Thursday, May 31, 2012

A hopeless case, an unfriendly cop and a nervous breakdown

It's always fun to re-visit a Nero Wolfe story. Of course, that's true of all the Great Detectives. It's as much their unique personalities as the well-constructed mysteries that draw us to them.

If you're not familiar with Mr. Wolfe, you need to be. Both he and his assistant Archie Goodwin are wonderful character that you always enjoy spending time with.

One thing about Wolfe is that he hates to work. If it were up to him, he'd stay inside his Manhatten brownstone forever, sticking to his rigid schedule that includes meals, a total of four hours with his orchids in his rooftop greenhouse and reading. But that lifestyle costs money, so he occasionally has to earn a (preferably large) fee solving a seemingly unsolvable murder.

The Silent Speaker (1946) gets off to an unusual start in that Wolfe actually solicits his services when the bank account runs a bit low. Of course, he does this in a way that brings the clients to him in a way that makes them think hiring him was their idea.

The murder victim in this case was an important government official who was killed just before giving a speech to an unfriendly organization of businessmen. That means there's something like 1400 suspects and the police are stumped. Wolfe seems to be stumped as well through much of the book, much to Archie's chagrin. When a second person is murdered right on Wolfe's door step, that narrows the suspect list down a bit, but there still seems to be no evidence pointing to the real killer.

Stout always seems to bring in new situations to his novels that give each one a truly unique feel. In this one, their usual police contact--the usually unfriendly Inspector Cramer--is replaced because of political pressure. His replacement--the even more unfriendly Inspector Ash--immediately issues a warrant for Wolfe, assuming that the corpulent detective is holding out on the cops. In a way, Ash is somewhat justified--Wolfe actually holds out on the cops all the time. But his method of dealing with Wolfe simply makes him an enemy that, in the end, he's not smart enough to deal with.

A bit later on, the situation becomes such that Wolfe knows something he does will bring the cops, his clients and a parade of newspapermen to his door. So he fakes a nervous breakdown, spending three days confined to his bedroom with a doctor's orders that he not be disturbed. Archie fends off the often very insistent visitors as he grows more and more worried. By now, everything hinges on finding a recording cylinder made by the victim not long before his death. But that seems hopeless and Wolfe's actions seem to be desperate ones.

But it just may turn out that Nero Wolfe had a plan all along.

The Silent Speaker is near the top of the list of the best Nero Wolfe novels. Wolfe may drive Archie to despair on a regular basis, but the rest of us need never regret spending some time with him.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: October 1969


Whether or not the concept for this story arc was lifted from a Star Trek episode, this issue is more fun than a barrel full of Tommy Guns.

Ben’s been kidnapped by a Skrull slaver and brought to another planet. Once there, he discovers a replica of a Prohibition-era big city populated by mobsters—one of whom buys Ben for use in gladiatorial combat.

Of course, these mobsters are Skrulls (and their Tommy Guns are high-tech blasters).  Ben learns that a mobster had been captured by a slaver during the 1930s. The Skrulls on this planet liked the style and language of that era, so adopted it as their own. 

Ben being Ben, he vocally objects to being a slave and does as much physical damage as he can, but his strength is being sapped by the collar he’s wearing, so for the moment he’s helpless.

The issue ends with Ben meeting Torgo, the killer robot he’ll eventually face in the arena, while back on Earth Reed has deduced his friend has been captured by Skrulls.

The whole thing is a visual and story-telling delight. I’ll bet Kirby had a ball drawing this one—a sense of pure fun literally shines from each panel.

Alien shape-shifters play-acting as Capone-era mobsters while staging gladiatorial combats with various alien monsters and robots. In lesser hands, this might have been a fun but incredibly silly story. But in the hands of Lee and Kirby, I think it might actually score a perfect 10 on the Bogart/Karloff Coolness scale. All those diverse and apparently contradictory elements are blended together into a perfect comic book smorgasbord.


I’ve talked before about how skilled Stan Lee was in sandwiching short character moments into action sequences without interfering with the pacing of the action. This time out, though, he didn’t have to worry about that. The whole issue involves a three-way battle between Spidey, the Human Torch and the Lizard.  When we do break away for a moment, it’s simply to set up young Bobby Connors rushing from his home to the scene of the battle, desperately hoping to somehow help his father.

It’s a great fight scene. Spidey wants to stop Lizard without the Torch, because he doesn’t want to hurt Doc Connors or give away Connors’ secret. The Torch honestly sees the Lizard as a threat that has to be stopped at all costs to protect innocent lives—and he’s perpetually ticked off at Spider Man and confused by the webslinger’s interference and insistence that he (the Torch) back off. 

There’s a particular aspect to John Buscema’s art here that mirrors something Romita also did during many of Spider Man’s battles.  He’s careful to include a panel every page or two that gives us an upward or downward pointing perspective—something that vividly reminds us that this battle is taking place on skyscraper rooftops high above the actual ground. It’s an effective technique: adding another degree of tension to his already magnificent fight choreography.

Anyway, the issue ends when Spider Man is able to get the Lizard away from the Torch, then dose him in a dehydrating chemical that turns him human again. This brings the fight and the story arc to a satisfying conclusion. We'll miss Romita while he's gone, but John Buscema’s first two issues prove he’s up to the task of using visuals to tell a great story.

THOR #169

Thor listens as Galactus recounts his origin, then Odin zaps Thor back to Earth.

That’s pretty much it.

Well, no it’s not. Though I have a few complaints about this issue, it does present Jack Kirby with yet another opportunity to go cosmic and provide super-awesome visuals. And Galactus’ origin is a good one: Eons ago, the paradise planet of Taa was being wiped out by the Creeping Plague. Unable to find a cure, a handful of survivors launch themselves into their sun, determined to go out in a blaze of glory.

But one of them isn’t killed. Instead, he’s mutated into something with god-like powers and an insatiable hunger for energy.

Later on, it would be retconned that Galactus’ homeworld was a part of the universe that existed before ours, making him the last survivor of that reality.

This is all pretty cool stuff, but I spend so much time praising Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, that I’m going to complain about them this time around with a clear conscience.

Problem #1: Thor doesn’t do anything but listen. He’s the hero of the book, but just sort of sits there until his daddy sends him home.

Problem #2: Odin’s purpose in having his son track down Galactus isn’t really adequately explained. Odin listens in on the big guy’s explanation, then just says “Galactus’ time has not yet come” before sending Thor back to Earth. Is it that he’s decided Galactus is not an immediate threat to Asgard? It comes across more as a deus ex machina than a sensible plot twist.

Problem #3: As I said last issue, this criticism is a little unfair because I’m whining that Lee and Kirby didn’t write the story I wanted them to write, but what the hey: THEY DIDN’T WRITE THE STORY I WANTED THEM TO WRITE! Thor’s journey is set up to be an epic quest. But he finds Galactus almost immediately, listens to him for a few minutes, then goes home. Gee whiz, Jack and Stan, don’t send the God of Thunder into deep space unless you’re going to let him have a deep space adventure!

Anyway, back in New York City, the Thermal Man is on a rampage. The cops, Balder and the Warriors Three are all getting their collective butt handed to them. But Thor is back and ready to join in the battle.

That’s it for October 1969. Next week, we’ll jump over to the DC Universe for a look at the origin of the real Supergirl. Then, in two weeks, we’ll examine November 1969, as Ben fights for his life in a Skrull arena; Spider Man adds another villain to his Rogue’s Gallery; and Thor goes up against a wonking big robot.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

Actually, I think Superman just might have a point.

Thanks to Gary Shapiro, host of From the Bookshelf, for sending me this laugh-out-loud cover.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: “Too Hot To Live” 10/26/50

Richard Widmark gives a superb performance as a man accused of murder—on the run and uncertain even in his own mind whether he’s guilty. Widmark’s character, forced to go on the run while barefoot on a blisteringly hot day, grows increasingly frantic as he tries to prove his innocence—or perhaps find proof of his guilt.

I don’t think I’ve heard this specific episode before. Widmark exudes a palpable sense of fear and desperation, equaling even Vincent Price’s performance in old-time radio’s best ever single episode: Escape’s “Three Skeleton Key.”

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Read/Watch 'em In Order #17

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is an undeniably awkward title. There’s a line of dialogue at the end of the last chapter that attempts to justify it, but it really doesn’t make sense. Flash isn’t conquering the universe. He’s merely saving the Earth from destruction and Mongo from despotism.

Heck, he does that every other Thursday. Maybe that would have been a good title—An Average Thursday for Flash Gordon.

Well, maybe not. But the producers really needed to have given their title a little more thought.

But, despite the title, it’s a good serial—a nice ending for the Flash Gordon trilogy.

It seems Mongo’s been a busy place since we last visited. At the end of the first serial, Ming was presumably dead and Princess Aura & Prince Barin were ruling the planet. In the second serial, Barin comes to Mars to aid Flash in his adventures there and stays behind at the end to rule over the Martian Forest People. (There’s no mention of what Aura—presumably back on Mongo—thought of that decision.) Ming has supposedly been destroyed for sure this time—zapped while inside a disintegrator chamber.

Now, without explanation, Ming is alive and back in charge on Mongo. Prince Barin rules the forest kingdom of Arboria (as he did in the original comics) and is at war with Ming. Ming, meanwhile, is dropping “purple death” dust on Earth. Mongo has been a busy place since the last serial and its kind of fun the theorize on how this exact situation came about.

So Flash, Zarkov, and Dale return to Mongo to deal with this. They team up with Barin and are soon in the super-cold kingdom of Frigia, mining for a rare substance that can counteract the Purple Death.  This leads to an encounter with remote control robots rigged to explode when they approach Flash’s party.

Soon after, they must deal with another of Ming’s superweapons—projectiles powered by “zultrilnillium.” Of course, as any schoolboy knows, zultrilnillium projectiles have the power to set all Arboria aflame. I think that’s covered in second grade science class.

By the time this is resolved, both Dale and Princess Aura are prisoners of Ming, so Flash and his allies must now launch a dangerous rescue attempt.

It’s all great fun. Like the previous serials, this one makes great use of sets left over from Universal’s horror films and other A-movies. The fight scenes are energetic and the special effects are solid. I especially enjoyed the several instances in which Ming’s rocket ships engaged in dog-fights with Barin’s ships.

There were a couple of cast changes. Barin and Aura are played by different actors this time around. And Dale Arden is now played by Carol Hughes, who does a wonderful job of giving Dale some memorable spitfire moments when she vents her spleen at the villains.

Dale’s also been promoted from resident damsel-in-distress. Though she still fulfils this role, she’s also now described as Zarkov’s assistant and a skilled chemist and pilot. Good for her—she’s earned her spitfire moments.

And Zarkov has really moved up the “brilliant scientist” scale to obtain Reed Richards-level genius. He’s not just inventing stuff right and left this time around, but shows other skills as well. For instance, there’re a few chapters in which the heroes and the villains both have a run-in with the “Rock Men” who live in Mongo’s supposedly life-less Land of the Dead. They have their own strange language (bizarrely, this is represented in the serial by running the sound track backwards when they speak)—but that’s no problem. Zarkov recognizes it as a lost language of an early Earth culture, theorizes that many planets were somehow colonized by humans with a common language eons ago, and then begins to speak fluently in the supposedly lost tongue.

 I really need to mention Ann Gwynne, who plays Sonya, a girl in Aura’s retinue who is really working for Ming. She begins to play a major part in the serial about half-way through, when she arranges for Aura to be captured by Ming’s men. She’s a great villain, managing to exude a real sense of malevolence while still looking absolutely adorable the entire time.

Ming, by the way, has traded in his ornate garb for a more military looking uniform. He’s now called “Dictator” as often as “Emperor.” This is a reflection of the times—even in a fantasy, the war raging in Europe couldn’t be completely ignored. Charles Middleton continues to play Ming with menacing hubris.

The first serial is still the best. It edges past the others in imaginative imagery and, most importantly, had the best supporting cast. We continue to miss Prince Thun of the Lion Men and Prince Vulton of the Hawk Men through both the sequels. In Conquers the Universe, Flash has a couple of Barin’s men as sidekicks and these guys are perfectly likable. But two mere humans simply don’t match up against a Lion Man and a Hawk Man.

This last serial, though, does have one heck of a cliffhanger at the end of one chapter. Dale’s about to be tossed into a flaming pit by the Rock Men; Flash is risking his life trying to rescue a Rock Man prince trapped on a ledge (thus proving they are friendly); and Zarkov is about to become a snack for a giant lizard. It’s three cliffhangers for the price of one.

By the way, this is the serial that uses the same screen crawl at the beginnng of each chapter (reminding us of the events of the previous chapter) that George Lucas later used at the begining of the Star Wars films.

That ends our Watch ‘em in Order coverage of the Flash Gordon serials. We still have a few Pellicidar novels to go, but we need start up another film series. Someone suggested the Marx Brothers movies and I’m all for writing about them, but I don’t think they fit into the In Order format—they each exist as an individual entity with the boys technically playing different characters each time out.

So we need to go in a different direction. Even though I wrote briefly about one of the old RKO Dick Tracy movies briefly a few years ago, I’m leaning towards covering those four movies in detail. Then again, doing select Charlie Chan movies that each highlight one of his children might be fun (at least four of his sons and one of his daughters get time in the spotlight during the course of the series). Or I could do select episodes of my favorite TV series Combat, concentrating on several excellent episodes directed by Vic Morrow. I haven’t decided yet. And I am, of course, open to suggestion.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: September 1969


The Mole Man makes a break for it, reaching an anti-grav shaft that takes him back to his underground kingdom. Soon after, what’s left of the house sinks underground as well.

There’s a fun panel in which Reed explains he let Mole Man escape because there wasn’t a crime with which to charge him—you can be arrested for illegal parking, but there’s actually no law against trying to conquer the world.

I’m not sure that legal analysis holds up, but what the hey.

Soon after, the Skrull who arrived on Earth last issue lures Ben out into the boondocks by posing as Reed, then knocks the superhero unconscious with a stun ray. This sets up the extremely entertaining story arc that runs through the next three issues.

This is an interesting issue. The pacing is very slow compared to most FF issues, but Kirby’s visuals and the FF family dynamic inherent in the character moments means that it’s not dull at all. It’s still a fun read despite a minimum of action.


Where this month’s FF was largely character-driven with some bits of action, this month’s Spider Man is largely action-driven with some great character moments.

We also get a new artist. John Buscema takes up the pencilling for Spider Man starting in this issue. (Though Romita will be back before long.) I'll discuss some aspects of his art in more detail next time, but for now all I'll say is that--though an artist of Romita's quality is always missed--Buscema is another of the best fight-choreographers in the business and he catches the personalities of the regular characters without missing a beat. In fact, if you didn't notice Buscema's name in the credits, it might take you a few pages to realize there's someone new doing the art.

The most important character moment is Peter meeting with Gwen before he takes up his search for the Lizard. His secret ID is continuing to cause problems. Gwen has been doubting Peter’s physical courage. Now she’s wondering if the times he seems to disappear means there’s another girl. Poor Peter can’t catch a break. But the scene ends with a sweet moment—she decides to continue to simply trust him.

But, as I said, this issue is mostly action. Spidey and Lizard clash. The webslinger is holding back because he doesn’t want to hurt Doc Connors. But the Lizard has no such concerns and Spidey takes a beating. Then Johnny Storm happens by and confronts the villain himself. Now Spider Man has two problems. Stop Lizard without hurting him and stop Johnny from hurting the Lizard while trying to help.

I love it. It’s a classic Spider Man dilemma—he’s got an impossible problem and he’s in a position where he can’t tell those others involved exactly what the problem is. This will give another always-welcome Spidey/Torch team-up a fun dynamic.

THOR #168

I’m a little torn about this story arc. It involves Thor flying off into deep space to find Galactus. In the meantime, Balder and the Warriors Three are hanging out in New York to protect Earth in Thor’s absence—a concept I truly love. When a giant atomic powered robot called the Thermal Man attacks the city, they are there to confront it.

(Thermal Man, by the way, was created by the Red Chinese and sicced on the Free World to bring us to our knees.)

While this is happening, Thor finds Galactus pretty much right away, because the big guy wanted to be found. He begins to recount his origin to Thor. We get just the beginning of the tale here—eons ago, the Watcher sees an advanced alien ship crash on primeval Earth and finds just one survivor on board.

Both plot lines are great, made awesome by Jack Kirby’s magnificent visuals. My complaint is that it seems to be moving along too quickly—at least the Galactus part of it. Thor leaves on his quest and realizes he might be gone months or years before he finds the Eater of Worlds. But he finds him in something like four pages.

Where’s the fun in that? Should Thor have had several epic cosmic-level adventures in space before finally running Galactus down? And Balder and the Warriors Three will end up having a very truncated run as Earth’s champions because of this. It just feels like a lost opportunity.

Well, perhaps Lee and Kirby didn’t want Thor away from Earth and his admittedly awesome supporting cast for too long. And, of course, I realize I’m not being fair. I’m not criticizing the story as written, but am instead criticizing Lee and Kirby for not creating the story I want in retrospect over four decades later.

 But it’s my blog and I’ll whine about whatever I want. A multi-part deep space adventure (or series of connected adventures) for Thor would have been cool. A series of adventures and team-ups with the Avengers featuring Balder and the Warriors Three would have been equally cool. Why Stan and Jack didn’t use Doctor Doom’s time machine to zip forward to 2012 and ask my advice on story direction is simply beyond comprehension.

That’s it for September 1969. Next week, we’ll  visit October 1969, in which the New York Mets beat the Baltimore Orioles 4 games to 1 to take the World Series; the Thing is taken to a planet inhabited by 1930s-style gangsters; Spider Man fights both a friend and a foe; and Thor learns Galactus’ back story.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

Oriental Stories is another pulp in which they didn't usually have the best covers, but this J. Allen St. John cover really stands out.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Gunsmoke: “Shakespeare” 8/23/52

Hans Conried breaks your heart as a down-and-out itinerate actor who may be guilty of murder.

Conried’s great performance is matched by the Ray Kemper and Bill James, perhaps the best sound effects guys in the business at the time. At one point in the story, Dillon is tracking Conried’s character through the streets of Dodge City. Kemper and James use the basic sounds of footsteps and jingling spurs to build up  remarkable level of suspense.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Heck with Continuity!

I like logical continuity in my fictional universes, but there are times when continuity simply gets in the way of a good story and gets tossed out the window.

Johnston McCulley knew that. A prolific writer for the pulp magazines, McCulley was responsible creating buckets-full of great characters, such the original Spider, the Green Ghost and Thubway Tham (a clever pickpocket who speaks with a lisp).

But, of course, his best-known creation is Zorro, who first popped up in a 1919 story serialized in All-Story Weekly. Anyone reading a blog like mine probably doesn’t need an explanation of who Zorro is. If you do—well, the rest of us are giggling at you behind your back and spreading malicious gossip about you to others.

The interesting thing about Zorro was that he was supposed to be a one-off character, not a series character. At the end of the original story—The Curse of Capistrano—the main bad guy is dead, Zorro’s real identity of Diego Vega is revealed and everyone who deserves to live happily ever after seems prepared to do so.

But then Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford stumbled across the story and decided to us it as the basis for the first movie from their new studio—United Artists. The movie, titled The Mark of Zorro (1920) was a big hit. The Curse of Capistrano was reprinted in book form—also now titled The Mark of Zorro—and McCulley realized he had a real money maker on his hands. He could write as many new Zorro stories has he wanted and always find a market for them.

But therein lay the problem. Zorro’s career was clearly over by the end of the book. And (unlike what Rafael Sabatini was able to do with Captain Blood) there was no real room within the plot to sandwich in “untold” adventures.

So how do you fit new Zorro stories into this tight continuity? The answer was simple: You don’t. McCulley simply retconned the character, bringing the main villain back to life and allowing Diego to simply resume his secret identity in order to battle despots, pirates and slavers. In effect, McCulley created a parallel universe to the original Zorro story.  Along the way, he dressed his Zorro in the black suit and mask that Fairbanks had worn in the movie and eventually expanded Diego’s full name to Diego de la Vega—probably just because all that looked and sounded cooler. (Or at least McCulley sometimes expanded the name to de la Vega. He was a little inconsistent with this.)

The world should be grateful that McCulley was fast on the retcon. The later Zorro stories often lacked the energy and spontaneity of the original novel, but they are invariably fun all the same.

“Zorro Raids a Caravan” (published in West magazine in October 1946) is a fine example of that. Diego suspects that a caravan heading through town is kidnapping locals to be sold as slaves. He also learns that a master swordsman is guarding the caravan.

As the foppish Diego, he not only collects this information, but manages to trick the swordsman into leaving the caravan for a time that night.  That allows Zorro to met and challenge the man alone, leading to a pretty cool sword-fight-while-on-horseback scene.

It’s a fun story, though not great. The cool parts come early, when Diego subtly uses his wimpy persona to gain information and set up the situation the way he wants it. Then he has that nifty sword fight. But the climax, in which he must dodge some of the governor’s soldiers and free the prisoners in the caravan, happens too quickly and seems too easy. And though the head slaver does get a comeuppance, I think Zorro let him off a little too easy. Another few hundred words and a greater element of suspense would have helped the story enormously.

But, after all, it is Zorro. If anyone is going to make foiling a slaver seem easy, it’d be him. Despite the story’s flaws, we are more than happy to tag along with the masked man whenever he wants to raid a caravan.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cosmic Cubes should come with Instruction Manuals

You can be all-powerful. You can have god-like abilities that let you alter reality or simply wipe your enemies out of existence. You can literally be unstoppable.

But it won’t matter. Captain America will stop you anyways.

Cap proves this in Tales of Suspense # 80 and 81 (August and September 1966).

He discovers that A.I.M. (an organization made up entirely of mad scientists) has created the Cosmic Cube, a device that allows anyone who wields it to alter and control reality itself.

Well, if A.I.M. had the Cube, that’d be bad enough. But the Red Skull has used a mind control devise to force an A.I.M. guy to steal it and bring it to him. (This also gives Stan Lee a chance to show us just how ruthless the Skull is when he orders another mind-controlled henchman to shoot himself.)

Cap learns of all this, arriving at the Skull’s island hideout just as the villain gets the Cube.

The Red Skull should have won pretty much automatically at this point. He could literally wish Cap out of existence. But his arrogance and inherent sadism get the best of him. He toys with Cap for a time and, when he is ready to simply wipe Cap away, the hero is able to play on his vanity and create an opportunity to knock the Cube from his hand.

In the end, both the Cube and the Red Skull are apparently lost at sea. Of course, both will be back on multiple occasions. But for now, the world is saved yet again.

What’s most interesting about this story is—of course—Jack Kirby’s art work.

As I’ve mentioned many, many times (to the point where you’re all probably sick of it), Jack had a true talent for endowing his characters with a real sense of cosmic power. When Thor hammers a Frost Giant or Galactus zaps Ego the Living Planet with pure energy, the imagery reeks with a sense of pure power.

In his Captain America stories, though, the action is more down-to-earth. The fights are still always perfectly choreographed, but the punches seem to carry a weight appropriate to a well-trained regular human. You can see this in other Kirby-illustrated stories involving non-super heroes (the early Rawhide Kid issues, for instance).

What’s cool about this two-parter, though, is that Jack is able to combine his cosmic imagery with his down-to-earth imagery. The Red Skull, while wielding the Cube, is briefly the most powerful being in the Marvel Universe. While simultaneously, Cap is depending on his shield and a good right hook to carry the day. Jack meshes these elements perfectly.

It all adds up to another great story. The ending is admittedly a little clich├ęd—even in 1966—but the execution of the story (in both art and dialogue) is done so well that we can easily accept the ending for what it is.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Testing the ability to leave a comment

I've had two different people recently manage to get in touch with me to tell me they've had trouble  leaving comments on my blog. I'd like to test this--if one of you could try to leave a comment to this post, I'd appreciate it. (Of course, if I don't see a comment at all, I won't know for sure if someone TRIED to comment and couldn't. But it's a start.)

I may not be online for the rest of the day. If so, I won't get around to moderating any comments left until tomorrow.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

I haven't read this particular issue, but I have a feeling that the guy with the camera deserves to be beaten up simply for being really annoying.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Jack Benny: “How Jack and Fred Became Enemies” 1/15/50

Jack and Fred Allen give alternate takes on how their famous feud began in this typically hilarious episode.

Click HERE to listen or download. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I sorry--WHOM did you say got LOST in the JUNGLE?

Read/Watch ‘em in Order #16: Tarzan at the Earth’s Core (serialized in Blue Book Magazine—1929/30)

Remember that at the end of Tanar of Pellicidar, Jason Gridley was going to organize an expedition to Pellicidar to rescue David Innes, who was being held prisoner by the pirate nation of Korsar.

He recruits Tarzan to lead the expedition. The two men then arrange for the design and construction of an advanced model of zeppelin, christened the 0-220. With a crew of volunteers that include the German crew and 10 of Tarzan’s Waziri warriors, the 0-220 enters Pellicidar through the recently discovered opening near the North Pole.

All this gets this slam-bang novel off to a great start. The whole idea of the zeppelin (described in detail in the first chapter) is cool and the fact that the craft doesn’t play a direct part in the action through much of the novel is actually a mild disappointment.

By the way, the zeppelin achieves lift through the use of large vacuum tanks rather than hydrogen or helium. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make any real-life sense at all, but who am I to doubt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ veracity as a historian?

Anyways, the expedition reaches Pellicidar and Tarzan goes off alone through the primeval jungle landscape to look around. And he gets lost.

Yes, the super-competent Lord of the darned Jungle gets lost in the jungle. Pellicidar’s lack of a moving sun, moon, stars or other more subtle indications of direction that Tarzan instinctively depends on don’t exist in the world at the Earth’s core. So, Tarzan gets lost.

Jason, one of the zeppelin’s officers and the Waziri go searching for him. They blaze a trail as they go, but are scattered when they get caught in a huge stampede. This is, by the way, one of Burroughs’ best action sequences—hundreds of huge herbivores are being chased by hundreds of huge carnivores, which culminates in a mammoth surrounded and locked in a fight to the death against a pack of saber tooth tigers.

Though the Waziri and the officer are now also lost, Jason manages to find his way back to the 0-220 and opts to go out on another search, this time employing the bi-plane they had packed along. But—as planes in a Burroughsian lost world are wont to do—his plane gets attacked by a pterodactyl and he’s forced to bail out. He just happens to land pretty much right next to a damsel-in-distress. This is the mind-numbingly beautiful Jana, who is being menaced by thugs from a rival tribe on one side and hungry hyenodons on the other.  Jason’s pistol evens the odds a bit.

From here, the novel takes up the usual form of plot construction that Burroughs used whenever he split the action between two heroes, ending chapters at cliffhanger moments while switching the point-of-view for awhile.

Tarzan befriends some natives and has a series of adventures, including a mid-air fight with a pterodactyl that snatches up the Ape Man for lunch. Also, there’s a truly exciting fight against a cave bear. Jana and Jason fall in love and have their own adventures. They get separated and each thinks the other is dead. Tarzan meets Jana. Jason meets one of the natives Tarzan had befriended, who also happens to be Jana’s brother. Everybody eventually runs into a race of carnivorous reptile men who wield long lances and ride big lizards. Finally, Tarzan and Jason join up in what might possibly Burroughs’ most shameless (but also most entertaining) use of coincidence. I won’t spoil it for you—you gotta read it to believe it.

It’s not until the end of the novel--when Tarzan, Jason, their friends and the Waziri (they’ve found them as well) are picked up by the 0-220—that they finally get around to rescuing David Innes from the Korsars. This is accomplished quickly and—to be honest—a little bit anti-climatically.

Which should have ended their adventures in Pellicidar. But there’s still a missing member of the expedition. An officer named Wilhelm von Horst disappeared mysteriously while traveling with the Waziri. So Jason stays behind in Pellicidar to organize yet another expedition, this time to find von Horst.

That leads us directly into the next Pellicidar novel. Burroughs wouldn’t get around to writing it until 1936, but when he did, we would learn just what happened to the lost German. We’ll take a look at Back to the Stone Age soon.

Tarzan at the Earth’s Core is made of 97.5% pure fun. Burroughs is able to take Tarzan out of his usual setting and pit him against creatures and other dangers he wouldn’t normally encounter. It’s obvious that the whole “David Innes is a prisoner” device is just an excuse for getting the Ape Man and his friends to Pellicidar and tossing them into the typical cycle of battles, captures and escapes that Burroughs always makes entertaining. And, despite this leading to a mildly anti-climatic ending, it proves to be a good thing. Aside from the stampede scene and the cave bear fight, notable action scenes include a battle between the Waziri and the reptile men & a mid-river attack on a boat of Korsar pirates by those same reptile men.

Also, the book has one of Burroughs coolest and most delightful Research Failures. At one point, Jason and another character are attacked by a stegosaurus. And the stegosaurus attacks them by jumping off a cliff and spreading out his spine plates in order to become a living glider!!! (Also, the attack implies that Burroughs thought the stegosaurus was a carnivore.)  I don't care how silly this is--it's a simply awesome moment.

Besides, I love that Burroughs managed to produce a cross-over novel linking his various series together. As I think I wrote in the last “In Order” entry, I wish he’d done it more often.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1969


In the previous issue, this story was marred a little when it was kicked off via the Fantastic Four making a collectively idiotic decision to move into a clearly dangerous house.

But Stan and Jack more than make up for that this time around, combining slam-bang action with several really strong emotional elements.

The house is actually a machine Mole Man will be using to project a ray that will blind all of humanity, allowing him to conquer the surface world. He’s already zapped the FF, leaving them apparently helpless.

But this is the Fantastic Four, after all. They’re never completely helpless. What follows is an unusual fight scene in which the blind good guys try to zero in on the Mole Man by sound alone. He keeps them at bay for a time, but then he loses his goggles (making him helpless in bright light) and the blinding ray gizmo is broken. He’s captured and the world is saved.

All five of the heroes (both Sue and Crystal are there) get cool moments during the fight while still emphasizing their teamwork—one of the most impressive elements of the sequence is how smoothly Stan and Jack divide up the action between them.

But it’s Sue’s moments that really stand out, especially after Reed gets zapped and perhaps killed (in fact, Ben has to do artificial respiration to bring him around). Not surprisingly, hurting Reed activates Sue’s Berserk Button. And when Sue goes berserk, she is simply awesome. I’m tellin’ ya, if she weren’t already married (and if she weren’t annoyingly fictional), this panel would have had me proposing to her:

There’s also a teaser for the next story as a Skrull slaver arrives on Earth to find a contestant for “the Games.” This will lead into the next story arc—one of my favorites and something that might have been influenced by what would have at the time been a relatively recent episode of Star Trek. For my Marvel reviews, I prefer to do little or no research before writing about them, so I can discuss them purely on their own merits. I’ll leave it to one of the several Kirby scholars who are kind enough to comment on my posts regarding whether Star Trek was indeed the source for the upcoming story.


Here we have another text book example of how an remarkably talented artist can layout action and jump from scene to scene smoothly and without ever losing the overall flow of the story.

The issue is pretty much all action as Spidey manages to locate the Maggia HQ. Silvermane is there, using his newfound youth to slap Man Mountain Marko around because Marko didn’t initially believe Silverman is Silverman.

When the webslinger arrives, Marko goes down in just a couple of panels. I suppose space issues made that necessary, so the main action could concentrate on Silverman. But if I wanted to find a reason to quibble with this undeniably excellent issue, Marko’s quick defeat is a little disappointing.

Silverman initially gives Spider Man a run for his money in the ensuing fight, but then his punches get steadily weaker. In a twist that any Twilight Zone fan should have seen coming, he soon reverts to a baby before fading away completely.

In the meantime, Spider Man takes on a small army of thugs and rescues most of the Connors family. But Doc Connors is still missing. In a twist that pretty much EVERYONE should have seen coming, the excitement causes him to revert into the Lizard.

So the problem of the Maggia is solved for now, but it all leads into an exuberant two-parter that will include an always-welcome Spidey/Human Torch team-up.

I do want to take note of this issues cover, which plays up the fact that someone is going to die. I think it might actually have been a Comics Code Authority to feature an important character on the cover if he/she was going to bite the big one. If so, the cover does a good job of making Silvermane’s identity to give the ending appropriate shock value.

But the cover implies that someone we actually care about is going to die—not a brutal and egotistical villain we only met a couple of issue ago. (And, of course, Silverman will be resurrected before long anyways.)

All the same, I like the cover. It reminds us of one of the reasons Peter is a hero—that he values all human life, even the lives of the bad guys.

THOR #167

As punishment for his Berserker rage, Thor is sentenced to travel across the Universe in search of Galactus. Odin has a secondary motive here, of course. Galactus might eventually be a threat to Asgard, so Odin wants to act preemptively if necessary.

There’s some great character moments here—most notably Thor’s humility in admitting his guilt, the respect he shows for his dad’s authority and his acceptance of his punishment.

Balder travels to Earth to fill in for Thor there. But Loki is up to his old tricks again, zapping Balder with a magic spell that leaves the Asgardian gravely injured.

Thor pops down to Earth for one last visit before leaving on his comic search. He discovers Balder is wounded and needs Donald Blake’s surgical skills to save him. He reverts to Blake, which is the moment Loki has been waiting for. He jumps Blake and snatches away the cane that becomes Mjolnir.

It’s a clever plan, though I’m not sure it makes sense in context to how Mjolnir is supposed to work. I suppose Loki could carry it around while it’s in cane form, but I don’t think he’d qualify as “worthy” once it turns into a hammer.

Then again, maybe Loki was planning on using his magic to channel its power while it was still a cane. I suppose that might work.

We’ll never know anyways, because Odin shows up and tells Loki that whoever has the hammer has to go looking for Galactus. Loki immediately changes him mind about the whole thing, drops the can and teleports away.

That leaves Blake free to operate on Balder and then say one last goodbye to Earth.

Except for one possible plot hole, this was a nicely constructed story that will lead us into a two-part encounter with Galactus—a short story arc that I will be praising for many obvious reasons and then perhaps unfairly criticizing for being too short.

And that’s it for August. Next week, we'll examine a Captain America story arc from 1966 that I never did get around to reviewing. Then, in two weeks, we'll hit September 1969, in which Ben Grimm gets kidnapped; Spider Man finally remembers to call Aunt May (oh—and also fights for his life against a deadly enemy); and Thor sets off to speak harshly to the most powerful being in the universe.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dimension X: “Pebble in the Sky” 6/17/51

Dimension X normally adapted short stories rather than novels, but this episode is based on Isaac Asimov’s first published novel.

To fit it into a half-hour time slot, a major character and a time travel element were dropped. Also, the ending is completely changed (since the original ending needed the now-missing protagonist to make sense).

But it’s still a good story. An archeologist is visiting Earth, a radioactive part of the Galactic Empire with a population of radiation-resistant humans who are treated with open bigotry by the rest of the galaxy, though the archeologist has a crazy theory that human life originated there.

But Empire’s bigoted attitude seems likely to come back at it and bite it in the butt when a rebel Earth faction develops a devastating new weapon…

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Old School Sound Effects

I usually concentrate on story content rather than the process of creating the stories, but this 1939 short on how radio sound effects were created is too much fun for words.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Debut of Not-Quite Supergirl

By many accounts, Mort Weisinger could be something of an egotist and a bit of a jerk towards his employees, but by golly the man accomplished a lot in his career.

As a teenager, he (along with Julius Schwartz and Forrest Ackerman) founded the very first science fiction fan magazine. Later, he and Schwartz become literary agents for SF writers such as Edmond Hamilton and Otto Binder.

Weisinger later edited a number of SF pulps, including Thrilling Wonder Stories and Captain Future. In 1941, he moved to DC Comics, co-creating a number of characters that included Aquaman and Green Arrow.

He was editor for both the Batman and Superman titles for quite some time, though he eventually dropped the Bat books and concentrated on the Man of Steel. 

And it’s a particular era—the late 1950s and early 1960s—during his tenure as Superman editor that we’ll be periodically covering on Wednesdays. Weisinger wanted to keep DC’s flagship character fresh and accessible, so he insisted that new elements be added to the Superman mythology on a regular basis. He also maintained a fairly tight continuity within the Superman universe (though, at the time, the continuity for the DC universe as a whole was pretty loose).

Weisinger “rationalized” Superman’s growing number of powers by explaining that Earth’s yellow sun and lower gravity was responsible for making him super. Prior to this, Krypton had often been referred to as a planet where everyone had super powers. At the same time, Weisinger also had a fondness for stories in which Superman lost his powers and had to really think his way out of danger.

We’ll be looking at some of the key additions to the Superman mythos that were added under Weisinger’s watch.

An important one, for instance, was the addition of other survivors from Krypton. Even discounting the Super Pets (though we’ll be getting to them eventually), the population of surviving Kryptonians shot up rapidly in the 1950s. There were the Phantom Zone criminals, the city of Kandor, and a reformed juvenile delinquent named Dev-Em. Kal-El was no longer the Last Son of Krypton and I’ll eventually do entries on a number of his more notable fellow survivors.

The most notable of them being Supergirl, of course.

Supergirl’s first appearance was in Action Comics #252 (May 1959), but she had actually had a try-out of sorts the year before in Superman #123.

In a story written by Otto Binder (who’s grasp of comic book “logic” has rarely been equaled by other writers) and drawn by Dick Sprang, Superman saves an archeologist trapped in a cave. Jimmy Olsen was there as well and the archeologist gives him a souvenir—a totem that supposedly grants three wishes once every hundred years. “Pure superstition, of course” laughs the archeologist.

Someone needed to remind this guy that he was living in a COMIC BOOK UNIVERSE!

Of course the darn thing works. Jimmy wishes up a Supergirl to be Superman’s assistant and companion.  She’s pretty close in appearance to what the “real” Supergirl will look like—a pretty blonde in a feminine version of the iconic costume.

Which leads me into an enormous temptation to make a blonde joke, since this Supergirl was something of a ditz.

Actually, that’s unfair. She was, after all, literally a new-born person and it was her inexperience that had her misusing her powers and causing unnecessary damage while helping Superman with various emergencies. Then she almost blows Clark’s secret identity because she doesn’t yet understand it’s a secret identity.

But when she finally gets the hang of the job, she shows herself to be a real hero, sacrificing herself to save Superman from some Kryptonite.

Otto Binder is one of my favorite Golden Age writers. He had a wonderful talent for building bizarre stories that still had their own internal logic. He had a quirky and somewhat gentle sense of humor as well. The Captain Marvel stories he wrote for Fawcett during the 1940s often showed these traits.

They are also apparent in this first “almost-Supergirl” story. It’s a fun and funny tale, though not without some nicely emotional moments. And we can presume that readers of the time liked it, since a permanent Supergirl followed soon afterwards.

I should also mention that Binder gives
Lois Lane
her own Crowning Moment of Awesome when she has an opportunity to undo Jimmy’s wish and erase Supergirl out of existence. She’s tempted to do this because she sees Supergirl as a rival for Superman’s affections. But in the end, she can’t do the dastardly deed.

It’s a nice moment for Lois, who doesn’t always come out looking that good during this time period. If she’s not scheming to get Superman to marry her, she’s trying to blow his secret identity to get a good story out of it. In either case, you usually ended up wanting to smack her one—and it was only those very occasional moments of nobility that made the darn girl tolerable.

The rest of the issue deals with the other two totem wishes. Crooks steal it and wish away Superman’s powers until they are tricked into revoking the wish. Then Jimmy wishes Superman back in time for a visit to with his Kryptonian parents, We’ll look at THAT last part in a later review, when we talk about a few stories that take place on Krypton.

But next time we return to the Superman universe, we’ll examine the first appearance of Kara Zor-el, the REAL Supergirl.

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