Wednesday, December 31, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--November 1962, part 2

Journey into Mystery #86

In the 23rd Century, a scientist named Zarrko (aka the Tomorrow Man) is bored with universal peace and harmony. Using a time machine, he comes back to the 20th Century to steal a nuke and have himself some fun.

Thor calls on his father Odin for the power to pursue Zarrko back to the future, where he finds the villain has used the threat of the bomb to take over the world. Some tussles with giant robots and death rays quickly ensue.

It’s nice that Lee and Kirby continue to remind us that Thor is a part of the whole Norse pantheon. It’s continued to be made clear that Thor has a history stretching back to before he reappeared on Earth as part of a shared identity with Donald Blake. As I’ve stated in previous issues, it’s when Lee and Kirby decide to build on this concept that Thor will get really, really good. Until then, though, we’re still being presented with pretty good plots and excellent visuals.

Strange Tales #102

A super-scientist called the Wizard decides to battle and defeat the Human Torch, pretty much just to prove that he can. He manages to capture Johnny and then, wearing a special suit that allows him to simulate the Torch’s powers, he goes on a criminal rampage. But, with a little help from the Invisible Girl, the Torch gains the upper hand in the end.

The whole Johnny-has-a-secret-identity thing, a direct contradiction of how he’s portrayed in the FF, is still getting on my nerves. The Wizard’s motivations are weak and his plan is silly.

Perhaps the silliest moment comes when he captures the Torch. He’s sprayed the Torch’s body with water. Only the Torch’s head is still flamed on, preserving Johnny’s secret identity. All the Wizard has to do is spray a little water on Torch’s head to find out who he is. Instead, he goes through a complex plan to discredit Johnny and blackmail him into revealing is identity. AS IF JOHNNY IS EVEN SUPPOSED TO HAVE A SECRET IDENTITY!!!!

Oh, well, at least we get another regular FF villain onto the scene. Though the Wizard doesn’t acquit himself very well this time around, he’ll eventually build himself up into a reasonable threat in future issues of the Fantastic Four.

Next time, we’ll start our look at December 1962. Namor comes back to bother the FF; Johnny continues to get on my nerves; Ant Man meets the closest thing to an arch-enemy he’ll ever have; and Thor takes a thematic step backwards to battle Communists.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Generations of Sinbads

I love continuity. I love it when a fictional universe—be it from comic book, prose or film—maintains its own consistent internal logic. Middle Earth is like that. So is Narnia and Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age. Future History SF novels by Poul Anderson and Larry Niven are also good examples. DC and Marvel comics used to do this, but have quite sadly tossed away all sense of internal continuity in recent years.

In fact, I love continuity so much, I even apply it to situations that don’t really need it. Take the three Sinbad movies made between 1958 and 1977 by stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen.

In each of these movies, Sinbad has to at some point rescue his one true love from danger. The trouble is that each movie has a different true love. The first time around, it’s the princess of Baghdad. Second time out, it’s a slave girl he acquires, then sets free. The third time, it’s another princess—this time from the city of Charak.

Also, none of the actors playing Sinbad come even close to looking like each other.

So, of course, the most sensible thing to do is simply presume the three movies are set in three separate but similar universes, in which parallel versions of Sinbad are having their own adventures, with each finding his one true love.

But, gee whiz, what fun is that? After all, with the special effects being done by the same guy in each film—and said effects being the heart of each film—isn’t there a way we can jam the stories into the same universe?

Well, of course there is. One way might be to presume that Sinbad’s ladies keep dropping dead of the Black Plague or something between movies. But Sinbad is a high-adventure, swashbuckling-type hero and that sort of inherent tragedy just doesn’t seem to fit him.

So let’s take another route. We’ll start with 1958’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Kerwin Mathews stars as the heroic sailor, battling a couple of Cyclops, a dragon, a skeleton and a few other unlikely creatures in order to save his girl friend from a curse.

It’s a wonderful movie, with the look and feel of a fairy tale. Mr. Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations have real personality to them and Sinbad’s sword duel with a skeleton is perhaps tied with a Cyclops-dragon fight as the visual highlight of the film.

Sinbad rescues his lady in the end and they get married. Presumably, Sinbad is now a prince of Baghdad.

So let’s now presume that Sinbad has a son. Sinbad II grows up and, taking after his dad, becomes a skilled sailor and leader of men. But Sinbad II doesn’t want to just kick back and inherit his wealth and position. He wants to earn his own way. So, with his father’s blessing, he sails away with his own ship and crew to seek his own fortune.

That leads us up to 1974’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. This is my personal favorite of the three Sinbad films—perhaps because it’s the first Harryhausen film I saw in a theater. But it’s also got a good cast, with John Philip Law the most authoritative of the Sinbads and Caroline Munro looking beautiful enough to make most men’s eyeballs melt right out of their sockets. Tom Baker—who would soon after play my favorite Dr. Who on the British television series of that name—does a highly entertaining turn as the villain. The movie’s got a well-constructed plot as well, involving a quest to be the first to find a valuable treasure. The visual highlight is towards the end, when a gigantic cyclopean centaur fights a griffin, then goes up against Sinbad and his men immediately afterward.

Anyways, this Sinbad marries Caroline Munro after the movie ends—the lucky dog. They have a son, Sinbad III, who grows up to look like John Wayne’s son Patrick.

Sinbad III falls in love with the princess of Charak. (Apparently, Sinbads fall in love with royalty on alternate generations.) But when the princess’s brother is turned into a baboon, Sinbad immediately goes on a quest to find a cure.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) is the weakest of the Sinbad movies. Patrick Wayne doesn’t seem to be having as much fun in the role as Mathews or Law and there is some weak storytelling inherent in the script. But Mr. Harryhausen’s monsters are still too cool for words. The climax, involving a fight between a giant troglodyte and a saber-toothed tiger, is among his best work.

So Sinbad III returns from his quest and marries his lady love. (Who, by the way, looks like Jane Seymour. How lucky can a Sinbad be?) Did they produce a Sinbad IV? One would hope so. The world can never really have enough Sinbads.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--November 1962, part 1

Fantastic Four #8

Gee whiz, the Puppet Master is one creepy looking guy.

He’s got a creepy M.O. as well, using radioactive clay to make puppets of real people, who he is then able to mentally control via the puppet.

This is really Ben Grimm’s issue. He meets the love of his life---Alicia Masters, the blind step-daughter of the Puppet Master—and takes yet another major step to leaving aside his bitterness and accepting life as the Thing.

In the meantime, there lots of mental control; lots of breaking free from mental control; and lots of good action as the FF deals with a mass prison escape; all leading up to the Puppet Master falling to his (presumed) death. He’ll be back, though. The Puppet Master will prove to be a fun enough creation to call for an occasional return appearance.

Hulk #4

When we last saw Hulk and his only friend, teenager Rick Jones, we weren’t certain if big guy would ever again turn back into Bruce Banner. But we need not have worried, as Rick manages to use some some of Bruce’s hidden equipment to turn him human once again. In fact, the situation really changes as Bruce briefly retains his own personality and intelligence when he becomes the Hulk once again. But the Hulk’s more savage personality reasserts itself in time for him to fight Mongu, the Gladiator from Outer Space.

Mongu turns out to be a robot operated by a Communist soldier as part of a plot to capture the Hulk for study behind the Iron Curtain. That proves to be a really bad idea.

By the end of this issue, Bruce is able to use machinery to turn into the Hulk as needed, then back to a human being again. It seems that Lee and Kirby are still playing around with the character, not yet sure what works best as they try out different things. The Hulk, at this point, is still very much a work-in-progress.

Tales to Astonish #37

The Protector, clad in a mechanical suit to amplify his suit and wielding an apparent disintegrator pistol, is forcing local merchants to cough up protection money. Ant Man looks into things and, despite at one point being vacuumed up by the bad guy, manages to put a stop to the racket.

There’s really not much to say about this issue (a situation that will probably reoccur when we cover future Ant Man stories). The Ant Man is a perfectly good character and the stories are entertaining, but this comic simply isn’t reaching the same level of originality and character development that we are seeing in the Fantastic Four (and will soon see in Spider Man). I don’t want to sound like I’m dumping on the story or the character---it’s still good stuff. Just not truly great stuff.

Next week, we’ll visit with Thor and the Human Torch to finish up November 1962.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

It's embarassing to admit it, but until just a few nights ago, I'd never watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in its entirety.

I'm supposed to be a classic black-and-white movie guy. I'm supposed to be a huge fan of director John Ford, who could compose a scene on screen with a higher sense of artistry and beauty than pretty much anyone else ever. I'm supposed to be a fan of both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart Westerns. But I had never before seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance straight through. It was downright embarassing.

Well, I've fixed that by popping the DVD into my laptop the other night. Of course, I know about the film because it's impossible to know anything about classic films without knowing about this one. So I'm not surprised that it turned out to be every bit as good as it's reputed to be. Its highly intelligent, multi-faceted script is backed up by great performances, direction and photography.

It's also got the most loathsome villain ever to appear on film. Lee Marvin plays Liberty Valance as a violent bully, without a single apparent redeeming quality. All the same, Valance seems like a real person (and consequently, a real threat). Marvin is always memorable in villain roles--endowing such characters with individual (if evil) personalities.

He also does a great death scene when he's shot, staggering about just a little bit before finally collapsing. This was typical of the actor as well--watch him in Seven Men from Now and The Comancheros to see other examples of how Lee Marvin looks cool even when he was dying.

Marvin's sidekicks in Liberty Valance are played by Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef, two of the many great character actors that used to give American films so much heart. Martin is a sadistic little runt in this movie, letting out a high-pitched laugh whenever the perpetually angry Liberty Valance starts whipping someone. Van Cleef is the guy who has to pull Valance away from the whipping and remind him it's time to leave--we never get the impression that he feels sympathy for Valance's victim, merely that he's being practical. These guys just aren't taking up space in front of the camera--like Valance, they are giving their characters real personality. It all helps add to the versimilitude of the movie.

One other actor deserves mention--Edmund O'Brien plays Dutton Peabody, a drunken but still honest newspaperman and (eventually) reluctant politician. O'Brien really hams it up in this role, but also makes Peabody likable and--despite the character's many faults--worthy of our respect.

I'm glad I finally got around to seeing this one straight through.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe, October 1962, part 2

Journey into Mystery #85

Thor’s universe begins to expand as this issue immediately takes us to Asgard, where we meet Loki, the god of Mischief, and get our first real indication that Donald Blake really is Thor, rather than just gaining Thor’s power. (Loki mentions that Thor imprisoned him on Asgard long ago, but has been missing from that place himself “for ages.”)

Loki escapes from Asgard and locates Thor on Earth. He briefly succeeds in hypnotizing the Thunder God, but Thor is soon himself again, resulting in a well-illustrated chase through and over New York City, with various acts of magic and feats of strengths tossed into the mix. Finally, Thor sends Loki back to Asgard in abject defeat.

This was a fun and important new direction for Thor to take. Not only does he meet his arch-enemy, but it’s established that he is literally a part of the Norse Pantheon. This will gradually open up storytelling directions that will allow Jack Kirby’s magnificent art to reach new heights of imagination.

Strange Tales #101

When this story opens, we find out that Sue Storm and her brother Johnny live (at least when not on missions with the Fantastic Four) in the suburb of Glenville. Everyone knows Sue is the Invisible Girl, but no one suspects Johnny is the Human Torch.

Huh? Waitaminute—over in the FF’s book, none of the four have secret identities. None of them wear masks and, in fact, in this month’s issue of Fantastic Four, they all appeared at a nationally televised ceremony at the U.S. Capital. Including Johnny. Without a mask or anything to hide his identity!!!!! But in Glenville, nobody suspects Johnny—the sister of the Invisible Girl—is the Human Torch. The general population of Glenville seems to be a few bricks shy of a full load, don’t they?

It’s a continuity glitch that will annoy me to no end throughout this series. In this story, someone is trying to sabotage the rides at a new local amusement park. Johnny keeps having to cause silly distractions so he can flame on without anyone noticing, allowing him to save the day when the rides start to act up. Eventually, he figures out who the mastermind behind the sabotage is and reveals it all to be yet another Communist plot. Blah, blah, blah.

Oh, well. As the series progresses, there will be some fun stories and we’ll get to meet some villains who will later go on to tangle with the entire Fantastic Four. Next month’s issue, in fact, will introduce us to the Wizard, who will eventually found the Frightful Four.

With this entry, we’ve covered the first full year of the Modern Marvel era. So far, the world has met the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Ant Man and Thor. Spider Man has made his debut, but his return to superheroics is still a few months away. Important villains so far introduced include Dr. Doom, Mole Man, Loki and the Skrulls. Prince Namor, originally created in 1940, has returned to take part in events once again. We’ve been invaded by aliens on at least three occasions and the U.S. seems to be infested with more Commie spies than you can shake a canister of reducing gas at.

Next week, we’ll start our look at the second year of Marvel heroics. Thor will take a trip to the future; the Fantastic Four (via their own book and the Human Torch’s solo adventures) will add a couple more villains to their rapidly growing rogue’s gallery; the Hulk will deal with some more of those pesky Commies; and Ant Man will take on a protection racket.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Avenging your dad and regaining your throne--all via the roll of a die.

I'm not immune to the appeal of computer games. I've got a couple for my laptop (the only computer I own) and I've wasted a lot of time at a local comic book shop, blasting away at Nazis in Call of Duty 2.

But I still prefer board games to computer games. And if I can't find a live opponent, I'll occassionally break out one of several well-designed solitiare board games I still have kicking around my home.

One of the nifter ones is Barbarian Prince, which was published in 1981. In this game, you play, well, a barbarian prince whose father has been murdered by usurpers. You escape with nothing but your sword and a few gold pieces. You have 10 weeks in which to raise 500 gold pieces in order to hire an army to regain the throne. Take any longer and your enemies have gained too much strength to defeat.


Each turn represents one day and allows you to move one hex (farther if you have a mount) on the map. Every time you move, you roll dice to check to see if you got lost, then check to see if you encounter something. You also have to buy or hunt for food.


It's the variety of possible encounters that make the game fun. There's a booklet full of them and each individual encounter can have a number of possible outcomes. You might run into a drawf, for instance. The drawf might then do anything from attack you to join you to simply ignore you.


Perhaps you spot a herd of wild horses and then have the option of spending a day catching and training one of them. Perhaps you'll be attacked by a pack of wolves. Perhaps you'll run across an isolated farm, then must decide to bypass it, attack and loot it, or simply make nice and maybe buy some food.


If you reach a ruins, you can search it for treasure. You may indeed find a treasure. But you might also get attacked by orcs, stumble across a dragon or have an ancient crumbling wall fall on top of you.


If you reach a town or castle, you can appeal to the local lord for help, but he might just get annoyed with you and toss you in his dungeon. Maybe you'll hear a rumor of a buried treasure or maybe the priestess at a temple will fall in love with you (giving you an opportunity to run off with both her and the temple jewels).


Sometimes you'll build up a motley crew of followers to help you out. More often than not, though, you'll trudge through the wilderness alone, depending on your wits and your sword to see you through.


The game is simple in its mechanics and the map is well-designed. A lot of dice rolling is required to generate encounters, but the game overall has real personality to it. Whenever I get in the mood to play, I usually end up running through it 8 or 10 times. It's hard to win--dying a horrible, lonely death is the usual outcome. But that keeps it challenging and, hey, no one ever said being an exiled barbarian prince was easy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--October 1962, part 1

Fantastic Four #7

In this issue, the FF are kidnapped and taken to a doomed planet about to be hit by an asteroid. Reed is asked to come up with a way to save the five billion inhabitants.

There’s some nice moments of interaction between the main characters here—most notably in that Ben Grimm is still growing less overtly bitter (though he still remains perpetually grouchy) and he’s starting to show his sense of humor. Kirby’s layouts are typically fun; the plot unfolds logically; and Reed’s solution to the problem at hand is actually very clever.

In a way, though, this issue is just filler as we await yet another major addition to the cast of the Fantastic Four. Because it will be in issue #8 that Ben Grimm will find himself a girlfriend.

Tales to Astonish #36

As this issue begins, Ant Man is helping the police to open a bank safe in which two would-be robbers have been trapped. We discover that between issues, Ant Man has been helping out the cops and the Feds quite a bit, mysteriously showing up whenever he’s needed.

He’s got ants all over the city alerting him to trouble via his cybernetic helmet. He then shrinks down, stuffs himself into a miniature catapult and shoots himself to wherever in the city he needs to be. A bunch of ants wait for him at his landing point, cushioning his fall with their bodies.

It’s odd how we as individual readers react at different levels of willingness to suspend disbelief. I’ve got no problem with shrink gas and electronic communications with ants, but that catapult gets on my nerves. I don’t think I can even explain why—it just does. Oh, well, before too many issues go by, it’ll be phased out.

Anyway, the main plot involves Communist agents trying to lure Ant Man into a trap. Not a bad story, but not really that memorable either. Though the Ant Man stories will continue to be entertaining for what they are, the lack of memorable or challenging villains will continue to be a flaw in the series for quite a while.

Next week, we’ll finish off October 1962 with a look at what Thor is doing to keep busy, and we’ll also follow along with a member of the Fantastic Four on his first solo adventure.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

How do you get from the Transporter Room to the Bowling Alley?

I love blueprints and cutaway images of fake stuff. The seven-year-old still buried not all that deep inside me loves the opportunity to figure out how to get from, for instance, the Intergalatic Zoo inside Superman's Fortress of Solitude to the room where the Phantom Zone projector is located.
Hey, you never know when this sort of information might save your life.
I've got a blueprint of the Fortress of Solitude in the recently-reprinted "Superman Encyclopedia." I've got a blueprint of the Millenium Falcon in the rulebook for an old version of the Star Wars Roleplaying game, so if Han Solo ever needs me to man one of the gun turrets, I'm ready to go.
I've got blueprints of the submarine Seaview from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, so if Captain Crane or Admiral Nelson ever need me to report to the Flying Sub or the missile room or the circuitry room or wherever, I'm there.
I've got blueprints of a small Klingon spaceship. Some years ago, my nephew (then maybe 7-years-old or so) and I planned out alternate escape routes from the brig to either the shuttle bay or the transporter room. We even figured out how to raid the small arms locker along the way. So if we're ever captured by Klingons, we're ready to deal with it.
My favorite blueprints, though, are a set I've had since I was a little one--those of the original Star Trek Enterprise. Gee whiz, these are cool. It maps out the entire ship for you (including the bowling alley located on Deck 21) and breaks down the number of crewmen stationed aboard her by rank and specialties. By golly, if I ever need to find my way from the bridge to the sick bay or transporter room or the photon torpedo tubes or the Cosmology lab on Deck 3, then I'll be able to get there. No problem.
And to this day, I remain convinced that this information will indeed one day save my life.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--September 1962 (part 2)


While Ant-Man was battling commie spies here in America (see last week’s entry for details), the Mighty Thor was dealing with commie insurgents in South America.

We get a little bit of character development first. We learn that Dr. Don Blake is in love with his nurse, Jane Foster. But he can’t tell her because he’s convinced she could never love “a… a lame man.” Jane, in the meantime, is secretly in love with Blake, but won’t tell him because she’s convinced he’s not interested in her.

Okay, enough with the romantic gobbledy-gook. Let’s get to the superhero action. Blake and a contingent of medical personal (including Jane) volunteer to go to a war-wracked South American country to provide aid. But the leader of the communist army there doesn’t care for that idea, so he sends planes, tanks and men to wipe out the aid workers.

Thor keeps showing up to foil the attacks, though. Jane gets captured, forcing Blake to allow himself to be taken as well to get close enough to rescue her. In the end, the communist leader is shot by his own men.

All perfectly good stuff—but Thor still isn’t anywhere near finding his thematic “voice.” There’s still no hint that Blake actually IS Thor (rather than just gaining his appearance and powers when he whacks his walking stick on the ground) and the communist forces don’t really pose much of a threat for him. But Thor will get where he needs to be before too long—just be patient.


For the first two issues, Bruce Banner was turning into the Hulk at night, then reverting again to Banner at dawn. But Lee and Kirby may have realized this was too limiting in terms of story potential. So they begin this issue with the Army tricking the Hulk into a rocket and shooting him into space. Hulk’s friend Rick Jones manages to get the rocket back to Earth, but not before Hulk is zapped with enough radiation to change shake things up.

Hulk remains Hulk even after the sun rises. In fact, throughout this issue, we don’t know if he’ll ever turn into Banner again. In the meantime, Hulk is captured by the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime, who use mass hypnotism to loot the towns they play.

By the end of the issue, the Hulk has escaped and the bad guys are rounded up by the FBI. But what is poor Rick Jones supposed to do with a Hulk that isn’t planning on ever turning human again?

That’s a problem to be tackled in the next issue. This story was a bit uneven—jumping awkwardly from one story element to another—but Lee and Kirby demonstrate that they are willing to play around with the character until they can refine him into a truly successful creation.

That’s it for September. October will bring us the further adventures of Thor, Ant-Man and the Fantastic Four. Also, one of the FF will have the first of many solo adventures.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"You heard my offer. Water for guns."

The Last Stand: A desperate attempt by a small group to defend a specific location against a larger force.

Gotta do at least one more "last stand" post before moving on.

Bogart did most of his work at Warner Brothers, but in 1943, he jumped over to Columbia Pictures to star in the excellent "Last Stand" war movie Sahara.







Bogie plays the commander of a Grant tank, an odd-looking armored vehicle that carried a light 37mm cannon in its turret and a larger 75mm cannon sticking out of its front hull. He and his two surviving crewman are stationed in North Africa, cut off from their own forces by the attacking Germans.

Soon, though, the Americans join up with a multi-national group of stragglers. They also pick up a couple of prisoners--a rather pathetic Italian infantryman and a hard-core Nazi pilot.

The group finds a water hole located in some old ruins. While filling up their own canteens, they learn that a strong German force is approaching. Bogart wants them to stay and defend the ruins, keeping the Germans from the desperately needed water and thus buying the British Army time to re-organize. The others, some a bit reluctantly, agree. When the Germans arrive, they demand the tiny Allied force surrender. Bogie tells them that instead he'll trade them water for their guns. He doesn't mention that, in the meantime, the well has dried up anyways.

What follows are some superbly choreographed and photographed battle scenes. The Allies dig in the tank, dig trenches and set up machine guns. They do manage to hold off the enemy, but they themselves are getting killed in ones or twos every time the Germans attack. It's exciting and tense, helped enormously by the fact that you really can't predict who is going to get killed at any one time. Bogart gives a typically strong performance, backed up by the pool of skilled character actors that seemed to fill Hollywood to the brim during the Studio Era. Louis Mercier is particularly good as a Frenchman who has seen his country already fall to the Nazis.

It's a wartime production, so it's full of the sort of wartime propaganda you would expect from such a film. The characters are all a lot more likely to break into a patriotic speech than you would realistically expect a soldier to be when he is more immediately worried about getting his head blown off.

But several elements inherent to the film keeps it all from becoming corny. First, the dialogue, including the patriotic stuff, is very well written. Each little speech or comment sounds appropriately in character for whomever is speaking. When one of the British soldiers, for instance, makes a point about the "dignity of freedom," it sounds like something that particular guy would say--even if he wouldn't, in real life, stop to say it in the middle of a life-and-death battle.

The dialogue is also helped by the basic truths backing it all up. There really is an inherent dignity to basic democratic freedom.. There really are ideals worth fighting and sometimes dying for.

The best speech actually comes from the Italian prisoner, played by the great character actor J. Carroll Naish. It comes when the German prisoner tries to convince him that it's their duty to escape. The Italian, who has by now had some time to think things over, replies:

Italians are not like Germans. Only the body wears the uniform, not the soul. Mussolini is not so clever like Hitler. He can dress his Italians only to look like thieves, cheats and murderers. He cannot, like Hitler, make them feel like that. He cannot, like Hitler, scrap from the conscience the knowledge that right is right and wrong is wrong. Or dig a hole in their heads to plant his own Ten Commandments: steal from thy neighbor; cheat thy neighbor, kill thy neighbor... But are my eyes blind that I must fall to my knees to worship a maniac who has made of my country a concentration camp, who has made of my people slaves? Must I kiss the hand that beats me, lick the boot that kicks me, no! I rather spend my whole life living in this dirty hole than escape to fight again for things I do not believe against people I do not hate. As for your Hitler, it's because of a man like him that God - my God - created hell!

It's a great scene--heck, it's practically Shakespearean--played with real passion by Naish.

Black actor Rex Ingram is also in the film, playing a soldier in the French Colonial army. What's most noteworthy about this (considering the film was made in an age when racism was still an accepted part of our social makeup) is that he's just one of the guys, accepted by the others without comment as a friend and fellow warrior. The only time his color is really mentioned is when the German prisoner shies away from being searched by him. Bogie tells the German "Don't worry. It won't rub off." Later, there's a really human moment involving Ingram and Bruce Bennett (who plays one of the tank crew), in which Ingram explains logically why his faith allows multiple wives, then further explains why he personally only dares have one.

Sahara is a classic "Last Stand" movie. With great acting, heartfelt dialogue, well-choreographed battle scenes and beautiful black-and-white photography, it's really worth your time to get hold of a copy and watch it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--September 1962 (Part 1)


Doctor Doom certainly doesn’t waste any time. Just one issue after his evil plans were foiled by the Fantastic Four, he comes up with yet another evil plan. This one focuses pretty much on simple revenge as he seeks to kill the FF.

To do so, he contacts the Sub-Mariner and talks him into helping with a speech reminding Namor about how the surface people are responsible for driving the Atlanteans from their home. Namor won’t agree to hurt Sue, for whom he still has the hots, but he does agree to help off everyone else.

Doom’s wonderfully evil plan consists of towing the FF’s entire skyscraper headquarters (not yet referred to as the Baxter Building) into space using magnetic force, double-crossing Namor in the process. But it doesn’t pay to tick off the Sub Mariner and Doom ends up clinging to a stray meteor, being dragged away into outer space.

It’s another strong and satisfying issue—the sequences in which the FF makes several attempts to board Doom’s space plane from the now space-traveling skyscraper are particularly fun, both visually and in terms of story construction. Namor has the most fun, though, getting to save the day as he proves he’s just a bit more of a hero than he is a villain.

We also get a few more tidbits about the Fantastic Four. There’s a more detailed cutaway view of their headquarters than we saw a few issues earlier. We also hear the term “unstable molecules” for the first time as Reed explains how their uniforms can stretch/burn/turn invisible along with them. Those handy unstable molecules will pretty much become standard costume material for much of the Marvel superhero population.


Henry Pym, who invented his shrinking formula eight issues earlier, finally decides to try that formula out a second time.

This time, he makes a costume first (made of unstable molecules, of course) and equips himself with a helmet that allows him to communicate with ants via electronic impulses.

In the meantime, the government asks him to invent an anti-radiation gas for use in case of nuclear war. This results in a gang of Communist agents raiding Pym’s lab, taking his assistants hostage as they gather up the notes for the formula.

Pym shrinks down and asks some ants for help. Soon, the commie agents are being swarmed by the insects, who also plug up the barrels of their guns with honey.

Thus, another superhero officially enters the Marvel Universe. Ant-Man doesn’t have the same level of appeal as the Fantastic Four—mostly because Hank Pym hasn’t yet been given much personality. All the same, it’s a well-written if simple story with Jack Kirby art work. What more can one ask for?

Next week, we’ll take a look at what Thor and the Hulk were busy doing in September of 1962.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Them that dies will be the lucky ones!"

The Last Stand: A desperate attempt by a small group to defend a specific location against a larger force.

It's a trope that fiction writers and film makers have used time and time again. It shows up perhaps most often in Westerns and war stories, but it pops up from time to time in other genres as well.

When done well, a last stand sequence can be intensely exciting. One of the best can be found in what may still be the best ever adventure novel.

Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island is pretty much the granddaddy of all good pirate stories. Narrated (with the exception of a couple of chapters) by young Jim Hawkins, it generates a true sense of adventure as Jim and a few friends battle the villianous Long John Silver and his bloodthirsty pirates. Everyone's goal--the recovery of a buried treasure.

The novel is almost soley responsible for just about every modern image we have of pirates--from speech patterns to the concept of buried treasure. It also contains some excellent characterizations in Jim and John Silver and wraps their increasingly complicated relationship around a cracking good story.

One of the most famous action set-pieces comes about half-way through the novel, when good guys have taken up residence in an old stockade located on the island. They are surrounded and outnumbered by the pirates, who also control the ship at this point. But the good guys have something the pirates have to have--the map showing where the treasure is buried.

Silver tries to negotiate for the map, but he's rebuffed. Vowing "them that dies will be the lucky ones" (one of the best bits of dialogue in literary history), he marches off to organize an attack on the stockade.

And that sets up the "last stand" sequence, as the heroes attempt to desperately fight off the pirates. At first, they stay in the cabin, popping away with muskets. But when the pirates get close enough to whack a couple of them, there's no choice but to snatch up cutlasses and "fight 'em in the open!"

It's a great sequence--along with Jim's later hijacking of the ship and confrontation with Isreal Hands, it's one of the highlights of the book.

Treasure Island's last stand scene is only a few pages long, but it's exciting, intense and succeeds in carrying the plot as a whole along nicely. It's also a effective snapshot of just how good a book in its entirety Treasure Island is. If you've never read it, please take a moment to feel ashamed of yourself, then run right out and get a copy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--August 1962


After recent invasion attempts by the Skrulls and the Toad Men are both beaten off, the Rock Men from Saturn take their turn in the latest attempt to conquer all us puny Earthlings. This time, it’s up to the Mighty Thor to save the day.

Taken for what it is, this is a fast, entertaining story. Dr. Donald Blake, who needs a cane to help him walk, is vacationing in Norway when he sees the Rock Men. Hiding from the aliens in a cave, he finds a stout stick about the size of a walking cane. He soon discovers that when he smacks the stick on the ground, it transforms him into Thor, while the stick itself becomes his hammer. He then does battle with the aliens (including a one-on-one tussle with their robotic “mechano-monster”) and chases them away from Earth.

It’s good, silly fun and many of the early Thor stories would be in the same vein. As the character evolves (we only gradually discover that he really is Thor, with several years passing before we get an explanation for his double identity), Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would add other denizens of Norwegian myth to the cast. The stories would become more cosmic-level in terms of both plots and visuals, while Thor (and all the other deities of the Marvel Universe) would develop their faux-Elizabethan speech patterns. Wait three or four years, and The Mighty Thor will be dripping with imagination and powerful storytelling.

But in the meantime, it’ll mostly stick to good, silly fun, thematically similar in some ways to the Superman stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Thor will take awhile to find his thematic “voice,” but he’ll entertain us in the meantime all the same.


Stan Lee opted to use artist Steve Ditko instead of Kirby as they gave a new character a trial run in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy.

It was a wise choice—Ditko’s unique style would prove perfect for what would become Marvel’s most successful character—Spider Man.

It’s a great origin. Peter Parker, wimpy high school student, is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains his amazing powers. At first, he uses his powers for personal gain by going into show business. Helping others doesn’t occur to him—he’s always been picked on by bullies so the heck with everyone else.

Of course, this all leads up to the death of Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben, killed by a burglar that Peter hadn’t bothered to help catch a few panels earlier. This leads up to one of the single best sentences that Stan Lee ever wrote—“With great power comes great responsibility.”

It’s an auspicious start for the web-slinger. It’ll be seven months before Spider Man pops up again, this time in his own book. But unlike Thor, he’ll find his thematic “voice” right from the start—a flawed but decent young hero who has to not only fight bad guys, but also deal with real life issues such as paying the rent and getting his homework done. This, along with a great rogue’s gallery of villains, will make Spider Man a success both artistically and commercially.

That’s it for August 1962. September will be a busy month. Thor will have another adventure; the FF will deal with the first super-villain team-up of the Modern era; Hank Pym will give his shrinking formula another try; and the Hulk will…. join the circus?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The toughest-lookin' cowboy ever

Here's really effective paperback cover illustration by James Bama. This guy looks like he could knock down John Wayne with a single punch while casually strollin' by--without even bothering to glance over while he did so. He may very possibly be the toughest looking cowboy ever.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--July 1962


We meet Dr. Doom for the first time. He’s the FF’s true arch-enemy and one of the great villains of all time—visually effective and with a strong back-story and personality.

His first encounter with the FF consists of him taking Sue hostage in order to force the other three to go on a mission for him. Reed, Ben and Johnny have to go back in time (we get our first glimpse of Doom’s oft-used time machine here) to recover the treasure of Blackbeard the pirate. This treasure includes some jewels with magical properties that Doom needs to increase his own power.

This sets up an enormously fun sequence in which our heroes battle pirates. Jack Kirby really seemed to enjoying himself with this issue—his layouts have rarely been more imaginative and entertaining.

We also get an important bit of characterization involving Ben Grimm. Disguised as a pirate (complete with fake beard and eye patch), Ben actually turns out to be Blackbeard. Accepted and respected by the pirates in a way he never felt he was in his own time, he opts to stay in the past and live out his life as Blackbeard. But a sudden storm sinks his ship and he comes to realize he had “lost my dumb head for awhile.”

In following issues, Ben’s bitterness seemed to be abating somewhat and he began to develop the gruff sense of humor that helps make him such an appealing character. This issue represents a real turning point in his development.

Anyway, the FF gets back to the present and manage to foil Doom’s evil plans, with Sue getting a rare early opportunity to pull off some action/adventure-type heroics. Doom escapes, but it won’t be long before the good doctor returns to torment them once more. Stan and Jack, it seems, knew enough not to let a “good” villain stay down.


Well, Earth was invaded by the Skrulls a few months back. In another month (as we’ll see in the next entry), we’re going to get invaded by the Rock Men from Saturn. Right now, we’re being attacked by the Toad Men from Outer Space.

Gee whiz, why are all these aliens picking on us?

The Hulk still hasn’t really found its thematic footing, but this issue is still entertaining enough to get by. Kirby’s layouts, of course, are typically fun to look at. And once again, the plot requires both the Hulk’s strength and Bruce Banner’s scientific genius to defeat the bad guys.

On the downside, the grumpy and sometimes evil personality of the Hulk doesn't generate anywhere near the same pathos as his later more innocent incarnation. Keeping Hulk/Banner confined to the military base is still to limiting for future story possiblities and having Banner maintaining a "secret identity" is just too darned contrived and awkward to really be effective.

Consequently, this issue isn’t the classic that FF #5 is justifiably considered to be. All the same, it's still worth reading.

One other thing—I know that Stan and Jack were not at this point worried about continuity between their comic books, but it’s kind of nice that there is (however coincidentally) an explanation as to why the Fantastic Four wasn’t there to fight the Toad Men. They were too busy 300 years in the past, fighting pirates.

Next time, we jump ahead just one month to see, for the first time, two new and very important additions to the Marvel Universe.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Action sequences the way they should be done: Television

In general, television as a storytelling medium stinks on every possible level. But every once in a while, TV does actually produce something worthwhile.

My all-time favorite TV series is Combat, which ran from 1962-1967 on ABC. For four of its five seasons, it was filmed in glorious black-and-white as it followed a squad of WWII American soldiers slogging across France in face of German resistance.

And my all-time favorite episodes consist of a two-part story from the fourth season. "Hill is for Heroes" involved the squad (along with the rest of their understrength platoon) attempting to capture a hill. Without heavy weapons or significant artillery support, they have to cross a huge chunk of open ground to get to the top of the hill. The Germans occupy a pair of bunkers there--covering every inch of that open ground with machine gun fire.

The platoon leader, Lt. Hanley (played by Rick Jason) knows he can't take the hill with the resources he has, but his own C.O. reminds him of the urgent (and militarily legitimate) need to do the job. Hanley's men know it's hopeless as well--they focus their resentment on him. But Hanley's just doing what he has to do.

It's great drama, with Rick Jason and Jack Hogan (as Pvt. Kirby) giving heart-felt performances. It all leads up to a denoument that might very well hold the world-record for most ironic climax ever.

And the action sequences are superb. The episodes were directed on location by Vic Morrow (who apparently went seriously over-budget and over-schedule to get it all done right). Long shots of the hill and the open ground make it apparent for us just how difficult attacking the hill is. The point-of-view shifts from one part of the battle to another, but we never lose track of the overall situation. It's great stuff from start to finish.

This YouTube clip, taken out of context with the rest of the story, doesn't do a perfect job of showing just how good "Hills are for Heroes" is in toto, but it does at least give a sense of it. Take a look:

Hills are for Heroes

That ends our series on action sequences. The next time you see a poorly choreographed, hyper-edited fight scene in any media, you are now legally allowed to track down the people responsible and beat them up. Just be sure you beat them up in a properly choreographed manner.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--May 1962


When Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, was created by artist/writer Bill Everett in 1939, he was definitely an anti-hero. The half-human prince of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis, he waged a sometimes very violent war with the surface world.

World War II changed that, as Namor joined the Allies in fighting Nazi tyranny. Namor faded away after the war ended (there was a brief, unsuccessful attempt to revive the character in early '50s), but in 1962, he made his comeback.

Namor is the first of the classic WWII-era heroes to reappear in the modern Marvel universe. Suffering from amnesia, he's found by Johnny Storm in a Bowery flop house. (The Torch is still annoyed with the rest of the FF after the conclusion of the last issue and he's hiding out from them there.) Johnny recognizes him and drops him in the ocean, causing his memories to resurface.

Namor quickly returns to Atlantis, but finds the city deserted and in ruins--the Atlantians had been driven from their homes by underwater nuclear tests.

So Namor quickly returns to his anti-hero roots, calling up a giant undersea monster and ordering it to attack New York.

This is a fun and classic story, not just because of the re-introduction of Namor, but also because of a fast moving story with great Jack Kirby art. As I've mentioned before, Kirby is incapable of drawing an uninteresting monster and he really goes to town in this issue. Every single panel in this issue looks incredible.

Also, Ben Grimm finally gets a moment to really shine--he volunteers to strap a nuke to his back and carry it into the giant monster's mouth to plant the bomb in the creature's belly. That might very well be the coolest plan ever.

Namor is finally driven away, but not before he decides he's fallen in love with Sue Storm. That's a plot point that will return to bug the heck out of Reed Richards in later issues.

Namor works very well in this issue. He's technically the bad guy, but Stan Lee and Jack Kirby endow him with a sense of nobility. He'll return frequently, sometimes as an opponent to the FF and occassionally as an ally.


Bruce Banner, caught in a burst of gamma radiation, soon discovers that he turns into the grey-skinned monster known as the Hulk everytime the sun goes down. Only his companion, teen-aged Rick Jones, knows his terrible secret.

It's clear throughout the short six-issue run of Hulk's original series that Lee and Kirby didn't quite know what to do with this new character. The Jeykl/Hyde concept is classic and always worthwhile, but the devil is in the details. The idea of becoming the Hulk only at night would have been very limiting in terms of plot construction. Also, Banner would continue to hang out at the remote Army base at which he works, keeping his identity as the Hulk a secret. This was another unnecessary limit to the character's potential.

Also, it took awhile to come up with interesting villains for the Hulk to fight. In this first issue, he ends up battling some Commie spies. All well and good by itself, but hardly worth the Hulk's time.

Still, the story is pretty good. Perhaps most importantly, the plot depends on Banner using his intelligence as much as the Hulk using his strength.

It would take awhile for the Hulk to find his proper place in the Marvel Universe, but it would eventually happen.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Oh no--no more Monday posts!!!!!!

With the introduction of the History of the Marvel Universe Wednesday series, I'm going to have to drop doing an entry on Mondays. (Real life is so intrusive sometimes, isn't it?)

So each week there will be:

Wedneday: Marvel U.

Thursday: General post about whatever geeky thing catches my fancy.

Friday: Friday's Favorite OTR

Since, as far as I can tell, I've only got 3 or 4 regular readers (if that many), I'm hoping this decision will not send shock waves through our nation and cause world-wide depression and warfare. We'll just have to wait and see.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Shadow: “The House That Death Built”—January 25, 1948

This being Halloween, it’s appropriate to look at something creepy and this particular episode of the Shadow (though not originally broadcast on Halloween) certainly qualifies.

Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane take shelter from a blizzard in an isolated house that—it turns out—was built by a man who once worked as the state’s executioner. Several other people have also occupied the house and one of them is soon murdered.

It’s soon discovered that the house is filled with deadly booby-traps—each one designed to kill in a way that resembles an official method of execution (firing squad, gas chamber, hanging, etc.). There’s also a story about $100,000 in cash hidden somewhere.

The creepiness factor is pretty high. Several occupants of the house serve as effective red herrings to distract us from the real killer and there’s a goose-bump-raising sequence in which Lamont and Margo must walk down a pitch dark hallway, knowing there are probably more booby traps ahead. The denouement, when the Shadow finally confronts the killer, has its chilling moments as well.

All in all, it makes for something very appropriate to listen to on a dark Halloween night.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Action sequences the way they should be done: Comic Books

For the first 115 issues or so--while it was being written by Roy Thomas--Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian series was consistently excellent. Thomas' scripts were action-oriented but still literate sword-and-sorcery tales with excellent plots and characterizations. Thomas weaved adaptations of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories together with original tales to create a self-consistent biography for the big barbarian.

And, of course, Thomas' writing was backed up by great artwork. Barry Winsor-Smith was the original artist for the first 20-odd issues. Then John Buscema stepped in, working regularly with Thomas on the book for nearly 100 issues.

Buscema's strengths as artist and storyteller are innumerable, but we will (as usual) concentrate on his ability to present us with great fight scenes. Conan fought a gazillion or so warriors, animals, monsters and warlocks. And Buscema gave us a really cool and always exciting fight scene each and every time.

You'd think it'd get old before too many issues of the comic went by--how many different ways are there, after all, to stage the action when Conan beheads or eviserates yet another villain? But Buscema was never repetative. Every fight scene has some element of originality to it, whether it was Conan's opponent(s), the setting or the way the action was choreographed. Usually, it was a combination of these elements.

Conan the Barbrian #53 (August 1975) provides us with a solid example of Buscema's skill. Here, Conan goes up against "The Brothers of the Blade," three guys who have had different parts of their anatomy replaced with weapons.

Helped by Thomas' descriptive captions, the battle unfolds in a logical manner over a total of seven pages. Thorough it all, we understand what's going on and where the various characters are in relation to one another. Buscema shifts his "camera" around freely from panel to panel, but does so without ever loosing track of the flow of the aciton.

And it is, by golly, a wonderful fight. I know I'm sounding like a broken record during this series of posts, but it's gotta be said again: A properly choreographed action sequence should make sense to its audience. It's more exciting and satisfying that way.

I picked Buscema's Conan stuff almost at random to demonstrate this. But find a reprint of Spider Man #4 (Spidey vs. Sandman in a running tussle through a high school--art by Steve Ditko) for another example of great fight choreography. Or Fantastic Four #25 (Hulk vs. Thing through the streets, subways and harbors of New York City--art by Jack Kirby) for still another. In each of these cases, the artists turn these battles into a story within the main story, making the comic book as a whole that much more satisfying.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--March 1962


In this one, the FF go against the Miracle Man, a guy who seems to be able to do anything—become invulnerable; grow to giant-size; conjure up monsters, etc. He declares war on the human race, but Reed figures out the secret of his “miracles” and he ends the issue on his was to jail.

It’s a good issue (and one particular visual—when Reed stretches himself into a round shape to take the place of a car tire—is really fun), but the villain isn’t that memorable or interesting. In fact, he is one of the few bad guys our heroes encounter during these early issues that does not become a regular part of the group’s rogue’s gallery. The Miracle Man won’t appear again until the mid-1970s.

It’s the details adding to the FF’s mythos that are most interesting. They don their costumes for the first time. We find out they have a headquarters atop a skyscraper (though it is not yet referred to as the Baxter Building). This includes a cutaway view of the place so we can see its layout. I love stuff like that.

And we see the first version of the flying Fantasticar, though this early flying bathtub isn’t anywhere near as cool looking as the later version will be.

Ben is still perpetually ill-tempered and is starting to get on everyone’s nerves, especially Johnny. In fact, at the end of this issue, it’s not Ben who gets in a snit and quits, but Johnny.

This ending sets up the next issue, which will re-introduce a Golden Age character to modern continuity. Also, in another comic, we’ll be introduced to yet another major addition to the Marvel Universe.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Action Sequences the way they should be done: Comic Strips

Prior to the 1940s, newspaper comic strips were big. On Sundays, the average comic page had 8 pages of full-page comics (that is--one strip took up an entire page) and 8 pages of half-page strips. And the pages themselves were a bit bigger than what we usually see today as well.

On weekdays, the daily strips were printed larger as well

With that much room to work with, artists could add however much visual detail and dialogue they needed to tell exciting and involving stories. It was, consequently, the heyday of the adventure strip, combining complex plots, great characterizations and well-presented action scenes. A post from a few weeks ago about Terry and the Pirates showed the best example of an adventure strip from that era, but there were lots other.

Today, though, we'll look at another wonderful strip from the 1930s. Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy was created by Roy Crane in 1924. Originally, it was a humor strip, featuring the nerdy misadventures of a store clerk named Washington Tubbs III.

But the strip evolved as Wash made an effort to actually live a life of adventure. He went off on a search for lost treasure and ran afoul with some villianous sailors. Soon, his travels took him to obscure countries, where he often got involved in civil wars and court inrigues while inevitably falling in love with just about every pretty girl he met.

In 1929, Wash teamed up with two-fisted mercenary Captain Easy, who soon became the lead character in the strip.

Wash and Easy is a wonderful strip in many ways--its sense of fun and adventure, its humor, its likable protagonists--but for the sake of this post we will again unjustly ignore everything except how good Crane was at laying out a fight scene.

Take a look at this series of six daily strips. (Sorry I can't give you a bigger, better-quality image. I hope you can see this well enough to follow what I'll be talking about.)


Even taken out of context with the rest of the story, you can easily follow the flow of the action. Wash and Easy are fighting for a rebel force in a civil war against a tyrant, battling government troops aboard a small ship. While Easy mans a machine gun (and then a cannon) in a desperate last stand against a superior force, Wash gets mixed up in his own side battle below deck.

It's a great sequence, allowing us to easily follow the action and understand what is happening as the battle progresses to the point where the entire ship is getting blown apart. Crane's cartoony visuual style meant he could really rack up the body count and still have it all seem like good fun, but he also makes sure the battle unfolds in a logical manner. Crane realized that a good action scene isn't just a series of panels showing us random chaos, but rather a series of panels that still maintain viability in telling an actual story. And this, in turn, makes the battle that much more exciting and involving.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Action sequences the way they should be done: Movies

I hate 'em. All the hyper-fast editing,--jiggling camera--"can't tell what the heck is going on" style of action/fight scenes that have infected movies in recent years. It's not fun to watch. It's not exciting. It's not suspenseful. It's not cinematic. It's just mindless chaos. And, yes, I'm looking at you-- Jason Bourne films and Batman Begins and Transformers.

Action movies don't have to be that way. It is possible to choreograph and film a fist fight or a gun battle in such a way so that the audience can follow (and become immersed in) the action. They can be done with skill and artistry, thus providing the viewer with a sense of danger and excitement while still carrying the plot along in a logical manner.

Gee whiz, it's not like it's an impossible skill to for a competent filmmaker to master. It's been done for decades. Look at nearly any fight scene from a 1940s-era B movie (the final gun fight in Dick Tracy vs. Gruesome or the chase/fist fight scene in Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood) and you'll see what I mean. You can follow the flow of the action--you know where all the characters are in relation to one another--you understand the tactics they are employing. These scenes are an integral part of the overall fun of these films.

And, of course, there's all the A movies with great action scenes. Stagecoach, the original King Kong, Ben Hur, Sgt. York. The action sequences in each of these movies are extraordinary--true works of cinema art. And a large part of why these scenes work so well is that they are choreographed in such a way that we never have any trouble at all understanding what is going on.

Can you imagine the chariot race in Ben Hur filmed & edited in the modern style, with split-second edits and a camera that jiggles more than an epileptic kangaroo on a defective rollar coaster ride? On second thought--don't imagine it. That way lies madness.

But, if I may, I'm going to jump ahead a few more years to 1967 & 1970 respectively to look at a couple of movies that take particular care to set up and execute their final battle scenes properly.

The Dirty Dozen (1967) may be the ultimate Guy Movie. A maverick army officer is told to train 12 convicts (all doing time for violent crime) for a very dangerous mission behind enemy lines. They are to parachute into occupied France the night before D-Day and attack a chateau used by German general officers as a retreat. Basically, they are kill as many high-ranking officers as possible, then get away anyways they can.

Most of the movie involves the training of the Dirty Dozen, but the finale (the attack on the chateau) takes up the last 40 minutes or so of the fim.

And about half of that time involves the men sneaking into position. They first have to knife a few sentries and commandeer a staff car. Two men set up a machine gun at a crossroads to hold off the nearby German army units that will inevitably arrive after the shooting starts. Two others--dressed in German uniforms--enter the chateau, later using a grappling hook and rope to sneak some of the others up to the second floor. A man climbs to the roof to sabotage the radio antenna, but his foot crashes through the rooftop and he gets stuck. Inside the chateau, a insane member of the group begins to act particularly unstable at an inconvenient moment...

It's good movie-making on several levels. First of all, it's suspenseful. The Dozen have to kill or avoid guards and remain undetected while getting into position for their final attack. If anything goes wrong, they are all likely to get killed. Skillfully filmed by director Robert Aldritch, the sneaking around sequence does not slow the movie down or bore the viewer. Rather, it helps build up our emotions in such a way as to make the final battle that much more satisfying to watch.

Most importantly, when the fighting does start, all that preparation helps us to follow the action. We know the geography of the chateau and its outer grounds. We know where the characters are in relation to each other. We know what each of them is doing and why they are doing it. We are able to keep track of who is still alive and who has been killed. The finale of The Dirty Dozen, eventually culminating around one character's desperate race to drop live grenades down air shafts and get the heck out of there before everything blows up, is one of the classic action sequences of all time.

Kelly's Heroes (1970) is another great World War II film. This one involves a small, elite armored infantry unit in France. They capture a German officer and learn about a town miles behind enemy lines that contains 16 million dollars in gold.

As one character states, robbing a bank behind enemy lines could possibly be the perfect crime. But before they loot the bank, they'll need to do something about the German soldiers--and the three Tiger tanks--guarding the place.

As we did with The Dirty Dozen, we'll rather unfairly leave aside comments about great characters and dialogue that combined with an anti-authority attitude that help make both these movies so good. Instead, we'll concentrate on how well the movie does in taking the time to set up the final battle scene.

The unit (along with a Sherman tank) reach the town. Several characters sneak in and take position in a bell tower, where they can see pretty much the entire place. We can also see everything from their point-of-view and hear them radio in a report to the others, which gives us a clear understanding of the tactical situation. Meanwhile, the commander of the Sherman tank explains how the only weak spot on a Tiger tank is its rear armor--another key piece of information we need to follow the ensuing action.

The rest of the unit sneaks into town. As in the other movie, they must knife a sentry and avoid detection. They use the ringing bell in the tower and the sound of the Tigers warming up their engines to sneak their own tank into town and get it into position. A machine gun is set up outside what is presumed to be the main German barracks. One of the guys in the bell tower gets out his sniper rifle and picks his targets. An explosive charge is set at a key point.

Once again, none of this is boring. It works for the exact same reason the comparable scene in The Dirty Dozen works. It sets us up emotionally for the final battle, as well as making sure we understand the tactical situation. When the fighting starts, we always know exactly what is going on.

These are the sort of movies that modern filmmakers really need to pay more attention to. These are prime examples of how to properly present an action sequence. They didn't make us want to throw up from motion sickness--instead, they actually entertained us.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The History of the Marvel Universe--January 1962


When we were introduced to our heroes in the first issue, there was a sequence in which they were inadvertently scaring the snot out of innocent bystanders, who had no idea who the oddly-powered foursome was. But as the second issue opens, the FF are now world-famous, known to everyone. It’s fun to presume they’ve perhaps held a press conference and spent some time doing disaster relief or catching bank robbers.

But the threat level goes up when four shape-changing aliens impersonate them while committing a variety of crimes. Soon, the world is scared of them once more and the army tosses them into specially designed prison cells.

In a nifty scene, all four must individually use their powers and their brains to make an escape. They track down the aliens and capture them. The aliens turn out to be advance scouts for an invasion fleet. So the FF turn the tables by pretending to be the aliens and bluffing the invasion fleet into fleeing our galaxy.

Those aliens would be back, though. This is the first appearance of the Skrulls, the war-like and creepy-looking villains who will become a fixture of the Marvel Universe.

Once again, Jack Kirby gets to show off his talent for designing bizarrely fun creatures. Not only are the Skrulls (when in their natural form) a great design, but Kirby also goes to town drawing the bizarre monsters they turn into during their final tussle with the FF.

There’s also some nice bits of characterization involving the Thing—one scene in which, overwhelmed by bitterness, he has to be restrained from going on a senseless rampage. Then another in which he briefly turns back into Ben Grimm, only to become the Thing again almost before he has time to realize he’s back to normal. All this is building up to a sort of emotional epiphany he’ll have in issue #5.

There’s a plot-hole at the end—Reed hypnotizes the captured Skrulls into thinking they are just cows and leaves them peacefully grazing in a pasture. I love that, but only three of the four Skrulls are there at the end. Reed says the fourth Skrull is heading back to his home world with the invasion fleet, but that doesn’t make sense in context to how events unfolded. Somehow, Stan and Jack lost track of one of the Skrulls when they wrote this tale.

But it all turns out for the good. Seven or eight years later, writer Roy Thomas would use this plot hole as a key part of his multi-part Avengers epic, “The Kree-Skrull War.” But it’ll be some time before we get to that. For now, let’s move on to the introduction of yet another super hero.


Tales to Astonish was one of several science-fiction anthology books that Marvel was publishing at the time. The cover story in this issue—“The Man in the Ant Hill”—is about a scientist named Henry Pym. Pym creates a serum that shrinks him down to the size of an ant.

The serum works faster and better than Pym expects and he ends up too tiny to reach the growth serum. He’s attacked by ants and ends up dodging the insects through the tunnels of their ant hill. Finally, with the help of one ant who has instinctively aids him, he is able to escape the ant hill and reach the growth serum. The story ends when he vows to set aside his dangerous experiments.

But he’d go back on this vow before long. The story was popular with readers and Stan Lee soon decided to bring Henry Pym back as a regular character. Before 1962 ends, we’ll see the scientist don a costume and shrink back down again to fight crime as the astonishing Ant Man.

But for now, the Fantastic Four would remain the only active super heroes on the block. When we return to look at March 1962, we’ll see how they fare against the Miracle Man.

Monday, October 20, 2008

From the pulps to the comics without missing a beat

Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) was a master storyteller. A skilled science fiction writer, he spent much of the pulp era producing some highly entertaining stories that still hold up well today.

Hamilton broke into print in Weird Tales magazine in 1926. By 1948, he had contributed 79 short stories and novellas to that particular periodical, aside from finding success elsewhere in the pulp marketplace.

Many of his Weird Tales entries recounted the adventures of a Space Patrol in the far-future, protecting Earth (and sometimes the entire galaxy) from horrible threats. Using both human and non-human characters as his protagonists, Hamilton gave us a set of plot-driven space operas full of self-consistent super-science and well-described action set pieces. (You know, when you look at science fiction in general, it's really quite amazing how often the entire galaxy is in danger of blowing up or getting sucked into another dimension or having all intelligent life eradicated. But life, after all, would be pretty dull without the occasional galactic-level threat to spice things up.)

During the 1940s, Hamilton also gave us many of the adventures of Captain Future (a character original created by eidtor Mort Weisinger, but fleshed out by Hamilton). Captain Future (who was in reality scientist Curt Newton) was meant to appeal to teenage readers, but the stories are fun enough to appeal to adults as well.

Captain Future was essentially a superhero. Set in (naturally) the future, each novel had the good captain and his "Futuremen" (a robot, a shape-changing android and a disembodied brain) battling villiany throughout the Solar System, with occasional forays into deep space or other dimensions. And with a robot, android and dimembodied brain at your side, you really can't help but be cool.

As with his Weird Tales stories, plot was emphasized over characterization, with stories that were set in a fantasy version of our galaxy that didn't concern itself too much with scientific plausibility. But in this, Hamilton was merely playing to his strengths. He was perfectly capable of giving us likable heroes and loathsome villains, but he was at his best coming up with clever, convoluted plots that always follow their own internal logic.

As the pulp market began to collapse in the late 1940s, Hamilton took his skills into the growing comic book market. This is hardly surprising--he had been writing stories with a comic book sensibility before there even was a comic book sensibilty.

Hamilton's most important comic stories were in the various Superman-related comics. Once again, his ability to plot out internally consistant stories set in a fantastic world of super-powered beings was his main strength.

Some of his most entertaining stuff appeared in Adventure Comics, which featured the ever-growing Legion of Super Heroes. A good example of his work there can be found in Adventure #318 (March 1964), in a story titled "Mutiny."

“Mutiny” begins with the Legion helping to evacuate a planet that’s about to explode. Sun Boy, despite suffering from fatigue and overwork, is determined to lead the mission. He and a team of fellow Legionnaires load the planet’s inhabitants onto a giant space ark.

But Sun Boy makes a navigational error and the ark enters a dangerous area of space. When Cosmic Boy points out the error, Sun Boy accuses him of mutiny and uses robot assistants to toss him in the brig. When the other Legionnaires object, Sun Boy threatens to generate enough heat to blow up the ark unless they agree to abandon ship. He puts them on a small lifeboat with no food or radio and only a little bit of fuel.

The bulk of the story consists of the Legionnaires figuring out how to survive. By thinking their situation through carefully and using their various powers in clever ways, they are able to planet-hop to several locations and deal with a number of dangers.

Finally, using fuel pods salvaged from an ancient wrecked space ship, they catch up with the ark. The ark is caught in a meteor storm and Sun Boy has gone catatonic. The Legionnaires bring the ark to safety. Sun Boy is examined by a doctor and discovered to be suffering from “space fatigue.” The story ends when he is cured.

Hamilton put together fun Legion stories by coming up with countless clever variations on how the characters could work together. In “Mutiny,” each of the castaway Legionnaires has his or her moment to shine. The story builds a sincere level of tension by showing them think their way—step-by-step—out of a seemingly hopeless situation.

Over in Superman comics, Hamilton was also plotting out some cool new elements to the Man of Steel's mythology. In Superman #164 (November 1964), arch villain Lex Luthor challanges Superman to a duel on a planet with a red sun. Under such a sun, Superman has no superpowers, making it a fair fight.

Superman must depend more on his wits than his might, but things get complicated when the two opponents stumble across a civilization that has lost the knowledge to make use of the many ancient scientific devices lying around. Lex helps them out, fostering the attitude among them that Lex is a hero, while Superman is a villain. They even rename their planet Lexor in Lex's honor. This story ends with Superman taking Lex back to prison on Earth (but only after Lex has shown a rare burst of compassion for the Lexorians). Lexor becomes a part of Superman's mythos, with several important later stories taking place there.

Edmond Hamilton is pretty much the poster boy for what made the pulp magazines and Silver Age comic books so entertaining. simply because his storytelling skills were always infused with a sense of fun. In the pulp era, he used his prose to delight his readers. By the late 1950s & early 1960s, Hamilton and other writers such as Otto Binder, Gardner Fox and E. Nelson Bridwell were joining talented artists in building an ever-growing mythology in the DC Universe with a rapidly expanding cast of characters. It was all very silly and implausible, but it all still managed to make its own sort of sense. And, most importantly, none of these writers ever forgot about the importance of letting their readers have fun.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday's Favorite OTR

Conan the Barbarian: "The Tower of the Elephant" & "The Frost Giant's Daughter." (1975)
Okay, this one isn't really old-time radio, but it was a nifty-keen attempt to revive the medium with adaptations of two stories starring one of the most dynamic and entertaining characters to come out of the pulp fiction era.
In the mid-1970s, a guy named Alan B. Goldstein got the idea of adapting Robert E. Howard's original Conan the Barbarian stories into audio adventures. Apparently, he had hopes of making this an ongoing series.
Writer Roy Thomas, who was at that time writing a superb Conan comic for Marvel Comics, also liked the idea and penned the scripts for two of the stories.
Both the stories chosen were set early in Conan's career--a wise idea if these were indeed to be the jumping off point of a continuing series. "The Frost Giant's Daughter" has Conan still in the northern part of his fictional world--not far from his homeland. Knocked unconscious by an opponent, he wakes up still dazed and sees a beautiful woman standing over him. The woman taunts him, causing him to run after her in a rage. But she is leading him into a trap involving her rather bizarre brothers...
"The Tower of the Elephant" is one of my favorite Conan stories. On the one hand, it's a sort of fantasy "Mission: Impossible" story, with Conan and a more experienced thief breaking into a wizard's tower. But later, we see horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's influence on Howard's prose when Conan encounters an imprisoned being with a weird and cosmic back-story. The two themes mesh nicely into a tale that runs the gamut from taut suspense to action to creepiness to tragedy.
Both the audio adaptaions (eventually released on an LP record) are excellent, with good acting and skillfully done sound effects. In both cases, a third-person narrator is used to move the story along while perserving much of Howard's entertaining prose.
Sadly, Goldstein's vision of a continuing series never came to pass. But the two Conan stories that were produced were both worthwhile--solid, faithful adaptations of two excellent sword-and-sorcery adventures.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The perfect Mystery Book Store

Sorry--this post is a little bit different from the usual. As an exercise in wishful thinking, I have created (with a few suggestions from others) what I believe to be the perfect specialty bookstore environment--this one specializing in mystery & detective fiction.
Here's the elements that would make up this particular bookstore:
1. Book are divided by sub-genre (hard-boiled, police procedural, media tie-ins, etc) and then divided by author within those catagories. The selection is comprehensive, with both new and classic books.
2. A small section of used books that customers can buy/trade for is also available.
3. DVD section with mystery movies/TV shows
4. Section for selling CDs of mystery/detective old-time radio shows.
5. A small cafe.
6. "The Diogenes Club": An area with comfy chairs/sofas. Also, a copy of the game "Clue" is there free for people to play anytime. There would be selection of classic mystery fiction for people to read for free and a Sherlock Holmes chess set.
7. Large-screen TV in the Diogenes Club.
8. For an hour or so each day, at a scheduled time, old-time radio mystery shows will be played over the store speakers.
9. Three nights a week: Mystery movie night on the large-screen TV. (It's turned off the rest of the time--to allow customers and browsers a properly quiet atmosphere.)
10. Once a week talk by an author and/or mystery historian.
11. Once a week book discussion group.
12. A small magazine section with stuff like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Armchair Detective, etc.
13. A small games section for genre-specific board games and computer games.
14. A small graphic novel section for genre-appropriate materials.
15. Once a month catered mystery dinner whodunit night.
Of course, to be really, really perfect, someone would have to actually get murdered from time to time. The police would be baffled and I would have to step in and use brilliant deductive reasoning to identify the killer. I've always wanted to do that, but the opportunity never seems to arise. But, to save my customers a knife in the back or poison in their coffee, I suppose I'll have to leave that part out anyways.
If I ever become a multi-millionaire, I'm gonna open this place. Don't anyone hold their breaths waiting, though. The multi-millionaire part seems a tad unlikely.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

History of Marvel Comics--November 1961

The story so far…

In the 1940s, Marvel Comics wasn’t Marvel Comics yet. They were known as Timely Comics. Like most Golden Age comic book publishers, Timely jumped aboard the superhero bandwagon after the phenomenal success of Superman (published by rival DC Comics).

Timely did some fun superhero stuff, with their costumed do-gooders going up against the Nazis even before the U.S. entered World War II. Their most successful characters (both commercially and artistically) were Captain America and Bucky, the Human Torch and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner.

But by the late 1940s, superheroes were on their way out. Comic books themselves, though, remained enormously popular. Through the 1950s, Timely (well, actually, they were now called Atlas Comics) made a go of it with comics featuring Westerns, romance stories, science fiction, detective stories and so on. There was a short-lived attempt to revive Captain America, the Torch and Namor in 1953, but this didn’t catch on.

By the time 1961 rolled around, Atlas Comics’ publisher Martin Goodman noticed that superheroes were coming back into vogue. DC Comics had reintroduced new versions of many of their 1940s heroes—most notably Green Lantern and Flash. All these new heroes, as well as their old stalwarts Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, were being featured in a comic book called The Justice League of America. And kids by the hundreds of thousands were eagerly spending their dimes for copies of the JLA.

Well, by golly, if DC had a successful superhero group, then Atlas (well, actually, they were now called Marvel Comics) should have such a group as well. If I remember the story correctly, Goodman brought up this idea with writer Stan Lee on the golf course. Before you could yell “Fore!” Marvel was putting out its first superhero comic book in nearly a decade. The Fantastic Four were born.

I have no idea whether Stan Lee or anyone else initially intended to tie their new superhero stuff into their 1940s continuity—whether they meant from the start for it all to be part of the same universe. But this would eventually happen—before long, both Captain America and the Sub-Mariner would be reintroduced into the more modern continuity. Those old characters were quite simply too cool to leave behind. By the end of the 1960s, the WWII-era stories would be considered an established part of the new and ever-growing Marvel Universe. Keep that in mind. It’ll be important later on.

FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (November 1961)

First of all, I will state right off that I’m not getting into the debate about who deserves the most credit for the existence of the Fantastic Four—Stan Lee or artist Jack Kirby. I know there was some bitterness in later years about who contributed what to those early comics (and I do believe that Kirby was later treated poorly by Marvel Comics), but I have enormous respect for both Lee and Kirby as storytellers. All I’m gonna do is talk about the end product—the first book in what would represent the birth of a vibrant and entertaining alternate reality.

The Fantastic Four consists of brilliant scientist Reed Richards, gruff test-pilot Ben Grimm, Reed’s gal Sue Storm and Sue’s teenage brother Johnny. Reed took his three friends on a test flight of a new rocket, but things go awry when the ship is pelted with “cosmic rays.” They crash-land, then soon discover each of them has gained a unique superpower. Reed can stretch his body like rubber. Sue can turn invisible. Johnny becomes a new version of the Human Torch. Ben Grimm gets the rotten end of the stick—he becomes the super-strong but ugly and rock-like Thing.

It’s an interesting origin, especially when you remember that the FF is created because Reed, smart as he is, screwed up when he ignores Ben’s warnings about the danger of cosmic rays. It’s an important point—because Ben is the one who gets turned into something monstrous-looking as a result. Ben’s bitterness over this is the strongest emotional linchpin of this first issue and, though he and Reed gradually morph into best friends in later issues, Reed’s search for a cure for Ben will be a reoccurring plot-point for years.

In this first issue, the FF doesn’t have costumes—though that will soon change. We learn in the next issue that they don’t have secret identities either--another point deliberately made to get them to stand out from DC’s characters.

The FF’s first mission is taking on the Mole Man, a guy who lives on a remote island called Monster Isle and sends his subterranean creatures around the world to steal nuclear reactors. Our heroes confront the villain, beat up a few cool-looking monsters (Jack Kirby was incapable of designing a monster that didn’t look cool) and foil the Mole Man’s plans to destroy the surface world.

Kirby’s strong artwork and character design carry the plot along quickly and effectively, while the personality conflicts between the characters really did succeed in making the comic stand out from the crowd. It’s an auspicious start for the new comic. Perhaps the only drawback is that poor Sue isn’t given a lot to do. In fact, until Lee and Kirby eventually opt to amp up her powers a few years down the line, this will be a reoccurring problem with the character.

But would the Fantastic Four have to stand alone against supervillains, monsters and invading aliens? Of course not. In fact, concurrent with FF #2, we would also get our first glance of a character who would eventually join the ranks of the superheroes. But that’s a story for our next entry in this series.

[Interesting side fact: In this issue, the FF are based in “Central City,” copying DC habit of creating fictional cities to house their superheroes. By issue #3, though, their hometown morphs in plain ol’ New York City.]
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