Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Cloak and Dagger: "The Trojan Horse" 5/14/50

The OSS recruits a French cafĂ©’ singer named Gabrielle and smuggles her to Casablanca. Her mission is to rekindle a pre-war romance with a German officer, then feed him false information about the impending Allied invasion of North Africa. This is a cold-blooded ploy in of itself, but Gabrielle doesn’t yet know exactly how cold-blooded she’ll need to be before her mission can be accomplished.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

"A Complete Book-Length Scientifiction Novel!"

Read/Watch 'em in Order #48

By 1940, there were truck-loads of heroes running around the pulp magazines, fighting crime and saving the world on a regular basis. But though some of those heroes had science fiction trappings, few of them lived in a pure science fiction world.

Mort Weisinger--he who would one day rule over Superman at DC Comics--filled this hole when he created Captain Future. Initially set in the far-future year of 1990, when the entire Solar System had been colonized and all nine planets (yes, PLUTO was still a planet! Take that, real-life scientists!) were found to support life. It's during this time that Curt Newton is orphaned while still a baby and gets raised inside a hidden base on the Moon by a disembodied brain, a robot and a shape-changing android.

As an adult, Curt turns out to be surprisingly well-adjusted. He's a brilliant scientist and in perfect physical shape, so naturally, with his surrogate family as his assistants, he fights evil throughout the Solar System in the guise of Captain Future.

It's not really a secret identity, since everyone knows who he really is. But its easy to be forgiving of this--Captain Future is a pretty cool name. And if you are the smartest guy in all of space with a robot, an android and a disembodied brain for sidekicks, then you can darn well call yourself anything you please.

It's pretty obvious that Weisinger was unashamedly lifting ideas from Doc Savage. Clark Savage and Curt Newton parallel each other in a number of ways--raised by scientists and trained to physical perfection; dedicating their skills to battling evil; heck, Grag the Robot and Otho the Android even bicker with each other in the same manner Doc's friends Monk and Ham fight.

But the science fiction setting still gives Captain Future a unique feel. Besides, Weisinger made the wise choice of getting Edmond Hamilton to write the series.

Hamilton was the perfect choice. He created an internally consistent vision of our Solar System that might have little to do with scientific reality (even by 1940 standards), but by golly it's a fun place that is wildly imaginative and allows for a true sense of wonder.

When we first meet Captain Future and his gang, they've already built up quite a reputation for saving mankind. There are nifty references scattered throughout this first story to previous adventures--an "atomic trap" they avoided on Neptune; Curt being tied to a rock on the hot side of Mercury; and a conflict with "Mind Men" on one of Saturn's moons. It makes me wonder if Hamilton was borrowing a trick from Arthur Conan Doyle--who would often drop in intriguing references to cases Sherlock Holmes had worked in the past ("the giant rat of Sumatra!").

The first Captain Future tale is "Captain Future and the Space Emperor," published in the premier issue of the good captain's own magazine. (Winter 1940)  This would run for 17 issues before being cancelled in 1944. Captain Future stories, though, would continue to appear in Startling Stories magazine until 1951.

The Space Emperor is causing trouble on Jupiter. And, yes, Jupiter is inhabited. Go deep enough into the atmosphere and it becomes breathable, with land masses heated by internal radiation. Humans have to wear "gravitation equalizers" while on the planet, where they now co-exist with native Jovians (a squat green-skinned race with flipper-like hands and feet).

But Human/Jovian relations are a bit strained. First, a strange plague of atavism--humans reverting first into ape-like beasts and eventually into reptiles--is raging across the planet. The Space Emperor claims to be the "Living Ancient," a member of a highly advanced civilization that lived on Jupiter centuries ago. He's gotten many of the Jovians to worship him and he's convinced the natives that the humans are cursed and must be wiped out. This will leave him effectively in charge of the whole planet.

Captain Future is asked to look into this. He encounters the Space Emperor several times during the adventure, but quite literally has a hard time putting a hand on him..Though the villain's real identity is certainly a human being, he does have access to ancient Jovian technology. This is both the source of the atavism plague AND a device that renders him incorporeal, making it impossible to touch him or shoot him. It also makes getting away easy, as he can walk through solid rock or even dive into the ground. He also wears a suit that both hides his face and allows him to breath even when immaterial.

All this makes for a fun story that combines elements of several genres. There's the overt science fiction stuff, of course, but there's also a mystery to be solved in deducing the bad guy's real identity. And Jupiter is essentially a Frontier world that is analogous to the Old West, with the Jovians representing Indians.  There's even a grizzled tough-guy marshal keeping the peace in a remote Jovian town.

Hamilton makes good use of all the characters. While the good guys gather clues and avoid death traps, each of Curt's sidekicks gets a moment in the sun. Otho uses his shape changing abilities to mingle with the Jovians and gather some vital information. Grag joins Captain Future on an expedition that includes following a lava flow into a giant cavern, where the robot's strength and the fact that he doesn't need to breath allows him to save a few lives. Simon Wright (a scientist who is now a brain in a case after disease wrecks his body) develops a cure of the atavism.

Hamilton was a wonderful storyteller, able to introduce fantastic elements into his stories and then follow the ensuing consequences to their logical conclusions. Despite the deliberate analogy to the Old West, Hamilton creates a truly alien world with his version of Jupiter. This is highlighted by an exciting set piece in which Curt and Planet Police agent Joan Randell run into some dangerous fauna, as well as by passages such as this:

"The jungle was weird tonight! The drenching radiance of the four moons made it a fantastic fairyland of deep black shadows and dappled silver light. High overhead stretched the great tree-ferns' masses of feathery fronds, tipped with spore-pods. Gleaming bright in the moons towered the metallic copper-trees. The blindly swaying snake-vines hung like dark pendulous serpents from the branches."

There are passing references to tree-octopuses, balloon-beasts, stun-flowers and a giant ocean of lava big enough to swallow the Earth--all reminding us that this is an alien world full of bizarre dangers.

Captain Future gets off to a great start with this story. When he wraps up the case, he and his friends return to his secret base on the moon to await their next mission. Joan Randall and Ezra Gurney (the aforementioned grizzled marshal) are left behind, but they'll both be turning up again as well. The Solar System according the Captain Future is a dangerous place, so there's always plenty of heroic deeds that need to be done. We'll be looking at the next four Captain Future novels as part of the "In Order" series before moving on to something else.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Most Dangerous Game of World War II

A few years ago, I wrote a post describing that how--according to fiction--the world is full of evil Big Game Hunters.

Well, Our Army at War #196 is further proof of that. The issue includes a 9-page back-up story titled "Indians Don't Fight by the Book," featuring some typically wonderful Russ Heath art work. It's a World War II-era tale, but it manages to fit an evil Big Game Hunter into all the same.

The protagonist is a Seminole Indian named Joe Swamp Fox. He's having a hard time learning to drill and march or otherwise do things according to the book, which earns him the ire of his sergeant.  But Joe still knows how to fight--even if he doesn't fight the army way.

When his squad is ambushed, it's Joe who saves the day, though he gets captured while covering the escape of his buddies.

The local German commander is Colonel Kurz, who happens to be a big fan of Westerns and jumps at the chance to lead a "posse" on an Indian hunt. So Joe is given a bow and a knife, then given a head start before Kurz and two other Germans pursue him on horseback. Kurz, in the best tradition of Evil Big Game Hunters, is determined to show that the "inferior Redskin" can be defeated by the "German Aryan."

Well, that doesn't go well. Joe lays a false trail and gets the Germans to separate. This gives him a chance to kill one of them and get a rifle. From there, it's pretty easy to pot another German and then capture a now-wounded Kurz.

Rather than leaving Kurz to die, Joe then carries the German for miles through horrible weather back to the American lines.

The story is good one, carried mostly by Heath's magnificent art. I think it would have been better served as a longer story--perhaps even a 20-pager. That would have allowed the man-hunt to go on longer, building up a greater degree of suspense and excitement.

But it's still fun for what it is, allowing Colonel Kurz to join the ranks of Evil Big Game Hunters such as General Zaroff and Sebastian Moran.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

Last week's Jonah Hex cover was by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. Here's an equally excellent Batman cover by the same artist.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "The Palmer Method" 4/20/44

Some of the best episodes of Suspense were those which featured one of radio's best comedians playing a villain. This time, Ed Gardner (Archie from Duffy's Tavern) plays a criminal on the lam during the 1930s. He volunteers to fight in the Spanish Civil War to escape the cops, not realizing that he would be expected to actually fight in a real war. But a case of mistaken identity, his talent for forgery and a willingness to commit a murder might get him to safety and help him get some much needed money.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Disney meets Hitchcock

Walt Disney was above all else a storyteller and was quite capable of telling stories (or helping talented writers and directors tell stories) in live-action as well as animated films. The live-action films made by Disney during the 1950s & 1960s include some excellent stories. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Swiss Family Robinson are perhaps the best remembered, but other films such as In Search of the Castaways, The Great Locomotive Chase and Dr. Syn are equally wonderful.

In 1964, a rapidly growing up Hayley Mills starred in The Moon Spinners, based on a suspense novel by Mary Stewart. Like the other movies I've mentioned, it's a entertaining story, beautifully filmed on location in Crete. What makes it interesting, though, is that it really feels more like a Hitchcock film than a Disney film.

Hayley plays Nikky Ferris, who is vacationing in Crete with her aunt. She meets a young man she likes, but then finds him hiding out in an old church one morning with a bullet wound in his shoulder.

And so she finds herself neck-deep in an adventure, despite efforts by Mark--the wounded guy--to keep her out of it. Without at first knowing what's going on, she patches up Mark's wounds, helps him hide out, but then gets kidnapped by the villain (played with effective menace by Eli Wallach) and is tied up inside a windmill.

The sequence in which she--with a little help from others--escapes from the windmill is absolutely outstanding, perhaps the highlight of the film.

She and Mark end up on the run, hiding in some ancient ruins, before she finally learns that the whole thing involves stolen jewels. The story continues to move along briskly, coming to a conclusion aboard a yacht owned by a rather odd woman with a pet cheetah.

This last character is played by silent movie star Pola Negri, whom Walt Disney talked out of retirement to
play this one last role. This was a wise move on Disney's part--Pola brings a splendid eccentricity to the part.

The director was James Neilson, whose credits include other cool stuff such as 1963's Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow and around a gazillion TV episodes covering everything from The Donna Reed Show to Adam 12. With The Moon Spinners, he's definitely channeling Hitchcock. All the elements of Hitch's films are here: innocent bystanders caught up in a criminal scheme, visually striking action set pieces and quirky yet somehow believable characters. And it all comes together to make yet another great story.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Warworld and a Serving of Humble Pie

One of most appealing aspects of Superman is his humility. Here's a guy who is stronger, faster and smarter than just about everyone else, yet he clearly doesn't think of himself as better than anyone. As far as Kal-el is concerned, you and I are just as good and worthwhile as he is. Of course, with me that's understandable. But with the rest of you, it's a real sign that the Man of Steel is indeed humble.

So when Len Wein wrote DC Comics Presents #27 (November 1980), he was potentially crossing a line. In this story, an alien named Mongul makes his first appearance. He's kidnapped several of Superman's closest friends and will give them back only if Superman recovers a crystal key from another planet.

The planet is New Mars, where the Martian Manhunter and other Martians have settled. (In Pre-Crisis continuity, J'onn J-onzz was not the only surviving green Martian.) J'onn is tasked with guarding the key and never letting anyone take it.

It's clear from the start that Mongul is powerful and dangerous. But Superman is completely confident that he can take the key, get his friends back and still foil Mongul's future plans. Why? Well, because he's Superman! There's little he can't do.

An arrogant Superman? That can't be right. But Wein manages to make this work. Superman's over-confidence isn't because of a personal arrogance--it's a confidence born from knowing his own powers and always having saved the day in the past. It's just the right balance--Kal-el needs a lesson in humility, but there's never an indication that this is affecting his sense of right and wrong. He's just blindly assuming that he can handle anything that comes up on his own.

But he's wrong. By the end of the issue, the hostages are free, but Mongul has the key and now has control over Warworld--a huge artificial satellite with enough power to incinerate planets in seconds. Think Death Star times 1000 and you pretty much get the idea.

This leads us to the next issue. Superman has called in Supergirl for help and together they take on Warworld.

This issue is a great action set piece. Wein and artist Jim Starlin do an excellent job of giving us a sense of huge scale--we look at the images and we easily believe that the immense nuclear missiles could kill even a Kryptonian and that the laser guns can evaporate planets. The efforts to destroy Warworld eventually involves Supergirl flying to the next galaxy to build up sufficient speed to smash through Mongul's defenses.

She succeeds, but is knocked unconscious while still flying at many times the speed of light. With Warworld gone, Superman gives chase. This brings us to issue #29 and the conclusion of the story arc.

The pursuit of his unconscious cousin reaches such a high velocity that the two Kryptonians begin crossing over into other dimensions. Its a chase that might never have ended had not the Spectre popped up with a message from God Himself to stop already. In addition, the Spectre is there to finish teaching Superman the lesson that he had begun to learn two issues earlier--that power without thought or conscience is a terrible thing. Superman isn't allowed to act without thinking; to do anything without first considering the consequences. He's simply too powerful. He has to always make sure he uses those powers responsibly.

It's a great story arc, perhaps my favorite from DC Comics Presents run. Superman is presented as flawed in a believable way that does nothing to take away from the character's basic morality. The second and third parts of the story remind us of just how powerful Superman is, but still manages to present him with credible threats. It's a fun, exciting tale with some honest emotion built into it.

When DC Comics first re-booted their universe in 1986, one of the major changes was severely cutting back on Superman's power levels. To be fair, its a matter of opinion on whether this was a good or bad idea. After all, Golden Age Superman wasn't all that powerful compared to later versions (and had a much more aggressive personality) and the Golden Age stories are often excellent. But I think Superman is at his most fun when he has Silver and Bronze Age power levels. I understand that this makes him tricky to write for--it can be a challenge to come up with believable threats that can actually challenge a Kryptonian. But stories such as this one and other Superman stories I've covered prove that a good writer can make this happen. If you can have a Superman, then you can also have a Warworld. And THEN you have a good story.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

Jonah Hex got knocked out a lot. Maybe that's why he was always so grouchy.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

CBS Radio Mystery Theater: "The Sign of the Four" 3/8/77

Over a decade after the networks abandoned dramatic radio, CBS dipped its toe in the water for one last attempt to bring the medium back. CBS Radio Mystery Theater was quite excellent and produced a large number of original radio plays. Sadly, it failed to kindle a true revival of the medium.

Here's an excellent adaptation of the 2nd Sherlock Holmes novel.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Evil Robots and Dimensional Portals

Hal K. Wells was yet another of the many  Pulp Era writers who made a living churning out entertaining and imaginative stories. Wells specialized largely in science fiction. He's not well-remembered today and to an extant this is understandable. For every truly great writer that came out of the pulps such as Asimov and Heinlein, there are dozens who were merely good--or not very good at all. I'm a huge fan of early science fiction, but it's undeniable that some of it doesn't age well.

But even the stuff that not classic or ground-breaking can still make entertaining stories. One example of this
is Wells' story "The Gate to Xoran," published in the January 1931 issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science.

Blair Gordon is at a night club in Hollywood, mooning over the fact that his girl friend--famous actress Leah Keith--has broken up with him.

But nothing re-kindles romance faster than having your girl friend kidnapped by a killer robot from the planet Xoran. Try it sometimes--it works better than flowers or boxes of chocolate.

Actually, at first, it appears that Leah has just been kidnapped by an incredibly strong human, but after Gordon pursues them to a remote location, he throws a punch and discovers the crook is a robot in a human suit.

Gordon and Leah are soon tied up. In an undeniably awkward sequence, the robot then falls into the cliche of explaining his plans in detail, even throwing in a brief summary of the science involved. The mechanical menace is a scout from the planet Xoran, which is apparently populated by killer robots. He's arrived on Earth after a 450 year journey at the speed of light to scout out Earth for invasion. Now he's putting the finishing touches on a dimensional portal that will bring invading armies to Earth in an instance. Gordon and Leah are prisoners, by the way, because the robot always grabs a couple of local specimens for detailed study in the laboratories back on Xoran.

One escape attempt goes awry when the robot turns out to be immune to bullets. But if Gordon and Leah can work together, they can get loose a second time and maybe come up with a way to destroy the robot before it opens the portal.

Like other pulp stories I've written about in the past, "The Gate to Xoran" does its job by telling an entertaining story. And that's really not surprising. Toss a killer robot into a story and you really can't go wrong.

"The Gate to Xoran" is available to read online HERE.