Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Shadow: “Death and the Crown of Odalph” 1/2/49


This one starts out with some atmospheric exposition giving us the history of the Crown of Odalph—the jeweled crown of an 8th Century Viking King. It sets just the right tone for the episode, in which the ancient king seems to have come back from the grave. He proceeds to feed information alternately to a pair of thieves and to the rightful contemporary owners of the crown, setting everyone against each other in a way that leads to a string of murders.


Lamont and Margo get involved, of course and soon begin stumbling over some of the corpses themselves. It all leads up to a very satisfying and spooky resolution. As is typical of many of the best Shadow episodes, the spooky feeling generated by the apparent appearance of a ghost remains in effect even when a “rational” explanation is eventually provided.


There’s also a nice touch involving the thieves. One of them is very cold-blooded regarding murder, while the other dislikes killing and grows more and more panicky as the episode progresses. It was an unusual and effective bit of characterization, added not so much to further the plot but to give two otherwise one-dimensional characters some individual personality—while also helping to build up the spookiness factor even farther.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Zane Grey's Baseball Tales

That's Zane Grey up there. We remember him best today as a prolific and still popular writer of Westerns, with his best-known and arguably finest novel being Riders of the Purple Sage. (1912)


But Grey also knew baseball. He actually played minor league ball for a short time around the turn of the century and his brother briefly played for the Pittsburg Pirates in 1902.


And, by golly, he wrote about baseball as well. I recently stumbled across the book The Redheaded Outfield & Other Baseball Stories (1920), a collection of delightful and sometimes extremely exciting tales about minor league and small town baseball--set in an era when baseball really was America's Sport and nearly every town had its own team. (I'm sure many Zane Grey fans know about this book already--but it was a fun new discovery for me.)


I've always been a fairly minor Zane Grey fan--I enjoy his work but always thought of Max Brand as the best Western writer of the early 20th Century. But I couldn't put The Redheaded Outfield down. Everything about it--from the conversational prose to the likeable characters to the understanding of baseball's hold on the culture of the day--grabbed my attention and held it. It's one of the most purely enjoyable books I've read in a long time.


About half the stories are narrated by a minor league manager who is mentoring a new and talented pitcher-- a job that at one point includes straightening out the pitcher's love life so that he can get back to concentrating on his pitching. Another yarn is about the 11-year-old crippled "manager" of a sandlot squad who discovers he has a talent for organizing a winning team. Still another is about a star college pitcher who is paid to be a "ringer" for a small-town team--until the pretty sister of an opposing player convinces him to change sides. Each story includes a play-by-play account of at least one tense game that really draws you into the story.


Zane Grey definitely knew his baseball. And he was pretty darn good at writing about it as well. Dig up a copy of this--there's a fair chance your local library will have it--and give it a read.




Wednesday, July 29, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: December 1963, part 2


JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #99



Thor spends a big chunk of this issue in Asgard, still badgering his dad for permission to marry a mortal. Odin is adamant, though—gods don’t marry mortals. Finally, though, he relents a little, telling Thor that IF Jane Foster can prove herself worthy somehow, Thor can MAYBE marry her.



Meanwhile, back on Earth, yet another disgruntled scientist (there’s so many of them in the Marvel Universe that they really oughta start up a union) creates a formula that turns him into the super-strong Mr. Hyde. Realizing that only Thor has the power to stop his planned crime spree, he disguises himself as the Thunder God and robs a bank. Soon, there’s an all-points bulletin out on the Asgardian.



To be continued. Ya know, I think this is the first two-part story we’ve come across so far.



Anyway, there’s another great Tales of Asgard back-up story included. This one features Odin battling Surtur the Fire Demon. It’s another six pages of extraordinary and epic Jack Kirby art work.



TALES OF SUSPENSE #48



Iron Man encounters Mr. Doll, who is using voodoo dolls to extort wealth from rich guys. That’s a perfectly acceptable idea for a comic book villain, but I really wish Stan Lee had taken a moment to come up with a better name. It’s literally embarrassing to have to type the name “Mr. Doll.”



Oh, well, the important aspect of this story is that Iron Man finally redesigns his armor into something more streamlined and visually pleasing. Iron Man finally looks pretty much the way we’re used to him looking. With his new armor, he manages to defeat Mr. Doll (good heavens—that name) by using a focused force field to reshape a voodoo doll into the villain’s image.


Interesting, Steve Ditko does the art for this issue. He's perfect for Spider Man and Dr. Strange, but his style doesn't really fit Iron Man. Still, the new armor design is pretty darn cool. I'm afraid I don't know if Ditko himself designed it or based it on someone else's (Kirby?) design.



But for the love of heaven---Mr. Doll? Stan, Stan, Stan, you can really do better than that.



TALES TO ASTONISH #50


And here’s the beginning of yet another two-parter. A villain known as the Human Top (he’ll eventually become better known as Whirlwind) has the power to spin and move at super speed. When Giant Man tries to run him down following a robbery, Hank’s size proves to be a hindrance. Still unused to his new growing power, he can’t get his hands on the Human Top, causes traffic jams and (in one wonderful panel) runs head first into a neon sign.



Chagrined but undeterred, Hank comes up with some training devices to help him improve his own speed and agility while he’s giant-sized. As the issue comes to an end, he and Janet are ready for a rematch with the Human Top.


Hank and Janet’s bantering continues to inject some personality into the story, while Jack Kirby handles the Giant Man/Human Top chase scene with his usual flair for action. The real fun, of course, comes from seeing poor Hank make a mess of things when he tries to run down the Top.


Well, that’s it for 1963. As 1964 opens, we’ll see the FF, the Human Torch and Dr. Strange all confront old villains; Peter Parker will enter a boxing ring to fight Flash Thompson; Thor and Giant Man continue their current battles; Iron Man will tussle with one of the X-Men; the X-Men go to the circus but don’t have a good time; and the Avengers take on both the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

X Minus One: "Caretaker" 1/30/57


X Minus One was a cool show--doing faithful, intelligent adaptations of science fiction short stories. It never played down to its audience, but rather assumed we were willing to follow along with the plots and listen closely to whatever exposition was needed.


"Caretaker" is an episode consisting almost entirely of exposition, but the writing and acting are both solid enough to keep it interesting from start to finish. A spaceship crew finds a human who's been stranded on a planet for 22 years. The castaway has found a tribe of humans living there and has married one of them. But a hideous reptilian race is encrouching on the humans' territory, threatening their existence.


All this is explained to the space ship crew by the castaway. But there's several odd points to his story--most notably his explanation that the native humans have some strange cultural taboo that include avoiding all visitors.


It's no surprise that all this is setting up a twist ending. But when the twist comes, it's still a good one--leading up to a vary emotional ending to this excellent and intelligent story.

This episode can be downloaded HERE.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tarzan' Magic Fountain



There’ve been countless Tarzan movies. And though we have sadly yet to have a truly classic Tarzan film, there have nonetheless been quite a few entertaining ones.



Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1948) is one of the entertaining ones. It’s one of a series of skillfully-made B-movies featuring the Lord of the Jungle produced by RKO during the post-war years. Lex Barker is appropriately athletic and capable as Tarzan and Brenda Joyce is a very pretty and personable Jane.


The script was co-written by Curt Siodmak and Harry Chandlee. Siodmak was a great storyteller—his other work included scripts for a few of the classic Universal monster movies (with The Wolf Man being the most important of those). He also wrote a weird and atmospheric science fiction novel titled Donovan’s Brain, in which a disembodied brain gains telepathic control over someone else’s body.


Siodmak had a talent for taking a fantasy premise and weaving a coherent plot around it. Tarzan’s Magic Fountain involves a hidden civilization that has access to a Fountain of Youth; an Amelia Earhart-like aviatrix who crashed in the jungle 20 years; and several greedy outsiders who want to find the secret of eternal youth. On top of all this, a few inhabitants of the city are led to believe Tarzan has betrayed their location and opt to assassinate him.


The plot hangs together quite well and there’s some really neat visuals scattered throughout the film. This may have been a low-budget B-movie, but it was made in an era when B-movie makers were skilled at getting the most out of the resources they had available to them.


The jungle sets are quite good and manage to convey a sense that the story really is taking place in Africa. A scene in which Jane and several others are caught in a ravine during a flash flood is very well done. Some matte paintings used for the establishing shots of the mountain pass leading to the hidden city are effective in terms of basic storytelling as well as being beautifully photographed. There’s a nifty looking wrecked plane, covered with foliage and with a skeleton seated in the pilot’s seat—and a snake weaving its way through the skeleton.


My favorite image from the movie results from the death of one of the villains. He and a small party are searching for the hidden city and find the mountain pass. But the pass is watched by guards equipped with a wonking big crossbow. The villain (who wears an eye patch) is pinned to a tree by a flaming arrow.


Later on, in a scene that would have taken place some weeks later, Tarzan and several other characters pass this location. They find an eye-patch-wearing skeleton still pinned to the tree by the arrow. Now that’s just plain cool.


The supporting cast is good as well, as was typical in an era when there were so many good character actors under contract to the studios. The main bad guy is played by Albert Dekker, who can always be depended on to be an effective villain. Watch him as a mad scientist in Dr. Cyclops (1940) or a crime boss in the excellent film noir The Killers (1946) for other “good” turns as a bad guy. (In fact, those two films along with Tarzan’s Magic Fountain would make for an odd but enjoyable Albert Dekker triple feature.)


The movie isn’t perfect. There’s too much time spent on Cheetah’s antics in an effort to generate some comic relief. (I’m pretty sure Western Civilization exhausted the possibilities of getting humor out of monkeys some time during the 1930s.) The ending needed a little bit more action—it’s not a bad climax at all, but Tarzan needed some opportunity to kick some villainous butt rather than spending as much time as he did just running away. Someone else gets to do in the bad guys, which can’t help but be disappointing.


But the good stuff outweighs the bad. This movie recently became available through something Warner Brothers is calling their Archives program. These movies aren’t released on DVD through regular commercial venues. Instead, you buy one online and they print the disc on demand. There’s no extras and the chapter stops are put in a ten-minute intervals, making them kind of random. But what the hey—the movie itself is the important thing. With shipping, it’s a little too expensive for me to be buying many of these, but I remembered that eye-patch-wearing skeleton from seeing this movie on TV years before and I knew I would have to splurge a little to get it. I’m glad I did.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: December 1963, part 1


FANTASTIC FOUR #21


The Hate-Monger, who wears a KKK-like uniform, is stirring up hatred and bigotry across the globe. It turns out he’s secretly using a “hate ray” to turn people against one another. Before long, he’s zapped the FF with the ray, causing the four now-former teammates to go at each other tooth and nail.



Fortunately, with the help of former Howling Commando Nick Fury, our heroes are given an antidote to the hate ray and manage to get the drop on the Hate Monger. Killed by his own men, the Monger turns out to be either Adolf Hitler or a double.


It’s a pretty good story—a little heavy-handed in its universal brotherhood morale, but filled with some nice bits of action. I especially like Reed’s brief but visually fun solo stint using his powers to sabotage anti-government rebels in a war-torn South American nation. The FF’s free-for-all after they get hit by the hate ray is also a lot of fun.


But the real treat here is seeing Nick Fury inserted into modern day Marvel continuity. His WWII-era Howling Commandos book had been around for some months now and had been selling well. (Supposedly, Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos had been created because Stan Lee had told his publisher he and Kirby could take a dumb or corny title and still turn it into a commercially successful book.) In 1963, it was possible for a WWII vet to be still be young enough to be an action hero and, in fact, Reed (who been an OSS operative in the war) had already guest-starred in an issue of the Howlers.


So Stan and Jack brought Nick into the present day, making him a colonel in the CIA. He’d soon be a regular part of the Marvel Universe, getting an eye patch (something that was eventually explained in a Howlers issue as being the delayed result of a war wound) and being placed in charge of SHIELD—an international spy organization.


AMAZING SPIDER MAN #7


The worst mistake a prison warden in a superhero universe can do is put an imprisoned supervillain to work in the machine shop. That never ends well.


But that’s where the Vulture ends up working, allowing him to snitch enough parts to build another flying device and escape over the prison walls. Soon, he’s back to his life of crime.


Spidey fights him once over the roof tops and—overconfident because he’d sent him to prison once already—loses the battle, ending up with a sprained arm. But it’s not long before he gets another chance when the Vulture tries to rob the Daily Bugle payroll.

This leads to a running battle through the Daily Bugle building that is laid out with Ditko’s typical skill at energetic and entertaining fight choreography. Spidey outsmarts Vulture this time and sends him back to prison.


And the issue ends happily for Peter Parker as well, giving him a nice romantic moment with Betty Brant. I think Lee and Ditko realized that they couldn’t dump on poor Peter every issue—that Peter had to have his good moments as well to keep the book from becoming a never-ending downer.


STRANGE TALES #115



While the Vulture is putting in his second appearance in the pages of Spider Man, another Spidey villain—the Sandman—is popping up in Strange Tales.



When Sandman also escapes from prison, the Human Torch is asked to find Spider Man and send the webslinger after him. But that doesn’t sit well with Johnny. He figures anything Spidey can do, the Torch can do better.



So he wears a Spider Man costume to lure Sandman into battle. At first, it looks like Sandman has the upper hand. But when both combatants get caught underneath some water sprinklers, Johnny manages to turn the situation to his advantage and win the fight.



It’s a nice if unexceptional issue, notable mostly in that it continues to advance the Torch/Spidey feud a little farther.



Meanwhile, we finally get to find out where the heck Dr. Strange came from. And his origin is a really good one. Turns out the Master of Mysticism was once a talented but arrogant surgeon. When an accident left the nerves in his hands too damaged to perform surgery, his pride refused to allow him to accept what he perceived as a “lower” position of advising and consulting with other doctors.



Finally, he travels to the East to find the Ancient One, not really believing in magic but desperate to try anything that might cure his hands. When he redeems himself morally by helping the Ancient One against Baron Mordo’s treachery, he becomes the Ancient One’s apprentice, training for years to use magic to fight the supernatural evils that threaten the world.



It really is a great origin story, with Ditko’s art providing strong visuals throughout.



That’s it for now. Next week, we’ll finish off 1963 with a look at Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

They really--really--really don't make 'em like this anymore.


I sometimes worry that my preference for older books, movies and comics might make me sound overly critical of modern popular culture. I don’t want to sound like an old curmudgeon about modern stuff. First, I’m not all that old. Second, I do recognize that there is still a lot of worthwhile stuff produced nowadays. Up, for instance, is one of the best animated movies ever made. Heck, I saw an episode of a current TV series (NCIS) during an airplane flight recently and liked it a lot. I really do realize that there is some good things being made today.


But there are definitely a few cases in which they really, really, really don’t make ‘em like they used to. Take screwball comedies, for instance. The screwballs made in the 1930s and 1940s have a sense of humor and a sense of timing and a sense of sweetness to them that no modern comedy can even come close to approaching.


I just Netflixed Easy Living (1937), which stars Jean Arthur and had a script written by the great Preston Sturges. I never happened to have seen this one before and I loved every second of it. It starts off with a wealthy banker (played to perfection by Edward Arnold) who is annoyed that his wife and son are spending so much money frivolously. He tosses his wife’s new fur coat off the roof of their building.


It lands on the head of Jean Arthur, a working-class girl on her way to her job. This leads to a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications that are a typical part of the genre, all of which up threatening the banker’s marriage AND nearly cause yet another economic depression.


It’s an absolutely perfect movie, drawing laughs from situational humor, word play and outright slapstick. Jean Arthur is funny and smart and—gee whiz—too pretty for words. Edward Arnold plays a perpetually grumpy man who is clearly a decent person at heart—the sort of role he played so well in about a gazillion other movies. Ray Milland seems to be having fun as the banker’s son who leaves home to prove he can support himself and only then realizes he has no actual job skills. Luis Alberni almost steals the movie as a sort-of French manager of a nearly bankrupt hotel.


They really don’t make ‘me like this any more. I don’t care if that makes me sound curmudgeonly. It’s true all the same.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: November 1963, part 3




AVENGERS #2


We start the issue with the Avengers holding a meeting to get to know each other better. What they quickly find out is that Thor and Hulk pretty much constantly get on each other’s nerves. Nobody else is completely happy with the ill-tempered Hulk either—thus nicely foreshadowing what is about to come.



The Space Phantom—an advance scout for yet another race of aliens bent on world conquest—arrives on Earth to destroy the Avengers as a precursor to full-scale invasion.



The Phantom has a nifty power: He can assume the shape (and powers, if any) of any other person. When he does so, that person is transported to into “Limbo” to drift helplessly there until the Phantom assumes another shape.



He quickly replaces the Hulk and starts a fight with the other Avengers, then goes on a rampage and destroys a new Stark Industries weapon being tested by the Army.



This leads to a really fun, fast-moving battle in which the Phantom switches between Avengers, duplicating each of them in turn to keep them confused and off balance. But when Thor enters the battle, the Phantom (currently in Iron Man form) is nearly overpowered. He tries to duplicate Thor, but it turns out his power doesn’t work against an actual god. He himself is thrown into Limbo.



So the fight is over and the good guys win. But it’s not over yet. The Hulk is in a snit that everyone else was so quick to presume he had turned evil when the Phantom first replaced him. He quits and jumps away, leaving the others to wonder what will happen now that the Avengers can’t keep him in check. We’ll find out about that in the next issue.




This is strong story, giving us yet another example of Jack Kirby’s excellent fight choreography. The character interactions are handled well and lead to logical, believable consequences.



One minor but interesting detail—unless I missed an earlier reference, this issue of the Avengers marks the first time that Iron Man is referred to as actually being on Tony Stark’s payroll. In earlier issues of Tales of Suspense, he is merely identified as a friend of Stark’s. It seems that Tony is finally starting to get the hang of this secret identity business.



X-Men #2


Well, judging from the number of pretty girls who are mobbing Angel at the beginning of this issue, it seems that the X-Men have become fairly well-known since their premiere adventure last issue. Well-known and publicly admired as well—there’s as yet none of the public anti-mutant sentiment that will eventually become one of the driving forces of the book.



In fact, Professor X even has a regular contact in the government—FBI Agent Duncan, who wears a psionic headband that allows him to make mental contact with the Professor at regular intervals.



All this is background information, though. The meat of this issue involves another evil mutant. The Vanisher has the ability to teleport anywhere he wants with the speed of thought, making him a very effective thief. After robbing a bank, he recruits a mob and announces his intention to steal a copy of the military’s continental defense plans.



The X-Men attempt to guard the plans, but the Vanisher’s teleporting ability keeps him always one step away from them. Only then does Professor X step in, using his mental powers to wipe away the Vanisher’s memory, making him helpless as a baby.



The story is full of good action stuff, including a Danger Room training sequence and X-Men’s initial running battle with the Vanisher, in which everyone is basically playing keepaway with the briefcase containing the defense plans.



There’s some nice character moments, too. The youthful X-Men take to bickering among themselves after they first fail to stop the Vanisher and it’s both here and on several other occasions that Professor X has to take the role of strict disciplinarian. The teacher/student dichotomy is a good one, giving the X-Men their own personality distinct from the FF or the Avengers.



That’s it for November 1963. In December, the Fantastic Four will encounter a new villain and Reed will meet an old friend from World War II. The Human Torch will be matched up against a member of Spider Man’s Rogue’s Gallery, while Spidey has a rematch against yet another old villain. Thor meets a particularly ugly bad guy; Giant Man has some trouble adjusting to his new powers; Iron Man FINALLY redesigns his armor; and we get a peak at the origin of Dr. Strange.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Goblin Reservation


Here’s a fun book. Written by Clifford Simak, whose always excellent novels and short stories covered both fantasy and science fiction, The Goblin Reservation (1968) is a whimsical, imaginative novel that is actually a bit difficult to describe. I also don’t want to give too much of the plot away—this is one book where it really is best to just allow it to happen to you as you read it.



The book is set in the future, on the campus of a large university on Earth. The main character is a professor who discovers he was duplicated in a teleportation accident, but that his duplicate has since died in an accident while he (the original) was off-planet. So he’s officially dead—out of a job—and something of an embarrassment to the school administration.


And all this is set against a bizarre background. Time travel has been developed—in fact, William Shakespeare is on campus to give a lecture about how he didn’t really write his plays. Also, creatures such as goblins, faeries, trolls and banshees have turned out to really exist and turn out to play an important role in the ensuing shenanigans. There’s a crystal planet out there somewhere—a survivor from a previous universe--containing something like 50 billion years worth of knowledge that is now for sale. There are some rather icky aliens (hive minds whose wheeled-limbed bodies are full of writhing insects) who may or may not be mankind’s deadly enemy. There’s a series of paintings by a pre-time travel era artist that nonetheless seem to be eyewitness scenes from the Jurassic Era.


Our hero, along with his best friends (a ghost who doesn’t remember who he was when he was alive, a highly educated Neanderthal, and a young woman with a pet bio-mechanical saber-toothed tiger) has to make sense of everything. But they have to deal with potentially dangerous aliens, greedy humans, stubborn administrators, cash-strapped department heads and trolls who are ticked off because the goblins won’t share the latest batch of ale with them.


And, yes, all this does tie together at the end. But I don’t want to even hint how. Check your library or used-book dealers to dig up a copy and find out for yourself.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

History of the Marvel Universes: November 1963--Part 2







JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #98


As this issue opens, Thor is throwing a temper tantrum because Odin has forbidden him to marry a mortal. What’s more, Jane has quit her job with Dr. Blake and gotten a job with another Doctor.


But the Thunder God’s personal problems take a back seat when the Cobra arrives in New York. A villain who got enhanced speed and agility when bitten by a radioactive cobra, the Cobra tries to take over a chemical factory. He intends to produce enough “cobra serum” to create an army of loyal snake-men.


This leads to a running battle with Thor. Eventually, Cobra takes Jane and her new boss hostage. Jane’s boss turns out to be a craven coward, which convinces Jane to return to her job with Donald Blake.


But, of course, that doesn’t happen until Thor rescues her from Cobra. Cobra himself escapes, but he’ll be back before too long.


It’s a pretty good issue. Cobra is probably too underpowered to really present Thor with a serious enough threat, but he’s visually interesting and will make for a solid if usually second-string addition to the Marvel Universe.

The real treat in this issue is the “Tales of Asgard” back-up feature. This time around, we see Odin battle some Frost Giants. It’s the sort of uber-powered battle scene that Jack Kirby excels at and his design for the Frost Giants is downright awesome. A few panels of Odin flying into battle on a chariot pulled by winged horses only adds that much more awesomeness to the whole thing.



TALES OF SUSPENSE #47


You know, over the years, Marvel Comics really has developed a large stable of reasonably interesting second-string villains who can be plugged into a story as needed. In Journey into Mystery, we’re introduced to one of these guys: The Cobra.


Now, in Tales of Suspense, we meet the Melter, an embittered former business rival of Tony Stark’s who invents a ray gun capable of instantly melting iron.


This, of course, is a weapon that works pretty well against Iron Man. But, after one disastrous encounter with the Melter, Tony rebuilds his armor out of a tough aluminum alloy. The Melter flees in panic when his weapon fails to work.


Interestingly, the Melter escapes—just as the Cobra escapes Thor. It’s a good month for stopping evil plans, but a bad month for actually catching the bad guys.


Steve Ditko did the fun art work and there’s some funny banter between Happy and Pepper. Iron Man still isn’t as good as it will be, but it’s slowly getting there.



TALES TO ASTONISH #49



Henry Pym takes another step forward as a viable character when he finally realizes he can use his reducing/enlarging formulae to become Giant-Man as well as Ant-Man.



It’s a new power that comes in handy when he (and some other scientists) are kidnapped into another dimension by cranky aliens who want the humans to make atomic weapons. The Wasp (who secretly tagged along when Pym was snatched) helps Hank get loose and he uses his new Giant-Man ability to make mincemeat of the alien military. He and Wasp get hold of the dimension-hopping device used to kidnap everyone and use it to get themselves and the other hostages back to Earth.



Jack Kirby has some fun with the battle scenes (including a King Kong homage when Giant-Man stands atop a tower to fight alien aircraft), while the banter between Hank and Janet is actually quite clever. I like one line when Hank replies to Janet’s statement that she loves him: “Honey, you’re just in love with the idea of being in love.”



“Even when you call me Honey,” she replies, “you make it sound so… medicinal!!!”



Not Nobel Prize-winning dialogue, perhaps, but it succeeds in giving the protagonists some personality. As I’ve said before, this series will never come close to the level of quality we’re finding in FF and Spider Man, but it still—from time to time--does okay for itself.



Next week, we’ll finish up November 1963 with a look at the Avengers and the X-Men.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Curse you, Agatha Christie!!!!!!

The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie


No mystery writer was better at twist endings and planting incredibly subtle clues that reveal one of the least likeliest suspects (or, often, someone who wasn’t a suspect at all) turn out to be the killer. It actually kind of gets on my nerves. I can occasionally figure out a Perry Mason solution. I remember being insufferable proud of myself as a 12-year-old when I figured out the solution to “The Red Headed League” right along with Sherlock Holmes.


But I don’t think I’ve ever beaten Hercule Poirot or Miss Marble to the punch. When the solution to the mystery is revealed, it will turn out that the clues were all there right in front of us. But only I’ve never manage to quite figure it all out before the wonderful creations of Agatha Christie do.


The ABC Murders seems to at first be atypical. Poirot receives letters from a madman who signs his name ABC, taunting Poirot to catch him and revealing in each letter the town in which the next murder would take place. The madman seems to have an alphabet obsession—his kills a Mrs. Asher in the town of Andover. Then a Miss Barnard in the town of Bexhill. And so on.


It does not seem to be a matter in which Poirot’s usual deductive genius can really help, since there is no logical motive or method behind it all. But Poirot’s skills do play a part when he gathers the friends and relatives together, questioning them until a certain pattern to the events is made clear.


Then the killer is finally caught. It all seems very straightforward, at least until Poirot suddenly comes forward with the announcement that all is not as it seems…


At which point he gives us a summary of several clues that were right there for us to see as well. But we don’t—at least not until Poirot points them out to us. Agatha Christie, darn her, is far too good at her job to all that. That’s why her often brilliant mysteries are still in print today—over eight decades after she first began to write them. That’s why The ABC Murders is so much fun to read. That’s why she continues to get on my nerves.


Next month, we'll look at "The Chinese Parrot" and visit with the world's most likable detective--Charlie Chan.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: November 1963--Part 1




FANTASTIC FOUR #20


The Watcher—last seen on the moon back in FF #13, pays a visit to Earth. A menace so powerful it threatens even the Watcher’s race has popped up, forcing him to act. Well—it forces him to get the FF to act, at least, even if all he still does is observe.


The menace is the Molecule Man, a lowly technician given an awesome superpower in a lab accident. Now he can transmute matter at a molecular level, pretty much allowing him to turn anything (including air molecules) into anything else.


The Molecule Man soon tussles with the FF and manages to force them to retreat. Encasing Manhattan in glass, he threatens the populace into helping hunt down the heroes.


But the FF gets unexpected help from the Yancy Street Gang. The Yancy Streeters have been an occasional running gag for a number of issues, sending hate mail and mean-spirited practical jokes to Ben. But, since they don’t like the fact of anyone else picking on Ben, they help smuggle the Fantastic Four to Alicia’s apartment.


The one Yancy Streeter we see has his face in shadows, so we never see what he looks like. This will become the traditional way of portraying the gang members in their occasional future appearances.


Anyway, once Reed has time to think, he realizes the Molecule Man can’t affect organic matter and uses this fact to come up with a plan to defeat him. The Watcher pops up again to take the villain into custody.


It’s a good issue, though not quite on the same level of imagination as the Red Ghost or Rama Tut stories. Still, it’s nice to see the Watcher again and Jack Kirby is obviously having fun drawing out the bizarre initial battle between the FF and the bad guy.


There’s one odd bit at the beginning of the story---taking place before the Watcher pops up to get things going. Reed is studying a meteor and finds something that resembles a “dehydrated acorn” inside it. “This proves that some form of life MUST exist in outer space,” he exclaims eagerly.

Gee whiz, Reed—doesn’t meeting the Watcher, the Skrulls, the Impossible Man and the citizens of Planet X (not to mention the countless other alien races that keep invading us) already kinda sorta prove that?


There are moments when I really worry about Reed.


AMAZING SPIDER MAN #6



Spidey continues to add members to his Rogue’s Gallery at a fast and furious rate. This time around, it’s the first appearance of the Lizard.


One-armed scientist Curt Connors studies lizards in an attempt to find a way for humans to regenerate limbs. The formula he comes up with does re-grow his missing arm—but also turns him into the hideous and violent Lizard.


It’s yet another visually cool villain with a strong back-story. The setting is a change-of-pace as well—Spidey and the Lizard fight their final battle in and around an old Spanish fort in the Everglades.


We get a nice reminder that Peter is smart as well as super-powered when he manages to come up with an antidote to turn the Lizard back into Dr. Connors. We also get some fun stuff involving Peter’s as-yet still theoretical love life. He gets interrupted before he can ask Betty Brant on a date. Later in the story, he gives Liz Allen a call. But Liz, recently saved from thieves by Spider Man, tells Peter she’s waiting for the webslinger to give her a call and won’t go out with anyone else. Peter turns out to be his own competition. Finally, there’s a few good gags involving the growing feud between Jameson and Spider Man.



All in all, yet another strong issue.



STRANGE TALES #114



The Human Torch story at first seems to feature the return of Captain America—one of Marvel’s World War II era heroes—to modern continuity. It turns out to be a trick, though. The villainous Acrobat (who fought Johnny eight issues earlier) has impersonated Cap in order to pull off a bank robbery. Johnny manages to put the kibosh on him once again, though.



It’s a pretty good story. Jack Kirby (who co-created Cap in 1941) returns to the title for this issue to do the art and the final panel includes an outright admission that the story was a test. Jack and Stan were trying to get a feel on whether their readers wanted to see Cap return for real.



And, of course, Cap would be returning soon—getting thawed out of a block of ice by the Avengers a few months down the line. It’s such a narrow time frame, I think it likely that Stan and Jack had already pretty much decided to bring Captain America back. And it would prove to be a wise decision.



Meanwhile, Dr. Strange is lured into a trap by Baron Mordo, but manages to telepathically summon help from a young lady named Victoria Bentley. He gets free of the trap and manages to force Mordo to retreat.



The impression left by all this is that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko might have been planning on using Victoria as a regular supporting character and possible love interest. But, though she does pop up again from time to time through the years, Stan and Steve seem to have rather quickly lost interest in her.



This is perhaps just as well. This particular story is a bit slow-paced and not as visually interesting as other stories in the series have been. Soon, Dr. Strange will be regularly engaging in combat with strange beings on extra-dimensional battlegrounds—making for some of the most visually impressive stories Marvel ever produced. Poor Victoria probably would have just been in the way.



Next time, we’ll look in on Thor, Iron Man and Ant Man.
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