Thursday, February 26, 2009

From Pirate to Preacher

When I was still an angelic little boy, I once watched a Disney production on television called Dr Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

Years later, I remembered very little about it---other than I thought it was really, really cool. In fact, some of my memories of it were false—I I always remembered it as being set in America during the Revolutionary War. (The Scarecrow is, after all, doing battle with Redcoats.)

But it turns out it was set in England, though it was during the reign of King George III. Dr. Syn is the vicar of a small church near Romney Marsh. At least that’s his day job. At night, he dresses as the Scarecrow (and, boy, is it a creepy-lookin’ costume) and leads a gang of smugglers, using the proceeds to help the locals pay their repressive taxes. Along the way, he repeatedly outwits the army officer tasked with catching him.

Dr. Syn came out on DVD recently and I picked up a copy. (And I’m lucky I did—apparently it sold out in just a few weeks time.) I did so with trepidations, since I knew that often stuff we thought was too cool for words as kids don’t always hold up when we see them as adults. I didn’t want to spoil my memories.

But there was nothing to worry about. Dr. Syn/Scarecrow, as played by Patrick McGoohan, actually is too cool for words. The three-part TV series (first aired on Disney’s Wonderful World of Color show) is superb old-fashioned storytelling, as the hero outwits the Redcoats, helps the downtrodden and rescues prisoners from dungeons. Over the course of the three episodes, he comes up with one multi-faceted plan after another that leaves his enemies perpetually bewildered.

I have, of course, since asked the pastor at my church why he or any of the other staff there never do stuff this cool. His answer, of course, was “How do you know we don’t?”

Seeing and enjoying the TV show again reminded me that I had never read the original book, written by Russell Thorndyke in 1915. I picked up a copy through Amazon and discovered that the literary Dr. Syn is a lot more of a scoundrel than his Disney counterpart. The book Syn is willing to act in an extremely ruthless manner that McGoohan’s character only pretended to capable of, including doing away with potential witnesses.

But once you get used to the idea that it’s a story about scoundrels on both sides of the law, then it’s still a ripping good yarn. The novel is written in a fast-moving, witty prose and peppered with entertaining supporting characters. (Some of them with wonderful names such as Sennacherib Pepper or Jerry Jerk.) Though Syn is no longer very heroic, his battle of wits with a British naval officer still makes for a good time. And there is a truly sympathetic character—the young girl Imogene, who is in love with the squire’s son—that we do end up rooting for with a clear conscience.

So here I am reading through this novel when I get to page 161 and—WHAM—the book just peters out without resolving the major plot lines. Well, that’s annoying.

Did I get a defective copy? No, I check Amazon and the page count they have matches. And, lo, several of the customer reviews mention the same problem.

It turns out this edition of Dr. Syn, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, published by Wildside Press, is the victim of either a sloppy production error or a bizarre editing decision, since it was published WITH THE LAST FEW CHAPTERS MISSING!!!!

Fortunately, the book is old enough to be in the public domain and I found the full text via Google Books, allowing me to finish reading it. But, gee whiz, my print copy still annoys me. Why would someone reprint a novel and leave off the ending?

Anyway, if you’re lucky enough to get hold of the DVD of Disney’s Dr. Syn, I recommend it highly. I also recommend the original book, though you need to be careful of what edition you get if you want to read the whole thing. The movie and the book represent two very thematically different versions of the character, but both are worth visiting.

The book was very successful when it first came out, prompting Thorndyke to write a number of others. These are prequels, detailing Syn’s adventures when he still went by the name of Captain Clegg and sailed the seas as a pirate. I’m going to get hold of those as well before long and read them as well. But, by golly, if any of them are missing their ending, I’ll take on the mantle of the Scarecrow myself and wage a just war against sloppy publishers the world over.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1963, part 2


A ruthless warlord from the planet Xarta is the latest alien to attempt to conquer Earth (the second attempt at an alien takeover this month). These guys are (like the Skrulls) shape changers. Their plan is to secret replace government leaders in order to sow confusion, then have their armada attack.

It’s a pretty good plan, but Thor catches on and ends up fighting a duel with the warlord’s son, then the warlord himself. It’s an enjoyable fight, with Thor using a neat tactic at one point to counter an invisibility trick pulled by his opponent. In the end, Thor tosses the warlord back into space, convincing the armada to beat a hasty retreat.

It’s a good story, presenting Thor with the sort of powerful threat he needs in order to present a challenge. I think the creative staff on Thor (Al Hartley does the art for this issue, with Stan Lee still providing the plots) must have realized this themselves by this point—we’ll be seeing very few mundane gangsters from now on. In fact, Loki returns again next issue and we’ll start seeing more of Asgard. It’s a slow process, but Thor will eventually be one of the coolest and most imaginative books Marvel produces during the 1960s.


An acrobat named Carl Zante shows up at the Storm house in Glenville to see the Human Torch.

BUT WAIT!!! I thought Johnny had a secret identity in Glenville, despite NOT having a secret identity anywhere else in the world. Johnny can’t figure out how Zante found him.

Well, it turns out that everyone in Glenville knows Johnny is the Human Torch—they were just polite enough not to mention it since Johnny seemed to be so determined to keep it a “secret.” Everyone in Glenville isn’t dumb—they’re just really well-mannered. It’s Johnny who seems to be a few flames short of a blazing bonfire.

Gee whiz, that might be the single lamest moment in the history of comic books. But the whole “secret identity” thing was a big, annoying continuity glitch to start with and I suppose that was the best explanation Stan Lee and writer Larry Lieber could come up with.

Anyway, back to the story. Zanti plays on Johnny’s ego to get him to quit the Fantastic Four and join up with him to form the crime-fighting “Torrid Twosome.” But it’s all a trick to get Johnny to melt open a bank vault so Zanti could rob the place.

Johnny gets shot as well—this just isn’t his day. But with the help of the rest of the Fantastic Four, he manages to catch Zanti.

This is actually a good story once we get past that painful secret identity moment. Dick Ayers takes over from Kirby as the artist starting in this issue and does a fine job with the action. Actually, Zanti (whose whole schtick is basic arcrobatic tricks) probably lasts longer in his fight with Johnny than he really should, but the running battle is an entertaining one regardless.

And however awkwardly it was done, I am really glad that they finally gave up on trying to claim the Human Torch has a secret identity.

Next week, we’ll see Spider Man try to join the Fantastic Four, while off in Vietnam, inventor Tony Stark will take a piece of shrapnel in his chest. Gee, I wonder what that will lead to?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Blind as a Not-So-Blind Bat

The publication of the first issue of The Shadow in 1931 opened a floodgate for new heroic characters within the pages of the pulp magazines. Over the next decade, countless good guys began to have countless adventures. They solved murders, broke up spy rings, foiled evil plots of world conquest, and saved many, many damsels in distress.

There was Doc Savage, G-8 and his Battle Aces, the Spider, the Phantom Detective, G-Man Dan Fowler, Secret Agent X, Operative 5, the Green Lama, The Whisperer and too many others to list.

The Shadow remained one of the most popular (and best-written) of the pulp heroes, so it's not surprising that many of the characters who followed him copied his style to an extent. But the best of these weren't just drab carbon copies of the Shadow. When hooked up with a skilled writer, they would take on personalities and styles of their own.

The Black Bat, for instance, was teamed up with writer Norman Daniels--a great storyteller who combined strong plots with fun characters and exciting action set pieces to produce a hero whose stories would appear in Black Book Detective magazine for 13 years (1939-1953). Using the pen name G. Wayman Jones, Daniels wrote many of these adventures and maintained high quality throughout all his efforts.
The Black Bat, alias Tony Quinn, has a nifty origin. He was a district attorney until a gangster gives him a face full of acid, blinding him. For some time, Tony uses his not-inconsiderable wealth traveling the world looking for a cure. He eventually gives up, but then learns that a fatally wounded police officer has offered to donate his own eyes to Tony.
A doctor performs the unique operation and Tony can see again. But he opts not to tell anyone this, giving him opportunity to assume the secret identity of the vigilante crime-fighter Black Bat. Few suspect--and no one can ever prove--that poor blind Tony is conducting a secret war on crime.
Tony's time as a blind man has left his other senses enhanced. In addition to this, his new eyes are particularly sharp, allowing him to see even in pitch darkness. With the help of three assistants--the beautiful Carol, former con-man Silk and a big bruiser named Butch--he conducts extra-legal investigations into crimes of all sorts. Inevitably, his skills with either firearms or his fists become needed. His assistants do their share as well--each of them is given personality, brains and his/her own set of valuable skills.
The magazine High Adventure (which provides us with facsimile reprints of pulp magazines) has reprinted several Black Bat stories over the last few years, including his origin story. A recent issue reprinted two of the later stories (from 1945 and 1947 respectively). One of these, titled "Blind Man's Bluff," is particularly good.
In it, a man named Matt Bradley, having spent three years in a Japanese prison camp, returns to reclaim his home and property. But his relatives had declared him dead already, with one of them falsely identifying another body as Matt in order to keep everything "legal."
There's actually some initial doubt about Bradley's identity, as he was tortured by the Japanese and is now horribly scarred to the point that no one recognizes him. Soon, things get more complicated when one of the relatives is murdered, followed by several attempts to murder Matt. Nobody has solid alibis and everyone has a motive for at least one of the crimes. In the meantime, the Black Bat's assistant Carol is kidnapped for unknown reasons.

The Black Bat finally figures it all out, leading up to a truly exciting encounter with the murderer in a pitch black garage. It's a strong example of the skilled storytelling that was so common during the pulp era, giving us a fun hero, an intriguing mystery and several great fight scenes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1963, part 1


In the first of two crossovers to appear in modern Marvel Comics this month, the FF are asked by General “Thunderbolt” Ross to come west and help catch whomever is sabotaging a new anti-missile defense system. Ross is convinced the Hulk is the saboteur.

Reed and the others fly west. At the army base, they meet Bruce Banner, who is convinced the Hulk is innocent. (Gee, how can he be so sure?)

The real bad guy—a Communist agent who’s using a big robot to replicate the Hulk’s strength—kidnaps Rick Jones to force the Hulk to attack the FF.

This leads to a really nifty fight scene, in which the Hulk seems about ready to clean the Fantastic Four’s collective clock before the real villain is revealed to all. As is typical whenever Jack Kirby is providing the art, the battle is beautifully choreographed with all the participants making good use of their respective powers. Even the setting for the action is pretty cool—starting in an underground tunnel, then bursting out into an ancient ghost town.

Anyway, the enemy agent is soon captured and the Hulk’s innocence is established. In the meantime, we get our first glimpse of the updated Fantasti-Car. The oversized bathtub is gone, replaced by the super-cool futuristic design we’re all more used to seeing. (In fact, Reed acknowledges in a line of dialogue that they had gotten many letters of complaint about the “flying bathtub” design and that Johnny had redesigned it in response to that.)

Also, unless I missed a previous reference, the FF’s HQ is identified as the Baxter Building for the first time.

All-in-all, a great issue. It’s fun to finally see the Marvel characters from different books begin to interact with each other. The Hulk/FF fight this time was fairly brief, but there’ll be a Thing/Hulk rematch in 1964 that will give us one of the coolest fights of all time.


Steve Ditko takes over as artist for this last issue of the Hulk’s original run. This time, he fights an alien called the Metal Master, who can mentally control all metal--moving it about, reshaping it and melting it.

This pretty much lets him take on the army in his attempt to conquer the Earth. He even manages to knock the Hulk out, who is then picked up by the army and tossed into a concrete bunker for safe-keeping.

But no one yet really appreciates just how strong the Hulk is and he bashes his way free. In the meantime, Rick has formed a ham radio network of teenagers called “The Teen Brigade,” which helps the Hulk come up with a plan to defeat the Metal Master. We’ll see more of the Teen Brigade in the future, mostly in issues of The Avengers.

It’s a pretty good story. Ditko’s artwork is jarringly different in style from Kirby, but he is also a skilled storyteller and the book is still fun to look at.

The story also continues to build on the Hulk’s inherently tragic situation. His changes back and forth from Hulk to Banner are portrayed as increasingly painful and difficult, while several of the plot elements highlight just how alienated the Hulk feels about always being hunted.

The whole flaw in this is still the fact that Banner is now controlling his transformations, using a machine to turn himself back into the Hulk when needed. Also, though the Hulk dislikes that “milksop” Banner, he willingly turns human again because he doesn’t want to “always be hunted—feared.” But giving Banner/Hulk this much control over the changes remains a mistake. All the elements for a great character are there, but won’t fully gel until the transformations become completely involuntary.

But that won’t be for awhile yet. The Hulk disappears from the newsstands for awhile after this issue. He’ll return again, though, helping to form the Avengers in about six months, then eventually going on to a more successful run in his own series about a year after that/


Earth scientists are being kidnapped by Kulla, a tyrant from another dimension, and forced to work building an “electro-death ray” so he can subdue his rebellious people.

Hank Pym is among those kidnapped. But kidnapping a superhero is rarely a good idea. He shrinks down, finds the right frequency for talking to inter-dimensional ants, then goes on the offensive.

This one is actually a lot of fun—artist Don Heck's designs for the various aliens and strange insects are pretty cool and the action flows nicely. There’s a great line of dialogue from when Ant Man is hiding in a guard’s shoe” “Whew! This guy must never wash his socks!”

As is usual, Ant Man still isn’t hitting the same heights of great storytelling we’re seeing in the Fantastic Four (and will also see in Spider Man this month), but it’s still a well-done little story.

March 1963 was a busy month for Marvel and it’ll take us a few weeks to work through everything. Next time, we’ll take a look at what Thor and the Human Torch are doing. Then, in two weeks, we’ll see the return of Spider Man and the premiere of Iron Man.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Guardians of the Lost Library

Much as I love superhero comics, I gotta say (as I’ve said in previous entries) that the single best comic book character of all time is still Uncle Scrooge.

His adventures are still printed every month in Uncle Scrooge comics. In fact, a fairly recent issue (U.S. #383) featured a story that was so incredibly enjoyable in both writing and art work that I read it three times in a row without putting it down.

“Guardians of the Lost Library,” written and drawn by Don Rosa, was first published in 1994, but I missed seeing it the first time around. (I heard about it, though. It has quite a reputation as a high quality story.) Now it’s finally been reprinted and it turns out to be even better than its reputation.

It’s got a great premise. Uncle Scrooge is determined to track down the lost Library of Alexandria, figuring the knowledge contained there is worth a fortune. Accompanied by Huey, Dewey and Louie, he sets off on a quest to find it.

First stop, of course, is Alexandria. The boys use their Junior Woodchuck Guidebook to look up obscure facts about ancient history and translate old inscription. Soon the hidden remains of the library are located.

But the three million papyrus scrolls contained therein have long since turned to dust. That’s okay, though, since the boys find clues that the information in them had been transferred to more durable parchment scrolls by the Byzantiums.

So the quest goes on, with Scrooge and the kids following up clues that take them to various locations around the world, tracking the information originally contained in the Great Library, discovering it was being continually reprinted from one format to another (parchment to hand-printed books to Gutenberg-press books) over the centuries. It’s all leads up to an absolutely wonderful twist at the end.

Gee whiz, I love this story. Yes, it’s a “talking animal” story with a lot of humor and some terrific visual gags, but it’s also an adventure story featuring protagonists who think their way from one point to the next. There’s a lot of real-life history thrown in as well, giving the whole tale added verisimilitude. (We learn, for instance, that Sir Francis Drake was a duck. Who knew?)

I love Spider Man and Superman and Batman and Green Lantern, but by golly not one of them can hold a candle to Uncle Scrooge. Best comic book character ever. “Guardians of the Lost Library” offers us yet additional proof of this.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The History of Marvel Comics: February 1963, part 2


Donald Blake is kidnapped by mobsters to treat their wounded leader. Blake has to wait for an opportunity to turn into Thor, then rounds up the bad guys.

This issue is another unnecessary step backwards for the Thunder God. Lee and Kirby should have realized by now that mundane threats like average gangsters aren’t going to present a sufficient enough workout for Thor. Kirby’s art keeps things moving along to an extent, but there’s really nothing interesting going on here this time.

Well, there is one mildly interesting bit—at one point Thor uses his “super-developed vocal cords” to throw his voice and distract a gunman. It looks like the Marvel guys were dipping into Superman’s bag of tricks. The Man of Steel often used “Super-ventriloquism” back in those days. I’m pretty sure, though, that this is the first and last time Thor uses that same power.


The Wizard, tossed in jail by the Human Torch three issues ago, escapes from prison and holes up at his private estate, protected by a powerful force field. He challenges the Torch to fight him one-on-one.

Johnny accepts the challenge, though his sister Sue sneaks into the house also to help. They both end up captured, but Johnny is able to think his way out of their prison and capture the villain once again.

It’s a nice story in that it obligates Johnny to use his brains as well as his flames. Ironically, after Lee and Kirby expend such energy defending Sue Storm to readers in this month’s issue of Fantastic Four, poor Sue is in need of rescuing and is pretty much useless in this story. Don’t worry, Sue, things will get better.

Overall, this was a weak month for storytelling in the Marvel Universe. But things really get jumping next month. A certain young web-slinger will don his costume once more, while a certain wealthy industrialist will trade in his tuxedo for a suit of armor for the first time. We get our first real indication that these books really are all set in the same Universe, as Fantastic Four has a run-in with first the Hulk, then a job-seeking Spider Man.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Shameless self promotion

Here's an article I wrote for the excellent web-site

Pirates of Old-Time Radio

The site also gives fast and excellent service if you order MP3 discs from them. It's a great source for adding to your personal old-time radio collection.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

"It was the footprint of a gigantic hound!!!!"

Gee whiz, Sherlock Holmes investigated some creepy cases during his career. A trained snake used as a murder weapon--a pygmy with a blowgun offing someone--an assassin with a silent air gun stalking Holmes himself.

But the Hound might have been the creepiest of them all. The Hound of the Baskervilles is as much a Gothic Horror novel as a mystery novel. And it works on both levels. Holmes does his usual nifty deductive reasoning, while Watson (on his own for a large part of the novel) proves to be a competent investigator in his own right when he needs to be. It all works just fine as a whodunit. But the setting--ancient Baskerville Manor and the surrounding fog-shrouded moors--give the whole novel a delightful aura of spookiness.

All four novel-length Holmes stories are justifiably considered classics, but Hound has always been my favorite. I like the creepy Gothic atmosphere that overlays the story. I like that Watson has a all-too-rare opportunity to prove he's a brave and capable human being. I like the suspense that builds up during the climax, when Holmes, Watson and Lestrade are waiting to catch the Hound, but the fog is growing to thick for comfort...

I'm glad I created an excuse to revisit it once again.

Next month's book: "The Saint Overboard," by Leslie Charteris.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The History of Marvel Comics: February 1963, part 1


No earth-shaking villains this time around—just a really annoying alien and then some time answering the mail.

The first half of the book covers the first visit to our planet by the Impossible Man, the indestructible, shape-changing alien from the planet Poppup. Irresponsible and just looking for a good time, Impy doesn’t really threaten the Earth more than he just gets on everyone’s nerves.

The story is a nice change of pace from the murderous villains the FF has been facing. The visual humor is done well and the ending is kinda cute. It’s still fun to read after more than four decades and it introduces a character who will on occasion return get on everyone’s nerves yet again.

The second half of this issue gives us our first look at Willy Lumpkin, the FF’s mailman. Structured around answering the mail, we’re given a little more background information on Reed and Ben (they were college roommates and both served in World War II—Ben as a pilot and Reed in the OSS). In addition, they answer some mail criticizing poor Sue’s part in the group. The criticism at the time actually did have some merit—it isn’t until Sue’s power is amped up to include invisible force fields that she can take a more aggressive role in the fight scenes and the stories in general.

But, by golly, Reed is gonna defend the woman he loves, coming up with the bizarrely interesting argument that Abe Lincoln said he owed his success to his mother, so Sue must be vital to the FF. Yeah, okay, Reed, whatever. Let’s just get to work figuring out she can make force fields, shall we?


Ant Man battles a guy using a giant magnet and knock-out gas to hijack armored cars. There’s a visually fun sequence in which Ant Man gets trapped inside a truck’s engine, but this is overall typically average stuff. I’m starting to feel guilty in my little reviews of Ant-Man’s stories—they really are perfectly fine for what they are. They’re just not that notable.

Next time, we’ll see Thor round up some gangsters, while Johnny Storm discovers he now has an arch-enemy.

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