Monday, May 30, 2011

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: “St. James Infirmary Blues” 2/23/53

Rosemary Clooney stars in this episode—set during the Roaring ‘20s—about a girl who loves not wisely but too well.

It was broadcast at a time when radio veteran Elliot Lewis was directing/producing Suspense. Lewis wasn’t afraid to experiment with different storytelling methodologies. In this episode, he used Miss Clooney remarkable singing voice and the Jazz Age standard “St. James Infirmary Blues” to help advance the plot, with verses from the song being used as bridges between the scenes. (The lyrics used are, I believe, written specifically for this episode.)

Miss Clooney plays a lady who falls in love with a mob triggerman, enamored by what she perceives as his exciting and glamorous lifestyle. But, not surprisingly, things go awry when her boyfriend tries to double cross his boss and gets taken for a ride. But when he turns up at her apartment, badly wounded but still kicking, she agrees to help him get revenge. By this time, she’s clearly disillusioned with the mobster lifestyle, but she still loves her man all the same.

The story plays out as tragedy, with good dialogue and good acting giving it real bite. Rosemary Clooney proves to be a good actress, while William Conrad is particularly notable as the head gangster. (I love the way he abruptly switches from being a tough guy to begging for his life when the wounded triggerman gets the drop on him.)

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Where the heck did Philip Marlowe go?

Raymond Chandler introduced the world to private eye Philip Marlowe in the 1939 novel The Big Sleep. Marlowe is one of the greatest (arguably the greatest) of the hard-boiled private eyes-- a modern day knight errant—a man who once says of himself “I hear voices crying in the night and I go to see what’s the matter.”

Chandler was a master of sparse but descriptive prose and sharp dialogue, dropping Marlowe into complex stories set in a corrupt world. It wasn’t long before movie studios began to take a look at the Marlowe novels.

Oddly, though, the first two movies based on Chandler’s novels dropped Marlowe from the stories. Farewell, My Lovely became a vehicle for a suave British detective, while The High Window was given to another popular hard-boiled P.I.

B-movie detectives were incredibly popular during the 1940s. Characters like the Falcon, Boston Blackie, Michael Shayne, Torchy Blane, the Lone Wolf and Charlie Chan often appeared in two or three films a year. I suppose the popularity of these series during the 1940s meant the writers were always scrambling for enough material and plot ideas to fill this bottomless well.

Anyway, RKO Studios was producing the Falcon series. These movies initially starred George Sanders, Based on a short story by Michael Arlen, the Falcon is an urbane amateur detective who attracts the attention of at least one inevitably jealous woman per movie. He also tends to stumble over murder victims and indulge himself in solving the crime.

The Falcon Takes over (1942) uses the general plot and some of the characters from Farewell, My Lovely. A perpetually confused thug named Moose Malloy is looking for his old girlfriend—a femme fatale named Velma. On top of this, a sleazy rich guy hires the Falcon to help recover some stolen jewels. The two cases inevitably ties together.

The original plot is, of course, simplified for the Falcon film (B-movies typically ran only a few minutes over an hour) and the dark themes involving a good man trying not to drown in an ocean of corruption are dropped. The movie is still a lot of fun, though. Sanders was tailor-made for that particular sort of character; character actor Ward Bond is effectively menacing as Moose; and Hans Conried (another always entertaining character actor) has a small role as the sleazy rich guy.

That same year, Twentieth Century Fox turned to Chandler’s The High Window, changing the title to Time to Die and turning it into a vehicle for Michael Shayne, a private eye created by Brett Halliday in a series of well-written novels. Lloyd Nolan was playing Shayne in the subsequent B-movie series. I have no idea why the scriptwriters turned to Chandler when Halliday seemed to be writing about three zillion Shayne novels each year that were presumably available for adaptation. And I’m afraid I can’t judge the quality of the film. A few of the Shayne films have come out on DVD, but this one hasn’t and I’ve never managed to catch it on television.

Back to RKO: In 1944, Philip Marlowe finally got to appear in a Philip Marlowe story. Farewell, My Lovely was renamed Murder, My Sweet, with Dick Powell (up till now known as a star of light-weight musicals) proving his hard-boiled chops by giving the iconic Marlowe performance. Moose Malloy was played this time around by Mike Mazurki—who was pretty much the go-to guy for playing brutal thugs and bullies during the B-movie era. The beautifully photographed end result is a classic of film noir.

(By the way, anytime you see Mike Mazurki in a movie or TV show, you are obligated to point at the screen and yell out his name. It’s a tradition. Don’t ask me to explain. Just start doing it.)

So it was worth the wait. Besides, The Falcon Takes Over is a fun B-movie, so it all worked out for the best. Still, the fact that two different studios made Marlowe films in the same year without Marlowe in them is a fact worth noting. It doesn’t actually mean anything, but it’s worth noting all the same.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: October 1966


Most of this issue is dedicated to a fight between Ben and the Silver Surfer. It seems when the Surfer stopped by to visit Alicia, Ben (always insecure about his relationship) thought the alien was making time with HIS GIRL!!!

So they fight, though the Surfer keeps trying to get a word in edgewise and bring the unnecessary conflict to an end. Being a Kirby drawn and choreographed fight, it’s naturally a lot of fun. But its ending might even be more fun. Reed and Sue find out what’s going on; Reed confronts Ben and gives him a good, old-fashioned talking to.

It’s a wonderful moment. Reed makes it clear that he does care for Ben (“We’ve been friends for years… I’d give my life for you… and you know it!”), but he doesn’t hesitate to tell his best friend not to try to “prove you’re really as dumb as you look.” Basically, he tells Ben to stop acting like an idiot, go back to Alicia and grovel for forgiveness. Ben’s basic decency, of course, forces him to follow Reed’s advice.

Ben Grimm may very well be the most believable human of all the characters Stan Lee created or co-created. This issue could be offered as strong evidence for that.

There’s a few scenes with Johnny and Wyatt, as well. The two friends find Lockjaw, who has somehow managed to teleport himself beyond the barrier surrounding the Great Refuge. Johnny suddenly has hope that he’ll see Crystal again soon.


Speaking of really human moments:

We’ll get to the superhero stuff in a moment, but its Peter meeting with Betty when she returns to New York that I really want to make note of.

The two meet by chance and have coffee together. But to Peter’s surprise, they have little to say to each other. The spark between them has died down and Peter is perfectly content when she goes off on a date with Ned Leeds.

It’s a scene that really does ring true—a case of a mutual crush that just doesn’t pan out into anything permanent. It is a very human moment that strikes a very realistic cord.

And it opens up an opportunity for Peter to finally take an interest in Gwen, which he does a few pages later.

Anyway, back to the superhero stuff. J. Jonah Jamison’s astronaut son John is visiting his dad. But a new villain named the Rhino has been hired to kidnap him for an enemy power. (There’s also reference to John having been infected by mysterious space spores—a set up for the next issue.)

Much to J.J.J.’s annoyance, it’s Spidey who leaps in to rescue John. Discovering that Rhino is too strong to just punch out, the webslinger manages to just outlast him until he drops from exhaustion. John Romita once again provides us with a cool fight scene.

Also, Peter buys a motorcycle and thinks about getting his own apartment. And he and May get invited to have dinner at the Watson home, leaving him with no option but to meet that probably boring Mary Jane girl at last.

THOR #133

Thor fights (I’m sorry, I’ll only do it this one last time) A FREAKIN’ LIVING PLANET in a battle that is so much bizarre visual fun that I’m not going to try to describe it. Trust me, though. It’s awesome.

In the end, after fighting weird stuff both on Ego’s surface and subsurface, Thor uses his powers over the elements to basically threaten to rip the planet apart. Ego cries “uncle” and opts NOT to destroy our galaxy.

In the meantime, the High Commissioner of the Colonizers has turned off the Space Lock and told an annoyed Tana Nile that she can’t take over the Earth anymore.

But Tana’s machinations are already setting up the next story arc. Jane Foster, still mentally controlled to flee from Thor, runs into a couple of strange looking men who promise her a job working for someone called the High Evolutionary.

These last few issues of Thor are tossing fun new elements into the Marvel Universe at a fast and furious pace.

The Tales of Asgard story involves the dying barbarian Harokin being taken to Valhalla astride the creepy Black Stallion. It all works out in the end, though. Harokin discovers he gets to join in a never-ending eternal battle. For an Asgardian, that’s the best afterlife ever.

That’s it for October 1966. In November, the FF fight a rematch against Klaw; Peter Parker finally meets a certain redhead; and Thor goes looking for his elusive girl friend.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

If I remember correctly, writer Robert Hogan was shown the cover illustration first, then had to come up with a story that fit it. This wasn't unique in the pulp business, but considering how bizarre the G-8 covers were, Hogan deserves credit for coming up with consistently exciting (and more-or-less internally logical) stories to go with them.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: “Annie Oakley” 5/8/44

Throughout 1944, The Lone Ranger did an intermittent series of episodes guest-starring real-life historical characters. The Ranger and Tonto encountered villains such as John Wesley Hardin and good guys such as Bat Masterson.

It was a fun idea, allowing the show’s protagonists to interact with some of the Old West’s most interesting personalities. Some of these guest-stars were a bit surprising. A pair of episodes featuring Teddy Roosevelt have been discussed in a previous post. A young Kit Carson teamed up with the Ranger in another episode—violating the show’s historical continuity since it kicked the Ranger and Tonto back in time three or four decades from their normal place in the post-Civil War West. But what the hey, it was still a fun story.

Annie Oakley crossed paths with the Ranger when Tonto sees her in a shooting competition with Frank Butler (another famous sharpshooter of the time, as well as Annie’s future husband.) On the strength of Tonto’s account, the Ranger writes to Buffalo Bill Cody, recommending Annie as a member of the Wild West Show Cody was organizing.

A couple of roustabouts working with the show complicate matters when they formulate a plan to steal the box office receipts. Fortunately, the Ranger and Tonto learn of their plans, acting quickly to foil a plot to use Annie as an unwitting weapon to kill Cody.

Actually, the ending to this one is a little disappointing—I was hoping Annie would get a chance to take a more active role in the capture of the bad guys than she did. But it was fun all the same having her around for awhile. Boy, that lady knows how to handle a shootin’ iron.

And that’s the notable thing about this episode. Her shooting contest with Butler and her shooting tricks during the Wild West Show are, of course, merely sound effects combined with enough dialogue to let us know what’s going on. But such are the high production values of The Lone Ranger that it is very, very easy to immerse oneself into the whole thing and think of it as real. When Annie shoots the three hearts out of a playing card while Cody is holding it just an inch away from his face, it manages to sound just as cool and awesome as if it were actually happening. It’s still another example of how good old-time radio is at engaging the imaginations of its fans.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Snake Eyes vs Margo Lane

I recently re-watched the classic Twilight Zone episode "The Invaders," written by the great Richard Matheson. You probably know the one. Agnes Moorehead (who had been the original Margo Lane in the radio series The Shadow a couple of decades earlier) is an old woman in an isolated farmhouse that's invaded by tiny space men.

It's a truly great story. There's no dialogue until the end (where it helps set up the twist ending), Moorehead's silent performance is wonderful--she almost palpably exudes terror as she fights off a home invasion she can't possibly understand. Grunts of fear and cries of pain are all we hear from her as she builds up complete empathy for her character.

The lighting (simulating a rundown building lit only by candles and a fireplace) is handled beautifully and looks outstanding in black-and-white. I even like the little puppets used for the tiny invaders. They may not measure up to modern CGI images in some ways, but I think their unreality actually adds to their creepiness.

But how, you ask, does this involve Snake Eyes, the popular ninja-like member of the G.I. Joe team?

Well, I'm glad you asked. "The Invaders" was told almost entirely without dialogue. The Marvel comic G.I. Joe #21 (March 1984) told a story done entirely without dialogue.

I really enjoyed the work writer Larry Hama did on G.I. Joe during the 1980s. He took characters created for a toy line, gave them individual personalities and dropped them into stories with strong story arcs and great action sequences.

This particular issue involves Snake Eyes, probably the most popular character from the book--a highly trained soldier who combines ninja skills with modern weapon skills to take out lots and lots of bad guys.

Snake Eyes is mute and always wears a mask because he was hideously scarred (in a helicopter crash, I think). But that doesn't slow him down, especially when he has to sneak into a stronghold controlled by the terrorist organization Cobra to rescue the girl he loves.

The action is so well-presented that we need no captions or dialogue to follow along. It's a remarkable piece of comic art.

Snake Eyes takes out some Cobra soldiers and a couple of ninjas while also having his first encounter with Stormshadow, a bad guy ninja whose convoluted back-story will soon intertwine with Snake Eyes.

One of the things I love about Snake Eyes is the fact that he's definitely a soldier who is out to win his fights. If he's confronted with a ninja, he could almost certainly take the guy in a sword fight or martial arts fight. But if it's easiest to just lob a hand grenade at his opponent, then by golly he'll do that.

Anyway, I really have no good reason for linking these two completely different tales other than the fact that both use imagery exclusively (or almost exclusively---"The Invaders" uses sound effects and Moorehead's animal-like grunts to carry things along) to tell potent and energetic stories. This is enough to bring them together in my mind.

And to make me wonder who would win a fight between Margo Lane and Snake Eyes. Well, actually, that'd be Snake Eyes, wouldn't it?

But Snake Eyes vs. Endora from Bewitched? (also played by Moorehead) That'd be a different story.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: September 1966


The Black Panther throws a big shindig to celebrate the victory over Klaw. Grateful to the Fantastic Four for their help, he gives gifts to them.

It’s Johnny’s gift that is important to the story--especially since Sue and Reed’s gifts were new clothes. Gee whiz, remember how horrible it was to open a Christmas present as a kid and see a shirt or underwear. T’Challa could have given them anything from a pet robot panther to a rocket ship and he gives them CLOTHES!!!!

Oh, well. Sue was certainly ecstatic over the silly clothes. (Latest fashions from Paris or some such nonsense) and Reed was probably happy that Sue was happy. But I’ll bet he was secretly seething that he didn’t get a new rocket ship.

Anyway, this sequence actually is full of fun and sweet character moments. The FF is spending a few pages just hanging out with some friends and having a good time. We even get a reminder that Reed and Sue are deeply in love.

But a new set of clothes? Don’t ever let T’Challa do your Christmas shopping for you.

Back to Johnny’s gift. He wants to return to the Great Refuge and make one last attempt to break through the barrier, thus reuniting with Crystal. We also get a few scenes told from the Inhumans’ point-of-view, showing Black Bolt and family trying to break out of the barrier. But only the now completely bug-nuts Maximus knows how to do this and he’s not telling.

T’Challa gives Johnny a big, transparent bubble that flies using magnetic energy. (See, T’Challa? See? Think about it for a moment and you CAN come up with cool gift ideas.) Wyatt invites himself along and the two take off for the Great Refuge.

Along the way, they stumble across an ancient crypt and find a medieval knight just waking up from suspended animation. This is Prestor John, a knight of King Richard who wandered all over the world, finally discovering the high-tech (or possibly magical) kingdom of Avalon. Now all that is left of Avalon is a super-weapon called the Evil Eye.

After the Eye is demonstrated, Johnny realizes it might cut through the barrier. Without thinking, he snatches it from Prestor John and flies off, not realizing that it’s about to overload and blow up. Wyatt and John zip after him in the flying bubble, shooting the Eye out of his hand in the nick of time. Johnny is saved, but his chance to shatter the barrier and rescue Crystal is gone.

The whole story once again gives Jack Kirby a chance to design all sorts of super-scientific gadgetry and bizarre giant statuary—more Wakandan stuff; devices and vehicles from ancient history described by Prestor John; and John’s crypt. The story itself is solid and sending Wyatt and Johnny off for some adventures of their own is a fun idea. But it’s all made truly great by Jack Kirby’s visuals.

But still---CLOTHES? He’s surrounded by some of the coolest inventions in the history of inventing, but he gives them clothes. Gee whiz.


This issue gives you two clichés for the price of one in order to resolve the Green Goblin story arc, but that’s not really a complaint. The characters ring true and John Romita continues to prove he can provide some pretty cool lookin’ fight scenes.

Peter is tied up in the Goblin’s secret base. That introduces the first cliché—to buy time, he goads Osborne into a lengthy villain monologue.

But Osborne is bug nuts enough to make this believable. And his origin is an interesting one that fits the character—ruthless businessman who neglects his son to make money, transformed by a lab accident into a ruthless costumed criminal who neglects his son to make money.

Anyway, he frees Peter in order to prove he can finally beat Spider Man in a straight up fight. Romita really does provide a great fight scene here—proving that Spidey has hit the jackpot with two artists in a row.

The second cliché comes at the fight’s climax—an electric shock gives Osborne amnesia, erasing his memory of being the Green Goblin and his knowledge of Spider Man’s secret identity. Peter saves him from a raging fire and doesn’t tell anyone about his career as the Goblin.

Gee, how convenient! This one is a little harder to swallow, but in an otherwise strong issue, it’s forgivable. Besides, the only other solution would have been killing off Osborne. Considering the high-quality stories that Norman would be a part of (culminating in the death of Gwen Stacy arc a few years down the line), keeping him around was probably a wise decision. Of course, a resurrected Osborne has been a major symptom of the dramatic derailment of the Marvel Universe in recent years. It makes one wonder if perhaps we all wouldn’t have been better off if Norman had bit the big one early on.

Anyway, the issue also involves reference to Aunt May (who literally worries herself sick when Peter is out late without calling) and a brief interlude with Betty Brant, who has decided to return to New York City. As I’ve implied in past entries, I remembered Betty being away much longer before she came back. But here she is popping up after just a few issues. Oh, well, perhaps I’m suffering from a form of intermittent comic book amnesia.

THOR #132

This is a really fast-paced story that allows Kirby to draw space ships, space stations, robots, alien weaponry and A FREAKIN’ LIVING PLANET!!!! It is, needless to say, a wonderful issue.

Thor continues his rampage against the Colonizers. When they try to recapture the ship he’s using, he captures a bigger ship. He proves a big robot called an Indestructible isn’t all that indestructible. He’s about to smash the source of the space lock holding Earth in its grip when the Grand Commissioner of the Colonizers cuts a deal with him.

An as yet unidentified threat from the mysterious Black Galaxy threatens our galaxy (including both the Colonizers and Earth) with destruction. If Thor can find this threat and defeat it, the Colonizers will leave Earth alone. Thor accepts. Soon he and a humanoid recording device called the Recorder are in a ship, zipping into the Black Galaxy. Once there, they run smack into Ego, the Living Planet.

This is great stuff. Matching Thor up against super-powerful alien threats and sending him on an epic quest across several galaxies is a magnificent set-up for Kirby’s art and provides us with the sort of cosmic level storytelling that best fits the God of Thunder. Though I still have to rate the Thor/Hercules story arc as my overall favorite Thor tale, that is very much a subjective opinion. As with the Fantastic Four, there’s not a single story from this time period that fails to satisfy and entertain.

The Tales of Asgard story is a quiet one. Thor and the Warriors Three are resting up after their fight with Harokin’s forces. But their rest is interrupted by the appearance of the Black Stallion—a harbinger of death for someone…


Having rescued Betty from Boomerang last issue, Hulk leaves her snug in a cave he dug out for her, then leaps off to find her food. What he finds is General Ross, Rick Jones and a column of army troops. But Hulk surprises everyone by grabbing Ross and Rick and taking them back to Betty. Then he leaps off to mope atop a mountain, wondering what to do next.

Meanwhile, Boomerang takes advantage of most of Ross’ troops being gone to attack the army base and get the Orion missile. Meanwhile #2, the leaders of the Secret Empire, while waiting for their minion to get the missile, continue to rapidly back stab each other.

The Hulk story arc continues to roll along at a fun pace and Stan Lee is finally getting a lock on how the character works best, both in terms of personality and the method through which he changes form. We’ll be seeing more of Bruce Banner in the next few chapters as Lee discovers ways to work the puny human into the story along with his brutish alter ego.

By the way, the whole Secret Empire thing resolves itself in issues we are no longer covering. As mentioned in an earlier entry, they turn out to be a faction of Hydra. It’s actually SHIELD agent Gabe Jones who ends up taking them down.

Anyway, this is a good spot to drop the Hulk as a regular feature in our chronological reviews. That brings us down to the three core titles we’ll stick to for many months to come. We’ll be revisiting Hulk, soon, though. He and Spider Man are going to encounter each other in the 1966 Spider Man annual.

That’s it for September 1966. In October, the Silver Surfer puts some moves on Alicia Masters (or does he?); Spider Man adds another villain to his rogue’s gallery; and Thor takes on A FREAKIN’ LIVING PLANET!!! (I’m sorry. I just enjoy typing that phrase.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

Catwoman's has gone through a lot of costume changes over the years. For no particular reason whatsoever, this one has always been my favorite.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I'm off to Africa

As you read this post, I will be on my way to the village of Nimule in South Sudan. As is typical for any trip to Africa, I'll be encountering lost civilizations and fighting a variety of savage creatures.

Actually, I'll be teaching the book of Ezekiel to guys training to be chaplains in the southern Sudanese military. This won't affect this blog at all--I have posts already made up and scheduled be published on the usual schedule.

But I will be pretty much cut off from the internet (and, for that matter, electricity) until early June. Please note that if you leave any comments in between now and June 3, I won't be around to moderate them. You are still welcome to comment, but they won't be published until I get back to look them over. (I do get an occasional spam comment and once something with some swear words, so comments--sadly--do need to be approved before appearing.)

I appreciate everyone's patience in this regard.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Fibber Mcgee and Molly--4/22/47

Jim and Marion Jordan were a great comedy team. His character of Fibber was something of a blowhard, with his wife often playing "straight man," but tossing in her own one-liners from time to time as well.

Another strength of the show was the strong supporting cast, with talented comedic actors such as Gale Gordon and Arthur Q. Bryant (the voice of Elmer Fudd in the Warner Bros. cartoons). Harlow Wilcox was the spokesman for the sponsor (Johnson Wax) AND a character in the show, thus allowing the commercial to also work as a comedy skit.

This episode involved Fibber and Molly taking a trip to the carnival. Fibber is convinced all the games are rigged. So when Molly wins a prize at everything she plays, Fibber decides that she's being allowed to win because the carnival people have guessed he is on to them. It was a pretty simple plot, but it allowed the two comedians to trade quips, encounter other characters, and be funny. It was good comedy, still making you laugh after six decades.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

DId Hal Foster read the Phantom, I wonder?

The Phantom was created in 1936 by writer Lee Falk, with Ray Moore doing the art work. As I mentioned in a previous post, he has one of the coolest origin stories ever. His ancestor was the sole survivor of a pirate attack and swore to fight piracy and uphold justice.

Over the years, the mantle of the Phantom is passed from father to son. But only a few select people know that. The Phantom becomes known as "The Ghost Who Walks" and develops a legend of immortality that awes the good guys and really freaks out the bad guys.

The Phantom was a great strip, full of great imagery and swashbuckling storytelling.

While the Phantom was fighting villainy in modern times, artist Hal Foster was tossing Arthurian knight Prince Valiant up against various bad guys in 6th Century Europe (with occasional trips to the mid-East and Africa). It's an element from a story arc from 1942 that makes me think Foster might have been aware of the Phantom's back story.

Prince Valiant is sent out to inspect the remnants of Hadrian's Wall due to rumors that Viking warriors have joined up with the Picts and made plans to invade England.  Valiant reaches the wall and--despite the fact that the Romans abandoned England centuries ago--finds a Roman soldier steadfastly standing guard.

It turns out that the guy (named Julian) is a descendant of a wounded soldier left behind when the Romans pulled out. He recovered and since then, the job of sentry has been passed on from father to son.

Valiant goes on a scouting mission into Scotland, where he's caught by the Picts. He's tortured horribly before being rescued by his friend Sir Gawain.

Gawain gets Valiant back to the wall, but they're cornered by the villains. But then Julian walks out. We find out the Picts think he's immortal (just like, for instance, the Phantom) and they back off.

Julian mirrors the Phantom very closely in that regard. Of course, there's an excellent chance it's just a coincidence. But then again, maybe Foster was following the adventures of one of his competitors and borrowed an idea.

In either case, the whole Hadrian's wall sequence from Prince Valiant is (as is typical of Foster's work) breathtakingly beautiful to look at and a well-constructed story to boot. If Foster did borrow the idea of perceived immortality from Lee Falk, it was a harmless enough bit of shoplifting. The stories, main characters and visual styles of the two men are otherwise clearly unique in their own rights.

Besides--who knows? Maybe a few centuries after King Arthur's kingdom fell, it was a descendant of Julian who became the first Phantom.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1966


Stan Lee’s script jams a lot of information into this issue—we learn of the Black Panther’s origin, some history of Wakanda, the existence of a mountain of Vibranium, the origin of Panther’s arch-enemy Klaw (the master of sound) and the reason the Panther invited the FF to his country for a fight.

But the story isn’t rushed or stilted at all. Lee and Kirby continue to combine their respective strengths as storytellers smoothly and effectively. Kirby’s visuals give us super-scientific gadgetry, jungle settings, bizarre creatures (created out of solid sound), and great fight scenes. Lee’s dialogue gives us all the information we need and some great one-liners from Ben.

It all boils down to the Black Panther confronting Klaw (who is after the Vibranium) while the FF and Wyatt Wingfoot fight a couple of sound-construct monsters. In the end, Klaw is defeated and retreats into a sound chamber that will “alter [my] own basic structure via my sound transformer,” allowing him to return with enhanced powers in a few issues. The Panther, meanwhile, pledges his life and fortune “to the service of all mankind,” adding another cool hero to the Marvel Universe.


John Romita takes over the art on The Amazing Spider Man for what will be a long and brilliant run. For a few issues, he seems to emulate Ditko just a litte, but he soon turns to his own strong and distinctive style. Ditko is missed, but Romita also choreographs killer fight scenes, gives us clear visuals that tell the story effectively and outdoes Ditko in his ability to draw drop-dead gorgeous women. With all due respect to Steve Ditko’s magnificent work, I’m not sure Mary-Jane Watson would be the important character she is today if Ditko had drawn the “Face it, Tiger. You hit the jackpot.” scene coming up in just a few more issues.

Romita’s premiere is also a key story in the series. The Green Goblin is back, determined to defeat Spider Man once and for all.

He uses some thugs pulling off a robbery to lure Spidey into a trap—during that fight, he’s hit with a gas that deadens his spider sense. That allows the Goblin to trail him without being detected. The bad guy thus learns that Spider Man is Peter Parker.

He attacks Peter outside Aunt May’s house, giving us a great fight scene made more visually unique because Peter is fighting in his civilian clothes. (A smoke screen used by Goblin during the fight has the unexpected benefit of hiding Peter from May and the neighbors while he’s pulling off Spider Man moves.) Peter is knocked out and carried off to Goblin’s warehouse HQ, where he manages to taunt Goblin into revealing HIS secret ID. That, as pretty much every comic book fan knows now, is Harry Osborne’s dad Norman.

The main story arc is wonderful—another high point in Spidey’s history. Also, Lee starts to tie up the “Peter’s classmates thinks Peter is a jerk” story arc that has limbed on a few issues too many as he finally starts to make friends with Harry and even gets Flash thinking he might not be so bad. Heck, Peter even buries the hatchet with romantic rival Ned Leeds. If it wasn’t for the fact that his arch enemy has blown his secret ID and kidnapped him (oh, and if Aunt May weren’t once again back to frail health where any sudden shock might kill her), then Peter would have been having a pretty good day.

THOR #131

Thor finally gets permission from Odin to marry Jane Foster—though Odin quite wisely predicts that a relationship between a god and a mortal can only come to a bad end.

But that’s something to be resolved in a future issue. When Thor returns to Jane’s apartment, he runs into Tana Nile, who is revealed to be a member of an all-powerful alien race known as the Colonizers. And their name says it all—one of them picks a planet and takes it over as a personal colony, using their super-science to force the native population to submit.

While Tana arranges to have the Earth trapped within a force field called a “space lock,” two other Colonizers trap Thor in a block of coagulated protons (something that I suspect doesn’t make any sense at all—but it sure sounds cool) and take him back to their home on Rigel for study. But Thor is only pretended to be trapped to get information. Once the Colonizer ship is heading back for Rigel, he breaks out and knocks out his captors. His plan—take the ship to Rigel and force them to release Earth from the space lock.

I love Kirby’s character design for the Colonizers—they look a little like super-scientific bobble-heads, though that description makes them sound a little too silly. They really do have an eerie and alien feel to them that adds to the story.

Kirby also does a typically awesome job of designing the Colonizer’s huge space station on Rigel.

The “Tales of Asgard” back-up story is also pretty awesome. It gives Volstagg some screen time, allowing him (more through dumb luck than skill) to capture the Warlock’s Eye and capture Harokin’s forces. A panel in which he knocks out several soldiers with a belly slam by itself makes the whole story worthwhile.

Kirby continues to excel himself on both the FF and Thor. As I’ve said before, picking a “best-ever” phase for Kirby’s long and awesome career is very subjective, but I still gotta go with mid-60s work on these two titles for the win. Every panel he drew on these books literally drips with imagination.


Hulk spots Boomerang as the villain escapes with Betty. The two tussle for awhile, but Boomerang soon realizes he’s outmatched. He leaves Betty with Hulk in order to make a getaway.

In the meantime, General Ross (with Rick Jones stowing away in a truck) takes an armored column out to rescue his daughter, leaving Talbot behind to guard the powerful Orion missile (which, remember, is what the Secret Empire—Boomerang’s employers—ultimately plan to steal). Also, the leaders of the Secret Empire begin an internal mini-civil war to gain control of the organization, as one of them is killed by a booby-trap.

By this time, Stan Lee has found the proper personality and method of change for the Hulk (though the green guy is still a little more mean-spirited than he will eventually be portrayed). Lee also continues to demonstrate a real skill in advancing the plot within a serial story arc at just the right speed to keep everything dramatically satisfying.

That’s it for August. In September, Johnny and Wyatt Wingfoot take a really strange road trip; Thor takes an even longer road trip; Spider Man fights a “final” battle against his arch enemy; and Hulk does something really nice for Betty.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Gunsmoke: “Chester’s Inheritance” 4/2/61

I don’t really care that the ending of this particular episode can be predicted almost immediately. The regular cast, along with Harry Bartell and Vic Perrin, do such a fine job giving real humanity to their characters that it’s still a sweet and touching story. Bartell and Perrin, by the way, wrote the script together.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Monsters and Spaceships

If you are a comic book geek and hang out at the comic book shop occasionally, you're bound to get into some interesting and very geeky discussions. The geekiest I've ever been in was whether you'd want to hire Jimmie Olsen or Peter Parker as your wedding photographer. (One is likely to be transformed into a strange creature during the wedding; the other might not show up because he's been delayed fighting Dr. Octopus.)

A more recent discussion was what monster from any source of fiction has the coolest design. I had a ready answer for that, of course. Ghidorah, the three-headed monster--one of Godzilla's arch-enemies, is my first pick.

This really is an imaginative design. Ghidorah was supposed to represent the ultimate threat in monsters, so powerful that he could take on any one or two of Earth's monsters and win. His three-head, twin-tail, lightning-spitting design made him look as if he really awesome enough do just that.

It was always nice to see Ghidorah (usually controlled by invading aliens) fly down from space in his latest attempt to destroy the Earth, only to be defeated by Godzilla and one or more of Earth's home-grown monsters.

Ghidorah was in three of the movies from the original series. When the Godzilla franchise was rebooted in 1985 and reintroduced the various monsters in a new continuity, Ghidorah gets turned into Mecha-King Ghidorah after being defeated by Godzilla.

I'm torn between whether I like him better as completely organic or with a robot head/neck replacing one of the originals. Both look pretty gosh-darn cool.

Some of the other people in the discussion had some pretty good nominations of their own; the Rancor from the Star Wars universe; the one-eyed giant Centaur from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad; the Medusa from the original Clash of the Titans.

All of these are cool monsters. But though I love Ray Harryhausen's movies and special effects more than I love the Japanese monster movies, I just think the design of King Ghidorah managed to hit just the right note in awesomeness and visual imagination to jump it up to the top spot on my list.

Though I do feel some guilt in jumping any monster over Ray Harryhausen's beautiful monster designs. Oh, well, sometimes the decisions a comic book/SF geek must make can't help but be painful.

Anyway, this discussion led to a brief discussion about which space ships are coolest. For me it's a tie between Han Solo's Millennium Falcon and the USS Reliant from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.
The beat-up but still functional look of the Millennium Falcon, along with the asymmetrical placement of the cockpit and the B-17 inspired gun turrets really do give it a unique and appealing look.

The Reliant is a neat variation of the standard Star Fleet design, helped along by the fact that it plays a key role in what is still by-far the best Star Trek feature film.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: July 1966

Reed Richards gets a high-tech flying car as a gift from the mysterious ruler of the African nation of Wakanda, along with an invitation to visit. He, the rest of the FF and Johnny’s college roomie Wyatt Wingfoot accept.

Once there, though, they are trapped in a maze of high-tech booby-traps, with the ruler (the Black Panther, of course) hunting them. He nearly manages to take them out, but Wyatt uses his own brains and fighting skills to give our heroes an edge.

When the fight is over, the Panther promises to explain why he’s set up such an elaborate trap. That explanation, though, will come next issue.

The story looks great—the premise lets Jack Kirby really let loose in designing sci-fi gadgetry and choreograph some great action.

It also shows us that Wyatt has great potential as an adventurer, something that sets him up to do a little adventuring with Johnny within the next few issues.

Finally, it does something that would be no big deal nowadays, but was still a big deal when it was first published right smack in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. T’Challa will turn out to be a strong and capable ruler of an independent black African nation, as well as a scientific genius.

Of course, he’s a king that will turn out to inexplicably have quite a lot of free time on his hands, since he’ll soon be spending much of his time in the U.S. serving as an Avenger. But what the hey—maybe he just as a really good administrative staff. (“Just sign this, Sire. We’ll take care of everything else.”)

Actually, that is an acceptable break from reality—there’s no sense in creating a fun character like the Black Panther if you can’t use him with relative freedom in later stories. And there’ll be a fair share of good stories directly involving his being king of Wakanda  in years to come. The place will turn out to be a source of Vibranium and will, from time-to-time, be on the edge of war with nations like Latvaria and Atlantis.

We also get a glimpse of the Inhumans, still trapped inside their Refuge by an impenetrable force field (called “the Negative Zone”—that name still not adopted for the anti-matter universe Reed was exploring last issue). This really just serves as a reminder that they are still around, as they’ll be popping back up in the FF’s story arc before long.


Ditko’s last issue is a pretty good one. The main plot involves a down-and-out boxer who gets zapped with chemicals and electricity in an accident, making him strong and fuzzing his thinking up enough to send him on a rampage. He and Spidey tussle for awhile, then the effects of the accident wear off. The guy actually ends up with a movie contract, contrasting his good luck with Peter, who is having a lousy day.

I like the character of the guy’s manager, who looks after him when the chips are down pretty much just because he (the manager) is a decent human being.

Otherwise, several story arcs inch along—there’s actually quite a bit of stuff jammed into this issue.

Everyone at college still thinks Peter is a jerk—except for Gwen, who thinks he might not be a jerk. That sub-plot is starting to get a little old, but it’ll work itself out before long.

There’s a funny scene at the college that rather cuttingly satirizes college protesters.

More importantly, Harry Osborne’s dad Norman puts on a disguise and puts out a reward for anyone who can take out Spider Man. Why? We’ll find that out next issue, but for now it means that the webslinger is constantly fighting off attacking thugs.

Peter misses another chance to meat Mary Jane Watson, who still remains faceless for the time being.

And Peter finds out that Betty didn’t elope with Ned Leeds, who shows back up in New York and also has no idea where she is.

All in all, a nice send-off for Ditko.

THOR #130

Thor descends into the Greek Netherworld to fight for Hercules. He takes on Cerberus--who is inexplicably portrayed as a giant humanoid rather than a giant three-headed dog. But Kirby makes him look so cool that this is forgivable. Besides, Marvel comics myths never have matched up that accurately with their “real life” counterparts, anyways.

Still, it would have been nice to see a Kirby-designed giant three-headed dog.

Anyway, the action that follows is further proof that Kirby was at the top of his game in the mid-1960s. His design of the Netherworld, as well as the warriors and weapons that oppose Thor and the battle scenes that really do feel cosmic—all this makes for yet another great issue.

In the end, Pluto agrees to nullify his contract with Hercules rather than see the realm he has “ruled since the dawn of time” wrecked in battle with the unstoppable Thunder God.

But there’s no rest for the weary. Though her real identity or purpose is not yet revealed, we find out Jane Foster’s new roommate is a powerful alien of some sort, with plans that involve Thor on some level. She hypnotizes Jane and sends her off on a long trip to keep her out of the way while her plans come to fruition.

The “Tales of Asgard” feature involves Thor and the Warriors Three attacking the forces of Harokin, who possesses the Warlock’s Eye (the purpose of their quest). Thor fights Harokin while the Warriors Three battle his minions. In the end, Thor disguises himself as the now unconscious Harokin to find out where the Warlock’s Eye is hidden. Will it work? Well, this is a serial, so we’ll have to wait until next issue to find out.

Great to see the Warriors Three in action. I really do like those guys.


Bruce Banner is stumbling about the underworld (not the Greek underworld, but the “regular” underworld) trying to find the matter transmitter that’ll get him back to the surface. But he ends up trapped in a battle between Mole Man’s moloids and Tyrannus’ soldiers. The stress causes him to Hulk-out again, but the Hulk manages to find the transmitter and an automatic activation circuit zaps him back to the surface.

But things aren’t going to be quiet for him there. A secret organization with the unoriginal name of “The Secret Empire” (they eventually turn out to be a faction of Hydra) sends an agent to steal a new army missile. The agent, whose name is Boomerang and whose gimmick is tossing small metal discs with surprisingly destructive effects, institutes his plan to accomplish the theft by kidnapping Betty—who, along with Talbot and Rick, have themselves just been zapped back to the surface from the non-Greek underworld.

Got all that? Stan Lee really has developed a knack to cram a lot of storytelling into just a few pages, combining this with a talent for moving along serial stories like this one at just the right pace to be satisfying.

By the way, Boomerang has a pretty clunky costume design in this first appearance. Eventually, he’ll change to a better design and become yet another member of Marvel’s ever-growing stable of second-string supervillains.

And, since we’re down to just four titles now, that finishes July 1966 off with one fell swoop. In August, the FF and the Panther fight the Panther’s arch enemy; Spider Man has a very revealing encounter with an old enemy; Thor goes on an intergalactic jaunt to save Earth; and Hulk attempts to rescue Betty.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

Giant clocks have been used as death traps so often in pulp and comic book fiction that you'd think the cops would just keep SWAT teams permanently on guard at each one.
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