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


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.

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 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


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.


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.


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.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Irwin Allen sometimes gets on my nerves.

But Mr. Allen doesn't always get on my nerves. Sometimes--as much by sheer luck than anything else--he manages to entertain me.

Allen is remembered by many people for the seemingly countless disaster movies he produced in the 1970s (including the original Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), but many science fiction geeks remember the TV shows he produced in the 1960s. Lost in Space was the most successful. And it still has many fans, but in the end, I can't really count myself among them. Poor story construction was all too common in the individual episodes and--I'm sorry--but Dr. Smith is not on my "Favorite Characters of All Time" list. In fact, he literally grates on me.

I appreciate and respect those who enjoy the show for what it is (I can often enjoy silly science fiction myself)--but if I never hear "Oh, the pain, the pain!" or "Danger, Will Robinson!" again, I'll pull through somehow. I will give the show credit for some cool visual designs, though. The Jupiter Two and the Robot both look really good.

Then there's Land of the Giants, in which the crew and passengers of an aircraft fly through a dimensional rift and end up on an alternate Earth where everyone is really, really big. I watched it as a kid, but can't remember any details at all. All the '60s Irwin Allen shows are available on Hulu now, so I'll get around to trying one out eventually.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea started strong and boasted both a good cast and the third best make-believe submarine ever. So it's often a very enjoyable show. The quality dropped in later seasons, though, suffering from the same poor story construction that cursed Lost in Space. All the same, there's some really good science fiction and Cold War yarns scattered around in there.

The Irwin Allen series I remember most fondly is The Time Tunnel, in which a pair of scientists are trapped in the time stream, popping up in different times and places throughout history in every episode. They were at Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, Little Big Horn and aboard the Titanic. And, by golly, they would always get involved. They helped out the French Underground just before D-Day; or fought with the Greeks at Troy; or tried (unsuccessfully) to warn the captain of the Titanic to take a sharp left at that iceberg.

The show benefited from a good cast and a wonderful design for the Time Tunnel facility. It had another thing going for it as well, in that the scientists at the Tunnel trying to rescue their time lost comrades really didn't know what they were doing. The show was successful at portraying them as intelligent, capable people--but it balanced this out by reminding us that they were working with a new technology that hadn't been perfected yet. So they were always trying things that didn't work. I don't remember how many times they accidentally brought the wrong guy forward in time (including Colonel Travis just before the final assault on the Alamo). Once, they snatched up a ticking bomb from Pearl Harbor. Their most entertaining screw-up was when one of the time-lost guys was surrounded by ticked-off Trojan soldiers. They decide to send him back a submachine gun and some grenades to even up the odds and, well, take a look at the episode yourself to see what happens:

If there were ever a case for more Congressional oversight, this is it.

The Time Tunnel only ran for 30 episodes. It is, in some ways, a failed experiment. It would have benefited from more internal continuity. For instance, the rules for whether you could or couldn't change history were never consistent. And the two scientists would always magically "change" cloths back to their original costumes before teleporting to another time. This was done so that the episodes could be shown in any order, but the story possibilties of showing up at, say ancient Troy, while still carrying the German Luger you acquired in 1944 France would have provided a lot of fun and variety.

Also, towards the end of its run, the show did a series of very weak alien invasion episodes (aliens in the Old West, aliens in 19th Century India, aliens in the future) that didn't fit comfortably into the show's theme and inadvertently emphasized its low budget.

But when it was good, The Time Tunnel was a blast. Yes, Irwin Allen did often get on my nerves. But not always. Every once in awhile, he'd do okay.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: April 1964, part 3


The villian this time around is a sort of low-rent Hate Monger called the Rabble Rouser. He gives speeches ( and secretly uses a "will-sapping wand") to stir up bad feelings about the Human Torch. Soon, the New York City Council has passed a safety ordinance that forbids the Torch to flame on while in the city.

It's all a trap, of course, designed to distract attention and prevent the Torch from interfering when the Rabble Rouser kidnaps a visiting diplomat. Interestingly, the Rabble Rouser uses a subterranean tunneling vehicle identical to one used by the Hate Monger in FF #21. This and the similar M.O. seems to imply the two villains were allied. But the Monger was either Hitler or a Hitler double out to serve himself; while the Rouser is an admitted Communist agent. The connection is never fully explained.

Anyway, the mayor issues an emergency order allowing Johnny to flame on in order to chase the Rouser. The bad guy is caught after a brief battle. It's a good enough story, though one can't help but wonder why--in a city that literally drips with superheroes--the Human Torch had to be singled out by the Rouser as the hero most likely to stop him.

Meanwhile, a couple of cheap burglars break into Dr. Strange's Greenwich Village home and steal a large gem, not realizing that it has magical properties. The two are teleported to another dimension.

This obligates Strange to rescue them. Despite the fact that the thieves are dishonest lowlives, Strange puts his life on the line for them, defeating the despotic ruler of the dimension is a magical duel.

Once again, Steve Ditko's art is a perfect match for the story, providing us with yet another set of creepy-lookin' inter-dimensional aliens.


Okay, there's no denying it. The choice of yellow for Daredevil's costume was a just plain bad idea. He wouldn't switch to the red costume until issue #7, a year later. In the meantime, he would always look just a little bit off.

But the artwork (by Bill Everett--best known for creating the Sub-Mariner in 1939) is otherwise quite excellent. And Daredevil's overall costume design is neat-o. It's just the choice of yellow that doesn't quite work.

Anyway, Daredevil is blind lawyer Matt Murdock. The accident that blinded him included a spill of radioactive material, increasing the strength of his other senses dramatically and giving him a "radar sense." When Murdock's dad--a boxer--is whacked by the mob for refusing to throw a fight, Murdock adopts a superhero identity to fight for justice.

Everett choreographs the Daredevil vs. mobster fight scene very effectively and the plot is designed to emphasize how Daredevil employs his enhanced senses in various ways to bring his dad's killers to justice. It's a strong start for what will be one of the Marvel Universe's enduring heroes.

That's it for April. In May,the FF vs. Hulk battle continues, with the Avengers joining in the fun as well. Spider Man continues his lastest campaign against Doc Ock, while Iron Man continues to be troubled by the Black Widow; Thor battles a Storm Giant; Giant Man fights a rematch against the Human Top; the Human Torch teams up with the Iceman; Dr. Strange visits a haunted house; the Avengers face off against the Lava Men; and the X-Men wage another battle against the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday's Favoirte OTR

Pursuit: "Pursuit of The Thames Pirates" 2/12/52

Pursuit had a short run on CBS in 1949-50 and then popped up against a few times after that as a replacement series for shows on hiatus. Both Elliot Lewis and William Robeson--both men masters of radio storytelling--had turns as producer/director of Pursuit, so it's not at all surprising that it was an expertly done and entertaining show.

The main character is Inspector Peter Blake of Scotland Yard, played in 1952 by Ben Wright. This episode starts off already at full speed. A gang of thieves has been active along the shores of the Thames River, using a high-speed boat for getaways. Blake joins the crew of a police boat to check out a suspicious craft.

This leads to an exchange of machine gun fire and a high speed chase along the fog-shrouded river. (This sequence can't help remind one of the classic river chase from the Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of the Four.) At first, it seems as if the crooks have made a clean getaway. But Blake and the police boat captain methodically track them down--only to get themselves captured.

Excellent sound effects are combined with narration and dialogue to make the chase scene truly exciting. The hostage drama part of the story is marred a little when the plot falls back on an overused cliche (the bad guys carelessly leave something sharp lying around with which Blake can cut the ropes binding him), but everything else is done so well that this is easy to forgive.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pirates, Indians and Treachery--Oh, My!!!!

Here's a slightly convoluted bit of publishing history. At some point in the 1930s, during his all-too-brief career as a writer of pulp fiction, Robert E. Howard wrote a story starring Conan the Barbarian. Titled The Black Stranger, it involved Conan on the run from the savage Picts (a Hyborian Age analog to American Indians). Conan stumbles across the bodies of some pirates and a treasure stored in the cleft of a rock. A nobleman living in terror of--well, something--has built a fort along a deserted stretch of coastline nearby. Soon, Conan, the noble, and two seperate pirate crews are hip-deep in machinations involving that treasure--with everyone pretty much determined to backstab everyone else at the first opportunity. There's a wizard wandering around as well, stirring up some supernatural trouble.

It's a great story, culminating in a wild battle sequence as the fort is overrun by the Picts. But Howard wasn't able to sell it. So he re-wrote it, moving the action forward to the 17th Century and replacing Conan with Black Terance Vulmea, a pirate who had a well-earned reputation as the scourge of the Seven Seas. The supernatural shenanigans were toned down, becoming more implied than overt. The story's title became Swords of the Red Brotherhood. The Picts became Indians and the nobleman became a Frenchman. Everyone still tries to double- and triple-cross each other regardless of their new ethnicities.

Howard wrote one other Black Vulmea story, published after his death in the November 1938 issue of a pulp called Golden Fleece. But Swords of the Red Brotherhood, like The Black Stranger, was never sold. It went unpublished until it was included in a paperback in 1976 titled Black Vulmea's Vengenance. This book included both the Vulmea stories and another fun pirate yarn written by Howard.

Anyways, when writer L. Sprague de Camp was reintroducing Conan to the public through a series of paperback reprints, he came across Swords of the Red Brotherhood and rewrote it into a Conan story titled The Treasure of Tranicos. It first saw print in this form in King Conan (1953), then in Conan the Usurper (1967). Howard's original version--The Black Stranger--was also eventually reprinted in its unedited form in The Conquering Sword of Conan in 2005, one of an excellent three-volume set that reprinted all of Howard's original Conan stories.

So what's the point of all this? Well, as usual, I don't really have one. But I will say thatall three versions of the story (two Conans and one Black Vulmea) are entertaining, slam-bang adventures.

If I had to pick a favorite, though, I think I'd go with Swords of the Red Brotherhood. The story has such a strong pirate vibe, I think it works better when set within Piracy's Golden Age than in an overt fantasy world. All the same, it's a pretty close call between the two original versions.

The Treasure of Tranicos, though still a good tale, comes in a distant third among all the versions. de Camp was a great writer (his time-travel novel Lest Darkness Fall is a true classic) and he deserves unending gratitude for his part in rescuing Howard's work from obscurity. But I don't think he ever really "got" Conan. His prose style--very noticable even when he was re-working Howard's original prose--never quite fit the barbarian.

But whether it's Conan or Terance Vulmea wielding a sword against savages, pirates and ill-tempered noblemen, Swords/Stranger is yet another example of the many wonderful stories that came out of the pulp era. If you're in the mood for some good pirate stories, hit the Internet used book services and dig up a copy of Black Vulmea's Vengeance. Or read it online here. You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: April 1964, part 2


Odin really, really, really needs to stop taking advice from Loki. This time, the God of Mischief suggests sending the beautiful Asgardian goddess known as the Entrantress down to Earth to hit on Thor, thus causing him to toss aside that mere mortal Jane Foster.

The Entrantress gives it her best shot, but Thor remains faithful to Jane. This tees off the goddess, so she recruits an 8-foot-tall, battle axe-wielding Asgardian called the Executioner to whack Jane. In the ensuing battle, Jane is saved and the two villains forced to return to Asgard. But the issue ends with Odin vowing to take action against his disobediant son.

It's nice to have a couple more Asgardians added to the supporting cast, as well as see there are some bad guys amongst the Norse gods other than Loki. Entrantress and Executioner will become regular members of Thor's rogue's gallery and, in fact, we'll see them going up against the Avengers in just a few months.

The Tales of Asgard back-up story shows us a young Thor on a quest for Odin. As usual, the art work is fantastic--I don't think Jack Kirby had a single weak story in the entire run of this series. Particular visual delights include a flying ship and a creepy looking half-boar, half-man creature.


In this issue, we meet the Black Widow--the beautiful Russian spy who will one day defect to our side and take up super-heroing.

But at the moment, she's still working for the Commies, dressed in a swanky, femme fatale outfit so as to distract Tony while her partner does the dirty work.

The dirty work is kidnapping Professor Vanko (the original Crimson Dynamo, who defected to the U.S. 6 issues ago) and take the Dynamo armor for himself. This all culminates in a battle that Iron Man appears about to lose. But Vanko sacrifices his life to destroy the villain and save Tony.

The Black Widow, in the meantime, is left on the run from her own people--knowing the price of failure is death. She'll be back next issue, though.

It's interesting to compare the original design of the Black Widow with the more action-oriented garb she'll wear when she turns hero. She pretty much gets turned into a completely different character in later years. But for her next few appearances, she'll continue to wear that mink stool as she attempts to vamp the good guys.


A rigged election in a small South American country puts a Communist dictator in power. Hank and Jan are asked by the State Department to travel there and look into it. Once there, though, Jan is arrested and Hank is stuck in his giant size (Jan had all the size-changing capsules in her purse when she got busted.)

The fun part of this issue is the sequence in which Giant Man--unable to change size--blunders around the city trying to stay ahead of the police. He runs into telephone wires, gets wrapped up in an awning and generally has an entertainingly awkward time. Eventually, he manages to spring Jan and they get the evidence they need to prove the election was rigged.

The plot does have a few obvious cheats in it--probably a result of having to fit the story into it's usual 13-page format. Jan still has the shape-changing capsules with her when Hank rescues her--you'd think the bad guys would have taken away her personal items even if they didn't know what they were. Also, the story ends a bit abruptly and perhaps too easily--yes, they find proof that the dictator rigged the election, but by this point he controls the police and the military and thus seems to give up too easily. This story actually might have been better as a two-parter.

But the sequence in which Hank is stuck at giant-sized (as well as a sort-of "fight" Hank and Jan have at the beginning of the story) that sells this story. It's not a great or in most ways memorable story, but it definitely is fun.

Next week, we'll finally get around to seeing what the Human Torch and Dr. Strange are up to this month. We'll also take a look at the premiere of Daredevil. (Get it? "Take a look?" Blind superhero? ........ Oh, never mind.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The First Forensic Scientist

For the Defence: Dr. Thorndyke, by R. Austin Freeman (1934)

When I sat down to write this post, I tried twice to briefly summerize the plot and provide a little bit of detail. But I couldn't do it without going on for paragraph after paragraph. It's all just too bizarre. Suffice to say that an artist and all-around nice guy named Andrew Barton gets arrested for murder. The oddest thing about this, though, is that he's accused of murdering himself, having been mistaken by the police for being his cousin Ronald.

The book ambles along at a slow but still interesting pace, gradually setting up a series of unlikely events and bad decision-making that lead up to this odd situation. Fortunately for Andrew, he manages to get Dr. John Thorndyke for his lawyer.

Dr. Thorndyke is an interesting figure in the History of Mystery. He first appeared in the 1907 novel The Red Thumb Mark. Created at a time after Arthur Conan Doyle had perfected the traditional mystery story, but before hard-boiled fiction added new blood to the genre, he's one of many pseudo-Holmsian characters that then filled the pages of fiction magazines.

But Thorndyke stuck around for thirty years because he was one of the better creations of the era. He was one of the first of what today would be called a forensic scientist, collecting evidence which he carefully studies and analyzes to get to the truth of the matter. In most of the Thorndyke novels, we know who the real killer is, but the fun is seeing how Thorndyke proves it. (It's a format similar in some ways to what Lt. Columbo would be doing on TV in the 1970s.)

And the author, R. Austin Freeman, is a very good writer. As I said above, the pace of For the Defence is slow. But Freeman keeps us involved. The plot is unlikely, but Freeman doesn't deny this--he instead uses this fact to help make things look grim for poor Andrew Barton. And Barton is a very sympathetic character--a thoroughly decent person who loves his wife and wants to do the correct and honest thing at all times. He does make a few dumb decisions as the story progresses, but they are mistakes we can understand that someone under severe stress might very well make.

This empathy for Barton carries us through most of the story. Then getting to see and hear Thorndyke expertly pick apart the prosecution's case during the trial makes for a satisfying climax.

Yes, Dr. Thorndyke didn't have the staying power in our popular culture that Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot have obtained, but he did all right for himself during his long career.

Next time, I think we'll take a look at a character who's staying power may be equal to that of Sherlock Holmes--corpulant detective Nero Wolfe. The book will be The Golden Spiders.
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