede.

 That leaves Turok and Andar desperately trying to dodge dinosaurs on the ground. They decide to take to the trees.

This is a quite reasonable decision, but it turns out there's a panicky dinosaur up in the trees with them.

In the meantime, several of the local tribes congregate near the new lava pit. There's a rare bit of continuity here--the tribes represent some of the odder people that the two Indians had encountered in previous issues, including Monkey People, Spider People and the lone survivor of a tribe of giants.

The tribes briefly fight, but soon decide this spot is now a sacred place that they must work together to protect. Unfortunately, that includes taking Turok and Andar prisoner and sacrificing them to their new sky god.

The pair manage to escape from this and get out the new gap in the cliff. At last, something has gone right. Their adventure is finally over. They are home at last. Everything is finally back to normal.

Except its not. The dinosaurs are wandering out of the valley through the gap as well. This is not a good thing.

Turok quickly realizes that they can start a grass fire and force the dinosaurs back into the valley. But this really, really is a day when nothing goes right. He and Andar are caught in the fire as well and must also run back through the gap.

Once inside, an earth tremor causes a rock slide that seals the gap up forever. About the only thing that goes right for the Indians is that the tribesmen have gone back to fighting each other and are now too busy to bother with their errant human sacrifices.

This story, produced by the usual Turok team of Paul S. Newman (writer) and Alberto Giolitti (artist), is mind-numblingly fun. The story quickly sets up the situation, then throws one thing after another at our heroes, keeping the pace lightning fast from beginning to end. Each new danger follows logically out of the previous danger. The brief glimpse of home given to Turok and Andar adds a nice dose of poignancy to the tale.

Every time another comic book company tries to bring Turok back, they change, alter and otherwise "modernize" the character and the basic premise. I don't know why. I really don't. The character and premise were perfect the way they were. Few comic books were as consistently entertaining as Turok, Son of Stone.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Friday, April 10, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

Weird Circle: "The Executioner"  1952?

During the Napoleonic Wars, the eldest son of a Spanish nobleman is forced to make a horrible choice in order to save innocent lives.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

"The sight of her gripped us like the clutch of death itself..."

The Spotted Panther, by James Francis Dwyer, was first serialized in the Cavalier in 1913, then later published as a book. It's a treasure hunt story and employs many of the tropes and cliches common in such stories---there's a legendary object (lost for centuries) that is priceless in value, the heroes have to engage in an epic quest to locate it; they encounter bizarre dangers, violent natives and a beautiful woman before finding it.

But it's not always whether your general plot ideas are original--it's what you do with those plot ideas that count. Dwyer puts all these standard elements into a truly intense and exciting yarn.

The narrator is a guy named Lenford, but his two partners--Chico Morgan and Red Templeton--are the main heroes of the story. Both Chico and Red are strong, fearless types, so when they learn that a sword known as the Great Parong of Buddha is located in the jungles of Borneo, they dive right in after it.

It's the nature of the famous sword that gives the tale intensity. It really is legendary and it's been missing since a Portuguese sea captain snatched it a few centuries ago. It's considered to be so important and powerful that if it were found, its mere existence would cause a mass uprising throughout Asia that would kick out the European powers and cause a bloodbath. (Dwyer kind of lumps the various Eastern religions together for the purpose of his story.)

The three men are soon caught up in the same obsession, determined to find the sword no matter what obstacles stand in their way and no matter what the consequences. And the obstacles are formidable. To get to the remote village where the sword is now kept, you have to pass through the Place of Evil Winds. There are violent orangutans that are led by something known as the White Mias. There's a swamp in which one of the many "Mouths of Boorsh" may swallow you up into its bottomless quagmire. There's natives armed with blowguns and poisoned darts. There's the leader of the natives--the titular Spotted Panther--who is bigger and stronger than even Chico or Red and doesn't object to strangling his enemies. 

Dwyer does a great job of not only describing the physical dangers, but also slowly building up the feeling of obsession that grips his characters--a feeling that grows more and more intense as the story progresses and gives real impact to the climax. The sword--especially after the heroes get hold of it and use it in battle--has an effect on them that even leaves the reader wondering if there is some sort of magical power inherent in it. 
Inevitably, there's a beautiful girl involved--a descendant of the Portuguese sailors that stole the sword who hooks up with them after Chico saves her life. She and Chico fall in love pretty much instantly. But she is more than a cliche---acting with intelligence and courage throughout the story to help out the heroes. 
Before the end, the exhausted and hungry adventurers are trapped in cave with the sword. Chico has an epic fist fight with the Spotted Panther. There's a pitched battle against the whole tribe and a night-time escape under the swamp through the Passage of the Glow Worms. Dwyer has a talent for making his various plot twists simply sound cool. 

The story isn't perfect. Chico and Red are a little too similar for each to be a fully distinctive character in their own right, while Chico and the girl fall in love right away pretty much just because it's required of them by the conventions of the genre.  But these are minor complaints--overall The Spotted Panther is an exciting and notably intense story with a unique atmosphere.

You can read it online HERE.

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