Wednesday, February 29, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: January 1969


Crystal has to return to the Great Refuge to get Black Bolt’s permission to join the FF. But her trip there is a bit more sudden than she planned—Lockjaw teleports in with a horde of Alpha Primitives (the Inhumans’ worker drones). They snatch Crystal and ‘port out again.

So Reed, Ben and Johnny zip off in a rocket ship to the Great Refuge to find out what’s going on.
 What’s going on is this: Black Bolt’s brother Maximus, who has long since set up permanent residence in Crazy Town, has staged a coup and taken over. He’s got B.B. and the male members of the royal family in an unbreakable cage. Medusa is forced to sit at the foot of his throne, with her hair sprayed with a chemical that keeps her powerless. Lockjaw is under his hypnotic control.

When Crystal finds out what’s going on, she tries to zap Maximus, but he’s using a personal force field (a “sub-ionic force field,” to be exact—Stan had a mastery of technobabble that writers of Star Trek must have envied).

When the rest of the Fantastic Four show up, they are smacked down by as robot specifically designed to counter their powers. Though Ben does manage to get in one of his best-ever one-liners:

By the end of the issue, all the good guys are unconscious or captured. And Maximus reveals his giant hypno-gun that will give him control of the entire planet.

It’s yet another plot that allows Jack Kirby to go to town in designing futuristic machinery and robots. At this point, there’re only about 20 issues of Jack Kirby left to go before he leaves Marvel for DC. But, even as he grew increasingly unhappy with his treatment at Marvel, the quality of his work never dropped. In this issue, we once again have a strong plot with solid characterizations and absolutely wonderful visuals.


During the 1960s, Stan Lee sometimes seemed critical of hippies and the tendency of college students to protest stuff at the drop of a hat. But in this issue, he presents college students with a legitimate grievance and their decision to use civil disobedience as something that is arguably justifiable.

Robbie Robertson’s son Randy is involved in the protest, which centers around turning an exhibition hall into low-rent housing for students in need. And reading through this story, it’s impressive to note just how even-handed Stan Lee is in handling the issue. Peter’s been so busy fighting super villains he doesn’t know what the protest is about until he’s asked to join. This allows Stan to use his thoughts to examine the issue—his sympathy is with the students, but he also doesn’t know if the college administration has a legitimate reason for rejected their demands. 

Stan also shows that people on both sides of an issue can become angry and unreasonable—highlighted when another black student shouts at Randy that his dad is an Uncle Tom.

But this is a comic book, so a supervillain is going to get involved eventually. It turns out to be the Kingpin, who uses the demonstration as a distraction to storm the exhibition hall and steal an ancient clay tablet on display there. (Supposedly, if the writing on the tablet is deciphered, it would be a source of great power.)  Spider Man, of course, gets involved. But the need to protect innocent people allows Kingpin to escape with the tablet. Spider Man pursues, while Randy and a few other protesters are arrested on the suspicion that they were working with Kingpin.

It’s a great issue. Romita, of course, gives us some great action sequences. But he and Stan also manage to deal with a real-life issue in an even-handed way without interrupting the inherent drama of the story.

THOR #160

Stan and Jack present us with another of the Top Five Thor stories of all time—right up there with the Mangog or the first Hercules story arcs.

This is, in fact, a particularly strong month for Lee and Kirby. Where they had come up with a story in Fantastic Four that let Jack really go to town with his imagery, here Jack goes to town, pretty much buys the town outright, then re-builds it into an even better town.

Tana Nile, the alien from Rigel that Thor first met 31 issues ago, shows up on Earth to ask the Thunder God for help. Galactus is roaming the universe near Rigel and Tana’s people need help to stop him.

There is one odd bump in this story in regards to the overall Marvel Universe continuity. Thor seems to be learning about Galactus for the first time here. But Galactus tried to eat the Earth once and had very recently been back to Earth again. Granted Thor wasn’t involved in either of those adventures, but gee whiz, doesn’t the guy ever read a newspaper? Even in a world full of superheroes, something like Galactus is going to generate headlines.

But that’s not something that affects the overall quality of this specific story. (Besides, I do recognize the need to explain who Galactus is to any Thor fans who don’t read the FF.)

Soon, Thor is put in a small spaceship along with the Recorder. The two zip off to find and stop Galactus. Following them is a fleet of space ships holding the survivors of worlds destroyed by the big guy.

And what is Galactus doing while all this is happening. He’s decided it’s time for dinner—with EGO THE LIVING PLANET as the main course.

Thor and the Recorder stumble upon the Galactus/Ego beat-down. Their ship is destroyed the issue ends with the two floating helplessly in the vacuum of space.

Gee whiz, there’s great stuff here. Jack Kirby continues to make dramatic use of splash pages to give his visuals the proper impact—making everything literally drip with 100% pure Awesome. 

With these three issues, 1969 is off to a great start. In fact, I believe it was the Awesomeness leaking out into the real world from the Marvel Universe that would allow the New York Mets to win the World Series that year.

In February, the FF and the Inhumans both stage jail breaks; Spider Man and Kingpin continue to fight over a lump of clay; and Thor continues to deal with two of the most powerful entities in the universe.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

When someone considers the perils of time travel, this particular situation probably doesn't commonly come to mind.

Actually, I think Cleo is a little better looking.

Thanks to Gary Shapiro, host of the excellent interview show From the Bookshelf, for suggesting this cover and sending me the image.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Kim Darby Interview

The radio interview show From the Bookshelf recently did a great interview with actress Kim Darby, who starred in the original movie version of True Grit.

I wrote a post about the novel awhile back. Now I'm thinking of re-visiting that and doing a direct comparison with the movie. Both are great (though the novel edges out the movie just slightly in quality) and a look at the two together might be fun.

Besides,that would gives me an excuse to watch the movie again.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: “Habit” 7/18/48

Remember when Scottie slugged a Klingon who insulted the Enterprise? Well, the same thing applies to Captain Weatherfield. Don’t insult his rickety old freighter Wakeland within his hearing or in any other way injure his dignity. He’ll get you back for it. He’ll get you back even if he has to sail his ship into a hurricane, perform emergency surgery on an injured man, or take out a man half his age in a fist fight in order to do so.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

What's In A Name?

There were so many heroes, anti-heroes and supercriminals running about during the first half of the 20th Century—many of them with nom de plumes (the Shadow, the Avenger, the Phantom Detective, the Black Bat,  the Octopus, G-8)—that it’s not surprising to discover that two of them coincidentally shared the same code name. There were, it turns out, two different guys known as the Spider.

The second Spider, active from 1933 to 1943, is the more famous one among fans of pulp fiction. He was really Richard Wentworth, who adapted the identity of the Spider to fight criminals too vicious for the mere police to handle. Wearing a hideous disguise and a dark cloak, he used his blazing .45 automatics to cut a swath of death across the underworld.

This Spider was obviously an attempt to cash in on the success of the Shadow, but his stories had their own individuality and unique energy. The best ones were written by Norvell W. Page, who tossed the Spider into battle against the worst mass murderers in history. And when I say mass murderers—I really mean mass murderers.

Gee whiz, New York City seemed to be reduced to rubble on a monthly basis in the pages of The Spider. One criminal was blowing up skyscrapers. Another was burning people to death by the thousands. Another raised an army of psychotic hoboes and tried to take over the country. Yet another released hordes of rapid vampire bats over several major cities.

The Spider fought back, refusing to be stopped even when beaten, wounded, drugged, or framed and sent to death row. Heck, he once climbed up the side of a skyscraper with two large metal balls chained to his legs and killed several heavily-armed thugs with just a knife in order to stop the bad guys.

The Spider stories aren’t as good as those of the Shadow. They’re often too loosely plotted to be completely satisfying and the violence (especially the frequency with which women are threatened with rape) is occasionally too gruesome and tasteless. But, despite their flaws, they are often fun and truly exciting adventures.

But Richard Wentworth wasn’t the first Spider. His predecessor was active a few decades earlier, with his adventures recounted within the pages of Detective Story Magazine in 1918 and 1919.

This Spider was a supercriminal. He used to run an organization in Paris, but he was betrayed and trapped in a burning building. Crippled from the injuries he received, he moved to America and built a new organization, directing its activities from a room in his mansion known, of course, as the Spider’s Den.

But for a crook, this first Spider really isn’t such a bad guy. He steals from other crooks and often returns his ill-gotten gains to the original owners. He’s more a force of vigilante justice than a true criminal. He also refrains from actually ever murdering anyone, though he does use the threat of murder to take revenge on some old enemies.

The protagonist of the Spider novellas is John Warwick, a society guy who was cheated out of his fortune by other society guys. So now he works for the Spider again, gradually building his fortune back up while falling in love with Silvia Rodney. Silvia is the Spider’s niece, though she apparently doesn’t know about his nefarious activities.

The adventures of this Spider were recounted by Johnston McCully—one of the many series characters he created before striking pay dirt with Zorro in 1919. The Spider tales are old enough to be in the public domain, but they don’t seem to have been reprinted for years. In fact, I was only vaguely aware of the character until recently, when I did run across “The Spider’s Strain” (1919) in a pulp reprint magazine called Adventure Tales.

It’s not a bad story. Warwick wants to retire from the organization and marry Silvia. The Spider agrees to this, but only after Warwick completes one more job—stealing an apparently worthless locket from a society dame.

Warwick has no idea why the Spider wants the locket, but he soon finds out that another criminal band also wants it badly. Warwick gets kidnapped, then rescued by his Japanese valet Togo. The locket is stolen, recovered, stolen again and seems to vanish. The other crooks seem to have won. But a twist (that many readers will probably see coming) brings the story to a happy conclusion.

It’s not a bad story at all, though Warwick’s clipped manner of speaking is very, vary annoying. He has a tendency to speak in partial sentences to the point where you just want to smack him one. “Must not monopolize Mrs. Barker. My word! Haven’t danced with her for quite some time! Pleasure I cannot miss this evening—what? Must assert my rights, and all that sort of thing !”

Seriously, doesn’t that make you want to dope-slap the guy and tell him to speak properly?

Robert Sampson’s book From the Dark Side (part of an invaluable six-volume history of pulp characters) describes the problem perfectly:

Warwick is addicted, don’t you know, to an atrocious pseudo-English slanginess—all that sort of thing.

But Warwick is a likeable enough chap all the same and you do end up rooting for him.

I’ve look around a bit on the Internet and haven’t yet run across any of McCully’s other Spider stories. I know from Sampson’s book that the Spider retires at the end of the last story and announces he’ll use his fortune to do good to atone for a life of crime.

It might be interesting to think about who would come out on top if Richard Wentworth had ever taken on the first Spider’s organization. But it never would have happened, even if they had overlapped each other chronologically. Wentworth battled psychotic megalomaniacs who slaughtered innocents by the thousands. The first Spider apparently never harmed a fly and stole only from other crooks. Heck, I don’t think Wentworth would have even bothered to nark the first Spider out to the cops. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Lone Ranger's Work is Never Done

Golden Comics Digest #48: "The Lone Ranger's Western Treasury"

The Golden Comics Digests that came out during the 1970s were a venue used by Gold Key to reprint old comic stories. Most of them featured cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker or the Pink Panther, but occasionally they would do something really nifty showcasing an action/adventure character.

 G.C.D. #48 featured the Lone Ranger, a character created for radio in 1932 who had achieved enormous success that spilled over into books, comics, movie serials, and both live-action and animated TV.
"On the Warpath"
The Ranger can be a tricky character to write for. He pretty much has to be corny--a man who exists purely for the purpose of helping those in need. What made the Ranger popular over the years was a combination of good acting and good production values on both radio and TV and solid plots. All this helped create a version of the Old West that was believable and helped fans of the Lone Ranger accept him as "real." The actors who portrayed the Ranger (Brace Beemer on radio and Clayton Moore on TV) both played the part with real sincerity and it's to the credit to the memories of both men that they accepted their responsibilities as role models in their real lives as well.

The Gold Key comics reprinted in the Digest maintained this tradition of quality. Unfortunately, the Digest does not tell us when these stories were originally published or credit the writers and artists. Whoever they were, they were all pros: all the stories presented here are a lot of fun.

"The Great Range War"
Several of the stories feature the Ranger as a peacemaker. In "On the Warpath," the Ranger's nephew Dan Reid and a young Indian boy both risk their lives to preserve peace between Indians and settlers. In "The Great Range War," the Ranger manages to negotiate a three-way agreement between feuding cattlemen, farmers and sheepherders. And in "Ransom for Silver," the Ranger must leave his horse behind as a hostage while he works to prevent two rival tribes from going to war.

"Ransom for Silver"

"Silver Bullets" is set early in the Ranger's career, as he and Tonto go undercover with a gang of rustlers to lure them into a trap. The story takes a nice twist after the bad guys are captured--the Ranger abruptly finds himself trying to prevent the posse from degenerating into a lynch mob.

"Silver Bullets"

In "The Mission of Mercy," the Ranger and Tonto escort a doctor carrying smallpox vaccine to an Indian tribe. The action moves from a riverboat to a stagecoach as a gang of bandits, who have an unknown motive for wanting to see the tribe die off, tries to stop them.

"Mission of Mercy"

In "Cunning Hunter," the Ranger and Tonto hunt a wounded puma that has been endangering human lives, only to discover that the puma is itself a skilled and tricky hunter.

"Cunning Hunter"

 Another story features Silver, before he was befriended by the Lone Ranger and was still running wild, being stalked by an Apache who wants the magnificent horse for himself. Silver's not easy to catch, though, and the Apache learns to respect the horse's freedom. (Those familiar with Lone Ranger mythology will remember that the Ranger never captured Silver, but let him go after saving the horse from a buffalo. Silver voluntarily chose to become the Ranger's mount.)

"Indian Scout"

Finally, "Indian Scout" is a story about Tonto, also before he met the Ranger, as he helps lead a wagon train through a desert as they are menaced by an Indian war party. This story also tells us how Tonto acquired his own superb mount, Scout.

All the stories have good, solid plots. The different artists are all good, helping to tell the story clearly and presenting the fight and battle sequences in ways that allow the readers to easily follow the flow of the action. There's a lot of realistic detail, both in the portrayal of the equipment and weapons of the Old West and in the actions of the characters that help add to the overall verisimilitude. For instance, in "Indian Scout," Tonto shows the settlers how to find hidden water holes in the desert. in "The Mission of Mercy," there's a sequence where the riverboat uses large wooden spars to help lever itself over a sandbar--something real-life riverboats of the time did all the time. These little bits of accurate practical and historical detail help maintain the drama of the stories.

The Indians, for the most part, talk in the same sort of pronoun-less stilted English that Tonto is famous for. This is something that has been cited (with some justification) as a reflection of the bigotry of the time these stories were produced. But both whites and Indians in these particular tales have their share of good guys and bad guys. Neither the Ranger nor Tonto ever make decisions about helping people based on race--rather they are driven by the needs of justice and compassion.

And that's just as it should be.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dragnet: “The Big Fake” 6/1/50

A rookie cop claims to have given an injured drunk a ride home rather than booking him. The next day, the drunk accuses the cop of mugging him.

Friday and Romano have trouble finding evidence to support either the cop or the drunk, but persistence pays off in the end. Like all Dragnet episodes, this is a well-written police procedural that unfolds in a logical manner. The ending, in which the cops unravel the guilty man’s story, is the really fun part in this one.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Vampire Frog-People from Outer Space

I've written about Edmond Hamilton before. He started in the pulp industry and became a successful writer of science fiction. When the pulps died out, he moved to comic books, where he's primarily remembered today for his entertaining run on The Legion of Super Heroes.

Hamilton's stories certainly weren't high on scientific realism, but that's really one of their strengths. He was internally consistent in terms of plot and character--within this framework, he churned out stories that were dripping with pure fun.

"The Second Satellite" is yet another example of this. Published in the August 1930 issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, it involves the unexpected discovery of a SECOND MOON orbiting Earth.

The first thing a reader might wonder is where this moon's been hiding all this time. Well, it's been spinning around our upper atmosphere in such a fast orbit, that it's effectively invisible.

This is, of course, nonsense from a hard science point-of-view. But this isn't hard science fiction. This is space opera in the finest (and not-at-all-derogatory) sense of the word. Hamilton presents this situation, then just runs with it.

Pilots in experimental planes have been vanishing and another pilot deduces the existence of the second moon from this. He and a co-pilot take a flight themselves and end up crashing on the moon. Within minutes, they are captured by Vampire Frog-People who are armed with disintegration guns.

So the heroic Earthmen must use their great strength (amplified by the low gravity) to escape the Frog-People's partially-underwater city. After that, it's time to teach the human population (until now oppressed by the frog-people and used as a food source) how to make underwater breathing apparatus. This all leads up to an all-out assault by the humans on their oppressors.

It's all great fun, told with fast-moving and well-constructed prose. There are captures, escapes, battles and still more escapes. Everything a good adventure story should have.

And, of course, it has Vampire Frog-People. With disintegration guns.  Vampire Frog-People rank right up there with Skeletons with Death Rays as an inherently cool idea. So the story really can't help but be awesome.

I'm pretty sure I've talked about this before: I love hard science fiction--Poul Anderson and Larry Niven always come to mind as two writers especially good at this. I love stories in this genre that depend upon getting the science right to help create a successful and believable story.

But I also love Space Opera. My favorite term for this sort of story is "Science Fantasy"--a tale in which it the story claims that its fantastic elements are a part of science and not magic, but where the laws of science are casually bent or broken to create a new and really cool world. This is the sort of thing that Edmond Hamilton was so very good at.

Vampire Frog-People with disintegration guns. Man, compared to that, real life actually seems kind of dull, doesn't it?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: December 1968


With Sue now a brand-new mommy, Crystal announces that she wants to join the FF as her replacement. Reed isn’t sure, but when the Wizard (with newly-improved “Wonder Gloves” equipped with multiple weapons) attacks, Crystal gets to prove herself in a baptism of fire.

There’s not a lot to analyze. The bulk of the issue is one of Jack Kirby’s typically cool fight scenes. But that fight is constructed to highlight Crystal’s skill at using her powers, her quick intelligence and her keen sense of battle tactics. It’s mostly her efforts that give the FF an edge in the battle and send the Wizard running off like a crying school girl.

It’s a simply but effective story, introducing us to the idea that Crystal is going to be an active member of the team for awhile and allowing her to prove both to Reed and to the readers that she’s got the chops to hold up her end of things.


Spidey’s has apparently been shrunk down to about 6 inches by Mysterio, which traps the webslinger in a scale-model amusement park full of death traps.

But this is Mysterio—so it’s not a surprising plot twist when it all turns out to be illusion and post-hypnotic suggestion. Spider Man slams past one death trap after another until he is able to overcome the illusion and smack down the villain.

Romita gives us another great fight scene. This is an unusual one—Spidey’s apparent size change and the need to both punch and think his way out of successive traps give this one a different vibe from the usual action sequences. And that’s just fine, because Romita makes very effective use of the weird visual perspectives inherent in the situation to give us something just a little bit different.

The pacing of the Spider Man stories also continues to be notable. Lee and Romita have by now developed a real talent to break away from the action a few times without seeming to slow the story down. This keeps us caught up on the various supporting characters and introduces us to Robbie Robertson’s son Randy.

You know, I haven’t mentioned this yet—because it doesn’t stand out as such a big deal nearly a half-century later. But, in 1968, portraying a black man as an intelligent and respected authority figure and now portraying him as a caring and capable father was still something of a big deal. Robbie has always been a strong addition to Spidey’s cast of supporting characters and it’s important to note just how innovative a character he was when he was first introduced.

THOR #159

Odin decides that it is indeed time to tell Donald Blake exactly what his connection with Thor is.

And it’s a good one. As a young man, Thor was brave and powerful, but lacked humility. We see him getting into an unnecessary fight with storm giants and then (along with the Warriors Three) starting a tavern brawl.

So Odin decides to temporarily wipe his memory and send him to Earth with an implanted identity. He becomes a young medical student named Donald Blake. His hammer is hidden away in a cave until it’s fated for him to find it again.

Reading the early Thor stories really gives the impression that, at first, Lee and Kirby were presuming that Donald Blake simply gained the powers of Thor. But as other Asgardians were introduced and Thor took on his own personality, that explanation no longer held water. I’d be curious to know how much of that character progression was planned and how much of it just sort of happened. My impression is it just sort of happened, but I really don’t know one way or another. (I wish I still owned a copy of the old Origins of Marvel Comics, though I don’t remember if Stan went into that aspect of Thor’s creation.)

So, by now, there really needed to be some clarification of Thor’s double identity. This issue comes up with a great explanation. And it gives Jack Kirby an excuse to draw Thor beating the snot out of storm giants. That’s pretty much the definition of win-win.

That’s it for December 1968. Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the Lone Ranger’s comic book adventures from Gold Key Comics. In two weeks, we’ll begin 1969. The Fantastic Four will pay a visit to the Inhumans; Spider Man goes up against the Kingpin yet again; and Thor takes a trip into deep space with an old friend.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

Those Signal Corps guys had it rough at times! These two comics both came out during the 1950s, with coincidentally similar covers. Not a huge coincidence, since they were published 5 or 6 years apart from one another, but it's still interesting to see them together.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Fess Parker: TV's Frontier Hero"

Here's an excellent interview with the author of a new book on Fess Parker. The book is now on my "must read list."

Friday's Favorite OTR

Damon Runyon Theater: "The Lacework Kid" 9/25/49

One Nazi officer forces an American POW to play gin rummy for high stakes against another Nazi officer? Why? It actually turns out to be part of a pretty clever plan.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

At the Earth's Core

Read/Watch 'em in order #11

I recently read a fun essay by writer Mike Resnick (it was in the first issue of a pulp reprint magazine called Adventure Tales) that pointed out something interesting about Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Burroughs is one of the 20th Century’s finest storytellers because he had the good fortune to JUST HAPPEN to hear stories of various heroic characters. Heck, his uncle was John Carter, who was the fist human to get mysteriously teleported to Mars. (Something that happened to at least one other guy some years later.) So he was able to get the first-hand scoop of Carter’s adventures on the Red Planet.

Burroughs JUST HAPPENED to know a guy who knew a guy who knew Tarzan, so he was able to give us the Ape Man’s biography. It was Burroughs who JUST HAPPENED to find the manuscript inside a thermos bottle that Bowen Tyler tossed into the sea, so we thus learned about the hidden continent of Caspak.

Burroughs knew Jason Gridley, who invented radios that could contact both other planets and the subterranean world of Pellucidar, so he was able to pass on even more adventurous tales to us.

But Gridley’s radio wasn’t the first time Burroughs learned about Pellicidar. The writer was travelling in the Sahara Desert this one time, when he JUST HAPPENED to run into David Innes, who had just returned from the world at the Earth’s core.

 Gee whiz, Burroughs was a lucky guy.

Anyway, Pellicidor just might be his most unique creation among the many lost worlds to which he introduced us. Dig down about five hundred miles and you break though into a new world. There’s a sun, suspended by gravity in the exact center of our hollow earth, providing warmth and eternal noon-day sunlight.

As were many of Burroughs’ lost worlds, this one is stuffed to overflowing with prehistoric creatures, most of them both hungry and bad-tempered. But Pellicudar has an even more horrific threat—an intelligent race of pterodactyls called Mahars, who subjugate the primitive humans and, in fact, occasionally eat them. The Mahars use a race of ape men called Sagoths as slave raiders, enforcers and bodyguards.

There’s another nifty aspect of Pellicudar—time does not exist. With no day-and-night cycle, time becomes a completely subjective concept. At one point in the first novel in the series, the two main characters are separated for a time. One has a very active time encountering various dangers and assumes he’s been gone for weeks or even months. The other was reading and thinks only a few minutes had passed.

I’m not sure that actually makes sense, but it’s a cool idea and Burroughs runs with it throughout the series. It gives him an excuse for not aging his main characters. With no sense of time, they all become functionally immortal unless killed violently.

Also, there’s no horizon and (for anyone not a native) no sense of direction when trying to travel from one spot to another unless you’re very careful about landmarks. In many ways, Pellicudar is simply a cool place, rating a 9.4 on the Bogart/Karloff scale.

David Innes first discovers Pellicudar in At the Earth’s Core, which was serialized in All-Story Magazine in 1914. David was funding scientist Abner Perry’s new invention, a vehicle that would burrow into the Earth. But when David and Abner take the thing out for a test drive, they discover they can’t make it turn around once it started digging. So they keep going down until they pop “up” in Pellicudar.

Soon, they are captured by Sagoths and taken to the Mahar city. Burroughs uses a trick he repeats many, many times in other novels—the characters are given an opportunity (usually as prisoners) to learn the local language and gather some background information. Burroughs, a master of pacing, was always able to get this in without slowing down the story at all.

Anyway, David falls in love with the appropriately-named cave girl Dian the Beautiful. He also has to plan an escape from the Mahars, save Dian from an unwelcome suitor (appropriately named Jubal the Ugly One); form the various human tribes into an empire, introduce the concept of bows and arrow to them; and wipe out the Mahars.

It’s all great stuff and includes several of Burroughs’ best action set-pieces (including David’s hand-to-hand fight with Jubal). Abner Perry, an elderly scientist given to pontificating at length about new discoveries and theories, is a wonderful supporting character. (The goofy movie but still entertaining movie version from 1976 gets one thing exactly right when it casts Peter Cushing as Perry.)

David Innes is a good, solid hero, though the novel suffers a little because he’s neither as primal as Tarzan nor has the noble warrior vibe that John Carter gives off. But he acquits himself nicely all the same. Heck, not everyone can be Tarzan.

If I were going to complain about At the Earth’s Core, it would be that several scenes (most notably the scene in which hypnotically enthralled humans are eaten by Mahars) border on unpleasantly gruesome. Burroughs’ novels always have high body counts, but his violence is never described in graphic terms. That’s one of the reasons they’re so much fun. But that poor girl getting eaten by the Mahar queen while she stands in an unmoving trance—that’s kind of gross.

But, to be fair, that scene does have a purpose in the story. It’s a part of a chain of events that mark the Mahars as unrepentantly evil. Burroughs is giving us a straightforward adventure story, with clearly defined good guys and bad guys. And the Mahars are definitely the bad guys.

Anyway, the novel ends when David (now Emperor of a coalition of tribes) returns to the surface for books and tools needed to bring real civilization to the humans. He pops up in the Sahara Desert, where he runs into Edgar Rice Burroughs. But does David manage to successively return to Pellicidar? We’ll have to wait until Burroughs JUST HAPPENS to stumble across that story before we can find out.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: 1968 Annuals


Sue’s about to give birth, but the cosmic energy in her is still endangering both her and the child.

But Reed has a plan. He’s figured out that a specific element can be used to ensure safety of both mother and child. But, since this is the Fantastic Four, the element exists only in the Negative Zone.

I love this set-up. The FF isn’t frantically working to save the Earth from destruction. They are frantically working to save members of their family. It reminds me of FF #19, where they traveled back in time to ancient Egypt to find something that might cure Alicia’s blindness.

And, of course, a trip to a place like the Negative Zone is a perfect opportunity to let Jack Kirby’s imagination run wild. The whole issue looks… well, fantastic.

Reed, Ben and Johnny run into Annihilus for the first time—the alien villain with a bad habit of trying to kill pretty much everyone else in existence to ensure his own immortality.

Reed soon realizes that Annihilus’ main weapon—his Cosmic Control Rod—it what he needs to save Sue. I’ll skip the details of the plot: without Kirby’s visuals, a plot synopsis just doesn’t do the story justice. Suffice to say that the boys make it back with a little bit of the energy from Annihilus’s Control Rod siphoned off. Sue is saved and the baby (it’s a BOY!!) is born healthy. It’s only much later that we find out the kid is (at least on occasion) an all-powerful god.

The story drips with an intensity that a lot of “save the world” stories don’t equal. Making it personal—making it about a husband and father desperately trying to save his family—gives this tale an extra emotional oomph that makes it one of Lee and Kirby’s true classics.


It looks like 1968 was the year for superheroes to spend their Annual adventures dealing with personal problems rather than save the world.

Peter’s helping Aunt May clean out the attic when he stumbles across an old newspaper clipping. To his shock, he learns that his parents were traitors to their country—evidence proving this was found on their bodies after they were killed in a plane crash.

Peter doesn’t want to accept this, so he bums a ride to Algiers from Reed Richards and begins investigating. Soon, he’s hip-deep in assassins trying to do him in. The Red Skull turns out to be heading up spy activities in that area and Spider Man confronts him at his secret HQ.

It’s a fun story—though Peter has an awfully easy time uncovering the Skull’s secret hideout. It kind of makes you wonder what SHIELD, the CIA or MI6 had been doing for the past couple of decades.

And it’s really more of an action tale than a spy/intrigue story anyways. The plot drives along on the strength of its fight scenes: Spidey vs. gang of assassins; Spidey vs. the Skull’s top legbreaker; Spidey vs. a top assassin armed with a guided missile launcher; Spidey vs. the Red Skull himself. And artist Mickey Demeo does a fine job in blocking out good fight scenes.

In the end, Peter finds the evidence he needs to clear his parents—they were actually working FOR the USA as undercover spies.

So, like Reed and Sue’s story, we get a happy ending this time around. The Parker Luck isn ‘t always bad.

That’s it for the annuals. Next week, we’ll finish off 1968.

By the way, I’m considering interspersing this series not just with the occasional random comic reviews, but also with a chronological look at the Superman stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s—when editor Mort Weisinger started expanding the Superman universe to include other Kryptonians, superheroes from the future and the occasional super-pet. Leave a comment if you think you might enjoy this.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

Point-of-view shots such as this one are eye-catching and dramatically effective.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Six Shooter: “The Shooting of Wyatt King” 5/20/54

Jimmy Stewart’s laid back portrayal of Britt Ponset made it possible for The Six Shooter to range from adventure to tragedy to comedy throughout the run of the series. This episode has a little bit of everything in it, blending humor with great character moments.

An infamous outlaw is found badly wounded. When Britt rides into town, everyone thinks he must have done it and he can’t get anyone to believe that he didn’t. Even the outlaw gives him credit.

Britt couldn’t be more aggravated by getting accolades he didn’t earn, but when he discovers who really did the shooting, that only leads to more trouble.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Black-and-white photography is a better storytelling medium than color photography. The following remarks will prove this:

Peter Blood—doctor, sailor, slave and pirate—is one of those fictional characters who is pretty much made of awesome—someone too cool to really exist but whom we nonetheless think of as real. A master swordsman and tactician; a strong leader; quick of wit and always ready to improvise in the face of danger—Blood can easily stand as an equal alongside D’Artagnan, Robin Hood, Zorro, John Carter and the other great swashbucklers.

Blood originally appeared in Rafael Sabatini’s excellent 1922 novel. There was a silent movie based on the novel made in 1924 (as yet unseen by me), followed by the 1935 sound remake—the classic swashbuckler with Errol Flynn.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, the Flynn flick is easily the best pirate movie ever. The cast (especially Flynn) is perfect, backed up by a strong and clever screenplay that’s very faithful to the novel. The sword fight
between Flynn and Basil Rathbone is superb and the cinematography is stunning. But, despite Blood’s awesomeness, 15 years would pass before he returned to the big screen.

In the meantime, Sabatini wrote a couple of fun sequels to Captain Blood (1931’s Captain Blood Returns and 1936’s The Fortunes of Captain Blood)--short story compilations that filled in some of the adventures Blood had as while he was still active as a pirate.

In 1950, Columbia Pictures released a film version of The Fortunes of Captain Blood, with Louis Hayward playing the title role. It’s not a sequel to the 1935 film—this Peter Blood, for instance, isn’t in love with Arabella Bishop. In fact, poor Arabella doesn’t seem to exist in this continuity. Instead, a Spanish woman named Isabelita (played by the drop-dead gorgeous Patrica Medina) takes over as the pirate’s true love.

The movie also doesn’t come close to being the true classic that the earlier film is. Hayward does a good job in the role, but Peter Blood is a role that forever belongs to Errol Flynn.  Also, the ’35 film had an energy and a sense of spontaneity that the Hayward film doesn’t quite equal.

Still, it’s a solid, entertaining film. The plot revolves around Captain Blood’s efforts to rescue some of his men after they are captured and enslaved by the Spanish. And it gets extra credit for exploring facets of Blood’s character that Errol Flynn never got around to showing us---his ability to use clever disguises and to improvise battle tactics that essentially involve running a massive con on his opponents. There’s also several fun supporting characters thrown in for good measure (most especially a very, very pretty and extremely clever tavern wench).

In 1952, Hayward and Medina recreated their roles in Captain Pirate, which is based on elements taken from Captain Blood Returns. This time around, Blood has retired from piracy and set up shop as a landowner on a Caribbean island. But another pirate is using his identity, effectively framing him for multiple murders. Blood is arrested, but Isabelita recruits his old crew and springs him from the slammer. Then Blood, using a series of disguises, tracks down the real pirate. He saves a Spanish port from destruction in the process.

This is another good film, though it suffers from the same problems as Fortunes: It’s a little slow in places and the action sequences sometimes seem staged rather than natural. Also, we don’t get any supporting characters anywhere near as fun as Pepita the vivacious tavern wench.

But, like Fortunes, it’s worth watching. Not being as good as Captain Blood still leaves a lot of room for being really good.

But compared to each other, it’s the first Hayward film—The Fortunes of Captain Blood—that is the better of the two. Why? Both films have the same cast. Both films have pretty much identical strengths and flaws.

Well, the first film doesn’t have a dumb title. (Captain Pirate? Were the producers deliberately trying to be as awkward as possible?) But the main reason it's better is that it was filmed in black-and-white, while the sequel is in color.

Watching the films in sequence makes it obvious just how superior to color as a storytelling tool the black-and-white imagery is. The clarity of black-and-white and the play of light and shadow doesn’t just highlight the strengths of Fortunes, but also covers over some of its flaws. Fortunes looks cool in a way that Captain Pirate never manages to equal.

Black-and-white photography, I think, actually aids in creating a believable fictional world. After all, in real life, pirates weren’t swashbuckling heroes who would win the girl and kill the bad guy in an expertly choreographed duel. But we accept this as true in a well-made pirate movie. We accept it even more easily when that film is in black-and-white.

It’s comparable to something Ray Harryhausen once said about stop-motion special effects. No matter how skilled the effects artist (and no one was more skilled than Harryhausen), stop motion never looks exactly real. For instance, there’s no motion blur when a stop motion monster moves quickly. But those very “imperfections” help create a feeling that we really have entered a fantasy world. This makes for a better movie as we can now more easily accept the fantasy elements.

Black-and-white photography does the same thing. When we visit a world of swashbuckers (or a world of film noir or of Warner Brothers’ gangsters or Universal monsters), we are in as much a fantasy world as that of Sinbad’s or Gwangi’s. Black-and-white imagery creates a realistic world without exactly reproducing the real world—thus helping us suspend our disbelief. It’s obviously not quite our world, so guys like Captain Blood can more easily exist in it. But it's close enough to our world so that we can still accept Peter Blood as a real person.

Of course, there are exceptions to all this. Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood, for instance, uses lush Technicolor to give the movie a strong fairy tale vibe that enhances the story. But in general, black-and-white beats color just like rock beats scissors.

Watch the two Louis Hayward Captain Blood movies back-to-back and you’ll see just how true this is.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: November 1968


This is a filler issue—the annual coming out this same month covers the birth of Sue and Reed’s kid, so what was needed here was a one-shot issue to mark time until after that happened. The baby will be bringing some changes to the FF, with Crystal officially stepping in to replace Sue, so I think Stan and Jack wanted to avoid starting any major story arcs for one more issue.

And that’s just fine, since this is a fun issue that brings Wyatt Wingfoot back into action again. A letter from Wyatt lets the FF know he’s investigating some possibly supernatural shenanigans on his tribe’s homeland. Reed’s been told to “stop haunting the hospital,” so he takes Johnny and Ben out west to investigate.

By the way, Wyatt is apparently home from college for the summer and he definitely does eventually get a degree. But I guess Johnny just quietly dropped out of college at some point. I don’t THINK college was ever mentioned again after he and Wyatt left on the FF’s first trip to Wakanda. I may be forgetting a line of dialogue about it, but I think perhaps Stan and Jack realized it was awkward in terms of story construction to separate Johnny from the rest of the group, so just kind of forgot about all that higher education stuff.

Anyway, a giant totem protector of Wyatt’s tribe is on a rampage. It’s not really their protector, though, but a powerful robot built by foreign agents who want to drive the Indians off their oil-rich land.

That leads to a typically nifty Kirby fight scene with one of my favorite comic book tactics ever employed. Reed realizes that the robot is too powerful to defeat from the outside, so he compresses himself into a small ball and has Wyatt use a bazooka to shoot him INSIDE the robot.

That’s a snap shot of just how good a job Stan, Jack and others had done in building a fantastic but still coherent reality out of the Marvel Universe. That utterly absurd tactic, in the context of the story, actually makes sense.

There’s also a nice bit of continuity. We first see Wyatt doing an aerial reconnaissance of the tribal lands in the aircraft that the Black Panther had given to he and Johnny. Little details like that also help create a coherent and believable reality.


Peter’s feeling down-and-out, especially after he’s forced to sell his motorcycle for some quick cash. He picks up quite a bit when he and Gwen finally make up, but that doesn’t last long.

Mysterio has escaped from prison and televises some threats to destroy the city if Spider Man doesn’t confront him. This panics Aunt May (gee whiz, as good as Spider Man is overall—Aunt May in a panicky dither is something that was overused during the 1960s), so Peter does track the villain down.

While all this is going on, Lee and Romita continue to skillfully sandwich in character development. There’s a neat scene in which Captain Stacy and Robbie Robertson discuss their theories about Spider Man, while Harry Osborne is desperately looking for his missing dad, who is hiding out in his factory as he slowly regains memories of being the Green Goblin (though he hasn’t yet remembered that Peter is Spider Man).

There’s an interesting character moment with Peter as well. When he first learns Mysterio is on the loose, he opts NOT to track him down. He’s not giving up on being Spider Man and will step in when anyone is in immediate danger, but he’s plain sick of looking for fights and always getting the snot beat out of him.

That doesn’t last, of course, but it was a very believable and humanizing moment for Peter.

Well, when he does go looking for trouble again, he finds it. After a tussle in an abandoned movie studio, Mysterio zaps Spider Man with a ray gun that apparently shrinks the webslinger down to six inches tall.

Of course, Mysterio is the master of illusion, so it’s not hard to guess in general terms how this will resolve next issue. But it’s a fun twist all the same and will lead up to some great Romita visuals when the unusual fight does continue.

THOR #158

Thor returns to Earth and begins to wonder about his Donald Blake identity. This leads to a flashback—the bulk of the issue is a straight reprint from Journey Into Mystery #83.

So there’s not much to add. I reviewed that issue way back when we were first beginning our chronological romp through the Marvel Universe. But 75 issues of character development has left us in need of an explanation. Initially, it seemed as if Thor was simply Don Blake granted powers by the hammer. But it soon developed that he really is Thor. So who is Don Blake? Prompted by the flashback, it finally occurs to Thor to ask about that. He’ll be getting answers from Odin next issue.

That’s it for the regular issues from November 1968. Next time, we’ll pause to look at some of the annuals for ’68. Thor didn’t get one, but Spider Man will be learning a little something about HIS parents, while Sue and Reed welcome a cute little future cosmic entity into the world.

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