Thursday, September 30, 2010

I built a time machine when I was seven years old.

I really did.

I was reminded of this in a conversation I had the other day about childhood toys. I remember watching episodes of The Time Tunnel when I was a kid and that may have been the inspiration for my own efforts into temporal mechanics.

Anyway, it’s surprisingly easy to build a time machine. You just need a shoe box, some tape, a scissors and a few magic markers or crayons.

You turn the shoe box upside down. Using the box’s lid, you cut out a rectangle of cardboard. You tape this to one end of the box, projecting outwards. This is the Time Ray Projector.

You cut out another rectangle from the lid and draw some controls on it. This is the remote control, for bringing yourself back to the present after you’ve zapped yourself back into the past. Depending on how many controls you draw on it, you may also be able to travel directly to another past or future time period without returning home first.

Draw some more controls on the box. Now you’re done. Using the box controls, program in the time you want to visit. Then step in front of the Time Ray Projector. Zap, you’ve done it. You’ve traveled in time. Use the remote control to get yourself home again. (Safety tip: do NOT lose the remote control while you’re in the past.)

It really is that easy. For the life of me, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t have a time machine. It’s not like it’s that hard to get hold of a shoe box.

Certainly the scientists at the Time Tunnel wasted far too many of our tax dollars building their huge machine:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: September 1965, part 1


Boy-o-boy, this one is action-packed. Reed uses his power in a clever way to get out of a death trap; Sue manages a Crowning Moment of Awesome; Ben is still mind-controlled by the Wizard; Johnny gets mind-controlled as well; Reed gets a second wind and starts using the Wiz's own devices against the Frightful Four (I love the panel in which he uses his stretchable fingers as a slingshot to pop anti-gravity discs at the villains); and the issue ends with the good guys still barely hanging on. It's literally non-stop action, though Stan and Jack manage to keep everyone in character at the same time. Kirby once again provides superb fight choreography.


And talking about superb fight choreography, Steve Ditko lays out a knock-down-and-drag-'em-out bout between Spidey and a new addition to his Rogue's Gallery (Molten Man) that's as good as Kirby's stuff in FF this month.

But as good as that is, it's once again the character stuff that stands out in this issue. Peter is finally graduating from high school, getting a science scholarship that'll allow him to attend college. (This is the start of a college career that will last decades in real life time, though only a few years in comic book time.)

Liz Allen leaves the cast in this issue--it'll be a few years before we see her again. Her exit is a very human moment--she's pretty much gotten tired of being considered a dizzy blonde by Peter (which is how she had come to see their friendship) and was using her graduation to cut old ties and start fresh.

We cut some really funny moments as well, centering around J. Jonah Jamison being the speaker at graduation and his attempts to suck up to Peter and Aunt May because he's afraid Peter will begin selling photos to other newspapers.

By the way, we see Molten Man's origin in this issue (he gets an experimental metal alloy spilled on him and becomes invulnerable/super strong), but we don't find out for some time that he's Liz Allen's stepbrother.

Peter starts college in just a few issues, where some important new cast members will be introduced. Flash Thompson, in college on a sports scholarship, will be around for a little while longer, with he and Peter becoming somewhat less hostile to each other. I especially enjoy Flash's overall personal story arc--his gradual maturation from school yard bully to functional adult is believable and very human.


We get our first look here at the most famous barber shop in the Marvel Universe—the shop that is actually a front to provide entry into SHIELD’s underground headquarters in New York City.

A couple of Hydra agents tail Nick there, but they’re caught and Nick uses a “hypno-gun” to trick them into leading a Hydra attack squad into an ambush. When the bad guys attack a warehouse they think is SHIELD headquarters, they walk into a series of high-tech booby-traps and get captured enmasse.

It’s not a bad story, though it really just continues to set up the premise of the series and (through a few scenes set in Hydra headquarters) give us an idea of just how ruthless Hydra is. Next issue will really pick up when Stan turns to the same multi-issue, non-stop serial format he’s using so effectively in Hulk, Dr. Strange and other Marvel books.

Dr. Strange, in the meantime, is still just one step ahead of Mordo's minions as he checks in with various other wizards and tries to find out what the heck "Eternity" is. One wizard--who has gone crazy-pants from extreme old age (we're talking centuries here)--inadvertently gets Strange zapped into another dimension and captured by a demonic creature. Strange uses his wits and his powers to escape and get back to Earth. He now plans to take a telepathic trip into the Ancient One's brain to find out about Eternity.

While this is going on, Clea (who is actually still unnamed at this point) gets imprisoned by Dormammu for helping Strange a few issues back.

I've just got more of the same praise I've been piling on to this series for awhile now--Stan Lee has the serial, cliffhanger-heavy style of storytelling down pat and Ditko's bizarre visuals continue to be a perfect match for subject matter.

Next week, we'll drop in on Thor, Iron Man and Captain America.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

This is a repeat of a post from last November, but with a link to the episode included this time around. I will be doing this on occasion for the older Friday's Favorite OTR posts from before I started including the actual episodes.

Sherlock Holmes: "The Adventure of the Original Hamlet" 11/2/46

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600, but many scholars believe a play using the same story may have been written by a guy named Thomas Kidd a decade or so earlier. If this is so--and no one is at all sure one way or the other--it's possible Shakespeare may have lifted some ideas for his play from Kidd's work. Kidd's theoretical play is often refered to as the Ur-Hamlet.

Well, in this nifty little mystery, Sherlock Holmes comes really close to clearing that whole matter up. It seems that a copy of Kidd's play does indeed exist in an out-of-the-way private library. But there's more going on than a lesson in English Literature--as is graphically demonstrated when the owner of the library is blown to bits by a booby-trapped lunch box.

Holmes puts it all together, of course, and puts the finger on the killer. The fate of the Ur-Hamlet, though, is... well, you'll have to listen to the episode yourself to find out about that.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Who has the best origin story?

Among fiction’s greatest heroes we have some pretty awesome origin stories. Here’s my picks for the five best. Though if you asked me to rethink this list on a weekly basis, it would probably change a little each time.

5) Superman—last survivor of Krypton; while still an infant, shot in a small rocket to Earth by his father just before Krypton explodes; raised with a firm sense of right and justice by his adoptive small-town parents.

4) Spider Man—gets his powers by accident; uses them to make money and, because of one selfish moment, is responsible for getting the man who raised him killed. Dedicates himself to helping others. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

3) Batman—sees his parents gunned down when he’s only eight years old. Consciously decides to give up having a childhood to train himself mentally and physically to be the world’s greatest crime fighter. Dons a scary costume because “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot.”

2) Lone Ranger—only survivor among six Texas Rangers (including his brother) who are ambushed by outlaws. Dons a mask made from his brother’s vest to hide his identity and fight for justice across the Old West. Uses a secret silver mine to fund his travels and make his trademark silver bullets. As noted in a recent post, has the coolest friends and allies ever.

1) The Phantom--in the 16th Century, a man survives a pirate attack that sadly takes his father’s life. Vows to fight piracy and evil in all forms. Establishes a secret base in the jungle. When he dies, his son takes over. No one knows that the Phantom is actually a ancestral line—he is reputed to be immoral. “The Ghost Who Walks.”

If I were to make this list again, I might change the order, or drop someone else to include Doc Savage, Scrooge McDuck, the Black Bat or Captain America. But for today, the above choices are my picks for best origins ever.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1965, part 3


Well, Prince Namor hasn’t yet conquered the surface world, but at least he’s got his own comic. That’s not a bad consolation prize.

The story picks up from the moment we last saw Namor (a few months back in Daredevil #7). He’s returning to Atlantis after learning that Krang has seized his throne.

But when he gets back, Lady Dorma double-crosses him, figuring that if he doesn’t have his throne, maybe he’ll finally give her his love.

This gets Namor captured and tossed in a dungeon. He also found out that Krang has gotten himself a lot of popular support from the people of Atlantis.

Gee whiz, are the people of Atlantis genetically bred to be fickle? It seems every time we see them, they are alternately abandoning Namor, then later taking him back as King.

Dorma has the fickleness gene as well. Guilt-ridden over betraying Namor, she breaks him out of the slammer. He goes on a quest to find the long-lost Neptune’s Trident, which legends say will prove him worthy of the throne. But he soon finds himself trapped in a cave with an angry giant squid.

Stan Lee immediately embraces the serial format for this series and Adam Austin provides some strong artwork. Namor isn’t always the most likable guy in the world, but his strong personality does make him an effective protagonist.

Meanwhile, Banner is still suffering from a bullet to the head. Rick Jones steals his body and takes it to Banner’s secret lab, using the equipment there to turn him into the Hulk.

This saves Banner’s life, but he’s now stuck in Hulk form, unable to revert to Banner without dying. But he also now has Banner’s brain, so he’s able to whip up a chemical formula that will prevent him from reverting to human form.

The Leader, meanwhile, is having a bad day, since the Absorbatron was destroyed in the last issue. So he comes up with a plan to build a super weapon of his own, use it to destroy an American base, sell it to the Russians, then use the money he gets to fund his own plans for world conquest. Gee whiz, being a super villain can get complicated sometimes.

His super weapon is a Godzilla-sized humanoid. General Ross sends several volleys of missiles at the big guy, but these are ineffective. Hulk joins in the fight, not knowing that Ross is about to launch a “Sunday Punch” missile that will disintegrate what ever it hits.

Stan and Jack continue to keep the pace of their serial storytelling here at something just over the speed of light. I love it.

This, though, is the last issue with Kirby doing the full art work. He’ll still provide layouts for some time to come, but other artists will be doing the penciling. The overall quality of the art will remain high, though different artists popping up every few issues will sometimes make it seem like Bruce, Betty and others are having plastic surgery done between issues.


The Swordsman—an adventurer with a bad rep (and, it turns out, Hawkeye’s mentor from his carnival days)—shows up to demand membership in the Avengers, but gets into a fight with them instead. He gets away, now determined to destroy the team. He lures Captain America into a trap, capturing the shield-slinger and holding him hostage on a girder of a half-constructed building, threatening to do away with him unless he’s made leader of the Avengers.

The Swordsman is a good character—like Hawkeye, initially a bad guy who will one day redeem himself and become a real hero. But his plans and motivations in this initial appearance aren’t clearly defined. Also, Stan Lee depends a bit too much on coincidence (most of it involving Cap’s misplaced letter to Nick Fury, asking for a job) for the issue to be truly satisfying.

Still, the action is well-handled and, as I said, the Swordsman has potential. He’ll even start to have a noble thought or two next issue.

There’s still a lot of squabbling going on between Cap and his new teammates, but there’s a point to it all. Personal conflicts between the team members will come to a head in a few more issues. In the meantime, the arguments ironically highlight the fact that they are indeed a team—fighting together effectively despite personal feelings.


Karen (who’s secretly in love with Matt but doesn’t dare tell him) arranges for Matt (who’s secretly in love with Karen but doesn’t dare tell her) to travel to the small country of Litchenbad and see an eye specialist. Foggy (who is secretly in love with Karen but doesn’t dare tell her) hopes Matt doesn’t come back because he senses Karen is secretly in love with him (Matt), but he (Foggy) hates himself for feeling this way about his best friend.

Got all that? I wish I didn’t. Stan Lee, who handles romantic woes with humor and humanity in Spider Man and managed to build a real sense of romance between Sue and Reed in Fantastic Four, continues to stumble over cloying attempts to introduce a love story in other books.

But the action bits are still good, with Wally Wood still providing some excellent visuals. Litchenbad turns out to be a dictatorship ruled by a madman, who uses robot knights to subdue the populace. Daredevil manages to help get a rebellion started and, in the climatic battle, the dictator falls to his death.

There is one bit of really interesting characterization. Matt is actually scared at the idea of having his eyesight restored, because he doesn’t know if he’ll keep his super senses if that happens. That’s a neat little insight into Daredevil’s psyche.

Well, that’s it for August. In September, Ben continues to fight against the rest of the FF; Peter Parker graduates from high school; SHIELD fights a skirmish against Hydra; Dr. Strange visits yet another strange dimension; Thor encounters an old enemy; Iron Man encounters a new enemy; Bucky gets captured by a mad scientist; Namor fights an angry patch of seaweed; the Avengers continue to fight the Swordsman; and the X-Men continue to fight Juggernaut.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Six Shooter: “Battle at Tower Rock” 2/21/54

By the 1950s, reel-to-reel tape had replaced wax discs as the means of recording radio shows and it became more practical to transcribe (pre-record) radio shows rather than do them live. This, in turn, made it possible for several movie stars to star in radio shows. They could record the episodes at their convenience rather than have to show up at the studio at a set time every week.

One fine example of such a show was The Six Shooter. Jimmy Stewart played Britt Ponset, a wandering cowboy who, well, wandered into an adventure each week.

Stewart narrated his adventures in a casual, folksy style that allowed the show to mix humorous tales and character studies in with more traditional Western adventure stories. “Battle at Tower Rock” is a fine example of this. Britt arrives at the town of Tower Rock, which is about to have its annual fair. The town is on edge, though, because the sisters who co-own the bank are feuding with each other and many other townspeople feel obligated to take sides.

Britt is roped into judging the preserves-tasting contest, which both sisters have entered. He soon realizes that no matter whom he picks as the winner, it’s only likely to make the matter worse. He’s put more on edge when the sisters’ husbands pay separate visits to him, each begging Britt to pick his wife as the winner—or she (either one) will be impossible to live with.

Britt is left with the challenge of judging the contest in such a way as to not have everybody making his life miserable. The story is full of humor and fun characters—a pleasant way to spend a half-hour.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Prehistory of Geekdom, part 5

Whodunit? Well, to find that out, you need a brilliant detective. And the first modern detective to appear in popular fiction was C. Auguste Dupin, drawn out of Edgar Allen Poe’s blood red imagination to catch a killer in the 1841 story Murders in the Rue Morgue.

It’s literally impossible to underestimate Poe’s influence on the mystery genre. Other writers before him had dabbled in the idea of protagonists using deductive reasoning, but Poe gives us the first true fictional detective. He also establishes the tradition of having the story narrated by a “Watson,” a less-brilliant but loyal sidekick.

But it still took a few more decades before the detective story became a regular part of popular fiction. As the 19th Century progressed, industrialization was bringing a greater percentage of the population into the cities. Thus, the Western and frontier heroes that were popular in dime novels needed to be supplemented by urban heroes. The detective rose again to fill this slot.

There were a gazillion or so different detectives working the dime novel beat: Old King Brady, the Old Sleuth, Harlem Jack, Round Kate and Old Snap—just to name a few. The most popular and long-lasting was Nick Carter. But in 1888, the dime novel coppers were instantly and forever overshadowed by Sherlock Holmes.

“A man who never lived, but will never die,” Orson Welles once said of Holmes. It’s true, you know. Holmes may be the most perfectly created fictional character ever—all his talents, skills, foibles and faults come together in perfect synergy. His influence overshadows even Edgar Allen’s creation. Writer Arthur Conan Doyle gave Holmes Dr. Watson as a loyal friend, plopped him down into a series of nifty mysteries, and changed geekdom forever.

It was from Holmes that we eventually got Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Ellery Queen. It was a reaction to Holmes’ influence that gave us hard-boiled writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And without Holmes, we wouldn’t have had that dark god to all geeks—Batman.

Unlike the Western, the detective story had never lost its massive popular appeal and the ranks of great detectives has grown long indeed. Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple might very well wield an influence that equals Holmes, but other skilled writers have also provided us with countless and only slightly lesser variations on the Great Detective theme.

And, by golly, we are lucky they did. It’s the detective story, mixed together with the adventure story, the Western, the horror story and the science fiction story, that give form to most comic book heroes and a lot of the geekier TV shows and movies.

I just mentioned the science fiction story, didn’t I? I guess we’ll stay in the 19th Century for one more chapter, as we have yet to talk about Jules and Hebert George. Those two—and those they influenced—play yet another key role in the creation of geeks.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1965, part 2


Thor continues his desperate fight against the indestructible Destroyer. Loki, still locked in a cell on Asgard, tries to help him with some long distance magic and does manage to save the Thunder God at one point. Then he contacts the Norn Queen and gets her to use HER magic to wake up Odin.

But that all proves unnecessary, as Thor manages to use his wits to defeat his more powerful opponent.

Loki is punished again by Odin for his wrongdoings, but the All-Father shows some mercy for his adopted son, sentencing him to basically become a roadie for Asgard’s chief warlock.

The “Tales of Asgard” feature is an important one. Thor and Balder are signing up crew for their flying galley. Among the crew are three of the most entertaining supporting characters in the Marvel Universe: The Warriors Three. Hogun the Grim, Fandral the Dashing and Volstagg the Voluminous. These guys would become a regular part of Marvel’s Asgardian cast. Roughly analogous to the Three Musketeers, they (like Porthos, Athos and Aramis) form a perfect synergy of different personality types, with character designs that give each of them an appropriate and distinctive appearance. Pretty much any time they pop up in a story in the future, they amp up the Bogart/Karloff Coolness Rating by at least a point-and-a-half.


Count Nefaria failed to get Stark last issue with his dream-making machine. Now he uses Tony’s black-sheep cousin (who owes Nafaria a large gambling debt) to help. The cousin, named Morgan, pays a visit to Tony and then secretly uses an image projector to convince everyone Tony is seeing things and going whacko. It works at first—Tony gets bad press and Senator Byrd tries to get Congress to cancel all his defense contracts.

But a fortuitous alien invasion, fought off by Iron Man, provides “proof” that Tony wasn’t seeing things. That particular plot twist was just a teeny-bit contrived, but Shellhead’s fight against the aliens is fun. The best part of the issue is when we hear Tony’s opinion of Senator Byrd. The senator is arrogant as all get-out and his visual design reminds you of a stereotypical career politician. But Tony recognizes him as a dedicated man who really believes Stark is an irresponsible playboy and a poor risk to be handling defense contracts. It makes the senator a interesting character.

Captain America is still back in World War II, breaking free of the Red Skull’s brainwashing just before he otherwise would have shot Eisenhower. He and Bucky then quickly mop up the Nazi commandos.

But there’s no rest for the heroic. Soon, a Nazi agent has stolen an experimental disintegrator ray. Cap has a running fight with him through a forest, frantically dodging the ray, until he tricks the Nazi into blowing up the secret weapon with a Brer Rabbit trick. Another strong, action-oriented entry into Cap's WWII past.

That’s it for now. Next week, we’ll hang with Namor on his first adventure, then look in on the Hulk, the Avengers and Daredevil.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Richard Diamond, Private Eye: “Timothy the Seal” 2/5/50

Dick Powell started his career in movies playing in light-weight musicals. In 1949, he suddenly grabbed some tough guy cred by playing Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (adapted from the novel Farewell, My Lovely—the studio changed the title so no one would mistake it for another Powell musical).

Powell proved himself quite adept at playing a tough P.I. A few years later, he began a run on radio playing another tough guy—Richard Diamond. Maybe not quite as tough as Marlowe, though. He usually ended each episode singing a song to his girlfriend. I can't picture Marlowe ever doing that. The scripts had an element of tongue-in-cheek to them as well. The show was similar in a very general way to Sam Spade, in that it injected humor and self-awareness into hard-boiled stories without sacrificing good storytelling.

In this episode, Diamond is hired to protect someone named Timothy, who will be brought to his office later. The client will not tell him Timothy’s last name or describe him in advance. Diamond doesn’t like it, but the client is paying too much to turn the job down.

Diamond is being threatened by thugs even before he meets the guy he’s supposed to protect. And when he does meet him, Timothy turns out to be… well, the episode title gives that away.

Soon there’s a murder and someone snatches Timothy away from Diamond. What’s going on? Diamond manages to figure it all out in the end, leaving time for him to still get in a song before the episode closes.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


It’s a veritable renaissance, you fools!!! Take advantage of it while you can!!!

For much of the 20th Century, the American newspaper comic strip was an important part of our culture. During the heyday of the art form, strips were printed much bigger than they are now. On Sunday, each strip would get a full page or half-page on sheets that were already bigger than what we get today. Plenty of room for beautiful and detailed art work. Plenty of room for dialogue to help move along often complex plots and establish fascinating characters.

Today, modern strips (and there are a number of good ones) can’t reach the same level of magnificence because they’ve been shrunk, chopped up and (on Sunday) squeezed down to five or six strips per page. Innovative panel design such as was seen in Captain Easy or Prince Valiant Sunday strips are gone, since strips must use standard panel sizes so they can be more easily shoved into their sixth of a page.

But we’re in a Golden age nonetheless, because several different publishers are currently reprinting the classic strips in beautiful volumes.

We’ve got the Complete Terry and the Pirates, by Milt Caniff.

We’ve got the first 15 years of Dick Tracy, by Chester Gould, with more to come.

We’ve got the Phantom, by Lee Falk; Captain Easy, by Roy Crane; Prince Valiant, by Hal Foster; all coming out in formats large enough to properly show off the art work. And it’s often breathtaking art work. That’s not an exaggeration. I was just reading volume 2 of Prince Valiant. Several of Foster’s beautifully illustrated panels literally made me gasp when I looked at them.

There’s also Little Orphan Annie, by Harold Gould; Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby; and Gasoline Alley, by Frank King. E.C. Segar’s complete run of original Popeye strips are four-sixths published, with the rest coming soon. And about half of a planned 25 volumes reprinting all 50 years of Peanuts is out. Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace is running amok again in reprint volumes.

Run out and sell your car, your TV and your children so you can buy all these volumes. Well, maybe not your children, because you’ll want to share these with them. Sell your annoying second cousin Eustace to the nearest Arab slave dealer and use these funds to buy comic strip reprints.

Actually, slave-trading aside, it’s an often painful decision for those of us who aren’t wealthy (and don’t have room on our shelves for everything) to decide what to get and what not to get. But I work in an art college library, so I can at least make sure I have access to a lot of this stuff via that route.

And that may be a route for you to take as well. For instance, all six volumes of Terry and the Pirates (the best adventure strip ever) can run up to quite a bit of money even with online discounts. If you can buy them yourself, you won’t be sorry--they are a perfect synergy of art and writing, telling stories you'll be happy to revisit over and over again.. But they’re also worthy additions to your public library. So if you can’t buy them yourself (though, really, would anyone actually miss cousin Eustace?), there is the option of requesting that your library get them.

While you’re at it, request that they add my books to their collection as well, would you? Heck, being able to read the greatest comic strips ever plus my prose? We really are in a Golden Age, aren’t we?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1965, part 1


The FF continues on a roll of superb stories. Picking up from last issue, Ben is still angry and bitter about being turned back into the Thing. He storms away and—because he’s exhausted from his fight with Doom—is easily captured by the Wizard and the rest of the Frightful Four.

The Wiz then brainwashes Ben and turns him against the rest of the FF. The issue ends with Ben apparently about to kill a helpless Reed.

There’s a great fight scene set in the deserted mansion the Frightful Four is using as a headquarters, but it’s the characterizations that continue to carry this story along. We really feel for Ben and we really appreciate that his “family” cares for him.

There’s several other nice touches to the story. When Reed, Sue and Johnny leave the Baxter Building to search for Ben, they use one of Johnny’s hot rods. Remember, after all that the Fantasticar was trashed by Doom a few issues back. Events have unfolded non-stop since then, so there’s been no chance to repair it. It’s a nice nod to continuity and a reminder to the readers that our heroes have been constantly on the go without a chance to rest.

We also get a few hints that Medusa isn’t as bad as the other villains. We are, in fact, just a few issues away from learning her origin and meeting the Inhumans.


The meat of this issue is an absolutely wonderful fight scene in which Spidey, still chained after having been captured last issue, nonetheless manages to take on a mob of… well, mobsters. A trio of cops show up to help and Spidey finally breaks the chains, but then the cheap knock-off of his costume once again starts to come loose at the gloves and boots at annoying moments.

Despite this, the mobsters are subdued. Green Goblin flies away and the Crime Master ducks down into the sewers. Spidey pursues, but the villain manages to getaway.

Peter is certain that the Crime Master is Frederick Foswell, the ex-con reporter. He even confronts him directly, but it turns out Foswell has actually been investigating the mob and tipping off the cops. When the police manage to catch the Crime Master and are forced to shoot him, he turns out to be a mobster that Peter never even heard of.

It’s a very well-constructed tale with a nice ironic twist at the end. And we get a cool epilogue as well: Peter finally accepts that he has to sew himself a new costume (there’s a great panel showing him trying to thread a needle), but he puts this off to take his Aunt May to the movies after he notices she is feeling a bit lonely. This brings things to an end with a pleasant and very human moment.


Nick Fury was first introduced into the Marvel Universe via his World War II book Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. (By the way, I didn’t include that book in this series only because I don’t have access to inexpensive reprints.) He was cemented in as part of modern continuity when a young Reed Richards guest-starred in the series. His entry into modern-day stories was in Fantastic Four #21, when he popped up as a colonel now working for the CIA, recruiting the FF’s help against an insurgency in a South American country.

Now he appears again, sporting an as-yet unexplained eye patch. (We eventually find out in a Sgt. Fury issue that this is a delayed effect from a wound he suffered in the war.) He’s still a colonel working now for military intelligence, but he’s about to get an interesting job offer.

Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD is obviously a reaction to the success of the James Bond-inspired superspy craze. And it’s a good one. Jack Kirby has fun tossing in a flying car and other high tech gadgets. He dreams up what might be the single most fun vehicle in the history of comics and science fiction—the gigantic helicarrier, which would be SHIELD’s flying headquarters. I’m pretty sure this is also the first appearance of L.M.D.s. (Life Model Decoys—robot doubles of real people that will pop up relatively often in the Marvel Universe.)

The short, fast-moving story also does a good job of defining Nick’s character. He’s told about the evil secret organization called Hydra and offered the job leading the fight against them. But he at first doesn’t think he’s the right man for the job—“I’m just a three-striper (a sergeant) at heart,” he says, uncertain that he can adjust to all this sci-fi stuff. But when someone tries to blow up the helicarrier, he instinctively takes charge and makes sure the saboteur is tracked down. So he ends up in command despite himself.

It’s a nice touch, dropping a front-line brawler into a James Bond world. It does give the series an individuality that separates it from Bond, Man from UNCLE, I Spy and other contemporaneous spy shows.

A note about Fury’s age. In 1965, Nick could have been in his 40s and—if he kept in shape despite his perpetual cigar smoking—then it’s still acceptable for him to be an action hero. But as years go by, an explanation for his relative youth would have to be given. He’s too deeply tied into World War II to alter that. So Nick—we learn in later years—would have once been the subject of a medical experiment that slows his aging process down. Other veterans of the Howlers (Dum Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones) will also join SHIELD and be around for decades. I’m not sure if their agelessness is also explained, but what the heck. They’re fun characters and we wouldn’t want to lose them to the nursing home anyways.

Leaving the super science spy stuff behind for the pure mystical: Dr. Strange goes to England to visit Sir Baskerville, a former disciple of the Ancient One who might know about Eternity. But Baskerville is now working for Mordo.

Strange, though, soon suspects a trap and manages to trick pretty much everybody, escaping from Baskerville’s home without a trace. It’s another well-written chapter, with Strange pulling off several really cool stunts to fool his opponents.

Meanwhile, Dormammu has figured out that Clea (she’s still unnamed at this point, though) was responsible for releasing the Mindless Ones last issue and distracting him from helping Mordo. Things look grim for the extra-dimensional beauty.

That’s it for now. Next week, we turn again to Thor, Iron Man and Captain America.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Fibber McGee and Molly: “Selling Umbrellas in a Heat Wave” 4/1/52

Jim and Marion Jordan (who played Fibber and Molly) were skilled comedians who played off each other with seeming effortlessness. On radio, they were fortunate enough to be backed up by a cadre of comedic actors who could help keep the same running gags fresh and funny over and over again.

This episode, in which Fibber comes up with an absurd rationale for trying to sell umbrellas during a heat wave, is a great example of this.

For instance, Gale Gordon—who would have to be included on anyone’s list of best comedic actors ever—played the reoccurring role of Mayor LaTrivia.  As usual, he’s driven to incoherent apoplexy when Fibber and Molly continually misunderstand what he’s trying to tell them. As usual, it’s one of several laugh-out-loud routines included in the episode. It was a variation of a routine they repeated over and over again, but Gordon and the Jordans were able to make it funny every single time.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Prehistory of Geekdom, Part 4

The interesting thing about the American Western is that the genre was developed at the same time the history of the real West was unfolding. I’m not sure if any event in history was mythologized quite that quickly.

While the West was being settled and the Indian Wars being fought, the dime novel publishers back east were churning out Western fiction by the trainload. Many of these stories featured fictional characters, but many grabbed real life people like Kit Carson, Jesse James and Buffalo Bill, making them into myths often while they were still alive. And their readers couldn’t get enough of it.

So by the time the West was no longer quite as Wild, the Western was an established genre in popular fiction. All the tropes that go with it—the fast draw; the school marm in danger; the laconic cowpoke—were a part of our cultural consciousness. When the marshal and the outlaw met in the street at high noon, we didn’t need an explanation of what would happen next. We just knew.

Westerns remained popular for much of the 20th Century and the genre contributed a lot to modern geekiness. It’s almost difficult to imagine nowadays just how popular characters like the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy were. Heck, Hopalong was the first character to appear on a lunchbox! How cool is that? During the 1930s & 1940s, Hopalong was the hero in 66 B-movies. In the 1950s, he added 52 half-hour TV episodes and a radio show to the mix. Roy Rogers’ fictional cowboy persona was equally popular.

And you know what was cool about the actors who played these characters? They recognized that many (if not most) of their fans were children. They were role models, by golly. And they embraced the responsibility inherent in this. Clayton Moore (the Lone Ranger), William Boyd (Hopalong) and Roy Rogers all lived good lives outside their films and TV shows. They knew they had examples to set about honesty and hard work and decency, so they lived in ways to exemplify these virtues. They never let their fans down.

William Boyd is especially noteworthy here, because prior to being cast as Hopalong, he had cheated and drank his way through several marriages. But when he became a role model, he cleaned up his act. He quit drinking and his fifth marriage lasted the rest of his life.

Anyway, back to the Western. We’ve had a number of excellent novelists giving us strong stories through the years: Zane Grey, Max Brand, Louis L’Amour, Alan Lemay and others. During the 1950s, when the popularity of superhero comics waned for awhile, Westerns were one of the mainstays of the comic industry. Radio gave us cool shows like The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke and The Cisco Kid. TV gave extended life to these shows and tossed in excellent fare like The Rifleman and Bat Masterson.

The Western has lost much of the hold it had on our culture, but it’s still out there. And its contribution to geekiness is undeniable.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: July 1965, part 3


Well, it’s Giant Man’s last solo story. His current costume is still butt-ugly. The Wasp’s current costume is butt-ugly. The Human Top’s current costume is butt-ugly. So I suppose you can credit the story for being visually consistent.

Actually, Hank comes up with a pretty clever way to escape a death trap, rescue Janet and beat the Human Top at the end, so this otherwise uninteresting story has its points.

And the Ant Man/Giant Man series as a whole had a few highpoints to it. The best issue was probably #52, which had a cool cover and a well-choreographed fight against the Black Knight. Hank and Janet never really developed clear-cut personalities and the series might have been helped by having a few supporting characters to add some more personal interactions. Better villains would have helped as well. Black Knight was probably the best and a few minor second-stringers were also created in these pages. But there was no one who ever approached the storytelling potential of a Doctor Doom or Loki.

Well, Hank and Janet will be back before too long as members of the Avengers, though Hank will sadly become one of the most psychologically put-upon characters in comic book history.

The Hulk, though, is still going strong. The Leader has captured the Hulk and the Absorbatron (Banner’s secret device that absorbs atomic energy). Banner’s disappearance along with the Absorbatron makes General Ross and Major Talbot more certain than ever that Banner is a traitor.

But capturing the Hulk is rarely a wise thing to do. While in Banner’s form, he sends a radio message to Ross. While in Hulk’s form, he trashes the Leader’s base. The Leader is forced to retreat, but the issue ends with Banner taking a slug to the skull from a soldier who was shooting at the Hulk. Banner is apparently dead.

Well, it’ll be no surprise that we’ll find he’s not quite dead yet next issue, but that bullet will be causing some personality issues with the Hulk for a few issues.

Rick Jones plays a part in this story. I wonder who’s footing his traveling expenses, since he seems to be shuttling back and forth between the American Southwest and Avengers Mansion in New York an awful lot.


There’s still a lot of bickering among the new Avengers as they zip off to a small Asian country and confront the Communist tyrant who rules there. The tyrant is a giant of a man with super strength and seeming invulnerability, but Cap figures out he’s really a robot and Wanda deactivates him with a hex.

It’s a pretty good story. But it’s the characterizations that are most important. We get hints that Hawkeye has a strong sense of patriotism hidden beneath his sarcastic exterior. Wanda has come to respect Cap as their leader wholeheartedly, but Hawkeye and Quicksilver still have some whiney moments about it. The team is slowly learning to work together, though.

There’s some more stuff about Cap trying to contact Nick Fury to get a job outside the Avengers. That’ll come to a head soon, especially with Nick only a month away from being put in charge of SHIELD.

X-MEN #12

I enjoy the way this story is constructed. The X Mansion is being attacked by a villain called Juggernaut. While the villain breaks through various defenses one by one, we get a series of flashbacks, extended over most of the issue, that explain who he is.

He is Professor X’s abusive stepbrother, who accidentally stumbled over the gem of Cyttorak, giving him superpowers. Now he’s out to smash Xavier, whom he always loathed.

The issue ends with Juggernaut beating through the defensives and swatting aside the X-Men, leaving Xavier to face off against him alone.

The storytelling here is really quite expert, clearly and succinctly giving us a lot of information about Xavier’s past in relatively few pages. It’s not a classic in terms of action (though there’s enough action to go around), but it’s really a model of how to convey information to your readers in a clear but still entertaining fashion.

That’s it for July. In August, Ben Grimm gets really, really grouchy; Spider Man punches out a bevy of mobsters; Nick Fury boards the SHIELD helicarrier for the first time; Dr. Strange remains on the run; Odin wakes up from his nap; Tony Stark seems to go nuts; Captain America fights a Nazi with a disintegrator ray; Prince Namor loses his throne (again!); Hulk fights a Godzilla-sized android; the Avengers meet an enemy who will one day be a friend; and Daredevil battles a ruthless dictator.
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