Thursday, March 26, 2009

The coolest make-believe submarine ever

It's appropriate that the coolest submarine looked at in this series of posts was featured in the coolest of the three movies we also talk about.

Captain Nemo's Nautilus was cool right from the start--when Jules Verne published 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1872, the undersea vessel immediately captured the public's imagination. Even when submarines became an actual reality within a generation, Nemo's sub still maintained a warm spot in the hearts of science fiction fans everywhere.

So when Walt Disney planned to make a live-action movie version of the novel in 1954, he and his special effects guys had quite a task. They had to come up with a design for the Nautilus that looked advanced enough to be believable, but also still looked to be a product of the Victorian Era. It had to at least come close to the wonderful vehicle that had been residing in everyone's imagination for 80 years.

Designer Harper Goff proved to be up to the task. The Nautilus in Disney's film looks exactly right. Thus it becomes the anchor point upon which was added a literate script, a wonderful performance by James Mason as Nemo, and an absolutely terrific fight with that giant squid.

Thus the Nautilus jumped into first place as the single coolest make-believe submarine ever. Though both the Seaview and the Proteus eventually scored high in pure coolness as well, neither of them really came close to Nemo's fantastic Victorian-Age submersible.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe--May 1963, part 1


The FF return from their trip to the moon to enormous public acclaim (which include Reed Richards being grabbed and stretched in numerous directions at once by adoring female fans). But they only have a short time to rest before trouble strikes again.

The Puppet Master, who had supposedly fallen to his death after his initial battle with the FF, turns out to be still alive after all. He gains mental control over the Sub-Mariner and forces Namor to kidnap Sue Storm.

Reed, Johnny and Ben, unaware that Namor is not responsible for his own actions, mount a rescue operation. Ben brings his gal Alicia along because he can’t stand to see her cry when he stops by to say goodbye.

That’s a bit of a stretch—bringing a blind woman with no superpowers along on an undersea mission to fight the Sub-Mariner seems to be a mildly unwise plan. But what the hey—she does seem to stay out of the way.

Anyway, it all leads to a typically nifty Jack Kirby fight scene, with Namor using a variety of weird sea creatures in his attempt to defeat the FF. In the end, the Puppet Master once again meets with an apparent doom, freeing Namor from his control and bringing the fight to an end.

Sue gets yet another chance to act indecisive about whether she loves Reed or Namor and, sadly, doesn’t get to take an active part in any of the action. It can also be argued that Lee and Kirby are in danger of overusing Namor—this is at least his fourth appearance in just 14 issues.

But Kirby’s imaginative layouts and fight choreography carries the plot along nicely, while Ben Grimm continues to mature as a truly likeable character. Nitpicking aside, it is another good, strong issue.


Spidey wastes no time at all in adding yet another member to his Rogue’s Gallery. The Vulture shows up in this issue, swooping down out of the sky (or up out of the sewer through a man-hole) to swipe money and jewels from bank messengers. In a very well-plotted story, Spider Man uses his powers, his brains and his skill as a budding scientist to catch the villain.

In this issue, Peter Parker also gets the idea of making money as a photographer, getting shots of Spider Man in action. J. Jonah Jameson is still editorializing against Spider Man, so Peter figures it would be “a kick” to earn money off of him. (Jameson, by the way, is presented in this issue as being the editor of Now Magazine rather than the Daily Bugle. It’ll be a few issues before we learn he runs a newspaper as well as a magazine.) It’s made clear in this issue that grumpy old triple-J is going to be a regular supporting character and a regular foil for our hero.

The second story contained in this issue is a bit weaker. Spidey tangles with an eccentric old man who runs a fix-it shop. Except, of course, he’s not just an eccentric old man—he’s the Terrible Tinkerer, an alien who is spying on humanity in preparation for yet another invasion from outer space. It’s an okay story—most importantly, it again shows Spider Man thinking out his tactics during a fight as well as throwing punches.

But the whole invading aliens bit doesn’t seem to be a good thematic fit for Spider Man. It’s not a bad story—it just doesn’t seem to quite belong.


A scientist, bitter about having just lost his job because of his advanced age, invents a ray gun that can rapidly age (or de-age) any living thing. Ant Man tries to stop him and gets zapped into old age. But when the bad guy accidentally ages his own grandson, he realizes the error of his ways. Everyone gets zapped back to normal.

This is a just plain dull story. The action is uninteresting and Don Heck’s art work is, frankly, equally uninteresting. (Heck can be quite good on occasion, but he lacked Kirby’s ability to make weak scripts look cool.)

But things will look up next issue, when Hank Pym gets himself a new partner and another hero (or, rather, heroine) will be added to the Marvel Pantheon.

Next week, we’ll take a look to see what Thor, Iron Man and the Human Torch are up to.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The 2nd coolest make-believe submarine ever

Fantastic Voyage (1966) was a just plain cool idea for a movie--a surgeon is miniaturized and and transported via a submarine through a man's blood vessels in order to excise an otherwise inoperable brain tumor.

To make matters a tad bit more suspenseful, the sick man has information vital to national security and there just might be a spy aboard the sub, determined to stop the mission.

It all makes for a fun movie with visual effects that still look great over four decades later. A few glaringly obvious plot holes (mostly fixed by Isaac Asimov in his entertaining novelization of the film) are present, but the fun stuff definitely outwieghs the mistakes. Subtle bits of sabotage force the sub off course, forcing it to take a side trip through the heart, lymph nodes and ear before it finally reaches the brain. By then, of course, there are only minutes to go before the miniaturization process wears off. The crew has to improvise their way out of one problem after another in their race to complete their mission.

But we're here to talk about the submarine. The Proteus is a small research vessel, holding a crew of five. Its futuristic look is highlighted by that little bubble on top--that's where the helmsman sits as he pilots the craft. For no particularly rational reason at all, I think that's cool.

There's also an airlock, allowing the crew to don scuba gear to carry out not just the operation (in which, by the way, the surgeon uses a hand-held laser rifle to cut the tumor loose), but also to do some of their improvised repairs. At one point, they need to access the lungs to refill their air supply. At another point, they have to clear the engine intakes of gunk picked up during a short cut through the lymph nodes.

Compact but cool-looking, the Proteus scores as the 2nd coolest make-believe submarine ever. In fact, there is only one fictional undersea vehicle that tops it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe, April 1963, part 2


We finally get a sincerely entertaining Human Torch story. It seems that once that secret identity nonsense was finally kicked out of the series, it made room for some nice, straightforward action tales. The cover is pretty cool, as well.

Johnny is in a bit of a funk because he thinks the rest of the FF considers him to be just a kid. So he opts to fly out to see and take on the Sub-Mariner all by himself.

There’s a fun bit where, with his flame running out while over the ocean, he’s forced to land on a merchant ship. Unable to flame on again until he rests awhile, the rest of the crew assume he’s just a stowaway. He’s thus put to work swapping the decks.

But eventually he’s able to flame on again. He soon locates Namor by leaving challenges written in the air with fiery letters and heating up the ocean waters. This annoys Namor sufficiently to get the fight started.


After this, artist Dick Ayers provides us with seven pages of well-choreographed action, with the battle ending in a more-or-less draw. This fight is the meat of the story, of course. It doesn’t make for a gourmet meal, but it’s a tasty treat all the same.


Loki is still confined to Asgard by Odin, but that doesn’t stop the god of mischief from granting incredible mental powers to a circus side-show performer named Sandu. Saudu starts a campaign of crime, levitating away banks and jewelry stores, taking the valuables, then teleporting the empty buildings to the moon.

Thor intervenes and gets a building or two dropped on him. Eventually, Sandu pretty much defeats himself when he short-circuits his powers by trying to levitate Thor’s enchanted hammer. It’s a nice little twist to bring a pretty good story to an end. Lee and Kirby seem to have pretty much settled down to throwing the sort of cosmic-level threats at Thor that present the Thunder God with a real challenge.

Next time, we’ll move on to May 1963. The FF will encounter a pair of old enemies; Thor will go up against Loki more directly; Iron Man battles Dr. Strange (no, not THAT Dr. Strange); Ant Man is turned into an old man; and the Human Torch fights an evil, um, artist.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The 3rd coolest make-believe submarine ever

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea began life as a movie. Produced in 1961 by Irwin Allen, the movie is actually pretty lame in terms of plot construction, but it did introduce the world to what has become the third coolest make-believe submarine ever.

The Seaview looks pretty nifty. Designed by Admiral Harriman Nelson (played by Walter Pidgeon), it was a sort of combination warship & exploration vessel, equiped with both advanced laboratory facilities and a bunch of nuclear missiles. That pretty much leaves you ready to handle any situation that might arise.

The movie's plot involves Nelson's quest to use the submarine to save the world after the upper atmosphere mysteriously catches fire. It's a silly plot--which by itself isn't a bad thing. Silly science fiction can be entertaining in its own right. But (as stated above) poor plotting and some overacting by Pidgeon largely spoils the film.

But the Seaview is still cool to look at. The hull design (with observation windows in the bow and those neat-o bow fins) is definitely a fun one that gives at least the illusion of being functional as well. The sub's interior is also well-designed--including a small aquarium and a mini-sub that can be launched when needed.


Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea came to television in 1964, with Richard Basehart as Admiral Nelson. The first year, filmed in black-and-white, mixed some science fiction elements together with Cold War-era spy stuff and did a number of strong episodes. Basehart was really good as Nelson, playing the role straight even when the scripts started to get silly.

The last three seasons were in color and gave us a re-designed Seaview, making the submarine even cooler. The bridge now extended forward to include the observation room, while a hanger for the Flying Sub was also added. When the plot called for it, the Seaview was capable of doing anything from electrifying its hull to firing a laser beam out of its bow-light.

But it's the Flying Sub that added the most to the Seaview's coolness factor. It is after all, a submarine that can fly. That's one of the best ideas ever. Heck, it's even fun to just say it. Flying Sub--Flying Sub--Flying Sub.

The show became more science fictiony in the later seasons, running into countless monsters, aliens and time travelers. Any one particular episode might be silly-fun (the crew replaced by animated wax dummies) to silly-annoying (a guy in a lobster costume playing the latest invading alien). But even when a particularly inept episode was grating on your nerves, the Seaview still looked cool. There are, in fact, only two other make-believe submarines that are cooler than it is.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe, April 1963: Part 1


This has always been one of my favorite comic books stories—it’s full of extraordinarily imaginative visuals of spacecraft, alien cities, strange creatures and sci-fi gadgetry, all drawn by Jack Kirby at his prime as an artist.

It’s got a strong story as well. Reed’s developed a rocket fuel that will get the FF to the moon ahead of the Russians. At the same time, though, Ivan Kragoff (Russia’s top rocket scientist) is also getting ready to launch his own rocket. And he has a secondary plan as well—to expose himself and the three trained apes he’s using for a crew to cosmic rays, thus gaining superpowers just as the Fantastic Four did.

That part of the plan works. Kragoff gains the power to turn intangible, while his apes respectively gain the powers of super-strength, shape-changing and magnetic manipulation. Thus the Red Ghost and his Super Apes enter the FF’s growing rogue’s gallery.

The two rockets land in the “mysterious blue area” of the moon, which turns out to be the ruins of an ancient alien city—still equipped with an atmosphere. From here, the story turns into a duel between the American and the Russian super-beings to see who gets to claim the moon.

There are a number of elements to the story that deserve mention:

a) I’ve already mentioned the cool visuals. This issue is great fun to simply look at.
b) The action scenes are done very well. Both Reed and Kragoff make use of the alien technology scattered about the city, adding to the variety of superpowers that already exist amongst all the characters. It all makes for some wonderful fight scenes.
c) Ben has pretty much finished morphing into the gruff but humorous guy that makes him so appealing. His sense of humor is on display all through the story (stuffing Reed into a test tube when Reed suggests going to the moon without the others; using one-liners like “If that means we gotta use our brains, then the Torch better stay behind”). He also openly expresses concern for Reed at one point when it looks like Reed’s in danger. He’s obviously reached a point where he does feel like one of family.
d)Sue gets to use her invisibility usefully at one point—AND she gets to use her brains and escape on her own after being captured.
e) We are introduced to the Watcher—the incredibly powerful alien who is just supposed to observe everything without ever interfering. He’s a great concept for a character and he will, of course, be popping up again in the future.
f) The origin of the alien city is never explained, but leaving it a mystery works really well in a dramatic sense. It won’t be for many years (in an issue of the Avengers, I believe) until we find out that that it was built millennia ago by the Kree, an alien race that we haven’t yet met at this point in Marvel history.


Through a radioactive accident, a radio announcer gains the power to use his voice to control others—everyone believes everything he says completely and without question. To test this power, he turns the populace of the city against Ant Man, turning the tiny hero into a fugitive. (Ant Man’s cybernetic helmet keeps him immune from the voice power.)

Ant Man eventually gets the better of the villain by infecting him with laryngitis. This rather unusual tactic—and the fact that the bad guy doesn’t wear a costume (he wears a top hat and an old-fashioned frock coat), make this story kinda interesting. But once again, Ant Man remains adequate at best.


Gee whiz, mental control of populations is popular this month. While Ant Man is battling this threat in his home town, the city of Granville is being mind-controlled by an alien robot Neanderthal.

But before we get to that, we get a few pages providing us with some background details for Iron Man’s ongoing series. We get a reminder that Tony Stark is a brilliant inventor and we’re told he has to wear his chest plate all the time to keep his injured heart beating, plugging the plate in to a wall socket from time to time to keep it powered.

We also get a few pages showing us that Iron Man has done some super-heroing between issues, so he’s already known to the general public. This was the same thing that was done with Ant Man after his debut issue. The Fantastic Four also became famous between their first and second issues. I suppose it was just the most convenient way to establish the characters’ place in the Marvel Universe in order to get on with the stories. It works perfectly well in terms of sound story construction, so it was in retrospect a good idea.

Also, when Tony’s armor scares a little kid at one point, he decides to paint it gold and hopefully make it less scary. The original clunky design stays around for the time being, though.

Any way, after all this is out of the way, Iron Man investigates Granville, whose citizens have built a wall around their town and cut themselves off from the rest of the country. Tunneling into the place, Iron Man finds a mind-controlled mob ruled over by Gargantus, a giant Neanderthal with a hypnotic gaze. But Gargantus turns out to be a robot, sent here by yet another set of aliens bent on world conquest. What is it that makes Earth so valuable, anyways? It seems like every single alien race out there wants to subjugate us!!! Though many of the individual stories involving alien conquest are good, it is a trope that Marvel was in serious danger of over-using in these early years.

Next week, we’ll take a look at Thor and the Human Torch to finish up April 1963.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Shadow: “The Giant of Madros” 5/16/48

This is an extremely entertaining story that is different than most Shadow episodes in terms of plot construction. It’s a sort of “The Shadow meets Die Hard” situation.

Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane are aboard a train that’s taken over by thieves and diverted along some little used tracks. The thieves are after a particular valuable object, but haven’t been able to locate it yet.

Cranston has to outfight and outthink the villains. One interesting thing is that he doesn’t become the Shadow until the very end of the episode, finally doing so only under very unusual circumstances. In the meantime, he and the gang leader try to bluff and double-bluff each other and Lamont gets some assistance from a surprisingly helpful old lady.

Episodes of The Shadow are nearly always good, but this one has the advantage of being significantly different from the show’s usual formula. And it’s fun to hear Lamont himself—rather than his invisible alter ego—get to do the bulk of the heroic stuff.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

An Unusual Bit of Piracy

The Saint Overboard, by Leslie Charteris (1936)

Because of my fondness for old-fashioned mysteries and pulp adventures, I end up reading about an awful lot of occasions in which beautiful women in need of rescuing from horrible danger turn up on the doorsteps of heroes.

This has pretty much led me to expect this to one day happen to me. It never does, though, forcing me to exist in perpetual disappointment.


But at least I can read about beautiful women in need of rescuing. Simon Templar, aka the Saint, pretty much stumbles over them by the gross.

In The Saint Overboard, the plot jump starts in the first few paragraphs when a beautiful woman shows up at Simon’s doorstep. Well, actually, she swims up to his yacht, but the idea is the same.

The girl is Loretta Page, a private eye working to catch a particularly dangerous bad guy who has already done away with at least three other detectives. To the surprise of no one, Simon soon becomes involved.

It all turns out to revolve around a plot to illegally salvage gold off of recently sunken ships before the insurance companies can launch a legal salvage operation. The potential haul reaches into the tens of millions of dollars and the villains are more than willing to kill to protect their take.

The novel contains just a few scenes of straightforward action—instead, Charteris depends on building up suspense based on Simon and Loretta each taking on a sort-of undercover role without really being sure if the leader of the gang is on to either of them.
The leader, named Kurt Vogel, plays multi-layered mind games with them both in an attempt to trick them into giving themselves away.

It’s all done very well, with the tension inherent in the story growing quite thick by the end. Vogel is smart enough (and scary enough) make a good villain, while Loretta is smart and brave enough to be more than just a damsel in distress. Charteris’ prose is witty and fast-moving, but he can generate some pretty strong emotional reactions from his readers when he wants to. This time, the emotion comes not just from the danger to Simon and Loretta, but from their respective willingness to make some pretty serious sacrifices for each other when the chips are down.

On a geekier note—there are several scenes in the story that take place underwater, with Simon and several other characters clad in those bulky pre-aqualung diving suits. And those old-school suits are just plain cool.

Simon Templar has always been a fun character. A thief who steals most often from other thieves, he always ends up showing a sense of honor and justice that makes him the hero almost in spite of himself.

That’s it for this month’s book. Next month, I think we’ll jump back in time a few centuries and take a look at St. Peter’s Fair, by Ellis Peters.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Yet more shameless self-promotion

Here's another article I've written that was just now posted at

The Lone Ranger

And here, by the way, are a couple of magazine articles I wrote some years ago that have since been posted online:

Captain Porter and the Essex

Grierson's Raid

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1963, part 3


While characters like the Hulk and Thor were developing slowly into truly iconic characters, Spider Man pretty much hit the ground running.

The premiere issue of his own book picks up soon after Amazing Fantasy #15 left off. Uncle Ben is dead and Aunt May is having trouble paying the bills. Peter Parker, desperate to help his beloved aunt, decides to return to performing to earn the needed money.

He’s a hit, but when it come time to pay him, he asks for the check to be made out to “Spider Man” to protect his secret identity (and with a close relative to protect—it does make sense for him to have a secret identity). But no bank will cash the check without proper ID. To make matters worse, publisher J. Jonah Jameson begins his public campaign branding Spider Man as a menace. This blows any chance of Spidey getting any future performing gigs.

Spidey rescues Jameson’s astronaut son from certain death, but Jameson still campaigns against him. (Sidenote: For a long time, we’re not really given a clear motivation for Jameson’s hatred of Spider Man. This will come several years down the line and it will be a good one.)

So Spidey decides to join the Fantastic Four, figuring they must pay pretty good. But after a brief but fun tussle with them, he learns that they don’t actually accept salaries for their superhero work.

To top it all off, the villain Chameleon uses his disguise skills to frames Spider Man for stealing government secrets. Spidey manages to catch the Chameleon and clear himself, but he’s still broke and distrusted by the public.

It’s a near perfect issue. Lee and Steve Ditko dump everything but the kitchen sink on poor Peter (including a few panels highlighting his lack of friends at high school) and effectively set the tone for the book. Ditko’s art matches the feel of the character perfectly and he handles the action sequences well. We even get to meet one of Spidey’s regular villains in the Chameleon, the first of what will be the best rogue’s gallery this side of Gotham City.


After a few pages to quickly introduce us to Tony Stark—brilliant weapons designer and high society playboy, the action quickly moves to South Vietnam. Tony is with an army unit, testing some miniaturized weapons he invented, but he trips a booby trap. Wounded, he’s captured by Wong-Chu, a ruthless guerilla leader. Tony knows he’s got a piece of shrapnel working its way towards his heart and only has a few days to live.

Tony and another prisoner, Professor Yinsen, are forced to build new weapons for Wong-Chu. Instead, they design a suit of armor for Tony, which will help him both defeat the enemy troops AND keep Tony’s damaged heart beating.

It’s a neat origin story, effectively told in the space of just 12 pages. The artist is Don Heck, whose work always seemed a bit stiff to me, but who still does a reasonably good job. Tony’s original suit is a big clunky thing that he continues to use until issue #48, but it actually looks like something that was indeed improvised out of scrap (which it pretty much was), so it fits the initial story. Eventually, the armor becomes more streamlined and visually interesting.

None of Tony’s supporting cast are around yet—in fact, it takes about six months before any regular supporting cast members are introduced at all. Like Hulk and Thor, Iron Man is an excellent idea for a superhero that needs a little time to develop his full potential.

That’s it for March 1963. There’s no Spider Man in April, as his book was bi-monthly to start with. But we’ll see some pretty cool stuff in the other books as Iron Man foils yet ANOTHER alien invasion (after both Thor and the Hulk fought off invaders in March), Thor encounters Loki once again and the Fantastic Four takes a trip to the moon in what has always been one of my favorite issues.

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