Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Jeff Regan: “The Lady with Too Much Hair” 11/6/48

Regan’s job is to spot a red-headed guy coming out of a house in order to recognize him later on if needed, then take a long-lost daughter out to dinner and watch out for her.  He’s not entirely sure what it's all about and it becomes even more confusing when the red-head is murdered during his dinner date.

What follows is an entertainingly convoluted story with a couple of neat twists at the end.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Devil's Horns

During the 1920s and 1930s, corrupt towns run by dishonest politicians and mobsters were as much a problem in the pulp magazine universe as they were in real life. In fact, several of the best known heroes of the era each had the job of cleaning up such a town.

Dashiell Hammett’s unnamed operative from the Continental Detective Agency was one. In what is arguably the best crime novel of the 1920s (Red Harvest), the Continental Op cleans up a dirty town by turning the various mobs there against each other—feeding them partial information, various half-truths and outright lies until the bullets began to fly and the mobsters began to fall.

 If we jump ahead to 1934, we find Simon Templar (aka The Saint) being offered one million dollars to clean up the New York City mobs. Simon takes the job, then openly challenges the mobsters by assassinating one of them. He follows this up by stealing a small fortune in bribe money from a judge who’s on the take and continues to cause trouble in a number of other ways while dodging hitmen. He works his way up the mob’s chain of command, looking to identify their secret boss and bring the whole organization down. (The Saint in New York.)

In 1939, Richard Benson (aka the Avenger) takes on the job of cleaning up Ashton City. Interestingly, he’s brought to the city by Oliver Groman, the political boss who has been running the rackets in the town for decades. Groman is getting old and suffering from the effects of a stroke. He’s reformed because of this and wants to make up for his old sins.

And if you are going to call in someone to clean up a corrupt town, there are few choices better than the Avenger. Benson is a unique pulp hero even among the gazillion or so vigilantes who inhabited the pulp magazines. A brilliant inventor, scientist and explorer, he suffered an emotional shock when his wife and daughter were murdered. This shock turned his face and hair a deathly white, killing the nerves so that he is perpetually expressionless. But this also means that the skin of his face can be molded into different shapes. With the help of wigs and make-up, this makes Benson a master of disguise.

He uses his wealth to form Justice, Inc and builds up a small group of loyal followers (most of whom had also lost people to criminal violence). Smitty is a huge and incredibly strong man who doesn’t look very smart, but is in fact a brilliant electrical engineer. Mac is one of the world’s foremost chemists as well as a tenacious hand-to-hand fighter. Nellie Gray is small and petite, but also a judo expert. Josh and Rosabel Newton are articulate, intelligent and brave—but use the fact that they are black to play off the racism of the time and get the bad guys to consistently underestimate them.

The Avenger first appeared on the newsstands in 1939 and ran a couple of dozen issues before the magazine was cancelled.  The hero appeared in a few short stories as back-up features in other magazines for a short time after that. So Benson didn’t find the same commercial success as the Shadow or Doc Savage (though he was, in fact, a deliberate amalgam of those two characters), but his adventures were strongly plotted tales of action and mystery. They were written by pulp veteran Paul Ernst, using the pen name Kenneth Robeson--the same pen name used for the Doc Savage stories, leaving the false impression that the adventures of both heroes were recorded by the same guy.

In The Devil’s Horns (December 1939), Benson is called to Ashton City by Oliver Groman to clean up the town. Almost immediately, a trio of thugs try to gun him down. This does work out well for the thugs.

Benson begins to investigate. The agents of Justice, Inc are given various assignments to gather information. It’s soon learned that a group of five men are currently running the rackets. Four of them are at least tentatively identified, but the identity of the fifth—the boss of the group—is unknown.

In the meantime, Smitty is framed for murder, Nellie and Rosabel are kidnapped by mobsters and Mac is nearly offed by a mob gunman. But the agents stick tenaciously to their jobs and Benson begins to collate the various clues. These clues include the words “devil’s horns,” written in blood by a dying man. That strange phrase turns out to be the most vital clue of all.

The mini-adventures of Benson’s agents are, in fact, one of the strengths of the Avenger novels. Though Benson is the main protagonist, writer Paul Ernst never forgets that the other members of Justice, Inc. are pretty cool in their own rights. He presents them as capable, brave and intelligent—doing their share to bring the bad guys down.

The mystery elements of the story progress logically, leading up to a nifty twist at the end. And the action scenes—most notably a sequence in which Mac and Smitty rescue the two girls from a mob-controlled nightclub—are a lot of fun; especially when Smitty rips a reinforced door off its hinges and uses it as a shield against bullets. Eveything culminates in a deserted warehouse, where the bad guys have Benson, Smitty and Mac trapped in a room about to be pumped full of poison gas.  But Benson, as usually, is two or three steps ahead of the villains.

The Devil’s Horns is not the true classic that Red Harvest is; and The Saint in New York is a bit more fun; but it’s a solidly entertaining yarn nonetheless.

So if you ever need to clean up a corrupt town, see if you can’t hire the Continental Detective Agency and ask for… oh, heck, Hammett never does tell us his name, does he?  Well, then you can hire the Saint---if you have a spare million dollars lying around.

If that exceeds your town-cleaning budget, then give Richard Benson a call. He’ll do the job for free and, by golly, he’ll do it well. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Well, he wasn’t really. Desperate to complete the escape rocket before Krypton explodes, he needs a live subject to test a prototype. Baby Kal-el’s puppy Krypto was the only animal available. So I guess we have to cut him a break, but isn’t that image of Kal-el sobbing when his puppy is taken away downright heartbreaking?

Anyway, in Adventure Comics #210 (March 1955),Krypto’s rocket is knocked into deep space by a meteor and eventually ends up on Earth. (In fact, he lands near Smallville. What are the odds of that happening?)

 Krypto’s grown into a full-sized dog by then, but (despite a measure of super-intelligence) his dog-like tendencies are soon causing Superboy no end of trouble.

That pretty much defines the story—Krypto causes trouble and Superboy has to fix things. Otto Binder was the perfect writer for this—his quirky sense of humor is what makes this story work.

It ends with Krypto flying off into space to romp around the “backyard” of the universe.

But the idea of a super-powered dog will turn out to be too cool to ignore. Krypto will show up on Earth again from time to time, becoming a founding member of the Legion of Super Pets and often flying through the time barrier to spend time in the 30th Century.

I don’t care how silly it is—Krypto is a fantastic idea and one of my favorite additions to Superman’s mythology. I know the Super Pets tip the Suspension of Disbelief scales for some readers, but I just love the idea.  Who wouldn’t want a loyal dog with heat vision? Okay, yes, his tendency to rip planes out of the air when he’s feeling playful could be construed as a serious problem, but any pet owner knows you have to take the occasional bad with the good if you own a pet that loves you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

New book on Superman

There's a new book out on the history of Superman. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but based on this excellent interview with the author, it sounds informative and a lot of fun.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

If I had to pick a favorite cover artist from the Golden Age of paperbacks, it might very well be Roy Krenkel. His work is always both action-oriented and very atmospheric.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Sherlock Holmes: "The Remarkable Affair of the Pointless Robbery" 5/5/47

Here's a story set during Holmes' retirement, when he was keeping bees in the country just before World War I. But there is no rest for the World's Greatest Detective. While Watson is visiting, there's a robbery attempt at a house that doesn't contain any valuables.

But Holmes soon deduces the reason for the robbery--and the involvement of an old enemy.

It's a good, solid story. Several elements make it noteworthy. A scene in which Watson is distracted from the business at hand by a picture of a bathing beauty is hilareous. And Holmes' ruthless method of dealing with the villain near the climax is striking but still completely in character.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Poul Anderson is probably my favorite writer of hard science fiction (he was equally adept at fantasy, by the way) and his Technic Civilization future history is well-constructed and used as the basis for a admirable variety of adventure stories.

Take The Rebel Worlds (1969), for instance, which recounts a chronologically early adventure of Dominic Flandry, an Intelligence officer serving a vast interstellar empire.

Anderson created Flandry in 1951, intending him to be a science fiction analogue to Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar. (He’s also been justifiably compared to James Bond, though he was created two years before 007 first appeared in Casino Royale.)

He’s a cynical womanizer willing to use ruthless and often unethical methods to get his job done, but he turns out to be the good guy anyways. Flandry recognizes that the Empire is decaying. He knows that when it falls, a violent Dark Age will inflict itself on literally thousands of inhabited worlds. So he does what he can—no matter what that might be—to stave off the inevitable Long Night.

In The Rebel Worlds, the sadistic and power hungry governor of a remote sector is about to be reported by his top general. So he has the general—and the general’s beautiful wife—arrested. The general’s loyal officers spring him from the slammer and declare him Emperor. He has no choice but to go along—he certainly can’t allow a decadent Emperor to continue to rule—not while that Emperor allows swine like the governor to abuse power, murdering and enslaving to line his own pockets.

But there’s no chance to rescue his wife, who remains a personal prisoner of the governor.

Flandry is given command of a small warship and an independent commission to investigate and perhaps head off what would be a devastating civil war. He uses a broad interpretation of his orders to sneak Kathryn—the general’s wife—away from the governor. He has a half-formed plan to use her to negotiate with the rebels, but things go awry when his ship is shot down and he crashes on a rebel-held world.

But Flandry might just have a plan to turn certain defeat into victory. If only this plan wasn’t hindered by the fact that he was falling in love with Kathryn.

Flandry is in an interesting quandary. He loathes the governor because of his mistreatment (to phrase it far too mildly) of Kathryn and won’t turn her back over to him no matter what. He sympathizes with the motives of the rebels, but knows that a civil war would bring the Empire down no matter who won. If Kathryn’s husband won the throne and ruled well, he’ll still have established a precedent for any other discontented general to do the same thing. That would be the end of stability and the beginning of the Long Night. So, no matter what, the rebels have to be stopped.

It all allows for some powerfully emotional character moments woven expertly into the action-adventure plot. I especially like the character of Kathryn, who is intelligent, capable and completely loyal to her husband even when presented with some severe temptations to act otherwise.

Poul Anderson had a talent for creating self-consistent alien worlds—inhabited by species whose biology and culture made sense in context to that world. Often, his stories would center around the human protagonists deducing some aspect of the alien culture or psychology in order to complete their mission or save themselves from danger. “The Man Who Counts” (1958—titled War of the Wing-Men in later printings) is perhaps my favorite example of this.

In The Rebel Worlds, Anderson comes up with an interesting race that inhabits the planet on which Flandry and is crew is stranded. Each “individual” in this race is actually three separate species—each one of limited intelligence alone, but who become a tool-using intelligent being when symbiotically joined together.  In fact, the different components can join up in different combinations, making a variety of “individual” persons with a wide-range of memories and skills.

This time, the aliens are mostly a side-issue rather than the main focus of the story. But all the same, Flandry might just be able to make use of this unique race as part of a clever plan to stop the rebellion without sacrificing the woman he loves.

The Rebel Worlds is enjoyable and intelligent science fiction; a book that presents a hard-science setting without sacrificing very human characterizations. Anderson’s view of history was that it is cyclical—that civilizations rise and give stability and safety for a time, then fall into chaos until something else rises up to take its place. It’s a view that his Technic future history is very much built upon and he used this premise to construct some truly engrossing stories. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: August 1970


Last time, I mentioned that I thought Jack Kirby’s work at Marvel remained strong right up until he left. I still think that’s true, but everybody misses the mark a little from time-to-time. In this issue, the FF goes up against the Mob (well, the Maggia--but that’s pretty much what the Mob’s called in the Marvel Universe).

And, heck, when you usually fight madmen in power armor, shape-changing aliens, indestructible androids and killer insect-men from an anti-matter dimension, then a legbreaker with a tommy gun really doesn’t seem to be much of a threat. The main problem with this story is that the bad guys get a lot closer to taking out the FF than they ever should.

All the same, it’s still an enjoyable story. The Maggia has bought the Baxter Building and started proceedings to evict the Fantastic Four, planning to snatch up all of Reed’s inventions afterwards (why Reed wouldn’t just relocate his stuff is not adequately dealt with).  But an overeager Maggia operative amps up the violence against our heroes too quickly. Using a few secret weapons, the operative and his thugs nearly take out the FF, but in the end, they lose.

Yes, I know the image is sideways! For some reason, I can't fix it--so just go with it.
Jack makes it all look cool and the script gives both Sue and Crystal some great action moments. This is something that had become increasingly frequent in Marvel Comics as time went by. In the early 1960s, Stan Lee had often been reluctant to allow the female superheroes to really mix it up in fights against the villains. But some good character development and changing social mores had apparently made him more open to this. By 1970, the ladies of the Marvel Universe were often kicking butt and taking names.

So it’s not a bad one-shot story. I guess it falls under the same category that other merely average Fantastic Four stories end up in: When you are surrounded by greatness, being “pretty good” just doesn’t seem that impressive.


This is a classic issue. And what’s interesting about its status as a classic is that it has no villain and very little action. Actually, this might be yet another case where a new reader—unfamiliar with the Spider Man mythos—might be a bit bored. But for those who had been following along with Peter for awhile, it’s an issue filled with sharp characterizations that really move things along. Despite the lack of traditional action, there’s no pacing problems here. Everything stays interesting from start to finish.

Peter’s powers keep fading as he also grows feverish. Deciding he’s lost his powers and can no longer be Spider Man, he decides to come clean with Gwen.

But having an important discussion with the woman you love while half-delirious with fever is never a good idea. If any of my readers are getting ready to reveal their secret identities to their wives/girlfriends, remember these important bits of advice:

a)      Don’t do it while you are incapable of coherent thought due to illness, and

b)      Don’t do it while your gal’s dad and other innocent bystanders are listening.

Peter’s announcement leaves everyone confuses. Was he telling the truth? Has he taken a trip to Crazy Town? What makes it even more legitimately confusing for everyone is an incident Harry remembers hearing about: Way back in Spider Man #12, Spider Man had been caught and publically unmasked by Doctor Octopus. But no one really believed Peter was Spider Man; they thought he was posing as Spidey to get close enough to take pictures. Does that mean Peter is pulling something similar now?

This group confusion is handled well and everyone involved stays in character. Gwen gets a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming when she announces she’s sticking by Peter no matter what.

It’s too bad Pete isn’t around to hear that. Growing weaker, he puts his costume back on and stumbles into a hospital just before he faints. A doctor wins the Coolest One-Shot Character of 1970 Award by treating Spidey without taking off his mask. And it turns out that all Peter had was a really bad case of the flu, which he shakes off via Spider Strength once he gets a few hours rest.

As soon as he’s out of the hospital, he contacts Hobie Brown (aka the Prowler) and cashes in a big favor. (Peter asking Hobie for a favor while wearing a web mask because he has to give Hobie his Spidey suit is a fun image.)

Soon, Peter is back at Gwen’s house, explaining that he was sick and delirious. Hobie—posing as Spider Man—puts in an appearance, confirming that he and Peter are partners who split the take on Peter’s photos. Everybody (possibly excepting Captain Stacy) buys into this.

I’ve always been a little torn between thinking this ending to the story was a little contrived or if it’s a plan that was just audacious enough to work. Reading this issue again with an eye towards writing about it has pushed me firmly over into the “audacious” camp. The incident—in addition to playing off something left over from Hobie’s appearance a few issues back—fits into the feel of the comic book as a whole. It really does come across as something that might just fool even very smart people.

That’s it for August. Next week, we return to the Weisinger-era Superman Universe to discover that Jor-el was actually a mean daddy.  Then, in September 1970, the Fantastic Four will borrow a villain from the X-Men for Jack Kirby’s swan song, while Spider Man will fight yet another rematch against his most deadly enemy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The latest addition to my YouTube channel

Some day--SOME DAY--I'll get through 4 minutes of narration without stumbling over a sentence.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

I don't think I've done any paperback covers before. But I'll start tossing them in every once in awhile. This is a very effective Frazetta cover from on the Edgar Rice Burroughs reprints that Ace Books was churning out back in the 1960s.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Favorite Story: “The Phantom Rickshaw” 2/28/48

William Conrad is excellent in the lead role of this effective adaptation of Kipling’s classic ghost story.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

He's Back!


Ralph Byrd was the original screen Dick Tracy, playing the famous detective in four Republic serials from 1937 to 1941. In 1947, he returned to the role when he replaced Morgan Conway in the RKO B-movie series. And now he’d get to play Tracy as Tracy was meant to be played—as a big city homicide cop. The serials, though quite good for what they were, “upgraded” Tracy to a federal agent, taking him out of his proper milieu. The RKO films put him back where he belonged.

In Dick Tracy’s Dilemma, there’s also a new Tess Trueheart (Kay Christopher) and a new director—a B-movie vet named John Rawlins.  But there’s still a lot of continuity to link it to the Conway films, including Lyle Lattel as Pat Patton and Ian Keith earning some good laughs as Vitamin Flintheart.

The main link to the previous Tracy films, though, is the visual style. The directors of the first two films—William Berke and Gordon Douglass—had given their Tracy films the sort of gritty noir style that the filmmakers at RKO used to do so well. On this film, John Rawlins does the same thing, effectively using light and shadow to give Dick Tracy’s  Dilemma a very hard-boiled ambiance. Of particular note here is the finale, in which Tracy pursues the villain through a dark junk yard.

The villain this time around is a thug called The Claw because because he has a hook in place of his right hand. John Lambert, who played many a thug in his career, gives the Claw an aura of brutality and violence that makes him an effective and downright creepy bad guy.

The story itself is yet another well-plotted procedural, with Tracy logically following up clues after the Claw and a couple of other thugs steal some fur coats and murder a night watchman. At one point, for instance, the Claw is interrupted by the cops while trying to use a pay phone. He gets away, but Tracy notices the scratches on the phone dial from the Claw’s claw. This allows him to deduce the phone number and eventually track down the mastermind behind the Claw’s crimes.

It’s all good, solid storytelling, adding up to what many consider to be the best film in the RKO series.

Before long, we’ll take a look (actually, a return look) at the last film in the series, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome—one that many consider to be the weakest. But it’s my favorite and—since it’s a well-established fact that anyone who disagrees with me is wrong—then it simply MUST be the best of the series.  I’ll concede, though, that Dick Tracy’s Dilemma comes in a close second.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: July 1970


Stan and Jack celebrate 100 issues of the Fantastic Four by giving us a wonderfully entertaining fight scene.

Which pretty much summarizes the entire issue. The story here is pretty basic—the FF (including Crystal in a small continuity error—since she said last issue she’d have to stay at the Great Refuge for awhile) are flying home after visiting the Inhumans. Their ship is shot down over a remote island, where they are attacked by nearly everybody they’ve ever fought. Doctor Doom—the Frightful Four—Diablo—Dragon Man—the Submariner—Red Ghost and his Super Apes—and so on—all jump them either singly or in groups.

Reed soon figures out that their opponents are androids. They are actually the work of the Mad Thinker and the Puppet Master, who are working together to make perfect android duplicates of the FF’s Rogue’s Gallery.

This story really allows Jack to go to town. I recently ran across a comment that by this time, Jack Kirby was marking time at Marvel and saving a lot of his really great ideas for when he went to DC. There may be some truth in this, but both FF and Thor included great stories and strong art right up until Kirby’s departure. And, heck, the Skrulls-pretending-to-be-mobsters story arc from a few issues ago was seriously awesome.

I think he was too much of a pro to do anything other than top-notch work. Also, even second-tier ideas from a man who was pretty much made of imagination are probably going to be better ideas than most of us will ever have.

Even here, where we have an issue where the story is just an excuse to give us a huge fight scene--Jack Kirby still makes sure it’s a great fight scene.

In the end, Thinker and Puppet Master try to make a Hulk and do too good a job. The ersatz Hulk trashes their lab and the FF escape from the island. It’s all a fitting tribute to nearly a decade of epic storytelling.

There’s one other mistake that doesn’t effect the quality of the story, but it’s kind of fun to point out. Reed sees the Androids they are fighting are mechanical contrivances and deduces the Puppet Master is involved. Neither he nor the rest of the team ever realize the Thinker is also involved.

But the Puppet Master doesn’t make androids—that’s the Thinker’s shtick. The Puppet Master makes clay puppets that allow him to mind control people. Reed seems to have been a bit confused there.

In fact, I don’t think story was completely clear on how the Thinker and P.M. were combining their abilities. Was the Thinker building androids and using the Puppet Master’s clay to form the bodies? There’s no mind control involved in the plot, so exactly what was the Puppet Master contributing to the whole plan? I think Lee and Kirby actually might have gotten a bit mixed up as to what villain did what when they were plotting out this particular tale.

But I’m actually taking up far more space nitpicking than this issue deserves. The fight is too grand a spectacle to allow such details to spoil the fun. 


We are re-introduced to the Black Widow in this issue.

Natasha’s been around for awhile now—appearing way back in Tales of Suspense #52, spying on Tony Stark for the Soviets. At first, she was a swanky femme fatale, but this is a comic book universe, so she gradually morphed into an Action Girl.

By now, she’s long since defected to the U.S. and become a good guy. This issue of Spider Man was used to introduce her modernized look—for the first time, she puts on the skin tight black suit that amped up her “Hubba Hubba” factor by several levels of magnitudes.

She’s looking for a way to be useful and decides to go after Spider Man. The story is actually a little bit weak here—her motivation is to learn the “secret” of Spidey’s power and add it to her own. It almost makes her come across as a villain, which is clearly not the intent here. Besides, how the heck does beating the snot out of Spider Man help you learn any secrets he might have? It might have been better if (as was the case with Quicksilver a few issues back) she just decided to bring Spidey in because she thought he was a crook.

The two have a fight, in which Spidey notices he’s not as fast and strong as he usually is. But the fight is a draw and the Widow realizes that her plan was dumb as she swings off.

This is all perfectly good stuff. There’s nothing wrong with guest starring a character in a popular book to generate interest in that character—as long as the story is a good one and it doesn't force you to buy another series to finish up that story. And it would have been perfectly acceptable if Stan Lee and John Romita took time out from regular continuity to do a single issue Black Widow story.

But Stan and John manage to weave the Black Widow fight into the book’s continuity and even use it to help advance the story line. Peter’s concerns that his powers are waning is something that will culminate in a major plot twist next issue.

And there’s still a few scenes involving Gwen. She sees Peter with bruises on his face (left over from his tussle with Kingpin last issue) and assumes that Spider Man is responsible. This increases the tension that already exists from Peter’s efforts to keep his superhero identity a secret. And this will also tie into the sub-plot involving Peter’s reduction in his powers. It all adds up to thoughtful and well-constructed storytelling.

That’s it for July. In August 1971, the FF gets muscled by the Mob and Spider Man reveals his secret identity to… well, everybody.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

Nice use of perspective on this one, with the "camera" looking slightly upward at the action. It really enhances the sense of danger.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Gunsmoke: “Dutch George” 11/20/55

An old friend of Matt Dillon’s now runs a large-scale horse-theft operation, but Dillon is determined to bring him in anyway.  But a victim of the horse thief may have his own ideas on how to go about this.

Click HERE to listen or download. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Dragons fighting for Men and Men fighting for Dragons

I love the bizarre but internally self-consistent societies—both human and alien—that Jack Vance builds into his science fiction novels and short stories.

Take The Dragon Masters, for instance. This novella, first published in Galaxy Magazine in 1962, is my personal favorite Vance story.

It’s set on the planet Aerlith, a rocky and desolate place inhabited by what may be the last remaining humans in the galaxy. They live in small kingdoms, located in valleys where the soil is thick enough to grow crops.

Aerlith gets raided from time to time by a reptilian race called the Basics, with much of their population being taken into slavery and their settlements bombarded severely. These regular setbacks prevent them from developing beyond a more-or-less pre-industrial society. The humans taken by the Basics are bred into a variety of sub-species with a variety of shapes, sizes and intelligence levels. The Basics uses these sub-species as soldiers.

But the last time the Basics raided, a particularly bold military leader captured some of them. The Basics are kept as slaves themselves and the humans then do their own selective breeding, coming up with a variety of fighting creatures with a nifty mixture of names, shapes and sizes: Termagants, Juggers, Blue Horrors, Long-Horned Murderers, Fiends and so on. These creatures supplement their fangs, claws and pincers with axes, swords and maces.

That’s the situation as it stands when the novella’s protagonist—Joak Banbeck—finds himself between a rock and a hard place. One of his neighbors is at war with him and he’s convinced the Basics are due for a return visit soon. And then there’s the sacerdotes, a species of ascetic humans who just might have the resources Joak needs to fight the more advanced Basics. But the isolationist sacerdotes have their own agenda that doesn’t necessarily involve helping to save the rest of the human race.

There’s a lot going on in this story, but Vance’s clear prose and skillful storytelling skills move things along briskly without ever leaving us behind. Joak, an intelligent and (when he has to be) ruthless leader, is a strong protagonist. Vance does an impressive job of world-building with Aerlith, creating a downright fascinating combination of cultures.

Of course, I’m writing for a blog whose name includes the phrase “cool stuff,” so I’m naturally drawn to concentrate my attention on the specially-bred warriors used by the humans and the Basics. Because—let’s face it--those guys are really, really cool!

The different sub-species have different combat-oriented skill sets, so important tactical decisions involve choosing when and how to use—say—your large-sized Fiends as opposed to your man-sized Termagents.  And when Joak is fighting his human enemy, the tactics he uses have to be much different than when he fights the Basics, whose sort-of human soldiers have heat-rays and blast projectors.

This all makes for some wonderfully original battle scenes. These action set pieces are both fantastically exciting and completely unique.

Yes, The Dragon Masters is intelligent science fiction with a well-constructed plot, strong characterizations and clever world-building, but I have to say it’s my favorite Vance novel because of those magnificent battle sequences. Heck, if Mr. Vance had wanted me to talk about how good he is at all that other stuff, then he wouldn’t have given me scenes where giant axe-wielding reptiles go hand-to-hand against super-strong human soldiers armed with heat-rays and swords. Of course that’s what’s going to catch my attention. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

It's not bad to be haunted if the ghost is on YOUR side.

Its not surprising that a book like Weird War Tales would eventually appear on the market. War stories and horror tales really aren't that far apart. In both genres, the main characters have to suffer violent death or some other hideous fate--or at least be threatened with it--in order to move the plot along. So perhaps the two genres go together naturally. They certainly did in the best Weird War stories.

DC's Weird War series from the 1970s was an anthology book. Like most such books, it was somewhat uneven--it certainly had its share of weak stories. It took soldiers--usually just average ground-pounders--and threw them into situations featuring supernatural or science fiction elements. Most of the stories were set in World War II, though an occasional foray farther into the past or into the future was not unusual. Usually, there were two or three short stories per issue, though occasionally one story would be book-length. The series also had some of the consistently best cover illustrations of the decade.

The 14th issue (June 1973) was one of the book-length ones. Featuring clean, solid art by Tony DeZuniga, it starts off at Pearl Harbor, just before the Japanese attack. An American Army Sergeant named McBride discovers his Japanese wife (named Tsuko) has been kidnapped by her father. The father always disapproved of the marriage to an American. Rushing to the father's export-business warehouse, McBride finds the place deserted. The dad confronts him with a pistol and the news that Tsuko has been taken to his yacht to go back to Japan.

McBride jumps the father and two shots ring out. The next thing the soldier knows, he's standing over his own body (Tsuko's dad is dead as well.) Death comes for him, but outside the attack on Pearl Harbor has begun. Yelling that he still has a job to do, McBride runs away from Death.

Soon, poor Tsuko is killed as well, giving her life to save an American pilot from Japanese guns. Are the two young lovers separated forever? Well, one of the many soldiers saved by mysterious appearances of either McBride or his wife during the course of the war is convinced that they are eventually reunited.

It's a good, well-plotted ghost story with several sincerely eerie moments, given added verisimilitude by little details that help set each successive chapter at definite point in real-life World War II history. DeZuniga, who would soon be bringing weirdness to the Old West via the original Jonah Hex stories, also takes care to portray uniforms, equipment and weapons accurately. (Though he does show a Japanese sailor with an American hand grenade on his belt. Oh, well.)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

The Rawhide Kid simply needs to stay away from cliff edges. They never seem to work out for him.

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