Thursday, May 29, 2008

Godzilla in the Marvel Comics Universe




As with DC's The War That Time Forgot series or Dell/Gold Key's Turok, Son of Stone, some ideas work simply because they are unashamedly geeky. This was certainly the case in the 1970s, when Marvel Comics got the rights to do a comic book featuring Toho Studio's star monster Godzilla.

Rather than do something with a seperate continuity, it was decided to simply drop the big green guy down into the middle of the Marvel Universe. Writer Doug Moench and artist Herb Trimpe seemed to have thought the implications of this through pretty thoroughly, then began to have fun with it.

So when Godzilla shows up in Alaska and starts whip-snapping the Alaskan pipeline around, it seemed only natural that a SHIELD helicarrier would be dispatched to deal with him. Poor Dum Dum Dugan is in charge of the operation and spends the next two years in a constant state of frustration as he tries to find some way of dealing with the mutant lizard. This by itself was cool. Dum Dum had been a supporting character for years, both in Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos and in the SHIELD stories that ran in Strange Tales. As a high ranking and experienced SHIELD agent, it made good solid comic book sense for him to be in charge of the anti-Godzilla forces.

The connection to the Marvel Universe continues through each issue. When Godzilla attacks San Francisco, the Champions help drive him off. A little bit into the seiries, Dum Dum suddenly slaps his forehead with a "why didn't I think of this before" and orders that someone get in touch with super-scientist Hank Pym as soon as possible. Soon after, Godzilla's getting squirted with several tons of Pym's shrink gas.

But even a pint-sized Godzilla is trouble. Getting loose in the sewers of New York, he has an epic fight with a rat. He begins to slowly grow again and is maybe 20 feet tall when he throws down with Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four in the Museum of Natural History. Smothered unconscious by Mr. Fantastic (who encases the monster in his pliable body), he's then tossed through Doctor Doom's time machine, on the assumption that he'll be happier back in a prehistoric age.

This leads to first a fight against Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur, then a team-up with them against some evil cave men. Godzilla's radioactive nature causes the time machine to eventually sling-shot him, now full-sized again, back to modern Time Sqaure. Some problems just won't go away. At least not until the book is cancelled, which happens after SHIELD and the Avengers manage to lure Godzilla out into the Atlantic Ocean.


This series is a lot of fun for any Godzilla/comic fan, combining the big guy with the comic book world in ways that make comic book sense and maintains Marvel continuity. Trimpe's art is good and holds up well in the recently published "Essential Godzilla" despite the loss of color. The series ran 24 issues and there were only a couple of minor missteps during its brief run. A two-part story in which Godzilla essentially helps round up some cattle rustlers was very weak. More annoying was a completely unnecessary supporting character: a kid (the nephew of a Japanese scientist whose brought in by SHIELD as a Godzilla expert) who keeps whining undendlingly to everyone about how Godzilla isn't evil and shouldn't be hurt. The little snot is a walking advertisement for the need to spank children.

But despite these flaws, the series remains entertaining throughout its entire run. It's well worth taking the time to read.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

RADIO BY THE BOOK available for pre-order

My next book is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com. It's scheduled for release on November 30. Everyone please make sure that civilization does NOT collapse (thus interfering with distribution of my book) prior to that date.

Here's the link to Amazon:

Radio by the Book: Adaptations of Literature and Fiction on the Airwaves

Monday, May 5, 2008

Desert warfare, commando raids and books for children

Western Publishing came into existance in 1910 and had a long and fun history before it was bought out, picked apart and absorbed into the bigger publishing houses over the course of the 1980s & 1990s. Western produced comic books (mostly based on characters licensed from movies, cartoons and television) that were distributed first by Dell Comics and later by Gold Key Comics. Western's subsidiary Whitman Publishing produced the wonderful Little Big Books.

When I was a kid, I owned the Fantastic Four Little Big Book (with great art by Jack Kirby throughout) and one featuring Major Matt Mason, an astronaut action figure that was popular at the time. But it was another pair of Whitman books, hard covers based on television shows airing at the time, that really caught my fancy.

Both books were based on World War II-themed shows. Both managed to totally enthrall my 8-year-old mind. I read them over and over until they just fell apart.

One was based on The Rat Patrol, a silly but exciting TV show about commandos battling the Nazis in North Africa. Sgt. Sam Troy and his three men rode around in a pair of jeeps, each with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the back. When those jeeps came jumping over sand dunes in the opening credits, it looked awesome.




The book, written by I.G. Edmunds, is titled The Iron Monster Raid. It starts with the Rat Patrol returning from a tough mission. They've only one jeep left and almost no ammo for their few remaining weapons. They stumble into the middle of a tank battle and lose their last jeep. They also get a glimpse of the German's newest weapon--the massive Tiger tank.

Soon after, the Patrol is assigned to escort a couple of officers behind German lines, intending to link up with a secret agent and get some microfilm showing the weak spots on the Tiger tank.


When I acquired this book as an adult, I was curious to how well it would hold up. Looking at re-runs of the TV show as a grown-up, I found it was still visually fun, but marred by poor plot construction and historically inaccurate equipment. (Details that I would have been less aware of as a child.)

The book, though, was still a lot of fun. I'm sure nostalgia was a factor in this, but it turns out that the overall plot was solid, with a fair degree of historical accuracy in its portrayal of weapons and geography.

Of particular note is a couple of the action sequences. One takes place near the beginning, when the Rat Patrol is trying to get home on foot after losing their last jeep. They stumble across a German command post and get temporarily seperated from one another. This leads to a very tense sequence in which they sneak into the command post to steal a vehicle.

Later in the novel, they have sneaked about a German train to get to the occupied city of Tunis. Events force them to try to take over the train while its stopped in a narrow canyon. At the same time, the train is attacked by American fighter planes, forcing our heroes to dodge friendly machine gun bullets while they shoot it out with the Germans. It was an exciting, well-described set piece.

The other Whitman novel was based on a short-lived TV show called Garrison's Gorillas. I don't think I ever saw an episode of this. Using the same concept as the movie The Dirty Dozen, it featured an OSS officer named Garrison who uses a group of reformed criminals on behind-the-lines missions, employing their unique skills to fight the Nazis.

The Whitman version of the show, titled The Fear Formula and written by Jack Pearl, had a science fiction element to it: the Germans have gotten hold of a formula that can be placed in drinking water supplies. Once you drink the tainted water, you become helpless with fear and panic.

Once again, when I returned to this book as an adult, I discovered yet another well-constructed plot. The Gorillas are assigned to rescue the Czech scientist who created the Fear Formula from a German prison camp. There are a couple of fun plot twists and the action sequences are exciting.

Whitman did quite a few of the TV books during the 1960s. Occasionally, I run across one in a used book store and snap it up. So far, I've read The Land of the Giants, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Man from UNCLE, and Combat. Surprisingly, Combat, easily the highest quality TV show of all of these, was the dullest of the Whitman books. The others, though, were all pretty good. None qualify as great literature, but nearly all managed to spin an entertaining yarn.

AN "I'M ON VACATION" ALERT: I have no idea if anyone is reading my blog on a regular basis. On the off-chance there is, though, I wanted to let you know that I'll be on vacation through most of May. New posts will appear infrequently (if at all) throughout the rest of this month. I'll go back to posting twice a week in June.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

They aren't real--but by golly, they should be: Part 5: Nick & Nora Charles and Ralph & Sue Dibny

NICK AND NORA CHARLES:

They’re in love with each other—they’re rich—they’re witty—and (perhaps most importantly) they’re prone to practically trip over corpses pretty much everywhere they go. What else can two people ask for out of a relationship?

Nick Charles was a successful private investigator until he married the beautiful heiress Nora. He left the detective business after that, devoting his time to (as he once tells Nora) “taking care of all that money I married you for.”

But Nick can’t get away from the sleuth racket. We first meet him in Dashiell Hammett’s 1933 novel The Thin Man, in which he reluctantly becomes involved in a murder investigation.

Hammett never wrote anything else involving Nick and Nora, but the couple took on a life of their own when William Powell and Myrna Loy played them in a series of wonderful movies made during the 1930s and 1940s. Again and again, the pair would trade casual barbs and witticisms as Nora insisted that Nick look into the latest murder case they’ve once again stumbled across. Good storytelling meshes perfectly with sharp humor tbroughout all these films.

The couple took their wonderful relationship to radio as well during the 1940s, with actress Claudia Morgan pretty much channeling Myrna Loy in her portrayal of Nora. I’ve no idea what Claudia Morgan looked like, but she sure as heck sounded beautiful.

But Nick and Nora aren’t the only husband-and-wife detective team on the block. In fact, in 1960, in The Flash #112, DC comics gave us a really nifty variation on the same theme.

RALPH & SUE DIBNY

By drinking an elixir made from an exotic fruit, Ralph Dibny discovered he had gained the ability to stretch his body and assumed fantastic shapes. He makes a fortune as a circus performer, marries a wealthy and beautiful heiress, then retires to travel the world with his new wife.

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Naturally, they stumble across a crime at nearly ever town or city they visit. Ralph (also known as the Elongated Man) loves a good mystery more than anything other than his wife Sue. And Sue understands this—though she might get a little annoyed with him when he stands her up in order to stake out some jewel thieves, it is always clear that the two love each other dearly.

Elongated Man stories ran regularly through much of 1960s as a back up in Detective Comics. Ralph used sharp deductive skills, but also made good use of his stretching powers to gather clues. With art usually supplied by Carmine Infantino, images of Ralph stretching an ear down a chimney to eavesdrop on the bad guys—or stretching his neck up several hundred feet to search a wide area with a single glance—or suddenly stretching out his elbows or earlobes to knock a gun out of a villain’s hands—were delightful silly without ever spoiling the mystery aspect of the stories.

It was all these elements taken together—Ralph and Sue’s happy marriage, good mystery plots and the images of Ralph using his powers—that made the original Elongated Man stories so much fun. Sadly, in modern comics, the idea of a happy marriage seems to have become a bizarre anathema to writers and editors. Ralph and Sue have both been killed off.

But, like Nick and Nora Charles, a good husband-and-wife detective team can never truly die. Not as long as we can return to their novels, comics and movies whenever we wish to do so. Nick and Nora and Ralph and Sue—they’re not real, but by golly they oughta be.
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