Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: “Clear for Action” 6/14/53

I love this particular episode of Escape enough to re-listen to it two or three times a year—simply because it is so skillfully done in every aspect. Plot, dialogue, sound effects and acting all come together to expertly tell a nice, tight story.

It’s set in the early 19th Century, with William Conrad plays the commander of the American Navy frigate Panther. He’s assigned to track down and eliminate a French warship that’s been attacking American shipping in the Caribbean. But France and the United States aren’t actually at war, so he can only actually attack the Frenchie in self-defense or in defense of another ship.

It’s a tricky mission, but (after an encounter with a British ship attempting to press-gang some of his crew) the captain soon comes up with a plan. With the help of a merchant captain—and his pretty daughter—he lays a trap for the French privateer.

Conrad is superb in the role of captain. He exudes an air of authority and obviously expects to be obeyed, but it’s also obvious that he has earned the respect of his crew. Listen to it and take special note of his relationship with his two deck officers—to the way he switches back and forth from using their first names to using a more formal mode of address depending on the situation. And take note of how well actors Ben Wright and John Dehner, playing the two officers, quickly manage to endow their characters with individual personalities.

Then take note of the sound effects, most especially the creaking rigging in the background at the end of the episode. “Clear for Action” is a pretty straightforward adventure tale and breaks no new ground in storytelling—but it’s a wonderful example of just how well the cast and crew of Escape told stories.

You can listen to this episode or download it  HERE.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

On second thought, let's go ahead and change history completely.

In last week’s post, we took a look at the Time Wars novels, in which the protagonists were desperately trying to prevent time travelers from changing history and thus endanger the entire universe.

But what if changing history simply created a separate alternate universe that could peacefully coexist with the original? What if a time traveler were free to alter events in whatever way he could?

That was a handy concept for archeologist Martin Padway, the hero of L. Sprague de Camp’s classic novel Lest Darkness Fall (1939). Because Padway sets out to do nothing less than prevent the Dark Ages.

At first, Padway is just trying to survive. He gets abruptly tossed back in time to Rome in the 6th Century AD. As a scholar, he speaks enough Latin to make himself understood and he manages to trade some of his modern pocket change for more spendable coins. But he’s gotta eat, so he comes up with a clever way to make a living.

He gets a loan from a banker, teaching the banker’s accountants Arabic numerals and double-entry bookkeeping in lieu of collateral. (Why are Arabic numerals such a big improvement? Try doing some long division using Roman numerals and see how long it takes.)

He then builds a distillery, turning out brandy that’s stronger than any of the wines available at the time. Soon, he’s making money hand over foot.

The whole book is like that—Padway isn’t an action hero (though the book has its share of action sequences). He’s an intellectual who thinks out his actions and uses his eclectic knowledge to introduce his new “inventions” into the world. Some of the stuff he does—like building a printing press—are obvious. Others, such as selling stock to fund a company that builds a network of semaphore towers between major cities, are downright brilliant. Heck, he even introduces the concept of the “Help Wanted” sign.

Padway eventually comes to realize that he has a real chance to stave what would be nearly a thousand years of barbarism. Knowing that Italy is about to be devastated by a prolonged war, he reluctantly involves himself in political and military affairs. That’s where most of the novel’s action adventure stuff comes in, as Padway proves to have a talent for political machinations and a good memory for modern military tactics.

de Camp’s strengths as a writer—his sharp wit, his clever plot twists and his ability to create likable supporting characters—are all highlighted throughout the novel. He puts in a lot of little touches that give the story humor and verisimilitude. I love a scene in which Padway has to explain to a grouchy accountant exactly why his “new” number system has a symbol for zero. “Who ever heard of figuring interest on a loan at no interest?” complains the accountant. Padway’s occasional attempts at romance with 6th Century women are largely played for some good laughs.

And de Camp presents Padway as smart and well-educated, but not omniscient. Padway has to experiment quite a lot to come up with workable ink and paper for his printing press. He never does figure out the proper proportions of charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter for making gunpowder (though he does “invent” a workable crossbow).

It all helps make Padway and his adventures seem believable. L. Sprague de Camp turned out a lot of great science fiction and fantasy throughout his long career, but Lest Darkness Fall is arguable his best work.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: October 1964, part 3


A couple of issues ago, Thor had sent Zemo, Enchantress and Executioner into another dimension. But now the Enchantress uses her own magic to bring them back to Earth.

They immediately start plotting their revenge against the Avengers. They recruit a former industrialist named Simon Williams (put out of business by Stark Industries' superior products) who had turned to embezzlement. Zemo infuses Williams with “ionic rays,” giving him super strength and invulnerability. A rocket belt lets him fly. Now called Power Man, he manages to join up with the Avengers as a mole.

He’s actually got no choice. It was only after Zemo gives him power that he’s told the process leaves him with only a week to live. Unless, of course, he helps capture the Avengers and earns an antidote from Zemo.

Well, he does help capture the heroes, but balks at killing them. In the end, he seemingly gives his life to save the Avengers. But this is a comic book universe, where few deaths are permanent. A few years down the line, Wonder Man will be back and will eventually become a regular member of the Avengers.


A guy with purple skin known as, well, the Purple Man, has the ability to control the minds of people when they are close by. He uses a pretty neat tactic to steal—he just asks people for stuff. Under his sway, they “freely” give it to him. He gets money from a bank, swanky rooms at a hotel and an army of bodyguards just by asking for it all. Technically, he’s not breaking any laws.

Daredevil is able to resist his mind control tricks, so the Purple Man sics a mob on him. Eventually, though, Daredevil is able to trick the bad guy into confessing to actual crimes. He also figures out that the color of the villain’s skin is a component to his power. In his later appearances, this would be further clarified—it turns out his skin cells actually produce a will-sapping nerve gas.

Purple Man’s first appearance, though, is still a well-plotted story. His M.O. makes him a fairly interesting villain, though his lack of visual appeal means he never becomes a major player in the Marvel Universe. He simply never got used that often.

That’s it for October 1964. In fact, this wraps up three full years of the modern Marvel Universe. Pretty much all the major good guys for the 1960s and early 1970s have shown up. The Hulk has his own series again. Captain America will have his own solo tales starting next month. We don’t seem to get invaded by alien races quite as frequently as we did during the first year or two, but it’s still not that unusual an event. We’ve also had trouble with several subterranean races and Atlantis. The Fantastic Four and Spider Man are still the cream of the crop, but every series has its strong points. Thor is on the cusp of becoming downright incredible, though it’ll be another year before it really gets there. Dr. Strange will be having some of his best stories ever. Even the fairly weak entries like the Human Torch’s Strange Tales series and Giant Man have improved. It’s a good time to be a Marvel fan.

So next time, we’ll jump into November 1964. Sue and Johnny’s new-found dad will apparently get superpowers; Spider Man gets publicly castigated as a coward; Johnny and Ben tangle with old enemies, as does Thor; Dr. Strange makes a powerful enemy, but also meets his future girlfriend; Iron Man goes up against the Black Knight; Captain America stops some ill-mannered louts from invading the Avengers H.Q.; the Avengers add another member to their rogues’ gallery; and the X-Men run across another mutant with a bad attitude.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: “Shotgun Gail” 8/4/44

There’s some suspenseful stuff going on this episode. A shotgun-wielding young lady holds up the Ranger and Tonto, then asks him to do a very odd thing: Sit in a house alone with a bandage covering his face and just wait out the night.

That she’s setting the Ranger up as a decoy to trick some killers is obvious. But the Ranger never turns down a chance to help someone. This leads to a really tense scene in which he and Tonto are in the house, waiting for someone to try to kill them.

Everyone’s motivations (the girl and the would-be killers) are gradually made clear as the story progresses. The attempt on the Ranger’s life is made; this leads to a gun fight in the darkness outside the house; then it all builds to a climax when the girl goes for help, but makes a very poor decision about whom she can trust.

Listen to this episode or download it HERE.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Don't Mess with the Time Stream

I love a good time travel story. When you think about it, A Christmas Carol is a time travel story. And, of course, there’s H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, in which the protagonist takes a trip into the far future and almost gets eaten by Morlocks.

Introduce time travel into a story and there are all sorts of fun things you can do. The hero can alter history, as does the main character in L. Sprague de Camp’s classic 1939 novel Lest Darkness Fall. (A wonderful book—I think I’ll talk about it a bit more in depth in next week’s post.)

Or the hero can discover that he can’t change history. There’s an old Superboy story (from Superboy #85—cover dated December 1960) in which the Boy of Steel flew back in time to 1865, intending to stop Lincoln’s assassination. But it just happened that Lex Luthor was hiding out in the past. Luthor thinks Superboy is after him, so zaps Superboy with some Red Kryptonite, immobilizing him until it’s too late to save Lincoln.

The story has a really neat touch at the end—when Luthor realizes he’s prevented Superboy from saving Lincoln, the normally ruthless criminal is almost overcome with guilt.

Anyway, that was DC Comics’ way out of explaining why Superboy (and later Superman), a character who could easily fly fast enough to move back and forth through time, couldn’t change history and prevent disasters before they even happen—something always happens to prevent it. You simply can’t alter fate. (Of course, Superman does fiddle with time in the 1978 Christopher Reeve film, but what the hey.)

There’s at least one set of time travel stories in which it is possible to change history, but doing so is a really bad idea. It’s a science fiction adventure series written in the 1980s by Simon Hawke. Collectively known as the Time Wars, these 12 books are filled with complex but well-constructed plots, good characterizations and some truly exciting action set pieces.

The premise is this: In the 27th Century, wars are fought by sending soldiers into the past to enlist in armies of different times. A complex point spread system, based on how many soldiers survive for how long, is used to adjudicate international disputes.

But there’s always a chance that someone will mess up and do something that actually changes history. That would cause the creation of a parallel universe, which might eventually rejoin with our universe and destroy all of creation.

The main characters are part of an elite commando team that fixes history whenever something goes really awry. For instance, in the premiere Time Wars novel, The Ivanhoe Gambit, someone kidnaps and kills Richard the Lionhearted, intending to take his place and fix what he sees as Richard’s mistakes. So the good guys have to find the fake Richard, kill him, and then send in their own fake Richard to live out the real Richard’s life the way it was supposed to be lived.  Got all that?

One fun aspect of the early books in the series was how it mixed historical literature with real history. In The Ivanhoe Gambit, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is considered a true story (more or less) and the good guys operate in the past by temporarily taking the place of Ivanhoe, Robin Hood and other characters from that novel. The Time Wars books that follow give the Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Pimpernel and the Prisoner of Zenda the same treatment.

In later novels, that conceit was largely left behind, though the author always managed to have some fun mixing classic fiction together with real history. In The Nautilus Sanction, our heroes are searching for a hijacked 20th Century nuclear sub that’s been equipped for time travel by a terrorist. They find the sub in the 19th Century but are captured—along with Jules Verne and a Canadian harpooner named Ned Land. Gee, where do you suppose Verne got the idea for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? Well, in The Nautilus Sanction, we get to find out.

But Verne can’t write his novel until he’s rescued from the time traveling terrorist. That only happens after a lot of intrigue, a cameo appearance by Jean Lafitte and a climatic battle involving lasers, disintegrators, and nuclear hand grenades inside a hidden volcano base.

The entire Time Wars series maintains that same level of wild fun. The plots by the villains to change history involve stuff like genetically engineered monsters, giant robots and clones. In one novel, a military installation in the 27th Century is attacked by genetically engineered soldiers who are only about six inches high. In another, one of the time commandos gets into a shootout in Tombstone involving both six guns and laser guns. Eventually, trouble with a time traveling mafia called the Network and a war with a parallel universe add to the commandos’ many troubles.

Sadly, these novels are out-of-print, but used copies are pretty easily available online. It’s important to read them in order, though, because the whole saga ends up unfolding in a manner that brings it all to a satisfying conclusion by the time the series comes to an end.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: October 1964, part 2


Thor battles Magneto in this issue—in yet another cross-over meant to publicize another Marvel book. As was usual for the time, it’s perfectly fair in that it is self-contained here. You don’t have to spend money on the X-Men unless you want to do so.

And the battle is a good one. Thor confronts Magneto on a submarine, where the bad guy is hanging out while the rest of the Evil Brotherhood is trying to track down the X-Men. The Asgardian is too powerful for Magneto, but the mutant manages to catch his hammer in a magnetic force field. In the heat of the fight, Thor doesn’t get the hammer back in a minute’s time, thus turning back into Donald Blake. That makes for some hairy moments dodging traps until Blake gets hold of his hammer (now, of course, a walking stick again), turns back into Thor and then start beating down on Magneto. The mutant flees in a one-man sub.

There’s a few odd things about this issue, though. The X-Men sort of guest-star near the end, but are always just off-panel. Why Stan and Jack opted not to actually show them is a mystery.

Also, Magneto doesn’t recognize Thor, assuming at first that he is another mutant. He even tries to recruit Thor into the Brotherhood. Gee whiz, I know Magneto spends most of his time in various secret hideouts, but doesn’t he ever read a newspaper or watch the Six O’Clock news? You’d think someone planning world conquest would keep abreast of current events such as a Norse god hanging out in New York City.

And Thor doesn’t know who the X-Men are. The Fantastic Four knew about them when those groups met. Iron Man knew about them when he met Angel. Spider Man knew about them when Mysterio sicced some X-Men robots on him in Spider Man Annual #1. Heck, that means that Mysterio knew about them as well, doesn’t it? It seems Thor needs to drop a dime on a newspaper from time to time as well.

Oh, well, it’s a pretty minor continuity glitch. And the Tales of Asgard back-up story is another visual treat, with Odin banishing Thor from Asgard in what turns out to be a plan to flush out a traitor.


Kraven the Hunter and the Chameleon, both deported at the end of Spider Man #15, are sneaking back into the country together. (This story, obviously, is set before the events on Spider Man Annual #1, in which Kraven is already back in the country.)

The two are arguing about who should be in charge when Kraven runs into Iron Man and immediately gets captured. I love that a villain who gives poor Spidey such a hard time pretty much goes down after one punch against Iron Man. Makes perfect sense, though—Kraven’s “strength and speed of a jungle cat” doesn’t put him in Shellhead’s class at all.

Chameleon remains free and decides defeating Iron Man is a good way to prove he’s better than Kraven. Soon after, disguised as Captain America, he manages to fool Iron Man into thinking the real Cap is an imposter. The two heroes are soon fighting tooth-and-claw. With a little help from Giant Man and the Wasp, the two figure out they’ve been conned and the Chameleon is caught.

There’s some pretty good banter between Pepper and Happy mixed in with this story as well.


Hank Pym learns that an old friend—an FBI agent—has been arrested in East Berlin and accused of spying. Hank flies to Germany and sneaks over the Berlin Wall as Ant Man. He contacts his friend and learns the Commies have a new weapon: a ray (discovered accidentally, so it can’t be reproduced) that gives animals human intelligence. They’re using the ray to make an army of gorilla soldiers, stronger and more agile than human soldiers.

So Hank has to find and destroy the ray before he and his friend make a getaway, fighting his way through the gorilla soldiers to do so. Dick Ayers is the artist and gives us a couple of fun panels during the course of the battle. One is when Hank manages to turn the ray on a bunch of Communist officials. The effect on humans is to turn them into animals, so we get to see the bad guys jumping around wildly and scratching their armpits.

Also, the panel in which Giant Man, carrying his friend, smashes through the Wall to freedom is pretty darn cool.

The Hulk gets his premiere story here. This will prove to be more successful than his original run in his own book and, in fact, Tales to Astonish will eventually morph into The Hulk as other features are phased out.

Stan Lee starts out by clarifying why Banner changes into the Hulk. Originally, he became the Hulk at night. Later on, it seemed to become random. But now Bruce Banner realizes that he now turns into the Hulk whenever he becomes stressed out about anything. He turns back into Banner when the Hulk becomes equally stressed out.

This is eventually changed into changing into Banner when the Hulk becomes relaxed, presumably because otherwise you could never involve Hulk in any prolonged fight scenes.

Anyway, Banner invents an indestructible robot for the army, designed to be operated by someone inside it. A spy makes off with it, stressing Banner out enough to become the Hulk. Hulk tries to fight the robot, but Banner built it too well and the green guy can’t make a dent in it. He turns back into Banner when he stresses out trying to destroy the robot. The story ends with the robot still on the loose and Banner now feeling he has again created something that will end up menacing humanity.

In fact, Stan Lee does a really good job introducing the angst that’s needed to make Hulk a successful character. I love the first few panels of the story, with the Hulk pounding away at a cave wall, shouting that he doesn’t want to turn into that weakling Banner again, but helpless to stop the transformation. Later, Banner realizes he needs to stay relaxed in order to stop the change, but realizes that no one can be relaxed all the time. There’s really nothing he can do to permanently stop the Hulk from appearing.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: "A Tooth for Paul Revere" 7/4/48

Escape is my pick for old-time radio's favorite show and this entertaining adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's whimsical story of how the American Revolution really started is a great example of why it's the best.

A farmer who lives near Lexington in April 1775 has a sore tooth. He goes to the local barber to get it pulled. The barber, instead, suggests he go into Boston and see a silversmith named Paul Revere, who can fashion him a replacement tooth.

But when the farmer (who is himself indifferent to politics) gets to Boston, he finds tempers frayed and everyone on edge. The British military occupation of the city is raising tensions and the farmer soon finds himself fleeing from an angry Redcoat.

When he accidentally ends up in possession of a small box made by Revere--a possibly magical container that the silversmith claims actually contains the American Revolution--the farmer realizes that it's time to take sides and make a decision.

Harry Bartell plays the lead role, using an endearing New England accent. The script is excellent, moving the story along quickly and clearly both in terms of plot and theme. It all makes you wish it was true--that there was a little bit of magic mixed in with our country's early history.

You can listen to and/or download the episode HERE.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Tribute to World War II vets

I'm going to take time out from make-believe stuff for a moment to post the following:

This year—2010—will mark the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II—V/E day on May 7 and V/J day on September 3.

Here are only a few of the many examples of courage set for us by those who fought during that war:

Private First Class Desmond Dross was a conscientious objector, declining to take up arms directly. But he served in the Army as an unarmed medic. In May 1945, during the battle for Okinawa, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to treat or rescue wounded men. On May 21, when the rest of his unit had been forced to retreat, he remained in exposed territory treating his wounded comrades until he himself was wounded in legs by grenade fragments. He treated his own injuries and waited five hours before he was found and taken away on a stretcher. But when PFC Dross saw a more seriously wounded man, he got up off the stretcher and told the bearers to take the other man to safety. Soon after, a sniper’s bullet broke his arm. After splinting his arm with a rifle stock, he crawled 300 yards to an aid station. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

In Italy on April 2, 1945, a troop of British soldiers were pinned down by German machine gun fire from a fortified position. Corporal Thomas Hunter offered himself as a target to draw fire from his men. Taking a machine gun and charging alone across open ground while under heavy fire, his actions demoralized the enemy troops. Six of them surrendered to him. Hunter continued to attack the enemy until he was killed—firing into them until the last. Hunter was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, his country’s highest military honor.

On October 25, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a large Japanese naval force of battleships and heavy cruisers ambushed a smaller American force of destroyers and escort carriers. Despite overwhelming odds, the American ships and planes were able to beat off the Japanese. One particular ship, a tiny destroyer escort named the Samuel B. Roberts, fought so hard and so well before it was sunk that it became known as “The destroyer escort that fought like a battleship.” The Roberts’ gun crews expended nearly all their ammunition, firing so rapidly that one of her guns overheated and exploded. That gun’s crew chief—Paul Carr—was found horribly wounded and in agony. Not realizing his gun was out of action, he was begging—not for medical attention--but for someone to continue to load and fire.

In September of 1942, during the Battle of Stalingrad, Junior Sgt. Yakov Pavlov was ordered to seize and defend a four-story building. All but four of Pavlov’s 30-man platoon were lost in the attack, but the building was taken. Pavlov received 25 men as reinforcements, then fortified the building. For two months, from September 23 to November 25, Pavlov and his small force repulsed numerous German attacks—sometimes several per day—until they were finally relieved. During this time, Pavlov personally destroyed at least six German tanks. Pavlov’s determination to keep the Germans out of the building became a tangible source of inspiration and strength to the other defenders of Stalingrad.

Irena Sendler was a member of the Polish Underground. She rescued and found shelter for over two thousand Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. She was eventually captured, tortured and sentenced to death. Other members of the Underground were able to bribe her German guards into letting her escape. In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her heroic actions.

Pretty much the entire population of Denmark effectively refused to allow Jews to be taken away to death camps after that country fell to the Nazis. Most Jews living in Denmark were able to escape to Sweden. It is an extraordinary example of an entire country uniformly showing compassion and courage in the face of evil.

The state of Israel has recognized a total of 22,211 men and women from 45 countries as “Righteous among the Nations”—meaning they risked and often gave their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from the Nazis. In a society in which anti-Semitism was often casually accepted and while being ruled over by a brutal and sadistic regime, each of these men and women freely choose to help the oppressed rather than simply give in to the oppressors.

One man designated as Righteous among the Nations was a Japanese. Chiune Sugihara was Japan’s Vice Consul to Lithuania. He issued thousands of visas to Jews escaping from the Nazis. When the Japanese government finally learned what he was doing, he was recalled from his post. He continued writing visas while on the train taking him out of Lithuania, tossing them out the train window to those who needed them.

John Rabe was a German businessman and a minor Nazi Party member who was in Nanking in 1937, when the Japanese took the city and brutalized the population in an orgy of rape and murder. Horrified at what he saw, Rabe was able to convince the Japanese that he was actually a much more important person in the Party than he actually was, then wield his newly-won influence to help hundreds of Chinese refugees to escape.

HMS Jervis Bay, an armed merchant cruiser, was part of a convoy that was attacked by the German battleship Admiral Scheer. Jervis Bay’s captain, Edward Fegan, ordered the convoy to scatter. Despite being overwhelmingly outgunned, Fegan then ordered the Jervis Bay to attack the German battleship. The smaller British ship was sunk, but bought enough time to allow most of the rest of the convoy to escape.

In January of 1945, Lt. Audie Murphy, already a highly decorated combat veteran, climbed aboard a burning tank destroyer and used its .50 caliber machine gun to fire at attacking German troops, ignoring the danger that the fuel and ammo in the burning vehicle might explode at any moment. When the Germans drew nearer to him, he called down artillery fire on his own position. When the fighting was done, over 50 Germans had been killed or wounded. Murphy was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

During the Nazi occupation of Greece, Princess Alice of Battenberg, a member of that country’s royal family, hid Jews from the Nazis, worked for the Red Cross, set up nursing centers and orphanages, and smuggled in medical supplies. Because she had German relatives, the enemy at first thought she would be sympathetic to their cause. But when a German general asked her “Is there anything I can do for you?”—she replied “You can take your troops out of my country.”

Lt. Col. “Jack” Churchill served throughout the war with the British Royal Marines. Known as “Mad Jack,” he carried a sword (and sometimes a bow and arrows) into battle, once saying “any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” He fought valiantly in Norway, Sicily, Italy and Yugoslavia before being captured in 1944. Liberated from the Germans after the war in Europe ended, he was transferred to Burma, but the fighting ended before he had a chance to wield his sword against the Japanese. He was the only soldier in World War II known to have killed an enemy soldier with a longbow.

An Englishman named Douglas Bader lost both his legs in an airplane accident before the war. He joined the RAF regardless and flew as a fighter pilot, shooting down 22 enemy planes before being himself shot down over occupied France. One of his artificial legs was lost when he bailed out, but the Germans allowed the British to send him a new one. He promptly used his new leg to leave the hospital and escape. Re-captured, he was sent to a prison camp, from which he attempted to escape many times. The German commandant, embarrassed that he couldn’t keep a legless man from escaping, confiscated Bader’s artificial limbs. He was shamed into returning them—only to have Bader escape once more. Bader was eventually sent to Colditz, a castle in which the “most dangerous” POWs were kept. Bader convinced the German commander there that he couldn’t get enough exercise walking around the castle courtyard and was allowed out into the countryside. He filled his artificial legs with chocolate and tobacco from his Red Cross parcels and used these as gifts to the local farmers as part his own personal anti-Nazi propaganda campaign.

Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham, a native of New Zealand, is one of only three men in history to win two Victoria Crosses. The first was for numerous acts of heroism during the battle for Crete, including killing 22 Germans in a single engagement. The second VC came in July 1942, in Egypt, when he single-handedly destroyed a German tank and several machine gun nests with hand grenades, despite his elbow having earlier been shattered by an enemy bullet.

Maj. James Howard, U.S. Army Air Forces, was flying a Mustang fighter plane when the American bombers he was escorting were attacked by German fighters. Separated from the rest of his squadron, he single-handedly took on thirty enemy planes. Over the course of a half-hour, during which three of his plane’s four machine guns jammed, he made repeated diving and climbing attacks on the Germans, shooting down at least three of them. Not a single American bomber was shot down that day, in large part because of Howard’s actions.

Maynard H. Smith was a ball-turret gunner on an American B-17 bomber when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft shells and caught fire. Despite the flames that were closing in on him, Smith aided two wounded crewmembers, then began using a fire extinguisher on the flames. At that moment, two German planes attacked, so he took time out from his fire fighting to man one of the bomber’s machine guns. Then he began to throw burning ammunition boxes out of the plane. When he had used up the last fire extinguisher, he urinated on the flames and used his hands and feet to beat them out. For his actions, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

During the Battle of Leyte in 1944, the Japanese launched a counterattack against the U.S. beachhead. Pvt. Harold H. Moon was in a foxhole targeted by enemy gunfire and mortars. After those with him in the foxhole were killed, Moon manned a machine gun and fired on the advancing Japanese. Surrounded, he held his position for over four hours. The Japanese sent an entire platoon to finish him off, but he killed eighteen of them and forced the others to retreat. He was shot and killed while trying to throw a grenade. After the fight was over, nearly two hundred Japanese dead were found near his foxhole.

During the Battle of Britain, Flight Lieutenant John Nicolson’s fighter plane was damaged by the enemy and caught fire. Badly burned, Nicolson began to climb out of his cockpit, intending to bail out. Seeing a nearby German fighter plane, he climbed back into his cockpit, shot the German down, and only then bailed out. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was a prominent official at the Vatican during the Nazi occupation of Rome. He helped numerous escaped Allied POWs and Jewish refugees avoid capture, hiding them in various locations and sometimes in the Vatican itself. When one man he was hiding developed appendicitis, O’Flaherty managed to smuggle him into a hospital and trick a German doctor into operating on the man.

Edward Charlton was a tank driver with the Irish Guard. While advancing into a German village, Charlton’s tank and several other tanks were damaged during an enemy counter-attack. Charlton exited his burning tank, dismounted its heavy machine gun and charged the enemy, firing from the hip. He single-handedly stopped the German attack. He continued fighting until he had been wounded three times, later dying from his wounds. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Jacques Lusseyran was a French teenager when he joined the Resistance in 1941. He did this despite having been totally blind since he was 8 years old. He helped recruit other members and distribute pro-resistance leaflets. In 1943, he was arrested by the Gestapo and was sent to Buchenwald. He managed to survive, though, and was liberated in April 1945.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, chaplain Father Joe Lacy landed with an Army Ranger unit on Omaha beach. While the rest of the unit took cover, Lacy remained exposed to heavy enemy machine gun and mortar fire while he pulled wounded men out of the water and gave comfort to the dying. One of his fellow soldiers later said he was “doing the work for which God had chosen him.”

On the island of Iwo Jima, on February 21, 1945, Marine PFC Donald Ruhl threw himself on a Japanese hand grenade, giving his life to save that of a fellow marine.

On the island of Iwo Jima, on February 27, 1945, Marine Gunnery Sergeant William G. Walsh threw himself on a Japanese hand grenade, giving his life to save those of his fellow marines.

On the island of Iwo Jima, on March 3, 1945, Marine PFC William R. Caddy threw himself on a Japanese hand grenade, giving his life to save those of his fellow marines.

On the island of Iwo Jima, on March 8, 1945, Marine PFC James D. LaBelle threw himself on a Japanese hand grenade, giving his life to save those of his fellow marines.

On the island of Iwo Jima, on March 14, 1945, Marine Private George Phillips threw himself on a Japanese hand grenade, giving his life to save those of his fellow marines.

On the 20th Anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, Dwight Eisenhower honored those who had given their lives fighting the Axis powers in World War II with the following words: "When I look at all of these graves, I think of the folks back in the States whose only son is buried here. Because of their sacrifice, they don't have the pleasure of grandchildren. Because of their sacrifice, my grandchildren are living in freedom."

To every single man and woman who fought against Nazi tyranny and Japanese aggression in whatever way they could—Thank you.

Thank you for your courage.

Thank you for your sacrifice.

Thank you for your compassion.

Thank you for the example you set.

Thank you for showing us it is possible to be a good person even when surrounded by evil.

Thank you for being there for your fellow warriors when they needed you.

Thank you for being there for complete strangers when they needed you.

Thank you for our freedom.

Thank you for saving the world.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: October 1964, part 1


The Mole Man is back—this time he’s “kidnapping” New York City one block at a time, sinking each block down into his subterranean kingdom. His captives include Sue and he uses her to force the rest of the Fantastic Four to back off while he conquers the world.

After a near-fight with the Avengers to keep them from charging in and endangering Sue, Reed whips up a detection device to pin-point her exact location underground. Then Johnny burns a tunnel down to her and sets her free. Soon, the entire FF is on the scene, battling Mole Man and his army of Moloids.

It’s a good issue, with Jack Kirby giving us some cool-looking super weapons invented by Mole Man. It’s also neat to see the other New York-based super-group show up—as one would expect them to when entire city blocks are vanishing.

It’s marred a little by an unbelievably contrived ending. Sue is badly hurt in the final battle and rushed to the hospital. But the only doctor who can perform the operation needed to save her life is now an escapee from prison.

BUT WAIT!!! The fugitive shows up, turning himself in so that he can save Sue’s life? Why? Well, because he just happens to be Sue and Johnny’s long-lost father!!!

One of the strengths of the Marvel books was introducing real-life emotions and problems into the characters. But here, Stan and Jack stumble a little too far into soap opera territory to make their plot twist generate any true emotional reaction from the reader. But it’s still a good issue overall.


I love this issue. It has a feel to it similar to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. If a superhero movie had ever been directed by Frank Capra, it would have been something like this.

It’s actually difficult to give a succinct plot summary—there’s so much stuff going on. Betty and Liz are still getting catty with each other over Peter. Flash Thompson is starting a Spider Man Fan Club, but doesn’t want let Puny Parker join. Aunt May is still trying to fix Peter up with that still unseen “nice Mary Jane Watson.” Spidey looks publically foolish when he mistakes some actors filming a movie scene as real criminals. Then he has to watch Johnny Storm get swooned over by eager autograph-seekers. Attempts to protect his secret identity leads to more misunderstandings with Betty, leaving her convinced that he likes Liz best. And so on. It’s a truly funny story from start to almost finish.

It does get serious at the end, though. The climax comes when the Green Goblin attacks Spider Man at the first Fan Club meeting. The Human Torch is there also and joins in the fight (accidentally blocking a chance for Spidey to web the Goblin). But when Spidey learns that Aunt May has had a heart attack, he leaves the battle abruptly, making it look like he chickened out. The Goblin then manages to make his own getaway. It turns out May is going to be all right, but only Flash remains convinced that Spider Man is still a good guy. Everyone else now thinks he’s a coward.

The segue from comedy to drama is very smooth, while the Goblin vs. Spidey and Torch battle is yet another example of Ditko’s skill in that area. All in all, a really satisfying read.


Johnny and Ben both get into a snit when a couple of Life Magazine reporters show up to interview—not them—but Reed and Sue. So when the Sub Mariner is reported as heading towards New York, the two decide to handle it on their own and prove they’re worth an interview as well.

They meet Namor at sea and pretty much battle him to a draw. Dick Ayers does the art and choreographs a nifty fight sequence. Namor eventually retreats, muttering that he’s been lied to and he won’t fall for that again.

Lied to about what? Well, it turns out that Reed had convinced him to meet and talk peace. But Johnny and Ben’s attack un-convinced him in a hurry.

This is actually one of the strongest stories in Torch’s Strange Tales run. It nicely highlights his antagonistic but ultimately real friendship with Ben and the irony of the two doing more harm than good because they were jealous of Reed and Ben adds the sort of human touch that (unlike the climax of this month’s FF) really does generate a sincere emotional response from the reader.

In the meantime, Baron Mordo has managed to capture the Ancient One and now goes after Dr. Strange. Strange pretends to retreat while they toss spells at each other, but he’s actually searching for the Ancient One. The fight travels halfway across the world before Strange finds his mentor in some ruins atop the Himalayas, confined in a glowing magical sphere.

Strange makes a stand there and pretty much just beats Mordo down through more powerful magic.

Some of Steve Ditko’s best work was on Dr. Strange. His visualizations of the spells used by Strange and Mordo are as cool as they are bizarre, but he still manages to organize those visuals in such a way that we are able to follow the action of the story without any confusion. The Doctor Strange stories are really hitting their stride now and they’ll only be getting better.

That’s it for this week. Next time, we’ll look to see what Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man and the Hulk are up to in October 1964.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Sherlock Holmes: "The Fifth of November" 11/5/45

This one is a fun little mystery. It's Guy Fawkes Day in England, a celebration of the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, in which Fawkes and some co-conspirators tried to blow up James I (James Stuart) and the entire British Parliament.

When a man named James Stuart shows up at Baker Street and tells Holmes that his cousin, named Guy Falkenberg, wants to kill him, it's hard to tell if he's just nuts. Or maybe his cousin is nuts and Stuart really is in danger.

Holmes (played in this episode by Basil Rathbone) gets to don a disguise, use a working-class accent and employ the Baker Street Irregulars before he gets to the bottom of it all. There actually is a murder plot afoot, but the identity of both the perspective killer and the intended victim involve a very nice twist.

And, by the way, Nigel Bruce as Watson is in particularly fine form as narrator in this episode.

You can listen to the episode or download it HERE.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Murder Amongst the Upper Crust

Inspector Roderick Alleyn himself comes from the upper crust of society. The second son of a baronet, he spent two years in the British diplomatic service before (for reasons never explained) deciding to become a cop.

And quite a successful cop he was. In thirty-two novels written over nearly a half-century, Alleyn used his sharp mind and keen deductive skills to unravel one complex murder case after another.

The Alleyn books were written by New Zealand native Ngaio Marsh, who consistently presented her readers with the two most important things in a mystery series: a likable protagonist and well-constructed mysteries.

Overture of Death (1939) is typical of just how skilled a writer Marsh was. A woman who was about to play the piano introduction for an amateur play is shot dead. It turns out the piano had been booby-trapped with a pistol rigged to fire when one of the foot pedals was pressed.

But wait! The woman hadn’t been the person originally scheduled to play the piano, but rather a last-minute replacement. Was she the intended victim, or was the lady who was supposed to play the real target? Both women were unpleasant, mean-spirited gossips, so there is certainly more than enough motive to go around.

So Inspector Alleyn has quite a job ahead of him. But we have fun following him around as he gradually pieces it all together. He’s a witty and decent person—someone we can’t help but like. His interplay with his sidekicks—Inspector Fox (refered to as “Brer Fox” by Alleyn) and reporter Nigel Bathgate--adds to the entertainment value of the book and helps to humanize the man. I love a bit where Alleyn and Fox rig the booby-trap back into the piano using a water pistol to test it out, then playfully trick Nigel into getting a face full of water.

But there’s little time for Alleyn to play. He digs up obscure and superficially meaningless clues (an onion found discarded near the crime scene proves important) and deals with the fact that pretty much every suspect is lying or withholding information about something. But, in the end, he comes up with a time table that allows him to finger the killer.

Despite his long and successful career, Inspector Alleyn never reached the same level of fame as Hercule Poirot or Philip Marlowe. But Ngaio Marsh was an excellent mystery writer and Alleyn would easily deserve a seat the same table along side the other Great Detectives.

Only two books to go before the Great Detectives Survey comes to an end. Next month, we'll visit Miss Marble and The Body in the Library.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: 1964 Annuals


Last time we saw Dr. Doom, he’d been hurtled into deep space. But then again, he’s been hurtled into deep space before. He’s also been miniaturized and tossed off his flying headquarters, but he always manages to survive.

This time, he survives by being rescued by Pharaoh Rama-Tut, who picks up Doom in his time ship while orbiting Jupiter.

But before that, we get a detailed account of Doom’s origins, including his youth as a persecuted Gypsy, his reasons for hating Reed, the explosion that scarred his face and his eventual rise to ruler of Latvaria. (This, by the way, is the first mention we get of Latvaria. Up to now, you see, Doom’s been a secret behind-the-scenes ruler.) It’s a powerful origin story, expertly told with art and dialogue perfectly meshed together.

Anyway, Rama Tut and Doom discuss their mutual dislike of the F.F. They also theorize that—what with all the time traveling each of them has done—one of them might be the ancestor of the other. Or they might even be the same guy. They actually don’t explain themselves very well regarding all this, but time paradoxes (even theoretical ones) are inherently confusing, so we’ll forgive them.

They decide they can’t team up because one of them might cease to exist if they hang out in the same time period. Rama Tut gets Doom back to Earth, then zips off to the future. As we’ve already seen, he soon returns to the 20th Century as Kang in Avengers #8.

Doom, in the meantime, lures the FF into a trap and feeds them a mind-altering drug that causes them to hallucinate and turn against one another. I love the scene where Sue thinks she catches Reed making out with another woman. (“I believe in playing the field, Blondie,” laughs pretend-Reed.)

This all leads up to a wonderful climax—in which everything literally depends on whether Reed or Doom has the stronger intellect. All the action in this issue is tied into the personality quirks and flaws of the various characters. It’s one of the best-constructed plots that Stan and Jack ever came up with. That, plus Doom’s super-cool origin story, make this issue one of the best in the FF’s already exemplary run.


1964 is the year for great annuals. In this one, six of the webslinger’s enemies (Doc Ock, Electro, Mysterio, Kraven, Vulture and Sandman) team up to exact their revenge. First, they kidnap Betty Brant (accidentally snatching up Aunt May as well), then use her to bait a trap for Spider Man.

But poor Peter Parker—who is going through some pangs of guilt when he’s reminded of how his Uncle Ben died—has lost his powers. Regardless of this, he dons his costume to try to rescue his loved ones.

His powers return when the fighting starts. It turns out the power loss was just psycho-somatic from the guilt he was feeling.

What follows are some of Steve Ditko’s best fight scenes, as the Sinister Six (each of them wanting the credit for beating Spider Man) take on our hero one at a time. Each fight is in a different location and forces Spidey to use a variety of tactics. And Ditko gives us a magnificent full-page splash panel for each of the fights. The art work in this issue is arguable the best Ditko ever produced—wonderful visual fun from beginning to end.

The script is great as well. There’s humor drawn from J. Jonah Jamison’s desperate and unnecessary efforts to contact Spider Man and tell him about Betty’s kidnapping. (Spidey already knows.) And more humor from the fact that Aunt May never really gets that she’s been kidnapped—commenting on how well-mannered and charming Doctor Octopus is. (“We musn’t be prejudiced against him because he seems to have some sort of trouble with his arms.”) Later, she’s shocked at how vulgar and rude that Spider Man person is, beginning a long-running gag involving May’s poor opinion of the hero.

Even the scene in which the villains first get together to make plans is full of nice character moments—Vulture keeps insisting they should just gang up on Spider Man, but Kraven is too proud for that and Sandman too arrogantly confident.

Perhaps the one flaw is the absolutely shameless cameos by just about every other hero currently inhabiting the Marvel Universe—each of whom pops up for a panel or two throughout the story. (Complete with captions reminding us that they all appear in their own books.) Most of them have nothing to do with the story—they are literally just walking (or flying) past. It’s harmless enough, though. And a scene in which the Human Torch tracks down Spidey and asks if he can help is nicely done.

That’s it for the 1964 annuals. Next time, we’ll start our look at October 1964. It’s a busy month in which the FF encounters an old enemy; Spider Man and the Human Torch double-team the Green Goblin; the Torch and the Thing screw up; Dr. Strange runs away from Baron Mordo; Thor and Iron Man each borrow villains from other heroes’ Rogue’s Galleries; Giant Man fights a Commie, um, gorilla?; Hulk battles a giant robot; the Avengers meet a villain (or is he?) named Wonder Man; and Daredevil fights a bad guy with a dumb name.
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