Wednesday, September 30, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: April 1964, part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR #25


Just like the cover blurb says--it's the Battle of the Century. The Hulk/Thing throwdown is one of the most exciting and expertly presented fight scenes that have ever graced a comic book. The Hulk is stronger, but the Thing has the advantage in agility and brains. The fight rages across New York City, into the Hudson River and ends atop the George Washington Bridge. Jack Kirby gives us one of his best-ever efforts here--the entire issue literally drips with pure cool.


There's some neat character moments scattered throughout the issue as well. It all begins with Reed trying to get Ben to drink a formula that he (Reed) stumbled upon by accident and might not be able to reproduce. Reed's sure it will cure Ben of being the Thing. But Ben impetuously knocks the formula aside, destroying it, because he's not sure that Alicia will still love him if he changes.


I love Reed's angry reaction to this: "You mule-headed nitwit! It isn't your ridiculous appearance she loves... it's you! Though I can't see why!"


Not long after, Reed falls critically ill--having picked up a rare viral infection as a result of his experiments to cure Ben. Soon after, the Hulk arrives in New York, looking to smash the Avengers for daring to replace him with Captain America. But the Avengers aren't around--they're out in the Southwest looking for the Hulk!


Johnny and Sue are both knocked out in the initial skirimish, leaving Ben on his own against the big green guy. This leads to the fantastic fight that makes up the meat of this issue. It ends with the Hulk briefly knocking out Ben, but the hero pulls himself up and stomps off for a rematch. That will occur in the next issue.


Here's a couple of small but fun details that are worth noting:


1) Poor Stan Lee gets Bruce Banner's name wrong in this issue, calling him "Bob" Banner instead of Bruce. But we'll forgive him--remember the Hulk wasn't appearing regularly in his own book at this point and Stan was churning out an awful lot of scripts every month. And the mistake was later retconned anyway--we eventually learn that Banner's full name is Robert Bruce Banner.

2) I know I shouldn't make too much fun of those occasionas when a normally well-written comic book has a dumb moment, but this is a classic. We get a brief cameo of the Avengers looking for the Hulk. They come across some crates strewn along the highway, left there earlier when the Hulk tossed them out of a truck to make room when he "hitched" a ride. But all the Avengers know is that there's some crates scattered across the road--they don't know how they got there. Or do they?--Captain America sternly announces "This can only by the work of the Hulk." Yeah, right, Cap. No mere human can drop boxes on the road like that.


But even with a small mistake and one bit of awkward dialogue, FF #25 is still a classic--it would easily make any reasonable Top Ten superhero fight scenes list.




SPIDER MAN #11


Apparently, the prison term for taking over a nuclear facility is a light one--less than a year of real time (and what must have been just a few weeks in "comic book time.") has passed since Dr. Octopus committed this particular crime, but he's already due to be released. I don't know who he had for a lawyer, but it must have been a good one. ("If the artificial arms don't fit, then you must acquit!")


Spidey figures Ock will soon be up to no good again, so he comes up with a way of keeping track of the good doctor. This is the first appearance of the Spider Tracer, which Spidey will use quite often throughout his career. Eventually, the tracers will be keyed into his spider-sense. But this first time, he uses a small receiver to track the signal.


Doc Ock's path soon crosses with Betty Brant, who is being forced to help out some gangsters to protect her n'er-do-well and spineless brother Bennett. Bennett's into the mob for a fortune in gambling debts and some thugs are threatening to rearrange his kneecaps unless Betty helps them out. No one ever explains exactly why an established mob needs Betty's help, but what the hey. The overall story is strong enough to allow us to overlook this plot hole.


So Peter follows Ock and Betty to Philadelphia, where Ock is being paid to bust a mob leader out of jail. This leads to yet another great fight scene (not on the same level as Hulk vs. Thing, but still pretty nifty) in which Spider Man faces off against a bevy of mob gunman and Dr. Octopus aboard a tramp steamer. It ends with the mobsters caught, Ock escaping and Bennett Brant taking a fatal bullet to the gut. But this at least frees Betty from being forced to help the crooks.


Along with Fantastic Four, Spider Man continues to provide the best combination of strong chracterizations and great action. They continue to be the two best books that Marvel is producing at this time.


Normally, we include a Strange Tales review at this point, but as more and more Marvel superhero books pop up as we progress farther into the 1960s, I've been forced to rearrange things a bit. We'll save Strange Tales for a couple of weeks, when we also get to the premiere of a brand-new hero. Next week, we'll take a look at Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Inner Sanctum: "8 Steps to Murder" 6/4/46


This is a nifty story told--as is often the case on Inner Sanctum--from the point of view of a killer. A newspaper columnist plans to whack a theatrical producer and has blue-printed out his impending crime step by step, so that nothing can possibly go wrong. He'll have a perfect alibi, while an unsuspecting playwright will get blamed for the murder.


But you can't think of everything--even something like an unexpected rain shower can throw the entire plan off kilter. The twist at the end of this story is a very good one. It's no surprise that the killer's plans would all unravel, but the exact detail that causes his downfall is something that many listeners probably won't see coming.

This episode can be downloaded HERE.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Boris Karloff vs. the Great Detectives

Boris Karloff was a wonderful actor. Everything he did as an actor--from Frankenstein's Monster to the narrator of The Grinch That Stole Christmas, was done with class and style. Whether the film he was in was an A film or a B film (or, in a few cases, a Z film), he was pretty much always worth watching.


Many of his best roles were bad guys, so we tend to remember those best. And that's just as well--because Karloff (though by all accounts a true gentleman in real life) could always create one heck of a bad guy.


And during the course of his career, the villainous version of Karloff got to go up against a couple of the best and most famous of the fictional detectives.


The first time was in Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936). Karloff plays an amnesiac opera singer who has recently escaped from an asylum. Soon after, people start turning up dead backstage during a performance. Karloff is there--using his knowledge of backstage passages and trap doors to stay hidden. But is he guilty of the murders--or is someone else using his presence to cover his or her own guilt?


Like all the Chan films featuring Warner Oland as the master detective and Keye Luke as his son Lee, Charlie Chan at the Opera has a strong story and great production values. It's a cracking good mystery with an appealing protagonist and (of course) a great villain. Karloff's portrayal of a mad man only barely hanging on to his last shreds of sanity is downright creepy, but also forces us to feel a level of sympathy for the man.


Eleven years later, Karloff went up against Dick Tracy in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). This time, Karloff is a ruthless street thug (of course, when you're stuck with a name like Gruesome, you're pretty much doomed to grow up to be a ruthless street thug.) He gets hold of an expermental gas that freezes people up like statues when they breath it, allowing him to pull off a bank robbery or two. Along the way, he also makes time to double-cross a few of his comrades in crime. No sympathy for this character--but then there didn't have to be this time around. Gruesome's job is to be as gruesome as possible in every possible way--and Karloff manages this effortlessly.



The Dick Tracy films made at RKO in the late 1940s are all lively and enjoyable efforts. This one arguably has the weakest story, but with Karloff as the bad guy, good production values with film noir-ish lighting effects and a really neato gun battle at the climax, it still makes for a good time.
So Boris Karloff got to go up against Charlie Chan and Dick Tracy. The detectives manage to bring him to heal, of course, but he gives them both a run for their money. I only which he'd gotten a chance to go up against Sherlock Holmes. I would have loved to see how he would have interpreted Professor Moriarty.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1964, part 3




AVENGERS #4


This is an oddly constructed issue in terms of plot, but it still manages to do its job by introducing a classic 1940s superhero into modern continuity AND telling a slam-bang action tale.


It starts with Namor, forced to retreat from the Avengers at the end of the last issue, throwing a temper tantrum. When he sees some primitive eskimos worshipping a human figure encased in ice, he throws the idol into the ocean.


The Avengers, returning to the U.S. in a submarine, happen by just as the ice melts. They recover the figure that was frozen inside. This, of course, turns out to be Captain America, frozen in suspended animation ever since an explosion during World War II threw him into the freezing Arctic waters and killed his partner Bucky.


And it's a darn good thing they found Cap, because when they get back to New York City, a mysterious ray turns the other Avengers into statues. With the help of Rick Jones (who looks just like Bucky), Cap figures out that the attacker is a long-lived alien who crashed on Earth centuries before and became the basis for the legend of Medusa. The alien was hired by Namor to take vengence on the Avengers.


Anyway, Cap captures the alien and gets him to turn the Avengers into humans again. Then the group sets out to recover the alien's ship from it's undersea crash site (near a remote island) and let the poor guy finally get home.


Namor, in the meantime, has been found by members of his elite Atlantean guard, who remain loyal to him even with after the other Atlanteans have deserted him. He and his guards attack the Avengers when they're on the island. This leads to yet another fun, well-choreographed fight scene. Once again, each member of the Avengers is given a few panels of individual awesomeness as they battle Namor to a draw. The alien, in the meantime, manages to lift off and escape Earth.


The issue ends with Rick Jones wondering how the Hulk will take the news that he (Rick) has been asked to be Captain America's new partner. That, in fact, will have repercussions--though not within the pages of The Avengers.


A few details of note: Captain America only vaguely remembers Namor's name and Namor doesn't know who Cap is at all. But this detail will be ignored in later stories, especially in the 1970s series The Invaders, when we learn the two actually fought along side each other against the Nazis quite often.


There's no mention of the post-World War Captain America stories that appeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s. For a long time, these would simply be ignored. Eventually, there would be a retcon telling us that the later Cap and Bucky were replacements who just didn't work out in the long run.


Finally, the Nazi agent responsible for killing Bucky and tossing Cap into the Arctic is only a silh0uetted figure in this issue. We'll eventually find out this was Baron Zemo, a character who will appear for the first time in Avengers #6.


X-MEN #4


Magneto returns, bringing his newly formed "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" along with him. There's the fast and agile Toad, Mastermind (who can create hypnotic illusions), and siblings Quicksilver (super-speed) and Scarlet Witch (who has a power that would eventually be defined as probablity control--making unlikely things happen).


This is a great issue on two levels. First, the action scenes are consistently excellent. Both the Danger Room sequence at the beginning and the X-Men's climatic invasion of a castle controlled by the Brotherhood are fun and exciting.


Then there's the characterizations. There's a telepathic confrontation between Professor X and Magneto that defines the two men's polar opposite positions on how to deal with the normal human race. Then there's Quicksilver and the Witch--loyal to each other as brother and sister and with a real concern for issues of right and wrong, but loyal to Magneto as well because he rescued the Witch from a bloodthirsty mob in Eastern Europe. (Eventually, after a retcon or two, we'd find out that Magneto is actually their dad.) They share Magneto's suspicion of Homo Sapians, but still value individual lives.


This leads to a cool ending to the X-Men/Brotherhood fight. The bad guys are in retreat, but Magneto has left behind a ticking nuke. Concerned about the loss of innocent life this would cause, Quicksilver dashes back to defuse the bomb in the nick of time. But then, still distrustful of humanity, he runs back to Magneto.


It's a great character dynamic that will lead to Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch eventually leaving the Brotherhood and becoming long-serving members of the Avengers. But for the time being, they'll remain sort-of bad guys.


One other important plot twist to mention: Caught in an earlier, non-nuclear explosion, Professor X seems to have lost his mental powers. That will have consequences in later issues, of course.


That's it for March. In April, Ben Grimm will take on the Hulk in what is one of the best comic book fights ever (with it all leading up to an FF-Avengers team-up); Spider Man confronts Dr. Octopus once again; Johnny Storm is told by the cops that he can't flame on within New York City limits; Dr. Strange has another inter-dimensional adventure; Thor adds a couple of nasty Asgardians to his rogue's gallery; Iron Man meets a pretty Russian spy who will one day defect to our side; and Giant Man takes on a South American dictator.


Oh, yes--and a certain blind but fearless hero joins the Marvel Pantheon.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gold, Mercenaries and Civil War

A Gary Cooper/Burt Lancaster team-up is an inherently cool thing. A band of ruthless mercenaries that include Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and a young Charles Bronson among their number is an inherently cool thing. A Western set in Mexico right after the American Civil War, when that country was itself being torn apart by civil war, is an inherently cool thing. A full-scale battle at the climax that includes a gatling gun and primitive hand grenades is an inherently cool thing. A French countess, an American outlaw and a former Confederate soldier forced to work together without being able to trust one another is an inherently cool thing.


So the movie Vera Cruz (1954) is packed to the brim with inherently cool things. Cooper is a destitute Civil War vet from Louisiana who is now selling his services as a solider to the highest bidder. Lancaster is the ruthless but charismatic outlaw with whom Cooper is forced to team up. Heading up a band of riff-raff mercenaries armed with new-fangled Winchester rifles, the two men go to work for the Emperor Maximillian, agreeing to escort a drop-dead gorgeous Countess from Mexico City to Vera Cruz.


Soon, though, they discover they are also escorting three million dollars in gold—hidden in the countess’s carriage. The Countess has a plan to steal the money for herself. Rebel soldiers plan to get the money to fund their war. Lancaster and Cooper each plan to get the money for himself.


The story is a strong one, building up a lot of tension around the near-certainty that the main characters will eventually double-cross and triple-cross and probably quadruple-cross each other. The movie looks great (it was shot in color on location in Mexico) and the action sequences that punctuate the story are exciting, especially the final battle, in which rebel forces attack the fortified town of Vera Cruz. Earlier in the film, there’s a wonderful and hilarious scene in which Cooper and Lancaster, while attending a swanky party in Mexico City, give an impromptu and unusual demonstration of their skill with the Winchesters.


But it’s the cast that really sells this movie. Guys like Borgnine and Elam are always terrific in supporting roles. Cooper is excellent as a man who still has moral lines in the sand he won’t cross despite having gone into the mercenary business. Lancaster’s performance is perfect—his character is obvious ruthless and inherently selfish, but he still has a rogue-ish charm that makes him likable. The cautious friendship he establishes with Cooper is completely believable. Much of the movie’s tension centers around Lancaster—it’s really impossible to predict in advance whether he really will double-cross his friend or redeem himself.


Another interesting aspect to the film is the counterpoint between the American mercenaries and the rebel soldiers. The Americans (except for Cooper) are all pretty despicable guys, killing for the highest bidder and willing to switch sides at the drop of a hat. The Mexican rebels, though, are men who are willing to give their lives for a cause greater than themselves.


Add all this to the image of Gary Cooper blasting away with a gatling gun and you have a really groovy movie.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1964, part 2



Journey Into Mystery #102


Thor is still a prisoner of Zarrko the Tomorrow Man, who's brought the Thunder God to the 23rd Century to help him conquer that peaceful century.


Thor, who promised Zarrko obedience to get him to leave the 20th Century alone, goes on a rampage. Fortunately, he's able to subdue the inhabitants of the future century for the most part by merely destroying machines and robots. He's never obligated to actually hurt anyone, though he does reflect light off his hammer in such a way to place some human guards in a trance.


It actually might have been a stronger issue if it had presented Thor with a real moral dilemma. If--as Thor tells us at one point--"an immortal may never break an oath," then what happens if keeping the oath requires doing something immoral?


But the story never puts Thor in that position. And, when the world surrenders to Zarrko, Thor is able to consider his oath fulfilled. He fights Zarrko and defeats him, saving the 23rd Century from despotism.


Oh, well. The story might have missed an opportunity to do something really challenging, but Jack Kirby's futuristic city scapes and machinary are cool-looking.


And his work on the "Tales of Asgard" entry is even cooler-looking. Young Thor is still trying to become worthy of wielding his hammer. But when he finds out the innocent goddess Sif has been taken captive by Hela, the Goddess of Death, he picks up the weapon without even thinking about it. Soon, he's offering Hela his own life in place of Sif's, proving himself very worthy indeed.


The artwork on this back-up feature continues to be wonderful. We also get our first look at Hela, who will become a regular nemesis of Thor's. It's the first appearance of Sif and (I'm pretty sure) Balder, two dieties destined to become regular supporting characters. Both of them will be visually re-designed before joining the cast permentenly, though. And in this story, they are presented as brother and sister, which will not be the case later on. (In fact, when Sif does join the regular cast in a few years, she's presented as Heimdall's sister. Well, maybe the Balder we see here isn't the same Balder we meet later, but yet another sibling of Heimdall's. Yeah, that's it.)





TALES OF SUSPENSE #51


Over in DC Comics, the Scarecrow was a member of Batman's Rogue's Gallery--an insane scientist who used a fear gas as part of his nefarious schemes. But in 1964, he wasn't being used very often in Batman's stories (though the writers would re-discover him and begin using him regularly a few years later). So I suspect that when Stan Lee instroduced a villain calling himself the Scarecrow in this issue of Tales of Suspense, he probably didn't know or remember the DC character. Or perhaps simply didn't worry about duplicating the name of an obscure and at-that-time largely forgotten character.

Anyway, Marvel's Scarecrow is a contortionist who uses both his atheletic abilities and a trio of trained crows to commit burglaries. He manages to make off with some defense plans from Tony Stark's apartment and tries to make a deal with the Cubans to buy them. But Iron Man puts the kibosh on that. The Scarecrow himself manages to escape to Cuba, but he's merely a bitter and penniless exile. I'm not sure if he ever turns up again (a later Marvel villain named Scarecrow would be a creepy guy from another dimension). That may be just as well, though, since seeing Iron Man get tripped up by a trio of crows wrapping curtain sashes around his legs was downright embarassing.


CORRECTION: This version of Scarecrow is indeed the supernatural guy who appeared in later years, not a different character as I stated above. I was also wrong about the later version of Scarecrow being inter-dimensional. Actually, he eventually gets raised as an undead being by a sorceror. My apologies for the factual errors.



TALES TO ASTONISH #53


The Porcupine returns to take revenge on Hank and Janet, attacking them from ambush right at the start of the issue. But they survive the attack, though Hank breaks an ankle.


That makes for an interesting side effect of Giant Man's power. It turns out that he has to remain big until his ankle heals--otherwise, the bone might shatter completely when he shrinks.


In the meantime, the Porcupine proves he's kinda smart despite his silly costume design. He captures the Wasp, then allows her to escape to follow her back to Giant Man's secret lab. Another fight ensues, in which Stan Lee seems to have momentarily forgotten that Hank wasn't supposed to be able to change sizes without shattering his broken ankle. He actually goes from Giant Man to Ant man and back to Giant Man during the course of the fight without shattering anything.


But it's a pretty good fight aside from that. It ends when the Porcupine swallows a bunch of what he thinks are Giant Man's growth capsules, but are actually his Shrink capsules. The villain shrinks down to microscopic size and is seemingly lost forever.


Actually, come to think of it--his costume shrinks along with him. The costumes of Wasp and Giant Man change size with them because they're made of unstable molecules. Why Porcupine's costume shrinks is not explained. Maybe--maybe--um... okay, I got nothin' to explain that one.

But it's really is a pretty good fight, despite a couple of goofs.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Adventures of Frank Merriwell: “Stolen Masterpiece” 6/5/48



Back in the days of the dime novel, Frank Merriwell had been an enormously popular character—a star college student and athlete who had a tendency to fall into a variety of adventures.


By the 1940s, Frank’s star had fallen (to the point where today his name hardly ever rings a bell with anyone), but he had a brief and pretty good run on radio before vanishing from the pop culture landscape. The show was an interesting one in that it didn’t try to update Frank, but kept him back in the turn-of-the-century gaslight era that had originally spawned him.


“Stolen Masterpiece” begins with Frank and his friend Bart on summer vacation in New York City. They’re doing a favor for Bart’s father in picking up a valuable painting that the dad had recently agreed to purchase. But neither Frank nor Bart are art experts and it’s not until well after they’ve handed over the cash that they learn the painting delivered to them is apparently a forgery.


What follows is a well-written whodunit, with Frank and Bart running down several apparently false leads before Frank performs a pretty nifty bit of deductive reasoning to solve the case and ID the thief.

This episode can be downloaded HERE

Thursday, September 10, 2009

You Gotta Respect the Cliffhanger

A lot of the old timey stuff I like is done in a cliffhanger format: multi-chapter serials in which each chapter ends at a tense or dramatic moment. Radio shows like The Adventures of Superman, I Love a Mystery and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar are good examples of this.


And, of course, there are the movie serials—a concept that goes back to the silent film days and ran into the 1950s before dying out. The movie serials ran anywhere from twelve to fifteen chapters. To see the whole thing, you had to go to the theater each Saturday, watching the next chapter as part of the Saturday matinee. A lot of the best serials--Superman, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Zorro’s Fighting Legion, etc.—are available on DVD.


Now there is a proper way and an improper way to watch movie serials (or listen to radio serials, for that matter). You can’t watch more than one chapter per day. You can’t sit and watch the whole thing in one sitting. That partially spoils the experience and it simply isn’t done. Enjoying the pleasant suspense of a cliffhanger is half the fun. A little patience—a little self-control—and the entire experience becomes that much more enjoyable.



I had a birthday recently and got a copy of the 1940 serial The Green Hornet as a gift. It’s one of the better ones. The production values are good. There’s some really nifty looking car crashes and plane wrecks. The story is strong—each chapter, the Hornet is breaking up yet another racket run by a syndicate of mobsters (with the identity of the top mobster being kept secret). The Hornet’s car—the Black Beauty—is cool-looking, as is his custom-made gas gun. The Hornet is played by actor/stunt man Gordon Jones, but when he puts on his mask, his voice becomes that of Al Hodge—the actor who played the Hornet on radio. The fight scenes are energetic and nicely choreographed.


Keye Luke, best known as Charlie Chan’s number one son and later as Master Po in the Kung Fu tv series, is the Hornet’s Philippino valet Kato, the character responsible for souping up the Black Beauty and inventing the gas gun. He’s one of my favorite character actors from the 1930s & 1940s—always giving a personable performance.


So far, I’ve watched the first four episodes. The Hornet’s gotten the goods on a construction company using shoddy and unsafe materials and busted up a murder/insurance racket. He’s caught three of the bad guys, but they’ve either refused to squeel on the rest or been killed to insure their silence.


At the end of the fourth chapter, the Hornet is in an out-of-control car as it slams into a gas station. How will he survive? I’ll find out tomorrow, when I watch Chapter Five.


But not before then. I know the proper way to watch a serial, by golly.


When I was in Sudan on a short-term mission trip last May, I discovered that several of the full-time missionaries were hooked on the TV show Prison Break, which uses the serial format. They had the DVDs and would watch a whole bunch of episodes at one time.


I tried to explain the extraordinary wrongness of this—that they had to ration out the episodes and enjoy the suspense. But I couldn’t get them to listen. I even tried to convince them that there’s a verse in Leviticus that bans watching more than one episode a day, but they didn’t buy that.


Well, I know the proper way to watch a serial, even if the rest of the world doesn’t. One chapter a day. It’s the only way. Watch more than a chapter a day and you simply don’t go to Heaven when you die.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1964, part 1


FANTASTIC FOUR #24


This is a fairly minor issue in the FF canon, but it’s a fun one. An alien creature shows up in Times Square, exhibiting the power to do… well, pretty much anything. But everything he does (changing a lamp post into a giant flower, send an oversized top spinning down the street) seems to make no sense at all.


Reed pretty quickly deduces that the alien is an infant—a pretty much all powerful being who might very well destroy the Earth just by being overly playful or by throwing a temper tantrum.


But Reed saves the day, rigging up a deep space communicator to find the little tot’s parents in the nick of time.


Two things of interest. There are general similarities between this episode and the orginal Star Trek episode “The Squire of Gothos,” which would air only two or three years later. Probably a coincidence, but an interesting one.


Also, the ship the alien parents use looks almost identical to the Martian ships used in the original movie version of War of the Worlds, made a little over a decade earlier. Was Jack Kirby watching that one on TV just before doing the art work for this issue? Or is it just another coincidence?




SPIDER MAN #10


A masked criminal mastermind known only as the Big Man is taking over the various gangs in New York City and pulling off a series of spectacular robberies. Helping him are the Enforcers, a trio of thugs who will become a minor but fun part of Spider Man’s rogue’s gallery. Fancy Dan is a sharp-dressing little guy who’s an expert in judo; Ox is an over-sized muscle man; Montana is a cowboy hat-wearing lasso expert.

Anyway, Peter Parker uses himself as bait to draw out the bad guys by publicly claiming to have figured out the Big Man’s real identity. This gets him kidnapped and taken to the Big Man’s hideout, where the criminal is conveniently meeting with the bosses of the various mobs he now controls. This leads to an extended fight scene in which Spider Man must hold off the Enforcers and a horde of Red Shirt mobsters until the police arrive to round ‘em all up.


It’s a fast moving and well-plotted issue with some really nifty fight scenes. There’s a nice red herring in that Peter for much of the issue suspects J. Jonah Jameson of being the Big Man. The twist at the end revealing the Big Man’s true identity is a good one.


Adding to the enjoyment of this issue is the continued character development among the supporting cast. Betty, who turns out to owe a loan shark some money, flees New York because she’s afraid Peter will get hurt trying to protect her. (That’s something that will be resolved in the next issue.) Peter’s high school nemesis, Flash Thompson, once again reluctantly shows a virtuous side when he accompanies Liz Allen to visit Aunt May in the hospital. Later, he shows concern over Peter potentially being in danger. In early issues, Flash had pretty much functioned as the high school bully stereotype, but Stan Lee seems determined to give everyone in Spider Man’s cast a little depth.


The best part of the issue might be J. Jonah Jameson’s rant about why he hates Spider Man so much, secretly acknowledging that the superhero is “brave, powerful and unselfish! The truth is—I ENVY him!... But I can never climb to his level. So all that remains for me is to try to tear him down…” It doesn’t make J.J.J. terribly admirable, but it certainly does humanize him.


STRANGE TALES #118


The Wizard escapes from prison and immediately plots his revenge on the Human Torch. His latest shtick involves miniature anti-gravity discs—something that will actually become his primary weapon for the rest of his career.


Anyway, he kidnaps Sue and Johnny, but Johnny manages to signal Reed and Ben to rescue them from their prison. At first, it seems like this issue will basically become a short FF story, but then Johnny flies off to confront the Wizard alone.


The two enemies have a battle and Johnny gets the upper hand. (And gets a great line of dialogue: “Mister, my near-nova flame can melt anything—except a chick’s cold heart.”) The Wizard uses an anti-gravity disc to escape, but the thing malfunctions and apparently carries him up into airless space and certain death. But even Johnny is acknowledging in the last panel that villains often seem to survive certain death and return to vex the heroes yet again.



Meanwhile, Dr. Strange has detected some supernatural shenanigans in a small Bavarian village, where inter-dimensional aliens are possessing the population as a precursor to invasion.


The good doctor pulls off a pretty neat-o trick to catch one of the aliens, leaving his unoccupied body out as possession-bait while he waits in ambush nearby in his ethereal form. After getting some helpful information from the alien he catches using this trick, he then crosses over to the next dimension and goes mano-0-mano against the alien’s leader. It’s another short but memorable story, with Ditko designing some gosh-darn creepy lookin’ bad guys.


That’s it for this time. Next week, we’ll continue with March 1964 when we look in to see what Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man are up to.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philip Marlowe: “Last Laugh” 4/2/49


Philip Marlowe was a great show because it used and respected the hard-boiled traditions of storytelling. But the nice thing about a regular series is that it could occasionally step outside its usual genre and still have a good time.


“Last Laugh” is more of a whodunit than a hard-boiled story. Marlowe is named in the will of a rich guy who is famous for pulling practical jokes. He attends the reading of the will in a mansion on a remote island. The “deceased,” though, turns out to be alive—it was all just another practical joke.


But the joker gets killed for real when someone tosses him off a balcony. It’s up to Marlowe to sort through the unpleasant relatives and servants to finger the killer. Before he wraps it up, though, someone tries to cave in his skull…


This is a nice departure from the usual Marlowe fare (though the usual Marlowe fare was consistently excellent), with Gerald Mohr doing his usual pitch-perfect job of one of the genre’s most important characters.

This episode can be downloaded HERE.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hard-boiled tragedy

Black Money (1966), by Ross Macdonald


The case seems to be a fairly straightforward one: A wealthy young man is afraid his ex-fianceĆ© new boyfriend is actually a con artist—and not the French aristocrat he claims to be.


So he hires private eye Lew Archer to look into it. But, in a hard-boiled detective novel, nothing is ever straightforward. The case expands outward to soon include a couple of murders, a seven-year-old suicide that might not be a suicide, and a missing $100,000 in cash.


Archer eventually gets to the bottom of it, but not before having to slog his way past a succession of sad, broken people and ruined lives. The plot is actually modeled after the novel The Great Gatsby (which, I recently learned from Archer’s entry at the excellent web site Thrilling Detective, was Macdonald’s favorite novel)—revolving around people who have everything in a material sense, but still manage to screw their lives up anyways.


Archer sticks with it, though. He’s one of the hard-boiled genre’s great characters—similar to Philip Marlowe in his ability to merge world-weary cynicism with compassion for those in trouble. Archer, though, wears his heart on his sleeve more visibly than Marlowe did. A middle-aged loner, Archer seems to pretty much devote all his time and energy to helping his clients. It often turns out they don’t really deserve help all that much, but Archer keeps slogging along for them regardless.


Aside from strong, well-constructed plots, that’s what makes the Archer novels so appealing. Archer’s empathy is literally contagious—he makes us also care about the people he’s trying to help. No matter that they themselves are often (though not always) pretty sleazy—we end up feeling for them as well.


As a mystery novel, Black Money is perhaps paced a little too slowly as Macdonald introduces us to the various characters and provides us with background information. But once a particular character is unexpectedly killed, the plot rapidly becomes fascinating. There’s certainly no shortage of motives or suspects. The case seems to thread in various directions at once, involving gambling debts, secret love affairs, greed and despair.


It ought to be a depressing book, but it’s not. Archer serves as an effective emotional anchor, reminding us that there are still a few good guys out there. That’s often the role of the protagonist in the world of hard-boiled fiction. Lew Archer plays that part better than most.


Next month, we’ll jump back to 1934 and step away from hard-boiled tragedy to take a look at For the Defence: Dr. Throndyke, by R. Austin Freeman

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: February 1964, part 2


JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #101

Thor is in a foul mood, stomping through the streets of New York and snarling at passersby that he’s “lost interest in your petty, puny lives!”


His mood, of course, is due to Odin having once again forbidden him to marry Jane Foster. Odin, in turn, is fed up with Thor’s moping about like a love-struck teenager. Egged on by Loki, Odin reduces Thor’s power level by half.


Once this is done, Loki arranges for Zarrko—the mad scientist from the 23rd Century—to travel back in time and attack the city. Zarrko brings a giant robot along with him—a robot that the weakened Thor is not able to defeat. To save New York City, he agrees to return to the future with Zarrko and help the madman conquer that era.

This ticks off Odin even more—he sees “My son [give up] to a mortal!” via Loki’s thought projection, but doesn’t realize Thor did so to save others.


Why the supposedly all-wise Odin keeps taking advice from Loki—the self-acknowledged god of evil—is anyone’s guess. But if you forgive this aspect of the story, it is otherwise reasonably entertaining.


There’s an Avengers cameo as well, when they show up near the beginning of the story to find out why Thor is acting so moody. Oddly, they’re no where to be seen later on when the freakin’ big robot is devastating New York City. Go figure.


I really shouldn’t make fun of that aspect of the story, though. Over in the DC Universe, most of the major heroes are all scattered about in different fictional cities (Metropolis, Gotham City, Central City, etc.), so it’s reasonable to expect them to be working alone in many of their cases.


In the Marvel Universe, though, most of the heroes congregate in New York City. Thus, when a giant robot attacks the city, you’d pretty much expect all of them to show up.


But this aspect of the Universe is usually ignored, because we simply don’t want 90% of the stories turning into Avengers/FF team-ups. So, instead, Thor battles the giant robot alone and no one else happens to show up. Just as Spider Man is fighting Electro alone—or Giant Man and the Wasp taking on the Black Knight without any more help. It’s a situation that eschews straight “realism” to provide us with solo adventure stories for these heroes. Continuity within the Marvel Universe is a big part of the reason it used to be such a fun place to visit, but there are times when continuity issues should be set aside for the sake of good storytelling.


And now back to our regularly scheduled issue:


Once again, the Tales of Asgard back-up story stands out from the regular story. In this one, a young Thor defends a secret entry into Asgard against a band of monstrous invaders. Jack Kirby’s art work continues to shine—the monsters are all great designs, the action flows along in a fast and exciting pace, and a panel in which Thor is being turned into a tree (we see him maybe two-thirds of the way through the transformation) is as creepy as can be.


TALES OF SUSPENSE #50


This month, we’re getting a nice mix of old villains popping up with the first appearances of new villains. The FF had a rematch against Dr. Doom, while Dr. Strange, Thor and the Human Torch also encountered bad guys they had fought before.


In the meantime, Spider Man was facing off against Electro for the first time, while Iron Man would meet the Mandarin.


The Mandarin is straight from the Fu Manchu mold—an oriental mad scientist with dreams of conquering the world. He lives in a remote castle in Red China, where he’s considered to be so powerful even the Red government leaves him alone. He’s got a fun villain-shtick as well—he wears a ring on each finger, each of which is actually a different powerful weapon. (Paralyzing ray, heat beam, disintegrator ray, etc.)

The U.S. military know little about him, so they ask Iron Man to scout out the castle. To the surprise of absolutely no one, these leads to a fight between Tony and the Mandarin.


The fight sequence itself is okay, but not great. Don Heck’s art work is often very effective, but it’s also always a little stiff and his fight choreography sometimes plods along without reaching the same heights as Kirby and Ditko commonly do. All the same, the Mandarin is a nifty addition to Marvel’s growing stable of villainy.



TALES TO ASTONISH #52


Kirby and Ditko weren’t the only Marvel artists who could choreograph a cool fight scene, though. Dick Ayers does a very nice job of that in this story.


A scientist vows revenge after being sent up the river by Giant Man for selling secrets to the Reds. He genetically engineers a winged horse, then rigs a lance with super weaponry. Now calling himself the Black Knight, he goes up against Hank a second time.


The ensuing fight scene is a lot of fun, with the Black Knight using his various secret weapons (including an “itch ray”—I love that) while Hank alternates between being Giant Man and Ant Man as the situation requires. The Wasp takes part as well, getting her own moments of glory along the way. The action is laid out in a fast-paced and logical manner—just as all good fight scenes should be.


In the end, the Black Knight flees the battle, but (of course) vows to return.


That’s it for February 1964. In March, the FF will deal with a really big baby; Spider Man tries to learn the identity of a masked mob boss; the Human Torch faces off against the Wizard once again; Dr. Strange fights off an inter-dimensional invasion; Thor is still dealing with Zarrko; Iron Man goes up against the Scarecrow (no, it’s not the Batman villain); Giant Man and Wasp have a rematch against the Porcupine; the X-Men meet the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants for the first time. And—in the Avengers—a certain Living Legend of World War II puts in his first modern day appearance.
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