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.]

Monday, October 13, 2008


Terry and the Pirates was the best comic strip ever. And I'll fight anyone--all at once or one at a time--who dares disagree with me.
The strip was created in 1934 by Milt Caniff, who continued as writer/artist through 1946. After this, he left the strip and created Steve Canyon. Terry continued on until the early 1970s, but it was never as good as it had been during the Caniff years.

Caniff was a superb storyteller, using both dialogue and visuals to build exciting adventure stories infused with realistic, memorable characters. The main character was a young orphan named Terry Lee, who comes to China with his guardian (Pat Ryan--an aspiring writer who is quick with both his fists and his wits). In their initial adventure, Terry & Pat are looking for a gold mine willed to Terry by his grandfather.

This doesn't work out too well and Terry and Pat spend most of the 1930s bouncing around the Orient, battling bandits, thieves, con artists and invading Japanese soldiers. Reoccuring characters (most notably those of the drop-dead gorgeous female variety) come and go throughout the strip.

Terry aged normally through the years, so he was old enough to enlist after Pearl Harbor. He ended up flying fighter planes, but got himself dropped into the middle of an occassional espionage plot as well. The feel of the strip during the war years is inevitably different than it had been during the free-wheeling 1930s. But the quality of the stories and the artwork remain just as high.

Currently, a company called IDW is in the middle of publishing a 6-volume set containing all the Caniff Terry and the Pirates strips. Volume 4, which includes a very emotional storyline involving the death of a key character, has just become available. The individual volumes are priced a little high, but they are worth it. If you can't afford them--understandable in these times--at least request that your public library acquire them. In any case, Terry and the Pirates is must reading.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

The Shadow #1-4, #6
When DC got the rights to do a Shadow comic book in 1973, they immediately did four things exactly right.
First, they did the pulp magazine version of the Shadow rather than the radio version. These were indeed two distinct characters. The radio guy, whose show ran from 1938 to 1954, was wealthy man-about-town Lamont Cranston, who had the hypnotic power to "cloud men's minds so they could not see him." Along with his "friend and companion, the lovely Margo Lane," he investigated crimes, using his invisibility to uncover clues and often psych out the bad guys.
In the pulps, which were published in the 1930s and 1940s, Cranston was only one of several identities used by the Shadow. He couldn't literally turn invisible, but was very good at lurking in the shadows. Dressed in a slouch hat and dark cloak, he employed a network of agents to help him collect information and confronted villainy with a pair of blazing .45 automatics.
Both versions of the Shadow are excellent, but the pulp character had more visual appeal. The covers of the original Shadow Magazines, usually done by artist George Rozen, were consistently superb and provided numerous examples of just how cool the pulp Shadow looked.
So--given the choice between a vivid, dramatic image of the Shadow, cape bellowing in the wind as he blasts away with his pistols, or the image of a guy you, um, well, can't see--then the pulps are definitely the way to go.

The second thing they did right was to get Denny O'Neil, veteran Batman writer, to script the book. The Shadow was one of the major influences for the creation of Batman, so it was safe to say that O'Neil was just the right man for the job.
O'Neil had done many single issue stories starring Batman that had effectively mixed the detective story genre with comic book action. He did the same thing with the Shadow. A crime (or series of crimes) would be committed. The Shadow and his agents would investigate, following up clues in a logical manner or employing deductive reasoning to solve the crime. Along the way--and at the finale--there'd be several exciting, well-choreographed action sequences. It was an effective and entertaining storytelling method that worked as well for the Shadow as it did for Batman.
The third thing DC did right was to keep the Shadow in the 1930s, where he clearly belongs. Some characters, like Batman, can survive updating, but the Shadow was a product of his era. Take him out of that time, as artist/writer Howard Chaykyn tried to do later on in an awful 1980s series, and he just isn't the Shadow anymore. Robin Hood belongs in medieval Sherwood Forest; the Lone Ranger belongs in the Old West; and the Shadow belongs in Depression-era New York.
Finally, DC got Mike Kaluta to do the art work. Kaluta was perfect for the job--his visuals dripped with authenticity, suspense, menace and violence. He caught the look of the times and the look of the Shadow perfectly.
Sadly, the Shadow only ran a dozen issues and Kaluta only did the art for five of those issues. But those five stories are wonderful. In addition to the reasons stated above, O'Neil and Kaluta also managed to give each story a unique setting for its grand finale. In the first issue, the Shadow confronts a gang of thugs attempting to blow up the George Washington Bridge. In the next issue, he and Margo Lane join a carnival to catch the bad guy, then battle him aboard a moving train. Future issues feature encounters in a grave yard, the death house of a prison, and the narrow streets and dark alleys of Chinatown. The stories never fell into a rut, either in terms of plot or in terms of visuals. It's sad that the book didn't run longer.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Tommy guns, bootleggers and G-Men

I don't deal with TV that often on this blog, but if you jump back far enough, you can find shows worth talking about.


One such show was The Untouchables, which ran on ABC from 1959 to 1963. The original pilot was very loosely based on the real-life activities of Treasury agent Eliot Ness, who battled Capone's illegal booze operations in Chicago in the early 1930s. Ness put together a small team of agents who were known to be honest--hence their collective nick-name.
In later episodes, the TV show largely ignored reality, sending the Untouchables against both historical and fictional criminals in a series of violent, melodramtic stories. With good writing, beautiful black-and-white photography and a succession of skilled character actors guest-starring as the various gangsters, witnesses and victims, The Untouchables earned its status as a classic TV series.
The series jumped almost hapharzardly back and forth through time, without paying attention to internal continuity. For instance, the character of reoccuring villain Frank Nitti (played by Bruce Gordon) was killed off near the end of the first season. But Gordon was back playing Nitti in the second season, through the simple method of having particular episodes set earlier in the 1930s.
This caused some minor continuity glitches on occasion--a newer member of the Untouchables, for instance, might inexplicably appear in an episode set before he had actually joined the team. But for the most part, the lack of internal continuity was a strength rather than a weakness. It allowed the producers and writers to craft single-episode stories that can each stand on its own.
And, of course, aside from good writing and characterizations, there were those really cool gun battles. I think I mentioned this a few months ago when talking about the Cagney movie G-Men, but it's worth saying again. There are few things more entertaining to watch than black-and-white movies or TV shows featuring 1930s-era tough guys blasting away at each other with tommy guns and revolvers.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Now I've got that song stuck in my head!!!!

But at least it's a great song. Give it a listen and hear for yourself.

In the summer of 1951, Jack Webb produced and starred in a radio show called Pete Kelly's Blues. Webb played Kelly--the head of a small Prohibition-era jazz band that worked in a Kansas City speakeasy. Filled with snappy, hard-boiled dialogue (something Webb excelled at on radio) and superb jazz music, it's one of the highlights of old-time radio.

In 1955, Webb got a chance to direct and star in a movie version. And it is a fun movie--involving Pete Kelly's efforts deal with a gangster who "encourages" the band to sign him up as an agent. Before long, Kelly's drummer gets caught in a blast of tommy gun fire and things get really dangerous for everyone else.
As with the radio show, the movie is overflowing with snappy dialogue and addictive jazz music. Both Ella Fitzgerald (as a singer in a small booze-joint) and Peggy Lee (as the alcoholic girlfriend of the gangster) belt out some great songs.

The movie just recently came out on DVD and it's worth watching. Just expect to have to deal with at least one of the songs getting stuck in your head for days afterwards.
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