Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Jeff Regan: "The Diamond Quartette" 8/14/48

Regan has a simple job. Take a diamond necklace from a gambler (who was holding it as collateral) and return it to its owner. But in a hard-boiled universe, no simple job ever stays simple. Soon, a number of corpses are cluttering up the landscape.

Lurene Tuttle (as the heiress who owns the necklace) and Barry Kroeger (who channels Sydney Greenstreet while playing a jeweler with an agenda of his own) are particularly good in this one.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"...a tiny creature entombed in the bowels of a planet."

The fourth time Leigh Brackett took us to Mercury was in the novella "Shannach--the Last."  (Published in the November 1952 issue of Planet Stories.) And as that tale begins, we discover that a prospector named
Trevor is having a really bad day.

Trevor has been flitting around Mercury's Twilight area for years in his small ship, hoping to strike it rich by finding at least one sun-stone--a valuable radioactive mineral that exists only on our innermost planet. But his luck has turned bad--a quake "brought down a whole mountain wall on his ship, leaving him with a pocket torch, a handful of food tablets, a canteen of water, and the scant clothing he stood in."

The Twilight area is made up of self-contained valleys surrounded by mountains that climb up over the edge of the thin atmosphere. So climbing out isn't an option. Instead, Trevor finds a cave entrance and blindly hopes to find his way through pitch-dark tunnels.

He's exhausted and dehydrated by the time he does find an exit into another valley, but there's no chance to rest. Because this second valley is inhabited and many of the inhabitants are rather nasty.

The situation is thus: three centuries earlier, a ship crashed in the valley. Most of the surviving passengers were colonists. But a number of them were convicts--at the time, convicts were sent to Mercury to help work the mines. Soon, the convicts (now known as Korins) were enslaving the colonists. The Korins used flying creatures to help track and attack escaped slaves. Both the Korins and the flyers (called "hawks" though they are more reptile than bird) wear sun-stones on their foreheads, which apparently allow the humans to stay in telepathic contact with the hawks.

Trevor falls in with an escaping woman slave and they join a larger band of escapees. But though Trevor sympathizes with the slaves, he simply wants to get his hands on a priceless sun-stone and get away. But his attempt to do this leads to the discovery of an alien creature named Shannach.

And that's all I'm going to tell you--because this is the sort of story that needs to unfold for you while you are reading it, without any spoilers getting in the way. It's available online HERE.

All I can say without ruining it is that Shannach is an imaginative and unique creation--a creature with perhaps a hint of Lovecraftian horror to him that makes him an effective villain and and throws Trevor into very intense battle of wits, willpower and courage. It is, I think, my favorite of the four Mercury stories and one of my favorite Leigh Brackett stories of all.

That finishes up our tour of Mercury as told by Leigh Brackett. Of course, she took us to Venus, Mars and a few of the outer planets as well, so though this is the end of this particular series of posts, there's every chance we'll return to the Brackett Solar System in the future.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Batman and Blackhawk

Cover art by Jim Aparo

I have the impression that The Brave and the Bold #167 (October 1980) was a fill-in issue. The art was done by Dave Cockrum rather than B&B's regular artist Jim Aparo and it was a "special story of the Golden Age Batman."  I think editor Paul Levitz saw he was going to be short a story one month, so recruited Cockrum and writer Marv Wolfman to come up with something.

What they came up with is pretty nifty. Set during World War II, it has Batman and the Blackhawks investigating what turns out to be the same case. In Gotham City, the Dark Knight is looking into the theft of scientific equipment by Nazi spies. In Europe, the Blackhawks are trying to find a missing Allied agent. The agent eventually turns up, frozen to death in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

The presumption is that the Nazis have built a freeze ray. But when the various heroes both track down a hidden Nazi base in the Arctic, they discover its a bit more convoluted than that.

Follow along closely. The ray gun in the secret base melts a part of the ice cap into vapor, then transports the vapor to a big submersible hovercraft hidden in Gotham Harbor. Here the vapor is converted back into water, which then smashes into Gotham City as a tidal wave. The
Nazis plan on repeating this on a much larger scale, flooding the East Coast.

Visually, it's a great story. Cockrum's art is excellent and the image of the Bat-plane joining the Blackhawks' Grumman XF5F Skyrockets in a fight against a Nazi super-weapon is alone worth the price of the book.

There are, though, several elements to the story that make me think its a rush job. The scenes in which both Batman and the Blackhawks are following their own lines of investigation are rushed and not really explained well enough to form a strong story. This element of the tale was practically screaming aloud "I need to be a two-parter!"

Also, the final action scene doesn't quite make sense even in a comic book universe. Follow along again: the good guys are bombing the Nazi base, but not doing enough damage. They realize they've got to get inside and simply beat the snot out of every German inside. Okay, in a comic book universe, that's acceptable.

So we see the Blackhawks landing atop the base via parachute. Batman joins in the fight, having presumably also parachuted down. That means they've abandoned their planes.

But when they learn the base is going to self-destruct, they are suddenly back in their planes flying away to safety in the nick of time. No matter how convoluted the comic book logic I employ to explain that away, I just can't get Batman and his allies back in their planes. How the heck did they DO that?

So the story is in many ways a missed opportunity. Had it been made a two-parter, a writer of Wolfman's skill and experience could have done wonderful things. Instead, the story is almost but not quite what it should be.

Even so, there are a few nice Easter eggs hidden in the issue. When the Gotham docks are flooded, take
note of the Hildago Trading Company--a shout-out to Doc Savage. There's also a line of dialogue referencing the Shadow.

We also see a panel in which Bruce Wayne is out with Linda Page, a Golden Age socialite character who appeared in a dozen or so issues during the 1940s. She was also used as a character in the 1943 Batman movie serial. Linda's appearance here is another nice shout-out to the Golden Age.

Besides, for all the faults this story has, it really is pretty sweet to see the Bat-Plane sharing the clouds with those Grumman Skyrockets.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

Well-composed point-of-view shots such as this are always fun to look at.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Hercule Poirot: "Money Mad Ghoul" 9/13/45

Poirot investigates a series of recent grave robberies. The oddest aspect of the crime is that the graves are being robbed in alphabetical order according to the last name of each corpse.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Black Hush

The August 1, 1933 issue of The Shadow Magazine is a wondrous thing for two reasons. First, the cover painting by George Rozen is arguably THE iconic image of the Shadow.

Second, the story is a rambunctious action/mystery with just the right dollop of science fiction added to it. It is pure fun to read.

The Black Hush starts out with a bang. Or, rather, it starts out with a fusillade of revolver shots as two men attending a banquet for the Association of Electrical Engineers are gunned down. Just before the crime occurs, everything electrical in the banquet hall stops working and a thick darkness envelops the room.

It's quite a trick and the cops aren't quite sure how it was done. They are sure of one thing, though. The victims were shot by accident--it was a racketeer at a political banquet in a neighboring room who was the intended victim.

The Shadow, though, isn't so sure of that. He also has an idea of how the electricity was turned off and why two electrical engineers were targeted for murder.

There's a need for the Shadow to follow up his deductions quickly. The mysterious darkness is used to commit two more crimes, robbing rare jewels from a penthouse and knocking over a bank. The Shadow manages to foil these crimes and thin out the ranks of the street-level thugs working for the main villains, but until he tracks down the source of the darkness, the crime wave will continue.

In many Shadow novels, the identity of the main villain is unknown until the final pages. Here, writer Walter Gibson freely identifies the bosses early on and lets us know that a newly-invented ray projector is causing the darkness. But there's still a strong mystery element involved in discovering where the ray is located and what exact crimes are being planned.

Mixed into all this are several exciting action sequences typical of Gibson's stories. Of particular note is a car chase, with the bad guys using the Black Hush projector to disable pursuing police cars and even take down a plane.

Also, there's shenanigans going on with the Shadow's agents: reporter Clyde Burke is targeted for death at a time when the Shadow isn't around to save him, while Harry Vincent gets captured near the end of the story. the sequence with Burke is notable in that a fairly minor side character--someone who appears in many of the novels without really being given much personality or anything important to do--is given a Crowning Moment of Awesome by coming to the rescue.

The Black Hush is a great Shadow novel, with a strong plot and several exciting gun battles and chases. The mystery elements are very strong, with the Shadow and his agents doing believable detective work and making believable deductions to track down the bad guys.

I share the fairly common view that the Shadow is the greatest of the pulp heroes. The Black Hush is one of the reasons why I hold this opinion.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Running the Gauntlet

In real life, Running the Gauntlet was often a military punishment--a soldier being punished runs along a line of his comrades while they all whack away at him with straps or clubs. In some cultures, enemy prisoners were forced to make the run. In 1778, for instance, Daniel Boone was captured by Shawnee and forced to run a gauntlet while they hacked away at him with knives and tomahawks. Fortunately for Boone, he was really good at ducking and dodging.

In fiction, heroes are often required to run a gauntlet when they are forced to face off with one villain after another in quick succession. In Spider Man's 1964 annual, for instance, the web-slinger ran a gauntlet of enemies when he had to face off against the Sinister Six one by one. A DC Imaginary story we looked at not long ago had Batman running a gauntlet of booby traps set by Lex Luthor.

In Korak, Son of Tarzan #3 (May 1964), the Jungle Lord's spawn ends up running a gauntlet.

By the way, the cover image for this issue is for the other of the two Korak stories in this issue. Since it's impossible to look at that cover without wanting to know the story behind it, I promise I'll cover it on another day. But for now, we'll take a look at "Warrior's Test."

Gold Key's Korak stories were similar in many ways to their Tarzan stories, since both father and son had identical skill sets and spent most of their free time traveling through the jungle and stumbling into adventures. But for the first 11 issues of his own book, Korak differed from his dad by traveling with a sidekick. This was an ape named Pahkut, who popped up in at least one later issue as well during Korak's 45-issue run.

So when Pahkut and one other ape disappear from their tribe, Korak takes an immediate interest. During the ensuing search, he finds a big village located on a river island. The villagers are holding a young elephant prisoner. Like his dad, Korak is the friend of all elephants, so a rescue is in order.

This doesn't go well--Korak is overwhelmed by guards and captured. The villagers' queen then gives Korak a choice: he can either be fed to crocodiles OR he can take the warrior's test. Not surprisingly, he opts to take the test.

This involves Korak essentially running a gauntlet. He's given a spear, a bow and two arrows, then sent into a maze of thorn hedges. There he encounters two archers with four arrows. When he's able to outshoot them, he encounters a warrior in full armor (and discovers his spear is made from rotten and easily breakable wood).

Once past this guy, he finds himself facing off against Pahkut and the other missing ape, who have been starved and tortured to turn them vicious. But Pahkut knows his best friend, so they let Korak pass. (They themselves are chained to a wall, so Korak will have to come back later to free them.)

THEN there's a whopping big crocodile. But he's past the gauntlet after that, forming an army of apes and elephants to attack the village and free his friends.

The story was written by veteran writer Gaylord Du Bois and drawn by the great Russ Manning. It's a wonderfully compact tale, moving along quickly as it effectively tells its tale in just 10 pages.

Edgar Rice Burroughs created Korak in the novel The Son of Tarzan (serialized in All-Story Weekly in 1915/16, then published as a book in 1917). It's a great novel, but after than Korak was confined to a few cameos in the remaining books. I think Edgar Rice Burroughs found that Tarzan was more than awesome enough to carry the series without the need to bring in a proxy.

But Gold Key (and later DC Comics) discovered that Korak carries his own unique sub-set of awesomeness around with him, resurrecting the character to give him his own adventures. Whether father or son, you just can't keep a Lord of the Jungle down.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Favorite Story: "The Bet" 3/5/49

A superb and very emotional adapation of Anton Chekhov's short story.