Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Original JLA

I “met” Walter Paquette via an online  forum about the superhero miniatures game Heroclix, where he occasionally chided me for concentrated too much on the FF and Spider Man in my discussions of comics. Well, I challenged him to do a guest review of any Golden or Silver Age comic he wanted and he took me up on it. So here is this blog’s first guest review:

BRAVE AND THE BOLD #28 (May 1960)

Recently DC comics rebooted their universe—The Justice League, among other books, has gotten a "do-over" complete with a new origin story. Today I would like to go back to where it all started with the first appearance of the Justice League of America in The Brave and the Bold.

The team consisted of Aquaman, Batman, Flash (Barrry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Martian Manhunter, Superman, and Wonder Woman. At this point you may be wondering to yourself “What kind of enemy would bring some of the most powerful super heroes from the DC Universe to fight together for the first time?”

A giant starfish from space, named Starro the Conqueror.

The story starts out with Aquaman being told about the threat by his good friend, Peter the Puffer Fish! Peter tells Aquaman of how Starro appeared, making deputies out of other starfish to help him conquer Earth.

Once Aquaman is told about the threat, he sends out a signal to his friends to let them know that they are needed to save the Earth! First person to receive the signal is Wonder Woman, who quickly leaves the date she is on to help. Hal Jordan is flying an aircraft designed to fly around the world in 24 hours, but he quickly suits up into Green Lantern and wills the aircraft into autopilot. Flash is trying to stop a tornado (which he quickly takes care of), and Martian Manhunter is about to go on vacation. Batman is busy on the tails of some Gotham looters and Superman is busy protecting Earth from an impending meteor threat, so those two decide that the others can manage without them until they finish up their current Business.

The team members then show up to discuss what to do, where they all decide it is best for them to patrol different areas and try to find out just what kind of threat this Starro character is. During these patrols the first person to run into one of Starro’s deputies is Green Lantern. The deputy attacks a military aircraft and steals an atom bomb, which it quickly sets off in order to absorb its immense power. Green Lantern takes it out with a quick shot to its single eye, reverting it back to its starfish state.

Meanwhile, Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter are at the Hall of Science, where another deputy is attacking. While Wonder Woman is distracting the Starro deputy, Manhunter takes to the upper atmosphere looking for some sort of weapon to take the creature out. J’onn finds some meteor pieces (which he mentions is from the same meteors Superman is taking out at this time) and also uses his super breath. All this causes the Starro deputy to fly off, taking the Hall of Science with it!

A fight ensues between the three, with the Starro deputy trying to take out Wonder Woman and Manhunter with its atomic beams. They easily protect themselves from the beams while making quick work out of the deputy.

We cut to Flash, where he is at the coastal town of Happy Harbor where Starro’s deputy has begun to mind control the entire town, except for one unfortunate soul named Snapper. The deputy shoots an atomic laser at Snapper,  but Flash manages to save him. The Scarlett Speedster  tales care of the deputy by creating a vortex to make the creature spin, leaving it unable to aim its atomic beams. Soon the deputy retreats to a nearby lake.

Flash follows the deputy to the lake, using vibrations to part waves in an attempt to find it. He then allows the waves to collapse down on the deputy, knocking it out. The mind controlled town folks are released from the deputy’s spell and are able to tell Flash where Starro is located.

Flash takes his new buddy Snapper with him, thinking he might be key to figuring out how to defeat the alien monster. Upon meeting up with the other five Justice League members,  Green Lantern decides to take on Starro. A problem arises when Starro reads Green Lantern’s mind and finds out his weakness…the color yellow! The alien turns himself yellow, gaining immunity to GL’s ring.

At this point, Flash figures out that there might be some reason that Snapper is unaffected by Starro’s powers, so he has Green Lantern make a spectroscope with his ring where they find out that Snapper is covered in Calcium Oxide, or Lime, from doing yard work earlier in the day. Aquaman then mentions that oysters use lime to defend themselves from being eaten by starfish. The five members of the Justice League then gather up a bunch of lime and quickly cover Starro with it, imprisoning the monster.

I was slightly disappointed that Aquaman didn't do much of anything in the story other then warn them of the threat then added in some information on why the lime worked. I was also bothered by the fact that Flash can take out a Starro deputy by himself while Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter had to team up. Also I guess I am more used to stories stretching out longer--nowadays comics like that would be stretched out into a 6 issue series plus tie ins while this one solved the problem in just the one issue.

ME AGAIN: I agree that Aquaman was underused in the story. But then that’s always been a chronic problem with the King of the Seas whenever he appears in team books. If the story doesn’t take place underwater, writers have always had a hard time coming up with something useful for poor Arthur to do. Over in Marvel, Prince Namor’s personality and power levels have always seemed to allow him more leeway in being useful on dry land.

For some years, DC Comics tried dumping constant tragedy and angst on Aquaman while also amping up his powers to an extent in a desperate effort to make him interesting. But it wasn’t until the recent Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series that we finally got a really awesome version of the character.

I do kinda like, though, that the world is basically saved because Aquaman passes on a message from PETER THE PUFFER FISH!!

Walter makes an interesting point about single issue stories versus multi-part epics. Nowadays, comics are published with the intention of collecting just about everything into trade paperbacks—a format that I understand to be a major revenue source for the publishers. And the debut of the JLA might have been improved by drawing the story out for several issues and allowing the various characters to get more of a spotlight. But artificially stretching it into a long, long story with multiple crossovers  would not have been a good thing. Stories should be as long or short as they need to be to fulfill the requirements of drama and good storytelling. Though I concede that the publishers have every right to turn a profit, I’ve always felt that the need to produce multi-part epics almost exclusively has been damaging to the overall quality of modern superhero stories.

Thanks to Walter for his guest review.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

There are some people you just don't mess with. John Carter of Mars would be on the top of that list.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Jeff Regan: “The Man Who Liked the Mountains” 8/7/48

Regan’s agency is hired by one gangster to find another gangster. Regan doesn’t like it—and it soon turns out it has good reason. The missing man has a cabin in the mountains, but that cabin now contains a dead man. Before he has time to blink, Regan is hip-deep in corpses and on the run from a frame-up.

Not only is this a very good story, it also has a great cast playing the various supporting roles. Joining Jack Webb is Jeff Chandler (who would eventually play Michael Shayne) and William Conrad (the future Matt Dillon). This episode is so hard-boiled, if it were an egg you’d need dynamite to crack open its shell.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Identifying the killer doesn’t always identify the killer

The first two movies in the Sherlock Holmes film series staring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were quite properly set in Victorian England. The first was a faithful adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (the best of Conan Doyle’s novel-length tales), while the second was a loose adaptation of the famous William Gillette play.

Then World War II broke out. The series, originally produced at 20th Century Fox, moved to Universal Studios and updated Holmes to contemporary times. That allowed the Great Detective to match wits with Nazi spies.

Later on, the films moved back to more traditional mystery fare, but remained set in what was then present day. For this reason, they are, though always entertaining, never quite as satisfying as they could be—in the end, Holmes and Watson belong in Victorian or (late in their career) Edwardian England. The two never really fit in later times.

All the same, there are a few gems in the series. The Scarlet Claw (1944) is one. Holmes and Watson are visiting Canada. Holmes learns that a woman was brutally murdered in a nearby village. Soon after, he receives a letter from her (obviously mailed just before her death), asking him to protect her from a vaguely-defined danger.

Holmes notes that it’s the first time he’s been commissioned by a dead person, then determines to find the murderer. He heads to the village, where most of the locals have decided that the killer is a legendary monster. 

But Holmes soon finds clues pointing to a more rational solution. (I like it when Watson refers to The Hound of the Baskervilles and “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” as examples of supposedly supernatural crimes that proved to have a rational explanation.)  A little investigating finds a motive for the first killing—a motive that also indicates several other people are in danger.

It really isn’t long before Holmes knows who the killer is. But bizarre circumstances (which I don’t want to spoil if you haven’t seen the film) mean that, in this case, identifying the killer doesn’t really identify the killer. Holmes knows who it is without really knowing who it is.

So begins a race to find a murderer before he or she can murder again.

The movie is great to look at—the Universal storytellers had more than enough experience at producing horror movies to succeed in giving the village an appropriately creepy and dangerous vibe. The various supporting character all have… well, character—both in their appearance and their behavior. Rathbone, as always, is excellent as Holmes. (Arguably beaten out as the best-ever Great Detective only by Jeremy Brett.)  Bruce, if you can accept a comic relief Watson, is funny and likable. And the mystery is well-constructed, with clues that are uncovered in a logical manner and make sense when revealed.

Also, it’s very easy to imagine this movie being set in the early 20th Century—lets say 1902, perhaps a year before the most likely date of Holmes’ retirement in “real life.” Neither the war nor any then-current events are mentioned. It’s not too much of a stretch to accept the prevalence and reliability of telephones, even in a remote village. Flashlights are used instead of lamps and a character takes a bus when leaving town, when a train or a coach might have been more likely forty-two years earlier. But even these are within the realm of possibility for an Edwardian era mystery. The first dry cell flashlight, for instance, was invented in 1896. So we have room to think of this movie as being set in a proper Holmesian universe.

But, well, then Holmes spoils it all in the very last scene by quoting Churchill. No way to fit that into 1902. Gee whiz, Holmes, you just had to blow it, didn’t you?

Despite the 1940s setting, the Universal Holmes series really is quite good. And maybe it’s just as well that Holmes occasionally gets updated to modern times. After all, someone has to match wits with all those criminal masterminds. Heck, I’ll take Holmes over those annoying CSI guys any day of the week.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: April 1968


Before dealing with this month’s FF adventure, we first gotta jump over the pages of Daredevil for a moment.

Dr. Doom is back and his latest nefarious scheme involves swapping bodies with Daredevil.  But Daredevil turns the tide on Doom by convincing Lavarian officials he’s the real Doom, then declaring war on the rest of the world. This forces Doom to switch their bodies back so he can put a stop to that.

But Doom uses a voice modulator to call Reed and, claiming to be Daredevil, tells him that the real Daredevil is really Doom.

I’ve always felt that the Daredevil stories from these years were often a little weak, but this was a fun and clever story.

That leads us into this month’s Fantastic Four.  Daredevil’s on his way to the Baxter Building to warn our heroes about Doom’s return. But Reed, Ben and Johnnie (Sue is still out of town) are getting ready to meet “Doom” head on when he “attacks.”

Daredevil runs into Spider Man and Spidey had earlier noticed a still de-powered Thor wandering around, so DD now has some allies on his side. The FF, though not completely sure, figure “Spidey” and “Thor” are probably Doombots. What follows are extended fight scenes (DD vs. Reed, Thor vs. Thing, Spidey vs. Torch) until Sue shows up to tell her husband he’s acting like an idiot. She just saw the real Doom holding a televised press conference and booked back to New York to put a stop to the fight.

The whole situation is pure fun. That Daredevil “just happened” to run across Spider Man and Thor is a little contrived, but it’s the sort of thing that happens quite often in a comic book universe.

Also, I do wonder why Spidey and Thor simply assumed DD was telling the truth about being real. Both are aware that stuff like body-swapping technology does exist in the world they inhabit.

But those are minor points. Stan Lee seemed to have gotten into a rhythm for the books he was writing, dropping in a few single-issue stories between extended story arcs. This actually worked quite well and, backed by Jack Kirby’s typically magnificent artwork, he gives us a cool fight scene between characters who would normally be allies.

On top of this, the dialogue between DD and Reed, debating over how the heck someone can prove he’s not a body-swapped imposter (taking place during their fight), was entertaining and interesting.


Well, while the Fantastic Four is having its “breather” before jumping into another multi-part epic, Spider Man is getting started with his next multi-part epic. Spidey’s “breather” was his fight-to-the-death against a Spider-Slayer last issue.

Peter finally shows up after being “missing” and supposedly kidnapped by Spider Man. Aunt May perks up immediately upon seeing him. Peter tells the cops what is actually a pretty good story—Spidey had amnesia; saw Peter taking photos; assumed he was an enemy and captured him; got his memory back and let Pete go.  In a comic book universe, it’s a perfectly reasonable story. It’s a nice wrap-up to the amnesia story arc and it brings an end to Aunt May’s latest brush with death (something Stan Lee was leaning on a little bit too often).

It also gives Peter a chance to overhear the cops talking about how a lot of dangerous thugs were getting bailed out of jail. In addition, he meets Captain Stacy for the first time and learns that Stacy has made a special study of Spider Man.

But on with the story. Mary Jane has gotten a job dancing at a new club. But the place is really part of a plot to lure city officials there and brainwash them. When Peter and his friends are there one night, he notices something suspicious and investigates. This leads to the first of many, many, many occasions in which Mary Jane is rescued from certain death by Spider Man.

Spidey eventually fights his way to the back room of the club, where he finds Captain Stacy being brainwashed. The final panel is the big reveal—the Kingpin turns out to be behind the whole thing.

I’m getting to the point where I’m almost wishing John Romita or Jack Kirby would have an off issue. I’m repeating myself so often in abject praise of their art that I’m starting to sound like a broken record.

But Romita, darn him, does do another magnificent job here. Mary Jane looks gorgeous enough to make it completely believable that she’s a hit as a professional dancer and the action sequences flow smoothly and logically, providing perfect support for the plot of the story.

THOR #151

This issue takes only a moment to sum up, because it’s pretty much an all-battle issue. Thor is in New York fighting the Destroyer (animated by Sif’s life force and with her unable to control the robot’s instinct to destroy). Back in Karnilla’s realm, she makes a play for Balder—having the hots for Balder will pretty much be her primary motivation in future stories. But he rejects her. But when Ulik (powered up by enchantments from the troll king) shows up to do her in as part of his plan to re-establish himself as the baddest dude in the Seven Realms, Karnilla and Balder are forced to team up. The issue ends with Thor still facing off against the indestructible robot and Balder facing off against Ulik.

And darn Jack Kirby, too. He continues to make it look awesome, so I’m forced to repeat myself again.

While all this is going on, one of Odin’s wizards reestablishes a video link with Earth. But it turns out all-knowing Odin already knew his son was in a life-and-death fight. He explains his plan all along has been to teach Thor some humility. That’s apparently been accomplished, so he gives Thor his powers back. The Thunder God is still facing off against an opponent more powerful than he is, but it’s not quite the mismatch it had been.

I mentioned recently that I hadn’t read this story arc in years and accused Odin of acting like an idiot—the one major flaw in an otherwise sound plot. But I also realized he might have a secret plan behind it all that’s I’d simply forgotten about.

Well, it turns out that Odin DID have a master plan that I’d forgotten about, but all the same, I’m going to continue to defend my “Odin is an idiot” premise.

The whole trouble is that Thor HAD NOT BEEN ACTING ARROGANT OR FULL OF HIMSELF. He hadn’t. Over and over again, he’s been using his powers intelligently and bravely to defend the Earth, Asgard and those weaker than him. Even when he argued with his dad, it was usually because he wanted to return to Earth to protect a world he loved. Odin was teaching him something he already seemed to know.

Heck, the recent Thor movie (which I thought was flawed, but still enjoyed) handled this aspect of the story better than here. It had Thor initially acting without thought and with over-confident arrogance, making his epiphany about humility and service to others have real impact later on.

Though these past issues have handled epic-level action much better than the movie did, I gotta say that Odin’s actions are very contrived. It simply comes across as random. “Ah, it’s Wednesday. Time to teach my son an unnecessary lesson in humility. On Friday, I’ll teach him how to throw a baseball.”

That’s why I didn’t remember Odin’s motivation. It’s because it didn’t make any sense.

Oh, well, perfect stories are rare. This one still rates a 9.3, with great action, a plot unfolding on several levels at once and some nice character moments for Sif and Balder.

That’s it for April. Next week, I’m going to feature a guest writer’s look at the Justice League of America’s first mission. We’ll return to the Marvel Universe in two weeks, when the Fantastic Four will again face off against a certain planet-eating foe; Gwen Stacy’s dad goes on a crime spree; and Thor has a rematch against his butt-ugliest opponent.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Nick Carter, Master Detective: “The Case of the Little Old Ladies” 4/23/46

A law firm that keeps Nick on retainer has a boring and routine job of finding a witness. Nick assigns an operative to the task. Going door-to-door, the operative meets a pair of sweet little old ladies—WHO PULL GUNS ON HIM!!!

This odd twist soon has Nick looking into the case personally. But when the master detective ends up personally held hostage by two sweet little old ladies—well, that’s just plain embarrassing. 

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, November 17, 2011

An Improbable Hero

Isaac Asimov was an important writer---an innovator who helped lead the maturation of the genre into producing respectable literature.

So there is no intended or implied criticism at all when I point out that his most important works—his Robot stories and the original Foundation trilogy—were concept-oriented rather than character-oriented. The characters in them were perfectly believable, but not necessarily memorable in their own rights. It’s the ideas—the ramifications of the Three Laws of Robotics and the work of the Foundation to subtly guide human history—that make his stories great.

But there are a few exceptions to that---a few stories in which the characterizations really stand out. One of these is “C-Chute,” a short story first published in Galaxy Magazine in 1951. It’s a story that centers around a very memorable character.

During an interstellar war, an Earth ship is captured by aliens. The surviving passengers are locked up. A prize crew of two aliens flood the rest of the ship with a chlorine atmosphere (natural to them) and begin to pilot it towards their home planet.

We quickly get to know the human prisoners and, boy, are they a bunch of jerks. One’s a self-centered cynic. One’s a pompous soldier who’s never seen any action. One’s obsessed with revenge against the aliens. And so one. They get on each other’s nerves and maybe even get on our nerves as we read about them.

Their situation seems hopeless. There does seem one possible method of retaking the ship, which involves sneaking outside the ship through a C-Chute (a casualty chute used for burials at space), then reentering through the “steam tubes,” which are basically the vessel’s control thrusters. Anyone who does this would then have to ambush and kill two armed aliens.

It’s dangerous and at first no one seems willing to give it a try. No one, that is, but Randolph Mullen, a 5’ 2” tall, quiet and apparently emotionless bookkeeper who seems as far from being a hero as one can get.  Everyone is surprised when he volunteers.

Asmiov then does an excellent job of building and maintaining suspense as Mullen begins the risky job of escaping from the ship, then sneaking back in. He skillfully interleaves this with the tension growing among the other humans and the shame they begin to feel over their own lack of courage.

And this all leaves up to great twist at the end, when we finally find out what motivated Mullen to put his life at such risk.

The creation of great characters was not Asimov’s strongest trait as a writer. In fact, I think his later novels (in which he tied his Robot, Empire and Foundation stories together into a single continuity) were badly flawed by some very awkward characterizations. During the height of his career in writing fiction, it was his concepts (often thought out in partnership with editor John Campbell) and his entertaining prose that made his stories great.

But he did understand how to create good characters and, every now and then, he’d create a great one.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1968


Reed and Sue have left town, leaving Ben and Johnnie up in the air about how to carry on. Fortunately, the world is soon in danger again, giving the two of them something to do.

It seems the Silver Surfer, disgusted by all us violent, bigoted humans, has come up with the dumbest plan ever. He’ll go on a world-wide rampage, forcing all the nations on Earthy to join together to fight him.

The Watcher pops into the Baxter Building to warn them, then pops off to stop the train Reed and Sue are on, telling them about the threat as well. Reed insists Sue stay behind and allows the Watcher to zap him back to New York.

That, by the way, pretty much ends Reed’s plans to take a leave of absence. There’s going to be several big threats coming in quick succession over the next several issues. Though Sue quite understandably and appropriately will sit the dangerous stuff out while she’s pregnant, Reed is back on the team just like that.

Anyway, Ben and Johnnie tussle unsuccessfully with the Surfer. When the army launches a super-missile called the Sonic Shark at the Surfer, Reed announces that it might actually kill the Surfer. The FF acts quickly to save their opponent’s life, though he’s been weakened by the experience. That brings him back to his senses, so the threat is ended.

Though the issue is as visually awesome as the rest of Kirby’s work on the book, the story is a little unsatisfying. There’s two reasons for this:

1)      The last issue ended with a dramatic announcement that Reed and Sue were leaving the team. I think it would have been fun to watch Ben, Johnnie and Crystal deal with threats without the resident genius.

2)      Also, the Surfer’s plan really is dumb and his motivation (and his abrupt realization that he was wrong) come across as contrived.

It’s not a bad story at all. But, as I’ve noted before, stories from the Lee/Kirby era that are merely good stand out dramatically because they’re not great.


Last issue ended with Spider Man getting dunked in the water and half-drowned. The shock of this cures him of his amnesia. Ka-Zar swings off to stop the cops from shooting Zabu and the amnesia story-line comes to an end.

By the way, we find out that if you’re a filthy-rich English lord like Ka-Zar, you pretty much have a free hand in destroying both public and private property. The cops will just shrug it off because they know you can afford to pay for it.

But there’s no rest for poor Spidey. Professor Smythe (who we met way back in issue #25) has built another remote control Spider Slayer robot. So the bulk of this issue pits Spider Man against the big robot in another fight to the death. Spidey uses both his superpowers AND his brains to destroy the robot.

In terms of pacing, this issue (despite a lot of action) is a breather between the Doc Ock arc that just ended and another long story arc featuring the Kingpin that will begin next issue. But it’s an entertaining breather and there are a couple of things about it worth pointing out.

First, there are several scenes featuring Peter’s friends at Aunt May’s sick bed, worrying about how long Pete’s been missing, as well as some moments centered around Captain Stacy and John Jameson. Stan Lee really had a knack for fitting these character bits into a story without slowing down the overall action. This issue is a particularly good example of this. 

Second, there’s the handling of J. Jonah Jameson. He’s at first eager to help Smythe in an attempt to capture Spider Man, but he’s horrified when he realizes the revenge-obsessed scientist is planning on simply killing the webslinger. Despite his hatred of Spidey, there’s a line Jameson won’t cross. It’s one of those occasional moments that lift him up from being comic relief or the resident pain-in-the-butt and present him as a more three-dimensional human being.

Finally, I love it that Spider Man finds out where Smythe’s lab is by looking him up in the phone book. That is a classic webhead moment.

THOR #150

Thor is apparently dead after his fight with the Wrecker, but it turns out he’s just mostly dead. Hela, goddess of death, shows up and Thor’s astral form leaves his body, but he declines to accompany her. He goes after the Wrecker, who is fighting an outmatched squad of police, but being invisible and incorporeal means he can’t do anything.

In the meantime, Balder and Sif pursue Loki to Karnilla’s realm. Balder has a really nifty fight against a gigantic warrior, but he’s soon captured along with Sif.

Karnilla pretends to befriend Sif, showing her that Thor has been defeated and is dying. Sif is quickly convinced that she must allow her life force to be put into the Destroyer armor.

It’s a neat plot twist, taking the story in an abrupt but satisfying new direction. The Destroyer takes down the Wrecker fairly easily. In the meantime, Thor has managed to reenter his own body, but he’s still weak. He sees the Destroyer and quite naturally thinks it’s even more of a threat than the Wrecker had been. The issue ends with Thor about to unknowingly attack the woman who loves him. This was what Karnilla and Loki planned all along, knowing that the violent nature of the Destroyer would make it fight back no matter whose life force is powering it.

As evil plans go, this one is really clever and seems worthy of the god of mischief.  I’ve been having a lot of fun with this story arc. Thor is a character that works best when he’s arrayed against cosmic-level threats like Ego, Pluto or Ulik. So, superficially, a story arc in which he’s been de-powered seems like a bad idea. But Stan and Jack have constructed a strong plot with great action and some truly emotional character moments.

And we get yet another example of good pacing within a story. The action switches smoothly back and forth from Earth to Karnilla’s realm without ever slowing down the plot.

That’s it for March. In April 1968, the FF fights a bunch of good guys; Spider Man saves Mary Jane for the first of many times; and Thor battles his girl friend without knowing it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Casey, Crime Photographer: “Tobacco Pouch” 9/18/47

A delusional shoplifter who thinks he’s a new Robin Hood and a tobacco pouch picked out of a pocket leads to Casey impersonating a hit man.  There’s a somewhat predictable but still nifty twist at the end of this one.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Who Needs the Shadow?

Read/Watch ‘Em in Order: Entry #6

Watching The Invisible Agent (1942) made me think of a story about the old-time radio version of the Shadow. During World War II, the Mutual Broadcasting System used to get angry complaints from people, demanding to know why the invisible super hero wasn’t being used as a spy against the Axis forces.

But, heck, we didn’t need the Shadow. We had Frank Griffith, the grandson of the original invisible man, sneaking into Berlin to do some invisible espionage.

I enjoy this movie enormously, so I’ll get the things that bother me about it out of the way first, so we can get to the good stuff.

There’s a couple of continuity errors in regard to the earlier film—mostly inconsistencies with some of the problems and limitations of being invisible that seems to have been forgotten or ignored by the filmmakers this time around.

To be fair, though, I’m watching this just a week after having viewed the previous film, while audiences in 1942 had waited two years since the last installment. And it was by then nine years since the first film. So continuity errors probably weren’t as noticeable.

{For the record, here's the inconsistencies: There's no mention at all that the drug eventually drives its user insane, though to be fair, the hero is only invisible for a couple of days, so the side effect may not have had time to become a  danger. The invisible agent can eat without the undigested food being visible inside him and he can fight Nazis in a smoke-filled room without showing up like a bubble. Also, unless I mis-heard a line of dialogue, the original invisible man seems to have been given a different first name.}

But the movie is still fun regardless. Frank Griffith is running a print shop in New York under an assumed name. He has a run-in with German and Japanese agents who are after his grand-dad’s formula, but manages to get away. All the same, he also initially declines to let the U.S. have the dangerous formula either.

Pearl Harbor changes his mind, but he won’t let anyone besides himself to use the drug. So, before long, he’s parachuting while invisible into Germany.

He contacts a drop-dead gorgeous blonde spy who’s been vamping an SS officer for information. Soon, the Germans figure out he’s active in Berlin, but it’s hard to track down an invisible spy.  Frank goes after a list of German and Japanese agents in the United States, then learns of a plan to send a fleet of suicide bombers to New York City.

But a trap involving a fish net lined with hooks might just be more than even an invisible man can handle.

It’s enjoyable and fast-moving storytelling. John P. Fulton continued to do a fine job with the special effects, most notably a scene in which Frank turns invisible and undresses while descending to the ground on parachute.

And Curt Siodmak’s script is interesting on several levels. Aside from being a fun story, it also works as a heartfelt condemnation of tyranny. It’s also an effective character study about the sort of men who hold power in a totalitarian government. The movie portrays Nazi officers and Japanese spies who plot against each other as much as they plot against the Allies. Frank Griffith has some great dialogue when he confronts one of the villains about this:

One of your own gang pushed you off. Someone else will push him off. And that’s how you’ll all go, killing your own. Dog eating dog--until only the biggest and the hungriest are left. You were a little dog, Heiser, and they’re pretending you’re mad so they can shoot you tonight.

Peter Lorre is one of the bad guys, using the same subtle mannerisms and speech patterns he employed as Mr. Moto to portray a Japanese. Keye Luke (best known as Charlie Chan’s Number One son) has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part as a doctor in Berlin’s Japanese embassy. Cedric Hardwicke and J. Edward Bromberg are the two main Nazi villains.

Bromberg, who played the bumbling but evil governor of Spanish California in The Mark of Zorro (1940), plays a bumbling but evil SS officer here. He strikes a perfect balance, providing some comic relief without ever losing track of the fact that his character is a man who has others brutally killed to further his own career.

Well, that covers three of the five  Invisible Man films. So far, we have two good guy invisible men and only one bad guy invisible man. We’ll have to see what the final score is after we watch The Invisible Man’s Revenge and the Abbot and Costello entry.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: February 1968


As the cover promises, this is an big action issue. And it is wonderful action—with a fight that stands out even among Jack Kirby’s many other examples of perfectly paced fight choreography. It’s an example of how well both Stan and Jack understood the characters—both in terms of personality and in terms of how these now very experienced fighters would use their powers.

Sue faces off against the Thinker’s giant android alone, while the rest of the team is unconscious. Using her invisibility and force field powers intelligently—and making use of one of Reed’s devices—she protects herself and the others long enough for Ben to wake up.

Ben is back to normal after being hit by Reed’s Menta-Wave Bolt at the end of the last issue. (As those of us knew who paid attention in high school when they covered the properties of Menta-Wave Bolts in science class). He belts the android through a wall, but is attempting to comfort a fainting Sue when Reed wakes up.

In a great scene, Reed thinks Ben is still brainwashed and about to hurt his wife, which sets off Reed’s berserk button.

This gets worked out pretty quickly, but the android returns. Reed, Ben and Johnny all get some shots in, but the android seems to have countermeasures built in for just about everything they try. So Reed lures it into the Negative Zone, setting it adrift forever.

So four issues of breathless action finally comes to an end, wrapping up a storyline that can be favorably compared to the original Galactus story arc in terms of action, pacing and characterizations.

But the issue still manages to end in a surprise. Reed has decided that he won’t put his pregnant wife in danger again—he and Sue will be quitting the Fantastic Four.

Yeah, sure, Reed. Like that’s gonna last very long.


Spider Man, still without a memory, is aimlessly webslinging around town. Aunt May literally worries herself sick over Peter’s disappearance and ends up in the hospital.

(You know, I like Aunt May—she’s a great character. But in retrospect, the “Aunt May is on her death bed!” schtick was sometimes overused.)

Harry Osborne is also worried about his missing roommate. He finds a Spider Tracer in Peter’s room and goes to the police with the news that Pete’s been kidnapped by Spider Man.

In other words, Peter Parker is having a really, really bad day. It gets worse when Lord Plunder—better known as Ka-Zar—visits New York to settle some legal affairs (bringing Zabu along with him, of course).

Jameson visits Ka-Zar and manages to talk him into stalking Spider Man. When the two heroes meet, they fight. Zabu joins in as well and the issue ends with Spider Man knocked unconscious.

Getting Ka-Zar into the story comes across as a little contrived—he instinctively distrusts JJJ and really doesn’t have a strong motive for getting involved. But since John Romita provides us with a really cool fight, we’ll forgive this.

Besides, another plus for this issue is a great scene in which Spider Man stops by the Daily Bugle, hoping a newspaper will have some information on who he is. Jameson comes within a second of conning the memory-impaired hero that he’s a friend and should take off his mask when Ka-Zar dives in through a window to attack the webslinger.

Ka-Zar: “You TOLD me to catch Spider Man!”

JJJ: “But I didn’t mean right now!”

A lot of the supporting characters—including Gwen and her dad—get some good moments in this issue. By now, John Romita has been doing the book for nearly two years. With absolutely no disrespect for Steve Ditko’s incredible work intended, I have to say that there was no drop in quality at all after he left.

Stan Lee is a great storyteller, but he was also enormously fortunate in the artists he worked with.

THOR #149

Thor and the Wrecker spend most of the issue going toe-to-toe (in yet another fight that just happens to take place near a condemned building). With Thor minus all his powers except his strength, he’s still at a disadvantage. But he’s Thor—so he fights on even when it seems he can’t win.

Well, it’s Jack Kirby art. So by definition it’s an awesome-looking fight. Yes, Stan really, really was fortunate in his artists.

Back in Asgard, Balder and Sif watch the fight via a mystic crystal. They go to Odin and convince him to take a look and see that Thor’s life is very much in danger. But when Odin gets to the crystal chamber, the crystal is gone.

Balder quickly deduces that Loki took it to keep Odin from realizing that Thor needs help. He also correctly deduces that Loki is now hiding out with the crystal in the dangerous Norn forest.

I’m not sure how Balder knew this last part. Loki seems to have all his powers back, so he presumably has all time and space in which to hide. Oh, well, I’m not an Asgardian god. Maybe Balder has some inside knowledge.

The issue ends with Thor defeated and presumably dead.

Which brings us to the end of February. In March 1968, the FF will tangle with the Power Cosmic; Spider Man will tangle with J. Jonah Jamison (in direct combat, no less); and Thor will tangle with the goddess of the afterlife.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: “The Pasteboard Box” 1/17/46

A wonderful episode in which Joseph Cotton plays a guy who fakes a suicide, then murders and replaces his wealthy twin brother. He dismembers the body and manages to dispose of most of it. But getting rid of the head proves to be annoyingly hard.

I thought I had figured out the twist at the end, but the story manages to go in a different direction.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

THAT'S the Chicago way!!

Read/Watch ‘em in order #5

The Shadow had been in Chicago once before, smashing the local mobs in retaliation for their murder of one of his agents. But the November 15, 1938 issue of The Shadow Magazine (titled “Chicago Crime”) shows us that new crooks had taken up the slack.

The Shadow is in the Windy City to track down Long Steve Bydle, the third of the five Fingers of the loosely-knit criminal organization known as the Hand.

Long Steve’s racket is a prosaic one—he stages car accidents and uses an unlicensed doctor to exaggerate the injuries in order to collect insurance claims. But he has a number of ruthless gunmen in his employ and he’s not above ordering a murder if that will increase his profits.

The Shadow needs to find Long Steve. He starts by trying to capture the one member of the gang he knows about, but that scheme degenerates into a nightclub brawl, which ends when the gangster is riddled with police bullets.

But our hero is nothing if not persistent. He’s soon able to make contact with a chauffeur who is being used as a dupe by the gang, talking the guy into becoming an inside man.

But, unlike the Shadow’s regular agents, this guy proves to be initially unreliable, knocking back a few too many drinks just before he was supposed to help the Shadow put the kibosh on the gang’s latest faked accident.

That lands the Shadow in hot water—leading to a wild gunfight on the streets of Chicago that involves several car crashes as well as a lot of gunplay. The Shadow drops a number of henchmen, but only barely escapes with his own life.

Did I mention the Shadow is persistent? By the end of the novel, he has given his temporary agent a chance to redeem himself and driven Long Steve and his gang into hiding inside a private hospital. It looks as if there’s no way to sneak inside the heavily guarded facility without alerting the villains and getting a hostage killed, but the Shadow, as usual, has a clever plan for bypassing the armed guards. He’s also already arranged for a surprise or two once he gets inside. And, heck, if there’re too many thugs for even him to shoot personally, he’ll arrange things so that they shoot each other.

Needless to say, there’s a lot more gunplay at the climax, with the Shadow, the gangsters, the Shadow’s allies, and the cops all getting to blaze away in a riotous melee.

I never would have figured that a novel about insurance cheats would be this action-packed, but Gibson manages to shove in a number of exciting gun battles, using his enormous skills as a storyteller to make each battle unique and exciting. He also adds several nifty twists at the end. Of the three Hand novels we’ve covered so far, I think this one might be the best yet.

But there’s still two more fingers left on the Hand. It won’t be long before the Shadow takes on modern-day pirates in “Crime Rides the Sea,”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The World's Finest Detective meets THE Great Detective

Detective Comics #572 (March 1987)

In the DC Universe, Batman is generally considered to be the greatest detective (though some recent writers—and film directors--seem to occasionally forget that.) But, in the Silver Age DC Universe at the very least, there was one man who was an even greater detective.  Batman himself acknowledges this within the pages of this issue, so there’s no sense in arguing about it. 

This was Detective's 50th Anniversary issue (not the 50th Anniversary of Batman, which was still a couple of years away. It’s the 50th anniversary of Detective Comics, in which Batman did not appear  until issue #27.)

To celebrate the occasion, the double-sized issue featured a multi-chapter story involving Batman and several other detective characters from the DC Universe. We start with Slam Bradley, a hard-boiled P.I. character who appeared in Detective Comics #1,  brought back now after a long absence. Older but still tough, he becomes involved in a kidnapping case that turns out to involve several descendents of Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. He gets an assist from the Dynamic Duo along the way.

The story then shifts to London, where Ralph Dibney--the Elongated Man--encounters some bad guys attempting to steal something from 221 B Baker Street. Ralph foils this, finding some papers containing the history of a previously unknown Holmes case.

This leads us smoothly into a flashback that gives us the details of that lost case, where Holmes and Watson foil a plot by Moriarty to assassinate Queen Victoria.

Back in the present, all the various characters meet in London. Through detective work and deductive reasoning, they uncover a modern plot by a descendent of Moriarty to assassinate the present-day Queen. The Moriarty family is a deucedly determined bunch.

The climax involves Batman getting a bit of help from a certain famous detective--now very old but still the best there is.

The whole story is very well-done. The plot moves along briskly, with plenty of action, but with each of the characters given a chance to show their respective skills as detectives. (The Holmes flashback is more action-oriented than the majority of the original Conan Doyle stories, but Holmes still shows off his powers of deduction and the addition of more action is appropriate to the comic book format.)

It's all balanced very nicely, with the themes of classic detective work and superhero action meshing together smoothly, with a dash of the hard-boiled detective style tossed in for good measure. Batman, Ralph and Bradley all get their moments to shine, with no one of them overshadowing the others.

A different artist drew each chapter, something that has been distracting in other comics. But here, each chapter is sufficiently self-contained to make the different artistic styles work effectively in terms of drama and the overall flow of the story.
And, of course, the greatest detectives in the DC universe helping out THE Great Detective can’t help but be super-awesome!!!!!

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