Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Battle Scene Ever


If I had to make a list of my favorite make-believe people...


Well, that list would be a little different every time I made it. But Captain Horatio Hornblower of His Majesty's Royal Navy would have a spot on it somewhere nearly every time.


Created by C.S. Forester in the 1937 novel The Happy Return (titled Beat to Quarters in the U.S.), Hornblower is a brilliant seaman who served his country during the Napoleanic Wars. He is one of the most purely human characters you'll ever meet in a work of fiction--flawed, secretly full of doubts, and emminently likeable. It's easy to believe he's a real guy, which--of course--makes the novels all that much more immersive.


Forester wrote ten complete Hornblower novels (and left an eleventh incomplete at the time of his death) and all are fast-moving adventure stories with strong plots. Forester did not write them in internal chronological order, but by the time he was finished, we can trace Hornblower's career from Midshipman to Admiral, sharing in innumberable adentures along the way.


The first novel, Beat to Quarters, would be the fifth chronologically. Set in 1808, it has Hornblower in command of a frigate, the Lydia. He is bringing guns to an anti-Spanish rebel leader in Central America, since at the moment Spain is an ally of France and also at war with England.


He delivers his cargo to the obviously psychotic rebel leader, then uses a clever tactic to capture a large Spanish warship (the Natividad) intact. He turns this over to the rebels as well.


The Lydia sails off, with Hornblower relieved that he doesn't have to have any more dealings with the whacko rebel. But then he discovers that Spain has switched sides and is now allied with Spain. So now he has to track down the Natividad and destroy it. (He also reluctantly picks up a lady passenger--a stranded Englishwoman--with whom he eventually falls in love.)


This (the stalking of the Natividad that is, not the falling in love part) leads to an absolutely riveting battle sequence. The two ships meet in stormy seas. Hornblower's better trained crew allows his smaller ship to get in some licks, but the Lydia takes some damage as well. The weather forces the opponents apart. When they meet again, the wind has died away completely and Hornblower has to use his ship's boats to tow the Lydia into battle while under constant fire from the Natividad.


Man, it's great stuff; in part because Forester has crewed the Lydia with characters we really care about and in part because his straightforward prose and sense of pacing generates a super-high level of excitement and suspense.


I've re-read all the Hornblower books several times. Beat to Quarters is perhaps my favorite, in no small measure because it contains one of the best battle scenes ever.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1964, part 2

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #107


This has been a banner month for the introduction of second-tier villains. We've already seen Kraven and the Beetle put in their first appearances. Now the Grey Gargoyle--who has the ability to turn anything he touches into stone for one hour--makes his debut.


Or is it turning stuff into stone for one day? The duration changes halfway through the story. Stan and Jack lost track of one of their plot points somewhere along the line.


But no matter. It's a good story nonetheless. And the Tales of Asgard back-up story is pretty gosh-darn cool as well. In this one, Loki enlists the help of the Norn Queen to assassinate Balder the Brave. But the plot fails when the Norn Queen switches sides at the last moment.

TALES OF SUSPENSE #56


Another new villain. But the Unicorn, a commie spy who wears a "Unicorn Power Horn" atop his helmet, isn't as visually interesting as the other bad guys we've met this month. Nonetheless, his fight with Iron Man is a pretty good one all the same.


The important thing about this issue, though, is the characterizations. Thus far, Tony, Pepper and Happy have all been fairly one-dimensional. But this story starts out with Tony Stark pretty much throwing a snit. Sick of the fact that he has to wear a chest plate 24/7 to keep his damaged heart beating, he snaps at everyone; decides to quit being Iron Man; ignores a call-to-arms from the Avengers; and calls up a hot chick out of his little black book for a night on the town.


But in the meantime, the Unicorn attacks his factory. Happy Hogan is seriously hurt trying to take on the bad guy himself. That brings Tony back to earth and leads to the climatic battle.


We also get the first hint that Pepper Potts, who has been so contempteous of Happy, actually kinda likes the "big lug."




TALES TO ASTONISH #58


In a gratuitous but harmless cameo, Captain America stops by Hank's lab to tell him and Jan about a giant man in Africa who is demanding human sacrifices from the natives. Our heroes fly out to the Dark Continent to investigate. A pretty good fight leads up to a fairly predictable twist ending.


The most important detail from this story is that Hank has figured out how to change sizes by thought--making the capsules he used to use unnecessary.


A short back-up story has the Wasp taking on the Magician, the fairly lame crook she and Hank fought a few issues earlier.


That's it for now. Next week, we'll visit both the Avengers and Daredevil in order to finish off August 1964.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Whistler: "Stranger in the House" 6/2/48

The Whistler was an anthology show that often told its story from the point-of-view of the criminal, building suspense as his (or her) plans begin to go awry.


This episode, though, seems to be told from the point-of-view of a victim--a woman who is convinced her long-lost foster brother isn't really her long-lost foster brother.


But she can't get anyone to believe her. An old friend recognizes him; his documentation is in order; and he knows a lot of details about the brother's childhood. But she KNOWS she's right.


There is, of course, a twist at the end and many attentive listeners may deduce what's coming in advance. But it's still a good twist that wraps up a strong and tense story.

This episode is available to hear or download HERE.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bat Masterson and Amos Burke

Actor Gene Barry passed away earlier this month at the age of 90. His geek cred comes mostly from his role as Dr. Clayton Forrester in the 1953 movie version of The War of the Worlds. But he also starred in a couple of classic TV shows--in each case playing a sophisticated, intelligent protagonist quite capable of either out-fighting or out-thinking his opponents. It was the sort of role that Barry really excelled at and, in both shows, his performance was combined with strong scripts to produce that rarest of things--sincerely entertaining television.


From 1958 to 1961, he starred as Bat Masterson, giving us a completely fictional but nonetheless really cool version of the real-life gunfighter.


From 1963 to 1966, he starred in Burke's Law as Amos Burke, a homicide detective who also happened to be a millionaire. He works solving crimes pretty much because he just loves doing it. For two seasons, it was successful as a well-constructed whodunit with an interesting and unusual lead character. Unfortunately, the last season was marred by an ill-considered attempt to cash in on the James Bond films by making Amos Burke an international spy. It turns out that millionaires need to stick to solving crimes, not sneaking out of Rumania with stolen microfilm hidden in their hollowed-out heels.


I took note in this THIS POST of a Bat Masterson episode that shared a plot device with an Uncle Scrooge story.


In this episode of Bat, see if you can spot the slight similarity between a plan concocted by Bat to foil some river pirates AND a plan concoted by a certain Hobbit to help some friends escape from prison.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1964, part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR # 29


This is an oddly paced issue. It starts with the FF taking a walk down Yancy Street and getting pelted with garbage, fire hoses and sneezing powder by the Yancy Street gang. This, in turn, gradually leads to our heroes getting ambushed and captured by the Red Ghost and his Super Apes.


The Red Ghost tries to strand them on the moon, but Sue keeps an airtight force field around them and they manage to make their way to the Watcher's home. Reed uses one of the Watcher's devices to force the Red Ghost's ship to crash. After some more shenanigans, the Red Ghost gets knocked into a matter teleporter that zaps him to some random location in the universe. The Watcher gets annoyed with the FF and teleports them back to Yancy Street.


It's actually a perfectly good story, giving Jack Kirby an opportunity to draw a cool spaceship and a number of super-scientific devices. But the plot has an odd feel to it. It kinda feels as if Stan and Jack were making it up as they went along without worrying quite enough about its overall structure. It may have needed one more re-write before going to press. The events that drive the story are just a little too haphazard to be truly satisfying.



AMAZING SPIDER MAN #15


Spidey continues to add new members to his Rogue's Gallery at a fast and furious pace. This time, Kraven the Hunter makes his debut. Kraven is hired by the Chameleon to hunt down and eliminate the webslinger.


Spider Man's final battle against Kraven is a running night-time battle through Central Park. As usual, Steve Ditko does a wonderful job choreographing the action and forcing both combatants to use their brains as well as their physical skills.


In the end, of course, Kraven is defeated. He and Chameleon are both deported, though Kraven will be back pretty quickly to help form the Sinister Six in Spider Man Annual #1.


There's some fun stuff going on in Peter Parker's love life in this issue. There's a pretty funny scene in which Liz Allen and Betty Brant meet for the first time, with Liz coming on to Peter and Betty getting jealous. All the while, Flash Thompson gets more and more aggrevated that Liz now seems to like Peter better than him. Peter winds the issue up by blowing chances to get a date with either girl.


But perhaps the most important girl we "meet" in this issue is someone Aunt May is trying to fix up with Peter. May is convinced that Mrs. Watson's (as-yet-unnamed) niece would be a nice match for Peter. That doesn't work out, but May will keep trying to fix up the two teenagers. Peter doesn't want anything to do with a blind date, though, and it'll be another 28 issues yet before Mary Jane Watson finally makes her famous entrance into the book.



STRANGE TALES #123


The Marvel Universe continues to add well-designed and interesting second-tier villians to its line-up. This time out, it's the Beetle--a master mechanic who builds his own armored suit. Determined to make his reputation, he takes on both Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm. But the two heroes eventually bring him to ground.


Two things of interest in this story:


First, the art is by Carl Burgos, the artist who created the orginal Human Torch two-and-a-half decades earlier.


Second, take note again that this story involved both Ben and Johnny. For the last twelve issues before the Human Torch is dropped from Strange Tales, he'll be sharing the limelight with the Thing. It's a good move--the two bickering friends play nicely off of each other.


Dr. Strange, in the meantime, has a run-in with Loki. The god of michief tries to con Strange into using a spell to steal Thor's hammer. But the sorceror tumbles onto Loki's real motives pretty quickly. In the fight that follows, Strange manages to hold his own for a time by using better tactics, but Loki (who is, after all, a god) nearly manages to finish him. Only the approach of Thor forces Loki to retreat at the last moment.


As usual, Ditko's visual style is a perfect match for the magic-soaked story. And it's a neat touch--acknowledging that Dr. Strange can't go mano-o-mano against a god.


That's it for now. Next week, we'll take a look at Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: "The Cronin Matter" 12/5/09-12/9/09


This excellent story is tinged with sadness and loneliness from start to finish. Johnny's hired by an insurance company to guard a valuable necklace. The owner of the necklace is a used-to-be-famous Jazz Age party girl who is trying to re-capture the glory days of her youth by throwing a huge party.


The trouble is those days never really existed in the first place and most of those she knew decades ago have passed on or no longer care. Only a few people show up for the party. Add to this several ongoing plot threads involving embezzlement, theft and eventually murder--well, it's no surprise that the whole thing ends in tragedy.


When Johnny Dollar ran as a five-day-a-week serial, it regularly took advantage of this by building believable and sympathetic supporting characters into each storyline. "The Cronin Matter" is a great example of that. Everyone in it comes across as a real person, allowing us to feel sincere empathy for their plights.


It's a good mystery as well, giving us a series of twists at the end before Johnny finally manages to wrap up everything.


These episodes are available to hear or download HERE.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How do you get promoted from hitman to crime boss?

How do you work your way up from lowly hitman to crime boss? Well, apparently one way is to move from movies to dramatic radio.
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It worked for William Conrad. In 1946, Universal Pictures released an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story "The Killers." Hemingway's original story is a terse and very suspenseful tale about a couple of thugs who show up in a small town diner. They're looked for a guy called the Swede. When someone manages to warn the Swede about the killers, he refuses to run or fight, fatalistically accepting his death.





One of the reasons the short story has so much impact is that we don't know who the Swede is or why the two men have been hired to kill him. The movie, though, needed to provide an explanation. So the opening scenes give us a pretty faithful adaptation of Hemingway's tale, then employs a series of flashbacks to let us know the whole story behind it all. Burt Lancaster is the Swede--an ex-boxer turned crook who gets double-crossed by just about everyone, including the woman he loves. Ava Gardner is the woman and Albert Dekker is the leader of the gang to which the Swede belonged.
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It's a great film noir, with a strong script that manages to keep track of its multiple flashbacks and tell the complex story clearly. Ava Gardner is perfect as a femme fatale--managing to simultaneously be both cold-bloodedly selfish and utterly desirable. Robert Siodmak directed the film, using stark shadows to give the whole film an appropriately fatalistic look.
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But we were talking about getting promoted from hitman to boss. That's where William Conrad comes in. He has his first credited film roll is here, playing one of the killers sent to whack the Swede.
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At the same time, Conrad (with his distinctive deep voice and notable skill as a character actor) was getting a lot of work on radio. He was, of course, the star of the radio version of Gunsmoke, but he also popped up regularly on Escape. Before long, it seemed like it was impossible to tune into a dramatic radio show without hearing Conrad playing one of the roles. He could be heard on Suspense, The Whistler, The Voyage of the Scarlett Queen, and dozens of other shows.
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So when The Screen Directors' Playhouse opted to do a radio adaptation of The Killers during their June 5, 1949 broadcast, it wasn't surprising that Conrad had a part.
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But the Playhouse broadcast had to whittle the story down to fit into a thirty minute time slot. It actually managed to do so with surprising skill. Ironically, this meant the sequence from Hemingway's original story--the diner scene--disappears, leaving the lowly hitmen with little or no actual dialogue.
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So Conrad was instead cast as the crime boss, the part Albert Dekker had played in the movie. Lancaster still played the Swede, while Shelly Winters took over as the femme fatale. Playhouse's 30-minute running time meant its adaptations of movies were usually not as satisfying as those done on the Lux Radio Theater (which was an hour-long show), but The Killers turns out to be a pretty good episode all the same.
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So, if you happen to be working as a lowly hitman for a mob and you're looking to move up in your profession, the route to take is to switch from being a movie bad guy to a radio bad guy. There's a pretty good guarentee of a promotion.

The Playhouse version of The Killers is available to hear or download HERE.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: July 1964, part 3

AVENGERS #6





We meet Baron Zemo--an arch enemy of Captain America. During the war, Zemo perfected a chemical called Adhesive X. But in a fight with Cap, a vat of the chemical was shattered and spilled over Zemo, permenently affixing the hood he wears to his face.





Now, years later, Zemo is hiding out in a South American jungle when he finds out Captain America is alive. He recruits the first-ever version of the Masters of Evil, grabbing one enemy from each of the Avengers' individual Rogue's Galleries. Aside from himself, there's the Black Knight (a good choice--by far the most interesting of Giant Man's foes), Radioactive Man, and the Melter.




A couple of neat-o fights follow, with the Avengers being initially forced to retreat when Cap and Giant Man get stuck to some pavement with Adhesive X. Then there's a rematch, with the Avengers trading opponents to confuse the enemy. Once again, Jack Kirby manages to give each of the heroes some quality "screen time." The scene in which Iron Man borrows a pickup truck to tow Cap and Hank behind him while they're stuck to a hunk of pavement is a visual highlight.

Several points of note: There's a nice bit of Marvel U continuity when the Avengers contact Paste-Pot Pete, the Human Torch's foe, to get his expertise in figuring out how to dissolve Adhesive X. He agrees to help in exchange for reduced prison time, so his motivation is perfectly believable.

In a slightly less believable sequence, Rick Jones and his Teen Brigade play an important part in Cap's overall plan for defeating the Masters of Evil. I would have thought that asking the cops or the army for a couple of guys to help might have been preferable to risking the lives of teenagers. Oh, well, the average age of comic book readers at the time was still a lot younger than it is now, so the temptation to make heroes out of kids is understandable. Besides, Rick and Cap will be building up a father/son-type relationship in future issues, so giving Rick some face time in the story makes sense in that regard.


One last thing: Iron Man has installed some electronics and magnets in Cap's shield, allowing Cap to control its flight when he throws it. He'll keep these gadgets for awhile until someone finally realizes Cap is just plain cooler when he does incredible things with his shield through skill alone. In a future issue, he'll decide the gadgets throw off the shield's "delicate balance" and get rid of them.



X-MEN #6


Gosh, what a coincidence! Both Professor X and Magneto independently come to the conclusion that the Sub Mariner might be a mutant and both begin to search him out to recruit him.


But if you give Stan and Jack their one little coincidence, what follows is another great story.


I sometimes wonder if I should keep bothering with the Marvel Universe series simply because I keep repeating myself on one aspect of them so often--Jack Kirby (along with Steve Ditko) was a master in constructing logical and visually awesome battle sequences. This one is no different. It's set on an isolated island upon which Magneto has set up his latest base. The Sub Mariner is there, checking out the possibility of working with Magneto to take his vengence on surface dwellers. (Namor is particularly ticked off since Sue rejected him in last month's Fantastic Four.) The fight starts when Namor and Angel have a brief dogfight, then the battle becomes more general with all the various combatants taking a hand.


Once again, the teamwork and skills learned from Danger Room sessions help the X-Men during their fight, while Magneto shows a casual willingness to sacrifice his own teammates to win a battle. This turns Namor against him. Magneto and the Brotherhood flee in a rocketship, though not before his relationship with Pietro and Wanda is strained even farther. Namor stomps off, disillusioned with the concept of an alliance with anyone. (So far, he's had bad experiences with Doctor Doom, the Hulk and now Magneto.) The X-Men go home--victorious in that they helped prevent Namor and Magneto from joining forces.


That's it for July. In August, Zemo will get new allies and then arrange a rematch with the Avengers (now a monthly book); the FF will have a rematch against the Red Ghost; Spider Man adds another villain to his growing Rogue's Gallery; Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man, the Human Torch and Daredevil also each encounter new villians; and Dr. Strange battles Loki.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

NEW FEATURE: Whenever possible, I will now include a link at the end of my "Friday's Favorite OTR" posts to a location where you can download the episode I'm discussing. If I can ever figure out how the heck to do it, I'll someday try out embedding the episode directly on my blog.

Rocky Jordan: "The Case of the Sleepy Camel" 1/16/49


A local chieftan gives Rocky three camels as a gift. Rocky hates the smelly things, but the local culture mores force him to accept and keep them for at least a short time.


Inexplicably, a few other people show much more interest in the camels than they are apparently worth. Then a camel driver gets a knife in the back. Rocky has no idea what's going on, but he's determined to find out.


This is another solid, hard-boiled story that takes advantage of the Cairo setting to tell an unusual mystery. Few of those Rocky meets on this case are who they claim to be, while the fact that one of the camels is perpetually sleepy proves to be a vital clue. It all ties together in the end during a deadly encounter in a Cairo hotel room.


This episode, along with other Rocky Jordan episodes, can be downloaded HERE.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Skeletons, death rays and biplanes


G-8 and his Battle Aces ran for 110 issues during the 1930s and early 1940s. All 110 issues--in which master spy and ace fighter pilot G-8 foils increasingly bizarre German schemes to defeat the Allies during the Great War--were written by Robert J. Hogan.
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There were a lot of pulps in the '20s and '30s that featured WWI aerial combat or daredevil barnstormers. Remember that at this time, the overwhelming majority of people had never been on an airplane. So pilots and airborne derring-do still had a thick veneer of romanticism over them. Readers searching for a good adventure story were naturally drawn to the subject.
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Many of the aviation pulps were set during the Great War for convenience more than any other reason--like Westerns and G-Men pulps, it gave the readers a pre-set situation in which they already knew who the good guys and bad guys were.
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So when Hogan was assigned by Popular Publications to do another aviation pulp, he realized he had to come up with a way to make his stories stand out from the crowd. His solution was to make the hero a spy as well as a pilot, then to throw a seemingly endless series of science-fiction threats at him.
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In the first issue, he encountered giant robot bats that spewed poison gas. Later issues involved anything from genetically-engineered giant birds to soldiers mutated into werewolves to invisible planes. Hogan, a talented and prolific wordsmith, always managed to build a fast-moving and exciting yarn around these idiosyncratic plot ideas. Frederick Blakeslee usually painted the terrific covers.
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What made me write about G-8 today? Well, I just read a recent reprint of Skeletons of the Black Cross (first published in February 1936). In this one, G-8 has to deal not only with a newly invented German death ray, but with a small army of apparently re-animated human skeletons.
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Skeletons with death rays. Why doesn't anything that inherently interesting ever happen in real life?
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Typical of most pulp adventures, it is pure escapism--emphasizing story and action over characterizations. And that, of course, is exactly has it should be. Hogan, like Maxwell Grant (The Shadow) and Lester Dent (Doc Savage) had a talent for constructing clever plots and exciting action set pieces. He did exactly what he was supposed to do--provide his readers with a few hours of fun.
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In fact, Hogan outdoes himself in this issue with one particular set piece. G-8 finds out that the Germans need a rare element to power their death ray. Stealing a German bomber equipped with six bombs, he flys out into the North Sea to intercept and blow up the submarine carrying an irreplaceable supply of the element.
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What follows is a truly edge-of-your-seat battle sequence in which G-8 dogfights a half-dozen Fokkers while simultaneously dodging anti-aircraft fire from the sub and trying to make a successful bomb run. It's one of Hogan's finest moments in the series--one of those occasions where you can't put the book down until you're done with the chapter.
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The story is marred a bit at the climax when the Germans pretty much act like idiots, allowing a captive G-8 to sneak away and radio for help. But even this doesn't spoil an exciting and entertaining story. G-8 isn't as famous as the Shadow or Doc Savage, but he holds a deserved place of honor in the pulp hero pantheon.
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Skeletons with death rays.
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Sorry, I just wanted to type that out one more time.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: July 1964, part 2

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #106


Last issue ended with Thor losing his hammer. So this issue beings with Thor losing himself--in a crowd, that is. He ducks into a panicky crowd so that no one will notice when he turns back into Dr. Blake.


Then, to get his hammer (now reverted into a walking cane) back, he has to pretend to be willing to sell Thor out to Cobra and Mr. Hyde. His plan works and--turning into Thor again--he manages to capture Cobra. A little later, Hyde manages to disarm Thor again, but the Thunder God decides he doesn't need his hammer to defeat Hyde and proceeds to use the sixty seconds he has before turning into Blake to pretty much beat the snot out of the bad guy.


But there's no happy ending for Thor. Jane Foster is now ticked off at Blake for apparently turning coward and offering to sell out Thor to the bad guys.

The Tales of Asgard back-up story gives us a little background information on Balder the Brave--who, we find out, is as famous for his compassion and kindness as for his mercy. As with the Heimdall story last month, it's a pretty quiet story--mainly serving just to highlight Balder's personality. But starting next month, the Tales of Asgard will return to giving us lots of awesome Kirby action.

TALES OF SUSPENSE #55


Let's get the silly part over with first. The Mandarin has Iron Man captive, wrapped up in super-strong cables. The villain asks the hero: "Are you mad? You dare smile in the face of death?"


What I wanna know is how the heck Mandarin knew Iron Man was smiling. He wears an iron helmet that covers his face, for gosh sakes.


Oh, well, once we get past that bit of absurd dialogue, the story is actually pretty good. Iron Man breaks loose and the two foes continue their battle. The interceptor ray that Mandarin was using to sabotage U.S. missles is wrecked and Iron Man manages to escape the castle soon after.


One of the failings of the early Iron Man stories was that he often did not go up against bad guys who could match him in pure power. But Mandarin, with his weapon-equiped rings and martial arts skills, stikes a better balance. In fact, Iron Man can't defeat him in a straight fight this time around. All he can do is wreck Mandarin's ray machine, then run for the hills. Iron Man is finallly starting to build up a respectable Rogue's Gallery.



TALES TO ASTONISH #57


Evil scientist Egghead has what is actually a pretty good plan. He'll use a devise that allows him to communicate with ants to send a false alarm to Giant Man, convincing the hero that Spider Man is planning on attacking him.


So Giant Man and Wasp go out looking for Spidy to launch a pre-emptive strike. While the ensuing fight atracts a crowd and distracts the police, Egghead and some goons will be robbing a payroll truck.


The story is an excuse to put one of Marvel's most popular characters on the cover, but that's just fine. The story and the Giant Man/Spidey fight are good. We never get to see who might come out on top, though. Warned by ants, they figure out what's going on and team-up to foil Egghead's plan.


There is one important event in this story. Hank makes Janet a compressed air wrist gun--her "Wasp's Sting"--that greatly increases her usefullness in a fight. It's a good idea--something that will allow Janet to take a more proactive part in battles. In later years, the compressed air weapon will be replaced by a devise that allows her to amplify her own bio-electric energy and zap bad guys with that. But the basic idea is the same.


There's also a short back-up story in which Janet foils a jewel thief. Prior to this issue, there had been stories in which Janet is visiting orphanages and hospitals to tell stories. These were reprints of 1950s-era monster stories with a new framing sequence, so I haven't bothered reviewing them. But now, the winsome Wasp will get to go into action on her own. There will be one more Wasp story next issue, then the Hulk will be moving into Tales to Astonish and there will sadly be no more room for the poor little rich girl's solo adventures.


Next week, we'll finish up July with visits to the Avengers and the X-Men.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Hercule Poirot: The Bride Wore Fright" 11/30/45


This was a regrettably short-lived series with actor Harld Huber giving us a really fun and quite accurate interpretation of Agatha Christie's Belgium detective.


Most episodes were, of course, whodunits. This one, though, starts with a wealthy and ruthless big game hunter trying to force an unwilling young woman to marry him. Soon, he's forced to knock off an old girlfriend who attempts to blackmail him into coming back to her.


Poirot knows the guy is guilty, but there's no proof. But the detective comes up with a plan for tricking the killer into tipping his hand--though he'll have to put his own life on the line to pull it off.


It's a good, logical plot with a likable protagonist, a loathsome villain and a satisfying ending. That's pretty much hits all the necessary bases for a good mystery.

This episode is available for download HERE.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Down the mean streats a man must go who is not himself mean.

The High Window, by Raymond Chandler


Raymond Chandler didn't invent the hard-boiled genre, but he did it better than anyone except (arguably) Dashiell Hammett.


His career as a writer started--as so many of the best hard-boiled writers did--working for Black Mask magazine. But unlike most of the best writers in the pulp era, he wasn't prolific enough to make a living doing short stories. So he began to concentrate on novels. In 1939, he cannibalized the plots of several of his stories, melded his various protagonists into wisecracking P.I. Philip Marlowe, and produced the superb novel The Big Sleep. It was the first of a series of wonderful, evocotive books in which Chandler repeatedly proved himself to be a master of the English language.


Chandler was always more concerned with character and theme than with plot. To be honest, that's why I prefer Hammett over Chandler--if only slightly. Both men would often construct stories with complex plots, but Hammett always managed to tie up all the loose threads in time for the climax. Chandler, on the other hand, almost always left a thread or two dangling.


But this is a matter of pure personal preference on my part. It's unfair to seriously criticize Chandler for considering his plots to be of secondary importance. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that what was most imporant was the image of a tough but good man who maintains his personal integrety no matter how much corruption bubbles up around him. Philip Marlowe is a modern knight-in-armor. Not shining armor, perhaps--there are too many whiskey and tobacco stains for that. But he's a knight all the same.


He is, in fact, the perfect example of what makes the hard-boiled genre so valuable. It's a literary form that is inherently cynical about human nature and human society. But the best hard-boiled stories balance this out by reminding us that there are men and women in the world who still live by their word and maintain a viable code of ethics.


In The High Window (1942), Marlowe is hired to recover a rare coin that's been stolen by an errant member of a rich family. Not surprisingly, the case soon expands outward to include jealously, unfaithful spouses, greed and (of course) murder.


Marlowe slogs through it all until he finally gets to the truth, sifting through a cesspool of lies and half-truths along the way. But in the end, we see that Marlowe--tough guy that he is--will always act with compassion and honor as he chooses to look after the welfare of one of the few more-or-less innocent persons he encounters.


The High Window is the only one of the first four Marlowe novels that was plotted out in advance by Chandler as a self-contained story--the others all made use of plot elements cobbled together from Chandler's short stories. Because of this, it's more tightly plotted than the other novels--though one can also argue it's more formulaic.


But it's still a fast-paced, atmospheric tale. However loose or tight his novels were in terms of plot, Chandler's prose is always a joy to read. His ability to use a few sharply worded sentences to both advance the plot and capture the essence of a scene or character never ceases to amaze me. Take these two sentences, for instance, describing a former showgirl who's caught herself a rich husband:


"From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away, she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away."


It's crisp and funny; it literally begs to be read aloud; and it gives us a perfect sense of the character. Chandler was always doing stuff like that. It's why he still remains virtually unmatched as a writer.


Next month, we'll visit with mystery writer Ellery Queen as he solves The Dutch Shoe Mystery.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: July 1964, part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR #28

Two of the FF's old enemies--the Puppet Master and the Mad Thinker--team up to get revenge on our heroes. Thinker figures out the exact amount of radioactive clay Puppet Master needs to make a puppet of Professor X and gain control over him. Then Professor X is forced to order the X-Men to attack the Fantastic Four.


Nowadays, the X-Men are so perpetually popular its easy to forget there was a time when they were second-tier characters in the Marvel Universe. But The X-Men was never that big a seller in the 1960s. Cross-overs like this (or like the Human Torch/Iceman team-up in Strange Tales a few issues back) are quite obviously meant to generate interest in the X-Men's own book.


And that's just fine, as long at the story is good. And this one is good. Within the context of a comic book universe, the Thinker's plan makes sense. And, as usual, the action sequences are marvelous. There's a half-page panel near the end of the story, when all the heroes have figured out what the heck is going on, that features them going up against the Thinker's Awesome Android. That one panel alone would have been worth the price of the book. An earlier scene in which Iceman encases Ben's head in a big blog of ice--then adds a couple of blocks of ice to Ben's feet--is also pretty cool to look at.


There's an interesting and harmless mistake near the beginning of the story. Reed and Sue are reading a newspaper account of the X-Men's activities and Sue reads off a list of their opponents. She includes "the Space Phantom" on the list. But the Phantom had fought the Avengers, not the X-Men. Oh, well, poor Stan Lee was juggling so many characters at this point that I think we can forgive him if he loses track of a few details.


SPIDER MAN #14
Another strong issue introduces us to the Green Goblin--perhaps Spidey's greatest foe and certainly one of the most visually striking.
Gobby plans to create his own crime syndicate and figures taking out Spider Man is a good way to start. He recruits the Enforcers (the webslinger fought them in issue #10) to help, then lures Spider Man out to the Southwestern desert to ambush him.
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His plan is a little hokey--he talks a movie producer into signing up Spider Man to star in a movie in order to lure the hero to the ambush site. It's a little contrived and conveniently ignores the fact that Peter knows from his previous showbiz experience that he can't get legally paid without giving up his secret identity. It also seems unnecessarily complicated--why is the desert a better location for an ambush than a back alley in New York? But what follows is so much fun that this is forgiveable. Besides, Stan Lee has a good reason for moving the action out to the Southwest.
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Goblin and the Enforcers have a running battle with Spider Man that eventually takes them into a large system of inter-connecting caves. In the caves, they run into the Hulk, who just happens to be hiding out there. The Hulk, of course, decides to smash everyone.
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It all ends with the Enforcers captured. The Hulk vanishes back into the caves and the Goblin escapes. The movie is cancelled and Peter has to take the bus back home.
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In just a few more months, the Hulk will be given his own series again (he'll be sharing Tales to Astonish with Giant Man and the Wasp). So obviously, Stan Lee wants to give him some play in one of the more popular books--which explains Goblin's odd plan to lure Spider Man to the Southwest. It's not quite as satisfying as the X-Men/FF crossover, though. Hulk just kinda shows up without a strong plot-driven reason for being there. But, as I said above, the issue is so much fun in the end, it's easy to forgive the contrivences. A bit where Spider Man gets fed up and lays a nasty punch on the Hulk--only to hurt his hand without bothering the Hulk at all--is a wonderful moment.
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Several details to take note of: The Green Goblin's true identity is kept a secret--in fact, Lee and Ditko themselves hadn't decided who he'd turn out to be. If I remember correctly, it's a disagreement on who the Goblin should be a few years down the road that causes Ditko to leave the book.
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Also, there's some good characterization stuff among the supporting characters. Liz Allen continues to grow more attracted to Peter, which annoys Flash Thompson and causes Betty Brant to experience pangs of jealousy.
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Finally, though the "let's make a movie" part of the plot is a little too silly, there's one character--a parody of the arrogant but clueless producer stereotype--who actually is pretty funny.
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STRANGE TALES #122
The three thugs temporarily given super powers by Doctor Doom in FF #22 are back. Doom had stashed them away in another dimension, but we now find out they reappeared on Earth when Doom himself was hurled into Outer Space. Wanting to impress Doom should the master criminal ever return, they decide to take out the Fantastic Four one by one.
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They start with Johnny, using asbestos robe to hog-tie him. Johnny manages to get loose, though, and eventually bring the trio to ground.
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The Human Torch stories were never more than pretty good--but they were consistenly successful in one area. Johnny was always ending up in situations where he had to use his brains as well as his powers to win. This gave a little bit of bite to what were otherwise average (and sometimes mediocre) stories.
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Dr. Strange, in the meantime, takes a nap at the wrong moment and gets captured by Nightmare. Like Johnny, he also must use his brains as well as his powers to escape. The story's main selling point, though, is Ditko's art. Anytime a Dr. Strange story gave Ditko a chance to portray both alien landscapes and bizarre monsters, it was bound to be worthwhile.
That's it for now. Next week, we'll see what Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man are up to.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Mysterious Traveler: "No Grave Can Hold Me" 1/12/47


A professional magician is sentenced to death for committing a murder--but he vows to return from the grave to take revenge on the judge, the DA and all twelve jurors. Sure enough, a month after his execution, someone strangles the jury foreman.


The Mysterious Traveler is one of those shows that normally has a "rational" explanation for supposed supernatural events (though they did delve into science fiction from time to time). This one manages to keep you guessing right up to the end, though--making you think that maybe this time there is a supernatural explanation for the whole thing. There's several possible twists the plot can take at the tense climax and many listeners probably won't guess just which way that final twist will take us. I didn't, at least.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Who the heck IS on first, anyways?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


"Who's on First" is still, in my opinion, the funniest comedy routine in the history of the universe.






Abbott and Costello were veterans of vaudeville. Gee whiz, I miss vaudeville. I'm not old enough to actually remember it--but I miss it. It was an extraordinary training ground for comedians. Aside from Bud and Lou, guys like Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Marx Brothers and Bob Hope learned their trade by playing a zillion small-time theaters in a zillian towns and cities. When they brought what they learned to radio and the movies (and eventually television), they all regularly brought the house down.




Comedian Fred Allen wrote an autobiography about his years in vaudeville called Much Ado About Me. It is informative and hilarous and not a little bit heartbreaking in its portrayal of a bygone era. In fact, there's a chapter late in the book in which he breaks away from his narrative to compose what is basically a love letter to vaudeville, filled with priceless anecdotes about his fellow performers. It's one of the reasons I miss vaudeville so much--even though it died away before I was born.










By the way, I've got the above clips and 50 or so others posted in one convenient location HERE.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

History of theMarvel Universe: June 1964, part 3

STRANGE TALES #121


The Plantman--the villain able to endow plants with intelligence and then control their actions--returns for another crime spree and, incidentally, to take revenge on Johnny for defeating him back in Strange Tales #113.


Johnny spends a lot of time in this issue getting dunked in water or soaked with enough dew to put out his flames, but he manages to get the upper hand in the end and the Plantman is hauled off to the hoosegow.


This is a pretty average tale that doesn't generate a lot of comment. There is one really cool panel that deserves mention, though. The image of a small tree sneaking into Johnny's bedroom carrying a bucket of water is alone worth the price of admission.


Dr. Strange, in the meantime, is tricked into assuming his ectoplasmic form and leaving his body behind to answer a faked call for help. This allows Mordo to steal and hide Strange's physical form. Strange has only a short time to find the body again and reoccupy it before he fades into nothingness.


It's a neat idea and Ditko's art work--including scenes of an ectoplasmic Dr. Strange battling weird beasties and a final confrontation with Mordo in a wax musuem--make this another strong entry in the series.



DAREDEVIL #2


Well, Daredevil (unlike Spider Man) seems to be in no particular hurry to get his own Rogue's Gallery. In this issue, he borrows one of Spidey's many sparring partners.


This issue also pretty shamelessly plugs other Marvel titles--but does so in ways that make story sense, so it's all perfectly acceptable. The Fantastic Four hire Matt Murdock to read over the new lease at the Baxter Building. So when the FF leaves for a trip to Washington and Electro breaks into their HQ to steal a scientific secret or two, Matt is on hand to battle the villain.


The fight is pretty heavy in the use of thought balloons, allowing Stan Lee to detail how Daredevil uses his super-senses to stay on top of the fight. ("Sounds of... "flickering lights... tickets being torn and changing hands... Electro is racing into a movie theater!") This does the job of effectively letting us know how the hero operates, but it does slow the action down a little. Later issues will find a better balance to the action scenes.


That's it for June. July 1964 will find the Fantastic Four meeting the X-Men; Spider Man adding a very important villain to his Rogue's Gallery, then paying a visit to Tales to Astonish to encounter Giant Man; Thor and Iron Man finishing their respective two-parters; the Human Torch encountering some obscure villains left over from an FF story; Dr. Strange having a rematch with Nightmare; the Avengers battling a supervillain group for the first time; and the X-Men tussling with the Sub-Mariner.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philo Vance: "The Cheese Cake Murder Case" 7/26/49


The bad guys in this one are actually kinda creepy. When we meet them at the beginning of the episode, they seem like a normal young man and his girl happily in love with each other. She's making him try to guess what her birthday present to him is. When it turns out to be a mask--for use in his armed robbery business--we rather abruptly get the idea that this pleasant young couple have some seriously sociopathic tendencies.


Anyway, the guy's next robbery attempt goes awry and results in a murder. His getaway car--driven by a friend--crashes. The friend is killed and mistaken by the police for the actual killer.


But Philo Vance isn't satisfied. He picks up a couple of subtle clues that indicate there was a second person in the car. Then, using a cheese cake found in the car as a starting point, he manages to track down the real killer.


The original Philo Vance novels have dated badly and--in the books--he's the world's most annoying character. But on radio, played with a mixture of intelligence and affability by Jackson Beck, Vance was an effective hero. And the plots, like this one, were well-constructed mysteries. Put a likeable main character into a good mystery and you almost can't help but be entertaining.

This episode can be downloaded. HERE.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Well, HE'S looking at a serious case of sunburn, isn't he?

This is the cover for Action Comics #5, with a November 1938. At this point, Action was an anthology book, featuring a variety of 6-page and 8-pages stories in each issue--including those featuring a new-fangled character named Superman.


Of course, the Last Son of Krypton proved to be enormously popular, kick-starting the dominance of super-hero characters in comic books. But only a few of the early Action Comics covers featured Superman. No one at DC Comics really expected him to be so incredibly popular.


And this is just as well--since the result was great covers like this. By the time Action Comics was into its second year, Superman was the regular subject on the covers. That's fine by itself, but it's nice that guys like the poor slob above had a chance to get their moments of glory. This is an excellent example of effective illustration--it really gives us a sense of immediate danger. I especially like the care the artist (Leo O'Mealia) took to include details like footprints on the sand and the hero's shadow stretched out behind him.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: June 1964, part 2

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #105

Mr. Hyde and the Cobra, defeated by Thor individually, decide to try working together to take revenge against the Thunder God.


Both characters were too underpowered to represent a decent threat to Thor in previous issues. Together, they make a slightly more believable threat. Mr. Hyde comes up with some scientific gadgets to even the odds a bit--including a nifty "time reversal ray" that allows them to backtrack Thor and discover he has some sort of connection with Donald Blake. The villains also make good use of a sort of tag-team approach their direct attacks, making it difficult for Thor to capture one before the other steps back into the fight.


There's one weak moment. Hyde and Cobra capture Blake to lure Thor to them. The trick Blake uses to get them to help him turn into Thor--while their backs are turned so they don't notice the transformation--was a little too contrived to be acceptable.


The story continues into the next issue. (Two-parters are slowly starting to become more common among the various Marvel books). It concludes this issue with an interesting take on how the magic inherent in Thor's hammer works. No other living being can lift it unless they are worthy, right? But can a significantly strong machine lift it? Apparently so--as Cobra uses an atomic-powered hydraulic lift to snatch it from Thor's grasp.


I wasn't sure if I liked this at first, but after thinking about it a moment, the idea grew on me. An inanimate object can't be either worthy or unworthy, so it can be argued that it is exempt from the hammer's usual magic.


The back-up story involves enemies of Asgard using a small sprite-like "air creature" to sneak past Heimdall and scout out Asgard's defences. As usual, it's Jack Kirby's magnificent art that sells this short and fairly quiet tale.


TALES OF SUSPENSE #54
Well, gee whiz, two-parters really are starting to become more common. This is the first of a two-part Iron Man vs. Mandarin story.
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Someone is sabotaging advanced Stark-built weaponry being used in Vietnam. Tony figures only the Mandarin has the know-how to pull this off. This leads to a pretty cool fight that ranges around inside Mandarin's castle. Don Heck does a really nice job of energetically choreographing the battle. In the end, Iron Man can't counter all the various weapons Mandarin uses and he ends up drained of power and captured.
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Iron Man's suit gets a minor re-design this issue, losing that sort-of double-point set atop the forehead. The character is beginning to really find his footing--the plots are improving and the character is gradually becoming more visually appealing.


TALES TO ASTONISH #56
Here's another instance in which the heroes have far too much trouble capturing a particular bad guy than they should.
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The bad guy this time is the Magician, who apparently uses magic to rob everyone at a society party. In reality, he uses gadgetry and sleight-of-hand. When Giant Man runs him down aboard the Magician's getaway blimp (okay--the getaway blimp part is pretty cool), he and the Wasp simply have more trouble than they should taking him in. He's just not that powerful or clever. In fact, at one point--when Hank is ant-sized and Janet is Wasp-sized, he sics his pet rabbit on them. A pet rabbit. Oh, the horror, the horror.
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The story is probably most important in that it ends with Hank and Janet finally admitting they love each other. It'll still be quite awhile before they get married (and Hank will have amnesia when they do tie the knot--don't ask), but this is a nice break from the "Oh, I love her but can't ever say so aloud" dynamic that is actually being over-used just a little with Donald Blake/Jane Foster and Tonly Stark/Pepper Potts.
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That's it for now. Next week, we'll look in on Dr. Strange, the Human Torch and Daredevil.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A nifty montage of pulp SF covers

Someone posted a trio of really nice YouTube videos featuring a fun selection of science fiction pulp covers:











Wednesday, November 11, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: June 1964: part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR #27





Reed finally decides to propose to Sue. But while he's out buying a ring, Namor shows to kidnap the poor girl yet again. The undersea prince, still deserted by his people save for the few loyal guards who rejoined him in Avengers #4, has decided that he needs a bride to regain his previous glory.





Reed pretty much explodes with anger and decides that he'll confront Namor alone. Johnny and Ben don't approve of this, so they recruit Dr. Strange to track down Namor so they can rejoin Reed in time to help.





What follows is yet another great fight scene--Reed goes mano-o-mano with Namor while Ben handles the contingent of Atlantean soldiers. Johnny rescues Sue and they work together to ward off a death trap or two. Cuts between the various scenes are expertly handled so we can easily follow the action throughout.





And Jack Kirby does a great job of making the fight between Namor and Reed believable, with Reed using his powers in several clever ways to cancel out Namor's advantage in pure power. A panel in which Reed forms his body into a giant crossbow and basically fires Namor into some of his own soldiers is wonderful. It somehow manages to be just a little bit silly and really cool at the same time.





Anyway, Sue seperates everyone with a force field and tells Namor to leave her alone in the future. This ticks the pointy-eared prince off, but Dr. Strange teleports everyone away before the fighting can resume. But poor Reed thinks Sue might have just been pretending to reject Namor to end the conflict. So no proposal yet.





I do like the nod to the Marvel Universe's internal continuity here. Namor was rejoined by some of his solders in the Avengers, but Stan Lee remembered to carry that event over into the Fantastic Four. And, finally, Reed angry reaction to Namor's actions adds some real depth to his character.




SPIDER MAN #14

Spider Man is still adding to his Rogue's Gallery at a fast and furious pace. This month introduces us to Mysterio, a former stunt man/special effects guy who uses his skills and devices to frame Spider Man for a series of robberies. Mysterio then publically sets himself up as a crime fighter and the only guy who can bring the villianous webslinger to justice.

Peter spends a few pages worried that he has developed a split personality and really is committing the crimes. This part of the story doesn't really work--this isn't the first time Spidey's been impersonated, after all.

And when Spider Man finally figures out what is going on, he uses the already cliched method of getting the bad guy to gloat and openly confess his crimes while Spidey gets it all on tape.

These flaws keep this issue from being as good as Spider Man usually is, but it's still not bad stuff. Ditko gives us another fine fight scene--he continues to show a real talent for choreographing the action in such a way that emphasizes the webslinger's need to use his brains as well as his powers to win. And Mysterio is a great villain who will be put to better use in better constructed stories in the future.

That's it for this week. Next time, we'll look in on Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

If it's 9 o'clock, then he's up with the orchids.

The Golden Spiders, by Rex Stout (1953)


It's always a lot of fun to spend some time with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The two play off each other so well. In fact, the two men do a remarkable job of combining the traditional whodunit with the hard-boiled detective genre.


The obese but brilliant Wolfe represents the traditional detective. "I have no talents," he once said. "I have genius or nothing!" So he becomes a private investigator, using his genius to earn often very high fees.


Archie represents the hard-boiled P.I. When Wolfe takes a case, it's Archie who does the footwork, collecting facts and interviewing witnesses. Archie is a skilled detective in his own right, quite able to make intelligent decisions while out on his own. But it's Wolfe who puts all the facts together and solves the case.


But it's the prose and the dialouge of the Wolfe stories that really make them the classics they are. Wolfe and Archie are also just plain fun to listen to. Wolfe's grammatically precise sentences, peppered with obscure words, nicely counterpoints Archie's cynical wit. And Rex Stout's excellent storytelling skills allow the sometimes complex plots to unfold in a staightforward and intelligent fashion.


Wolfe and Archie are perfect partners, but often get on each other's nerves. That's pretty much how they got involved in solving a trio of murders in The Golden Spiders. Wolfe had gotten into a snit when his personal chef unexpectedly changed a recipe for the main course at dinner. This leads Archie to decide that Wolfe needs to be taught a lesson.


So when a 12-year-old boy shows up on the doorstep, demanding to see Wolfe, Archie lets him in. But Wolfe gets back in turn at Archie by politely listening to the boy (who thinks he's seen a woman in danger) and obligating Archie to forgo a night out to take notes.


Everything gets a bit more serious the next day when the boy is murdered. A couple of other deaths follow and an odd chain of circumstances (and a $10,000 check) obligate Wolfe to investigate.


What follows is an expertly constructed mystery with a satisfying conclusion. The novel also includes some great scenes with some of the series' regular supporting characters, including the perpetually aggravated Police Inspector Cramer and the three independent private eyes (Saul Panzar, Orrie Cather and Fred Durkin) often hired by Wolfe when they need more help on a case. It all comes to an end, as it usally does, in Wolfe's study, with the corpulant genius explaining to a roomful of suspects and cops who killed whom. It's a great novel from start to finish--one of the best of the series.


Next month, we'll visit with P.I. Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's The High Window.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: May 1964, part 3

AVENGERS #5


The subterranean race known as the Lava Men (Thor fought one of them in his own book several months ago) have a problem. A big chunk of unstable and explosive "living rock" is growing rapidly inside their kingdom. If it goes off, it'll blow up the planet.


Their solution? Push the rock to the surface, where it'll only take out all us annoying surface dwellers. The rock happens to appear in the American Southwest, near where Bruce Banner has recently returned to work for the Army.


So he's nearby when the Avengers show up to investigate. The bulk of this issue is a battle between the Avengers and the Lava Men, with the Hulk appearing near the end. The Avengers manage to trick the Hulk into helping to harmlessly destroy the living rock.


It's a pretty good issue with Kirby's usual well-choreographed action sequences. There's a couple of other notable points:

a) The various Marvel comics continue to build a strong internal continuity. This one, for instance, picks up right after the events in Fantastic Four #26, with the Avengers taking stock of damage to their headquarters done by the Hulk. And it's a way of building continuity that is perfectly fair to the reader--if you haven't read FF #26, you haven't missed anything you need to know to follow this story.

b) This is the Hulk's last regular appearance in the Avengers. The big green guy will pop up in Spider Man in a couple of months and finally get his own series again as part of Tales to Astonish in four months--the start of a long-running series that will mark him as one of Marvel's most important characters.


X-Men #5


The X-Men and the Brotherhood have yet another run-in with each other, resulting in Angel's capture and imprisonment aboard Asteriod M (Magneto's new outer space headquarters.)
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But the remaining X-Men invade the asteriod and manage to free the Angel. The Brotherhood escapes, but the asteroid is destroyed.
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Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are still sticking with Magneto, though they come close to mutiny once again when they balk at killing anyone. It's pretty obvious that Stan Lee is setting these two characters up to eventually join the ranks of the good guys, but the character dynamic they introduce into the Brotherhood is pretty interesting in the meantime.
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Also--remember last issue when Professor X told everyone he had lost his mental powers? Well, he was fibbing. He just wanted to see if the X-Men could handle a mission without his mental guidence. When they do so, he announces they've graduated. I'm not sure what practical purpose that serves, since they all keep doing the exact same thing ever issue. But what the hey.
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That's it for May. In April, the FF goes against the Sub-Mariner once again (with some help from Dr. Strange); Spider Man adds another member to his rogue's gallery; the Human Torch, Dr. Strange, Iron Man and Thor all encounter old enemies; Giant-Man and the Wasp battle an apparently magical thief; and Daredevil borrows one of Spider Man's bad guys.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Mr. Moto: "The Crooked Log" 10/7/51


A woman who lost her husband at sea three years ago spots a painting of her husband--dated the day he supposedly died. She goes to the Maritime Commission, who send her to Mr. Moto.


In this version of the character, Moto is a counter-espionage agent who works for an unspecified government agency. Normally, he deals with Communist spies, so I'm not sure why he's expected to take a look at what turns out to be an insurance scam. I guess that unnamed agency he works for has a pretty wide-ranging set of responsibilities.


But the story itself is a good one, involving interesting characters set amidst an interesting plot. I especially like the Dutch owner of an antique shop who has his store broken into--only to have the burglar leave him a painting rather than steal something. His rather uncertain command of the English language as he excitedly expresses himself is just plain fun to listen to.


That painting proves to be important, as does a piece of old driftwood. It all involves trying to find a log book that would prove a sunken ship didn't sink by accident. In the end, it appears that the bad guys have the upper hand on Mr. Moto. But Moto is a man who always has at least one more trick up his sleeve.


Moto's career as a fictional character is an interesting one. In the excellent pre-war novels by John Marquand, he was an agent for the Japanese Imperial government and not usually the protagonist. In the equally excellent B-movies of the late 1930s that starred Peter Lorre, he was an indepenent agent for the "International Police," often looking after Western political interests.


By the time he came to radio in 1951, he'd changed from being a Japanese citizen to an American of Japanese descent, now working directly for the U.S. government. But all three versions of the character are pretty cool, presenting us with a quietly polite but extremely capable man who employs an often ruthless intelligence to get his job done.

This episode can be downloaded HERE.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

If nothing else, the car is DEFINITELY cool.

I've written before (here, here, and here) about seeing movies or reading books I fondly remembered from my childhood--stuff I thought was too cool for words when I was a kid and that happened to turn out to still be pretty cool when I revisited them as a grown-up.



Well, there's still a few things I remember liking a lot as a little one that I've never run across as a big 'un. One is a young adult novel about a couple of friends assigned to a PT Boat in the Pacific Theater during World War II. I don't remember any significant plot details or even the title, so I'm sadly unlikely to ever dig it up. (I only remember enjoying it enormously, plus a battle sequence in which the boat was fighting a bunch of Japanese barges trying to bring reinforcements in to an island. Oh, and I think the best friend of the point-of-view character was named Gary. But you can't find a book title with just that information. Trust me, I've tried.)


At least I remember the title of another fondly remembered item from my boyhood. It was a 1971 TV series called Bearcats. Boy, this show was cool.



At least I think it was cool. It only ran for thirteen episodes and I've never seen a re-run. It's never been posted online or released on DVD. And I can't remember the plot of a single episode.


It certainly had a cool premise. Two soldiers-of-fortune tool around the American Southwest in the years just before World War I. Their car? A beautiful-looking 1914 Stutz Bearcat. If you had a dangerous job that needed doing, you could hire these two guys.


The plot descriptions of the individual episodes available online make it all sound really good. They take on a bad guy who's using a stolen army tank to rob banks. Or they interfer with a German plot to start a war between the U.S. and Mexico. Or they rescue a band of archeologists from treasure-seeking thugs. All potentially great stuff if the writing is solid and if the characters are fun. It's a wonderful time period in which to set an adventure series. And that car really is cool.



But I have no idea if the show would hold up for me were I to see it as an adult. Well, I'm apparently not the only one with fond memories of the show. Maybe one day it'll be available to watch. Then I can find out for sure.







Wednesday, October 28, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: May 1964, part 2

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #104


Odin is still taking advice from Loki? For an all-seeing, all-powerful deity, it seems he should be a little less willing to continually trust the untrustworthy God of Mischief.


This time, he takes Loki's advice to personally to to Earth and attend to Thor--and he leaves Loki in charge of Asgard while he's gone.


To the surprise of no one other than Odin, Loki immediately betrays the All-Father. He sets free Skagg the Storm Giant and Surtur the Fire Demon to attack Earth. Fortunately, Heimdall picks up Loki's evil scheme with his super-hearing, then sends Balder the Brave to warn Odin. This, I believe, is Balder's first appearance in which he looks like the Balder we're all used to seeing. It's his introduction as a regular reoccuring character in the Thor mythos.

All this leads to a wonderful battle. Odin starts things off by transporting the entire population of the Earth to another dimension, where they'll be kept safe until the danger has passed. Then he, Thor and Balder manage to eek out a victory against the giant and the demon. It's a story that allows Kirby to go totally cosmic with his art, which is--of course--always a good thing.

Afterwards, Thor refuses to go back to Asgard with Odin because he's still in love with Jane, so that whole issue remains unresolved. Odin exiles Loki and sends him to live with the trolls--I guess even an all-seeing, all-powerful deity can finally get it.

The "Tales of Asgard" back-up story is one of several that provide us with some background information on the Asgardian supporting cast. It's basically Heimdall's job interview for the task of guarding the Rainbow Bridge that leads to Asgard. After effectively demonstrating that his abiltiy to see or hear anything--no matter how far away--makes him the perfect guard, he gets the job. It's not action-packed, but it doesn't need to be. Kirby's layouts once again leaves the story literally dripping with pure awesomeness.


TALES OF SUSPENSE #53
Okay, so the Russian spy known as the Black Widow comes back to Tony after nearly murdering him last issue, cries and says she's sorry. Tony instantly forgives her and then shows her the powerful new anti-gravity device he just invented.

It's gotta be a trap, right? Tony couldn't be that dumb, could he?

Actually, apparently, he could be. The Widow snatches away the device and makes a getaway, then begins using it in a campaign of sabatoge--all with the hope of getting back into the good graces of the Russian government. Eventually, Iron Man is able to destroy the device and save the day.

But, gee whiz, Tony. Giving her a second chance is one thing. Showing off super-secret devices to a known Russian spy is another thing entirely. Next time you want to impress a lady, just buy her a new Corvette or something, would you?






Tales to Astonish #55

The Human Top--Giant Man's nemesis from several issues ago--breaks out of jail, then managest to steal Hank's growth capsules. So now our heroes have to face off against a giant human top.


Dick Ayers is doing the art here and gives us an entertaining fight sequence, in which we find out (I'm pretty sure for the first time) that Hank can communicate with termites as well as ants. This leads to the tactic of having the termits eat a rooftop out from under the bad guy, thus giving victory to the bad guys.


A good if unexceptional issue. Having a villain use Hank's own invention against him is pretty cool, though.


Next week, we'll finish up May with a look at the Avengers and the X-Men.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Rocky Jordan: "Strangers Three" 12/5/48


Rocky Jordan thinks that Angus Martin--an old partner of his--was killed in an explosion three months earlier. But when three different men accost Rocky in a single night and ask about Angus' current whereabouts, he begins to smell a live rat rather than a dead one.


Angus had broken up his partnership with Rocky by stealing $15,000. That's motivation enough for Rocky to join the hunt. But it's not long before someone takes a few shots at him. Soon after that, there's a murder and a whole lot of suddenly missing money thrown into the mix. Now Rocky has to ID a killer in order to clear himself.


Typical of the show, this is a fast-paced whodunit that combines the exotic location of Cairo with the sensibilities of the hard-boiled genre. It's well-constructed in terms of plot and well-produced in terms of special effects and the performances of the actors. And there's a pretty good twist at the end involving the identity of the real killer.

This episode can be downloaded HERE. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Watch Out for Evil Big Game Hunters

Meet a big game hunter in a work of fiction and they're likely to fall into one of two catagories. Either they're good guys, who stumble across a series of fantastic adventures without even really trying to do so (as Allen Quatermain was wont to do) or get a job leading safaris that go back in time to hunt prehistoric creatures (a job Reginald Rivers was quite good at).




Or they'll be bad guys. In this case, they'll either be madmen who'll hunt you for sport or they'll be top assassins working for a master criminal. In either case, you gotta watch out for them.


If you've never read Richard Connell's short story "The Most Dangerous Game," (1924) then you should be ashamed of yourself. Click on the link provided and read it right now. It's one of the best adventure stories ever written.




And General Zaroff, the madman who used a remote island has his private arena in which to hunt human beings, is a really creepy and effective villain. His insanity is apparent in the calm, methodical manner in which he takes pleasure in bringing his prey down, but being whacko doesn't affect his skill as a hunter in the least. This makes him the best sort of villain--someone with a definable (albeit nutty) motive who has the chops and skill to get what he wants.


"The Most Dangerous Game" has been adapted to film at least a half-dozen times, but the earliest film version is still the best. It's also the only one to use the original title and (if I can trust the results of the character search I did on IMDB.com) the only one in which General Zaroff gets to keep his original name. Which is actually important--it just sort of sounds right.






The Most Dangerous Game (1932) was actually filmed simultaneously with the original King Kong, using many of the same cast and crew as well as the Skull Island set standing in for Zaroff's island. It tosses a damsel in distress into the mix, but is otherwise pretty faithful to the original story. Zaroff is played by Leslie Banks, an actor who had been wounded and scarred around the face in the First World War. Banks made a point of highlighting the scarred side of his face whenever he played villains, an effective bit of stage craft that made him particularly memorable in such roles.




Zaroff made a great villain on radio as well. A 1943 episode of Suspense had Orson Welles giving us a melodramatic but still fun interpretation of the role, while a 1947 episode of Escape featured Hans Conried in my personal favorite version of the character. Conried is probably best remembered as a comedic actor, but he could manage to sound pretty darn evil when he put his mind to it.


Of course, when Evil Big Game Hunters aren't hunting you for perverse thrills, they're doing so for money. Colonel Sebastian Moran was the chief assassin of that Napolean of Crime--Professor Moriarty. Moran specialized in using an air gun, allowing him to take out his target without making a lot of noise.


Moran kept at his job even after Moriarty met his doom at Reichenbach Falls, determined to finish off Sherlock Holmes and avenge the professor. But Holmes outwits and catches the assassin in "The Adventure of the Empty House."


Moran is used as the main villain in one of the later Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the Great Detective. He's played by character actor Alan Mowbray--who, like Leslie Banks--had served Britain with distinction during the First World War.


Terror by Night (1946) incorporates elements from several of the original Holmes stories and turns out to be a minor but still enjoyable entry in the Great Detective's film canon. Moran adds poison darts to his arsenal of death for this particular outing.


But whether they are using traditional rifles, custom-made air guns or poison darts, Evil Big Game Hunters are bad news. Avoid them at all costs. Warn your children against them. And, above all else, don't get lost at sea only to wash up on General Zaroff's island.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: May 1964, part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR #26





This one picks up right where the last issue left off, with Ben shrugging off the beating Hulk gave him and renewing the battle.





We get what might be the first occurance of a common comic book trope here--the fight just happens to take place in a condemned neighborhood, where the good guys don't have to worry about innocent bystanders or property damage.





This sort of thing happens with unlikely frequency through the years--but it's a perfectly acceptable cliche. Often, a good fight sequence can be constructed around the hero's need to protect innocent lives, but it's good to leave the artist the freedom to simply allow the characters to go after each other and just wreck/blow up a lot of stuff.





Anyway, the injuries Johnny suffered last issue prove to be relatively minor (though he does wear one arm in an asbestos sling for much of the story) and the doctors manage to whip up a serum that cures Reed. So the FF is back together again.





And then the Avengers show up. There's a great "fight" sequence in which members of the two groups get in each other's way when they try to attack the Hulk, allowing the green guy to snatch Rick Jones and leap atop a partially contructed building. Even after the two groups team up for the final showdown, they still manage to stumble over each other once or twice.





All this makes for another wonderful fight scene, which ends in a more-or-less draw when the Hulk turns back into Bruce Banner and manages to slip away. Jack Kirby once again manages to highlight nearly ever hero for at least a panel or two.





There's some great characterizations as well, as it's made clear at several points that each member of the Fantastic Four (including Ben) really cares and appreciates the others.





I also like that neither the FF or the Avengers are just mindlessly trying to beat down on the Hulk. Everytime they encounter him, they try to talk before they fight. But the Hulk is just too darn mad over what he sees as Rick's betrayal to listen. This is something that will be followed up on in this month's Avengers.





SPIDER MAN #12



Doctor Octopus, still on the loose after the last issue, goes on a cross-country crime spree, hoping lure Spider Man to him so he can have his revenge. But poor Peter Parker has to study for mid-terms and, besides, he doesn't have enough money for bus fare to pursue the supervillain.


Frustrated, Doc Ock returns to New York and kidnaps Betty Brant (who has returned to work at the Daily Planet). This does lure Spider Man to him, but the luckless webslinger has caught the flu and is weak as a kitten.


In fact, he puts up such a weak fight that no one believes he really is Spider Man, so when Ock knocks him out and unmasks him, everyone just assumes that Parker has dressed up as Spidey in a desperate attempt to save Betty.


The next day, finally over his flu, Peter discovers his supposed act of bravery has impressed Liz Allen--which annoys Flash Thompson. But Pete has no time to deal with all that nonsense. Ock is on another rampage, releasing animals from the zoo and overturning cars in yet another attempt to bring Spider Man to him.


This leads to yet another great fight scene--this one beginning with Spidey rounding up the escaped animals, then going into a running battle across the rooftops. The finale is in a burning artists' studio, surrounded by huge, grotesque statues. It's fast-moving, visually fun, allows Spidey to use his webbing in several tactically interesting ways and ends with Ock in custody yet again.


I know I'm repeating myself ad naseam about how cool the fight scenes are both here and in Fantastic Four, but it simply continues to be true and is an important part of what made Marvel comics of this era so entertaining and memorable.


There's a neat bit of business involving J. Jonah Jamison. When Betty is kidnapped, he puts out an extra asking Spider Man to contact him and get instructions on where to find Ock. He also sends Peter Parker to get photos, but doesn't tell the cops (so the Bugle can have an exclusive.) After Ock gets away from that particular debacle, a cop give Jonah a really nasty dressing down about not reporting the crimes right away. Once again, we see that Lee and Ditko seem determined to give every cast member some depth---whether this shows them to be good or bad.





STRANGE TALES #120


Johnny Storm and Bobby Drake just happen to be on the same cruise ship when some modern day pirates come aboard to loot the passengers. What follows is a straight-forward and entertaining action set piece. The sheer number of pirates and a clever leader combine to believably give the heroes a hard time before the villain are all rounded up.


Meanwhile, Doctor Strange decides to keep an eye on a reporter who is broadcasting live from a reputed haunted house. But the house isn't traditionally haunted--Strange himself comments that there are things out there more dangerous than ghosts. This proves true as the story leads up to an interesting twist at the end.


That's it for now. Next week, we'll look in on Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man.
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