Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense “The Man Who Couldn’t Lose” 12/12/47

A guy murders his wife, then murders a more-or-less randomly chosen victim as part of a plot to fake his suicide.

Then he discovers a very valuable reason for staying alive. A string of incredibly lucky circumstances give him an opportunity to stage a resurrection. But will his luck hold out?

This is a clever script, building the story around a series of unlikely events, but using that as part of a theme involving a gambling man who (after losing consistently all his life) finally thinks he can’t help but win.

 Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Prehistory of Geekdom, Part 2

19th Century literature was the real gestation period for modern nerdiness, contributing stories and themes in a number of important genres. The century’s most important contribution to geekdom, though, is perhaps the development of gothic horror.


Mary Shelley, for instance, gave us Frankenstein. The origin of the novel is a classic tale in of itself—one dark and stormy night in 1816, Mary, along with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori, challenged one another to write a ghost story. Percy never really got started. Polidori turned out something that has been lost to the ages (which Mary later remembered as terrible), while Byron started a story but never finished it.


Mary, on the other hand, literally dreamed up her tale of a scientist who creates new life out of sewn-together corpses. Boy, did she start something! Full of themes and characters that strike to the heart of human nature (despite the novel’s often awkward plot construction), Frankenstein has become a part of our cultural consciousness.


In 1897, Bram Stoker gave us Dracula—the vampire who stands shoulder to shoulder with Frankenstein’s creation as one of the horror genre’s greatest creation.


Dracula is a great novel. A few of the heroes are marred by wooden characterizations, but Abraham Van Helsing is one of the coolest guys ever. And Stoker  literally creates the modern view of vampires (a view later cemented in our culture by a gazillion or so movies), coming up with a villain who is ever so slightly sympathetic, but still obviously evil.


And in between Shelley and Stoker we had Edgar Allan Poe. Gee whiz, Poe was a master of the English language, writing short stories in vivid, feverish prose that begs to be read aloud.


Try it. Grab a copy of “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Cask of Amontillado” and read it aloud. Even if you don’t have a real talent for reading aloud, it’s going to sound great.


A large part of the identity of us nerds come from the horror genre, which (when done right) tells a great story AND comments on the identifiable difference between good and evil. It’s a genre that has been nearly ruined over the last few decades by gross-out imagery and the absence of moral direction. But Shelley, Stoker and Poe knew how to do horror right. They knew how to scare you rather than just nauseate you.



Oh, yeah, Poe also pretty much invented the detective story—more on that in a later chapter.


Other writers—Hawthorne, Sheridan LeFanu, Guy De Mauppassant and others—also made important contributions to gothic horror. But without Shelley, Stoker and Poe, it’s quite possible that the modern comic book/SF nerd wouldn’t exist.


A world without me in it? Unthinkable.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: June 1965, part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR #39


The FF are rescued from the Pacific atoll on which they were stranded last issue when a U.S. Navy sub picks them up. But they soon discover they are definitely without powers. All four immediately realize that this makes them sitting ducks for their enemies.


Back in New York, Reed works himself into near-exhaustion (and severe crankiness—“Ben, listen to me, you clumsy bumbler!”) trying to come up with devices to duplicate their powers.


Well, Dr. Doom (who has snapped out of the hypnotic spell from FF Annual #2 that convinced him he had defeated Reed) attacks and takes over the Baxter Building. He uses various devices of Reed’s to attack the FF, who were practicing with their power-duplicating devises at a nearby warehouse. Fortunately, Reed was also consulting with attorney Matt Murdock, which means Daredevil soon jumps in to help.


Daredevil’s prowess and Reed’s brains combine to help them avoid Doom’s attacks. The issue ends with DD drawing Doom’s fire while the FF approaches the Baxter Building to take on their arch-enemy—powers or no powers.


As usual, great Kirby visuals abound throughout the story. I especially like the sequence in which Doom tries to ram everyone with the remote-controlled Fantasticar, separating it into its individual sections to try to overwhelm them.


Characterizations are also handled well. There’s a real sense that the Four are all scared to death without their powers to depend on, but they press on anyways. Ben, not surprisingly, has the best line here: “It was easy to be a brave loudmouth when I had the Thing’s strength. Now I’ll see how good Ben Grimm is when the chips are down.”


SPIDER MAN #25

This is a great issue. I love the set up. Peter goes to JJJ with some Spider Man photos. Jonah isn’t interested at first, so Peter convinces him that the photos actually make Spidey look bad. This ticks off Betty, who can’t believe that Peter would knock the superhero who once saved his Aunt May from Doctor Octopus.


Peter makes things worse when a scientist shows up claiming to have a robot (The Spider Slayer) that can defeat Spider Man. Both Jonah and Peter figure the guy is a crank, but Peter sees an opportunity to take more newsworthy photos. He talks Jonah into giving the robot a try, which ticks Betty off even more.


It’s all wonderfully done, especially when we see Peter’s chagrin when the robot is tested and actually proves to be formidable!


The robot’s design is undeniably a little bit silly, but it’s effective all the same. The touch of having Jonah’s face projected onto the robot’s TV-screen face when he operates it is brilliant.


Anyway, Peter manages to use his science skills to disable the robot. He basically figures out where the off button is. Along the way, though, he loses his costume. (I’m not going to try to explain how that happens.)


There’s also some funny character stuff involving Betty and Liz being jealous and catty towards each other, while Flash gets increasingly annoyed by Liz’s interest in Peter. We also get another almost-appearance by Mary Jane. We actually see her this time—well, all but here face, which is always conveniently blocked from view. Peter loses a chance to meet her and she’ll continue to be an unseen running gag for another 1 ½ years until he finally does.


The issue ends when Aunt May finds Peter’s spare costume. She buys the story that it’s just a costume he got for a gag, but that leaves Peter with no costume at all. Will that cause problems for him next issue? Well, duh.


STRANGE TALES #133

Johnny and Ben’s next-to-last Strange Tales adventure has them getting captured by the Puppet Master, but thinking their way out of trouble in the nick of time. It’s a short and well-done little adventure story—enhanced by some good banter between the two heroes.


The Puppet Master, by the way, has a new look in this story, having gotten plastic surgery. He still looks creepy as all get-out—just a different sort of creepy. He’ll revert back to his old appearance before long, though.


In the meantime, we discover that Dr. Strange zapped himself into another dimension at the end of the last issue—the only way he could escape Mordo.


He ends up in a random dimension, this one ruled by a despotic sorceress. Not surprisingly, Dr. Strange ends up helping the rightful queen regain the throne. I love the way he manages this: Still exhausted from his fight with Mordo, he’s initially defeated by the sorceress. But he mind-probes a lizard-like pet animal, learning the location of a globe that gives the sorceress her power. With the help of the rightful queen, he destroys the globe. The resultant release of energy tosses him off into yet another dimension.


Ditko really has a chance to go to town with bizarre visuals this time around. That and Stan Lee’s increasing skill at pacing a serial story make this another strong issue.


That’s it for now. Next week, we’ll visit with Thor, Iron Man and Captain America.


IMPORTANT MESSAGE: I'm having a ball doing the History of the Marvel Universe & I will continue on at least into the late 1960s (when we'll get to a point where I don't own reprints to a number of Marvel comics and would have to start leaving gaps). I'm thinking, though, of occasionally taking a break from this and using one Wednesday a month to analyze a multi-part story or specific issue from DC, Gold Key, Dell or EC. Once again, I am aware that I have a very small readership, but if any of you have an opinion on this, please let me know. Would you like to see these sorts of quick reviews expanded out into other comics--or should I concentrate just on my chronological Marvel reviews?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Mysterious Traveler: “No one on the Line” 9/1/46

A man is convinced his wife is having an affair. Determined that no one else will ever take anything that “belongs” to him, he plots to murder his wife’s lover.

The “surprise twist” at the end of this episode is telegraphed far too obviously early on. Normally, that would come close to ruining a show like this, but Ted Osborne as the lead character gives such an effectively ruthless and arrogant performance that it’s still a lot of fun to hear him get his comeuppance at the end.

 Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fun to just look at.

I spend a lot of time in my "History of the Marvel Universe" posts raving about how good Jack Kirby's art work is. Today, let's jump over to DC comics to look at an example of just how true this is.  Here's a 2-page splash panel from Kamandi, Last Boy on Earth (November 1974). Kamandi is fighting for intelligent dolphins in their war against the killer whales. Both sides are using human mercenaries and Kamandi is trying to bring down the whales' best warrior.

But even taken out of context with the rest of the story, this panel is just plain fun to look at, isn't it? The slightly off-center perspective is perfect, while the design of the bad guy's water-jet thingie is imaginative and unique.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: May 1965, Part 3

TALES TO ASTONISH #67


Giant Man only has three stories to go (including this one) before being replaced by the Sub Mariner. Sadly, he continues to go out on a lame note. His butt-ugly new costume design doesn’t help at all. Nor does the unmemorable villain--a mysterious masked man with a ray gun that allows him to steal knowledge and super powers from others. Nor does the awkward and clichéd ending—the villain is from another planet and gets caught by his fellow aliens at the end, who conveniently undo all the damage he’s done.



The Hulk story is much better. As with Dr. Strange, Stan Lee continues to use the serial format to strong effect. The green guy trashes the Russian armored column that confronted him last issue, then takes several cross-country hops until he ends up in the Himalayas. Once there, he turns back into Banner and gets captured by a gang of bandits.



They contact the U.S. to ask for ransom. Major Talbot is assigned to take the ransom to the bandits. But when a rival bandit gang attacks, Talbot and Banner make a break for it. The issue ends, though, with the two falling off a cliff during their getaway.



This is Steve Ditko’s last issue as artist for the Hulk. Jack Kirby takes over the title on the next issue. I love the art of both men, but Kirby handles images of raw power a little better, so the change will be a good one.


AVENGERS #16:


It’s a good month for awkward dues ex machinas. When the last issue ended, the Avengers were confronting the Masters of Evil and worrying about all the nearby innocent bystanders. Thor simply whips up a dimensional warp with his hammer, carrying the good guys along with Melter and the Black Knight into another dimension. The laws of physics are different enough to prevent the villains’ weapons from working properly, so they’re easily defeated.


That bit is awkward and anti-climatic, but the rest of the issue is classic and important. Thor has to leave for the Trial of the Gods he’s currently undergoing in his own book. Iron Man, Giant Man and Wasp all realize they need a break and decide to take a leave of absence from the Avengers.


That leaves just Captain America and three brand-new members. All three have been sort-of bad guys who want to get off to a clean new start: Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. (Hawkeye, by-the-way, explains that he finally decided to turn over a new leaf after the Black Widow was badly wounded by a Russian assassin. Her fate is left up in the air for the time being.)



It’s a nice line-up with a respectable variety of powers (though less raw power). I don’t know if I’ve ever read exactly why Stan Lee opted to change the line up so dramatically, dropping a couple of popular characters in favor of less-well-known ones. But in terms of good storytelling, the change is a good one. We’ve got some pretty strong tales coming up in future issues.


X-MEN #11:


This story actually takes place just before the Avengers tale, since we see the events that help convince Pietro and Wanda to quit Magneto’s group.


Professor X and Magneto race to contact what both initially believe to be a very powerful mutant. But the Stranger is really a cosmically powerful alien who is collecting examples of mutated creatures from various worlds. Magneto has the bad luck to contact the Stranger first. The end result: Mastermind is turned into a statue while Magneto and Toad are carried off as prisoners to another planet. As mentioned already, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch pretty much just up and quit.


The threat of Magneto seems to be gone for good. Yeah, right. In a comic book universe, no threat is ever gone for good. But Stan and Jack seem to have decided that the X-Men book needed a break from Magneto for a time. They were probably right. Though a great villain, he has been the main antagonist in 6 out of 11 issues. The X-Men really needed to expand their Rogue’s Gallery. They’ll begin that in their next issue, when the X-Mansion gets attacked by Juggernaut.


There’s a couple of nice details in this issue. Hank gets some particularly good one-liners. A confrontation between the X-Men and the Brotherhood takes place under circumstances that don’t give Cyclops time to change into costume, so he takes part in the fight wearing a suit and tie. For no particularly good reason at all, I think that was a nice visual touch.


That’s it for May. In June 1965, a powerless FF fight Doctor Doom; J. Jonah Jameson personally (well, sort of) fights Spider Man; Johnny and Ben get attacked by an…art exhibit?; Dr. Strange gets caught between a good sister and an evil sister; Thor tries to prove that Loki is a big cheater; Iron Man goes for a swim; Captain America gets brainwashed; Giant Man is attacked by an old enemy; the Leader makes another try to capture the Hulk; the new Avengers fight an old enemy; and Daredevil battles a villain who’s so lame it makes him cool.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: “Typhoon” 7/28/47


An unimaginative ship captain, a long-suffering first mate (played by Frank Lovejoy) and a typhoon in the South Seas are all elements to yet another example of just how great a show was Escape. All the elements—script, acting, sound effects—come together to immerse us completely in this classic adventure tale. (Based, by the way, on a short story by Joseph Conrad.)


Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New article by me.

Here's an article I wrote (adapted from a chapter from my last book) that was just published online at OTRCat.com:


Nick Carter, Master Detective

I'd be a better starship commander than James T. Kirk.

It's true. I would be better at the job. And I can prove it.


I was recently watching the episode "The Galileo Seven" for the umpteenth time. It's a really strong episode. Spock and six others are investigating an ion storm in a shuttlecraft. The effects of the storm sucks them in and forces them to crash land on a desolate planet. They are surrounded by these huge, ape-like aboriginals with a tendency to impale strangers with really big spears. Spock must figure out a way to keep them all alive while Scotty tries to get the shuttle flying again.


As I said, it's a great episode--basically a character study pitting Spock's logic and lack of emotion against his human and more emotional crewmates, producing a real sense of tension and danger.


But my point here is to demonstrate that I'd be a better captain of the Enterprise than Kirk.


Kirk is desperately searching the planet for his friends, but the ion storm has disrupted sensors and communications. He only as a limited amount of time to search, because he's carrying medical supplies that have to be delivered by a specific deadline.


He sends out another shuttlecraft to assist in the search. But time runs out and he must recall all search parties and leave Spock and the others to their apparent doom.


Or did he have another option? It occurred to me that he didn't have to give up completely. Why not stuff the other shuttle full of volunteers, along with materials for building a shelter and a lot of supplies. They could have stayed behind, continuing the search while the Enterprise delivered the medical supplies.


Is there anything wrong with that plan? I don't think so. I think it works. And I think I thought of it and Kirk didn't. I am, therefore, a better starship commander than he is.


Of course, if I had to take the Enterprise into battle against a Klingon battle cruiser, I'd probably be in trouble. I have no idea how to yell out commands like "Mr. Sulu, take  us to course 143, mark 3--warp factor five!" and actually have it make sense.


But in this specific case, at least, I outdo Captain James T. Kirk.


Here's a link to watch the episode

THE GALILEO SEVEN

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: May 1965, Part 2

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #116


Thor and Loki go on trial to decide which of them is fibbing about bringing Jane Foster to Asgard last issue. It’s a trial by combat of sorts: both are stripped of weapons and teleported to the desolate land of Skornheim. The first to brave the dangers and get back to Asgard alive is declared victor.


Loki cheats, of course, sneaking along his magical “norn stones” to give him access to magical spells. He thus manages to bypass many dangers that Thor has to think or fight his way past.


It all makes of delicious Kirby goodness, allowing the world’s greatest comic book artist to really go to town with imaginative imagery. In fact, by this point, I would be hard-put to say whether it’s here or on Fantastic Four that Kirby has been given the most free reign for his extraordinary imagination.


Anyway, while the trial is going on, Balder discovers that Loki has also sent the Executioner and the Enchantress to menace Jane Foster (with the purpose of distracting Thor with worry during the trial.) Balder tells Odin, who sends him to Earth to protect Jane. There’s a nice touch when Odin grumbles that he still disapproves of Thor dating a mortal, but he’ll still protect her—if only to keep her from being a pawn in the supposedly fair trial.


Oh, by the way, Balder brings his news to Odin while the All-Father is taking a bath. In case you are ever visiting Asgard, better keep in mind that under most circumstances “None may disturb Odin while he takes his imperial bath!”


The issue ends with Balder confronting E & E on Earth, while Loki seems to reach Asgard just ahead of Thor.


There’s another interesting aspect to the story. At one point, one of Rick Jones’ Teen Brigade friends sees Jane running from the villains and tries to call for help. He yells out the window to Daredevil (who happens to be swinging by), but DD is heading for his confrontation with Namor (DD #7) and doesn’t stop. The boy radios the Baxter Building, but the Fantastic Four is currently in the Pacific being nuked by the Frightful Four. (FF #38). He also calls the Avengers, but they’re just not home (nor able to afford an answering service, apparently.)


One the one hand, these bits of continuity really do help establish the Marvel Universe as a “real” and interactive place. One the other hand, it slows down an otherwise fast-moving story for a couple of pages, leaving a glitch in the overall pacing.


In the “Tales of Asgard” backup feature, Thor and Loki are on a diplomatic mission to a King named Hymir. Loki talks Hymir into forcing Thor to accept a pair of challenges, with Thor having to accept eternal slavery if he fails. The first challenge is to catch a single fish from the Sea of Eternal Darkness (where the fish happen to be really, really big). The second challenge is to break an enchanted, unbreakable goblet. Thor manages to accomplish both tasks, of course.


I have been regularly raving about Jack Kirby’s art work on Thor and Tales of Asgard and I will continue to do so. But he wasn’t perfect and this story shows one of his rare miscues. Hymir’s large and ornate crown (made distinctive because it plays an important role in the story’s climax) is supposed to look impressive. But the oversized thing just looks darn silly.


Oh, well, not even the best comic book artist can be awesomely cosmic every time.

TALES OF SUSPENSE #65


A burglar manages to get hold of Tony’s attaché case containing the Iron Man armor. He practices enough to get the hang of using it, then goes on a crime spree. Tony is forced to use his old, bulky armor when confronting him. The newer armor is better, of course, but Tony is able to think his way to a victory.


There’s an awkward dues ex machina at the end, though. The burglar knows Tony is Iron Man (he knew it was Tony’s briefcase when he stole it). But when he’s caught, the “strain was too much for him” and is simply rambles on about having invented the armor himself. How convenient.


The Captain America story marks the first modern appearance of Cap’s arch-enemy, the Red Skull. I’m thinking the decision to bring the Skull back now might have been made because Baron Zemo was killed off in the last issue of the Avengers, leaving Cap without an arch-enemy. Also, of course, the Skull is a visually dynamic character—as creepy looking as you can get.


The story itself is still set during World War II (though the Skull will eventually show up again in modern time). The Nazi is offing important army officers and also sabotages a new bomber. But Cap and Bucky soon manage to put him on the run. The Skull escapes at the end of the story, but he’ll be back next issue.


We’ll finish up May 1965 next week with visits to Giant Man, Hulk, the Avengers and the X-Men.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

Voyage of the Scarlet Queen: “Hattie McCormick and the Patient Stowaway” 12/31/47




The Scarlet Queen is on course to its next Asian port-of-call when a stowaway is discovered aboard. The uninvited passenger is quite forthright about his intention to murder three people when the ship arrives at its destination.


Captain Philip Carney locks the guy up, intending to turn him over to the authorities as soon as possible. But when the stowaway escapes upon arrival at port, Carney feels it’s his duty to warn the potential victim. Soon, he finds himself acting as bodyguard to an enormously fat tavern owner named Hattie McCormick.


But in Carney’s hardboiled, film noir-inspired universe, a situation is rarely that straightforward. Someone is murdered, but there are threads within threads here and its up to Carney to untangle the mess and get to the truth.


Eliot Lewis—one of radio’s finest storytellers—stars as Carney and also directed the series. Gil Doud and Bob Tallman provide a well-constructed script with quirky but realistic characters, giving us yet another fine episode in this superb show.


Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Best TV Science Fiction ever?

Sorry to take up nearly two hours of your time, but these two episodes of the original Outer Limits series may represent the absolute best example of made-for-TV science fiction ever. Great script with Robert Duvall doing a fine job underplaying his role as a government agent. The ending is absolutely heart-breaking. The black-and-white photography is perfect for the story as well.


I've always preferred The Twilight Zone to Outer Limits, but Limits was a great show as well and "The Inheritors" arguably edges out even the best of the Zone.





Wednesday, July 7, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: May 1965, Part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR #38


The Frightful Four is back, kidnapping Sue to lure the rest of the FF to a remote Pacific atoll, where a “Q-bomb” (an ultra-powerful nuke) has been placed.


The issue begins with a playful moment that reminds us of the family dynamic at work among the Fantastic Four, and a few pages reminding us who makes up the Frightful Four (Paste-Pot Pete, by the way, finally changes his name to the Trapster in this issue.)


Then the story takes off like a bullet, moving quickly from New York to the atoll. Jack Kirby has especial fun with visuals involving Reed Richards. The most notable is when the villains are trying to escape the atoll in their spherical aircraft. Reed stretches his body into a large spring and launches Ben up and through the craft’s hull.


Sue spends much of the issue a prisoner, groggy from being hit by sleep gas. But she still gets her moment, using her force field in a clever way to get loose from her bonds.


But in the end, the bad guys get away from the atoll and set off the bomb. Sue’s force field seems to have saved their lives, but the last panel shows Ben turning human again and includes an ominous warning that all four have been affected. This will lead directly into a wonderful two-part story that will take up the next couple of issues.


SPIDER MAN #24


A psychiatrist publically announces that Spider Man must be nuts and on the verge of cracking up completely. Soon after, Spidey begins to have hallucinations that he’s being attacked by various arch-enemies. Convinced he is going nuts, he visits the psychiatrist.


Well, it’s a trap, of course. The head doctor is really Mysterio, out for revenge by convincing Spidey to spill his secret identity. In this regard, the story is a little weak. It’s a fun idea to have Peter doubt his sanity and it’s handled well, but he really should have at least suspected a trap from the start. Mysterio had played similar tricks with him before.


But the rest of the issue is fun. There’s lots of good stuff with Jameson, Betty, Liz and Flash, much of it centering around Liz’s increasing interest in Peter and Peter’s continued jealousy that Betty is still writing Ned Leeds.


It all sounds very “soap opera” when baldly described, but that’s okay. The characters involved are all likeable and young enough to make their insecurities and bad decisions understandably. Heaping “Real Life” problems on Peter along with the superhero stuff continues to be the book’s main strength.



STRANGE TALES #132


The Torch/Thing tale isn’t a bad little story. Johnnie’s recruited to help on security on a space program. The head scientist turns out to be a villain, planning on gaining control of all of the U.S.’s satellites.


Eventually, Johnny ends up in orbit, in a space capsule rigged to come apart upon re-entry, while Ben is on the ground caught in a giant magnet. Both escape their respective death traps and come to get the bad guy from different directions—while each is convinced the other is dead. They manage to collide with each other, but catch the bad guy anyways.


Meanwhile, Dr. Strange manages to get back to New York and defeat one of Mordo’s minions guarding his home by—well, pretty much by sucker-punching the guy. Mordo, his power still amped up by Dormammu, attacks Strange personally.


In the end, Mordo seems to have defeated Strange when the Sorcerer Supreme is apparently zapped out of existence.


We also get a glimpse of Clea (still unnamed at this point) to remind us that Strange has a potential ally in Dormammu’s dimension.


Lee and Ditko still do a bang-up job with serial storytelling, keeping tensions high and the action non-stop. This entire story arc really is one of the best Dr. Strange stories ever.


Next week, we’ll continue with May 1965 with a look at Thor, Iron Man and Captain America.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lives of Harry Lime: “5000 Pengoes and a Kiss” 1/25/52


Harry Lime is, of course, the role Orson Welles played so perfectly in the classic film The Third Man. In the film, veteran con artist Lime has apparently allowed himself to sink low enough to get involved in drug smuggling and murder. But when Welles returned to the role for a syndicated series in 1952, we get a look at Lime before his apparent fall from what little grace he had. He’s still a con artist, but he has charm and likability (which, I suppose, all successful con artists have) and his cons don’t sink down to the level of the drug business or murder.


So the show presents us with a globetrotting Lime popping up in different locations around the world, always looking for an opportunity to make a mildly dishonest buck or two. In this episode, he’s in Communist Hungary, where he’s approached by a famous actress for help sneaking over the border to Austria.


He charges her 5000 gold pengoes and a kiss, then goes to the police to sell her out to them. Or does he? Things go wrong when another cop gets involved who wants to arrest Lime as well as the girl at the border. Lime has to improvise wildly at the end of the episode and we’re never quite sure what his original intent was. Did he plan on helping the girl all along while conning the cops? Or was he really selling her out? Circumstances force his hand in one of these directions, but what was his initial plan might have been is pure guesswork.


A good script, Welles’ perfect understanding of how to play Lime, and that great zither music make this a particularly strong episode in the series.


Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Best Team-up that Never Happened.

It’s not often that you find in Western literature a Cossack warrior as a hero. But in a series of superb adventure stories by pulp writer Harold Lamb (recently reprinted in four volumes), we do get to follow along with a Cossack as he gets caught up in one wild adventure after another.


Set in the last 16th Century, Lamb’s stories introduce us to Khlit, an aging warrior whose wits are as sharp (and often as deadly) as his sword. "His ability to think clearly into the future," we're told in one story, "had kept Khlit alive until his hair was gray, when few Cossacks lived to middle age."


Khlit gets around. In the first few stories, he’s hanging out with his fellow Cossacks. But despite constantly proving himself to be smarter than everyone else (and still a master swordsman), they think he’s getting too old to fight. So he wanders off on his own. At this point, his adventures really kick into high gear. He gets involved in finding the hidden tomb of Genghis Khan. He sneaks into a city of Assassins and finishes them off from the inside out. He gets accused of assassinating the emperor of China (who has really only been kidnapped by traitors). He gets hunted as prey by the Tartars. He has myriad single combats and fights in huge battles involving tens of thousands of soldiers. He fights and thinks his way out of prisons and certain death on a regular basis.


Lamb gave his stories consistently fun finales. There's be a twist--or we'd get to see the culmination of Khlit's plan in dealing with his current situation--then there would often be another bigger twist on top of that, highlighting just how clever the Cossask is.


These stories were printed in Adventure magazine between 1917 and 1926. Adventure was a unique pulp, taking pride in printing high quality stories that combined excitement with historical accuracy. Lamb’s stories were standouts even among works by Rafael Sabatini and Talbot Mundy. Khlit is one super-cool guy and Lamb’s prose is animated and lively.


Reading these stories (most of which have never been reprinted before) reminded me of the one other Cossack pulp hero that I’m aware of. Here we have to turn to a writer who admired and was highly influenced by Lamb’s stories—Robert E. Howard.


“The Shadow of the Vulture” is a novella published in the January 1934 issue of Magic Carpet Magazine. Here we first meet Red Sonya, a red-haired warrior woman who is helping to defend the city of Vienna against the Turks during the siege of 1529.


She also spends a lot of time defending Gottfried von Kalmbach, a knight who has a price on his head. Some years earlier, Gottfried had personally wounded the emperor Suleyman on the battlefield. Now Suleyman has sent his most ruthless soldier, Mikhal Oglu, to bring him Gottfried’s head. So the knight has not only survive a series of regular battles, but also watch his back for treachery.


Sonya is at first contemptuous of Gottfried, but she gradually warms up to him and they become companions on the battlefield (how far their companionship might eventually go is never made clear). And if you need someone to watch over you on the battlefield, you can’t do better than Sonya, whose “blade is a blur of white fire, and men went like ripe grain before the reaper.” She saves Gottfried—who is no slouch himself in a fight—at least three times; once after he’s kidnapped by double agents inside Vienna’s damaged walls. There is an absolutely wonderful shock at the story's climax.


The novella is yet another exciting example of Howard’s own storytelling skills. It’s sad that he never got around to writing any more stories about Gottfried and Sonya. In the 1970s Conan comic book published by Marvel, Red Sonya (now Red Sonja) was moved back to the Hyborian Age to team up with Conan. She’s been in sword-and-sorcery land ever since, both in comics and in a series of paperback novels published at some point in the 1970s. There was also what is reputed to be a very bad movie (I haven’t seen it) made in the 1980s.


So the original 16th Century Red Sonya is limited to her one appearance. It really is sad.


But while reading the Khlit stories, I got to thinking. It’s not impossible that Sonya—a few decades after the siege of Vienna—could have met a young Khlit. Maybe she returns to her homeland after adventuring around Europe and the Middle East for a couple of decades with Gottfried. Khlit might have been a youthful warrior, just getting started in the business of warfare. Maybe Sonya is the person who taught him his swordsmanship. Maybe they even had an adventure or two together.


It’s a nice thought. But, sadly, we'll never know for sure.
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