Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Battle Scene Ever


If I had to make a list of my favorite make-believe people...


Well, that list would be a little different every time I made it. But Captain Horatio Hornblower of His Majesty's Royal Navy would have a spot on it somewhere nearly every time.


Created by C.S. Forester in the 1937 novel The Happy Return (titled Beat to Quarters in the U.S.), Hornblower is a brilliant seaman who served his country during the Napoleanic Wars. He is one of the most purely human characters you'll ever meet in a work of fiction--flawed, secretly full of doubts, and emminently likeable. It's easy to believe he's a real guy, which--of course--makes the novels all that much more immersive.


Forester wrote ten complete Hornblower novels (and left an eleventh incomplete at the time of his death) and all are fast-moving adventure stories with strong plots. Forester did not write them in internal chronological order, but by the time he was finished, we can trace Hornblower's career from Midshipman to Admiral, sharing in innumberable adentures along the way.


The first novel, Beat to Quarters, would be the fifth chronologically. Set in 1808, it has Hornblower in command of a frigate, the Lydia. He is bringing guns to an anti-Spanish rebel leader in Central America, since at the moment Spain is an ally of France and also at war with England.


He delivers his cargo to the obviously psychotic rebel leader, then uses a clever tactic to capture a large Spanish warship (the Natividad) intact. He turns this over to the rebels as well.


The Lydia sails off, with Hornblower relieved that he doesn't have to have any more dealings with the whacko rebel. But then he discovers that Spain has switched sides and is now allied with Spain. So now he has to track down the Natividad and destroy it. (He also reluctantly picks up a lady passenger--a stranded Englishwoman--with whom he eventually falls in love.)


This (the stalking of the Natividad that is, not the falling in love part) leads to an absolutely riveting battle sequence. The two ships meet in stormy seas. Hornblower's better trained crew allows his smaller ship to get in some licks, but the Lydia takes some damage as well. The weather forces the opponents apart. When they meet again, the wind has died away completely and Hornblower has to use his ship's boats to tow the Lydia into battle while under constant fire from the Natividad.


Man, it's great stuff; in part because Forester has crewed the Lydia with characters we really care about and in part because his straightforward prose and sense of pacing generates a super-high level of excitement and suspense.


I've re-read all the Hornblower books several times. Beat to Quarters is perhaps my favorite, in no small measure because it contains one of the best battle scenes ever.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1964, part 2

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #107


This has been a banner month for the introduction of second-tier villains. We've already seen Kraven and the Beetle put in their first appearances. Now the Grey Gargoyle--who has the ability to turn anything he touches into stone for one hour--makes his debut.


Or is it turning stuff into stone for one day? The duration changes halfway through the story. Stan and Jack lost track of one of their plot points somewhere along the line.


But no matter. It's a good story nonetheless. And the Tales of Asgard back-up story is pretty gosh-darn cool as well. In this one, Loki enlists the help of the Norn Queen to assassinate Balder the Brave. But the plot fails when the Norn Queen switches sides at the last moment.

TALES OF SUSPENSE #56


Another new villain. But the Unicorn, a commie spy who wears a "Unicorn Power Horn" atop his helmet, isn't as visually interesting as the other bad guys we've met this month. Nonetheless, his fight with Iron Man is a pretty good one all the same.


The important thing about this issue, though, is the characterizations. Thus far, Tony, Pepper and Happy have all been fairly one-dimensional. But this story starts out with Tony Stark pretty much throwing a snit. Sick of the fact that he has to wear a chest plate 24/7 to keep his damaged heart beating, he snaps at everyone; decides to quit being Iron Man; ignores a call-to-arms from the Avengers; and calls up a hot chick out of his little black book for a night on the town.


But in the meantime, the Unicorn attacks his factory. Happy Hogan is seriously hurt trying to take on the bad guy himself. That brings Tony back to earth and leads to the climatic battle.


We also get the first hint that Pepper Potts, who has been so contempteous of Happy, actually kinda likes the "big lug."




TALES TO ASTONISH #58


In a gratuitous but harmless cameo, Captain America stops by Hank's lab to tell him and Jan about a giant man in Africa who is demanding human sacrifices from the natives. Our heroes fly out to the Dark Continent to investigate. A pretty good fight leads up to a fairly predictable twist ending.


The most important detail from this story is that Hank has figured out how to change sizes by thought--making the capsules he used to use unnecessary.


A short back-up story has the Wasp taking on the Magician, the fairly lame crook she and Hank fought a few issues earlier.


That's it for now. Next week, we'll visit both the Avengers and Daredevil in order to finish off August 1964.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Whistler: "Stranger in the House" 6/2/48

The Whistler was an anthology show that often told its story from the point-of-view of the criminal, building suspense as his (or her) plans begin to go awry.


This episode, though, seems to be told from the point-of-view of a victim--a woman who is convinced her long-lost foster brother isn't really her long-lost foster brother.


But she can't get anyone to believe her. An old friend recognizes him; his documentation is in order; and he knows a lot of details about the brother's childhood. But she KNOWS she's right.


There is, of course, a twist at the end and many attentive listeners may deduce what's coming in advance. But it's still a good twist that wraps up a strong and tense story.

This episode is available to hear or download HERE.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bat Masterson and Amos Burke

Actor Gene Barry passed away earlier this month at the age of 90. His geek cred comes mostly from his role as Dr. Clayton Forrester in the 1953 movie version of The War of the Worlds. But he also starred in a couple of classic TV shows--in each case playing a sophisticated, intelligent protagonist quite capable of either out-fighting or out-thinking his opponents. It was the sort of role that Barry really excelled at and, in both shows, his performance was combined with strong scripts to produce that rarest of things--sincerely entertaining television.


From 1958 to 1961, he starred as Bat Masterson, giving us a completely fictional but nonetheless really cool version of the real-life gunfighter.


From 1963 to 1966, he starred in Burke's Law as Amos Burke, a homicide detective who also happened to be a millionaire. He works solving crimes pretty much because he just loves doing it. For two seasons, it was successful as a well-constructed whodunit with an interesting and unusual lead character. Unfortunately, the last season was marred by an ill-considered attempt to cash in on the James Bond films by making Amos Burke an international spy. It turns out that millionaires need to stick to solving crimes, not sneaking out of Rumania with stolen microfilm hidden in their hollowed-out heels.


I took note in this THIS POST of a Bat Masterson episode that shared a plot device with an Uncle Scrooge story.


In this episode of Bat, see if you can spot the slight similarity between a plan concocted by Bat to foil some river pirates AND a plan concoted by a certain Hobbit to help some friends escape from prison.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1964, part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR # 29


This is an oddly paced issue. It starts with the FF taking a walk down Yancy Street and getting pelted with garbage, fire hoses and sneezing powder by the Yancy Street gang. This, in turn, gradually leads to our heroes getting ambushed and captured by the Red Ghost and his Super Apes.


The Red Ghost tries to strand them on the moon, but Sue keeps an airtight force field around them and they manage to make their way to the Watcher's home. Reed uses one of the Watcher's devices to force the Red Ghost's ship to crash. After some more shenanigans, the Red Ghost gets knocked into a matter teleporter that zaps him to some random location in the universe. The Watcher gets annoyed with the FF and teleports them back to Yancy Street.


It's actually a perfectly good story, giving Jack Kirby an opportunity to draw a cool spaceship and a number of super-scientific devices. But the plot has an odd feel to it. It kinda feels as if Stan and Jack were making it up as they went along without worrying quite enough about its overall structure. It may have needed one more re-write before going to press. The events that drive the story are just a little too haphazard to be truly satisfying.



AMAZING SPIDER MAN #15


Spidey continues to add new members to his Rogue's Gallery at a fast and furious pace. This time, Kraven the Hunter makes his debut. Kraven is hired by the Chameleon to hunt down and eliminate the webslinger.


Spider Man's final battle against Kraven is a running night-time battle through Central Park. As usual, Steve Ditko does a wonderful job choreographing the action and forcing both combatants to use their brains as well as their physical skills.


In the end, of course, Kraven is defeated. He and Chameleon are both deported, though Kraven will be back pretty quickly to help form the Sinister Six in Spider Man Annual #1.


There's some fun stuff going on in Peter Parker's love life in this issue. There's a pretty funny scene in which Liz Allen and Betty Brant meet for the first time, with Liz coming on to Peter and Betty getting jealous. All the while, Flash Thompson gets more and more aggrevated that Liz now seems to like Peter better than him. Peter winds the issue up by blowing chances to get a date with either girl.


But perhaps the most important girl we "meet" in this issue is someone Aunt May is trying to fix up with Peter. May is convinced that Mrs. Watson's (as-yet-unnamed) niece would be a nice match for Peter. That doesn't work out, but May will keep trying to fix up the two teenagers. Peter doesn't want anything to do with a blind date, though, and it'll be another 28 issues yet before Mary Jane Watson finally makes her famous entrance into the book.



STRANGE TALES #123


The Marvel Universe continues to add well-designed and interesting second-tier villians to its line-up. This time out, it's the Beetle--a master mechanic who builds his own armored suit. Determined to make his reputation, he takes on both Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm. But the two heroes eventually bring him to ground.


Two things of interest in this story:


First, the art is by Carl Burgos, the artist who created the orginal Human Torch two-and-a-half decades earlier.


Second, take note again that this story involved both Ben and Johnny. For the last twelve issues before the Human Torch is dropped from Strange Tales, he'll be sharing the limelight with the Thing. It's a good move--the two bickering friends play nicely off of each other.


Dr. Strange, in the meantime, has a run-in with Loki. The god of michief tries to con Strange into using a spell to steal Thor's hammer. But the sorceror tumbles onto Loki's real motives pretty quickly. In the fight that follows, Strange manages to hold his own for a time by using better tactics, but Loki (who is, after all, a god) nearly manages to finish him. Only the approach of Thor forces Loki to retreat at the last moment.


As usual, Ditko's visual style is a perfect match for the magic-soaked story. And it's a neat touch--acknowledging that Dr. Strange can't go mano-o-mano against a god.


That's it for now. Next week, we'll take a look at Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: "The Cronin Matter" 12/5/09-12/9/09


This excellent story is tinged with sadness and loneliness from start to finish. Johnny's hired by an insurance company to guard a valuable necklace. The owner of the necklace is a used-to-be-famous Jazz Age party girl who is trying to re-capture the glory days of her youth by throwing a huge party.


The trouble is those days never really existed in the first place and most of those she knew decades ago have passed on or no longer care. Only a few people show up for the party. Add to this several ongoing plot threads involving embezzlement, theft and eventually murder--well, it's no surprise that the whole thing ends in tragedy.


When Johnny Dollar ran as a five-day-a-week serial, it regularly took advantage of this by building believable and sympathetic supporting characters into each storyline. "The Cronin Matter" is a great example of that. Everyone in it comes across as a real person, allowing us to feel sincere empathy for their plights.


It's a good mystery as well, giving us a series of twists at the end before Johnny finally manages to wrap up everything.


These episodes are available to hear or download HERE.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How do you get promoted from hitman to crime boss?

How do you work your way up from lowly hitman to crime boss? Well, apparently one way is to move from movies to dramatic radio.
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It worked for William Conrad. In 1946, Universal Pictures released an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story "The Killers." Hemingway's original story is a terse and very suspenseful tale about a couple of thugs who show up in a small town diner. They're looked for a guy called the Swede. When someone manages to warn the Swede about the killers, he refuses to run or fight, fatalistically accepting his death.





One of the reasons the short story has so much impact is that we don't know who the Swede is or why the two men have been hired to kill him. The movie, though, needed to provide an explanation. So the opening scenes give us a pretty faithful adaptation of Hemingway's tale, then employs a series of flashbacks to let us know the whole story behind it all. Burt Lancaster is the Swede--an ex-boxer turned crook who gets double-crossed by just about everyone, including the woman he loves. Ava Gardner is the woman and Albert Dekker is the leader of the gang to which the Swede belonged.
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It's a great film noir, with a strong script that manages to keep track of its multiple flashbacks and tell the complex story clearly. Ava Gardner is perfect as a femme fatale--managing to simultaneously be both cold-bloodedly selfish and utterly desirable. Robert Siodmak directed the film, using stark shadows to give the whole film an appropriately fatalistic look.
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But we were talking about getting promoted from hitman to boss. That's where William Conrad comes in. He has his first credited film roll is here, playing one of the killers sent to whack the Swede.
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At the same time, Conrad (with his distinctive deep voice and notable skill as a character actor) was getting a lot of work on radio. He was, of course, the star of the radio version of Gunsmoke, but he also popped up regularly on Escape. Before long, it seemed like it was impossible to tune into a dramatic radio show without hearing Conrad playing one of the roles. He could be heard on Suspense, The Whistler, The Voyage of the Scarlett Queen, and dozens of other shows.
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So when The Screen Directors' Playhouse opted to do a radio adaptation of The Killers during their June 5, 1949 broadcast, it wasn't surprising that Conrad had a part.
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But the Playhouse broadcast had to whittle the story down to fit into a thirty minute time slot. It actually managed to do so with surprising skill. Ironically, this meant the sequence from Hemingway's original story--the diner scene--disappears, leaving the lowly hitmen with little or no actual dialogue.
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So Conrad was instead cast as the crime boss, the part Albert Dekker had played in the movie. Lancaster still played the Swede, while Shelly Winters took over as the femme fatale. Playhouse's 30-minute running time meant its adaptations of movies were usually not as satisfying as those done on the Lux Radio Theater (which was an hour-long show), but The Killers turns out to be a pretty good episode all the same.
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So, if you happen to be working as a lowly hitman for a mob and you're looking to move up in your profession, the route to take is to switch from being a movie bad guy to a radio bad guy. There's a pretty good guarentee of a promotion.

The Playhouse version of The Killers is available to hear or download HERE.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: July 1964, part 3

AVENGERS #6





We meet Baron Zemo--an arch enemy of Captain America. During the war, Zemo perfected a chemical called Adhesive X. But in a fight with Cap, a vat of the chemical was shattered and spilled over Zemo, permenently affixing the hood he wears to his face.





Now, years later, Zemo is hiding out in a South American jungle when he finds out Captain America is alive. He recruits the first-ever version of the Masters of Evil, grabbing one enemy from each of the Avengers' individual Rogue's Galleries. Aside from himself, there's the Black Knight (a good choice--by far the most interesting of Giant Man's foes), Radioactive Man, and the Melter.




A couple of neat-o fights follow, with the Avengers being initially forced to retreat when Cap and Giant Man get stuck to some pavement with Adhesive X. Then there's a rematch, with the Avengers trading opponents to confuse the enemy. Once again, Jack Kirby manages to give each of the heroes some quality "screen time." The scene in which Iron Man borrows a pickup truck to tow Cap and Hank behind him while they're stuck to a hunk of pavement is a visual highlight.

Several points of note: There's a nice bit of Marvel U continuity when the Avengers contact Paste-Pot Pete, the Human Torch's foe, to get his expertise in figuring out how to dissolve Adhesive X. He agrees to help in exchange for reduced prison time, so his motivation is perfectly believable.

In a slightly less believable sequence, Rick Jones and his Teen Brigade play an important part in Cap's overall plan for defeating the Masters of Evil. I would have thought that asking the cops or the army for a couple of guys to help might have been preferable to risking the lives of teenagers. Oh, well, the average age of comic book readers at the time was still a lot younger than it is now, so the temptation to make heroes out of kids is understandable. Besides, Rick and Cap will be building up a father/son-type relationship in future issues, so giving Rick some face time in the story makes sense in that regard.


One last thing: Iron Man has installed some electronics and magnets in Cap's shield, allowing Cap to control its flight when he throws it. He'll keep these gadgets for awhile until someone finally realizes Cap is just plain cooler when he does incredible things with his shield through skill alone. In a future issue, he'll decide the gadgets throw off the shield's "delicate balance" and get rid of them.



X-MEN #6


Gosh, what a coincidence! Both Professor X and Magneto independently come to the conclusion that the Sub Mariner might be a mutant and both begin to search him out to recruit him.


But if you give Stan and Jack their one little coincidence, what follows is another great story.


I sometimes wonder if I should keep bothering with the Marvel Universe series simply because I keep repeating myself on one aspect of them so often--Jack Kirby (along with Steve Ditko) was a master in constructing logical and visually awesome battle sequences. This one is no different. It's set on an isolated island upon which Magneto has set up his latest base. The Sub Mariner is there, checking out the possibility of working with Magneto to take his vengence on surface dwellers. (Namor is particularly ticked off since Sue rejected him in last month's Fantastic Four.) The fight starts when Namor and Angel have a brief dogfight, then the battle becomes more general with all the various combatants taking a hand.


Once again, the teamwork and skills learned from Danger Room sessions help the X-Men during their fight, while Magneto shows a casual willingness to sacrifice his own teammates to win a battle. This turns Namor against him. Magneto and the Brotherhood flee in a rocketship, though not before his relationship with Pietro and Wanda is strained even farther. Namor stomps off, disillusioned with the concept of an alliance with anyone. (So far, he's had bad experiences with Doctor Doom, the Hulk and now Magneto.) The X-Men go home--victorious in that they helped prevent Namor and Magneto from joining forces.


That's it for July. In August, Zemo will get new allies and then arrange a rematch with the Avengers (now a monthly book); the FF will have a rematch against the Red Ghost; Spider Man adds another villain to his growing Rogue's Gallery; Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man, the Human Torch and Daredevil also each encounter new villians; and Dr. Strange battles Loki.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

NEW FEATURE: Whenever possible, I will now include a link at the end of my "Friday's Favorite OTR" posts to a location where you can download the episode I'm discussing. If I can ever figure out how the heck to do it, I'll someday try out embedding the episode directly on my blog.

Rocky Jordan: "The Case of the Sleepy Camel" 1/16/49


A local chieftan gives Rocky three camels as a gift. Rocky hates the smelly things, but the local culture mores force him to accept and keep them for at least a short time.


Inexplicably, a few other people show much more interest in the camels than they are apparently worth. Then a camel driver gets a knife in the back. Rocky has no idea what's going on, but he's determined to find out.


This is another solid, hard-boiled story that takes advantage of the Cairo setting to tell an unusual mystery. Few of those Rocky meets on this case are who they claim to be, while the fact that one of the camels is perpetually sleepy proves to be a vital clue. It all ties together in the end during a deadly encounter in a Cairo hotel room.


This episode, along with other Rocky Jordan episodes, can be downloaded HERE.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Skeletons, death rays and biplanes


G-8 and his Battle Aces ran for 110 issues during the 1930s and early 1940s. All 110 issues--in which master spy and ace fighter pilot G-8 foils increasingly bizarre German schemes to defeat the Allies during the Great War--were written by Robert J. Hogan.
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There were a lot of pulps in the '20s and '30s that featured WWI aerial combat or daredevil barnstormers. Remember that at this time, the overwhelming majority of people had never been on an airplane. So pilots and airborne derring-do still had a thick veneer of romanticism over them. Readers searching for a good adventure story were naturally drawn to the subject.
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Many of the aviation pulps were set during the Great War for convenience more than any other reason--like Westerns and G-Men pulps, it gave the readers a pre-set situation in which they already knew who the good guys and bad guys were.
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So when Hogan was assigned by Popular Publications to do another aviation pulp, he realized he had to come up with a way to make his stories stand out from the crowd. His solution was to make the hero a spy as well as a pilot, then to throw a seemingly endless series of science-fiction threats at him.
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In the first issue, he encountered giant robot bats that spewed poison gas. Later issues involved anything from genetically-engineered giant birds to soldiers mutated into werewolves to invisible planes. Hogan, a talented and prolific wordsmith, always managed to build a fast-moving and exciting yarn around these idiosyncratic plot ideas. Frederick Blakeslee usually painted the terrific covers.
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What made me write about G-8 today? Well, I just read a recent reprint of Skeletons of the Black Cross (first published in February 1936). In this one, G-8 has to deal not only with a newly invented German death ray, but with a small army of apparently re-animated human skeletons.
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Skeletons with death rays. Why doesn't anything that inherently interesting ever happen in real life?
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Typical of most pulp adventures, it is pure escapism--emphasizing story and action over characterizations. And that, of course, is exactly has it should be. Hogan, like Maxwell Grant (The Shadow) and Lester Dent (Doc Savage) had a talent for constructing clever plots and exciting action set pieces. He did exactly what he was supposed to do--provide his readers with a few hours of fun.
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In fact, Hogan outdoes himself in this issue with one particular set piece. G-8 finds out that the Germans need a rare element to power their death ray. Stealing a German bomber equipped with six bombs, he flys out into the North Sea to intercept and blow up the submarine carrying an irreplaceable supply of the element.
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What follows is a truly edge-of-your-seat battle sequence in which G-8 dogfights a half-dozen Fokkers while simultaneously dodging anti-aircraft fire from the sub and trying to make a successful bomb run. It's one of Hogan's finest moments in the series--one of those occasions where you can't put the book down until you're done with the chapter.
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The story is marred a bit at the climax when the Germans pretty much act like idiots, allowing a captive G-8 to sneak away and radio for help. But even this doesn't spoil an exciting and entertaining story. G-8 isn't as famous as the Shadow or Doc Savage, but he holds a deserved place of honor in the pulp hero pantheon.
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Skeletons with death rays.
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Sorry, I just wanted to type that out one more time.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: July 1964, part 2

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #106


Last issue ended with Thor losing his hammer. So this issue beings with Thor losing himself--in a crowd, that is. He ducks into a panicky crowd so that no one will notice when he turns back into Dr. Blake.


Then, to get his hammer (now reverted into a walking cane) back, he has to pretend to be willing to sell Thor out to Cobra and Mr. Hyde. His plan works and--turning into Thor again--he manages to capture Cobra. A little later, Hyde manages to disarm Thor again, but the Thunder God decides he doesn't need his hammer to defeat Hyde and proceeds to use the sixty seconds he has before turning into Blake to pretty much beat the snot out of the bad guy.


But there's no happy ending for Thor. Jane Foster is now ticked off at Blake for apparently turning coward and offering to sell out Thor to the bad guys.

The Tales of Asgard back-up story gives us a little background information on Balder the Brave--who, we find out, is as famous for his compassion and kindness as for his mercy. As with the Heimdall story last month, it's a pretty quiet story--mainly serving just to highlight Balder's personality. But starting next month, the Tales of Asgard will return to giving us lots of awesome Kirby action.

TALES OF SUSPENSE #55


Let's get the silly part over with first. The Mandarin has Iron Man captive, wrapped up in super-strong cables. The villain asks the hero: "Are you mad? You dare smile in the face of death?"


What I wanna know is how the heck Mandarin knew Iron Man was smiling. He wears an iron helmet that covers his face, for gosh sakes.


Oh, well, once we get past that bit of absurd dialogue, the story is actually pretty good. Iron Man breaks loose and the two foes continue their battle. The interceptor ray that Mandarin was using to sabotage U.S. missles is wrecked and Iron Man manages to escape the castle soon after.


One of the failings of the early Iron Man stories was that he often did not go up against bad guys who could match him in pure power. But Mandarin, with his weapon-equiped rings and martial arts skills, stikes a better balance. In fact, Iron Man can't defeat him in a straight fight this time around. All he can do is wreck Mandarin's ray machine, then run for the hills. Iron Man is finallly starting to build up a respectable Rogue's Gallery.



TALES TO ASTONISH #57


Evil scientist Egghead has what is actually a pretty good plan. He'll use a devise that allows him to communicate with ants to send a false alarm to Giant Man, convincing the hero that Spider Man is planning on attacking him.


So Giant Man and Wasp go out looking for Spidy to launch a pre-emptive strike. While the ensuing fight atracts a crowd and distracts the police, Egghead and some goons will be robbing a payroll truck.


The story is an excuse to put one of Marvel's most popular characters on the cover, but that's just fine. The story and the Giant Man/Spidey fight are good. We never get to see who might come out on top, though. Warned by ants, they figure out what's going on and team-up to foil Egghead's plan.


There is one important event in this story. Hank makes Janet a compressed air wrist gun--her "Wasp's Sting"--that greatly increases her usefullness in a fight. It's a good idea--something that will allow Janet to take a more proactive part in battles. In later years, the compressed air weapon will be replaced by a devise that allows her to amplify her own bio-electric energy and zap bad guys with that. But the basic idea is the same.


There's also a short back-up story in which Janet foils a jewel thief. Prior to this issue, there had been stories in which Janet is visiting orphanages and hospitals to tell stories. These were reprints of 1950s-era monster stories with a new framing sequence, so I haven't bothered reviewing them. But now, the winsome Wasp will get to go into action on her own. There will be one more Wasp story next issue, then the Hulk will be moving into Tales to Astonish and there will sadly be no more room for the poor little rich girl's solo adventures.


Next week, we'll finish up July with visits to the Avengers and the X-Men.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday's Favorite OTR

Hercule Poirot: The Bride Wore Fright" 11/30/45


This was a regrettably short-lived series with actor Harld Huber giving us a really fun and quite accurate interpretation of Agatha Christie's Belgium detective.


Most episodes were, of course, whodunits. This one, though, starts with a wealthy and ruthless big game hunter trying to force an unwilling young woman to marry him. Soon, he's forced to knock off an old girlfriend who attempts to blackmail him into coming back to her.


Poirot knows the guy is guilty, but there's no proof. But the detective comes up with a plan for tricking the killer into tipping his hand--though he'll have to put his own life on the line to pull it off.


It's a good, logical plot with a likable protagonist, a loathsome villain and a satisfying ending. That's pretty much hits all the necessary bases for a good mystery.

This episode is available for download HERE.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Down the mean streats a man must go who is not himself mean.

The High Window, by Raymond Chandler


Raymond Chandler didn't invent the hard-boiled genre, but he did it better than anyone except (arguably) Dashiell Hammett.


His career as a writer started--as so many of the best hard-boiled writers did--working for Black Mask magazine. But unlike most of the best writers in the pulp era, he wasn't prolific enough to make a living doing short stories. So he began to concentrate on novels. In 1939, he cannibalized the plots of several of his stories, melded his various protagonists into wisecracking P.I. Philip Marlowe, and produced the superb novel The Big Sleep. It was the first of a series of wonderful, evocotive books in which Chandler repeatedly proved himself to be a master of the English language.


Chandler was always more concerned with character and theme than with plot. To be honest, that's why I prefer Hammett over Chandler--if only slightly. Both men would often construct stories with complex plots, but Hammett always managed to tie up all the loose threads in time for the climax. Chandler, on the other hand, almost always left a thread or two dangling.


But this is a matter of pure personal preference on my part. It's unfair to seriously criticize Chandler for considering his plots to be of secondary importance. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that what was most imporant was the image of a tough but good man who maintains his personal integrety no matter how much corruption bubbles up around him. Philip Marlowe is a modern knight-in-armor. Not shining armor, perhaps--there are too many whiskey and tobacco stains for that. But he's a knight all the same.


He is, in fact, the perfect example of what makes the hard-boiled genre so valuable. It's a literary form that is inherently cynical about human nature and human society. But the best hard-boiled stories balance this out by reminding us that there are men and women in the world who still live by their word and maintain a viable code of ethics.


In The High Window (1942), Marlowe is hired to recover a rare coin that's been stolen by an errant member of a rich family. Not surprisingly, the case soon expands outward to include jealously, unfaithful spouses, greed and (of course) murder.


Marlowe slogs through it all until he finally gets to the truth, sifting through a cesspool of lies and half-truths along the way. But in the end, we see that Marlowe--tough guy that he is--will always act with compassion and honor as he chooses to look after the welfare of one of the few more-or-less innocent persons he encounters.


The High Window is the only one of the first four Marlowe novels that was plotted out in advance by Chandler as a self-contained story--the others all made use of plot elements cobbled together from Chandler's short stories. Because of this, it's more tightly plotted than the other novels--though one can also argue it's more formulaic.


But it's still a fast-paced, atmospheric tale. However loose or tight his novels were in terms of plot, Chandler's prose is always a joy to read. His ability to use a few sharply worded sentences to both advance the plot and capture the essence of a scene or character never ceases to amaze me. Take these two sentences, for instance, describing a former showgirl who's caught herself a rich husband:


"From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away, she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away."


It's crisp and funny; it literally begs to be read aloud; and it gives us a perfect sense of the character. Chandler was always doing stuff like that. It's why he still remains virtually unmatched as a writer.


Next month, we'll visit with mystery writer Ellery Queen as he solves The Dutch Shoe Mystery.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: July 1964, part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR #28

Two of the FF's old enemies--the Puppet Master and the Mad Thinker--team up to get revenge on our heroes. Thinker figures out the exact amount of radioactive clay Puppet Master needs to make a puppet of Professor X and gain control over him. Then Professor X is forced to order the X-Men to attack the Fantastic Four.


Nowadays, the X-Men are so perpetually popular its easy to forget there was a time when they were second-tier characters in the Marvel Universe. But The X-Men was never that big a seller in the 1960s. Cross-overs like this (or like the Human Torch/Iceman team-up in Strange Tales a few issues back) are quite obviously meant to generate interest in the X-Men's own book.


And that's just fine, as long at the story is good. And this one is good. Within the context of a comic book universe, the Thinker's plan makes sense. And, as usual, the action sequences are marvelous. There's a half-page panel near the end of the story, when all the heroes have figured out what the heck is going on, that features them going up against the Thinker's Awesome Android. That one panel alone would have been worth the price of the book. An earlier scene in which Iceman encases Ben's head in a big blog of ice--then adds a couple of blocks of ice to Ben's feet--is also pretty cool to look at.


There's an interesting and harmless mistake near the beginning of the story. Reed and Sue are reading a newspaper account of the X-Men's activities and Sue reads off a list of their opponents. She includes "the Space Phantom" on the list. But the Phantom had fought the Avengers, not the X-Men. Oh, well, poor Stan Lee was juggling so many characters at this point that I think we can forgive him if he loses track of a few details.


SPIDER MAN #14
Another strong issue introduces us to the Green Goblin--perhaps Spidey's greatest foe and certainly one of the most visually striking.
Gobby plans to create his own crime syndicate and figures taking out Spider Man is a good way to start. He recruits the Enforcers (the webslinger fought them in issue #10) to help, then lures Spider Man out to the Southwestern desert to ambush him.
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His plan is a little hokey--he talks a movie producer into signing up Spider Man to star in a movie in order to lure the hero to the ambush site. It's a little contrived and conveniently ignores the fact that Peter knows from his previous showbiz experience that he can't get legally paid without giving up his secret identity. It also seems unnecessarily complicated--why is the desert a better location for an ambush than a back alley in New York? But what follows is so much fun that this is forgiveable. Besides, Stan Lee has a good reason for moving the action out to the Southwest.
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Goblin and the Enforcers have a running battle with Spider Man that eventually takes them into a large system of inter-connecting caves. In the caves, they run into the Hulk, who just happens to be hiding out there. The Hulk, of course, decides to smash everyone.
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It all ends with the Enforcers captured. The Hulk vanishes back into the caves and the Goblin escapes. The movie is cancelled and Peter has to take the bus back home.
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In just a few more months, the Hulk will be given his own series again (he'll be sharing Tales to Astonish with Giant Man and the Wasp). So obviously, Stan Lee wants to give him some play in one of the more popular books--which explains Goblin's odd plan to lure Spider Man to the Southwest. It's not quite as satisfying as the X-Men/FF crossover, though. Hulk just kinda shows up without a strong plot-driven reason for being there. But, as I said above, the issue is so much fun in the end, it's easy to forgive the contrivences. A bit where Spider Man gets fed up and lays a nasty punch on the Hulk--only to hurt his hand without bothering the Hulk at all--is a wonderful moment.
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Several details to take note of: The Green Goblin's true identity is kept a secret--in fact, Lee and Ditko themselves hadn't decided who he'd turn out to be. If I remember correctly, it's a disagreement on who the Goblin should be a few years down the road that causes Ditko to leave the book.
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Also, there's some good characterization stuff among the supporting characters. Liz Allen continues to grow more attracted to Peter, which annoys Flash Thompson and causes Betty Brant to experience pangs of jealousy.
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Finally, though the "let's make a movie" part of the plot is a little too silly, there's one character--a parody of the arrogant but clueless producer stereotype--who actually is pretty funny.
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STRANGE TALES #122
The three thugs temporarily given super powers by Doctor Doom in FF #22 are back. Doom had stashed them away in another dimension, but we now find out they reappeared on Earth when Doom himself was hurled into Outer Space. Wanting to impress Doom should the master criminal ever return, they decide to take out the Fantastic Four one by one.
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They start with Johnny, using asbestos robe to hog-tie him. Johnny manages to get loose, though, and eventually bring the trio to ground.
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The Human Torch stories were never more than pretty good--but they were consistenly successful in one area. Johnny was always ending up in situations where he had to use his brains as well as his powers to win. This gave a little bit of bite to what were otherwise average (and sometimes mediocre) stories.
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Dr. Strange, in the meantime, takes a nap at the wrong moment and gets captured by Nightmare. Like Johnny, he also must use his brains as well as his powers to escape. The story's main selling point, though, is Ditko's art. Anytime a Dr. Strange story gave Ditko a chance to portray both alien landscapes and bizarre monsters, it was bound to be worthwhile.
That's it for now. Next week, we'll see what Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man are up to.

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