Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

American Trail: "Lewis and Clark Expedition" 2/28/53

This is part of a 13-episode series that effectively recounted important events in American history.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

How to Make Money Out of World War II

The December 15, 1942 issue of The Shadow Magazine features a novel in which our hero faces one of the nastier villains of his career. Which is saying a lot, because the Shadow has run across some pretty nasty bad guys.

But Eric Zorva--aka "the Money Master"--manages to slip ahead of some of the others in the Official Nasty Index because of just how epic his evil scheme is in terms of sheer audacity.

Zorva is sort of an investor. He invests money by converting the currency of one nation into the currency of another. For instance, he'll take a million dollars, turn it into French francs, then later into German marks, and so on--increasing the value of the cash by taking advantage of fluctuating exchange rates.

Actually, just writing it out like that doesn't make Zorva sound all that insidious, does it? But remember that this is 1942. Zorva is making millions by essentially betting on who is going to win the Second World War. At the very least, he's exchanging currency based on who is winning at the moment. He has no particular political motive. He just wants to make money.

Aside from the fact that this often means he's making investments that help the Axis, by the time the Shadow picks up his trail he's dealing in such vast sums that his actions can be directly responsible for the rise and fall of governments and industries.

Also, he's okay with the idea of killing people to get his way and he's personally trained his minions to be knife-throwing experts. This is rarely if ever considered an ethical business tactic. So Zorva is indeed one nasty person.

But he's not the only bad guy around.  A dishonest private eye and a gangster have teamed up and are trying to horn in on Zorva's racket. A group of European vigilantes are also after Zorva. These guys look like they might be the Shadow's allies, but Zorva has a knife-throwing mole in the group.

And on top of all THAT, several European refugees who seem to be in danger just might have agendas of their own.

All this makes for a complex and satisfying Shadow story, with plot twists zipping by at a fast and furious pace.

But my favorite part of the novel does not at first involve the Shadow. At one point, four of his agents have been captured by the gangster. They're getting worked over by some thugs when the door to the room in which they are held is smashed open.

As the novel describes it: What knocked the door loose was [the] lookout... He came through catapulted by some unseen force, that he had tried to stem without success.

Enter Jericho Druke, the big African-American agent of the Shadow who had a habit of coming to the rescue of his fellow agents with true style. For instance, in a 1939 story, he helped the others in a brawl with some thugs by ripping a stove out of a wall and throwing it.

Jericho Druke is awesome.

He proves this again because in The Money Master, he's faced with a room full of thugs, all of whom are aiming pistols at him. There's too many. Unless he can miraculously take them all out simultaneously, he is going to be gunned down. He clearly doesn't have a chance.

Jericho Druke wins the fight. Using a rather unexpected but brutally efficient tactic (which I will not presume to spoil for you), he clears the room of villains in one move. Because Jericho Druke is indeed awesome.

Of course, it's a Shadow novel, so the Shadow takes the lead for most of the novel. But writer Walter Gibson always makes good use of the Shadow's agents, making them viable co-heroes. Jericho appears relatively infrequently, but he's one of my favorites.

It's interesting to compare Jericho with Josh and Rosabel Newton, assistants to the Avenger, whose adventures (like the Shadow) were also published by Street and Smith.  Josh and Rosebel were also black, but in a departure from most of the  popular fiction of the day, they were capable, intelligent agents who were treated as equals by the Avenger and the other members of Justice, Inc.

The Shadow's agents were also portrayed as capable and intelligent. But when Jericho Druke shows up, he was normally there just to beat the snot out of the bad guys. It's the other agents that actively assisted the Shadow in actual investigation. But, on the other hand, Jericho is regularly portrayed as beating the snot out of white people, which is in itself unusual for the time period. Besides, he's just so darn cool when he beats the snot out of bad guys--regardless of their color. And there's no denying that the tactics he uses to win fights demonstrate that he thinks a little faster than his opponents.

So is Jericho regulated to his specific role because of his skin color? Or is he placed in that role simply because that's where his skills are put to best use? I really don't know. But what I do know is that Jericho Druke will clear a room of armed men in the space of a few heartbeats if by doing so he saves the lives of his friends. I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

TV Tough Guys Come to Comics--Part 2

Between the radio version of Gunsmoke and the TV version, Matt Dillon racked up quite a body count. On television alone, there were 635 episodes produced and (until the last season or so when network TV was going through a "AHHHH--WE CAN'T SHOW ANY VIOLENCE!" phase without giving the issue any real rational thought) it was more common than not for Matt to drop at least one outlaw. I recently watched a 1967 episode titled "The Wreckers" in which Matt had killed five men before the end credits rolled .

He was also shot or otherwise wounded a total of 59 times during the run of the show and over the course of the TV movies made after the show ended. But that hardly ever slowed him up. Heck, in the excellent 3-parter "The Bullet," Matt is temporarily paralyzed with a bullet in his spine, but he still manages to drop two bad guys. Yes, Matt Dillon is indeed a tough guy.

What makes Matt a hero and a legitimate tough guy rather than a cold-blooded killer is the Old West setting, the quality of the stories and James Arness' excellent portrayal of the character. It was always obvious that Matt wasn't eager to kill, but it was only the legitimate necessity of self-defense or defending others that forced him to take lives. The body count got so high simply because the show lasted such a long time.

Dell Comics did five Gunsmoke stories in its Four Color anthology book before giving the show its own series. This lasted 22 issues, with the numbering beginning with 6. We'll be looking at Gunsmoke #8 (April-May 1958).

This is the only Gunsmoke issue I own, but the impression I get is that though Dell still successfully presented Matt as a tough guy, the comic toned down the body count. Comic books didn't shy away from showing people getting killed--but I think the family-friendly company simply didn't want the corpses piling quite as high in Matt's comic book adventures. For instance, the first story in the book--"The Taming of Bull Halloran"--has Matt shooting a gun out of someone's hand. That's the Lone Ranger's schtick, though, and doesn't comfortably fit into Gunsmoke's more realistic take on the Old West.

In the book's second story--"Six Gun Fury"--Matt again uses non-lethal force on two occasions to take down outlaws.

On the other hand, Dell Comics often didn't shy away from violence. Heck, they once ran a story about a bizarre monster that crushed children to death. So perhaps downplaying the violence just reflected the style of the uncredited writer rather than an editorial fiat. I honestly have no idea.

But even though I think the shooting-the-gun-out-of-his-hand bit doesn't belong in a Gunsmoke story, I'm largely okay with the lack of dead bodies in these stories. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier. Matt Dillon wasn't ever presented as blood-thirsty or casually quick on the trigger. When he killed, it was because he had to. The comic book still presents him as a tough lawman, willing to stand up to outlaws and make sure Dodge City is protected and the law is obeyed. He clearly knows the difference between right and wrong. That's the important part.

"Six Gun Fury" is the better of the two stories in this issue. Like many of the original TV and radio episodes, it introduces a couple of new characters and provides us with enough background to make them the focus of the story, using them to provide drama and suspense. In this case, this is an aging trapper named Buckskin Charlie and his young partner--an Indian named Young Bear. Young Bear's dad was Charlie's partner for 25 years and died saving Charlie from a grizzly. Charlie has saved enough money to buy a farm and plans to continue to raise Young Bear as a son.

But a couple of thugs at first decide to make the pair a target for bullying and later plan to outright rob them. This all comes to a head one evening in the town staples, with Charlie unconscious and Matt being held at gunpoint.

It's a well-constructed story that moves along briskly while still taking the time to give us Charlie's background. This is important, because it makes Charlie and Young Bear more than just two generic victims. It makes them actual people in our eyes, thus generating real concern for their safety. This is an especially deep concern for those of us familiar with the TV show, which did not shy away from tragic endings.

So Matt Dillon, like Paladin, fairs well in a comic book universe, remaining a tough guy and a hero. It is perhaps a tribute to how well the radio and TV shows presented Matt--in that the violence can be toned down in the comics and we don't see him as any less heroic.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Superman: "The Dead Voice" 9/25/46

This episode wraps up a story arc about a crooked politician, then launches into a brand new story in which Batman's young partner Robin is receiving threatening letters and phone calls--from a man who died two weeks earlier!

Click HERE to listen or download.

The rest of this story arc can be found HERE, but remember that you are only allowed to listen to one chapter per day or you'll spontaneously blow up.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"I then believed that all misguided or cruel people should be shot, and I shot some."

When Rex Stout created the obese detective Nero Wolfe, he was performing a rather delicate balancing act. Wolfe works as a detective only because he needs money to maintain his brownstone, care for his orchids and keep to a gourmet diet. Some of his most obvious traits are less-than-admirable. He's stubborn, sometimes a little childish, and is quite often a quarter-ton pain in the butt.

But if Wolfe was too obnoxious without any traits to balance this out, then we would get tired of visiting him. We might enjoy a few Nero Wolfe novels or novellas simply because they are nifty mysteries or because we like Archie Goodwin, but if we didn't like Wolfe, we wouldn't come back.

Of course, it probably helps that we spend most of our time with Archie and get Wolfe in relatively small doses.

So why do we like Nero Wolfe? There are a number of reasons, but one of them is that he does have a sense of right and wrong. He does have a code of honor, even if he doesn't care to admit to this if he doesn't have to. The novel Over My Dead Body (abridged in American Magazine in 1939; published as a novel in 1940) is perhaps the best example of this.

A recent immigrant from Montenegro needs Wolfe's help--she's been accused of theft by one of the clients of the fencing school at which she works. Wolfe's bank account is full at the moment, so he's not interested. But then it turns out the young lady might be Wolfe's adopted daughter.

We get to learn a little bit about Wolfe's background--that he wasn't always fat and that he spent a few years in what is now Yugoslavia during the World War. ("I then believed that all misguided or cruel people should be shot, and I shot some." One of the best lines ever.) While there, he stumbled across a starving three-year-old girl and took her in. Later, the two lost track of each other. Now she seems to be back.

So Wolfe sends Archie to the fencing school, despite the fact that no fee is likely to be collected. The theft thing is cleared up pretty quickly, but then a corpse turns up and Wolfe's daughter (if she is his
daughter) is a suspect. And the murder weapon turns up in the pocket of Archie's coat. It's the sort of thing that happens with surprising frequency to poor Archie.

What follows is a very faced-paced story. The action covers only two days (with Wolfe and Archie only getting a few hours sleep during this time), so there is an inherent excitement to everything. But the pacing never gets ahead of the story--when the complex mystery is finally sorted out, everything falls nicely into place. The twist at the end  is absolutely wonderful. Oh, and we learn that Wolfe is still perfectly capable of looking after himself in dangerous situations.

Along the way, Rex Stout has fun with his characters. Inspector Cramer realizes that Wolfe's clients always turn out to be innocent and that the corpulent detective often digs up vital information before the cops. So he eventually camps out in the brownstone, even following Wolfe up to the greenhouse during orchid-time.

But the best part comes in the last chapter, when Wolfe finally has time to talk to his daughter without worrying about solving a mystery. Boy, is that awkward. But its also legitimately sweet and if you want to know why people like Nero Wolfe despite all his annoying traits--well, here's your answer. It is this as well as the great mystery that makes it one of my favorite in the series.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Monster Society of Evil: Parts 16-20

When we last saw Captain Marvel, he was sitting atop a newly created volcano in Scotland to prevent it from erupting. And can I just pause here to remark that I loved writing that sentence?

Some of the locals manage to set up a volcano plug and the World's Mightiest Mortal is once again free to give chase to Mr. Mind. This time, the chase takes them underground, where Marvel discovers a civilization of Sub-Americans--who are apparently midget Pilgrims who moved underground a few centuries earlier.

I will pause again to remark that I love being able to write "midget Pilgrims" and have it make sense in context.

These guys keep Allied oil wells filled with oil and also had a back-up plan to put into effect if the Axis managed to conquer Europe. They had wired a giant cavern with tons of dynamite. If necessary, they could set this off and split the world in half, thus keeping the Western Hemisphere safe from the Nazis. Now that the Axis are losing, they no longer plan on blowing anything up, but they hadn't bothered to defuse the bomb. Apparently, midget Pilgrims aren't strong on safety procedures.

Naturally, Mr. Mind decides to light the fuse, forcing Marvel into a race against time to save the world.

This allows Mr. Mind to make a clean getaway. And it's at this point that, as much as I love this story, I think Otto Binder and C.C. Beck begin to lose a little momentum. Most of the next two issues involve the famous movie director Mr. Hitchblock making a movie about Mr. Mind--with the intent of helping reminding people just how dangerous the little worm is. The ensuing story, in which Mr. Mind hijacks the studio and attempts to make his own movie, is funny enough. But the momentum of the tale in terms of telling an adventure story is lost. There's no feeling of immediacy to the danger and the emphasis on humor detracts from the superhero stuff. That's a judgement call, of course. The story was already filled with humor. But I think that here the balance shifted just a little too far in that direction.

Also, Mr. Mind suddenly shifts from being a cunning villain to a big cry-baby, breaking into tears whenever something goes wrong. It's already hard enough to be threatening when you are a one-inch-long worm. You don't want a tendency to whine making this even harder.

The movie shenanigans are followed by Mr. Mind employing a "Back Death Ray," only to discover that it only works on metal, not on people. He follows this up with a plan to fool the general population into supporting him by publishing a propaganda book titled "Mind Kampf." (Which actually is pretty funny.) Part of this plan is using a minion named Evil Eye to hypnotize Billy Batson and force him to help run the printing press.

But that plan goes awry as well. Interestingly, Captain Marvel Adventures #41 (chapter 20) concludes with Mr. Mind about to get crushed in a printing press. It's rare to have the villain, not the hero, involved in the cliffhanger.

There is one bizarre moment I want to specifically mention. At one point in the story, Captain Marvel is about to finally catch Mr. Mind. But the clever worm escapes by putting his glasses on a normal caterpillar. This is enough to fool a man who's been given the Wisdom of Solomon.

Actually, I'm okay with that--it fits right in with the absurdist feel of the entire story arc. But when Marvel thinks he's holding the real Mr. Mind in his fist--he does this:

Yes, in an act of brutal vigilante justice that is worthy of the Punisher (30 years before the Punisher would be created), Captain Marvel simply squishes the bad guy. (Or at least thinks he does.) Gee whiz, even the SQUISH sound effect looks pretty graphic! I actually don't care for this--the inherent brutality is both out-of-character for Captain Marvel and sounds a false note in a story that otherwise drips with innocent fun.

Then again, Mr. Mind has been working closely with the Nazis--real-life and purely evil villains who slaughtered millions of innocent people. Maybe it wasn't possible to keep the story completely innocent. All the same, that SQUISH is just unpleasant.

Well, we'll just have to wait and see if things pick up for the last five chapters of "The Monster Society of Evil."

You can read the entire epic HERE.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Adventure Ahead: "Two Years Before the Mast" 8/5/44

Adventure Ahead was a Saturday morning children's show. This episode takes the title of Richard Henry Dana's account of sailing on a merchant ship and pretty much builds an original story around it. It's a good story, though.

Click HERE to listen or download.

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