Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: “Arctic Rescue” 1/31/56

This is a vivid and edge-of-your-seat story about an arctic expedition whose ship becomes trapped in the ice.

But when summer comes, the ice is sure to break up.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

His prose sounded like poetry.

News of Ray Bradbury's passing a few months ago made me (as it probably did many other fans) want to re-read some of his work.

I've written about Mr. Bradbury before--mostly in my book Radio by the Book, since a lot of his stuff was adapted for radio during that medium's Golden Age.

It's not surprising. Aside from his overflowing imagination and sharp understanding of both the good and bad in human nature, Mr. Bradbury was a master of the correct word choice and sentence structure. His stuff is a pleasure to read and--like so many great authors--often seems to beg to be read aloud simply because it sounds so cool.

Let's take an example almost at random. (Well, not completely at random--its one of just a few I could find online and thus provide a link to.)

"The Fog Horn," first published in 1951 in the Saturday Evening Post under the title "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," is a very short tale that still manages to hit all the right emotional notes. It's about a monster--possibly the last survivor of the dinosaur age--who falls in love with the fog horn on a lighthouse. It mistakes it for a mating call and has shown up once a year for quite some time--looking for a companion after a million years of being alone.

And who can blame it? As the veteran light house keeper explains: "All year long, Johnny, that poor monster there lying far out, a thousand miles at sea, and twenty miles deep maybe, biding its time, perhaps a million years old, this one creature.  Think of it, waiting a million years; could you wait that long? Maybe it's the last of its kind.  I sort of think that's true.  Anyway, here come men on land and build this lighthouse, five years ago.  And set up their Fog Horn and sound it and sound it out towards the place where you bury yourself in sleep and sea memories of a world where there were thousands like yourself, but now you're alone, all alone in a world that's not made for you, a world where you have to hide.

 "But the sound of the Fog Horn comes and goes, comes and goes, and you stir from the muddy bottom of the Deeps, and your eyes open like the lenses of two-foot cameras and you move, slow, slow, for you have the ocean sea on your shoulders, heavy.  But that Fog Horn comes through a thousand miles of water, faint and familiar, and the furnace in your belly stokes up, and you begin to rise, slow, slow.  You feed yourself on minnows, on rivers of jellyfish, and you rise slow through the autumn months, through September when the fogs started, through October with more fog and the horn still calling you on, and then, late in November, after pressurizing yourself day by day, a few feet higher every hour, you are near the surface and still alive.  You've got to go slow; if you surfaced all at once you'd explode. So it takes you all of three months to surface, and then a number of days to swim through the cold waters to the lighthouse. And there you are, out there, in the night, Johnny, the biggest damned monster in creation.  And here's the lighthouse calling to you, with a long neck like your neck sticking way up out of the water, and a body like your body, and most important of all, a voice like your voice.  Do you understand now, Johnny, do you understand?"

"The Fog Horn" is a story of loneliness and change and being left behind when everyone else has left the building. Bradbury's prose--which to me nearly always has a poetic feel to it--brings these emotions across perfectly.

"The Fog Horn," of course, was the inspiration for the Ray Harryhausen movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, though the movie turned out to be a very different story. According to Leonard Nimoy, it was also a partial inspiration for the fourth Star Trek film (the "save the whales" movie)--and I can sort of see that. 

But it's a story that can stand on it's own merits. Mr. Bradbury was one of the finest writers of the last century. "The Fog Horn" is just one of many examples of why this is so.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: June 1970


Johnny’s been mooning over Crystal for the last few issues. Now he’s decided to fly on his own to the Great Refuge and get her back—no matter who stands in his way.

The rest of the FF take off after him, determined to stop him before he does something stupid. But they’re a little late and Johnny does something stupid, taking on pretty much the entire population of Inhumans to reach Crystal, then throwing a hissy fit when she tells him she has to stay.

It turns out she had good reason. Black Bolt is sick and the Inhumans needed her power to keep his heart beating (by sending micro-shock waves into him) until the medicine he needed could be found. This part of the story is a little contrived: When Crystal first has a chance to explain this, she simply says “I can’t tell you why I have to stay”—leading to more fighting. But a few minutes later, the situation was explained to everyone without hesitation.

Oh, well--the fight scenes are cool and Johnny certainly gets to act human—we guys do often act like jerks when pretty girls are involved. Though Stan and Jack might have overdone it a bit in this tale. Johnny’s shown as being willing to reduce the entire Great Refuge to slag. I’m not sure being in love gives anyone an excuse to destroy a city. That’s gotta be a felony rather than a misdemeanor, even in a comic book universe.


This is a strong ending to a great three-parter. Kingpin and the Schemer continue to spar with each other throughout the issue, with Spider Man essentially caught in the middle, until Kingpin finally gets the upper hand. But then he discovers the Schemer is really his supposedly dead son Richard, who wants revenge on his father after discovering Kingpin was a crook. This revelation sends Kingpin into a catatonic state.

The plot and the action sequences all flow along smoothly, building up to an effective ending.

There’s a great character moment with Peter, Gwen and Captain Stacy as well. When Stacy begins to wonder how Peter gets all those photos of Spider Man, Peter realizes he’s got to do something to quell his suspicions. As Spider Man, he puts in an appearance and “reveals” that he and Peter have a deal to split the money Peter makes (it’s a con he’s run before). This pretty much works, but in such a way that now has Gwen worrying that Peter is in danger from Spider Man.

All in all, this issue manages to effectively generate some really strong emotions.

THOR #177

Jack Kirby’s last continuous issue of Thor is nothing short of awesome. Thor and the army of Asgard fight a desperate last stand against Surter. In the meantime, Balter goes after Odin. But Odin’s sleep chamber is located in the Sea of Eternal Darkness, which in turn is located in the Dimension of Death.

So while Thor and his soldiers fight an epic but losing battle, Balder continues on to Odin’s sleep chamber despite having his life force steadily sucked out of him. He releases Odin, who uses his power to revive Balder. Then the All-Father consigns Surter back to an underground prison.

The ending might have been a deus ex machina, but it’s not. Because it’s clear that Thor had to fight a delaying action to save Asgard—and because Balder had to be willing to sacrifice his life to save Odin—the ending fits perfectly.

Jack Kirby’s run on Thor has been nothing short of fantastic. It’s been a book that arguably was the best platform he ever had to highlight his strengths as an artist and to allow his imagination to run wild.

The next issue would be drawn by Sal Buscema. Jack would be back for Thor #179, then Neal Adams would pencil a few issues. After that, John Buscema would be the regular artist for awhile.

There’s are all wonderful artists and the work they’ll be doing on Thor is stuff  they can be justly proud of. But Jack Kirby will always be the perfect Thor artist.

So we’ll end our regular look at Thor with this issue, though we will visit specific storylines from time to time.

We still have a few more issues of Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four and  we will stick with that book for at least a few issues after he leaves. With Amazing Spider Man, I’m thinking I’ll continue to cover that issue by issue at least through the death of Gwen Stacy.

Next week, we'll take a look at just how Weird a War can be, then we’ll be down to two books when we hit July 1970, in which the Fantastic Four celebrate their 100th issue by fighting, well, everybody; and Spider Man tussles with a newly hotified Black Widow.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

I love the design of this cover. It's clever, but not gimmicky--providing a real sense of imminent danger.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Sergeant Preston of the Yukon: “Hard Luck” 4/1/52

This story involves an unsolved Wells Fargo stage robbery; a small-time burglary that netted $20.00 and a watch; a frightened man who might be innocent; a lady general-store owner who might have a little too much spunk; and a grouchy old man who has moved into an isolated cabin.  The plot weaves this disparate elements together into a fast-moving and very entertaining tale.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Show the Monster or Don't Show the Monster?

A lot of the science fiction movies made during the 1950s—especially those made by Universal Pictures—had a horror story vibe to them. This isn’t really very surprising, considering that Universal’s bread-and-butter throughout the 1930s and 1940s was the horror genre.

So it’s not surprising that It Came From Outer Space (1953) is as much a horror story as it is a science fiction tale. To quote A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), by Denis Gifford:

“Ray Bradbury’s story of wandering Xenomorphs, aliens of misty aspect, was futuristic stuff, yet behind it the old horrors lurked. The small town in the Arizona desert stood in for the cut-off community of European lore; the glamour-gowned girl, possessed in mind in the wind-blown night, was a bride of Dracula; the stolid citizens, mindless zombies in the dark, were somnambulists straight from Caligari’s Cabinet.”

The movie starts with a “meteor” crashing in the desert. But it’s not really a meteor, it’s a space ship. And its crew are shape-changers, able to mimic the humans they meet—they even replace a few of them.

The protagonist is a local astronomer who is at first the only one to believe that aliens have landed. He quickly tumbles to the fact that a couple of local townspeople are no longer so local, but what are the aliens up to? Are they an invasion force?

Or are they just trying to buy enough time to repair their ship and get away?

The movie is based on a story treatment by Ray Bradbury and—though Harry Essex wrote the actual screenplay—much of the dialogue has that highly descriptive and poetic tone to it that makes Bradbury’s prose such a pleasure to read.  Not surprisingly, the story is intelligent and well-constructed.  Jack Arnold does an excellent job as director in creating the right atmosphere, while Richard Carlson pretty much creates the scientist-hero archetype that was standard in most SF films of this era.

(In fact, Arnold and Carlson would team up again in 1955 to bring us the last of the iconic Universal Monsters when they made Creature from the Black Lagoon.)

The movie generates a high level of suspense and tension out of the idea that we don’t know whether the aliens are perfidious or benign. The scientist tends to believe them when they claim they just want to fix their ship and leave, while the increasingly frightened local sheriff is much less trusting. To be fair to the sheriff, the aliens are holding the people they’ve duplicated as hostages (including the girl both he and the scientist love), so it’s a little hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.  This tension makes for a great movie.

Bradbury, though, went on record as being unhappy with one aspect of the finished film. The aliens, we learn, are horrifying in appearance to human beings. This is one of the reasons they assume human form before interacting with us. The original script made it clear that we (the audience) would never actually see an alien in its true form. We would only see the shocked reactions of the humans in the story.

In fact, the movie was initially filmed without the aliens being seen. But this was meant to be one of the first 3D films to be released and the studio heads decided we’d just have to see the alien seeming to jump off the screen at us.

So an alien—a hulking, one-eyed thingie—was designed and inserted into the film.  Bradbury hated this, thinking it looked fake and ruined the sense of terror that the movie otherwise built up so effectively.

Is he right? Well, the monster is a reasonably cool design, but I will not dare to disagree with one of the finest storytellers who ever lived. Having just watched the movie again after not having seen it in some years, I have to agree with Mr. Bradbury. It would have been better to leave the alien’s true form to our imaginations.

The monster we’re given has a reasonably creepy design, but it doesn’t elicit the horror in us that it does in the movie’s characters. It doesn’t even come close. And this does indeed spoil the moment.

Fortunately, the aliens only appear a few times and for fairly short intervals. They don’t ruin this otherwise wonderful film, but they don’t do much to help it along either.

I think proof that it was a mistake to show us the aliens is demonstrated by the fact that—though this movie is well-regarded as one of the better SF films of its era—the aliens themselves have not become the visual icons that other monsters became. We all remember the Creature from the Black Lagoon. We remember the mutant creature from This Island Earth (based, ironically, on a rejected design for the alien from It Came From Outer Space). Heck, we remember the Mole People from The Mole People.  And we think “Those are cool monsters.”

But when we think of It Came From Outer Space, we think “Great movie,” but don’t give those poor one-eyed aliens much thought at all. Even in a visual medium such as film, it is sometimes best to leave some elements to our imaginations.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: May 1970


While Apollo 11 is on its way to the moon, Reed picks up a secret Kree transmission and realizes there is some sort of threat to the moon landing. He, Ben and Johnny track the transmission to a remote island, where they fight a Kree Sentry and demolish a machine that was going to awaken a “nameless mass” that lurked under the Sea of Tranquility.

With this threat neutralized, Neil Armstrong is able to make his “one small step” safely.

The issue is an overt tribute to the first moon landing—which is just fine with me. A celebration of one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments is never out of place.

I suppose that in the Marvel Universe, the Apollo missions really shouldn’t have been as big as deal as they were in real life, since a number of humans (most notably the Fantastic Four) had already been to the moon and even to other solar systems. But this is ignored for the sake of this issue and that’s how it should be. A work of fiction should never trump a real life act of heroism.


There’s now a $5,000 reward out on the Schemer, so Peter is working hard to track him down. The Schemer, though, has a special car equipped with a variety of weapons and gadgets, allowing him to escape from Spidey. Reaching Kingpin’s home, he confronts his rival.

But their potential fight is interrupted when Spider Man arrives. Kingpin ignores the Schemer while he whomps on the webslinger, allowing the Schemer to disappear along with Kingpin’s wife.  The Kingpin escapes to give chase, leaving Spider Man with absolutely nothing for his trouble.

This is another strong issue, with Romita’s usual skill at choreographing fight scenes on effective display. There’s also a continuation of the Gwen/Peter travails, as Gwen is increasingly unhappy about her boyfriend’s secretiveness and Peter struggles with the idea about coming clean with her.

As I mentioned in the last entry, Stan Lee’s skill at characterization had really been growing over the years. Consider how awkward and contrived some of his earlier characterizations had been—such as the Matt Murdock/Karen Page relationship. Then compare it to the Spider Man stories we are currently looking at—where the relationship stuff seems perfectly within character and is a natural outgrowth of the situations in which the various characters find themselves.  The Gwen/Peter travails never degenerate into soap opera territory because we can really believe it is happening—and, of course, since we also get plenty of old-fashioned comic book action mixed in with it.

Another effective characterization to take note of is Flash Thompson, who was shipped back to Vietnam in the previous issue. Originally, he was the high school bully, but even in those days we’d get an occasional glimpse of a nice person hiding inside the bully. Over the years, Flash has stopped being a regular part of the cast, but—despite still being a bit of jerk from time to time—he’s believably grown into someone we actually like.

THOR #176

This high-action issue expertly packs a lot of story into it. Loki is ruling Asgard and puts Odin in a capsule that he places in the “Sea of Eternal Night.” He’s jailed Thor and the Warriors Three (after the three brawl with some of his guards), but Balder stages a jail break. They get back to the throne room, where Sif is being forced into a duel with a female troll because she’s refused to marry Loki.

All this comes to a head when Surtur, the giant fire demon, escapes from his prison because Odin’s magic is no longer there to contain him. Surtur attacks Asgard, Loki flees in panic to save himself. Thor sends Sif and Balder to wake up his dad, then leads an army out to fight Surtur.

Jack Kirby will draw the next issue. John Buscema will drawn #179. Then Kirby will be back for one final issue. This story line—which will wrap up the “Fall of Asgard” story arc, really does allow Kirby to leave Thor while at the top of his game. This is another epic tale that makes great use of Asgard and its inhabitants to tell a truly exciting and visually awesome story.

That’s it for May. In June 1970; the Human Torch goes looking for his girlfriend; the Schemer/Kingpin gang war continues; and Thor’s dad wakes up from his nap.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Adventures of the Saint: “The Case of the Lonesome Slab” 1/22/50

A beautiful woman fleeing a murder scene stumbles across Simon Templar. This is the sort of thing that happens to Simon with astonishing regularity, so he accepts it with aplomb and is soon investigating a case that involves both the theatrical world and the publishing world. The killer will rack up at least one more victim before Simon straightens it all out.

The clue that points to the killer is one that most experienced mystery fans will probably spot, but the episode is still a typically entertaining one in this always excellent series. Vincent Price is, as usual, perfect in the role of the Saint.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, August 16, 2012

If you ever visit Pellucidar, DO NOT get fresh with the ladies!

Read/Watch ‘em in Order #22

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ last visit to Pellucidar suffered a long delay. Three out of four interlocking novellas were published in three successive issues of Amazing Stories in 1942. The concluding novella was found long after Burroughs’ death and saw print in 1963. All four stories were collected into the book Savage Pellucidar that same year.

Burroughs was juggling a lot of point-of-view characters this time around. David Innes gets captured by an unfriendly tribe. One of his subjects—Hodon the Swift One—rescues him and also meets O-aa, the daughter of a local king. Hodon and O-aa fall in love (of course), but end up getting separated. In the meantime, Dian the Beautiful goes up in a hot-air balloon invented by Abner Perry, but this breaks loose from its moorings and Dian is carried off to unknown lands.

Everyone looks for everyone else over both land and sea, with the point-of-view jumping erratically from one character to another.

This is the weak point of the book—and I’ll discuss this first so I can get it out of the way and move on to the good stuff (because the book is still good despite its flaws).  Usually, Burroughs had either one or two protagonists. In books such as A Princess of Mars or The Land That Time Forgot, the story is narrated by a hero who also carries most of the action—as a hero should. Sometimes, such as in the later Tarzan novels, the action is divided between two co-heroes. Burroughs used this device effectively, jumping from one point-of-view to another at tense cliffhanger moments.

But here we have David, Dian, Hodon, O-aa, a little bit of Abner Perry and a few scenes with several other characters. Though Burroughs expertise as a storyteller allowed him to keep everyone and everything straight, the constant jumping from one person to another got a little annoying after awhile. It makes the book as a whole feel a little disjointed.

And it forced Burroughs to often switch from one character to another at more-or-less random moments—at a point where the character we were just visiting is doing something relatively pedestrian rather than being involved in a life-or-death struggle.

But the book is still fun. Though there may be a few characters too many, each of them is individually likably. Especially fun is O-aa. Like all Burroughsian women, she’s drop dead gorgeous. But she’s also really funny, giving to bragging about her family to the point of… well, we don’t want to call her a liar. Let’s just say she exaggerates a bit. When she says she has eleven brothers who will track you down and kill you if you look at her the wrong way—what she really means is that’s she’s an only child. When she says the men of her tribe are nine feet tall and will attack and kill you if you look annoy her at all—what she means is that she’s hopelessly lost and doesn’t know where her fellow tribesmen are.  It’s also pretty much impossible to get her to shut up, whether she’s threatening your life or casually claiming to be the most beautiful woman in Pellucidar. Burroughs has a lot of fun with her

Burroughs also manages to get both her and Dian into bizarre parallel situations. Dian’s balloon lands between two walled cities that have Bronze Age technology. She’s captured by the people of one city and is assumed to be their goddess comes down from heaven.  But the rival city soon gets its own version of the goddess when O-aa is shipwrecked nearby.  (I’m not going to try to summarize how O-aa ended up at sea. It’s too convoluted.)

In self-defense, both women accept their roles as goddesses, but both tick off their relative priests by insisting on social reforms and lower taxes for the general populace. Burroughs uses all this to get in some biting commentary on corrupt institutionalized religion, as well as using it to generate a nice mixture of suspense and humor.  Pretty soon, both women have placed their cities on the brink of religion-fueled civil wars and both are forced to make daring escapes.

Amidst all this, O-aa and Dian both get a number of awesome moments throughout the book, acting intelligently in dangerous situations and generally looking after themselves quite effectively. And, by golly, don’t EVER get fresh with either of them. Both O-aa and Dian get opportunities to stab and kill would-be rapists. Both women do this without so much as batting an eyelash.

Another fun character is someone else from the surface world—a shipwrecked sailor who came through the Polar opening at some point during the Tyler administration. (That’s the early 1840s—though I’m sure most of you knew that.) Remember that it is eternally noon in Pellucidar. Because no one can note the passage of time, the aging process is considerably slowed. Though his skill as a sailor and shipbuilder is useful to the good guys, the old sailor’s acquired taste for human flesh tends to make him less than trustworthy at times.

This novel also proves that if you want a cool pet, you need to move to Pellucidar. In the second novel, David Innes befriended a hyaenodon. In Back to the Stone Age, von Horst makes friends with a mammoth. In Land of Terror, it’s David who soon has a pair of mammoths looking after him.

This time around, Dian at one point has three saber-toothed tigers fighting for her, while O-aa has also made a pet of a hyaenodon. Gee whiz, Tarzan had the Golden Lion and John Carter had Woola the calot, but I’m pretty sure that the denizons of the Earth’s core have ‘em all beat for cool pets.

So, despite a disjointed narrative flow, Savage Pellucidar is a respectable end to the series. The first two novels—which essentially form a single story—are probably the best, but the Pellucidar series as a whole makes for an exciting and occasionally awesome epic saga.

We are still in the midst of the RKO Dick Tracy movies for our Watch ‘em in Order entries, but it’s time to move on to something else for Read ‘em in Order. Eventually, we’re going to look at the Venus stories written by Otis Kline, but for now I think we should take a break from science fiction and move back to mystery and murder. We’ll examine the original Mr. Moto stories by John Marquand—tales about a pre-war Japanese agent who is sometimes the hero and sometimes the villain. Sometimes he’s both.  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Who the Heck is Dev-em?

Most casual DC Comics or Superman fans could probably name the best known survivors of Krypton’s destruction. There’s Superman and Supergirl, of course. The Phantom Zone criminals. The citizens of Kandor. Krypto the Super Dog. A few might remember Beppo the Super Monkey.

But I’ll bet not one in a thousand would remember Dev-em.

Who the heck was he? He was a teenaged delinquent on Krypton, committing minor acts of vandalism and petty theft. But he was at least smart enough to be the only person on Krypton who paid attention to Jor-el’s warning that the planet was going to explode.

Dev-em builds a suspended animation tube inside a lead-lined bomb shelter. This gets tossed into space when the planet explodes and eventually drifts to Earth.

This happens in Adventure Comics #287 (June 1961), written by Superman’s co-creator Jerry Siegel.  On Earth, the still-delinquent Dev-em manages to zap Superboy into the Phantom Zone. He then disguises himself as Superboy and commits some acts of super-vandalism to ruin the Boy of Steel’s reputation. Bringing Superboy back, he flies off into the future to leave poor Kal-el to his fate.

The big bully.

Smallville’s police chief Parker believes Superboy’s explanation, but figures no one else will. So the cover story they come up with is that some red kryptonite temporarily turned Superboy evil. Why that explanation is more believable than the truth (or why it would make the citizens of Smallville feel safer—“What? You mean the teenager who can crush the entire planet like a flea can be turned evil by some weird fluke at any time?”) is beyond my ability to explain. But there you go.

That story is a little weak, mostly because its dénouement is unsatisfying. But three years later, in Adventure Comics #320 (May 1964), Siegel tied up this particular Kryptonian loose end.

Superboy is visiting the Legion of Superheroes in the 30th Century when he again meets Dev-em. But Dev has apparently reformed and is on a secret mission for the Inter-Stellar Counter-Intelligence Corps (ICC) to smoke out and catch the leader of the evil Cosmic Spy Legion.

But the ICC decides Superboy is better qualified for the job. Dev-em seems fine with this, but Superboy can’t help but think Dev might be resentful. 

Of course, there soon comes a point in which Superboy’s life suddenly depends on where Dev-em’s true loyalties lie.

Dev-em was an interesting addition to the Superman mythology, though we never saw much of him after this. After he proves he’s now a good guy, he’s asked to join the Legion, but decides to stay with the ICC.

That was an undoubtedly wise decision on the part of the Superman creative team. The Legion already had two members (Superboy and Mon-el) with identical powers to Dev-em, so there was really no place for him in terms of telling interesting stories.

But poor Dev-em seems to have been largely forgotten. I know he popped up for a few frames in the epic Legion story arc “The Great Darkness Saga” from 1982 and it’s possible he had a few other appearances over the years. But for the most part, the writers of the Legion of Superheroes, Superboy or Superman never really found a good slot for him.

It’s no wonder no one remembers who the poor guy is.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: “Dark Journey” 4/25/46

Louise Fletcher was one of old-time radio’s best writers. This very suspenseful, two-person story is typical of how good she was at putting together great plots. It involves a woman whose obsession with getting the man she wants leads her on a one-way trip to Crazy Town. There’s a really nifty twist at the end.

Click HERE to listen or download. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Behind the Cueball

Read/Watch ‘em in Order #21

It was during the 1940s that Chester Gould starting portraying the villains in his comic strip Dick Tracy as men (and occasionally women) whose grotesque appearances mirrored their grotesque lack of morals. The 1940s is arguably Gould’s finest decade as a storyteller. Bad guys such as Prune Face, Shaky, the Brow and Flattop were tossed into violent storylines that kept the attentions of 30 million readers riveted on the comics page of their local newspaper.

But when RKO decided to produce a series of Dick Tracy films, they didn’t draw on any of Gould’s established villains. That’s too bad—when you look at what make-up artists of that era were capable of (think of Jack Pierce’s work at Universal), producing an appropriately creepy-looking Brow or Pruneface doesn’t seem too impossible.

But I suppose the time and budget restrictions of B-movie production prevented this. Still, the Dick Tracy films did pretty good in coming up with acceptable villains. The first film, as we’ve already seen, featured Mike Mazurki sporting a vivid scar down his face. The second movie—Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946)—tossed shaven-headed actor Dick Wessel as a brutal thug appropriately named Cueball. Wessel doesn’t have much range as an actor, but this actually works well for him this time around—he is a truly menacing presence throughout the film.

As with the first film, Cueball is a solidly written police procedural, filmed in a shadowy film-noir style that gives the violence a brutal edge without ever allowing it to become unpleasantly graphic. Cueball has been hired by some dishonest workers in the diamond industry to steal some valuable jewels. He proves to be more violent than they figured, though, when he strangles the courier, then decides to hold his erstwhile employers up for more money. By the time the movie is over, Cueball has racked up quite a body count.

It ends with a cool noir-looking chase scene through a busy railroad yard.

To quote Ron Backer’s excellent book Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood: “This film contains a menagerie of wonderful characters, played by wonderful character actors.” Cueball really goes to town with making the supporting characters individually interesting while giving them the sort of names that would have fit similar characters perfectly in the comic strips. The owner of a sleezy bar is Filthy Flora; an antique shop owner is Percival Priceless; and a gem dealer is named Jules Sparkle.

Though the villains are original to the movie, Dick Tracy’s friends are all taken straight from the comics. Pat Patton, Tess Trueheart and Junior are all there, while Ian Keith hams it up marvelously as Tracy’s actor friend Vitamin Flintheart.

This is Morgan Conway’s second and last appearance as the detective. Ralph Byrd, who had played Tracy in the Republic serials made a few years earlier, would return to the role for the final two films of the series.

It’s interesting to run across different opinions about which actor was better. In his book, Ron Backer considers Conway to be an uninteresting and one-dimensional Tracy. My DVDs of these movies, though, include very informative introductions by Max Allen Collins, the prolific mystery writer who wrote the Dick Tracy strip for over 15 years after Gould retired in 1977. Collins prefers Conway to Byrd, considering Conway to have more authoritative weight in the role.

Well, I like Conway as Tracy, but I’ve always preferred Byrd. I will say, though, that my opinion is probably colored by nostalgia. The first movie Dick Tracy I saw as a kid was a Byrd film (I think it was an edited feature-length version of one of the serials), so in my mind he’s always the “real” Tracy. If I’d seen Morgan Conway first, I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer him in the role.

Well, I’ll be watching Ralph Byrd again soon. Next up is 1947’s Dick Tracy’s Dilemma.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: April 1970


The FF is on vacation at the beach and is asked to investigate a supposed monster that is sinking ships in the area. Inexplicably—considering the number of monsters and other bizarre threats they’ve encountered—our heroes are initially skeptical of the monster’s existence. They soon find out he does indeed exist.

The monster turns out to be a shipwrecked aquatic alien who thought the ships he attacked were a threat to him. He tussles with the Fantastic Four for a bit before Reed figures out what’s going on. The alien finishes repairing his ship and blasts off.

It’s a pretty generic “misunderstood monster” story, but the dialogue and characterizations do such a good job of capturing the family dynamic between the main characters that it turns out to be a very enjoyable tale despite this.

Especially notably are Ben’s thoughts when he rescues Reed and Johnny from drowning. He thinks about how little he counts for compared to the “two greatest guys” he’s every known.

That’s Ben Grimm in a nutshell. Of course he has self-esteem issues, but this doesn’t stop him from acting with heroism and loyalty.

When Stan Lee’s dialogue and characterizations are spot-on, we enjoy hanging out with the Fantastic Four even when the story their involved in is so generic.


A criminal mastermind named the Schemer plans to take over Kingpin’s territory. When Gwen is slightly injured when a truck that’s passing by her is run off the road during a hijacking attempt, Spider Man steps in to do something about it.

This is a well-plotted story, beginning a gang war story arc that will run for two more issues. The Schemer at first doesn’t come across as a very notable villain, but a surprise reveal at the end of this arc will make him suddenly very interesting.

And several character moments also help the story along. I believe we meet the Kingpin’s drop-dead gorgeous wife Vanessa for the first time here, learning that she loves her husband but hates the business he’s in. We also discover they have a son, Richard, who has recently gone missing and may have committed suicide after he learned his dad is a crook.

At Peter’s end, he ends up in the doghouse with Gwen again. Because he was out hunting down the men who hurt her, he was late in visiting her. She’s upset that he (without apparent reason) was so slow in coming to see her.

Gee whiz—women! What’re you gonna do with ‘em?

All joking aside, though, this issue is another smooth combination of comic book action and solid characterization.  It’s really too bad that Stan Lee’s other duties at Marvel will soon mean he won’t be writing comics anymore. Over the course of the 1960s, his skill at good dialogue and characterization had continued to grow.

THOR #175

Any comic book that allows Jack Kirby to draw Asgardian soldiers fighting giants and dragons is by definition a great comic book.

And this issue—the start of new story arc—is a great issue. Odin goes into the Odinsleep. Loki takes advantage of this by attacking Asgard with an army of Mountain giants and other creatures. 

But this attack is really just a distraction. While the battle rages, Loki sneaks into Odin’s bedroom and takes the “Ring Imperial.”  Since he’s of royal blood, this effectively puts him in charge. He has Sif has hostage by now, so when he announces his ascension to the throne, even Thor has to bow his head.

I do have a complaint about everyone just accepting Loki as king when everyone knows he’s a villain and must have guessed he took the ring without permission. Exactly how thick-headed IS the average Asgardian?

But the story is otherwise strong enough both in plot and in its visuals to make up for this.  The single-issue stories that have been running over the past few months in Thor have been good, but this sort of epic story arc is really where the Thunder God belongs. It will allow Jack Kirby to leave the book on a high note.

That’s if for April. Next week, we'll visit with a Kryptonian juvenile delinquent. Then, in May 1970, the FF will give Neil Armstrong a behind-the-scenes assist; Spider Man continues to embroil himself in a gang war; and Loki turns out to really stink as a king.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

Gold Key often used photo covers for their TV adaptations. Fortunately, for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, they opted to go for far superior painted covers.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Saturday Sale


During the first half of the 20th century, radio’s hunger for captivating characters and stories could not be sated. Three national networks and dozens of independent stations had to fill a vast expanse of air time with comedy, adventure, mystery, drama and music, night after night. It’s no surprise that producers and writers looked to outside sources, drawing some of old-time radio’s most beloved characters (Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Hopalong Cassidy, Buck Rogers) directly from books.

This work examines individual characters that jumped from prose to radio and a number of programs that specialized in dramatizing literature. It covers mystery and detective shows, adventure stories, westerns, and science fiction, and anthology shows that adapted novels by such greats as Twain, Steinbeck and Dickens. The text explores how the writers and producers approached the source material--what they changed, what they kept and what they left out.

"a new and most welcome contribution to the literature of the genre...a lively and entertaining read.... Fans of old time radio will savor DrForest’s attention to detail, accuracy and impressive research"--Scarlet; "ought to be on every vintage radio collector’s bookshelf"--The Old Radio Times; "a delightful read"--SPERDVAC Radiogram.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

X Minus One: “A Pail of Air” 3/28/56

In this superb adaptation of Fritz Lieber’s short story, a family of four survives even after the Earth is ripped from its orbit. They bring frozen air into their shelter in pails to thaw out—hence the title.

This beautiful episode is a tribute to the value of life and a determination to survive in the face of hopelessness.

Click HERE to listen or download. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pirates, Cossacks and Cossacks who are Pirates

I’ve written about Harold Lamb’s Cossack stories before—many of which had never been reprinted until a four-book anthology was published a few years ago. So I’ve never had a chance to read a bunch of these before. I’m enjoying every single one of them.

Take the novella “Mark of Astrakhan.”(from the Nov. 20, 1925 issue of Adventure) It’s told in the first person by a 17th Century Cossack named Barbakosta, who lives in a remote hut on the steppes. One winter day, a he runs across a guy in soaking wet clothes, whom he brings to his hut for warmth and food.

The guy’s name is Mark and he’s from Virginia of all places. He ended up in Russia after a career as a buccaneer eventually got him captured by the Spanish and sold to the Turks. He escaped from a Turkish galley after the vessel sunk.

Both men speak Turkish, so they are able to communicate and strike up a friendship, especially after Mark defends Barbakosta’s hut from Tatar bandits.

The two eventually travel to the city of Astrakhan, where Mark takes a job as artilleryman in the Russian military. There’s a need for trained soldiers, since it’s rumored that the Cossack pirate Stenka Razin may be attacking the city.

But the local governor of the city soon learns that you can’t depend on soldiers you haven’t paid for a year while you hold elaborate and expensive parties in your mansion.

The two protagonists are captured by the pirates when the city inevitably falls. They might have gotten away if they had still been on their own. But by now, there is a girl involved—the niece of a Roundhead soldier who fled England after Cromwell’s regime fell and also ended up serving in the Russian military. The need to save himself, Barbakosta and the girl leads Mark to challenge the pirate leader to a drinking bout, followed by a shooting match.

So far, all this has made for a great story. But Barbakosta’s unpretentious first person narration gives the tale a snap and a sense of personality that makes you wish you had an excuse to read it aloud to someone. Plot twists come along at a furious pace and the tale builds up to an exhilarating climax when the two friends (and the girl) end up working for Stenka Razin to defend Astrakhan against a large Persian fleet. 

Much of the novella is built around the pirate leader—a man capable of acts of horrible brutality, but who can still appreciate loyalty and bravery; a man who can inspire devotion in his followers and lead from the front when the come into battle, but can still sometimes act on whims that place those followers in grave danger. For much of the story, he’s the nominal bad guy and we get several brutal examples of just how murderous he can sometimes be. But one of the several pleasurable aspects of the novella is how the plot twists slowly morphs our point-of-view until we get to the point where we’re really rooting for this guy.

But the novella is primarily Mark’s story. Lamb’s yarns would often involve an outsider thrust into a strange culture, using his wits and his fighting skills to think or battle his way out of dangerous situations. “Mark of Astrakhan” is a fine example of this.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Touring Europe with a Ghost and an Armored Fighting Vehicle

From the 1950s through the early 80s, DC had no shortage of non-superpowered World War II characters—all of which (I believe) were created by writer Bob Kanigher. Sgt. Rock slogged through the mud of the Europe, leading Easy Company into bloody combat again and again. Johnny Cloud piloted his P-51 Mustang against the Luftwaffe. Captain Storm commanded a PT Boat in the Pacific, while marines Gunner and Sarge fought amidst the steaming tropical jungles of that same ocean. (Of course, Cloud, Storm, Gunner and Sarge eventually teamed up as the commando team called the Losers.)

Then there was the Haunted Tank. I love the idea of the Haunted Tank. Lt. Jeb Stuart, the namesake of the famous Confederate cavalry general, becomes commander of a Stuart tank (also named after the general.) He then discovers that his tank is actually haunted by General Stuart, who appears only to Jeb to deliver cryptic advice. Jeb then inevitably figures out the advice in the nick of time to save his tank and accomplish his mission.

In early Haunted Tank stories, Kanigher never infused the characters with the same level of personality he had managed with Sgt. Rock. Jeb’s three crewmates, Arch, Rick and Slim, were pretty much ciphers with nothing beyond their names to individualize them. The stories are still good, though. Jeb was likable enough and the art usually by Joe Kubert or Russ Heath was superb. Often the stories seemed to be deliberately structured to showcase the art—one early issue has Jeb taking his tank up a pile of rubble to the second floor of a bombed out building, where he then picked off a Tiger Tank from above. Not terribly realistic, but Joe Kubert made it look too cool for school.

Around 1973, Archie Goodwin became editor of the DC war comics and began to feature multi-issue story arcs. I’ve written in the past about the Sgt. Rock and Losers stories. This time around, we’ll see what the Haunted Tank was up to during this time.

Goodwin himself took over as writer on G.I. Combat (the home of the Haunted Tank) for about a year and a half, with Sam Glanzman doing the art. By this time, the old Stuart tank had been destroyed and Jeb was commanding a bigger tank built from the scraps of armored vehicles that had been lost in combat.

Goodwin managed to give Jeb’s crewmates more personality (most notably assistant gunner Arch Asher, who receives a “Dear John” letter from his wife in Goodwin’s first issue). Then the Haunted Tank is sent off on an ill-conceived and dangerous mission, leading a column of tanks and trucks deep behind enemy lines to liberate a prison camp. (Goodwin was basing this on an actual historical event.)

Things go from bad to worse. The mission is a failure and the Haunted Tank ends up trapped behind enemy lines, forced to run east away from their own lines to avoid the Germans, raiding fuel depots along the way to get the diesel they need to keep going.

They are joined by Gus Gray, an escapee from the prison camp and a former Olympic athlete. Another “prisoner” turns out to be a German spy. They narrowly escape one attempt to trap them only to roll into another, this time led by a German officer who is haunted by the ghost of an ancient Goth warrior. One of the crew is killed saving the others, while General Stuart and the Goth battle sword against axe in the sky above them all.

The whole multi-issue arc turns into an Odyssey for the Haunted Tank, as they fight or sneak their way into Yugoslavia. They make it to a port, where a Greek cargo ship takes them on, only to have the ship’s captain enlist their aid in his obsession to hunt down a particular German U-Boat. Finally, they are shipwrecked on a Greek island and captured by a German officer with a grudge against Gus, who beat him out for a gold medal at the ’36 Olympics.

When the Haunted Tank manages to make it to Allied lines inside Italy, Jeb falls in love, watches his love die when she steps on a land mine and becomes involved in a cycle of revenge with the German officer who planted the mine field.

Despite the inherent unreality of a lone tank fighting its way across German-occupied Europe, the entire epic is very solidly plotted. The action scenes are extremely intense and it’s all helped along by Glanzman’s realistic portrayal of vehicles and equipment. Goodwin was an excellent writer and borrowed Kanigher’s characters just long enough to construct a truly epic war story. It deals effectively with issues like loyalty, duty, revenge and honor, all without ever losing sight of the need to entertain the reader.

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