Friday, March 30, 2012

Roy Crane and the first ever adventure comic strip--part 4

Here's part 4 of the video series I'm producing for work:

Friday's Favorite OTR

Inner Sanctum: “The Dead Laugh” 9/23/46

A judge ignores a plea for clemency and a jury recommendation, sentencing a convicted killer to death.

He has no sympathy for killers, regardless of motive or extenuating circumstances. But this is Inner Sanctum, after all---the judge soon discovers that there just might be circumstances that could drive him to murder.

Click HERE to listen or download. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Roy Crane and the first ever adventure comic strip--part 3

Sorry I keep inundating you all with my limited narration skill, but as I said in a previous post: if I gotta make these things, SOMEONE is going to have to suffer through them.

What? ANOTHER Sargasso in Space?

A few years back, I wrote about Edmond Hamilton's short story "Sargasso of Space," a 1931 story about a location in our solar system where the gravity draws hundreds of derelict space ships together into a giant graveyard. The heroes in that tale end up there after their ship develops a fuel leak. While searching other ships for fuel, they run into trouble in the form of other stranded astronauts who have a violent agenda of their own.

But the idea of a Sargasso Sea in space is too cool an idea and its not surprising that it would be revisited. There's an episode of 1973's Star Trek: The Animated Series that played with the idea, though the Sargasso there was a pocket dimension rather than a gravity node.

But a couple of decades after Hamilton's story and a couple of decades before Star Trek: TAS, writer Milton Lesser (writing under his pen name Stephen Marlowe) also used this idea. His short story--"Graveyard of Space"--appeared in the April 1956 issue of Imagination.

Hamilton used the space Sargasso concept for a straightforward adventure with lots of action. Marlowe, on the other hand, goes for more of a horror story vibe.

A married couple, returning from an unsuccessful venture as asteroid miners, gets lost in the asteroid field and ends up in a space Sargasso. Like the characters in Hamilton's yarn, they have to scavenge for parts on the other ships. But unlike Hamilton's Sargasso, these two seem to be the only living humans. The crews of previously stranded ships have died from lack of food or oxygen.

Or have they?  They discover that there just might be one other survivor. But that's not necessarily a good thing.

Marlowe hits just the right creepy vibe, essentially turning the space Sargasso concept into a Haunted House story.

It's interesting to read Hamliton and Marlowe's stories one after the other. It's a nice little example of just how much mileage different writers can get out of similar ideas.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: April 1969


The FF are still prisoners in the superficially idyllic village, kept powerless and frightened by regular doses of hypnotism. In the meantime, Doom is perfected a dozen powerful robots, at one point allowing a couple of rebels to “escape” and steal a tank in order to test one of the robots against them.

Like the previous issue, this one takes time to look at Dr. Doom, with scenes that emphasize his self-destructive pride and arrogance. When the scientist helping with the robots (a former Nazi) tells him he rivals the Red Skull in brilliance, Doom nearly strangles him the suggestion that the Skull might be smarter.

Doom has also learned to look at his unmasked face without freaking out. He’s having his portrait painted, convinced that soon the whole world will have to look at this image after he has set himself up to rule over them all.

But Doom builds his stuff TOO well. He’s planning on testing the robots again by having them attack and destroy the village in which the FF is imprisoned. But they have been programmed to be so aggressive that they break out of their lab ahead of schedule and march on their target.  The FF see them coming, but seem helpless to do anything about it.

It’s all good stuff. The actual plot moves along only a little bit, but the character moments involving Doom are what make up the backbone of this story arc.

Also, back in the States, Sue is going house shopping in the suburbs. She needs an isolated house, so as not to endanger innocents if a supervillain attacks them. That she has been living atop a crowded skyscraper in the middle of New York City is not mentioned.

The real estate guy shows her an abandoned underground house of unknown origin. Sue considers buying it—which is not her finest moment. When you live in a comic book universe, any oddly designed and abandoned house of unknown origin should automatically be suspect.

Seriously, Sue. You live in a world where magic, monsters and ancient curses abound; where we’re invaded by aliens every other Tuesday; where certain characters seemed fated to run into trouble no matter where they go. If the realtor says “Odd abandoned house of unknown origin,” just automatically say “NO SALE!”

Spider Man #71

Things start to look up for Peter. He finds out Jameson simply had a bad shock—not a heart attack—when Spider Man scared him. Pictures he took of his fight with Kingpin seem to exonerate him. And, with Jameson in the hospital, Robbie pays him a really good fee for those photos.

But he’s Spider Man, so trouble soon comes up. Over in the Avengers, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch had become involved with Magneto again in a way that made it appear they might have once more become bad guys. Quicksilver decides a way of redeeming them might be to capture a wanted criminal. You know, like Spider Man.

The two have a nifty fight, but Spidey manages to pull out a win and then convince Pietro he’s not a crook.

I like the balance the last few issues have had. Peter has been having a really rotten time lately. And, of course, that’s part of the character’s appeal—that life often deals him a 3 of clubs when he needs an ace. But occasional issues like this one, where he gets a few breaks, are necessary to give the series as a whole some emotional equilibrium and keep the various sub-plots from descending to soap opera level.

Though, actual, if a soap opera ever had some well-choreographed superhero fights as part of their program, I might actually watch it.

THOR #163

New York City’s Atomic Research Center has vanished, with a weird force field now surrounding the spot where it stood. Sif had investigated and was pulled inside. Thor now investigates as well and HE gets pulled inside.

After a fight against some powerful humanoids called Mutates, he frees Sif from captivity and discovers that the inside of the force field is a time doorway, leading to a far future in which the world has been largely destroyed in a nuclear war. The Mutates are the remnants of mankind.

Thor and Sif soon run into the being behind it all—Pluto, the Greek god of the Underworld. He’s still trying to find a way to escape his Underworld kingdom. (Remember that he once tried to trick Hercules into taking his place way back in Thor #125.)

Pluto plans to use the Mutates from the future to destroy mankind in the 20th Century. In some way that’s not explained as clearly as it should be, this will allow him to permanently escape from the Underworld.

Thor and Sif vow to fight him, but he’s got power equal to Odin, so that won’t be easy. But inside the Atomic Research Center building (which has also been transported to the future), something kept in a small chamber in the biological research lab starts to awaken…

Thor ranks up there with FF and Spider Man as one of the best Marvel books of the 1960s because it drips with imagination. Thor, fresh off saving the universe from Mangog—who has the combined strength of a billion billion men, immediately zips to another galaxy to fight Galactus—who literally eats planets for breakfast, then comes back home to confront an Olympian god who is using radioactive mutants from the future as an army.

And the really cool thing is that in context with Thor’s established powers and history and by plopping him down in the middle of a comic book universe—this all MAKES SENSE.

I love it.

I hope its okay with everyone, but I’m going to pause again next Wednesday from our usual trip through the Marvel Universe. We’re going to look at a 1942 issue of Superman in which he fights a villain who coincidentally has the same name as a better known villain introduced nearly two decades later. I’ll also be explaining how I’ll be formatting our occasional looks at the Mort Weisinger era of Superman stories.

So we’ll get to May 1969 in two weeks, in which the FF fight a horde of killer robots; Spider Man fights one of his second-tier bad guys; and Thor fights an army from the future.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

Despite the important contributions that Black Mask made to detective fiction, it didn't usually have the greatest covers. This one's an exception, though--it's an eye-catching image.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Gunsmoke: “Johnny Red” 8/13/55

A man returns home to his aged mother after 17 years away. But according to Dillon’s information, the wayward son had died at the Battle of Shiloh over a decade earlier.

Gunsmoke never shied away from tragic endings when such an ending seemed appropriate to the story. This one seems pretty obviously pointed towards such an ending, but still manages an interesting twist at the end.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

It’s her job to get kidnapped and, by golly, she does it well!

Read/Watch 'em in order #13

The main job of any Edgar Rice Burroughs heroine is to get kidnapped on a regular basis. That’s pretty much a given.

But I think Dian the Beautiful might have broken an ERB getting-kidnapped record in Pellicidar (1915), the second novel in the series about the titular underground world.

Seriously--poor David Innes can’t seem to keep his wife at his side for more than a few minutes before yet another cave man or telepathic pterodactyl snatches her away. Anytime he so much as stops looking directly at her, yet another villain has made off with her.

At the end of At The Earth’s Core, David had used the Iron Mole to return to the surface. As the next novel begins, he returns to Pellucidar, having stuffed the mole full of reference books, weapons and ammo. He strings a telegraph line behind him this time—which is how Burroughs eventually learns of his further adventures.

But when he gets back, he discovers that the nascent empire he had formed to fight the Mahars had collapsed. And, by the way, his wife has been kidnapped.

So David spends the novel in a cycle of rescuing and losing Dian while also working to reform the Empire of Pellucidar. The plot, therefore, meanders a bit from one action set-piece to another, but it’s a fun meandering and the action is exciting, so there’s nothing to complain about.

Besides, Burroughs casually drops some really cool elements into the story at random intervals. David, at one point, saves the life of a savage (and man-eating) hyaenodon and manages to tame it. I’ve always liked dogs myself, but if I were now to ever own a pet, I don’t think I would ever be satisfied with anything less than a hyaenodon.

Actually, Burroughs liked doing this—giving his protagonist a savage beast for an unlikely but loyal companion. Tarzan had Jad-bal-ja, the Golden Lion. John Carter had Woola, his ten-legged Martian “guard dog.”

David also encounters several new tribes, including one that uses dinosaurs (specifically, diplodocus) as beasts of burden. While he’s having his adventures, Abner Perry teaches the natives ship-building, metal-working, sailing and gunsmithing. So, when David is finally able to hold on to his wife for more than a few minutes, he manages to re-establish his empire and lead a fleet of ships equipped with muzzle-loading cannon and rifles against the Mahar forces.

It all turns out to be a satisfying follow-up to the first book and brings the initial plot line to a satisfying conclusion. But Burroughs isn’t done with the world at the Earth’s core quite yet. He’s going to take a 14 year break from David Innes and Abner Perry, but in 1929 he’ll recount an adventure from the perspective of a native Pellucidarian. We won't wait 14 years before we take a look at that story.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Roy Crane and the first ever adventure comic strip.

There's no escaping videos from me this week.

Here's one I made at work. My idea was that staff members at the library could make videos about art-related subjects about which they are knowledgeable, then post them at the library's website so that they are available for students doing research.

Since it was my idea, I got to do the first one. I picked Roy Crane because I've always been insufferably proud of the fact that I'm quoted at length in his Wikipedia entry.

Here's the video:

Making a six-gun the star

In 1951, Jack Davis was working for EC Comics. In the March/April issue of Two-Fisted Tales (issue number 20) that year, Jack penciled a fun Western called “Army Revolver.”

It’s a story that centered on the titular pistol rather than any one character. A prospector uses the gun to back-shoot his partner. Later, he loses it to a saloon gambler.

Violent events continue, causing the gun to change hands several more times, until it ends up back in the hands of the prospector, who is now lost in the desert and dying of thirst. Fortunately, the revolver still has one bullet left in it…

It’s not the best of the Two-Fisted Tales stories, but it’s still a strong story. Tales took an issue or two to find its footing, but during its all-too-short run it regularly contained well-constructed adventure and war stories—usually ending with an ironic or unexpected twist. “Army Revolver” is a good example of this.

Now let’s jump ahead a decade or so. Jack Davis is doing some work for Marvel and is about to become the regular artist on Rawhide Kid.

Rawhide Kid usually featured two or three short tales involving the Kid and one random Western story. The random western in Rawhide Kid #30 (October 1962) featured a story called “This is… a Gun.” It revolves around the titular weapon rather than one single character.

A guy buys a high-quality six-gun. He figures the gun makes him a big man and becomes an outlaw, but the law soon catches up with him.

The gun is lost in the woods, where it’s found by a cowboy, who uses it as a useful tool and in legitimate self-defense while he works for a living. The moral, of course, is that a gun is a tool that can be used for good or evil depending on who owns it.

It’s not as strong a story as “Army Revolver” and the moral—though perfectly legitimate—comes across as a bit heavy-handed. All the same, it has a very strong thematic similarity to “Army Revolver.”

“This is… a Gun” was drawn by Dick Ayers, but Davis was already doing some work on Rawhide Kid and would be the regular artist by the next issue. It makes me wonder if he and Stan Lee weren’t trading ideas and perhaps Davis mentioned a Western he’d done for EC back in the day. Stan then may have used the general idea to craft a new story.

I have no idea if this is true. If you asked Stan Lee about it, I doubt he’d remember one minor story out of the literally hundreds of tales he churned out during the 1950s and 1960s. And, as usual, I don’t really have a point. It’s simply kind of fun to recognize the similarity in the two stories possibly linked together by Jack Davis. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pulp Era Story Reviews, Episode One

This is a video version of a past post. Since I'm apparently unable to do narration without stumbling over a sentence or two no matter how many takes I do, I'm not certain this is a successful enough experiment to repeat. But if I'm gonna go to all the effort to make the darn thing, SOMEONE is going to have to suffer through it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

Here's a fun and dynamic cover from 1947.

Thanks again to Gary Shapiro, host of From the Bookshelf, for sending me this one.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Green Hornet: “A Question of Time” 3/5/46

Spies commit a murder, steal a secret formula and frame the Green Hornet for the crimes. But the Hornet picks up on a subtle clue pointing to the real killer. As Britt Reid, he uses his position as a newspaperman to set up a trap that forces the villains to give themselves away.

That’s one thing I’ve always liked about Green Hornet episodes. The writers never forgot that Reid owned a newspaper as well as worked as a masked vigilante. He always made good use of all the resources he had in both his identities.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

High Gravity, Horrible Disease, Man-Eating Monsters and an Unpleasant Weather Forecast

Science Fiction writer Tom Godwin is best remembered today for his emotional short story “Cold Equation,” in which a young girl stows away on a space ship, causing her extra weight to endanger a rescue mission.

But he turned out a lot of quality stuff during his career. And if I had to pick a best Tom Godwin story, it would probably be his short novel Space Prison (1958).  (It’s also been reprinted under the title Survivors, by the way.)

An expansion of a short story called “Too Soon to Die,” Space Prison begins as a colony ship with 8000 passengers is captured by evil aliens (called Gerns). Half of them are kept as slaves. The other half are marooned with virtually no supplies on a planet called Ragnarok.

Ragnarok is well-named. The place is literally a Hell Planet, with gravity at 1.5 times that of Earth and full of a variety of deadly fauna. A disease called Hell Fever rips through the human community. Semi-intelligent carnivores called Prowlers attack constantly. Soon, they learn that Ragnarok’s erratic orbit means that there are regular periods of either searing heat or Ice Age-level cold.

It’s not at all a nice place and, at one point, the population level shrinks to less than 100. But the survivors fight back, slowly gaining a toe-hold over their environment. And one day, by golly, they are going to wreak vengeance on the Gern for stranding them here.

Despite being short, Space Prison is a multi-generational epic. There’s no one protagonist. In fact, the first few chapters very quickly run through a set of characters you think will be the protagonist, but who keep getting killed.

Often, the lack of a single, strong point-of-view character can weaken a story. But here, it strengthens it. In a very important sense, the society the survivors build on Ragnorak is the main character. The humans work not just to live, but to preserve their history and their technical knowledge, passing this down to each successful generation. This gives them a purpose —to one day regain contact with other planets and bring some major butt-kicking to the Gern.

Godwin really does a great job of making you root for the humans, regardless of who the current point-of-view character might be. He creates an admirable and believable community of humans who find a collective cause to live for; who stick up for each other because they’ll all die if they don’t; who fight not just to live but to eventually win.

A lot of the action centers around a years-long search (something possible only when the weather permits) to find an iron deposit somewhere on the metal-poor planet, so they can make real progress in recreating advanced technology. In the meantime, successive generations (each better adapted to the high gravity than the last) make do with spears and multi-shot crossbows. It’s a neat trick, giving Godwin a viable excuse to have his characters encounter new dangers and native creatures they hadn’t met before.

In a very general sense, Space Prison reminds me of Verne’s Mysterious Island, in that a group is stranded somewhere remote and must rebuild civilization from scratch. There’s also a little bit of “Androcles and the Lion” tossed in when the humans are able to form an alliance with the semi-intelligent Prowlers after generations of killing each other.

But Godwin’s novel has its own individual vibe nonetheless, zipping along from one deadly threat to the next without ever pausing for a breath. Comic book writer Warren Ellis once wrote that Space Prison is “as shamelessly gleeful as a short genre book should be.” I think that describes it perfectly.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Today Ron Ely--Tomorrow THE WORLD!!!!

Here's a new interview with Ron Ely, who played Tarzan in a really fun 1960s TV series. They use a question I submitted (and even mention me by name, by golly) about whether Ely had read the original novels and if that influenced his performance.

He had a very interesting answer in which his familiarity with the original novel makes him think, in retrospect, that they series should have been done as a 1912-period piece rather than modernized. Though I enjoyed the series, I think I would agree with him on this.

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1969


First of all, it MUST be noted that the flying vehicle that the FF are flying home in (given to them by Black Bolt) is quite possibly the single coolest thing Jack Kirby ever designed. And that’s saying a lot.

But it’s a short trip. While still over Europe, they are intercepted by Nick Fury and a squadron of SHIELD planes. Nick recruits them for a mission—someone is stockpiling a robot army in a secret location. Find out who, where and why.

Well, the likeliest suspect when evil robots are involved is Dr. Doom. Reed comes up with what will NOT be nominated as his cleverest plan ever: driving into Latveria while flashing their passports.

They’re jumped by robots with specially designed weapons and captured. But when they wake up, they’re in a small, picturesque village, being welcomed by the friendly populace.  They soon discover that there is a force field around the village AND that Doom has hypnotically stripped them of their powers. Doom plans to simply keep them there forever, telling them to “be eternally happy… or else, to die!”

This is the first of four-parts in what will be a fairly strong Dr. Doom story. There are parts of Doom’s plans for conquest and for dealing with the Fantastic Four that don’t really make complete sense, even in a comic book world. But the art and the characterizations more than make up for this. Most notable is an interesting glimpse at Doom’s character—his conviction that the people of Latveria owe him total obedience because he keeps them fed and healthy. Without excusing Doom’s evil, Stan and Jack manage to show us that Doom doesn’t think of himself as evil. For all his stubborn pettiness in regards to Reed and his dangerous pride, in his mind—HE’S the good guy.


Having handled the issue of the protesters so well over the last few issues, Stan actually wraps it up a little too neatly to be completely satisfying.

By now, Randy and the others have been cleared of involvement with the Kingpin. They meet with the Dean of the college, who tells them they will get their low-rent dorm. He also admits his mistake in not giving the students a real voice in such issues.

Actually, it’s not a bad ending. It shows that if people on different sides of an issue talk about it calmly, they can often work things out. It just seems a little too pat after several issues of real debate on the ethics of protesting.

But, from a purely dramatic point-of-view, I suppose this had to be wrapped up to allow the readers to focus on Peter, who is being put through an emotional wringer. He’s wanted by the cops; he’s wondering why he bothers being Spider Man when everyone seems to distrust or hate him; he finds out Gwen suspects him of being a coward; and he has no idea what to do with the stolen tablet.

Then Kingpin breaks out of prison. He and Spidey meet up in a fight, but when the webslinger gets Kingpin on the robes, he’s interrupted by the arrival of J.J. Jameson and Ned Leeds. This allows Kingpin to get away.

Peter finally loses his temper and grabs Jameson, apparently giving the publisher a heart attack. The issue ends with Spider Man swinging away, wondering if he’s now become a murderer.

It’s yet another great story that generates real emotion. Stan Lee was sometimes a little over the top in his dialogue. Actually, he was OFTEN over the top in his dialogue. But when he was at his best—with characters that I think he probably loved—he could provide consistently strong character moments.

THOR #162

Thor returns to Asgard in a story that exists to set up the next story arc.  Odin shows Thor some of the history of Galactus—how eons ago an alien war fleet had discovered a huge “incuba-cell” floating in space. The aliens tried to destroy it, but only succeeded in releasing Galactus, who has his first meal by eating their world. Odin wants to learn more, knowing that Galactus is still a threat.

It’s a bit of an awkward jump when the Galactus story line is then abruptly set aside when Thor learns that Sif has gone to Earth to investigate an unknown danger. She hasn’t been heard from since, so Thor leaves Asgard to find her.

Though this issue has a few plot construction issues, it does give Jack Kirby an excuse to draw still more awesome looking stuff. So we’ll be forgiving.

That’s it for March. Next week, we’ll take a look at an EC comics Western and compare it to a Marvel Western with a similar plot. In two weeks, we’ll hit April 1969, in which the Fantastic Four continues its enforced vacation; Spider Man fights an Avenger;  and Thor does a bit of time traveling.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

I'm pretty sure if you look up the word "dynamic" in the dictionary, you just see a picture of one of Joe Kubert's covers for the definition.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Frontier Gentleman: “The Cat Man” 8/10/58

An urge to help an outnumbered man in a saloon brawl leads to J.B. Kendall travelling with an Irishman whose mouth is full of blarney and whose wagon is full of… cats?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Be ready to keep reading.

A cliched method of describing how great book is "you can't put it down." That cliche quite possibly fits C.S. Forester's The Good Shepherd (1955) more perfectly than any other book.

Seriously. You literally can't put the thing down simply because there's no good place to pause before you get to the end.

The Good Shepherd is told entirely from the point-of-view of Commander George Krause, captain of the American destroyer Keeling during the Second World War. Krause is also in command of a convoy consisting of 37 merchant ships and three additional escort vessels crossing the Atlantic during the height of the U-boat menace. The story begins on a Wednesday morning, when Krause is called to the bridge when one of the escorts gets a sonar contact.

It ends almost exactly two days later. During that time, Krause (except for a few trips to the head and to conduct a quick burial-at-sea ceremony) never leaves the bridge. The convoy sails into a wolf pack. The Keeling charges forward after a radar contact--probably a sub on the surface. It comes back to the convoy to join with another destroyer in stalking another U-boat. It zips to the rear of the convoy to cover the designated rescue vessel while the crew of a torpedoed ship is taken aboard. It stalks yet another sub. It dogfights a damaged sub that has been forced to surface. The depth charge supply is low. One of the escorts is critically low on fuel. It's all non-stop. There is literally no significant break in the action as the reader follows along with Krause's thought processes as he makes one on-the-go tactical decision after another.

The tension is incredibly high from start to finish, punctuated by moments of high excitement, such as the destroyer vs. sub surface fight or the moments when Keeling is chasing a sub through the convoy in the pitch dark.

And Krause is a great character--a devoutly spiritual man for whom duty is everything. Despite having spent twenty years in the Navy, this is Krause's combat baptism, but it's a role he's born for. He's a lot like Forester's more famous hero, Horatio Hornblower, in that he's very unemotional and logical in dangerous situations and very critical in self-analysis.

We can't help but admire and respect Krause. We get to know him intimately in a very short period of time, with the prose efficiently detailing his thoughts as he quickly weighs the pros and cons of each decision he makes. And, driven by his high sense of duty, he usually makes the correct decisions.

The clear prose also gives all us landlubbers a firm grasp of the always-fluid tactical situation--we understand what's happening at any given moment and therefore we have all that much more sympathy for Krause while he's making spot decisions that could get his ship killed if he's wrong.

Forester even uses small human details to make the story work. Krause's constant lack-of-time to leave the bridge for a few moments to use the head or his hunger after he realizes he hasn't eaten for hours are all things that give the story an additional sense of realism.

So if you read The Good Shepherd, give yourself the time to finish quickly. There's literally no good stopping point anywhere before the end.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: February 1969


The wrap-up of the Inhuman story line is so simple that it can be summed up in a few sentences:

The Inhuman royals and the Fantastic Four are being held in separate cages, but each group manages to escape on its own. The FF takes down the robot that beat them last issue (Reed has figured out it contained a hypno-ray that had been slowing them down), while the royals smash Maximus’ big hypno-gun in the nick of time. Maximus and a few cronies escape—fleeing Earth in a space ship. The good guys win again.

But that summary doesn’t do justice to Kirby’s layouts. As he does in Thor this month, he continues to use the science fiction background of this story to play on his strengths as an artist—filling each panel with cool-looking weaponry, robots and cityscapes. Especially notable are several successive panels drawn without dialogue or sound effects at the Inhumans fight a horde of Alpha primitives.

The one other thing that’s worth noting is the role of Ben, Johnny and Reed in this story. They do perfectly well in a difficult situation—busting out of their jail and whooping butt on the big robot. But when you think about it, they really weren’t needed. Black Bolt and his family manage to break out of their prison on their own and they deal with Maximus and save the world before the FF has a chance to join up with them.

That’s not a criticism—it’s still a strong story. But it’s kind of fun that the usual heroes of the book are merely a sideshow, while the (admittedly awesome) guest-stars do all the really important work.


The main action in this issue is a wonderfully choreographed fight between Spidey and Kingpin, but Stan Lee also continues to follow up on the issues he dealt with last time.

It’s only a few panels, but Robbie is talking to Randy (who, with other protesters, is being held on suspicion of helping the Kingpin) about the protest. The dialogue brings up a point about fighting for racial equality. Do you do this through protest, or do you do it by becoming a working and useful part of the establishment? There’s only time for Stan to touch on the point here, but it would be a jumping off point for intelligent discussion of what was perhaps the most important social issue of that decade.

There’re also a few moments where we find Gwen wondering if Peter isn’t a bit of a coward for not taking part in the protest. Secret identities do cause interesting problems sometimes, don’t they?

But, as I said, the meat of this issue is a fantastic fight scene as Spidey first takes out Kingpin’s thugs, then goes one-on-one against the big guy himself. (If Peter knew that Thor was taking on Galactus at the same time, he’d probably count his blessings.)

As is true of all good Spider Man action scenes, the webslinger uses his head as well as his fists and manages to put the Kingpin down. But when Kingpin is arrested by the cops, he “confesses” that Spider Man was his partner.

So when Spidey tries to give the stolen tablet back to the cops, they shoot at him. Enraged, Peter yells out:

Well, that attitude won’t last, but Peter will soon be discovering that losing his temper can have consequences.

THOR #161

Thor and the Recorder are rescued by the Wanderers, a ship full of survivors from worlds destroyed by Galactus.

But that ship also gets caught in the crossfire between Galactus and Ego. Thor joins and and actually manages to cause Galactus pain (something not even the Fantastic Four had ever managed to do). The Thunder God still gets swatted away just as well.

Thor, the Recorder and the Wanderers are on Ego’s surface and the battle seems lost. But Thor comes up with a way of unleashing all his power and all the power of his hammer in one massive burst. This causes Galactus actual agony and forces him to retreat.

In gratitude, Ego offers his surface as a home for the Wanderers.

The above summery is yet another case where describing the plot simply doesn’t do it justice. Kirby’s art continues to sell the story—his ability to endow his imagery with a real sense of power means we believe it all. We believe two cosmically-powered beings are slugging it out in a battle that spans across light years. We believe the burst of power let loose by Thor is enough to hurt Galactus. We believe every little detail Jack Kirby puts into the tale.

That’s it for February. In March 1969, the Fantastic Four face off against their bitterest enemy once again; Spider Man discovers he’s not done dealing with Kingpin; and Thor discovers he’s not done dealing with Galactus.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

This was a Big Little Book from 1941.  Other than what can be deduced from the title and cover, I really don't know anything about it, but that cover is enough to make me want to read it one day. Finding an affordable copy probably isn't feasible, though.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Favorite Story: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” 5/29/48

Solid acting and production values are combined with a straightforward script to give us an entertaining and faithful adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic ghost story.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rocket Ships, Monsters and a Boisterous Hawk Man

Read/Watch 'em in Order #12

The invaluable book The Flash Gordon Serials, 1936-1940: A Heavily Illustrated Guide unabashedly declares the original 1936 entry to be the best-ever serial. And, by golly, the authors might very well be correct.

One of the things I like most about it is how closely it sticks—both in story and in visuals—to Alex Raymond’s brilliant full page Sunday comic strip. The serial begins with Earth threatened by the approach of the rogue planet Mongo. Flash Gordon and professional Damsel-in-Distress Dale Arden meet when they are forced to bail out of a plane damaged in a meteor storm. This brings them into contact with Doctor Zarkov, who takes them along in his newly invented rocket ship to Mongo.

From there, it’s just one darn thing after another. Mongo is ruled by Ming the Merciless, whose minions soon capture Flash and his companions. But Ming’s beautiful daughter Princess Aura quickly falls for Flash, giving the good guys a chance to escape.

Aura is a great character. She’s in love with Flash, but is (at least at first) just as ruthless as her dad. If winning Flash means disposing of Dale Arden or committing other acts of violence (including at one point a rather casual attempt to commit genocide against Mongo’s city of Shark Men), then by golly she’ll do it.

But at the same time, Aura shows some positive traits and, by the end of the serial, has morphed into one of the good guys. The Flash Gordon Serials correctly points out that this sort of character development was rare in the serials and it’s one of Flash Gordon’s strongest points.

Flash, by the way, is in love with Dale and remains loyal to her (except for a brief time after Aura feeds him an amnesia drug). It’s lucky for Flash that he looks beyond outer beauty to decide who to fall in love with—because though Dale Arden is certainly easy on the eyes, Princess Aura enters full-scale Hubba Hubba territory.

Another strong point is the setting. Mongo is a world inhabited by hideous monsters. The relatively safe cities are divided among Ming’s human citizens, the Lion Men, the Hawk Men and the Shark Men. There’s also Monkey Men hanging around somewhere—Flash has to battle three of them in Ming’s arena early in the serial.

Ming is technically ruler of Mongo, but the Lion Men at least are in open rebellion against him and Prince Vultan of the Hawk Men isn’t that happy with Ming either. It’s a situation that’s used throughout the serial to carry along the plot and add to the suspense.

Vultan, by the way, is yet another great character. Played with boisterous fun by James Lipson, the portly Hawkman starts out as another villain. But, like Princess Aura, he also gets some real character development. Impressed by Flash’s courage, he also eventually becomes his ally. Heck, in pretty much any version of Flash Gordon every produced, Vultan always comes across as the guy you’d most want to have fun with.

In fact, Flash’s motley crew of followers is a pretty cool group. There’s Vultan, Prince Barin (the rightful ruler of Mongo) and Prince Thun of the Lion Men. Thun, by the way, is played by James Pierce, whose career (like Buster Crabbe, who plays Flash) included a stint as Tarzan. Pierce (Edgar Rice Burroughs’ son-in-law) played the ape man in both a silent films (1927’s Tarzan and the Golden Lion) and in a radio serial that began in 1934.

So we get a Tarzan/Tarzan team-up in this serial. To add to the serial’s geek cred, future Frankenstein Monster Glenn Strange does double-duty in a monster costume and as one of Ming’s soldiers.

Two other points are worth making. First, the stunt work in the numerous fight scenes is excellent. Second, the visuals and special effects are wonderful. Their relative primitiveness by today’s standards doesn’t detract at all, but instead gives them a charm and other-worldliness that fits in with the story perfectly. The sets and props were those previously used in Bride of Frankenstein and the Karloff/Lugosi horror film The Invisible Ray—their reuse here is still another factor in getting everything on Mongo to simply look cool. The minature work done specifically for the serial is also very good--most notably the image of the Hawk Men city suspended in the air by anti-gravity beams.

Anyway, after adventures and escapes too numerous to recount (just watch the darn thing—but DON’T FORGET THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE ABOUT WATCHING A SERIAL!!), Flash, Dale and Zarkov return to Earth. But it won’t be long before yet another interplanetary threat brings them back into action. In 1938, our three heroes will be taking a trip to mmars to save the Earth from yet another interplanetary threat.

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