Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ducks, gunfighters and ships in strange places

What do Bat Masterson and Scrooge McDuck have in common?


Well, both of them stumbled across the wrecks of old Spanish ships in the desert of the American southwest, well away from any water.


For Scrooge, it happened in the story “The Seven Cities of Cibola,” published in Uncle Scrooge #7 (1954). Scrooge, Donald and the nephews are looking for the titular lost cities, which were reputed to be filled with gold.


Along the way, they run across the ship, which had been sailing along the Colorado River in 1539 before being displaced into the desert by an earthquake. Artist/writer Carl Barks does his usual perfect job of making the sequence visually striking.



Bat Masterson, on the other hand, ran across a wrecked Spanish ship in the desert in THIS EPISODE (broadcast July 15, 1959)

of the classic television series starring Gene Barry. Gee whiz, there’s an awful lot of wrecked Spanish ships littering the American desert.


One can’t help but wonder if someone on the Bat Masterson writing or production staff was a fan of Disney comics and perhaps lifted the “ship in the desert” idea for the TV show. Or perhaps both stories were simply drawing on the same Old West tall tales.


Whether that’s the case or not, it’s tempting to assume that they might be the same ship, thus allowing us to place Uncle Scrooge and Gene Barry’s fictionalized version of Masterson in the same universe.


But, sadly, the two ships don’t quite match up. The ship Masterson finds contains treasure—a chest of jewels and gold nuggets. Whereas the ship Scrooge and the nephews find doesn’t contain any treasure—though it does provide them with an important clue to find the lost cities.


I guess fiction writers owe quite a debt to the Spanish conquistadors. Greed; war; betrayal; courage and cowardice; quests for lost cities of gold (which never existed in real life, but often turn out to be quite “real” in various fictional universes)—all this has provided storytellers with an unending supply of fodder for entertaining adventure yarns.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: February 1964,part 1


FANTASTIC FOUR #23


I love the way this issue begins—with a baby dinosaur rampaging through one of Reed’s labs. (Really, it’s no wonder other tenants in the Baxter Building were complaining in the previous issue.)


Reed had been conducting experiments with Doctor Doom’s time machine, but he had left Ben and Johnny to look after it while he stepped out of the lab for a moment. It’s never explained why Reed had to leave the lab, but I suppose even super-powered brilliant scientists have to visit the, um, little boys’ room from time to time.


Anyway, Ben and Johnny take to bickering and the dinosaur appeared while they weren’t paying attention to the time machine. The FF soon corrals the little guy and sends him back to his own time, but Reed blows up at the others. And, man, Reed can be COLD when he’s mad, with cutting references to “my so-called partners” and their “alleged minds.”


While this family squabble is going on, Doctor Doom is instigating his latest plan to take revenge on the FF. He recruits a trio of criminals and uses a new invention to give each of them a different superpower. Each power is specifically designed to counter one member of the Fantastic Four.


The plan works initially and the FF are all soon prisoners of Doom. He “rewards” his allies by teleporting them into another dimension “until your master has need for you again.” Doom can pretty cold as well.

Of course the FF soon figures out how to escape. Ironically, though, Reed isn’t much use—it’s the other three that come up with the tactics and do the bulk of the fighting. In the end, Doom is tossed through a dimensional portal into deep space. But he’s been lost in deep space before, so it’s a safe bet he’ll be back.


This is a fun issue. The bickering between the four heroes is well-written and everyone stays in character. And the story is expertly constructed—all that bickering is smoothly intertwined with the action and the overall plot flows along quite nicely.

SPIDER MAN #9


We’re introduced to yet another member of Spider Man’s ever-growing rogue’s gallery. Electro, given his power when he was struck by lightning, has gone on a criminal rampage.


Electro is a good villain and the action sequences are laid out with Steve Ditko’s usual skill. There’s some great stuff with J. Jonah Jamison as well, who at first publicly accuses Spider Man and Electro of being the same person, then must (of course) retract this later on. Oh, yeah, Aunt May’s on her death bed yet again, in need of an expensive operation. But that’s pretty typical for Aunt May.

But it’s the growing relationship between Peter and Betty Brant that’s at the heart of this issue. It’s handled really well—the emotions expressed by the two characters come across as human without slipping into melodramatic soap opera territory. Betty is shown as a decent and compassionate person and Peter is shown as a young man slowly realizing just how attractive those characteristics are in a girl.


There’s also a great moment at Peter’s high school: Flash Thompson begins to think that maybe he shouldn’t be picking on “puny Parker” so much. But Peter is too worried about Aunt May to pay any attention to Flash’s attempt to be friendly, thus inadvertently blowing a chance to end their rivalry.

All in all, a good solid issue with some sharp characterizations.


STRANGE TALES #117


The Human Torch has a rematch against the Eel, a skilled costumed burglar he fought five issues earlier. It’s not a bad story, but plods along a little too slowly to be truly successful.


The Dr. Strange story is much more interesting, due to Steve Ditko’s wonderful layouts. Baron Mordo is trying to take revenge on Strange yet again, this time by casting a spell that tosses Strange’s GreenwichVillage home into another dimension.


But Dr. Strange manages to outwit Mordo and defeats him in a one-on-one magical battle.


It’s a short but visually sweet story.


Next week, we’ll look in on Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man to finish up February 1964.

Friday, August 21, 2009

FRIDAY'S FAVORITE OTR

Hopalong Cassidy: The Mystery of Skull Valley 1/22/50



Hopalong Cassidy is supposed to be the head of the Bar 20 ranch, but I cannot for the life of me figure out when the heck he had time to do any ranching.



Oh, he always seems to be trying. He’ll be on the way to do some sort of ranch business, but some sort of trouble or mystery will always divert him.



In this episode, he and his sidekick California Carlson are riding somewhere to check out some cattle they might want to buy, but an old Spanish coin, some bloodstains and a few hoof prints soon point them off in another direction. As near as I can tell, they never do get around to checking out that stock.



Oh, well, I suppose it really doesn’t matter. Hoppy seems to get the Bar 20 books to balance somehow, since he kept the place in business through a couple of decades of movies, TV shows and radio episodes.



This particular episode is, as is usual for this show, a solid and well-plotted mystery/Western. It’s easy to perceive why William Boyd was so popular as Hoppy during the 1940s and early 1950s—his portrayal of the cow hand is very likeable and occasionally boisterous. Plop such a personality down into a well-written story and you are bound to tell an entertaining tale.



And that’s just what happens here. Hoppy and California find a wounded man, chase off a couple of gunmen, trail a missing amateur archeologist to an abandoned mine and finally confront the bad guys in deadly climax amongst the rotting support beams of the mine.



It’s a great story—but how Hoppy has time to keep the Bar 20 in the black is beyond me.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Perry Mason meets The Shadow

I just saw Perry Mason team up with the Shadow, Nero Wolfe and Sam Spade’s secretary.


Well, not really—but almost. The fourth season of the classic TV series Perry Mason recently came out on DVD and I’ve been Netflixing them. (I actually wouldn’t mind owning this particular series, but that possibility does not exist within the confines of my bank account.)


The first episode on the latest disc I’ve received had a murder victim played by Francis X. Bushman, who in 1945 briefly played the corpulent detective Nero Wolfe on radio. Poor Bushman/Wolfe got himself bludgeoned to death with a fireplace poker, so he wasn’t as much help in the consequent investigation as he might otherwise have been. But (to the surprise of no one) Perry Mason managed to finger the killer by the end of the episode anyway.


The next episode on the disc included Lurene Tuttle in the cast, playing the widow of this story’s murder victim. From 1946 to 1951, Lurene played Effie, the ditsy but loyal secretary to private eye Sam Spade, in one of radio’s best-ever detective series.


In the next episode, John Archer played an older guy planning on marrying a younger woman—until someone kakked her with a letter opener. It’s surprising that Archer didn’t identify the murderer right off the bat, since in 1944-45, he played on radio the one man who “knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men”—the Shadow.


{On a side note: I saw Archer get wounded by James Cagney when I re-watched White Heat this past weekend. The man just can’t seem to stay out of trouble.}


So Perry Mason sorta, kinda, in a way, had himself a series of team-ups with some of the other great characters from the mystery genre. This is, of course, a perfectly meaningless piece of information. But nonetheless, I think it’s pretty darn cool.


Actually, a lot of the great character actors who learned their craft from radio rather understandably began taking work on television as dramatic radio began to die away. That may be one of the reasons so many early TV shows became the classics they are-still as enjoyable today as they were over a half-century ago.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Yet another piece of shameless self-promotion

There's a new article I've written up at the excellent OTRCat.com website:


Memorable Villians of Old-Time Radio

History of the Marvel Universe: January 1964, part 3


AVENGERS #3


This issue starts out with several pages that amount to a pretty shameless plug of Marvel’s other superhero books. Concerned about the Hulk, Iron Man uses an “image projector” to send a holographic image of himself out to contact other superheroes for information. This provides us with cameos of the Fantastic Four, Spider Man and the X-Men.


They’re fun cameos, though. In each case, everyone is so busy then can’t do more than vaguely promise to let Iron Man know if they hear anything about the Hulk. Spider Man, who’s busy webbing up a half-dozen thugs, simply snaps “Do I tell you MY troubles? I’ve got my hands full right now!” Professor X is snippy because Iron Man’s appearance interrupts a Danger Room session. As I said last week, I’ve got no problem with plugs and crossovers like this as long as they’re entertaining.


Anyway, all this leads into an extremely action-packed issue. The Hulk, by now, is pretty upset with the whole human race and not even Rick Jones can calm him down anymore. The Avengers engage in a running battle with the big green guy in the Southwestern desert. Then Prince Namor, who is himself still rather annoyed with humanity, contacts the Hulk and suggests a team-up. The two tussle with the Avengers in and around an old World War II base at Gibraltar.


The battle is pretty much a draw until the Hulk turns into Bruce Banner at a (for him) inconvenient moment. Banner runs off before anyone can get a look at him. Alone now, Namor is forced to retreat himself.


Both the major fight scenes are great from start to finish, with most of the participants getting their own individual Moments of Awesomeness along the way. I know I often sound like a broken record when I say this—but Kirby simply was a master at presenting exciting and tactically logical action scenes.


The characterizations are handled nicely as well. It’s made clear that the Avengers would rather talk to the Hulk than fight, but he’s just not in the mood for that anymore. We’re reminded that Rick Jones is still wracked with guilt for his role in the accident that caused Banner to change into the Hulk. And the interaction between Hulk and Namor (they dislike each other, with each of them convinced he’s using the other for his own purposes) is also interesting.



X-Men #3


Gee whiz, there’s a lot of evil circuses in the Marvel Universe. We saw the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime in an issue of the Hulk some months back. Now we find yet another circus in which the performers are willing to turn to villainy at pretty much the drop of a hat.


It all starts out when Professor X telepathically senses another mutant. This turns out to be the Blob, an enormously obese circus sideshow guy who can’t be moved or hurt as long as his feet are firmly planted on the ground.


The X Men get him to come back to the school, but he turns down an offer to join the group. Here’s where the story gets a tad wonky. Professor X is shocked—SHOCKED I SAY—that anyone would actually exhibit free will and turn down his offer to join up. He then rather casually decides to wipe Blob’s memory of the X Men to preserve their secret identities. I don’t think the good guys are supposed to be that weak on basic ethics, Professor.


Oh, well, the rest of the story is great, with yet another remarkable Kirby fight scene. Before his memory can be wiped, the Blob busts away from the X Mansion and returns to the circus, recruiting his fellow performers to attack the X Men. The battle that follows, with the X Men fighting a variety of acrobats, sharp shooters and animals on the lawn of the mansion, is exuberant and exhilarating.


It all comes to an end when the professor, using a hastily-built machine designed to enhance his power, wipes the memory of the whole incident from both the Blob and his allies. They all return to a normal circus life.


Despite the sloppy characterizations and motivations, the wonderful X-Men vs. evil circus battle makes this an enjoyable story. Also, it’s in this issue that the Beast’s personality is transformed into the multi-syllabic but witty scientist we’ve come to know and love. He’s got some great dialogue scattered throughout the issue (“Allow me to introduce myself. I am, to my sorrow, called the Beast. Although I admit it’s a most unwarranted cognomen for one as scholarly—as refined—as I fancy myself to be.”) He’s on his way to being the most consistently entertaining character in the book.


That finishes up January 1964. In February, Spider Man, Iron Man and Giant Man all add new members to their respective rogue’s galleries; The FF, Thor and the Human Torch stage rematches against old villains; and Dr. Strange gets trapped outside his own body (something that will become a disturbingly common problem throughout his career).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: “The Waxwork” 5/1/56


William Conrad was one of OTR’s finest actors. This particular episode of Suspense is a good argument for him being THE finest actor.


The episode is based on a truly creepy short story by English writer A.M. Burrage. A journalist gets permission to spend the night in a wax museum’s Chamber of Horrors, surrounded by images of history’s most brutal murderers. Soon, his imagination begins to play tricks on him. He became half-convinced that the figures were all moving very slightly whenever he took his eyes off of them. But that, of course, can’t be true.


Or can it? What if one of the figures isn’t actually made of wax? What if a particular murderer has simply found a novel way to hide out from the police?


Then again, maybe it all is just a part of the nervous journalist’s feverish imagination. Then there’s no real danger at all. Is there?


Gee whiz, “The Waxwork” is indeed a creepy story. And the Suspense adaptation is brilliant. It pretty much consists of William Conrad reading a very-slightly edited version of the story, but he also provides individual voices for the dialogue of the various characters (the museum manager, the journalist, and… someone else). His performance is a tour-de-force, sending repeated chills down the spines of the listeners. For a man with such a distinctive voice, it's really amazing to hear how effectively Conrad gives each character an individual sound and personality. The background music is extremely effective as well.


Old-Time Radio provides us with some truly scary stuff: “Three Skeleton Key” from Escape; “The Thing on the Fourable Floor” from Quiet Please; “The Wailing Wall” from Inner Sanctum; “Behind the Locked Door” from The Mysterious Traveler. “The Waxwork” can be quite properly included in that elite group of radio’s scariest episodes.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Don't you hate it when the rattlesnake gets your gun?


Here's a really effective cover by artist Nick Cardy.
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Bat Lash is one of several strong Western characters created at DC Comics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Other Old West characters from this period include Jonah Hex and Scalphunter.) Bat's series only ran 7 issues, so was not a commerical success. There were some good stories in that run, though, and Bat has hung around to become a regular (if only occassionally used) member of the DC Universe.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: January 1964, part 2



JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #100


Well, Thor may be wanted for bank robbery (due to Mr. Hyde’s impersonation of him last issue), but Don Blake is still free to take Jane Foster out for a nice dinner.


But the dinner is rudely interrupted by Hyde, who ties up Blake in a remote location next to a ticking time bomb—an extra incentive to force Jane to cooperate with him as only Hyde knows how to disarm the bomb. Then it’s off with Jane to hijack a Polaris submarine.


But Blake manages to stretch out his bound hands far enough to grab his cane. He becomes Thor and zips off to confront the villain.


Unfortunately, Jane thinks poor Dr. Blake is still a hostage next to that bomb, so (though Thor saves the sub) Jane helps Hyde escape.


Odin, who’s been watching the whole thing from his throne on Asgard, thus decides Jane is too wimpy to be a deity’s wife and firmly denies Thor’s petition to marry her. Poor Thor—he lets the bad guy slip through his fingers and apparently loses his shot at the girl.


The story is too carelessly plotted in several ways to be successful. First of all, Hyde (like Cobra two issues earlier) is too under-powered to be a real threat to Thor. In both these cases, Hyde and Cobra are perfectly acceptable second-string editions to the Marvel stable of bad guys—they just need to be matched up against a hero closer to their own power levels to keep things interesting.


Also, a cop just shows up at the end and tells Thor they now know Hyde had impersonated the Thunder God at the bank robbery, so Thor is now in the clear. But it’s never explained how they found out. I think Stan Lee nearly lost track of this plot thread and threw this panel in near the end of the story to explain it away.


Finally, the art for the two Hyde issues is by Don Heck. He’s certainly a competent artist, but the Tales of Asgard stuff Kirby is doing in each issue is really overshadowing him. His ability to choreograph a cool fight simply never reaches Kirbyesque proportions.


This issue’s Tales of Asgard does indeed outshine than the main story. A young Thor (not yet equipped with his hammer) and his step-brother Loki are sneaking into a castle belonging to some storm giants, intent on recovering some stolen golden apples. The ensuing fight includes Thor knocking a huge pepper shaker into a giant’s face to distract him only to be blown across the room by the sneeze this causes. Loki causes a distraction of his own—his intention is to save himself, but this helps Thor get away as well. The two escape from the castle on the back of a giant eagle, taking the apples with them. It’s all a bit silly, but Kirby makes it look really cool.


TALES OF SUSPENSE #49


Note to any millionaire playboy industrialists who might be reading this blog: If you ever set off any small nuclear explosions in the middle of your weapons factory, post a few warning signs around the place, would ya?


If Tony Stark had done that, perhaps the X-Men’s Angel wouldn’t have been flying over at that moment, been infected by the radiation and turned from good to evil. Then perhaps Iron Man would not have had to engage the rogue mutant in an aerial dogfight over Manhattan, with the Angel’s better maneuverability balancing out Iron Man’s greater strength. And perhaps Iron Man wouldn’t have to purposely allow his jet boots to run out of fuel, causing him to plummet to seeming certain death, thus shocking Angel back to normal and forcing the mutant to save him in the nick of time.


This issue exists primarily to plug the still-new X-Men book, whose third issue was also published in January 1964. The Avengers get a plug thrown in as well. That’s fine—because it’s not a bad story taken by itself. And as long as the story is good (and doesn’t cross-over directly into another title, thus forcing you to spend your hard-earned twelve cents on a book you otherwise might not want to buy), Stan Lee is welcome to plug away all he wants.


It can’t help but suffer from the silly opening, though. I’m willing to accept that comic book science allows countless things to happen that wouldn’t be possible in real life, but a test nuclear explosion in the middle of a busy factory is far too contrived.


Oh, well. It’s nice, all the same, to see the various characters within the Marvel Universe continue to interact with each other.


TALES TO ASTONISH #51


Giant Man and the Wasp have been training for a re-match with the Human Top, but he makes them both look silly yet again when they make another try to catch him. Even if Hank gets hold of the villain, the Top’s ability to spin makes him impossible to hold on to.


But Hank lays a trap, having the cops cordon off an entire neighborhood to confine the Top to a relatively small area. Giant Man then manages to tire the Top out before grabbing him with glue-coated gloves.


A simple but fun story with some pretty good action sequences. The best stuff is at the beginning. As with last issue, Jack Kirby seems to be having a good time making Giant Man look silly. Hank dives over a truck to try to catch the Human Top, only to miss and crash through the pavement. A minute later, he gets his foot stuck in an open manhole.

Next week, we’ll check in with the Avengers and the X-Men.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A dead parrot and a missing body

THE CHINESE PARROT (1926), by Earl Derr Biggers


In Radio by the Book, I start the chapter on Charlie Chan with the sentence “Charlie Chan is always both the smartest and the most likable guy in the room.”


And, by golly, this is true. It’s impossible not to like and admire Charlie—not just because he’s a great detective, but also because he’s a thoroughly decent man who makes friends easily and devoutly loves his large family.


He demonstrates his decency within the first few chapters of The Chinese Parrot. On vacation from the Honolulu police force, he sails to San Francisco as a favor for an old friend, guarding a valuable string of pearls that’s being delivered to its new owner.


But when there are indications that thieves are after the pearls, Charlie readily agrees to sacrifice more vacation time and stay on the job.


He teams up with Bob Eden—the wayward son of the jeweler who is facilitating the purchase of the pearls. The two are soon wrapped up in a strange case in which they are pretty sure they know who committed a murder, but don’t have any idea who was actually killed. Along the way, a parrot is poisoned and a servant is stabbed to death (giving them a body this time, but leaving them uncertain as to who committed the crime on this occasion). Charlie shows he has some fire in him when he has to deal with an incompetent and racist policeman, but he keeps his cool over all, putting the clues together and eventually explaining everything.


It’s a good, solid mystery with an unusual slant to it. There are a few too many instances in which a clue comes Charlie’s way purely by chance for the plot to be perfect, but his deductions leading to the denouement are still clever and reasonable—so it is, overall, a satisfying mystery.


Besides, the fun of a Charlie Chan novel is being able to hang out with the guy for a couple hundred pages. He is—as I believe I’ve already mentioned—the smartest and most likable guy in the room.


Next month, we’ll jump back into hard-boiled territory with a look at Black Money, by Ross MacDonald, featuring P.I. Lew Archer.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: January 1964, part 1


FANTASTIC FOUR #22


Finally—finally—finally. With a little help from Reed, Sue finally figures out that she can generate invisible force fields, as well as turn other things invisible. Though Lee and Kirby had been doing a pretty good job of giving Sue useful ways to use her invisibility, this upgrade to her power is long-overdue and more than welcome.


And just in time, as well. In a series of hilarious scenes, the FF start getting a barrage of complaints from fellow tenants in the Baxter Building about noise, Reed’s potentially dangerous experiments and the presence of stuff like an ICBM rocket on the premises. (Actually, that last complaint is kinda understandable.) Frustrated, Reed decides to look into buying a small island off the coast of New Jersey on which to house the large vehicles and conduct his more dangerous experiments. But it’s all a trap, of course—the FF’s very first enemy has returned to try to do them in.



The Mole Man’s whole plan includes building giant hydraulic lifts beneath New York and Moscow. He’ll lower both cities beneath the Earth’s surface, getting the U.S. and the Russians to blame each other. The ensuing nuclear war will dispose of all us annoying surface-dwellers. And, of course, he’ll have the Fantastic Four prisoner on that island, forcing them to watch the whole thing.


The FF foils his plans, of course. Sue’s new powers, not surprisingly, prove vital. And there’s a repeat of a theme used way back in FF #2, in which each of the four is locked in a separate cell and must use their powers in clever ways to escape. It is all typically good Kirby action choreography.



The plot’s a bit unlikely—in a comic book universe, lowering a city on giant hydraulic lifts in perfectly acceptable. But it seems that—if Mole Man can do that—there must be less complicated and more straightforward ways to destroy the cities and incite nuclear holocaust. And how the heck did Mole Man arrange for all those people to simultaneously begin complaining to the FF? I actually have more of a problem with that detail than with the whole giant hydraulic lift thing.


Oh, well. Rationally, I realize that the plot holes are probably no more obvious than in other issues I’ve praised. But this time around, they just seemed to stand out a little more glaringly.



Plot holes aside, though, it’s amping up Sue’s power that makes this issue a truly important one.



SPIDER MAN #8



They say public schools have become dangerous places in recent years, but—judging from Spider Man comics—they weren’t all that safe in 1964 either. Just a few months after Spidey had a running fight with Sandman through the halls of his high school, the webslinger now has a running fight through those same halls with an out-of-control giant robot.


It’s a pretty good fight, though the robot’s design is kinda clunky and uninteresting. But the real treats of this issue come from the sub-plots. School bully Flash Thompson gives Peter Parker an unfriendly shove. This results in Peter’s glasses getting broken. He never does bother to replace them—I’ve always wondered if maybe Steve Ditko just got tired of having to draw them. (In fact, now that I've typed that, I have some vague--but very uncertain--memory of having once read that somewhere.)



Anyway, Pete gets ticked off enough to agree to take Flash on in the boxing ring. Everyone’s cheering for Flash, of course, but he can’t seem to lay a glove on Peter. Peter, belated concerned about his secret identity, tries to pull his own punches but inadvertently knocks Flash out of the ring. The other students merely assume that Flash is joking around and pretty much shove him back into the ring.


Fortunately, the fight is interrupted by that out-of-control robot. Peter ends what turns out to be a good day by managing to start a rumor that Flash is actually Spider Man.


There’s a short back-up story as well, in which Spider Man crashes a party being attending by the Human Torch—pretty much just because he wants to get on the Torch’s nerves. These leads to a brief fight between the two. The rest of the Fantastic Four show up and Spidey, who jumps to the conclusion that he’s being laughed at, tries to take them all on. Sue calms things down by telling Spidey she thinks he’s probably cute under his mask. Stan Lee really seems to be making a point to build up the Spidey/Torch feud over the last few months. But it’s been a very entertaining feud so far, so that’s not a bad thing at all. Undoubtedly, Stan realized how much humor could be consistently milked from the situation.


STRANGE TALES #116


The Puppet Master returns to take his vengeance upon the Fantastic Four. I love his plan—he makes a puppet of Johnny and uses this to force Johnny to make a play for Alicia Masters. This, naturally, ticks off Ben and the two start fighting.



Alicia calls the Baxter Building for help, but Sue and Reed ignore the ringing phone because they’re going out on a date for the first time in weeks. So the poor blind girl has to take action on her own, eventually managing to direct the Torch to drop a flaming sheet from the sky at the right moment to burn up the Johnny puppet.



I guess I’m in a “find the plot hole” mode this month, but at one point, the Puppet Master orders Johnny to fly head first into a jet plane. Johnny, because he’s flamed on, is able to fly THROUGH the jet and POP OUT its rear exhaust. I’m not sure I’m okay with that (though I’m still okay with the giant city-sized hydraulic lifts from this month’s FF. Go figure.) And the ending, with BLIND Alicia pretty much choreographing Johnny’s actions with exacting precision, was also a tad bit contrived.



But the Ben/Johnny fight was a good one and some dialogue about how their friendship kept them from really hurting each other was a nice, if a little corny, bit of characterization.


Meanwhile, Dr. Strange is having trouble with Nightmare again, who is kidnapping humans into his realm while they sleep. The good doctor has to enter the Nightmare realm to save them.



This is the sort of thing Steve Ditko excelled at in this series. The designs for the extra-dimensional setting of the battle, as well as the design for Nightmare and some of the creepy monsters he controls, are just wonderful. The ending is a little abrupt, but it is overall a solid and visually powerful story.



Next week, we’ll take a look at Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man.
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