Thursday, June 30, 2011

Two Greatest Swordsmen Ever

Page 167 of the Atlas of Fantasy, by J.B. Post has a street map of Lankhmar, the most decadent city in the decadent sword-and-sorcery world of Nehwon.

It’s in Lankhmar that you are most likely to run into the two greatest swordsmen in the multi-verse: the barbarian northern named Fafhrd and the agile thief known only as the Gray Mouser.

The adventures of these two exuberant characters were chronicled by the great writer Fritz Leiber, but they were first dreamed up in the mind of someone else. Harry Otto Fischer, a friend of Leiber, described the characters in a letter written in 1934. Fischer also wrote the first few thousand words of a novella called Adept’s Gambit (which initially placed Fafhrd and the Mouser on Earth around the time of Alexander the Great). Leiber finished this tale, though that particular story didn’t see print until 1947.

Leiber took the characters to heart. At the time, fantasy stories were dominated by larger-than-life characters such as Conan the Barbarian. Of course, the original Conan stories are classics in of themselves, but the genre was in danger of falling into a rut.

Science Fiction editor John Campbell (who was re-defining that genre with his work on Astounding Science Fiction magazine) felt the same way, starting up a fantasy magazine called Unknown to showcase stories noticeably different than the blood-soaked yarns appearing in Weird Tales. The first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story to see print appeared in Unknown in 1939. Titled “Two Sought Adventure” (later called “The Jewels in the Forest” when republished), it introduced us to two very unusual but still human heroes.

Fafhrd is boisterous, optimistic and full of life. The Mouser is cynical and suspicious. But the two men are loyal friends, humane despite their activities as mercenaries and thieves, and heroes often in spite of themselves.

These guys have to think on their feet. For example, when Fafhrd is given an assignment by his sorcerous advisor Ningauble of the Seven Eyes to save the city of Lankhmar, that assignment includes the need to complete several seemingly impossible tasks. Fafhrd, annoyed, demands to know exactly how he was supposed to do these things. “Ningauble shrugged once again. ‘You’re the hero. You should know.’”

These guys have some great adventures—everything from doing regular battle with Lankhmar’s Thieves’ Guild (they earn the enmity of the Guild pretty early in their careers) to encountering the inter-dimensional “Bazaar of the Bizarre” to saving the city from a civilization of intelligent… well, that last one is from the duo’s only full-length novel (Swords of Lankhmar) and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Heck, even the adventures they have between stories (or between paragraphs) sound cool:

“[It] turned out to be much more complicated than had been anticipated, evolving from a fairly simply affair of Sidonian smugglers into a glittering intrigue studded with Cilician pirates, a kidnapped Cappadocian princess, a forged letter of credit on a Syracusian financier, a bargain with a female, Cyprian slave-dealer, a rendezvous that turned into an ambush, some priceless tomb-filched Egyptian jewels that no one ever saw, and a band of Idumean brigands who came galloping out of the desert to upset everyone’s calculations.”

That’s from Adept’s Gambit and is there simply to explain why several weeks pass before Fafhrd and the Mouser return their attentions to the main plot. It’s an extraordinarily entertaining sentence on its own, as well as containing more of a sense of pure adventure than many full-length novels are able to generate.

Leiber’s prose is like that, full of good humor and real emotion. He really does succeed in breaking the Conan mold and taking fantasy literature in a different direction.

When I randomly chose the page about Lanhkmar in the Atlas of Fantasy, I then randomly picked one of the stories. I came up with “The Seven Black Priests,” first published in 1953.

The two are marching through a frozen northern wasteland, returning from another adventure. They are attacked by a black priest and soon discover that there are seven of these guys serving an ancient god. The god, as near as they can figure, is the inner world of Newhon itself, which hopes to one day rise up and rid itself of those vermin-like humans that infest its surface.

They steal a jewel from the priests and whittle down their numbers in a series of fights (which includes sword fighting while skiing down an icy slope). But the Mouser is worried about Fafhrd, who seems obsessed with the jewel and, in fact, leads them in a circle back to the rocky hill where they found it. Is the Mouser’s friend possessed and being used as a tool to call up the ancient god? And what can the Mouser do about it before all mankind is placed in horrible danger?

It’s a well-constructed and lively tale with good action, a mystery and two protagonists we really enjoy hanging out with.

Next week, we’ll see what we come up with from 101 Greatest Films of Mystery and Suspense. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: January 1967


“You insufferable, unspeakable BLOT on the escutcheon of humanity!!!”  That’s one of my favorite insults. Dr. Doom (now sporting the cosmic power he snitched from the Silver Surfer.”  It’s a pretty unfair insult, seeing how the target of the insult—Ben Grimm—is the one person in the Marvel Universe who can give Peter Parker a run for the title of Most Thoroughly Decent Human Being.

But it’s a great insult nonetheless—part of a great issue. Johnny and Wyatt are zapped back to the Baxter Building by Lockjaw, who senses danger there. The danger, of course, is Doom, who is attacking the FF with his new powers.

Most of the issue is another great fight scene, with each member of the FF (and Wyatt) using a succession of intelligent and courageous tactics. But Doom beats them back with pure raw power until Reed… surrenders?

This is just Reed being a smarty-pants as usual. He plays off Doom’s ego, convincing the villain that it’s more satisfying to keep his enemies alive to wallow in abject defeat than to simply kill them.

So he flies off, leaving Reed with the time to come up with a plan even more brilliant than surrendering.

Another great issue from start to finish, with the fight scenes being used to highlight nice bits of characterizations for each of the main characters.


Curt Connors turns back into the Lizard (a side-effect of the chemicals he handled while helping Spidey out last issue), so Peter has to try to track him down.

I was actually a little surprised to realize that this was only the Lizard’s second appearance. There’s even a detailed recap of Connors’ background, since it’d been over three years since we’d last seen this particular villain. We comic book geeks get these characters burned so deeply into our consciousness that sometimes we forget there was a time when comic book geeks were still getting to know them.

Anyway, there’s an exciting running battle along the rooftops of New York mixed in with some nicely done character stuff. During the fight, Spider Man’s arm is injured and a doctor patches him up in front of witnesses.

That means Peter can’t be seen in pubic also with his arm in a sling and has to blow off a date with Mary Jane. This, of course, doesn’t stop Gwen from being jealous of MJ. (Aunt May, by the way, is on a trip to Florida, explaining how Peter can hide his injured arm from everyone.)

Anyway, it’s really a tribute to Stan Lee’s storytelling skills that he covers all the soap opera stuff without ever turning the book into a soap opera. His dialogue for Mary Jane is still a little too over-the-top hipster, but his ability to structure a story is by this time impeccable. He keeps things fast moving and exciting, but does so without sacrificing good characterization.

We see this in this month’s Fantastic Four as well. In that case, the character moments are often mixed in with the action. In Spider Man, they are interspersed between the action sequences. Both methods work great.

I do have to complain about one aspect of the story. At one point, the Lizard attempts to frame Spider Man for a crime by allowing witnesses to see him (the Lizard) at a distance climbing up a skyscraper. Everyone assumes it’s Spidey and he’s accused of a jewel theft committed by the Lizard.

Poor Spidey gets framed with annoying frequency on the flimsiest of evidence. This instance probably isn’t as bad as the one back in Strange Tales Annual #1 (“It’s a piece of webbing! Spider Man did it!”), but, gee whiz, someone call in CSI or something before automatically shouting that Spider Man did it!

Of course, that’s simply a function of Spider Man never quite being trusted by the general public—and these frame ups are always a part of good stories. So I suppose we can be forgiving.

THOR #136

Lee and Kirby were quite capable of generating strong emotions in their stories, but this might just be their strongest. Thor finally takes Jane to Asgard. She immediately starts freaking out at the sight of bizarre warriors, a captive troll and any number of other images beyond the understanding of a mere mortal.

Odin is polite enough to her and tests her to see if she has the mettle to have godhood bestowed on here. She doesn’t—panicking pretty quickly at the sight of a pug-ugly monster. It turns out she just doesn’t have what it takes to be a goddess.

What makes this story cool is its attitude towards Jane. There’s no inherent criticism of her nor is there any attempt to portray her as cowardly or weak-willed. It’s made clear that things she experiences are simply not for human eyes. Ironically, Odin was right all the time about Thor's relationship being a bad idea. True Love does not win out in the end.

Odin sends her back to Earth, mind-wiping her of all memory of Thor and giving her a new start as nurse for a handsome doctor. It’s not the last time we’ll see Jane Foster, but for now, she’s out of the Thor continuity.

Thor, broken-hearted, throws himself into battle with the latest “powerful monster threatening Asgard.” He half-hopes to fall in battle, but he beats the snot out of the thing. Then he meets the Lady Sif, who had a brief appearance in Journey into Mystery #102 as a Damsel in Distress. Now she’s a trained warrior of Asgard and she has the hots for the Thunder God. She’ll be an important part of Thor’s mythology from now on, so, hey, it appears our hero will be getting over Jane before long after all!

The Tales of Asgard story involves Thor beating the snot out of yet another monster—this one the dragon that’s captured Volstagg. The chubby warrior is captured and Thor and the Warriors Three ride on to another adventure.

That’s it for January 1967. In February, The FF plan a counterattack while the Inhumans plan an escape; Spider Man continues his battle with the Lizard; and Thor adds a certain troll to his list of arch enemies.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Possible idea for a regular Tuesday post.

I have an idea for a regular series of post appearing each Tuesday tentatively titled "Watch/Read 'em in Order."

Actually, I hope to come up with a better title. The idea would be for me to take several sets of novels or B-movies. Just as an example, lets say Tarzan (the original books), Conan the Barbarian (the original stories) and Charlie Chan (the movie series). I would be reading/watching them in order.

Each Tuesday, I would post comments on which ever book or movie I last read/watched. I'd intersperse them to keep it interesting. When I finish one series, I'd pick up another to take it's place.

I'm pretty much doing stuff like this all the time anyways. A few years ago, I started re-reading all the Perry Mason books in their original publication order. (I wish I'd thought about doing posts on them at that time.) So it wouldn't be much extra work for me other than writing a few paragraphs on each one.

But I'm unsure if this is a necessary idea for this blog. If I don't do this, I''ll often end up talking about this sort of stuff on my random Thursday post anyways. A "Read 'em in Order" day might not be needed. 

Please leave a comment if you think this might be a worthwhile endeavor.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Archie Andrews: 9/11/48

Character actor Bob Hastings is the answer to a great trivia question: Who has played Archie Andrews, Superboy and Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon?

Hastings would provide the voice for Superboy/Clark Kent in a series of Filmation cartoons during the 1960s, then do Gordon’s voice in the excellent Batman animated series made in the 1990s.

But before he moved into television, he did a lot of radio, including playing the lead in NBC’s adaptation of the Archie comic books.

I’d never listened to an episode of Archie Andrews before. I like the characters well enough, but I just never got around to giving the radio show a listen. There’s just too much good OTR out there and I never do seem to manage to catch up with everything. But I made a point of getting hold of an Archie episode recently after reading an article about Hastings.

This episode, at least, was good, goofy entertainment. Hastings was in his 20s when he played the teenaged Archie, but he had a voice in the tenor range and could turn it up to soprano just often enough to sound like a kid whose voice isn’t quite done changing yet. He then plays Archie with an almost manic enthusiasm.

The plot depends on a lot of little things building up into a disaster. Archie’s dressed up to go to a dance. But, gee whiz, a few hairs on the back of his head are standing up and the girls will all laugh at him!!!! He decides to use some hair gel, which leads to a series of unlikely but escalating incidents finally result in Archie losing his pants while a false alarm is called into the fire department. Believe it or not, the chain of circumstances actually makes some sort of sense.

None of the dialogue is as clever or laugh-out-loud funny as on some of radio’s classic shows (Jack Benny, Fibber McGee, etc.), but the comedy depends on circumstance rather than verbal humor. On this level, buoyed by some good acting, it does get you to laugh aloud at least a few times.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Just Say The Words

I was recently thinking about what to write about for my Thursday posts. (And, by the way, if any regular readers want to make suggestions about what old-timey pop culture subjects you’d like to read about, feel free to leave a comment to make a suggestion.)

I had a brilliant idea. (Not unusual for me, of course.) I took four reference works off my shelves—The Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, by William L. DeAndrea; The Encyclopedia of Monsters, by Jeff Rogin; The Atlas of Fantasy, by J.B. Frost; and the 101 Greatest Films of Mystery & Suspense, by Otto Penzler.

I noted the number of pages in each one, then used my computer to generate random numbers and pick a page out of each volume. I then picked an entry from the chosen page in each work. That determined what I would write about for the next four Thursdays.

The Encyclpdia Mysteriosa come first. And page 369 of that work includes an entry on Jack Webb.

Webb made his name in radio as an actor, though he eventually started up his own studio that produced a number of successful television series. As an actor, he starred in several hard-boiled detective shows, the best of which was Pat Novak for Hire. Webb had a talent for rapid-fire delivery of tough guy one-liners. (My personal favorite is in a Novak episode in which he expresses disappointment: “It was like washing your kid’s face and finding out he’s ugly anyways.”) He also did fine work in shows such as Escape, Suspense and the Whisperer.

In 1948, Webb played a small part as a crime lab technician in a well-made procedural/film noir titled He Walks By Night. Conversations with the police advisor to the film planted the seeds for Dragnet—perhaps the purest form of the police procedural.

A hit on radio, Dragnet came to television in 1952. Webb was responsible for the show’s look and feel in both mediums. He kept the stories focused on criminal investigations, with only rare peeks at the personal lives of the detectives. He kept the dialogue straightforward and prosaic. And he made it interesting, proving his idea that a realistic portrayal of police work was inherently dramatic. Production values on radio were very high, with the sound effects being especially good.

On TV, Webb organized a production schedule that allowed an episode to be filmed in just two or three days. Small tricks—such as the detectives always wearing the same clothes to avoid continuity problems—were used to save time.

As a director, Webb’s instructions to his actors were simply: “Just say the words.” The great director Frank Capra once noted that Webb was the only director besides himself that seemed to realize you could make a mundane scene seem exciting by simply having the actors talk fast. This also meant squeezing in more dialogue into each episode, allowing Webb to tell an effectively “longer” story than his time slot would normally allow. 

Webb knew what he was doing and he did it well. He was a wonderful storyteller. My only regret about Dragnet is that it took Webb away from playing sort of the smart-mouthed private eyes he had portrayed so brilliantly on radio. But what the hey—good police procedurals are as hard to find as good hard-boiled stories.

 Here's a bonus OTR episode for this week: Enjoy Webb as Pat Novak for Hire.

That’s it for this week. Next week, we’ll see what The Atlas of Fantasy has decided to tell us.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rock versus Iron

I know I’ve done a post about Sgt. Rock comics fairly recently, but Russ Heath is yet another artist whose superb work needs to be celebrated.

The various characters from DC Comics’ various World War II-themed books didn’t collect arch-enemies the way most superheroes did. But there were occasional exceptions to this. Sgt. Rock, for instance, would go up against the Iron Major from time to time.

The major’s first appearance (I don’t think we’re ever told his actual name) first pops up in Our Army at War #158 (Sept. 1965) as the commander of the garrison occupying a castle. With his right hand replaced by an artificial iron hand, he has been regulated to a non-combat command.

Rock is brought to the castle as a prisoner, but soon escapes. 

In OAAW #251-253 (Nov 1972 – Jan 1973), the major finally makes a return appearance. Once more commanding troops in combat, he manages to force Rock and Easy Company to retreat out of a town. But he prevents a sniper from killing Rock—he considers the American to be a worthy opponent that he intends to one day take on personally.

He gets that chance sooner than he thinks when Rock sneaks his men back into town for a counter-attack. While the two forces blast away at each other, Rock and the Major have a really, really, really cool one-on-one fight.

Rock wins, but refuses to finish off the helpless German. That sets things up for a re-match when Rock’s men attempt to capture a bridge guarded by the major’s men. The two men go at it one-on-one again, but circumstances will bring them together a third time soon after that—a confrontation that takes place in an ancient warrior tomb.

It’s a strong, well-written story, with strong characterizations. There’s a powerful sequence in which the major, afraid he’ll be pulled out of combat again, allows an SS officer to talk him into slaughtering some wounded men.

Heath’s art work making it all work beautifully. I love the detail Heath puts into every panel. His visuals force you to examine each page carefully, picking out every little item of the perfectly composed battle sequences. 

The early and mid-1970s are, I think, where the best Sgt. Rock stories can be found. Bob Kanigher put more effort into characterization on this book than he did on the other war books, while a combination of Joe Kubert’s covers and Heath’s interior art gave us a one-two punch of DC’s best war comic artists.
 Next week, we'll be returning to our chronological look at the Marvel Universe. Remember, I'm happy to take suggestions regarding what other comic books to look at in future posts.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

I have no idea what this guy is trying to accomplish, but it sure looks cool!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Luke Slaughter of Tombstone: “Tracks Out of Tombstone” 3/3/58

Luke Slaughter aired near the end of radio’s Golden Age and was only around for a few months, but it managed to tell its share of good stories in the short time it had.

The show was directed by William N. Robson, who had helmed quality shows like Escape and The Man Behind a Gun. He knew as well as anyone else how to best use the medium of radio to spin an entertaining yarn. He certainly spun a nice one this time.

There’s really nothing about Luke Slaughter that makes it stand out from other shows in the genre. The title character is a Civil War vet turned cattleman. He’s pretty much a standard tough-guy Western hero, with an equally standard old-timer sidekick named Wichita.

But the scripts, sound effects, acting and production values were all top notch. In this episode, Luke arrives in Tombstone to sell his herd. He has a run-in with the town’s thuggish sheriff not long before the money he got for his herd is stolen. He and Wichita have to team up with the sheriff to track down the guy who apparently committed the crime. But Luke notices something about the tracks they found that makes him suspect their quarry is innocent and increase his suspicions about the sheriff…

This is an example of what makes radio so cool. Talented actors, directors and technicians can take a pretty standard story in a genre that was already old-hat, and breathe life into it anyways. Add this to radio’s inherent strength in forcing those us listening to fully engage our imaginations. It all adds up to a remarkable storytelling experience.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Favorite Alien

When a science fiction novelist—or the creators of a SF TV show or movie—populates the galaxy with various alien species, the success of his creative endeavor depends in part on just how cool his aliens are. And there are a lot of cool ones out there.

Star Wars (though that actually isn’t OUR galaxy) has Wookies, Hutts, Rancors and a plethora of other cool aliens. Star Trek has Vulcans, Klingons and Romulans. Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League future history has dozens of nifty alien species. (Anderson had a particular talent for building internally logical alien civilizations based on their biology and environment.)

I’d have a hard time picking my absolute favorite science fiction universe. But I think I can name an absolute favorite alien species. For that, we go to Larry Niven’s future history that includes the classic novel Ringworld. My favorite aliens are the Puppeteers.

The picture above shows you that they are a pretty bizarre looking bunch. They’re called Puppeteers by humans because the first human who saw one described them as headless, three-legged centaurs with two Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent puppets on its arm.

A puppeteer manipulates and handles things with its mouths, where knobs work like fingers. That hump between its necks houses the brain. And, boy, do they have brains!

They’re the smartest species in the galaxy and get rich selling transparent and nigh-indestructible space ship hulls to just about everyone else.

But it’s neither their appearance nor their intelligence that make them my favorite aliens. It’s the fact that they are all cowards.

Every puppeteer is a coward. Survival—both as individuals and as a species—is the prime motivation of every single one of them. They don’t do anything without making sure it’s absolutely safe. Their leader is referred to as the Hindmost.

And this is normal for them. In fact, a puppeteer who shows physical courage is not only acting immorally, but is also likely insane.

This trait gives them a rather strange (at least from a human point-of-view) moral code, which includes freely using blackmail and the genetic/social manipulation of entire species to make them less dangerous.

All this actually makes them cool. Especially Nessus, who plays an important role in the novella “The Soft Weapon” and the novel Ringworld. Nessus is actually capable of dealing directly with dangerous situations. That’s because he’s a manic-depressive.

But this also makes him ideal for his people to make him a point man in potentially dangerous situations. Of course, when he acts bravely, he often feels a deep sense of shame over it afterwards. But he does manage to get his job done.

I like Nessus. Heck, I like Puppeteers in general, even though they are often manipulative so-and-sos.

Klingons are cool, but the galaxy is filled with other war-like species. Vulcans are cool, but the galaxy if full of other insufferable smarty-pants species. Hutts are cool, but the galaxy is full of vicious criminal species. Puppeteers are, I think, unique. There aren’t any other species I can think of who make such an art out of pure cowardice.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: December 1966


Gee whiz, Stan and Jack were really good at pacing out a story with multiple plot lines. There’s a lot going on here, but we never lose track of what is going on.

Johnny and Wyatt are still trying to get Lockjaw to zap them into the Great Refuge. Lockjaw instead zaps them to another dimension, where they nearly get flattened by a stampede of giant monsters before the big doggie zaps them away again.

Inside the Great Refuge, Maximus (who is steadily growing more and more crazy-pants) is claiming that they can escape from the force field, but only if Black Bolt speaks. Since Black Bolt can’t speak without destroying everything around him, this is something of a mystery.

Reed, Sue and Ben deal with the Sandman breaking out of prison, but the villain manages to slip away and steal some equipment from the Baxter Building to help him rescue the Wizard. Great stuff here in addition to the typically great-looking action scenes, especially when Sandman discovers that threatening Sue means hitting Reed’s berserk button. Take my advice—NEVER threaten Sue when Reed is around. 

Another nice touch shows Sandman able to make his escape because he proved to be better able to think on his feet than Reed expected.

Finally, Dr. Doom lures the Silver Surfer into his castle and uses a device to steal the Surfer’s cosmic energy. The issue ends with Doom riding Surfer’s board towards an encounter with his arch enemies. This is the beginning of what might be the best of the Dr. Doom story arcs during the Lee-Kirby years.


We get a good look at Mary Jane and her free-spirited personality (though it takes a few issues for Stan Lee to tone down the faux-hipster dialogue—telling “Petey-O” he’s “grooveville” is a little too much). But while Peter is pretty much struck dumb by MJ’s beauty (and John Romita does make her look gorgeous), the Rhino escapes.

Spidey’s first encounter with the villain ends in a draw, though our hero only survives because a cop risks his life to pull him to safety when he’s stunned. It’s a nice touch that adds to a solid action sequence.

We learn Rhino’s origin—he was given his indestructible second skin by professional spies who wanted to use him as an assassin. But he went independent.

Anyway, Spidey finds a small sample of Rhino’s artificial outer skin in some rubble and he and Curt Conners rig up some special webbing that melts the stuff of Rhino when they fight their rematch.

Aside from all that, Flash gets his draft notice. I always wondered why Stan decided to write Flash out of the book for awhile. There were always hints that the big bully had a good side hiding somewhere and, when he eventually returns to the book as a regular character, he and Peter become friends. But, for whatever reason, Stan decides he’s done with him for the time being. Perhaps he was already planning the Peter/Gwen & Harry/MJ pairings and figured Flash was going to be just a fifth wheel. Whatever the reason, Flash will be shuffling off to Vietnam soon.

THOR #135

Thor fights the Man-Beast—a creature artificially evolved from both a man and a wolf. This gives the creature super-intelligence, super-mental powers and super-strength.

It also gives him a desire to wipe out all other life, since he figures he’s too superior to tolerate everyone else. Gee whiz, I often feel the same way (its a function of being smarter and better than everyone else), but I’ve never tried to commit global genocide.

Anyway, Man-Beast uses the High Evolutionary’s equipment to whip up some evil minions. This leads to Thor and the creatures loyal to the High Evolutionary fighting in pitched combat against Man-Beast and his creatures. This is, of course, the sort of situation that Kirby excelled at—designing weird creatures and showing them in brilliantly conceived battle scenes.

In the end, Thor beats down the villain. The High Evolutionary blasts Man-Beast and his minions into space, where they can find an uninhabited planet to live on with having to slaughter everyone else.  Then the H.E. blasts off into space himself—using his castle as a space ship—since he has now realized his research endangers mankind. 

Actually, Man-Beast never quite comes across as a Thor-level threat, but the visuals here are so much fun, I really can’t complain.

The “Tales of Asgard” tale is round 1 of Thor versus the dragon that has kidnapped Volstagg. Once again, Kirby’s layouts are wonderful.

That’s it for December. Next week, we’ll pause from Marvel once more to take a look at another multi-part Sgt. Rock story.

In two weeks, we’ll cover January 1967, in which Dr. Doom goes surfing; Spider Man fights an old friend who becomes an old enemy; and Thor finally learns exactly why his dad didn’t want him dating a mortal woman.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

I'm not a huge fan of Gold Key's awkward attempt to bring Star Trek to comics, but this is a weirdly entertaining cover nonetheless.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Hallmark Playhouse: “Wyatt Earp” 3/24/49

In the 1920s, a writer named Stuart Lake met the aging Wyatt Earp in Los Angeles and soon churned out an entertaining and readable biography of the former gunman titled Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal.

But it’s a biography that has to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. Lake’s book is one of the many highly-romanticized accounts of Earp’s life that have appeared in many different media.

In real life, Earp was probably closer to being a good guy than a bad guy, but his career during the days of the Old West includes its unsavory aspects. Late in life, Earp preferred to be remembered as a more pristine hero. Lake’s book was one element in perpetuating this myth.

Still, as myths go, it’s a good one. In later years, we’ve seen a heroic Earp pop up again and again in movies and television shows. (The best of which is John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. It’s a work of complete fiction, but a great Western all the same.)

One of the make believe Wyatt’s forays into radio was this particular episode of The Hallmark Playhouse, which gives us a quick, 30-minute adaptation of Lake’s book, concentrating on the events leading up to and following the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Richard Conti plays Wyatt, while radio veteran Gerald Mohr gives a strong performance as Wyatt’s friend Doc Holliday. The script is as straightforward as it comes. Wyatt comes to Tombstone to clean up the town. (In real life, he came to Tombstone to establish business interests, which included running a faro table in one of the saloons.) He runs up against the Clanton gang and eventually shoots it out with the villains at the famous corral. Later, his brother Morgan is murdered in revenge, so Wyatt methodically tracks those killers down.

The plot manages to parallel real life events in only the most vaguely general terms, but this episode (like most of the movie versions of the gunfight) isn’t meant to be an historical document. It’s a part of the mythological Old West that grew out of dime novels and movies.

And that’s perfectly all right with me. Richard Conti (as Earp) stumbles over his lines once or twice, but still does a pretty good job. The sound effects are top notch and, if the story feels a bit rushed, it still manages to coherently explain what’s going on and generate a fair amount of suspense and excitement.

Still, it is nice to remember that there is a real history to these events. Anyone interested should find a copy of And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight, by Patricia Mitchell Marks. Superbly researched and well-written, it will give you an excellent account of really happened in Tombstone Arizona in 1881.

But let’s not let go of the myths either. In the case of the American West, both history and myth serve their own respective and valuable purposes in describing the American experience.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

I am a prisoner to my own enthusiasms!

During my recent trip to Sudan, I spent part of my downtime reading a book called Wicked River, an anecdotal history of the Mississippi River before and during the Civil War. The book was a lot of fun (I highly recommend it) and--as is often the case when I like something--it made me want to read something similar. In this case, I was struck with an urge to re-read some Mark Twain.

Fortunately, despite being located in one of the poorest places in the world without a single bookstore or library at hand, I had my Kindle, which contained (among many other items) the complete works of Mark Twain. My last Saturday there, with no teaching responsibilities for the day, I spent several hours reading through Tom Sawyer. Gee whiz, that was fun. It might actually be a decade or more since I read it last.

A few days later, I read Huckleberry Finn during the plane ride from Entebbe to London. The beginning of Chapter 19 of Huck Finn, by the way, is arguably the finest piece of prose ever written. Read it here and see for yourself.

On the plane ride from London to Tampa the next day, I started Public Enemies, by Bryan Burrough, an excellent history of the birth of the FBI and the pursuit of criminals such as Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde and the Barker Gang.

Well, THAT made me want to re-watch James Cagney's slam-bang movie version of those events: 1935's G-Men. It's not an historically accurate account at all--the bad guys are all fictionalized and the general flow of events make the FBI look a lot more competent than they were in those early days. But it's a great movie--I wrote about it in this post a few years ago and outlined its strengths.

So there you have it--I'm a slave to my own enthusiasms. Read a book on the Mississippi and I just gotta read Mark Twain. Read a book on the bank robbers of the early 1930s and I just gotta watch a Cagney movie.

Thank goodness for tools like the Kindle or DVDs that provide me with instant gratification. Otherwise, I'd be an emotional wreck.

By the way, here's a sample of the most bizarre use of Huck, Tom and Becky Thatcher ever:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: 1966 Annuals


Lockjaw has zapped to the Baxter Building, bringing Johnny and Wyatt Wingfoot with him. While Reed studies Lockjaw to try to figure out his dimension hopping power (and thus reach the Inhumans), Johnny flies off alone and gets ambushed by the original Human Torch.

For those of you who are inexcusably unfamiliar with the character: The original Torch is a character from the 1940s (briefly revised in the 1950s). He’s an android accidently given the power to burst into flames and to control flames.

He’s apparently been largely forgotten, since Reed has to explain to Ben who he was (of course, that scene actually exists to explain to young readers who he was), but it turns out he’s still around. He’s been found and reactivated by the Mad Thinker, who uses a grouchy supercomputer named Quasimodo to force him to attack Johnny.

What follows is a really nifty fight, starting with the two torches dog fighting each other, then moving into a huge underground cavern (where they accidentally detonate a pocket of natural gas), then back into the skies. Finally, the rest of the FF show up and, using a liquid asbestos substance invented by Reed, manage to capture the original Torch. When they find out the Thinker is behind it all, Lockjaw—on his own initiative—teleports them all to the Thinker’s lair.

The original Torch then sacrifices himself in order to stop Quasimodo from destroying Johnny. The Thinker escapes and Quasimodo vows revenge.

The meat of this story is the Torch vs. Torch battle, but seeing another character from the 40s join Namor and Captain America in the modern Marvel universe is pretty cool.

This is the last time we’ll see the original Torch for awhile—at least in his original form. Later, he’s found by the evil robot Ultron and rebuilt into Vision, who quickly turns good and joins the Avengers.

That won’t be the end of it, though. Later, Vision’s origin will be retconned so that he wasn’t built from the original Torch. Then he’ll be re-retconned so that he was. Then the original Torch will show up as the original Torch, due to some time-travel paradox whammy—or something like that.

It all becomes something of a mess. Oh, well, it’s inevitable that some aspects of a ever-growing comic book universe become convoluted and paradoxical. I do think most of the problems with the Torch/Vision history actually should have been avoided, but that argument is outside the subject at hand today. Fantastic Four Annual #4 is a strong, entertaining story with great art work that fit quite nicely into the continuity of its day. Seeing the two Torches go at it was more fun than a barrel of flaming napalm.


The Avengers are looking for a new member and Hawkeye nominates Spider Man. The other Avengers largely agree to give Webhead a chance, though Wasp is initially against it because—she hates spiders?

Oh, well, that bit of silliness is probably a legitimate part of Jan’s personality anyways. The Avengers search for Spidey and, when they find him, invite him to undergo a test to see if he can join their ranks.

Peter goes through several pages of introspection, pondering the pros and cons of joining the Avengers and wondering how it might effect Aunt May. But he finally opts to go for it.

The Avengers ask him to locate the Hulk (recently seen in NYC) and lure him to the mansion. Spidey does find the big green guy and begins a running battle with him, hoping to goad him into following. But at one point in the fight, Hulk briefly transforms back into Bruce Banner. When Spidey learns Banner’s story, he feels sorry for him and just lets him go.

The irony here, of course, is that Spider Man didn’t realize that the Avengers wanted to help Banner themselves. But Peter doesn’t know that. All he knows is that he’s lost a chance to join the Avengers.

Stan Lee’s dialogue does an excellent job of clearly following Peter’s thought processes throughout the story, making us fully aware of just how difficult are the various decisions he has to make. The action in this story is very good, but the characterization of Peter is spot-on. That’s what makes this story shine.


It’s time for the Tournament of Titans on Asgard, which pretty much means all the best fighters from the Realm Eternal (and a few from other planets) show up in a big arena and beat the snot out of each other.

This by itself is a good idea—it allows Jack Kirby to once again go to town in designing interesting characters. In fact, he comes up with a quartet of fighters who thematically match up against Thor and the Warriors Three. (Including a small magic-using troll matched against the huge Volstagg.)

We’re treated to several pages of great fight scenes before the Destroyer puts in an unexpected appearance. Remember, this indestructible robot can only be activated if possessed by someone else’s life force.

It’s Loki who possesses him this time around. He and the Absorbing Man are still floating helpless through vast space, but Loki can still do thought transference, which he uses to activate the Destroyer.

The robot manages to clean the collective clock of Thor and the other Asgardian warriors before confronting an apparently doomed Odin. But Odin shuts down the Destroyer by shutting down Loki’s ability to think.

Ouch. Well, if you’re going to run a place like Asgard, I guess you gotta be ready to make a ruthless decision or two from time to time. And, since Loki was getting ready to commit mass murder, it’s safe to say that Odin was pretty much justified in his action.

That’s it for the Annuals. Next time, we’ll finish up 1966 as Dr. Doom returns to torment the FF (giving the Silver Surfer a hard time along the way); Rhino returns to torment Spider Man; and Thor fights a big bad wolf.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

Perfectly composed action scene--there's a very palpable sense of danger and movement.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

King Kong

I recently got hold of a copy of a very nicely done audio adaptation of the best movie ever made—the original King Kong. I don’t think this is actually an old-time radio production. My understanding is that is was produced for release on a long-playing record in the early 1960s.

But what the hey—it’s close enough to OTR and it really is pretty good. With a running time of 36 minutes, it has to condense and rearrange the story somewhat. But it manages to do so intelligently and effectively.

Captain Englehorn, the skipper of the ship that takes everyone to Skull Island, is the narrator and point-of-view character. That makes him a more active character than he was in the movie as he accompanies the rescue party into the jungle after Ann Darrow is taken by Kong. (In the movie, he stayed behind at the native village to keep the gates open.)

There another small change from the movie that’s interesting to analyze. In the movie, movie-maker Carl Denham was a long-time friend of Englehorn and first mate Jack Driscoll. In this version, though, he’s hired them for the first time and his personality clashes with both seamen (especially Driscoll) much more strongly than in the film. In fact, he and Driscoll get into a fist fight at one point.

This change works quite well in this shorter version of the story, as it acts to build up a sense of tension even before they all reach the island.

There are other differences in details between the film and the audio play, but the play keeps the general plot intact. Writing, acting and sound effects are all good and we are left with an alternate but still entertaining version of the saga of the world’s most famous giant ape.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Cities may crumble; people may riot in the streets; civilizations may collapse, but I gotta do it. There's no choice in the matter. I have to recommend a CONTEMPORARY piece of pop culture.

But I only do so because it harkens back so faithfully to its classic origins. Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown is a brand new animated special that draws on several extended comic strip story arcs from the 1960s to create the best Peanuts special this side of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I think Charles Schulz' creative peak was from the late 1950s through about 1970 or so. He had gotten a lock on the personalities of his characters. Snoopy had evolved from a more or less real dog to the whimsical fantasy figure that best fits him. Linus (always my favorite character) had become the voice of wisdom and reason in the group, while simultaneously giving voice to all our insecurities and fears via his need for his security blanket.  The humor of the strip was at its funniest; the characters were at their most human; the emotions generated were real and sometimes a little heartbreaking.

Peanuts during the 1960s was a masterpiece in every way it could be.

This new DVD takes several story arcs from that time period revolving around Linus and his blanket--efforts to hide it from his blanket-hating grandmother; Lucy making it into a kite and accidentally letting it fly away; Lucy burying it in an unknown location.

These are all tied together into one coherent story, with other gags from that time period (dealing with Charlie Brown's kite-flying, Lucy's crush on Shroeder and a few others) interspersed throughout. It all leads up to a great finale that thematically ties all these elements together.

The animation is very faithful to Schulz's original art. The voice actors (all children) are perfect. Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown catches Peanuts at its best and reminds us all just how much of a genius Charles Schulz was.

Back in the USA

I'll be back in the United States a little later today and I'll once again be available to moderate any comments anyone might leave.

I gained five followers for the blog while I was in Sudan. I should go on Mission trips more often. I seem to be more popular when I'm not actually here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: November 1966


Johnny and Wyatt are still off in the middle of nowhere, trying to make friends with Lockjaw so the big doggie will teleport them into the Great Refuge.

But the bulk of the issue involves Klaw—now transformed into a being actually made of sound—attacking the Baxter Building. At first it looks like Klaw has the upper hand—Ben can’t beat up something made of sound and Sue’s force fields don’t block sound blasts. But nobody outsmarts Reed Richards. He just uses a pair of Vibranium brass knuckles (which, of course, have sound-absorbing properties) to beat the snot out of Klaw. As Ben remarks, seeing Reed in a knock-down, drag-‘em-out fight is really fun. It’s a great issue, but the last few panels hint at the return of Doctor Doom in a plot involving the Silver Surfer. So even greater things are coming.


The space spores that infected John Jamison give him super strength. This puts his dad in an embarrassing situation—he’s always publically railed against super heroes. Now his son, whom he had always praised as a non-powered hero—actually has powers.

Well, that leaves Jonah with nothing to do but sic his son on Spider Man, who briefly seems guilty of robbing a bank.

This, in turn, leads to some interesting character bits for Jonah. Within the pages of this issue, we actually see J.J.J. show real concern for another human being AND a concern for actual ethics when he learns Spidey is probably innocent of the bank job. Jamison will always be best used as primarily a comic relief character, but occasional moments like these do give him some depth.

Anyway, the spores also start to make John Jamison cruel and bitter, but Spidey leads him into an electrical trap that kill the spores and turn John normal again.

That brings us to the last few pages of this issue, in which Peter must suffer through a “Mary Jane ordeal” before he can get to a party Gwen is throwing. This, of course, leads to one of the most justly famous panels of all time when we finally get to meet MJ. Romita outdoes himself here—he really does make Mary Jane Watson look drop dead gorgeous as she stands in the door and says the famous lines “Face it, Tiger. You hit the jackpot.” And just like that, the most important supporting character in Spider Man comics enters Peter’s life.

THOR #134

Thor arrives back on Earth. Tana Nile leaves. Thor would be perfectly happy if the woman he loves wasn’t missing.

He trails Jane Foster to Wundagore, a land vaguely located in central or eastern Europe. It’s here that the High Evolutionary rules—a scientist who is using his knowledge to artificially evolve various animals into intelligent bipeds he calls New-Men.

Some of the New-Men serve as a sort of border guard, riding flying “atomic steeds,” wearing armor and carrying lances with high-tech weaponry installed in them. I’m not sure this is the most effective way of guarding a border, but they sure do look cool.

Wundagore as a whole pretty much exists to give Jack Kirby an excuse to draw more weird stuff. This is, of course, fine by itself. But, as usual, there is an interesting story built into the set-up as well.

That is the most obvious strength of the Lee/Kirby collaboration. When Kirby created stuff on his own (the New Gods, Devil Dinosaur, Kamandi, etc) he gave us imaginative visuals and wonderful ideas, but his dialogue could be stilted and his plot construction was often a little bit messy. I think Kirby needed a writer like Lee to give him just the right amount of storytelling discipline needed in order to spin the sort of glorious tales being spun here. Kirby’s imagination could run free, but the rules of drama were still applied in order to tell dramatically satisfying stories. We see this again and again during the 1960s.

Anyways, Thor discovers that Jane has been hired to teach the New-Men about the outside world. But something goes awry with the High Evolutionary’s efforts to evolve a wolf into a New-Man. The wolf instead becomes a super powerful monster determined to destroy all life. Thor has a fight on his hands for next issue.

The Tales of Asgard story is yet another example of Kirby’s visuals being used in a disciplined way to tell a story effectively. Thor and the Warriors Three are scouting out a desolate land that used to be ruled by a rebellious king. It turns out that the rebellious king has been transformed into a huge, dragon-like monster—something Volstagg finds out to his detriment when the monster captures him. So Thor has yet ANOTHER fight on his hands for next issue.

Well, that finishes up November 1966. Before moving on to December, we’ll cover the 1966 annuals, in which the Human Torch fights the Human Torch; Thor fights the Destroyer; and Spider Man gets an invitation to move up in the world.
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