Thursday, May 28, 2009

The return of Turok, Son of Stone

A while back, I posted THIS about the classic Dell/Gold Key comic Turok Son of Stone.



Recently, Dark Horse comics has been putting out hardcover archives reprinting a lot of the classic Dell Comics. This past March, they got around to Turok.







It includes the first 6 issues. That means it covers the origin story I talked about in the original post, plus the tales that immediately followed. (Stories I've never had a chance to read before.)


It's all great stuff, if a little bit pricey. (I got it discounted from Amazon for around $32.00) But then, if you can't swing the price, ask your local library to get a copy.
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These are all strong, well-plotted fantasy tales with a strong lead character. To qoute William Stout from his introduction: "The stories were simple yet clever. They moved at a relaxed pace quite different from today's action-on-steroids extravaganzas. The stories often stopped as Turok and his companion Andar paused to watch a battle between prehistoric beasts... The Turok stories also provided throughful treatises on basic woodlore and human relationships. Despite the violence involved in killing a dinosaur, ultimately these were pretty gentle books."
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Last year, a direct-to-DVD animated Turok movie was a huge disappointment. Though done well for what it was, the producers made the bizarre decision of turning it into a blood-soaked, R-rated action film. What sense is there in making a Turok film that the original fans who grew up with the character can't share with their children?
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But now here are the original comics in all their original glory. This is Turok done right. This is something you can definitely share with your kids.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: September 1963, part 2

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #96



The tomb of Merlin the Magician is found by archeologists. Inside this is Merlin’s perfectly preserved body—it turns out he’s been in suspended animation for a thousand years.


Once awakened, he goes on a sort of magical rampage, intending to demonstrate that he should be the power behind the “throne,” just as he was in Camelot. He ends up in Washington, but fails to recognize JFK as the president (“He looks too young! I’ll have to search further till I find the president!”)


When Thor confronts the magician, Merlin starts tossing national monuments at him. He also brings the Lincoln memorial to life to stomp the Thunder God. But Thor eventually convinces Merlin that he (Merlin, that is) has no chance of winning. The magician agrees to return to his tomb and another thousand years of suspended animation.


The endings a bit of a dues ex machina, but the monument-tossing batting in D.C. is undeniably fun. There is one odd touch—Merlin claims his powers aren’t magic, but the result of him being a mutant. Of course, since his power is the ability to pretty much do anything he can think of, this is a moot point. This certainly doesn’t effect the story in any way.


I’m not sure why Stan Lee (who plotted this story) and/or Robert Bernstein (who wrote the script) were so shy about the villain using actually magic, but there you are.


AMAZING SPIDER MAN #4


Stan Lee and Steve Ditko continue to hit home runs with Spidey. There’s a great bit right from the start when Spider Man stops a trio of crooks from breaking into a store. Unfortunately, he stops them before they actually do anything illegal, which means the cop on the beat has to let them go.


Soon after this, our put-upon hero encounters the Sandman for the first time. When Peter’s mask rips during their first fight, he runs from the battle in a near-panic that his real identity will become public and Aunt May will be shamed and endangered.


But the two antagonists soon have a re-match-- a six-page running fight through Peter Parker’ high-school when Spidey and Sandy finally have it out. It’s one of my favorite all-time comic book fight scenes; fun and fast-moving while still completely logical in how the action unfolds. Steve Ditko is one of the few artists capable of giving Jack Kirby a run for his money in how to skillfully choreograph a super-powered fight.


Anyway, Spidey wins the fight with the inspired tactic of sucking up Sandman with a vacuum cleaner. In the meantime, the issue is peppered with great character moments. We get more of J. Jonah Jameson’s intense dislike of Spider Man. Peter blows a chance to get a date with fellow student Liz Allen because of his responsibilities as a superhero. Later, when he nearly loses his temper with school bully Flash Thompson, he has to back away rather than risk hurting Flash. This makes him look like a coward in the eyes of his classmates. Nothing is ever easy for poor Peter Parker. But the heart of the series is his determination to do the right thing regardless.



STRANGE TALES #112


Johnny gets his own “J. Jonah Jameson” in the form of a TV commentator who accuses the Human Torch of being a glory-hound that generates disrespect for the police. But when a low-level super villain named the Eel inadvertently steals a miniature atomic bomb, Johnny steps up to save the town of Glenville. The TV commentator is ready to pretty much join the Human Torch fan club after that.

The story does a reasonable job of building suspense as Johnny searches for the bomb. The rest of the FF have cameos, giving us some nice banter between Johnny and Ben.


The tale’s one flaw may be that it amps Johnny’s powers up quite a bit at the end so that he can save the day. When the bomb goes off, Johnny saves Glenville by ABSORBING ALL THE ENERGY OF THE ATOMIC BLAST. Of course, the effort nearly kills him, but that still seems a little beyond what the Torch should be capable of.


Next week, we’ll finish September off with a look at the formation of not one—but TWO—new superhero groups.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Inner Sanctum: "Death's Little Brother" 8/29/48


Inner Sanctum is best remembered for the wonderful squeaking door sound effect that opened and closed the show, as well as the macabre humor of Raymond, the show's host. But the stories sandwiched inbetween the squeaks were usually pretty high-quality as well.


"Death's Little Brother" involves two guys meeting on a train. One of them is traveling to see his long-lost sister to collect his half of a large inheritence. The other guy quickly improvises a plan to kill him and take his place, thus collecting the money for himself.


But improvising a murder plot is never a good idea. Soon, he's dealing with both a blackmailer and the increasingly uncomfortable possibility that someone else might be carrying out nefarious plans of their own. It all makes for a fascinating and suspenseful tale, expertly produced and well-acted.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Best Lookin' Shootout ever

John Ford was a true artist. I love the way he composed his shots when directed films--especially his westerns. And most especially when he shot his films in black-and-white.


His finest visual work was, I think, in 1946's My Darling Clementine, Ford's historically nonsensical but nonetheless brilliant story of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the OK Corrall.


Take a look at the last ten minutes of that film:


My Darling Clementine


Visually, it's perfect. Every single shot is beautifully composed and photographed. There's a shot from 3:15 to 3:25 that I'd love to have framed on my wall, but that could be said for any single moment from this sequence.


John Ford was a great filmmaker in every sense--a master of storytelling and characterization as well as a visual artist. But it's his visual sense that I admire the most. Except for Kurosawa, I don't think any other director could compose a scene with such elegance.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: September 1963, part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR #18


The Skrulls, still annoyed that the Fantastic Four defeated them back in FF #2, make another attempt to destroy the group and conquer the Earth. This time, they send the Super Skrull, a being able to duplicate and amplify all the FF’s powers.


At first, he seems capable of whipping the good guys quite handily. But Reed deduces that Super Skrull must be getting extra power beamed to him from his home planet. Once that power is jammed, it’s the Super Skrull who goes down in defeat.


This is a fun, action-oriented issue. The Skrulls are going to become one of the major alien threats in the Marvel Universe—certainly, their creepy visual design and shape-changing powers make them more memorable than most of the countless other alien races that keep invading us. The Super Skrull himself will, of course, be back to fight again as well.


I should also mention that Sue continues to pull her weight in the action scenes, using her invisibility to good affect. We’re not too many issues away from when her powers finally get amped up with the ability to generate force fields, but in the meantime she’s continuing to do a pretty good job.


TALES TO ASTONISH #47


An American jazz musician traveling in India learns the secret of using music to hypnotize both men and animals. Returning to New York City, he plans to use his powers to hypnotize the populace while he steals them blind.


Fortunately, Ant Man’s cybernetic helmet makes him immune to the music and he foils the plot by destroying the bad guy’s trumpet.


This one is a bit dull, taking far too much time to set up the situation and explain the not-terribly-interesting villain. There’s a nice bit of characterization, though, when Janet talks Hank into taking her to a jazz club. It turns out she’s a fan of jazz, while poor stick-in-the-mud Hank has no idea who Count Basie is. But by the end of the story, he’s learning to appreciate her taste in music.

TALES OF SUSPENCE #45


Iron Man finally gets some regular supporting cast members—something the book has been lacking so far. Happy Hogan is a perpetually grouchy ex-boxer who saves Tony’s life and gets a job as chauffer/bodyguard. Pepper Potts is Tony’s secretary and is (of course) hoping to one day marry the boss.


They are both likable characters. Happy falls for Pepper right off, but she’s initially annoyed with him. This antagonistic relationship (they eventually fall in love and marry) gives some much-needed personality to the book.


Of course, this issue takes so long to introduce us to Happy and Pepper that there’s not much time for the super villain. An embittered scientist (there are a lot of those scattered around the Marvel Universe) invents a freeze ray and ice suit combination and goes on a crime spree. Iron Man defeats him fairly easily by putting together a miniature furnace from components he keeps in his armor.


This makes several issues in a row in which Iron Man hasn’t had to work up much of a sweat in beating the bad guys. But he’s got a better quality of bad guy coming up in future issues.


One other interesting thing—Tony Stark keeps playing up the fact that Iron Man is a good friend who happens to hang around Stark Industries a lot, explaining why the hero is always nearby when trouble breaks out. We haven’t yet reached the point at which Tony comes up with the rather obvious idea of stating that Iron Man is an employee.

Next week, we’ll see what Thor, the Human Torch and Spider Man are up to.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Gunsmoke: “Doc’s Showdown” 10/12/58



When Gunsmoke first premiered in 1952, the character of Doc Adams wasn’t really that likeable. He popped up whenever Marshal Dillon had to kill someone, cackling with glee over the thought of the fee the town paid him for arranging for the burials.


But Doc soon morphed into a nicer guy—I guess the show’s creative staff realized the vulture-like Doc would be too dislikable.


In this episode, Doc gets a chance to be downright heroic. He treats a badly wounded young man, but is unable to save him. Both Doc and the man’s mother watch him die.


No one knows who shot the kid and this sticks in Doc’s craw. He wants the killer or killers brought to justice. So he comes up with a plan. What if he spread the word that the kid told Doc who shot him before he died? Then the killer would have to kill Doc as well, thus giving himself away.


Dillon vetoes this idea as too dangerous, but Doc Adams decides to carry it out on his own. It makes for a genuinely tense episode climaxing with a gunfight inside a dark barn.


As is usual with Gunsmoke, the story is well-written and well-acted. (Doc, by the way, is played by Howard McNear—better remembered today for playing Floyd the Barber on the Andy Griffith Show.) It’s neat to have Doc at the forefront of the action for once—a nice little change-of-pace for an already superior Western.

This episode may be downloaded HERE.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

War of the Worlds




Here's a couple of different takes on H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.
The one of the left is a Classics Illustrated cover from around 1955 by Lou Cameron. I love the choice of perspective and the design of the Martian tripods.
The right-hand illustration is from a 1927 issue of Amazing Stories, in which Wells' novel was reprinted. Frank R. Paul really gives you a sense of the butt-whipping the Martains were giving the human race. Paul's tripod design is pretty cool as well.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1963, part 2


JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #95


A mad scientist uses a duplicating ray to create an evil Thor—and for good measure duplicates evil Thor’s hammer to give him an extra weapon. The two Thors fight, with the villain helping out evil Thor by judicious use of the duplicating ray (such as duplicating a nearby office building so that Thor slams into it in mid-flight).


Joe Sinnott is the artist this time and he does make the image of evil Thor, whirling a hammer in either hand, look pretty darn cool. And the duplicating ray being used as a weapon is a nice touch.


The whole story reminds me of Bizarro—the Superman villain created by an imperfect duplicating ray. It’s not the first time that elements in Thor have reminded me of DC’s most powerful hero. It’s just an indication that Thor has not yet found his own unique “voice.” He’ll get there before long, though. We’re only two issues away from the first of Jack Kirby’s excellent “Tales of Asgard” back-up feature, which will be a driving force towards guiding Thor’s adventures along a much more distinctive route.

STRANGE TALES #111


We meet Dr. Strange’s arch-enemy Baron Mordo, learning pretty much right away that both Mordo and Strange were students of the Ancient One. But while Dr. Strange was apparently the teacher’s pet, Mordo is planning on knocking the old guy off.


This leads to a battle between Mordo and Strange while both are in their ectoplasmic forms. It’s the sort of bizarre situation with which Steve Ditko’s art matches perfectly. It’s a short and economically told story that is a visual delight.


Meanwhile, the Human Torch battles the Asbestos Man—actually an embittered scientist who wears a fireproof costume. This story sets itself up with a nice little plot twist: The scientist wants to use his inventive genius as a criminal, but realizes he needs the help of experienced crooks after he inadvertently trips a burglar alarm during his first attempt at theft.


But he can’t any crooks to pay attention to him (“…er…I am looking for a member of the underworld to take into partnership…” “What’s with this guy? Some kind of NUT? Get lost, chum.”)


So he invents the fireproof suit and publicly defeats the Human Torch to give himself some street cred. It’s really not a bad plan when you think about it.


Or maybe it’s not such a good plan, after all. In a re-match, Johnny cleans his clock by using his flames on objects around the Asbestos Man rather than aimed directly at him. (Melting the floor from underneath him, for instance.)


It all adds up to a reasonably clever and entertaining yarn.


That’s it for August 1963. Dr. Strange will take a rest for a few months before popping up again. But Spider Man will be back, adding yet another important villain to his Rogues Gallery and giving us yet another superbly choreographed fight scene. The Fantastic Four will battle the Super Skrull for the first time; Thor will take on Merlin the Magician; Iron Man fights a silly villain but gains a couple of important supporting cast members; the Human Torch fights the Living Bomb; while Ant Man & the Wasp take on Trago and his… um… Magic Trumpet?

But most importantly, September 1963 will see the founding of the Avengers (with the return of the Hulk to the Marvel Universe after a 6 month absence) AND we’ll meet a certain group of young mutants for the first time.

Monday, May 11, 2009

I'm off to Africa

I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon to spend two weeks in south Sudan teaching bible classes to men training to be chaplains and pastors.


I've posted in advance for the entire month, so new content will still be appearing on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. But I will quite literally be out of contact with the world for most of the rest of the month, so I won't be able to moderate and post any comments you might leave until I get back.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Miss Pinkerton: “The Bentley Emerald” 7/21/41?


Miss Pinkerton was never a regular series—this episode—meant to be the pilot-- is probably the only one ever produced and I’m not sure if it ever actually aired.


But a recording of that single episode has survived, which is a good thing. Miss Pinkerton starred Joan Blondell as Mary Vance, a young law student who inherits a detective agency in New York City. She travels to the city, intending to sell the agency. But—not surprisingly—she ends up working on a case. Soon, she’s attending a high-society party, intending to guard a valuable emerald from thieves.


This brings her into conflict with Dennis Murray, a cop who works the “society beat” and who thinks Mary is completely unqualified for this sort of work. This doesn’t, though, stop him from trying to hit on her a few time.


Anyway, things start to move fast when Mary improvises a plan to steal the emerald herself just before a pair of real thieves get their hand on it. From there, she continues to improvise, tricking the thieves into taking her to see their fence—the real mastermind behind the stolen jewel ring.


All this almost gets her killed, but Murray (helped by “Bingo,” a big galut of an operative who works for the Vance agency) manages to do some quick police work himself and shows up just in time to save the day.


When Murray insists that the detective life isn’t for her, she gets her back up and decides to remain on the job to prove herself.


It’s an entertaining half-hour. Blondell and Dick Powell (who plays Murray) play well against each other and their proto-Moonlighting banter is fun to listen to. The plot is well-constructed and it’s especially interesting in that you can see both Mary’s and Murray’s point-of-view. Despite her inexperience, Mary doesn’t do half-bad and really does help track down the bad guys. But Murray is correct in pointing out that she almost got herself killed. A combination of good chemistry between the lead characters and a script that allows both of them to act intelligently makes the story work both as a comedy and a mystery. It’s too bad Miss Pinkerton didn’t get a chance to stick around for awhile.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hard-Boiled storytelling

The Big Knockover & $106,000 Blood Money (1926), by Dashiell Hammett


Dash Hammett was the driving force behind the development of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, combining his awesome skill as a writer with his experience as a Pinkerton to add a sense of realism and healthy cynicism to the genre.




But writing for the pulps didn’t always pay that well and Hammett briefly retired from writing in the mid-1920s. Fortunately, the promise of better pay and more creative freedom lured him back to the typewriter.


He soon produced a pair of novellas (published in Black Mask magazine in 1926) that pretty much tell a single story—a very, very hard-boiled tale involving murder, thievery, double-crosses, triple-crosses and (if you counted it out) probably a quadruple-cross or two.


Hammett’s protagonist is the same unnamed, overweight operative for the Continental Detective Agency who had headlined most of the writer’s previous short stories. When a large and very organized band of outlaws knock over two banks at once, he gets involved in the investigation. Soon, though, the field of suspects shrinks considerably as the bad guys begin to whack each other (often in large batches all at once) to avoid having to divide up the loot.


When said loot is recovered, the top crook manages to slip away. The second novella involves efforts to track him down.


There’s so much to enjoy in these two stories. Hammett’s precise, straightforward prose is always fun to read. The names of the various crooks involved in the big robbery are wonderful (The Dis-and-Dat Kid; L.A. Slim; Old Pete Best; Shorty McCoy; etc.) I have no idea if these names come from his own experience as a detective or from his imagination as a writer. I do know that if crooks didn’t have such names in the 1920s, they sure as heck should have. It just sounds right.


There’s a few nifty action scenes and some really good twists at the end of both stories.


The protagonist (referred to by fans—though never in the stories—as the Continental Op) is smart and capable, following up leads in a logical manner and playing intelligent hunches. But there’s another aspect to him that Hammett continued to follow up on in future stories—the idea that a career chasing criminals can drain a person of his humanity. The Op’s boss, for instance, is described thus: “Fifty years of crook-hunting for the Continental had emptied him of everything except brains and a soft-spoken, gently smiling shell of politeness that was the same whether things went good or bad—and meant as little at one time or another.”


The Op is going down the same road. He’s been a detective so long that he really doesn’t have anything else in his life other than detective work. This shows several times in the stories when we see just how ruthless he can be in order to get the job done. It’s an element to the character that adds extra bite to an already sharp story.

Next month, we'll visit the L.A. criminal court room along with Perry Mason in "The Case of the Beautiful Begger."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1963, part 1



FANTASTIC FOUR #17


This one picks up right where the previous issue left off, with the FF and Ant Man returning to normal size after their adventure in a sub-atomic world. Hank takes off while Reed and the others begin a search for Doctor Doom.

But their arch-enemy manages to find them first. He kidnaps Alicia, then (while based in a large airship) attempts to bring the United States to its knees by disrupting electrical power across the nation.


He also rings his ship in disintegrator beams tuned to the molecular structures of the FF. But Reed has a way to deal with that—he develops a formula to turn the Thing back into Ben Grimm (thus altering his molecular structure) long enough for Ben to sneak aboard the airship and wreck its defenses.


The story plods along a little at first, taking quite a few pages to set up the main plot. But once our heroes are aboard the airship, we get some nifty action stuff. This includes Sue using her invisibility to go one-on-one with Doom for a couple of pages. I’ve claimed in previous reviews that Sue was too underpowered to be of much use in the early issues of the FF—that she really wasn’t that effective until she got her force field powers. But reading through these early stories again is making me change my mind. It did take Stan and Jack a little while to figure out how to use her, but by now she’s getting her share of awesome moments in pretty much every issue.


Other strong points include the scene in which Reed races to develop the formula needed to get Ben aboard the ship; a nice moment in which Ben admits he trusts Reed with his life; and Ben’s almost-panicked response when he first learns that Alicia is in trouble.


Anyway, it all ends with Alicia safe and Doom defeated. Doom leaps to his apparent death out of the ship rather than admit his defeat, but this is a guy who has survived being thrown into deep space and shrunk down to sub-atomic size. I think we can safely assume he’ll survive a simple thing like plunging 20,000 feet to the ground.


TALES TO ASTONISH #46


Hank and Janet take a vacation to the Greek islands, but a hero’s work is never done. They run into a giant Cyclops that’s been kidnapping sailors.


It soon turns out that the Cyclops is a giant robot, being used by yet another race of invading aliens. Using a flying ant as a mount (the first time he employs that trick, I believe), Ant Man flies into the robot through its mouth. Fiddling with the circuits, he gains control of the Cyclops and turns it against the aliens. So much for THAT problem.


Aside from the over-used “invading aliens” trope, this is a fun little story. Don Heck’s art work looks a little stiff (as it often does), but his Cyclops is kinda creepy looking and the action is effectively choreographed.


TALES OF SUSPENSE #44


While helping an archeologist friend in Egypt, Tony Stark encounters an ancient mummy who’s not quite dead yet. The guy actually turns out to be a sorcerer who put himself into suspended animation for 2000 years to escape his enemies. Using a magic spell, he brings Tony back in time, intending to force him to use modern science to help defeat Cleopatra’s army and take over the country.


But Tony changes into Iron Man and gets away. He then drives off an invading Roman army and saves the beautiful Cleopatra. After this, he helps defeat the time-traveling villain.


Don Heck is the artist on this issue as well and he does some fun visuals when Iron Man fights off the Romans. (I can’t help but wonder, though. Isn’t Tony messing up the proper flow of history?) Tony gets his props as a ladies man as well, turning down an offer to marry Cleopatra before using a magic charm to return to the present.


Like the previous issue, the action scenes are marred a little by the fact that Iron Man has such an easy time winning. The nifty visuals make up for this, though. And next issue, Iron Man will finally get something his book has been sorely lacking—a cast of regular supporting characters.


Next week, we’ll finish up August with a peek at Thor, the Human Torch and Dr. Strange.
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