Monday, January 27, 2020

Friday, January 24, 2020

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: "Five Cartridges for Change" 3/1/44

A really strong, well-constructed story involving escaped convicts, a treasure map hidden inside a bullet and lots of double-crosses amongst the bad guys.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Gracie Allen Murder Case

During the depth of the Depression, the popularity of S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance novels is credited with keeping the Scribners publishing company afloat. But, ironically, the Vance novels influenced better writers to create better detectives, most notably Ellery Queen. By the late 1930s, their popularity was dwindling.

It's easy to see why this happened. The Vance novels simply don't hold up, with the protagnoist coming as more annoying than smart. The worshipful admiration he receives from police and the D.A. gets tiresome and the mysteries themselves are so-so.

Philo Vance movies had been popping up--made by different studies--since 1929. In 1938, Van Dine was a bit strapped for cash, so he cut a deal to write The Gracie Allen Murder Case, in which Vance would team up with the ditzy comedienne to solve a crime. Gracie's husband and partner George Burns would put in an appearance as well, but the novel would focus primarily on Gracie and Vance. The movie version, with Warren William playing Vance for the third time, was released the next year.

I had to read the Vance novels when I wrote Radio by the Book and I won't subject myself to that torture a second time--not even to revisit the admittedly unique Gracie Allen novel. But Vance has always been more likeable in his movie (and radio) versions than in his novels, so I had no problem watching the movie after searching for years to find a copy. The movie is simply funny, with Gracie bringing her brand of chaos to what is a fairly well-constructed murder mystery.

George isn't in the movie, leaving Gracie free to fall for Bill Brown (Kent Taylor), a perfume maker who is soon accused of murder. Gracie finds Bill's cigarette box near the body and both end up in the slammer. Gracie is released soon after Philo Vance, who believes Bill is innocent, takes up the case.

The dead man was murdered with a rare poison, which is soon used to kill someone else. There is, in fact, several items that are poisoned being unwittingly found and carried around by Gracie, including a cigarette and a bottle of perfume.

Vance eventually puts the clues together and confronts the killer, but by then the poisoned cigarette has ended up in Vance's case. Gracie has to convince a motorcycle cop to race her across town in time to save Vance's life just as he's solving the murder.

Gracie is typically wonderful playing her ditzy counterpart, while Warren William drops into the straight man role with aplomb. There is a pretty good mystery hidden inside this movie, but mostly its an excuse to let Gracie be Gracie, which is always hilarious. 

The Gracie Allen Murder Case is indeed unique, but Vance is indeed a strong protagonist in all his movies. As difficult to read as the original novels are, S.S. Van Dine apparently had a worthwhile detective hero hidden in their somewhere. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Man of Steel and the Boy Wonder

cover art by Neal Adams

World's Finest usually featured a Superman/Batman team-up, but the 200th issue (February 1971) switched things up a bit by teaming Supes with Batman's sidekick Robin. This was the original Dick Grayson Robin, who by this time was attending college but was still a few years away from changing his hero identity to Nightwing.

Team-up stories with Superman can be tricky, because the guy is so darn powerful that a partner often seems superfluous. But clever writers on World's Finest and (later) DC Comics Presents often came up with clever plot twists that justified Superman's need for an often underpowered partner. Writer Michael Friedrich and artist Dick Dillon manage to do so in this particular issue.

Clark Kent is covering student protests at Hudson University, changing into Superman when someone tosses a firebomb. In a nice touch that demonstrates Friedrich understands Superman's essential character, the Man of Steel deescalates the situation with a minimum of violence.

But not everyone calms down. Two brothers named Marty and Davy have started slugging each other over their political differences. Robin is trying to break up the fight when Superman steps in. Then all four are abruptly transported to another planet.

This is where we meet this issue's bad guys. Two alien brothers named Migg and Kartal have a bad habit of using a teleporter to kidnap super-powered beings, subdue them with mental bolts, then slowly drain the life force of their captives to keep themselves from aging. As long as they have a regular supply of super-beings to drain, they effectively have immortality.  They also maintain a hideout for intergalactic criminals.

Superman has so much raw power that he represents an immortality jackpot. He and his fellow kidnappees are knocked out. Robin and the two brothers are tossed into a near-by jungle, with the brothers charging some of their criminal guests a fee for human-hunting privileges.

The character arc for Marty and Davy is predictable right from the first panel in which they appear. The moment they appear, any alert reader will know that the adventure they're about to have will teach them to respect each others' differing opinions and political viewpoints. But even if we consider this a weakpoint, the story has a number of strong points as well. The M.O. and purpose of the aliens is a unique one, providing a believable way of getting Superman in trouble and giving a non-powered hero the task of saving him. Also, Dick Dillon draws a jungle that has a strong "alien planet" vibe, giving the story a fun setting.

Robin and the brothers find themselves in this jungle, pursued by alien big game hunters who wear headbands that increase their mental powers. But Robin uses his gymnastic skills to get the drop on them. This nets the humans the headbands as they proceed to sneak into the alien fortress.

In another neat twist, Superman appears to break free from the life-draining machine, trashing portions of the base before being subdued again by mental bolts. This later turns out to be an illusion--Superman was allowed to think he was escaping to convince him escape was impossible.

Well, escape might be impossible, but rescue isn't. A batarang throw knocks out a couple of guards, then Robin and the brothers jump Migg and Kartal. Robin frees Supes, who then gets into a "mental bolt match" with the aliens to take them down. After trashing the life-draining device (which means justice will come to the alien brothers via rapid aging and death), the good guys teleport back to Earth.

I do think this is overall a strong story built on several very clever ideas. The predictability of the human brothers' story arc isn't that much of a glitch. But the final confrontation with Migg and Kartal does bother me. Superman has a wide range of powers, but that doesn't normally include mental bolts. I suppose the "I out-thought them!" line that Supes has in the last panel could be interpreted as meaning he simply overwhelmed them with his own will-power. That's fine by itself, but it's not clearly explained and we do seem him shooting mental bolts out of his head. There's nothing to clearly indicate that this is supposed to be symbolic.

I suspect that this is something that will not bother some readers as much as it bothers me. And it doesn't ruin an otherwise good story for me, so I guess I should just stop whining abou it anyways. We still get to see the Boy Wonder doing back flips through a pretty cool alien jungle. That should be enough to satisfy anyone.

Next week, it's back to the Wild West in the Marvel Universe to visit with the original Ghost Rider.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Friday, January 17, 2020

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dark Fantasy: "The Sea Phantom" 2/6/42

The captain of an 18th Century ship is determined to do his duty and protect the treasure he is carrying... even if that duty were to last for an eternity.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Venus: The Jungle Planet--Part 2

cover art by Rudolph Belarski

Leigh Brackett's Space Opera version of the Solar System is by far my favorite and she also gave us a Venus covered by tropical jungles and dangerous natives.

It's ironic, though, that the Venus-themed story by her I choose at random involves those jungles in only the most cursury way. Most of the story is set in orbit above the planet's sultry atmosphere.

"Interplanetary Reporter" was published in the May 1941 issue of Startling Stories, edited by future Superman editor Mort Weisinger. The main character is a war correspondent named Chris Barton, who was in the Venusian city of Vhia when war is declared between Venus and Jupiter. 

Vhia is a domed city, protecting the Earth-descended population from the heat and rain of the surrounding jungles. But when a bombardment from space cracks the dome and lets in that heat and rain, it looks like the city is doomed.

Barton himself have been trying to quit his job. Years of covering wars had left him too cynical to believe that what he did had any value other than provide a spectacle for the "boobs." 

Beyond the dome of pearly glass, on the other side of Venus, lay the swamp where he had left his boyish illusions, covering the Leng campaigns. Out beyound the steam canopy of clouds was Mars, where he had stood by a tele-transmitter until it was blown up under him, covering the Martian World War of 2504.

A protagonist who has been lost to cynicism or moral decay only to find himself again during the story is a common theme in Brackett's short stories, but she handles it well pretty much every time.  On this occasion, Barton finds himself with two other people, flying into space in a ship equipped with cameras and transmitters, hoping to get images of the Jovian fleet. One is a daredevil female Venusian/Martian pilot. The other is a terrified fellow reporter. 

But they don't find Jovian ship, but rather a ship painted black to hide it against the background of space while it lobs bombs down on Vhia. The current political situation involving the planets is complicated. Is there another faction involved, intent on seeing that the war between Venus and Jupiter doesn't end in negotiations? Someone who wants the fighting to continue until one side or the other wins?

By the time Barton deduces what is going on, his fellow reporter acts with courage despite his obvious fear and reminds the cynical reporter of the value of idealism. Now all he has to do is survive an orbital dogfight while in an unarmed ship and he can get back to Venus with information that will stop a war.

"Interplanetary Reporter" is a fast-paced and exciting story in which Brackett does some very effective and believable world-building with just a few words. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Shipwrecks and Rescues

Gaylord Du Bois wrote many Tarzan and Korak stories for Dell and Gold Key. He often lifted a plot element or character from ERB's original novels and re-used them in his own stories.

For instance, in the 1940 story "The Quest of Tarzan" (re-titled Tarzan and the Castaways when collected into a book in 1964), Tarzan is injured and temporarily loses the ability to speak. He's captured and caged aboard a ship by villains who intend to make money displaying him as a "wild man." The ship is eventually wrecked upon a reef during a storm, thrusting Tarzan and other survivors into another adventure.

So the "captured and unable to speak" bit was simply to get Tarzan into the larger story. In Korak Son of Tarzan #35 (May 1970), Du Bois and artist Dan Spiegle take this incident away from Tarzan and give it to Korak, once again using it to introduce the protagonist into a larger adventure.

When Korak finds his friend, the ape Akut, a prisoner, he attempts to free him. But he himself is shot by the captors. The bullet grazes his head and leaves him unable to use human speach, though he can still manage ape talk.

As it turns out, Korak's inability to speak is a legacy left over from the Tarzan story, but has no effect on the plot here. It only lasts a few pages until a storm drives the ship onto some rocks. A dunking in the ocean seems to have cured him.

Korak, Akut and a another captive of the slavers named Daniel Moray are the only survivors and manage to salvage a boat. Daniel, it turns out, had fallen into the hands of the slavers while trying to find his son Harry, who had been captured earlier by the same guys.

Well, nobody in the Greystoke family is going to turn down an opportunity to help with a quest like that. When they make it to the coast, they begin to follow a river that should lead them to the guy who bought Harry from the slavers. It's probably a bit of a coincidence that the slaver ship was wrecked near such a convenient spot, but such coincidences are as long a tradition in the Greystoke family as helping those in need.

After some minor adventures, they find the city in which Harry is imprisoned by the local sultan. That panel above, by the way, is a magnificent example of how much fun Spiegle's art could be.

This has been a solid story so far. If I wanted to nit-pick, I could complain that Du Bois waited a little too long before they found Harry. With the page count for the story nearly reached, his rescue from the city goes a little too quickly and smoothly to be as exciting as it could be. But it is still fun to read, with Akut knocking out a guard and Korak knocking out the sultan before they steal the sultan's private plane and make a getaway.

Despite the rushed ending, "The Slave of El-Ghazi" is a solid, straightforward adventure which borrows an element from Tarzan's adventures to use as a jumping-off point for a brand-new tale.

Next week, the Man of Steel teams up with the Boy Wonder.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Stan Freberg Show: "Abominable Snowman Revisited" 9/8/57

The "Washington Crossing the Delaware" skit in this episode is a perfect example of how to set up a really bad joke so effectively that it circles around being bad to become an hilarious joke.

Click HERE to listen or download.
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