Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dive Bombers, Fighter Planes and Pretty Girls

I mentioned in a previous post that we're living in a veritable Golden Age for classic comic book reprints. And we are indeed, as made obvious by the recent publication of Buz Sawyer, volume 1: The War in the Pacific.

Buz was a creation of Roy Crane, who had recently left his long-running Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy strip to start something new.

Wash Tubbs had been a brilliant effort. The first true adventure strip, it had been filled with a pretty much perfect combination of action and humor. Crane's storytelling skills combined with a slightly cartoony art style to create a visually unique and very entertaining world. Storylines often included full-scale battles and fights to the death, but Crane's layouts always made it seem like good clean fun.

With Buz Sawyer, he went a more realistic route. Buz was in the Navy, flying a dive bomber (at first a Dauntless--later a Helldiver). His radioman/rear gunner was Roscoe Sweeney--a loyal friend as well as crew mate. Together, the pair would have one hair-raising adventure after another.

The change in characters and shift in tone didn't effect Crane at all as an artist. If anything, he got better. He drops Buz and Roscoe into trouble right from the strips premiere in late 1943, giving us an exciting dog fight that runs for a week or so.

Crane keeps the action going non-stop. Soon after the above dogfight, our heroes are shot down and forced to ditch in the ocean.

Eventually, they end up on a Japanese-held island, forcing them to play a dangerous game of hide-and-seek with the enemy.

Of course, they soon run across a pretty girl. Buz ran across pretty girls in the most unlikely situations.


The art is just fun to look at, carrying the story smoothly from one day to the next. Crane, with a couple of decades of experience behind him on Wash Tubbs, expertly mixed together character, plot and visuals.

One interesting thing to note--in addition to meeting girls in the unlikeliest places, Buz also had a tendency to get shot down a lot. This, of course, was the most logical route to get Buz and Roscoe into more personal adventures. In a later storyline, they run low on gas while flying close air support for ground troops, forcing them to land on an airstrip still partially controlled by the Japanese. Later in the war, after Buz has been transferred to torpedo planes, he and Roscoe are forced to ditch in the ocean again after taking anti-aircraft hits. They're picked up by a Japanese submarine, giving them the interesting problem of how to escape from a submerged vessel.

Each of these stories were great. In fact, the quality stays high on Buz Sawyer throughout the war years. It's interesting that Crane choose to make Buz a dive bomber/torpedo bomber pilot rather than go the more glamorous fighter pilot route. But then, these planes had two- or three-man crews, so this gave Buz a built-in sidekick for his ground-based adventures..

Not that being a fighter pilot would have made for boring storytelling. Over on Terry and the Pirates, writer/artist Milt Caniff had tossed his title character into the war and trained him to fly a P-51. Young Terry was a little late in enlisting (slowed down after being wounded while escaping from the Philippines, then spending time helping break up a Japanese spy ring), so when Buz joined the war, Terry was still finishing up his flight cadet training in Asia.


But Terry would get a chance to fly a few combat missions as well before long, though he'd never lose his tendency to run across spies while on the ground. And, like Buz, he'd also tend to run across drop-dead gorgeous dames on a regular basis.


Buz and Terry become one of those cases where you wish there had been a team-up at one point. But even though they never met, their war-time adventures represent their respective creators at the pinnacle of their skill as artsits and storytellers.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: May 1966, part 1


FANTASTIC FOUR #50

Pure Kirby goodness continues as the Silver Surfer switches sides and goes mano-a-mano with Galactus. The artwork continues to be perfect as the two combatants toss cosmic-level energies at each other while Reed, Sue and Ben watch helplessly.

Johnny shows up from his Watcher-enhanced trip across the universe, bringing read a tiny device that turns out to be the "Ultimate Nullifier," which is apparently capable of destroying all of existence.

Well, that's enough to make Galactus decide that the battle isn't worth the prize. He heads off to eat other planets, but not before zapping the Silver Surfer and taking away his ability to travel in space. The Surfer is now exiled to Earth.

All this takes up just ten pages of amazing visuals and fast-moving storytelling. And then it's over. The FF have completely what might be their best story arc ever, though the quality will remain high throughout the Kirby/Lee era. (An era we will cover in its entirety even as we drop other books.)

Anyway, the rest of the books consists of some quiet but effective characterizations. Ben thinks Alicia is hot for the Surfer. He mopes off feeling sorry for himself (something that sets up next issues superb story). Johnny heads off to college, where he meets football player Wyatt Wingfoot. The two will be sharing some adventures very soon.

Reed, in the meantime, is getting on Sue's nerves by continually forgetting about her while conducting experiments. We know the two are in love, which makes scenes like this kind of sweet as well as funny.




SPIDER MAN #36

Spider Man has a great Rogue's Gallery (rivaled only by Batman), but there was an occasional misstep in trying to add someone new. The Looter is one of those that didn't catch on. He's a scientist who is given super strength when exposed to a gas from a meteor. Neither his origin nor his costume are that interesting.

Still, any issue that contains a fight choreographed by Steve Ditko has its good points. Spidey and the Looter encounter each other at a science exhibit, where the battle then takes to the air when the Looter uses a helium balloon to try to escape.  Spidey brings him down in the end.

There's some more of Peter's college adventures. His standoffish-ness over the last few issues has left him without any friends. Gwen tries to attract his interest (she's still exhibiting the "LOOK AT ME! I'M HOT!!" personality that Mary Jane will eventually supplant), but he's more taken with the stuff at the science exhibit, getting her mad at him all over again.

All that is actually more interesting that the fight with the Looter. Lee and Ditko's record on Spider Man is excellent, but this issue was a minor stumble.


THOR # 128

Gee whiz, if I tried to decide whether Jack Kirby's art looked more epic either here or in this month's Fantastic Four,  I think my brain would explode.

The main plot involves Hercules, now at a Hollywood studio, being tricked by Pluto into signing an unbreakable Olympian contract that puts Herk in charge of the Underworld.

Hercules realizes he's been tricked and refuses to go, leading to a fight between him and hordes of Underworld creatures determined to drag him down to his new throne.

Thor, looking for a rematch with Hercules, shows up and together the two finish off the bad guys. But Pluto doesn't care--he's got the contract and is off to Olympus to ask Zeus to enforce it.

It all looks great. Once again, Kirby really manages to endow each panel with a real sense of cosmic power. And his design work in both the scenery and the characters is just plain awesome.

Even a few side scenes are fantastic. Seidring--the bad guy from last issue--is banished to a barren world where he's sentenced to rule over bestial rock trolls for all eternity.

And Thor, while recovering from his injuries on Asgard, goes fishing. Fishing on Asgard apparently consists of traveling on a huge ice-sled and taking potshots at large "armored beast-fish" with a harpoon gun.

Both these scenes drip with imaginative designs.

The "Tales of Asgard" feature finishes up the prophesy of Ragnorak, Finishing up the destruction of Asgard, it  concludes with Odin pointing at Loki and telling him that this will be all his fault. Not exactly a surprise twist, but once again Kirby's art work is extraordinary.

Jack Kirby had a long and fruitful career, so pointing to one phase of it and declaring it to be his absolute best work is completely subjective. But I'm gonna do it anyways. I believe Jack's work on FF and Thor during the mid-1960s really is his absolute best work.

That's it for now. Next week, we'll finish up May 1966 with a look at the Avengers, Hulk, and Namor.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Mercury Theatre on the Air: "Abraham Lincoln 8/15/38



Based on the play by John Drinkwater, this broadcast was an episodic examination of Lincoln's presidency. It's quite wonderful--generating a surprisingly high level of emotion as Lincoln deals with hard moral decisions and an argumentative Cabinet. With much of the dialogue lifted directly from Lincoln's speeches, it's a powerful bit of historical drama.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sometimes, you can't keep a good idea down.

When I was a kid, I was a complete Star Trek geek. At  that time, there wasn't a lot of SF out there (at least not on TV), so I naturally developed a fondness for the best of the meager offerings.

I read The Making of Star Trek and David Gerrold's book length account of writing "The Trouble with Tribbles" and James Blish's short story versions of the episodes. But it wasn't until I was an adult that I found out one of the cooler episodes was coincidentally similar to a short story published during World War II. And that the author of that tale got a story credit for that episode.


The July 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction included the story "Arena," by Frederic Brown. The human race and an invading alien race are about to have it out in a massive space battle. An all-powerful advanced alien, knowing the battle will effectively doom both races, opts to intervene. He drops a human and an alien into a sort-of arena, surrounded by a force field. He tells them to fight to the death. The loser's entire race will then be obliterated. Thus, at least one of the races will survive.

The story is pretty cool, with both the human and the alien improvising weapons while trying to figure out a key aspect of their new environment. In the end, the human may have deduced something that will give him just enough of an advantage to win. But his plan includes the necessity of smacking himself unconscious with a rock, so his victory is far from certain.

Trust me. It all makes sense when you read the story. Try to track down a copy. If you have a Kindle or Kindle app, it's available in this collection.

Now let's jump ahead a couple of decades. Star Trek Writer/producer Gene L. Coon comes up with an idea in which the Enterprise encounters an alien race known as the Gorn. It looks like war between the two species, but a super-powerful alien race intervenes. They teleport Captain Kirk and the Gorn onto an uninhabited planet, where the two must battle it out for the fates of their respective species.


Coon came up with the idea on his own, but someone noticed the similarity to Brown's story. So Brown was contacted and, in the end, given a story credit. The episode, by the way, is  also titled "Arena," telecast in early 1967.

You just can't keep a good idea down. The idea of two opponents being forced to fight for their entire species is a pretty cool one--the ultimate in gladiatorial combat. It's really not surprising that two writers might come up with the same idea.

Or is it three writers?  Three years before Star Trek, Outer Limits did a very similar story:





It seems you REALLY can't keep a good idea down.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's never wrong to include a dinosaur

I've written briefly about The War That Time Forgot in a post from a few years ago. And I still think it's one of the coolest concepts for a comic book series ever.


The series was written by Bob Kanigher, DC's go-to guy for war stories. When looking at Kanigher's work as a writer, I tend to mentally divide his stuff into two catagories.

There were those stories where he constructed plots that would show off the skills of the artist drawing the book, but also introduced an element of real humanity into them--effective character studies that added dramatic backbone to the stories. The Sgt. Rock story arc I covered a few weeks back is a good example of this.

Then there's the stories where it seems ALL he was trying to do was give the artist a chance to show off. He'd still construct a plot that followed a vaguely logical sequence, but his characterizations would be so sketchy as to be almost non-existent. A look at his early Haunted Tank stories provided examples of this--heck, it took several issues for him to consistently remember the names of the crew of the tank, while their back stories changed several time. But the stories allowed Joe Kubert to draw stuff such as a Tiger Tank inexplicable hidden on the second floor of a bombed out building. Or a German fighter strafing the Haunted Tank as it crawled across a makeshift bridge.

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It looked cool. And that's all that mattered.

Well, dinosaurs always look cool. So dinosaurs tossed together with the already cool-looking stuff from World War II couldn't help but double the visual fun.


Humans in the "War That Time Forgot" series rarely stuck around for more than one issue, but there were a few instances where Kanigher ran with the same characters for two or three issues, perhaps hoping to come up with guys popular enough to make regulars. But he never did--and it really didn't matter. This was another case where his characterizations were of the sketchiest kind. The humans were in the story purely to toss them into combat with dinosaurs.

Star Spangled War #116, 117 & 118 featured Morgan and Mace, two members of the World War II version of the Suicide Squad. (The Squad at that time consisted of tough, highly trained commandos who were sent on the most dangerous missions.) Morgan and Mace hate each other. This is because Morgan blames Mace for the death of his brother in a pre-war tobaggan accident.

In fact, Morgan is perpetually convinced Mace is a coward and will run out on their mission at any moment. He's pretty much obsessed with this idea. No matter how many times Mace pulls off a Medal of Honor-level piece of heroism, Morgan keeps his .45 trained on him to make sure he doesn't run off.

Gee whiz, it's silly. But it really doesn't matter, because the whole set up is merely an opportunity to get the two of them into conflict with dinosaurs. In most of these stories, the action takes place on a remote Pacific island. But the first Morgan/Mace story is one of several set in the Arctic, where a few frozen dinosaurs end up getting thawed out.


The two commandos accept the presence of dinosaurs with remarkable aplomb while managing to complete their task of blowing up a German rocket base. In the next issue, they're in the Pacific, flying an experimental jet bomber that's brought down on a remote island by--yes--a dinosaur.


The two spend several pages blowing up prehistoric creatures before happening upon a pterodactyl nest. When one of the eggs hatch, the "little" creature (incorrectly labeled a dinosaur by the soldiers) apparently imprints on them.

They end up with an ally. The pterodactyl (named "Dino") shows up several times, both in this issue and in the next, helping Morgan and Mace out of sticky situations.

In fact, when the two commandos are attacking a Japanese aircraft carrier in a torpedo bomber they salvaged, Dino is there to help once again by personally weaving through the anti-aircraft fire and dropping the torpedo on the flattop.




I love it. I shouldn't love it. The characterizations are stilted and taken to a ridiculous extreme. Dino showing up to help doesn't make any sense at all, even in the context of a world where dinosaurs still exist. It's really kinda dumb.

But it doesn't matter, because artist Ross Andru makes it all look so fun! That was the point of the whole series--just to look cool. To look fun. To look wonderfully imaginative. I'm generally critical of poor plot construction and characters stripped of even basic personality traits. Even the most basic pulp or comic book fiction should make sense within the context of the world it creates.

But "The War That Time Forgot" proves that sometimes all that must step aside so that we can see what it looks like when a pterodactyl dive-bombs an aircraft carrier.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

I love the elephant swinging a big morning-star with his trunk. What good something like that would do against Wonder Woman, Supergirl or Green Lantern, though, seems debatable.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Sherlock Holmes: “Murder by Moonlight” 10/29/45


This particular Sherlock Holmes story was aired while Basil Rathbone was still playing Holmes both here and in a series of movies made by Universal Pictures. The movies had updated the Great Detective to what was then modern times, so he could help with the war effort by helping to catch Nazi spies.


Those films are fun, but Holmes is never quite at home when taken out of the Victorian Era. The radio show, fortunately, kept him in his proper time.

It did give him a chance to travel a bit more than Arthur Conan Doyle did in the original stories. In “Murder by Moonlight,” Holmes and Watson are on a steamship heading for India, having been asked to investigate a case there. But there’s a crime to solve even while they’re still at sea. The two men meet the widow of an Indian raja. Surprisingly, she speaks with a Cockney accent—it turns out that she is a former music-hall performer who fell in love with a prince. She’s returning to the small nation over which she now technically rules as queen, but not everyone is happy about this.

Holmes has to prevent the lady from being murdered and uncover the identity of the would-be assassin. As was typical in the Holmes radio episodes of this period, the script accurately catches the Great Detective’s personality and intelligence and then builds a solid plot around those traits. There’s no real chance of solving the case along with Holmes this time, as the primary clue depends on an obscure bit of medical knowledge (and I have no idea if that bit of knowledge is accurate or just made up for the sake of the story). But it really doesn’t matter. The tale flows nicely and Holmes’ deductions make sense after he explains them. There’s a nifty twist at the end involving the fate of the criminal. And, besides everything else, it’s always fun to hear Rathbone’s energetic line-readings whenever he’s playing Holmes. No one, with the arguable exception of Jeremy Brett, has ever played that part better.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Icky mind-controlling octopods!!!

I'm insufferably proud whenever I'm cited as a source in a Wikipedia entry. It doesn't really mean that much, but it helps feed my ego. And my ego is big enough to need a lot of nutrition.

Anyway, the entry on the wonderful pulp magazine Planet Stories cites my book Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio as a source. (They spell my last name wrong, but what the hey.)

Planet Stories provided a nice balance for science fiction fans of the 1940s. The other great SF pulp was Astounding Stories, edited by John Campbell. Campbell insisted on scientific veracity in the fiction he published, one of several standards he set that helped raise the genre up into the level of true literature.

But Planet Stories went with pure space operas, eschewing a strict scientific realism to tell straightforward adventure stories. Here, the galaxy was full of planets full of inexplicably human barbarians, bizarre monsters and larger-than-life alien threats. Beautiful princesses in need of rescuing were common as dirt and the average astronaut often had to be as skilled in swordsmanship as in stellar navigation in order to survive.

Planet Stories was the child of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars and Venus stories and the grandfather of Star Wars. It was a reminder that not every science fiction story has to be steeped in what might be realistically possible. Sometimes, it's nice to visit a galaxy full of beautiful princesses for a time.

Ray Bradbury and Leigh Brackett (later one of the script writers for The Empire Strikes Back) were the two most important contributors to the magazine. But a lot of other lesser-known writers provided some great stuff. The Winter 1949 issue, for instance, included a short novel by Emmett McDowell titled Sword of Fire.

A space explorer named Jupiter Jones is lost and crash lands his small ship on an unexplored planet. He soon ends up with a small parasite attached to the back of his neck, allowing a race of octopod-like aliens to control his mind. The aliens have been in charge of the planet for thousands of years, enslaving the humans and breeding them into different specialized sub-species (warriors, workers, meat animals, etc.).

Jones just wants to get back to his ship and escape. But the local humans think of him as a savior--the legendary "Wanderer-from-Beyond" who will free them from slavery. Besides, the only source of spaceship fuel Jones can find is a radioactive idol right smack in the middle of the aliens' city. He may have no choice but to become a leader and a hero.

It's a fun, fast-moving adventure story. It gives us a cool alien world with bizarre threats and a hero capable of taking those threats on. It doesn't worry about scientific veracity, nor should it. I love hard science fiction and I'll always enjoy the work of Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson and Larry Niven. But its a good thing to from time to time mix a little bit of fantasy together with science fiction trappings.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: April 1966, part 2

AVENGERS #27


Hawkeye decides to use a memory inducer to remember the computer code he needs to find out where the other Avengers are. But he’s interrupted when the Beetle attacks the mansion.

Why? It's not revealed until the next issue, but it turns out that a guy named the Collector (who eventually turns out to be an Elder of the Universe) is collecting a complete set of Avengers and has hired the Beetle as an agent.

But for now, we get to see Hawkeye and Beetle in a pretty neat fight, with Hawkeye using his various arrows in clever ways to get away so that he can rescue his teammates.

And they certainly need rescuing. Attuma’s ship is now completely flooded. The Avengers had air helmets, but the Atlantean bad guy is in his natural element. But Hawkeye shows up (in an “Aero-Sub” he borrows from the Fantastic Four). There’s a dog fight with several of Attuma’s patrol craft, interrupted by a visually impressive encounter with a giant octopus.

All the good guys end up on Attuma’s main ship, teaming up to win the fight. I love a panel where Wanda takes over control of an armored vehicle, zapping some of Attuma’s men with a ray gun while thinking “I don’t quite know what it’s doing—but certainly is doing it well!”

The Avengers escape and Attuma’s ship blows up, ending his latest threat to the surface world. But the Wasp is mysteriously missing and there issue ends with a visitor at the front door. We don’t get to see who it is yet, but the Avengers certainly act surprised.

It’s a strong issue from start to finish. Though I sometimes find Don Heck’s figure work a little stiff, he gives us some really good stuff this issue.

THOR #127


Thor, shamed by his defeat by Hercules, tells Jane it’s over between them, then flies off to mope. Odin, in the meantime, begins to feel badly about double-crossing his son in the middle of a fight. He feels even worse when his advisor Seidring refuses to give back the Odin power. He zaps Odin and soon subdues the warriors of Asgard.

Thor arrives to find out what’s going on and has to take on Seidring along. Through sheer courage and a refusal to surrender, he manages to fight his way into the chamber where the Odin Sword resides, threatening to draw the giant sword and thus cause the universe to end. Seidring panics and gives Odin back his powers. Thor, having saved the day, drops unconscious from his injuries.

That summary really doesn’t do the issue justice. Once again, Jack Kirby takes the opportunity to draw beings of cosmic-level powers to make everything look glorious. And Thor exudes nobility. There’s nothing corny or heavy-handed here. We easily believe that Thor wins with nothing but unflagging courage.

While all this is going on, we learn that the producer who invited Hercules to star in a movie is Pluto, ruler of the Greek Underworld. But he’s sick of that job, so is using this whole movie gimmick to trick Hercules into signing a contract to take his place. He’s enlisted the Queen of the Amazons to help guile the Son of Zeus into signing.

It’s the weirdest supervillain plan ever. But it fits in with the feel of the story. All this continues to make up what I would pick as Thor’s best ever story arc.

In “Tales of Asgard,” Thor and his companions are back in Asgard, listening to the world’s creepiest-looking oracle predict their doom. This provides Jack with an excuse to spend several pages drawing what Ragnarok will look like, ending with the Midgard Serpent rising up finish off what’s left.

Monsters—god-like warriors—massive destruction. In a Jack Kirby story, what else do you need to make it cool?

TALES OF SUSPENSE #76


Iron Man manages to transform Happy back into a human, though the process leaves the unfortunate ex-boxer with amnesia. Soon after, Tony is kidnapped by the Mandarin. He loses his briefcase with his Iron Man armor, while Mandarin threatens to release an ultimate weapon and finally conquer the world.

It’s a pretty straightforward chapter in Iron Man’s ongoing serial, with Adam Austin’s art work continuing to give the title a new sense of energy.

In Captain America, John Romita takes over as artist for a couple of issues and give us some solid action as Cap is forced to team up with Batroc to catch the girl and warn her the explosive she’s carrying is about to go off. Batroc, in the meantime, continues to talk constantly in his REALLY ANNOYING accent.

When the catch the girl, they start fighting each other again. Batroc unintentionally leads Cap back to the criminals who hired him. The two duke it out before the villains seem to escape with the explosive (now safely contained again), but it turns out the girl was carrying a dummy. The real explosive was safely delivered to SHIELD. And as the girl is taken off in an ambulance, Cap wonders if he’ll ever see her again.

This makes for a good stopping point for Tales of Suspense. Well, actually, it’s not that great a stopping point, since both series are hip-deep in cliffhangers. But it’s the closest thing to a stopping point that we’ll get and I’m now determined to cut the titles I do chronologically down to FF, Spidey and Thor over the next few installments, thus opening up Wednesday slots to cover other comics. We will be returning to Shellhead and Cap frequently, though, to look at specific storylines.

TALES TO ASTONISH #78


The army replaces Dr. Banner with Dr. Zaxon, an expert in “organic energy.” Someone fell down on the job in the interview process, though. It soon turns out that Zaxon hopes to one day conquer the world.

And when the Hulk reappears in his own time zone, he’s gassed unconscious by the army. The issue ends with Dr. Zaxon using an Organic Energy Attractor in an attempt to steal the Hulk’s power.

There’s some nifty characterization stuff here too. Banner’s personality and memories are still fading, leaving an increasingly brutal Hulk behind. Rick, before learning that Hulk is still alive, spills the beans to everyone—including Betty—about Banner’s duel identity. It’ll be a few more issues, in fact, before Hulk finally turns back into Banner. But even so, we are getting very close to getting the Banner/Hulk transformations to become regular events based on his emotional state.

Meanwhile, we get the rest of Namor’s encounter with Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne (all taking place before the current issue of the Avengers). That encounter ends when the Puppet Master (who intercepted a radio message about Namor) quickly takes control of the undersea monarch, with a plan to use him to attack the FF. (Janet, in the meantime, flies off to warn the Avengers about Namor, leading into the Avengers story arc.)

The Puppet Master realizes he’s low on cash, so he sends Namor off to rob a bank or two before crushing the FF. But by the end of the issue, he’s surrounded by the Army, with the villain mentally telling him not to be taken alive.

Adam Austin’s art continues to look great, but I gotta say his design of Puppet Master (which includes a bizarre costume) doesn’t manage to catch the creepy vibe that Jack Kirby always gave him.

That’s it for April. Next week, we'll pause in our examination of the Marvel Universe again to take a look at what the average dinosaur was doing during World War II.

In two weeks, we'll return to our now-truncated history of the Marvel Universe, in which the FF wraps up its fight against Galactus in time to send Johnny to college; Spider Man fights a new villain and gets Gwen really ticked off at him; several ex-Avengers return to the fold; Thor goes fishing before deciding to help Hercules; the Hulk actually fights Hercules; and Namor deals with both mind control and a giant monster.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Green Hornet: “Too Hot to Handle”—11/11/47

A lot of the most joyful listening experiences of old-time radio originated in the same place—radio station WXYZ in Detroit.

It was from WXYZ that the Lone Ranger galloped onto the public airwaves in 1933. In 1936, the same station began producing The Green Hornet. Sgt. Preston of the Yukon—a Canadian Mountie who always gets his man--was added to the mix in 1939.

All were great shows and all ended up begin broadcast nationally for long runs on radio. Two of these three shows, though, share an even closer connection. It turns out that their main characters were related.

The Green Hornet was in reality Britt Reid, publisher of an important newspaper in a never-identified big Eastern city. Disgusted with political graft and ineffectual laws, Britt took on the identity of the Green Hornet and armed himself with a gun that squirts knock-out gas. Pretending himself to be a gangster in this identity, he gathered evidence that put many criminals behind bars and helped clean up the city. Initially, only his valet Kato knows that Britt and the Hornet are the same person. Kato, in fact, works with the Hornet, using his martial arts skills and high intelligence to help bring the bad guys down.

The show was well-written and expertly produced. The nifty buzzing sound effect of the Black Beauty (the Hornet’s car) was particularly effective.

The Hornet was purposely created to be a modern-day, urban analog to the Lone Ranger. But the creative staff at WXYZ wanted a closer connection than this thematic one. In 1942, on the Ranger’s show, the Western hero met his long-lost nephew. Young Dan Reid became a semi-regular character on the show.

Notice the last name? In the 1947 Hornet episode “Too Hot to Handle”, an elderly Dan Reid traveled east to visit his son Britt. Britt tells him about his Hornet identity. Dan not only approves of Britt’s masked identity, but tells him of an ancestor who also wore a mask while riding across the Old West on a similar mission.

From there, the episode involves Dan helping on a mission to stop a criminal from blackmailing his way out of a narcotics charge. This is all done very well, but it’s that initial scene, linking the Ranger and the Hornet as close relatives, that’s the really cool part. Dan never actually calls the Lone Ranger by name. Instead, he simply describes him while the “William Tell Overture” (the Ranger’s theme music) rises up in the background. I’m assuming there was no legal reason for not naming the Ranger—both characters were copyrighted by WXYZ’s owner George Trendle—and that this was done purely for dramatic effect. It actually works quite well, allowing the audience to figure it out for themselves and collectively shout “They are related!! I KNEW IT!!!”

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lou Costello---MURDERER!!!!!!

No, Lou isn't really a murderer. But he once played someone suspected of murder in what I believe was his only purely dramatic role.


I'm always a little reluctant to admit that there is such a thing as a good TV show, because that medium is responsible for killing off dramatic radio. But in reality, the first decade or two of network television included a fair percentage of well-written and well-produced shows. I've mentioned shows like Perry Mason, Bat Masterson and Combat in previous posts. Another good one was Wagon Train, which starred the wonderful character actor Ward Bond as the leader of a wagon train that never actually seems to arrive at its destination. Good writing, great actors and stark black-and-white photography made for a classy and entertaining Western.

An episode from the second season had Lou playing a drunken bum named Tobias Jones, who stows away in a wagon in his effort to reach California. With him is an orphan girl he's befriended.

The girl looks up to Tobias and wants to stay with him. But he just won't stop drinking, no matter how many times he promises to do so. When someone else on the train is found dead with Tobias' whittling knife stuck in him, he confesses to the crime, despite Ward Bond's conviction that he's innocent. By now, he's given up on himself and just wants to die.

Lou gives a strong, believable performance as Tobias--helping build a real sense of personal tragedy. The story itself gets a little too corny from time to time and I'm not sure the twist ending is as much of a surprise as it should have been, but overall the script is solid. It makes interesting viewing, both as good storytelling and as a chance to see one of the world's funniest men play a straight dramatic role.

If you subscribe to Netlfix, the episode is available for instant viewing. ("The Tobias Jones Story"--fourth episode from Season 2).

Comedians often turn out to be quite good at dramatic roles. Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny and Danny Kaye all played murderers on the radio anthology series Suspense--and all did quite well. So it's not that surprising that Lou Costello can play a tragic drunk and endow the part with real emotion. Perhaps it all relates to the enormous skill involved in being funny on a regular basis. After all, as an actor supposedly once said on his death bed "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: April 1966, part 1

FANTASTIC FOUR #49


The FF’s greatest story continues. Kirby’s hyper-imaginative visuals are once again packed into the issue from cover to cover. The fight against Galactus’ cyborg warrior (known as the Punisher—yes, there was a Punisher before Frank Castle) is magnificent; as is Kirby’s images of what the desiccated Earth would look like after Galactus drains it of water and energy.

Even the few quiet moments—such as Reed stopping for a shave and Ben for a quick bath in-between bouts with the Eater of Worlds—look great.

Anyway, our heroes try to stop Galactus and do manage to delay him a bit. In the meantime, the Watcher sends Johnny off on an inter-dimensional journey to get a super-weapon.

And then there’s what I can’t help thinking of as a minor glitch (the incident that subtracts a tenth of a point from the Bogart/Karloff Coolness rating). The Silver Surfer, belted off the Baxter Building by Ben last issue, just happens to fall through the skylight of Alicia’s apartment. What follows is Alicia’s verbal defense of humanity, which causes the Surfer to undergo an epiphany and switch sides. Even though coincidences like that are common in comic books, both it and the whole Alicia/Surfer scene are just a little bit heavy-handed.

At least in my none-too-humble opinion. Then again, I’m not bothered by the coincidence of Galactus coming to Earth, where he just happens to land atop THE FREAKIN’ BAXTER BUILDING! I’m sincerely not bothered by that at all. Go figure.


SPIDER MAN #35



The Molten Man is out of prison. He’s disguising himself before pulling off robberies, but Spidey manages to track him down regardless. As usual, Ditko choreographs a wonderful fight—this one with an unusual twist for a Spider Man battle. At one point, there’s a page-and-a-half in which the two adversaries trade punches. There’s no dialogue—just sound effects and art work that really manages to convey a sense of power to each blow.

The story is nicely paced, including an emphasis on Peter having to tail Molten Man for several days before getting the evidence needed to prove he’s guilty.

The story ends with Peter finding out that Betty Brant has left town. She’s out of the picture for a few years now. Gwen Stacy will now be the main girl in Peter’s life.

Gwen actually isn’t in this issue (she’ll play a big part in next month’s issue), but it’s interesting to look at her personality so far. She’s basically a drop-dead gorgeous dame who knows she’s drop-dead gorgeous. (Though, as much as I like Ditko’s art, it’s John Romita, Sr. who will really make her gorgeous.) So far, her biggest problem with Peter is that he hasn’t hit on her like every other boy she’s met.

Before too many more issues come and go, Mary Jane Watson will come onto the scene and take over that particular dynamic. Gwen will evolve into the sweet girl-next-door type.


STRANGE TALES #143


The Fixer and Mentallo have taken over SHIELD headquarters and have strapped Nick to an H-bomb. There’s a rare bit of contrived writing at this point when the bad guys take the mental control mask off Nick after they’ve strapped him to the bomb. Why they would give up one of their aces in the hole is not explained.

But the rest of the story is still good. Tony Stark tosses together some new weapons and Nick (who is secretly wearing a “mental transmitter”) sends coded mental instructions to SHIELD’s ESP unit. Agents wearing scramble helmets counter attack, a neutralizer ray disintegrates the H-bomb and the espers bombard Mentallo with painful thought waves. The bad guys are captured.

But things are never quiet at SHIELD. The last few panels show a plane launching from the helicarrier on a secret mission, only to be destroyed by a oddly shaped aircraft. There’s yet another threat to the world out there. Not too surprising, really.

Roy Thomas takes over as writer for Dr. Strange in this issue. He and Steve Ditko give us a really nifty story in which the still-disembodied Dr. Strange gains control of his amulet and levitation cloak to help battle Mordo’s disciples. Ditko’s visuals are once again perfect for portraying magical combat, so Strange continues to look cool while putting the beat down on the bad guys and finally getting his body back.

What with Stan Lee gone as writer (and Ditko around for only a few more issue), this seems like a good point to call it quits for Strange Tales. We will return to the title eventually—I want to cover Jim Steranko’s magnificent run on Nick Fury. But for the time being, we will be leaving both SHIELD and the Sorcerer Supreme behind.

Next week, we’ll see if we can finish up April 1966 in one fell swoop, covering the Avengers, Namor, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and Captain America. We’ll still be dropping titles, but as I’ve said before, I’ll continue with the FF, Thor and Spidey for some time to come.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cover Cavalcade

This is a great cover, so I shouldn't make fun. But couldn't the blonde have tied the darn rope to something rather than make the cowboy do all the work? She's gotta make the hero hold the rope AND fight off the bad guys? Gee whiz.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philip Marlowe: “Anniversary Gift” 4/11/51

This is an interesting entry in the series. Marlowe was usually played (with perfection) by Gerald Mohr. But Mohr apparently wasn’t available the week this episode aired. I have no idea why—maybe he was sick or doing a bit part in a movie or what have you. I like to think he was falsely accused of murder and on the run from the cops, while using detective skills he learned from Philip Marlowe scripts to catch the real killer. But that, admittedly, seems unlikely.

Anyway, Marlowe this week is played by William Conrad. Conrad certainly can handle tough guy roles (heck—Matt Dillon is a thematic relative of the hard-boiled P.I.) and it’s really interesting to hear how effectively he gives voice to Marlowe. I still prefer Mohr in the role, but Conrad handles himself well.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

He made me who I am today

When I was growing up, a local channel ran Creature Feature on Saturday afternoons. The selection of movies was excellent and--as I can see in retrospect--one of the major influences in my life that still draws me today to Old School stuff. It was on Creature Feature that I first saw the Universal horror movies, Son of Kong, 1950s science fiction movies, and Japanese monster movies.


The show was hosted by Dr. Paul Bearer--who is (or at least was) the longest-running local horror host on television, with a run from 1971 until his death in 1995. If anyone has beaten the record since the good doctor's death, I don't know about it.

Dr. Paul Bearer's schtick was bad puns, but his delivery was perfect for making it all silly fun. His real name was Dick Bennick Sr and he was a talented guy who created a fun and memorable character.


But I'm grateful to Creature Feature mostly for its movie selection. There were a lot of little things in my youth that influenced my outdated pop culture tastes--comic books; paperback reprints of Shadow novels; paperback reprints of Dick Tracy comic strips from the 1940s (featuring memorable villains such as the Brow and Shaky); reprints of the original Conan the Barbarian stories and a few other Robert E. Howard offerings. But Dr. Paul Bearer and a pretty much perfect selection of monster and science fiction films were definitely a factor in shaping me into who I am today.

The world should be grateful. What would you all do without me?


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sgt. Rock's Odyssey





In the early 1970s, Archie Goodwin briefly took over as editor of DC Comics’ war books. At the time, there were three important DC books that featured continuing characters: Our Army at War had Sgt. Rock, G.I. Combat featured the Haunted Tank, and Our Fighting Forces had the Losers.


For years, all of these books had been written almost exclusively by Robert Kanigher, who had also created all the featured characters. His work had always been good and often excellent, but when Goodwin stepped in a change was made that helped elevate all three of these books to a new level.


Kanigher usually did not worry about internal historical continuity in his war books. One month, Sgt. Rock would be fighting in France. The next week, he’d be in North Africa, which would place the story two years earlier in historical reality. Yet a character introduced in the France story would still pop up in the North African story line.

This never hurt the books, since the individual stories were strong and the art work (usually by Joe Kubert or Russ Heath) was absolutely superb. But in 1972, it was decided (I assume by Goodwin, since he had just become editor) they should try out some multi-issue story arcs. Goodwin himself took over the Haunted Tank, sending that armored vehicle and its ghostly guardian on an ill-conceived raid that kept them trapped behind enemy lines for a half-dozen issues. The Losers, still written by Kanigher and drawn by John Severin, went on a mission to Africa and ended up in a series of inter-connected adventures that took them across the Sahara.



Kanigher and Russ Heath (possibly the single most underrated artist in comic history) took Sgt. Rock on his own personal Odyssey. Starting in Our Army at War #256, Rock is detached from his beloved Easy Company in Europe and sent on temporary assignment to Burma, where he’s given a squad of newly promoted sergeants to train. His trainees are suspicious of him at first, but Rock earns their respect as he teaches them to balance aggressive action with watching out for the men under their command.





The story really begins in OAAW #257. The B-17 flying Rock back to Europe is caught by anti-aircraft fire and crashes on a Japanese-held island. Rock is the only survivor. Building a hang-glider out of the remains of the bomber, he manages to destroy the anti-aircraft gun that was hidden in a cliff-side cave.



This issue shows the sort of thematic tight-rope that Kanigher always walked in his war stories. First, the story is full of real human moments, most especially when Rock vainly tried to save the screaming crewmen inside the burning bomber. But at the same time, it was filled with pure comic-book action. Rock builds a hang-glider out of the remains of the bomber, for heaven’s sake. Looked at objectively, it doesn’t get any sillier than that.


But it doesn’t seem silly in context with the story as a whole. The sense of humanity that Kanigher built into the story is the main reason, of course, but Russ Heath’s art work is a big part of it as well. With his understanding of human anatomy, his dynamic portrayal of violence, his technically accurate portrayal of vehicles and weapons and his cinematic shifting of perspective from panel to panel, he could give any sort of action sequence a sense of reality and urgency. No matter how silly it might be when compared to real life, it works beautifully in the comics.


OAAW #258 starts with Rock adrift in the Pacific in a rubber raft. Washing up on another island, he’s forced into an uneasy alliance with a Japanese Marine also stranded there. Together, they launch a raft and put back out to sea. But their alliance comes to a bloody end when they spot a boat in the distance. Tragically, only after the Japanese has been fatally wounded, does Rock see the boat is an abandoned PT Boat.






OAAW #259 has Rock rescued by an American hospital ship. Once again, Kanigher’s strong sense of humanity comes to the forefront while Rock helps care for the wounded, and again when several of the walking wounded decide they are sick of war and take over the ship, determined to find an island paradise somewhere. Rock does not approve of their action, but he doesn’t condemn them either, knowing what they’ve all been through.



But when they come across an island where invading U.S. Marines are being slaughtered on the beach, the mutineers find they can’t turn their backs on their countrymen. They and Rock enter the fray and help turn the tide.

OAAW #260 involves Rock and his companions blowing up a Japanese gun emplacement that’s about to open up on a second wave of landing craft. But when they return to the beach, they learn that some Japanese civilians are hiding in a cave near the top of a cliff. With a young prisoner as a translator, they climb up to try to get the civilians to surrender. But the civilians, including a mother clutching her child, begin to leap to their deaths. They’ve been told that the Americans will torture them if they are captured. (This, by the way, is drawn straight from history. Civilians often did commit suicide because of this propaganda and those that did try to surrender were often gunned down by Japanese soldiers.) The moment where Rock, who was always so stoic in the midst of combat, turns to the young prisoner in an absolute panic, screaming at him to tell the civilians they won’t be hurt, is quite possible the single-best Sgt. Rock moment ever and one of the most emotionally affecting sequences in any comic ever.





The next issue was a story out of continuity with the rest of the story arc. It picks up again in OAAW #262, with Rock finally coming home to Easy Company. He finds another Sergeant has been put in charge while he was Missing in Action. Rock finds himself a spare wheel in his own outfit. He learns the new guy lost his entire command before coming to Easy and still has nightmares about this. The new guy is given a chance to redeem himself, though, giving his life to save Easy Company in the story’s climax. Rock is home and in command again, but the war goes on.







Overall, this was a wonderful story arc, both in terms of writing and art, well-worth finding and reading.
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