Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Fat Man: "Nightmare Murder" 1/17/51


Supposedly, overweight private eye Brad Runyon was based on the writings of Dashiell Hammett (whose unnamed Continental Op character packed a few extra pounds). But Hammett's name was really just used for publicity--Runyon and the Op really didn't have that much in common.

But that's fine, because it was still a good show. J. Scott Smart played Runyon and managed to make him sound fat. And the mysteries he solved were generally well-constructed.


"Nightmare Murder," for instance, has Runyon being hired by a guy in the alcoholic ward. No one believes the guy when he says he committed a murder, so he wants Runyon to prove he is a killer.


Runyon soon tracks down the supposedly dead girl, proving the guy is hallucinating. Or is he? The chubby P.I. soon finds evidence that something fishy is going on.


Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

How "priceless" is priceless art?

The Allies are approaching Paris and everyone knows the city will be liberated in a few days. A Nazi colonel loots dozens of paintings from the Louvre and puts them on a train headed for Germany.


The French Resistance is asked to delay the train until the Allies show up. But that will almost certainly cost lives. If nothing else, the Germans tend to shoot a lot of innocent hostages in reprisals against acts of sabotage. And the war is almost over--those few members of the Resistance who have been lucky enough to survive this long aren't anxious to risk their lives for a bunch of paint and canvas.


On the other hand, those paintings are a part of France's heritage. They are unquestionably great art--something whose value can't really be measured in monetary value. So can it be measured in human lives?


That's the theme behind The Train (1964), a beautifully photographed and directed movie that manages to work both as an action film and an examination of what ideals are worth dying for.


The director was John Frankenheimer and, boy, he does a magnificent job. There's a couple of instances where he uses long tracking shots to astonishing effect. He stages the action expertly and always makes sure we understand what is going on. I particularly love the long shot of a train yard being bombed.


And he used real steam trains throughout the film, which is just plain cool by itself. 1964 was pre-CGI, of course, but there's no reliance on miniatures or any camera tricks. When we see one train slam into another--that's really one train slamming into another.


Burt Lancaster is very effective as the main protagonist and Paul Scofield does such a great job as the Nazi colonel that you almost want to track him down and shoot him in real life.  The movie is never gory, but it doesn't hold back on just how brutal the Nazis were.


Another great aspect of the film is how effectively it builds empathy for the various Resistance people working to delay the train. I was literally yelling "No!" at the screen when guys I liked got killed.


And that's one of the reasons the movie works so well thematically.  Is art ever worth dying for? Is it worth getting your friends and allies killed to save it?  The movie doesn't ever really answer that question--it just makes you think about it.


You can watch it via Hulu right here. If you subscribe to Netflix, they've got it on "instant play," which would allow you to watch it without commercials.



Wednesday, April 28, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: January 1965, Part 3


TALES TO ASTONISH #63

An occasional problem in the Ant Man/Giant Man series was matching him and the Wasp up against villains to wimpy to believably give the heroes a hard time. This time around, they are asked by the cops to help break up a protection racket run by a guy called the Wrecker.


This is not, by the way, the same villain who will show up in Thor a few years later with an enchanted crowbar. This Wrecker is just a hood in a mask.


Hank and Janet buy a hardware store and set themselves up as targets. When the Wrecker and his thugs come to collect, they take them down. The Wrecker uses a gas bomb at one point in an attempt to make him look like a tougher opponent than he really is, but there’s no hiding that he’s really too small-time to rate an entire story.


Over in the Hulk story, we finally find out who has been behind all the espionage shenanigans that have been going on for several issues. The Leader used to be an uneducated janitor. But when he was exposed to gamma radiation, he got green skin, an oversized head and a vast intellect. Now he runs a spy ring in hopes of gaining control of the government.


Banner is assigned to go along with a nuclear device being transported by train. The Leader sends a giant “Humanoid” he created (and controls telepathically) after the nuke.


This leads to a fun fight on the moving train between Hulk and the Humanoid. It’s a unique setting and the Humanoid has spongy skin that absorbs the power of Hulk’s punches, making him an interesting opponent. Steve Ditko is still doing the art and, while I still don’t think his style matches the character, he does his usual great job of fight choreography.


The Humanoid is defeated in the end, but circumstances make Banner look suspicious again. He ends up in a military prison cell, unable to explain his disappearances without admitting he’s the Hulk and worried he’ll Hulk-out again at any moment.


This Hulk series has quickly established a nice rhythm to it appropriate to a serial—with each issue advancing the story a little before ending at a cliffhanger moment.



AVENGERS #12


I love the way this story begins. Giant Man receives an alarm from some frightened ants and immediately calls the Avengers. But when they find out Hank called them because some ants were scared, they get annoyed—especially Thor. Hank gets annoyed back and decides to check the danger out on his own.


Well, it turns out the ants knew what they were talking about. The Mole Man has built a device that will change the rotational speed of the Earth, doing this so gradually that only the ants notice at first. His goal is to wipe out the surface world while he and his Moloids are safe in an artificial gravity field.


Hank gets captured. When the other Avengers realize something is awry with the Earth, they also realize Hank was right all the time about the danger being real. I especially like Thor’s reaction to this—he’s particularly eager to get into battle to make up for the fact that he was the biggest crybaby when Hank first called them together.


There’s a big fight between the Avengers and the Mole Man’s forces, during which Hank is rescued. About halfway through the story, the Red Ghost abruptly shows up, telling the Mole Man they should team up. Stan Lee was usually pretty good about arranging villain team-ups, but this time around it comes across as contrived and unnecessary, adding little to the story. But the main Avengers vs. Moloids battle is still a lot of fun.


There is one aspect to the story that I suppose could be considered a continuity glitch. In the last issue, Iron Man was given a leave of absence while he dealt with the whole “Tony Stark is missing” story arc over in Tales of Suspense. That’s still going on (and will for a couple more issues), but Iron Man is back with the Avengers in this story.


But it’s not really a big deal. The exact order in which the various Marvel stories take place is always a bit amorphous. Presumably, the events stretching over the next few stories in Tales of Suspense all take place before this Avengers issue. I appreciate the way Stan Lee paid attention to continuity in the 1960s—I wish editors today would take the same care. But it’s also nice that he didn’t allow an overly slavish devotion to continuity get in the way of good storytelling.



X-MEN # 9


Professor X finally contacts the X-Men again and summons them to Europe to help him out. The good Prof is deep underground, confronting an old enemy named Lucifer. (No, not THE Lucifer. Just a guy named Lucifer.)


We find out that Lucifer was responsible for crippling Xavier, though we get no details about that at this time. In fact, we really don’t find out much about Lucifer at all— in later appearances, he’ll later turn out to be an agent of a malevolent alien race.


All we know about Lucifer right now is that he’s synched the detonator of a world-destroying bomb to his own heart. Hurt him in any way and the bomb goes off.


That requires Xavier to do a sort of telepathic brain surgery on Lucifer, rendering him unconscious without affecting his heart rate. In the meantime, the Avengers have followed “evil emanations” to the same area. The X-Men, telepathically briefed by Xavier, have to battle the Avengers to keep them away from Lucifer and perhaps inadvertently interfere with the prof’s telepathic efforts.


This part of the story is a little too contrived. The Avengers know the X-Men are good guys, so all the X-Men had to do was say “Don’t go there or you’ll destroy the world.” They would have been believed. Instead, they simply attack.


Oh, well, at least it’s a good fight. And when the X-Men finally join up with the Professor, there’s a very good, suspenseful sequence involving defusing the bomb. The whole bit about the bomb being tied into the villain’s heart rate is a great idea and it’s executed well.


That’s it for January. In February, the FF returns to college; Spidey teams up with the Torch once again; Ben and Johnny fight some old enemies, as does Thor; Dr. Strange visits yet another dangerous dimension; Iron Man continues his battle with the Mandarin; Cap visits a prison; Giant Man and the Wasp get really wet; the Hulk asks for tranquilizers; the Avengers apparently declare war on the world and Daredevil deals with a minor-league super-villain team-up.

SPECIAL NOTE: I am vaguely considering dividing up the History of the Marvel Universe entries to post on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, covering one comic book on each entry. I haven't decided whether it's a good idea or not. I'm fully aware that my blog has a fairly small number of regular readers (though I very much appreciate those of you who do visit regularly), but all the same I thought I'd see if you all had an opinion. Do you want this series to still pop up once a week and cover two or three comics each time, or would you rather have it three days in a row with one comic at a time? Post a comment if you have a preference.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Frontier Gentleman: "Random Notes" 4/27/58


Frontier Gentleman, with John Dehner playing London Times reporter J.B. Kendall, was a great Western. It's format--which involved Kendall pretty much wandering around the Old West looking for human interest stories--allowed jump from adventure to tragedy to character studies to comedy.


"Random Notes," which consists of five or six quick vignettes rather than a single story, pretty much covers all this ground by itself. The highlight of the episode, though, is one of the funniest things I've ever heard. Kendall recounts a performance of Othello he saw in which the lead characters were played by a local theater group in Texas. Hearing a cowboy and his wife--in thick Texas drawls--mangle the lines and insert bits of Western slang while performing Desdemona's death scene is literally on-the-floor funny.



Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

FINALLY back in print

Pulp writer Robert E. Howard churned out a lot of stuff that never saw print in his lifetime--most of which were great stories that really deserved to be read.


Howard never achieved much popular success during his short life (though he certainly did have his fans) and it wasn't until a couple of decades went by that his work began to be re-discovered and build up a following.


And he appears to be as popular today as he ever was. A lot of his stuff is coming back into print, most notably through a superb series of anthologies being put out by Del Ray. All his Conan stuff is there, as well as Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and  many of his non-series stories.


In fact, this past February saw the publication of El Borak and Other Desert Adventures. El Borak is the nick-name of Francis Xavier Gordon, a Texan who wanders around Afganistan and the Mid-East during the early 20th Century, getting into one violent adventure after another.All the short stories involving Gordon (and a few non-Gordon stories set in the same milieu) are here.


All the stories in this volume are slam-bang adventures, but one in particular is a favorite of mine. "Three-Bladed Doom" plops El Borak smack into a whole danged city of assassins, ruled by a man planning on using assassination and terror to set himself up as a behind-the-scenes ruler of much of Asia. There's political intrigue, treachery, escapes and captures, sword duels, a damsel in distress, a fight with a yeti (the closest thing to an overt fantasy element in any of these stories) and a full-scale battle at the climax.

It's amazing storytelling from start to finish--one of these "can't put it down" yarns that are a joy to read, combining compelling action sequences with clever plot construction and vivid characterizations.

The new Del Ray anthology actually contains two versions of the story. Howard originally wrote it as a 42,000-word novela. When that didn't sell, he re-wrote it as a 24,000-word short story.

Neither version found a market at the time. It wasn't until 1977 that the longer (and better) version saw print in a paperback. (It had, in the meantime, been re-written by L. Sprague de Camp into a Conan story, but this was a awkward and unsatisfying effort.)



That's where I first encountered this story. I've still got that paperback, in fact. But I'm glad that "Three-Bladed Doom" has found a back-in-print home. (Especially since it was offered in an electronic version as well--bringing my Kindle one step closer to being my perfect personal library.)  And it is interesting to compare both versions of the tale. I also appreciate the inclusion of "The Trail of the Blood-Stained God," another story that had been altered by de Camp into a Conan story. It was nice to finally read the original version of that one.



By the way, some of the El Borak stories have become public domain and are available online. Here's one that gives you a good idea of how much fun these stories are:  BLOOD OF THE GODS


Man, I only just re-read "Three-Bladed Doom," but now I want to read it again.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: January 1965, Part 2

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #112


Thor overhears some kids arguing over who is stronger—the Thunder God or the Hulk. So he drops down among them (I love that they are so casual about a Norse god stopping by: “Hey, it’s Thor. He’ll tell us who’s stronger.”) and then tells them of a time he fought the big green guy.


We then go into a sort-of flashback to Avengers #3, when the Avengers fought Namor and Hulk at Gibraltar. But it expands upon the story, telling us about a Hulk-Thor match-up that we didn’t get to see the first time around.


Thor sends a sort of telepathic collect call to his dad in Asgard and asks to remain a god for five minutes without his hammer so that he can go toe-to-toe with the Hulk in a fair fight. Odin okays this.


Which all leads to an extended fight scene in which Jack Kirby shows us Hulk and Thor battling each other in the tunnels beneath Gibraltar. Which means, of course, that it’s a great issue.


The battle ends in a draw when a collapsing tunnel cuts the two combatants off from one another. Who’s stronger? That’s a question to be decided on another day.


The “Tales of Asgard” back up story takes us back to a time ages ago, when Odin was battling the giants of Jotunheim. We get more Kirby goodness, with Odin going one-on-one against the giant king, then their respective armies going at it. When the battle is ended, Odin adopts the giant king’s now orphaned (and non-gianty) son Loki. Boy-o-boy, I have a feeling he’s going to regret that in years to come.



TALES OF SUSPENSE #61

Pepper and Happy still think Iron Man may have something to do with Tony Stark’s disappearance, so they quit. Iron Man can’t do anything to stop them without giving away his secret identity (something he’s hesitant to do because he feels it would put others in danger from his enemies).


The cops still suspect Iron Man as well. This all gets into the news, putting Tony in a more and more precarious position.


Then Happy breaks into Tony’s house to look for clues and nearly catches his “missing” boss in his Iron Man armor without the helmet on. Tony has to duck under some bed sheets then make up a story about being sick and needing rest.


So Happy and Pepper thought Tony was dead. Now they know he’s alive. Then they think he’s dead again when a mysterious laser beam totals Tony’s house. In the meantime, they are still suspicious of Iron Man. It’s all good character stuff—Tony planned his “disappearance” poorly and now his ad-libs to explain everything are continuing to work against him.


Anyway, that killer beam was fired from a satellite controlled by the Mandarin, who also thinks he’s killed Tony. And poor Tony is stuck in his Iron Man armor again, unable to tell anyone his “boss” survived without giving away his identity.


He travels to China to confront the Mandarin, but the issue ends when he gets captured.


There’s really only a little bit of action in this story. The whole “where’s Tony” bit carries most of the story. That’s just fine, because it’s a good and well-executed idea. As I’ve mentioned before, the series is now getting the support from believable and likeable supporting characters that it needed to really elevate it above its somewhat mundane beginnings.


Captain America, in the meantime, takes a trip to Vietnam to rescue a captured American helicopter pilot. The pilot’s brother had saved Cap back in World War II and now the Avenger is repaying his debt.

As is usual for the Captain America stories of the mid-sixties, the set-up is really just an excuse for Jack Kirby to show Cap duking it out with lots of bad guys. In this case, he takes out quite a few North Vietnamese soldiers and a giant sumo wrestler before he and the pilot can steal a jet and escape. Once again, Kirby’s kinetic layouts carry the action along quickly and logically, entertaining us enormously as we jump from panel to panel.


That’s it for now. Next week, we’ll finish up January with a look at Giant Man, the Hulk, the Avengers and the X-Men.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Crime Classics: “The General’s Daughter, the Czar’s Lieutenant, and the Linen Closet: A Russian Tragedy” 4/7/1954



Crime Classics is at its best when it manages to smoothly meld tragedy and the worst of human nature together with a wry sense of humor. This episode—-so soaked in tragedy and irony that it couldn’t have been set anywhere but Russia manages to do this perfectly


The story is about a young army lieutenant who falls in love with the general’s daughter. When the general refuses to agree to their marriage, they continue to see each other on the sly. But when a servant spills some soup on the young lady’s dress one night, it sets off a chain of events that leads to at least three deaths.


There’s a bizarre plot twist about halfway through the episode that I, at least, did not see coming.



Great production values and Lou Merrill’s usual superb job of narration help make this one of Crime Classics’ best episodes.


Click HERE to listen or download this episode.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Now THAT'S a cool cover!!

Pretty much an average day in the life of Turok. This is one of the best images from a comic notable for magnificent cover illustrations.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: January 1965, Part 1


FANTASTIC FOUR #34


Why the heck would you name your kid “Hungerford?” Even as a middle name?


But Gregory Hungerford Gideon is saddled with that particular middle name. Not that it has any real bearing on the story. But--- Hungerford? Must be a family name from his mother’s side. Undoubtedly Gideon grew up to be the cold-hearted guy he is because he was teased a lot in high school over it.


Anyway, as an adult, Gideon spends his time ignoring his wife and kid while working tirelessly to gain control of the world’s finances. He’s pretty much the Scrooge McDuck of the Marvel Universe—only Scrooge at least would show some affection for his nephews from time to time.


Gideon figures he’s three years away from his goal of controlling all the money in the world, but he’s impatient. He basically goes double or nothing against his main business rivals on a single bet. If he can do something impossible (such as destroy the Fantastic Four in a week’s time), then he wins the bet and everyone else sells out to him. Otherwise, he backs off and leaves them alone.


He sets a plan in motion which convinces Ben that Reed is a Skrull; convinces Johnny that Sue is being controlled by the Puppet Master; and convinces Sue that Johnny is a Dr. Doom-constructed robot. He pretty much just confuses the heck out of Reed.  The idea is to get them fighting among themselves, then lure them into a time displacement device that’ll throw them into the past.


But Gideon’s neglected son gets caught in the trap with Ben. Reed manages to pull them both back to the present and a guilt-ridden Gideon surrenders. He vows to give his billions to charity and devote himself to his family after accepting whatever legal punishment he’s given


It’s an okay story—mostly because Ben gets some great one-liners and gets a moment where he once again shows that he really cares for his “family.” But it’s also one of those stories in which Stan Lee goes a little too far overboard with the melodrama. A good read, but not among the best Stan and Jack were capable of.


And really—Hungerford? Would you name a child Hungerford?


SPIDER MAN #20


The guy who was following Peter Parker last issue turns out to be a greedy private eye named Mac Gargan. He’s been hired by Jameson to find out how Peter keeps getting all those great photos.


But Jameson soon changes Gargan’s job description, paying him 10 grand to drink an experimental serum that gives him the proportional strength of a scorpion. Along with this comes a suit with a cybernetic tail. Jameson then sends him out to capture and unmask the webslinger.


But the serum brings out Gargan’s evil nature and, after knocking out Spider Man in their initial bout, he turns outright to crime. When the scientist who invented the serum is killed trying to get an antidote to Gargan (now called the Scorpion), the new super-criminal decides to kill Jameson as well—the publisher being the only other person who knows who he really is.


Spidey shows up to save the day, though. He’s learned that the Scorpion is stronger then he is, so he just fights smarter, saving Jameson and capturing the crook.



Scattered throughout the issue are some nice character moments. Peter is relieved when Ned Leeds goes overseas for six months—he’d finally started to feel a little jealous of Ned dating Betty. And there’s a great moment that gives Jameson a little depth when he is hit big time with guilt over his responsibility in helping create a situation that led to an innocent man’s death and the creation of a super-villain.


There’s a nifty ending also—with Peter spending an evening in his room methodically sewing up the rips in his Spider Man costume. It’s one of those moments that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko used so well to humanize their characters.


STRANGE TALES #128


Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch have finally decided to defect from Magneto’s Brotherhood, but they don’t know who to turn to for help. They finally decide on the Fantastic Four because they’re the only superheroes with a publicly known address. (Well, the Avengers have a public headquarters as well—but that’s a pretty minor continuity glitch, so we’ll forgive it.)


But Ben and Johnny seem to specialize in jumping perceived villains too quickly—it was only three issues ago they attacked Namor unnecessarily. This time it might be a little more understandable—they recognize Wanda and Pietro as wanted villains and attack before the two mutants have a chance to explain.



What follows is a nicely choreographed fight scene by artist Dick Ayers (limited a little too much by being confined to a single room) that leads to the mutants deciding homo sapians really can’t be trusted. They break off the fight and return to Magneto.


Obviously, this is yet another attempt to boost sales of the X-Men comics—which was still a weak seller compared to other Marvel books. But as was usual in those days, it still works fine as a self-contained story. It’s a gimmick, but it’s a perfectly fair one.



Meanwhile, Dr. Strange has to take on a rival sorcerer known as the Demon. At first, the bad guy seems too powerful to beat, but Strange manages to sneak a look at the magical texts the Demon used to learn his spells. With this inside information, he’s able to take him in the sort of one-on-one magic duel that Steve Ditko always makes look SO cool.



That’s it for now. Next week, we’ll drop in on Shellhead, Winghead and Goldilocks.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Favorite Story: “Casey at the Bat” 4/17/48


“Casey at the Bat” is a great poem, but it’s not really that long. So how do you turn it into a half-hour radio show?


You give Casey a back-story, of course. It turns out the star of the Mudville team has a wife. He loves her, but she’s unhappy living in an unsophisticated small town. She’s equally displeased that their son keeps skipping school to see his dad play ball.


All things considered, she’d rather live in a big city, so she arranges for a scout from the Philadelphia Athletics to come see Casey. But Casey doesn’t want to move to Philly, especially after his “helpful” manager explains that in the big city you always have to wear a tie and can only talk in whispers while out in public.



It all makes for a witty and pleasant half-hour, with events leading up to the manager (who serves as narrator) reading the original poem once that point in the story is reached.


I noticed one little historical glitch in the episode. Ernest Thayer wrote “Casey at the Bat” in 1888. In the context of the Favorite Story adaptation, it’s mentioned that Thayer wrote the poem after seeing Casey play in Mudville, making the events of that game famous because of his poem.


But when the Philadelphia scout is coming to see Casey play, it’s mentioned that the Athletics are a new team, partly owned by manager Connie Mack. This is true, but (as I’m sure you all know without having to look it up) it sets the story firmly in 1901—13 years after Thayer wrote the poem.


Interestingly, the Disney animated short based on the poem (produced two years before this radio show) also jumped the story forward in time, setting it in 1902.


But what the hey. No matter when the story takes place, there never is any joy in Mudville.


Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Finding Lost Civilizations Without Even Trying

A lot of adventurers have stumbled upon lost civilizations. It’s the sort of thing that adventurers tend to do.


Carl Denham, for instance, was sailing to the tropics to make a movie when he found Skull Island along with a lot of hungry dinosaurs and a lovelorn giant ape.


John Carter, Warlord of Mars, was always running across isolated cities or hidden valleys full of everything from invisible men to airborne pirates to blood-sucking plant people.


Professor Challenger—well, he actually intended to find a lost world. Pulled it off, too, when he and three companions found a nearly inaccessible plateau full of dinosaurs, then got involved in an ancient war being fought there between Indians and apemen.


Alan Quatermain managed to stumble across King Solomon’s mines, while Bowen Tyler discovered a prehistoric world on the Antarctic subcontinent of Caprona. Horace Holley found the lost kingdom of Kor, ruled by “She-who-must-be obeyed.”


I imagine most adventures would feel pretty lucky to find at least one lost civilization in their lifetimes. But there are some guys who seem to trip over lost civilizations whenever they turn a corner or stop to buy a newspaper. They just can’t help themselves.


Doctor Clark Savage and John Clayton (Lord Greystoke) both fit in this last category. I don’t think either of these fellows could avoid finding a lost civilization if they tried.


Of course, both men led life styles that made such discoveries a bit more likely than it would be for me or you.


Doc Savage, for instance, dedicated his extraordinary physical and mental skills to fighting evil and helping all those in need. And, of course, since those in need are often being stalked by mobsters with disintegration gas or murderous dwarves or the apparent ghosts of 18th Century mountain men, it’s not surprising that circumstances would from time to time lead him and his team to yet another lost civilization.


Lord Greystoke (better known as Tarzan) spends a lot of time swinging from tree to tree in unexplored jungles of Africa. And, as we all know, the unexplored jungles of Africa are pretty much overflowing with lost cities and hidden valleys---misplaced Roman cities or a city of Crusaders or the devolved descendents of the Atlantians or really small ant men or a city full of just plain crazy people.


Perhaps most incredibly, both men had not one—but TWO occasions in which they discovered (or at least visited) lands in which dinosaurs still lived.


During World War I, Tarzan was relentlessly pursuing the German soldiers who had kidnapped his wife Jane deeper and deeper into the jungle. Finally (as recounted in Tarzan the Terrible), they all stumbled across a land called Pal-Ul-Don, inhabited by a tailed sub-species of humankind and a lot of dinosaurs. Tarzan (as he often did in similar situations) got involved helping the local good guys against the local bad guys, rescued Jane from certain death once or twice, rode a tamed triceratops and eventually—with a little help from a surprise guest star—managed to finish off the Germans.




But that wasn’t Tarzan’s only run-in with prehistoric fauna. A few years later, he was part of an expedition that traveled by zeppelin through a polar opening into the underground world of Pellucidar. (This tale is recounted in Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.) Of course, Tarzan doesn’t get credit for discovering Pellucidar—that honor went to David Innes and Abner Perry a few years before. (Their history is recounted in At the Earth’s Core.) But Tarzan spent some time there, encountering dinosaurs galore and a race of reptile men before returning to the surface world.



And, heck, I’d almost forgotten: There was a dinosaur or two located outside the remote city of Ashair (as detailed in Tarzan and the Forbidden City).


Doc Savage, in the meantime, encountered dinosaurs for the first time in The Land of Terror (first printing in Doc Savage magazine, April 1933). The adventure initially began in New York City when a band of criminals got hold of a disintegration gas called the Smoke of Eternity and used it in a campaign of murder and robbery. But when their supply of the stuff is destroyed by Doc, they have to return to a remote Pacific island that contains the only source of an element needed to make the gas.


Doc and his men pursue, of course, only to have their plane torn from the sky by a pterodactyl. They bail out and find themselves in a dinosaur infested jungle. But they make due as they not only avoid becoming a carnosaur’s lunch, but also defeat the bad guys and make good their escape off the island.


A few years later (in The Other World—January 1940), Doc and his team get involved in a violent feud between rival fur traders. Bizarre circumstances lead them to northern Canada and a hidden underground world lit by incandescent volcanic gas. Doc gets trapped between a saber tooth tiger and a triceratops, then later has to fight an apemen to establish dominance and rescue some slaves. Eventually, in what adds up to one of Doc Savage’s most entertaining adventures, the evil fur traders are done away with while the good fur trader gets the girl.


I’m tellin’ ya—it all seems so unlikely that these guys can run across dinosaur-infested lost worlds more than once that… well, I’m sometimes tempted to dismiss it all as pure fiction. But what would life be without a dinosaur-infested lost world popping up from time to time? I can only envy the Man of Bronze and the Lord of the Jungle for their incredible good fortune in this regard.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: December 1964, part 3

TALES TO ASTONISH #62



A petty thief happens to stumble across Hank Pym’s secret identity and also steal his Giant Man costume. With Hank’s size-changing ability now built into the suit’s cybernetic circuitry, that means the thief now has access to those powers.



But he lacks experience and Hank and the Wasp manage to catch him without too much trouble. In the meantime, an experiment to grow plants quickly has gone awry and Hank gets his costume back just in time to allow him to recruit enough ants to help the city from being overrun with foliage.



The story is hurt by an ending that was already a cliché. Hank just happens to have some “memory-loss” serum lying around. So he erases the knowledge of his secret identity from the thief’s mind. In fact, he erases the guy’s memories of ever having been a crook, pretty much requiring him to go straight. Why he doesn’t do that with every other crook he catches is never explained.



Just happens to have “memory-loss” serum lying around. Gee whiz, how convenient!



The Hulk, in the meantime, is still a prisoner of the Army. But a mysterious villain called the Leader hires the Chameleon to infiltrate the base and find out what happened to the last agent who tried that (that would be the guy who tried to steal the battle robot two issues earlier).



Also, Rick Jones hears about the Hulk being captured and, with Captain America’s approval, heads back west to help out the big green guy.



It’s only a ten-page story, but Stan Lee manages to efficiently juggle several plot elements. The Chameleon impersonates first General Ross and then Bruce Banner. The ensuing confusion allows Bruce to slip out of the chains holding the Hulk without anyone noticing his transformation. When the Chameleon kidnaps Betty and steals a small gamma bomb, Bruce hulks-out again, but enough of Bruce’s decency remains for Hulk to act to save Betty and protect the army base from the bomb. The Chameleon flees the scene without accomplishing anything.



Rick doesn’t get to do a lot in this issue, but with his presence re-established in Hulk’s life, he’ll get to play a more important part in upcoming issues.



All these odd goings-on leave Ross and Major Talbot suspicious of Banner and half-convinced that there’s a connection between him and the Hulk. That will also have a bearing on future issues.



AVENGERS #11



The issue starts with the Avengers voting to give Iron Man a leave of absence while he deals with the “missing” Tony Stark. It’s a nice piece of continuity, but it also provides Kang, who is monitoring events from the 30th Century, an excuse to launch an attack on the now under-strength team.



His plan? Build a Spider Man robot and use this to lure the Avengers into a trap. Why a Spider Man robot? Kang gives a weak line of reasoning, but it’s really just an excuse to use Spidey on the cover and sell a few more copies.



But, as I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with such guest appearances as long as the stories are self-contained within one comic book. In this case, the use of Spider Man is a little too contrived to be fully satisfying, but it’s not nearly as bad as Giant Man’s “memory loss serum” incident.



Anyway, Kang’s plan nearly works, but the real Spider Man shows up to help beat the robot. Despite a contrivance or two, it’s a fun issue.



DAREDEVIL #5


Overall, Marvel’s record in the 1960s of creating visually interesting and challenging villains was a good one. But every once in a while, they’d drop the ball and come up with a loser.



The Masked Matador is, well, a matador who wears a mask. He does stuff like throw his cape over the windshield of an armored car, making it crash so he can rob it.


In other words, he’s just plain dumb.


But this is the first of several issues that will feature the Wally Wood’s art. Wood was one of the great comic artists of his time, doing breathtaking work for EC Comics in the 1950s. He makes everything look a lot cooler than it deserves to be. And he’ll get a chance to draw some much better Daredevil stories in upcoming issues.



That’s it for 1964. We’ll enter 1965 next time, when a villain turns the FF against each other; Spider Man gets yet another new addition to his Rogue’s Gallery; Thor goes one-on-one against the Hulk; Iron Man has some trouble with both his employees and an old enemy; Captain America fights the Viet Cong; Johnny and Ben tangle with some mutants; Dr. Strange battles yet another all-powerful mystic threat; Giant Man looks into a protection racket; the Hulk gets his own arch-enemy; the Avengers take on an FF villain before popping over for a visit with the X-Men.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Tarzan of the Jungle: “The Long Journey” 6/5/52


This is an interesting episode in that it deals with African Colonialism and shows some sympathy to Africans who were resentful of European rule—an unusual theme in Western society at the time.


A new governor is arriving to take authority over a British-controlled region. He gets a fairly violent greeting at his new post, though, when someone tosses a hand grenade at his car.


He survives that and a later assassination attempt, falsely placing the blame on another official (who happens to be friends with Tarzan.) In the meantime, his plans to fence off a large part of the jungle as a private hunting preserve ticks off the native population even more. Also, the possibility that foreign agents are involved is raised.


Tarzan’s friend is shipped back to England for a court-martial, forcing Tarzan to leave Africa also to testify on his behalf. Suddenly, it’s the Lord of the Jungle who becomes the target of assassination attempts.


Tarzan’s trip to London is handled well, showing us how uncomfortable he is in leaving the jungle, but getting a chance to show his stuff in the big city when he has to help with escaped zoo animals and chase an assassin up the Tower Bridge.

You can listen to this episode or download it HERE.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

HA!!!!! I'm smarter than Lord Peter Wimsey

The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934)


Well, I was beaten by Hercule Poirot. I was out-smarted by Miss Marple. I was bested by Ellery Queen. I was left behind by Charlie Chan. But, by golly, I'm smarter than Lord Peter Wimsey!!!


Despite their popularity (and my supposed expertise of the mystery genre), I had never read one of the Wimsey books before. This one, at least, turns out to be a cracking good mystery. And Lord Peter is a good protagonist--a rich guy who likes to be useful, isn't stuck up about being member of nobility and has a talent for solving crimes. His manservant Bunter is a pretty cool guy as well.


The Nine Tailors starts a little slowly. Lord Peter and his manservant Bunter have a minor car accident near the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. They are put up for the night by the local reverend and his wife. Wimsey ends up taking part in a special ringing of the church bells--the locals are trying to beat a record by ringing the eight large bells over 15,000 times in a nine hour period.


The title, by the way, refers to the ringing of the church bells to note someone's death.


All this gives us necessary background information and actually provides a vital clue for solving the subsequent crime, but the book doesn't really get moving until a body is found buried in the churchyard. From that point on, the book is a lot of fun. There are several aspects to the mystery--not only who the killer is, but who the victim is and how his was killed. The case soon turns out to be connected to some valuable emeralds that had been stolen years before and never recovered, so the location of the emeralds also becomes a factor.


It's a well-constructed mystery with fair clues. And, as I've bragged several times already, I was a good fifty pages ahead of Lord Peter. I figured out who the victim was before he did. I figured out how the victim was killed long before Lord Peter did.


This is the last book of our Survey of Great Detectives. It took me all this time to beat one of the detectives to the solution. But, gee whiz and by golly, I finally did it.
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