Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mr. Savage Goes to Washington

It’s interesting to note the difference between Marvel's Western heroes and those who lived in the DC Universe.

Marvel's gunslingers (who, for simplicity's sake, I will refer to as Marvels) were basically superheroes. They didn't have superpowers, but were pretty much all fast draws and nearly unbeatable in a hand-to-hand brawl. Most had code names: Rawhide Kid, Kid Colt, Phantom Rider. Several of them--such as Two Gun Kid--had secret identities.

Also, the Marvels would--through the occasional time travel story--openly interact with present day Marvel superheroes. Both the original and the West Coast Avengers spent time in the Old West, working alongside the Western heroes to foil villains such as Kang the Conqueror.

Even when on their own, the Marvels would sometimes go up against the odd superpowered threat. Rawhide Kid, for instance, once fought an alien invader that looked like a walking totem pole.

Over in DC, the Western heroes they had during the '40s and '50s had largely faded away after the resurgence of superhero comics. But in the 1970s, DC began introducing new characters into their version of the Old West. Scarred bounty hunter Jonah Hex was the best of these, but others (El Diablo, Bat Lash, Scalphunter) were also worth reading about.

DC's Old West was more "realistic" than Marvel, influenced more by Sergio Leone than by superheroes. (In fact, if Jonah Hex had been made into a movie in the 1970s, Clint Eastwood would literally been the only possible actor who could have played him.) They were gritty and violent--with these traits balanced out by three-dimensional characterizations and solid writing.

Neither approach to the Old West--DC or Marvel--is better than the other. Both produced many entertaining stories. But today we'll look a little more closely at one of DC's efforts.

Weird Western Tales 52 & 53 (from 1979) featured Scalphunter. Scalphunter's real name was Brian Savage, a white man raised by the Kiowas and now an outcast from both societies. Written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Dick Ayers, it was typical of the sort of intelligent storytelling being done by DC within the Western genre at the time.

One of the interesting features of the Scalphunter stories was that they were set during the Civil War (rather than after, as most Westerns are). In these issues, Scalphunter is approached by smooth-talking gambler Bat Lash, who tells him they've both been invited to Washington by a beautiful Northern spy.

Once in the capital, though, they find they've become involved in a plot to kill President Lincoln. This sets the stage for a fast-moving conspiracy story in which the following happens: Bat Lash apparently double-crosses Scalphunter; a fun fight scene takes place atop (and then within) a half-finished Washington Monument; a last minute rescue or two is pulled off; and our protagonist and our 16th president engage in an arm-wrestling contest. And it's all done with a firm grasp of history--the leader of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln, for instance, is initially a surprise, but it actually does make historical sense when the motivations are explained. The skillful writing is complemented nicely by Dick Ayers' art, with the action sequences all choreographed effectively.

We never really seem to tire of stories set in the Old West--it seems to be the perfect setting for believably combining the realistic with the mythological. Today, DC has once again given Jonah Hex his own book, while the Marvel gunslingers still pop up from time to time. In one way or another, the cowboy always seems to remain with us.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

This is actually representative of an average day in the life of the Shadow.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Gunsmoke: “Gunshot Wound” 10/14/56

Three good men are caught up in a cycle of violence and revenge. Matt wants to stop anyone from being killed, but circumstances leave him helpless to do anything.

This is the sort of strong, character-driven episode at which Gunsmoke excelled.

Click HERE to listen or download. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Who's side is he on this time?

Read/Watch ‘em in order #25

In the first Mr. Moto novel, he was an adversary. But in Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936), he’s an ally to the main character.

How did this happen? Well, this time out the protagonist and first-person narrator is Tom Nelson, a former lawyer who grew sick of the American rat race and moved to Peking. Now he just drifts through life, his favorite observation being “It doesn’t really matter, does it?”

But Nelson soon discovers that some things do matter. He becomes a target for assassination when it is believed that he has learned about the plans of a Chinese bandit named Wu Lu Feng to seize control of Peking. Feng is being backed by a militaristic faction of the Japanese government.

Mr. Moto shows up to fight against Feng and by default becomes an ally of Nelson. Moto defends the idea of Japanese imperialism, but he belongs to a faction that wants expansion to be slower and less violent.

Not that Nelson really cares about that. He just wants to avoid being killed and he also wants to look out for Eleanor Joyce—an American woman who also gets caught up in the intrigue. Along the way, Nelson is surprised to discover that Eleanor’s safety is more important to him than his own.

Author John Marquand weaves a complex but logical plot and his prose really invokes a vivid sense of atmosphere. Remember that these novels were written before Chinese culture had been much influenced by the West. To Marquand’s readers, the Far East was pretty close to being an alien world far beyond their understanding.  Marquand plays on these cultural differences to help generate danger and suspense. But he does so without resorting to stereotypes. The characters in the books are often enigmas to one another—sometimes completely baffled by actions or attitudes of each other—but they are all believable and three-dimensional characters.

Here’s an example of how Marquand’s evocative prose could really set the proper mood:

There is no place in the world as strange as Peking at night, when the darkness covers the city like a veil, and when incongruous and startling sights and sounds come to one out of that black. The gilded carved facades of shops, the swinging candle lanterns, the figures by the tables in the smoky yellow light of teahouses, the sound of song, the twanging of stringed instruments, the warm strange smell of soybean oil, all come out of nowhere to touch one elusively and are gone.

It’s a great setting for an adventure story, one in which Nelson, Moto, Eleanor and another character are eventually captured by the bandits. Nelson, by now, has pretty firmly found his backbone and takes the lead in an escape attempt—though his lack of familiarity with firearms nearly gets everyone killed at one point. With Moto politely pointing out the wisest course of action, though, they just might manage to get away. And when the dust settles, we might just be provided with yet another example of just how ruthless the supremely polite Mr. Moto can be when the situation requires it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: November 1970


Well, at least Stan and John Romita remembered to put enclosed helmets on the Atlantians while they’re out of the water this time---though there is still a scene where Sue and Dorma are tied up side-by-side without Dorma having a helmet (though a few panels later, she suddenly does).

But I’m done nitpicking about when and where Atlantians can  breath. This is the last issue of the FF we’ll look at in original order. So, though we are bound to look at individual story arcs in the future, we’ll bring this era to an end by saying good things.

And it is a good story. The action moves along briskly, with the level of tension kept high. Magneto, using Atlantian technology to amp up his powers, keeps the army at bay and manages to occupy New York City. Reed, Ben and Johnny retreat to the Baxter Building, where they are joined by Crystal (left behind last issue to handle communications). They fight off some Atlantian soldiers while Reed frantically builds a new device.

Namor, in the meantime, is pretending to consider rejoining Magneto in order to keep the villain busy. And Sue, despite being a hostage for most of the issue, gets some good moments as well when she makes an escape attempt. She’s forced to surrender only when Magneto threatens to kill Dorma.

Crystal gets some shots in as well—another example of how Stan Lee grew to use female characters much more proactively over the last decade.

Anyway, the device Reed builds is something that captures Magneto’s magnetic energy and funnels it back at him, trapping him inside a force field. This brings the threat (and the story arc) to an end. It actually seems a bit abrupt, though it’s all perfectly logical within the tenets of a comic book universe.


Gil Kane continues to do fantastic work while filling in for Romita on pencils. He really manages to give each of Doctor Octopus’ tentacles a life of their own. As I said last time, he weaves them in and out of individual panels in such a way as to really heighten the aura of danger and power they carry with them.

So both Spidey’s cliffhanger escape from Ock at the beginning of the issue and their rematch at the end are fantastic fight scenes—arguable the best we’ve seen even when compared to what both Ditko and Romita have accomplished with these two combatants in the past.

The rematch comes after a scene involving Peter, Gwen and Captain Stacy, in which some things Stacy says makes Peter think the policeman suspects his secret identity. But Peter can’t follow up on that now—he’s too busy whipping up a special web fluid for his rematch with Ock.

That web fluid, when shot onto a tentacle, blocks Ock’s mental control and causes that tentacle to attack its “brothers.” So Spidey soon has a tentacle civil war going on.

But Ock’s struggles smash a chimney and the proverbial ton of bricks plummet towards some kid. Captain Stacy is nearby, knocking the kid to safety, but getting crushed himself.

This leads to a scene that really does carry an extraordinary emotional impact. Before he dies, Stacy reveals to Peter that he knows he’s Spider Man, asking him to look after Gwen.

This is great stuff. It’s not just that the fight scenes are done so well. The plot is well-constructed; Ock comes across as scarier and more powerful than he ever has before; we get a reminder that Peter is a brilliant scientist in his own right when he creates his special web fluid; and the death of Captain Stacy is handled with just the right amount of honest emotion while providing a twist ending. This is justifiably considered to be one of the classic Spider Man issues.

And that’s it for our “History of the Marvel Universe.” As we continue with Spider Man, I’ll simply come up with mind-numbingly witty titles for individual reviews. And the next issue involves Peter having to deal with the fact that the woman he loves blames Spider Man for her dad’s death. So I’ll call it… um…

Oh, don’t worry. I’ll think of something.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

Frontier Gentleman: “The Cowboy” 8/25/58

The tense climax of this strong episode is a great example of how radio professionals could effectively create complex and exciting action scenes without visuals, using just dialogue, narration and sound effects.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Boy--True Love is a lot of work!

Okay, I realize that in real life, a good husband puts a lot of honest and hard work into a marriage. He’s got to treat his wife with unfailing respect and kindness and faithfulness and make awesome efforts to keep the marriage relationship healthy. That does indeed take work. I know I’m a life-long bachelor, but I get that. I really do.

But by golly, fictional heroes really have it tough. Because they don’t just have to remember anniversaries and make googily eyes at his wife from time to time. He’s got to rescue her from horrible death on a regular basis.

And THAT takes work. And determination.

Take Prince Valiant, for example. It was in 1945—about nine years into the strip—that writer/artist Hal Foster finally got around to telling us how Valiant met Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles and fell in love with her.

It was an interesting process. Valiant actually spends quite a long time convinced Aleta is a evil sorceress and murderess, holding her prisoner while he traveled across a nearly lifeless desert. But a blow to the head and a bout with malaria does wonders, allowing Val to realize he loves Aleta. They seemed destined to live happily ever after.

Until a local despot named Donardo has his men attack Val, take his famous “Singing Sword,” and toss him over a cliff. Donardo then takes Aleta as a captive back to his city.

So Val—unarmed except for a makeshift spear—must pursue Donardo on foot.  This amuses the evil king, so he sends one of his men back to kill Val with his own sword.

This doesn’t work out.

Well, Donardo’s not worried. He’ll just send two men this time. There’s no way Val can survive that.

This doesn’t work out.

Okay, Donardo really means business now. He’ll send four men back to take out Val. There’s no possible way in heaven or on earth that Prince Valiant can possibly live through the day now.

This doesn’t work out.

Donardo, now a bit unhappy, reaches his city. At least he now has his pretty prisoner safe behind heavily guarded walls. Valiant may be hard to kill, but there’s nothing he can do to rescue Aleta.

Nothing, that is, except raise an army, besiege the city, breach the walls, kill Donardo in single combat and reunite himself with his one true love.

So I know that in real life relationships are hard. But, for gosh sakes, at least all you real life husbands don’t have to fight duels to the death and raze entire cities to the ground.

So all you married guys should consider yourselves very lucky.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Yes, He IS Annoying!

When Otto Binder created Beppo the Super Monkey in Superboy #76 (October 1959), I think he might have done too good a job in making the mischievous little primate annoying.

Beppo was a test animal that Jor-el kept in his lab on Krypton. (Which begs the question—why did Jor-el claim to have no more test animals when he launched his baby’s beloved puppy into space? Gee whiz, Jor-el really was a mean daddy!)

Beppo stows away in the rocket that brings Kal-el to Earth. He slips away unseen and spends some time tossing elephants around in the African jungle. But he eventually returns to Samllville and, after dressing in little Clark’s super-play suit, causes a lot of mischief that the Kents then blame on poor Clark.

But then Beppo is chased into deep space by a comet (not realizing that the comet can’t hurt him).

He’ll be back eventually, but unlike Krypto, we never do see very much of him. Pretty much all his appearances are as a member of the Legion of Super Pets. Krypto gets his share of solo stories, but I think Otto Binder was so successful in portraying Beppo as a pest, that he was simply “retired” from his solo career before his one-joke theme got old. Binder’s sense of humor makes this story work, but it doesn’t leave much room for effective sequels.

Oh, well, I still kinda like the little guy (though none of the Super Pets ever had the appeal that Krypto does), so I’m still glad he came into being.

We’ll examine the other Super Pets eventually, but the rest of them actually aren’t Kryptonian natives. So the next few entries will finish up our look at Kryptonian survivors before moving on to Streaky and Comet.

So far, our look at Superman’s expanding mythology during the Weisinger era has covered Supergirl, Dev-em, Krypto and Beppo. Gee whiz, we’re just getting started, aren’t we? We’ve still got Kandor, the Phantom Zone, the remaining Super Pets, the Legion of Superheroes, Superman’s time travel jaunts to Krypton, the various forms of Kryptonite, the Daily Planet staff, the Fortress of Solitude and several important villains to look at.

We’ll get to them eventually. Many superheroes have rich mythologies built around them, but Superman arguably has the richest.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Wonderful book about forgiveness and redemption

I was able to read this book before it was published because Jim asked me to proof-read it. The man couldn't use a comma properly if his life depended on it, but he's a great writer regardless. This autobiography is about a boy who was horribly abused for years but learns about God and personal forgiveness as pulls his life together. He now helps catch child predators. It really will touch your heart.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

This is a dynamic and wonderfully composed John Severin cover. I love how he got so much action into it without making it seem crowded. All the action flows together smoothy.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: “Three Callers” 6/9/44

Three important but dishonest town leaders appoint a drunk as sheriff, figuring that if he notices their corruption, they can just wave a bottle under his nose and not worry about it.

But, with the help of the Lone Ranger, the new sheriff might just pull himself together and do some actual law enforcement.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sometimes, the title alone is enough.

As I’ve advised before—on more than one occasion—it’s always a good idea to rummage through the discount DVD bin at retail chain stores. You never know when you’ll find something worthwhile for a low price.

This time around, it was a set of movies and TV episodes titled Heroes of the Old West, containing a lot of the 1930s John Wayne movies that are often found in public domain Western sets. There were a half-dozen early Bonanza episodes that have slipped into the public domain—including a strong episode guest-starring Vic Morrow. Though it should be mentioned that the generic music played over the credits to replace the still-under-copyright Bonanza theme is downright awful. There’s a dozen or so Lone Ranger episodes—all of which I’m pretty sure I already have on various DVDs.

Two items on this set made me buy it, anyways. One is an episode of an early ‘60s Western titled Outlaws, which featured Barton Maclane. I actually hadn’t heard of the series, but always admired Maclane as a character actor. The episode turned out to be a very good story that featured another appearance by Vic Morrow, along with Dean Jones and Ray Walston (playing a manipulative and murderous con man—it was fun to see My Favorite Martian play an out-and-out villain).

The other “I gotta buy this” item was a 1937 film titled The Riders of the Whistling Skull, starring Ray “Crash” Corrigan.

The Riders of the Whistling Skull? How can you NOT want to watch a movie with that title? 

Well, it turned out to be a Three Mesquiteers film---in this particular instance: Stony Brooke (Robert Livingston), Tuscon Smith (Corrigan) and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune).

The Mesquiteers starred in a series of 51 B-Westerns between 1936 and 1943, sometimes with different actors and occasionally with different names for the main characters. John Wayne did eight Mesquiteer films as Stony Brooke. The films were obviously popular enough in their day, noted for including modern elements along with all the Old West stuff. But that wasn’t uncommon—in the B-movie and serial universe, the Old West remained the Old West pretty much into the 1940s, with horses, six-guns and Indian uprisings still common. The last few films in the series had our heroes fighting Nazis. In The Riders of the Whispering Skull, the modern elements are a little more subtle, reflected mostly in the dress of a few characters and Stony reading a modern pulp magazine (as opposed to a dime novel).

But in the end, the Three Mesquiteers didn’t quite achieve the same cultural longevity that the contemporaneous Hopalong Cassidy films would, or that Roy Rogers would achieve a decade later. And it’s actually easy to see why.

Whistling Skull is a fun enough movie. The three heroes get involved in helping a scientific expedition that’s looking for a lost city and a lost scientist. There’s a violent cult of Indians out to stop them and one of the expedition members also might be a murderer. A couple of people are, in fact, murdered and the expedition loses its supply wagon when the Indians attack.

They eventually find a landmark appropriately called the Whistling Skull—a large rock formation riddled with caves that cause the wind to whistle when it blows through. The good guys are trapped inside the Skull for a time. In the finale, Tuscon is unarmed and being chased through the desert by Indians; Stony has been captured and is about to be executed; and Lullaby is trying to start an avalanche in a last-ditch effort to save Stony.

As I said, it’s all perfectly good fun---though the arrival of a posse in the nick of time is a bit too much of a dues ex machina. But the level of fun simply doesn’t rise to the same level as it does in the best Hopalong or Roy Rogers films.

Why not? The problem is that there isn’t just one main hero with a couple of sidekicks. Instead, there are three heroes. That’s an important distinction. The movie only runs 53 minutes and in that time Stony, Tuscon and Lullaby each get a chance to play hero. In one sense, the movie manages to maintain this balance nicely, shifting between the characters without losing track of the story. But in a B-movie that’s barely enough long enough to qualify as a movie, there’s not enough time to do this AND give each of the heroes distinctive personalities. The individual quirks they do exhibit (Stony fancies himself a detective and Lullaby sometimes acts as the comic relief) come and go so quickly that there’s no time to really notice them.

Hopalong and Roy are as cool as they are because they had personalities we could latch on to. Hoppy’s boisterousness and Roy’s inherent kind-heartedness drew us to them and they became the moral heart of the movies they starred in. 

With the Three Mesquiteers, we have three perfectly likable guys, but not one of them fills the roll that Hoppy and Roy filled. So we have a good movie that really is worth 53 minutes of your time. But--- well, there’s no way to say this that isn’t incredibly corny, so I’ll just say it. The Three Mesquiteers simply don’t have the heart that Hoppy and Roy gave their films.

All the same, it’s called The Riders of the Whistling Skull. That’s just COOL.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: October 1970


The first ever Kirby-less issue of Fantastic Four is illustrated by John Romita, Jr.  Romita will be around for four issues, then John Buscema will take over as the regular artist for an extended run.

And that’s just fine. Jack Kirby will, of course, always be missed. And I don’t know if any artist drawing the FF has ever succeeded in making them look as cosmically cool as did the King. But Romita and Buscema are at the top of the “great artists” list as well, so the book will continue to look great.

Though there still seems to be some sloppy plot construction going on. Stan really seems to have forgotten—as he apparently did last issue—that Atlantians other than Namor can’t breathe while out of water. Once again, though, the black-and-white reprint I own of this story might be giving me a false impression.

Oh, well, aside from that, the story flows along nicely. Magneto is still trying to convince Namor to attack the surface world. Reed talks to President Nixon and gets permission to try to negotiate with Namor before our military takes action.

But Magneto is still using his powers to secretly manipulate weapons and equipment, managing to get Namor and the FF into a fight.

After playing “behind-the-scenes manipulator” as long as possible, he kidnaps Dorma and Sue, intending to force Reed and Namor to play along while he uses the Atlantian military to wipe out mankind.

I will say that the dialogue during this storyline is sometimes a little heavy-handed. Stan seemed to be on a peace-and-brotherhood kick while writing this story. This is fine in of itself—peace and brotherhood are good things to kick about. But it really doesn’t need to be expressed in dialogue such as Reed telling his infant son “You deserve something better than—War!” Gee whiz, Reed, he’s just a baby. That tone of voice is just gonna scare the little guy!


Peter’s personal problems continue to pile up. He’s concerned that Doc Ock actually survived last issue’s plane crash, so he’s determined to track down the villain. So when Randy Robertson asks him to participate in a protest against air pollution, he declines. Randy accuses him of selfishness and stalks off.

Which brings up something I notice while reading this month’s FF and Spider Man. I’ve realized that Stan Lee wasn’t just on a peace-and-brotherhood kick. He was, by golly, on an all-encompassing social responsibility kick.

I’m taking a wild guess here—remember that I do the Marvel Universe reviews with little or no research beyond reading the issues in order to judge them purely on their own merits—so this is an uninformed shot in the dark:  By 1970, Marvel had nearly a decade of success in making comics more intelligent, with more internal continuity and complex characterizations. That meant that there were a much higher percentage of older readers than there used to be—especially among college students.

I think this might have touched Stan’s social conscious. He was thinking seriously about ways to make the stories he was writing more important than just escapist entertainment, so started looking at ways to comment on the important issues of the day.

Sadly, this often got expressed in heavy-handed dialogue. That was the case in this month’s FF and it’s the case here. Of course, Stan often wrote over-the-top dialogue, but his skill in shaping empathetic characters usually made us accept such dialogue regardless. But this time, for instance, Robbie Robertson sees Spidey swinging by and tells an angry Jonah Jameson “Cool it, mister. He’s not hurting half as much as that pollution up there.”

Mr. Lee, I know it is often said of your dialogue that “no one really talks that way.” But for heaven’s sake, man—NO ONE REALLY TALKS THAT WAY!  We get it. We get it. Pollution is bad. Thanks for letting us know.

Gee whiz, I’ve spend far too much time complaining about this—because this really is a good issue. It’s the start of a truly classic arc that will see an important character die.

It’s illustrated by Gil Kane, who will be doing the three issues after this as well. Regular Spidey artist John Romita will be doing the inking. Kane is another of the greats—Marvel really was blessed in regards to its available pool of artists in 1970. Kane never drew an uninteresting panel in his life. He catches the personalities of the regular characters and he’ll give us one of the best Spidey/Ock fights in recorded history.

Because Spidey goes looking for Ock, who actually wants to be found so he can finally crush the wallcrawler. The ensuing rooftop fight runs for 11 pages, with Kane weaving Ock’s tentacles in and out of each panel in a way that makes them seem truly menacing.

In the end, Spidey is distracted when he prevents a water tower from crashing down on bystanders, which allows Doc Ock to get the drop on him and toss him off a roof.

So I forgive Mr. Lee for beating us over the head with the evils of air pollution. He and Gil Kane gave us one of the best fight scenes ever. It’s enough to make you want to pollute more if it results in this sort of quality graphic storytelling.

That’s if for October. Next week, we’ll study the behavior of Kryptonian primates. Then, in November 1970, we’ll finish off our regular look at the Fantastic Four while Reed and Namor whine about their ladies being held hostage; while someone in Spider Man’s cast of characters gets dropped from the book like a ton of bricks.

That will be the last post I title “History of the Marvel Universe.” We’ll continue to follow Spider Man through the Death of Gwen Stacy storyline, so we’ll be with him for awhile. But calling it a history of the whole universe has become too much of a stretch.

We will never leave the other members of the Marvel Universe behind forever—we’ll always be back to look at specific issues or story arcs from time to time. We’ve also got quite awhile to go on our look at the Weisinger-era Superman stories.

I’m always open to suggestions about what to review. Quite some time ago, someone suggested a look at the Charlton heroes. At the time, I didn’t have the source material handy. But we have since acquired an Archives volume of some of those stories at the library where I work, so I’ll make a point of reviewing a few issues. Let me know what else you’d like me to cover.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The end of an era

The Golden Age of Radio ended 50 years ago--the last two network dramatic radio shows were broadcast on September 30, 1962.

Here's a nice tribute to old-time radio:

We're Fifty Years Late

Monday, October 8, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

Actually, if you're in an issue of Twilight Zone, following a magic amulet is probably an inherently bad idea.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: “Chop Chop Handyman” 5/24/44

The Ranger’s nephew Dan Reid is a witness who can identify a gang of rustlers. But while separated from the Ranger and Tonto—and down with fever—he may be an easy target for them.

A supporting character at first seems to be an offensively stereotypical Chinese cook, but a really nice twist near the end of the story shows us that all is not as it seems.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

No Hero

Read/Watch ‘em in Order #24

There are, of course, two kinds of people in the world. There are the intelligent and kind-hearted saints who have read my books. Then there are the uncultured and thuggish Philistines who have NOT read my books and who probably beat up puppy dogs just for the fun of it.

Since I’m sure no uncultured Philistines visit my blog, then I’m presuming you have all read my books. If you haven’t, then you should immediately institutionalize yourself before you do any more harm to society.

I’m making this point because we are going to be taking a look at the six Mr. Moto novels written by John Marquand between 1935 and 1957. Since I talked about these novels in Radio by the Book: Adaptations of Literature and Fiction on the Airwaves, I will be repeating myself here. So doubtless I am telling you things you already know. Because you have read my books, haven’t you?

Mr. I.A Moto is a soft-spoken and very polite Japanese man who works for the Japanese Imperial government in the years before World War II. He’s a man of many talents. For instance, he worked as a valet while attending an American university. He can tend bar, perform carpentry, sail a boat and—if it is necessary to do so in service to his Emperor—slit your throat from ear to ear. Of course, he would apologize profusely for the necessity of doing so.

John Marquand was asked to create an Oriental detective character by the editors of the Saturday Evening Post, who wanted to fill a gap left by the death of Earl Derr Biggers (the creator of Charlie Chan). Marquand toured the Orient on the Post’s dime and created not a detective, but a spy. Possibly the coolest spy ever, because we can’t help but like and admire Mr. Moto even when he’s not really one of the good guys.

And that’s one of the most interesting things about the Moto novels. Mr. Moto isn’t the main character—there’s a different protagonist each time out. Often, the protagonist is a cynical American adrift in the Orient who gets caught up in some conspiracy or other espionage shenanigans. Mr. Moto will also become involved but--depending on the circumstances—he might be an ally or he might be an enemy.

The first Moto novel—NoHero—was serialized in the Post in 1935, with an alcoholic American named Casey Lee taking on the lead role. (The novel has occasionally been given the title Your Turn, Mr. Moto in some book versions.)

Lee is a former Navy pilot who flew in combat during the Great War and later made a name for himself as a daredevil civilian pilot. But now he’s past his prime and drinking too much. He’s in Tokyo to make a Trans-Pacific flight, but when his sponsors pull out, he publically bashes the United States, ripping up his passport and declaring that “There are plenty of other countries.”

This brings him to the attention of Mr. Moto, who soon recruits Lee, asking the disillusioned pilot to pump his old Navy buddies for military information. Lee agrees at first, finding ways to rationalize the decision to himself. That Moto is using a pretty Russian refugee named Sonya to help recruit Lee is another factor in the pilot’s decision.

But, much to Lee’s astonishment, he soon realizes he can’t bring himself to betray his country. “Men die for their faith who have never been inside a church,” he explains, “and men die for their country although they may have spent their lives criticizing all its works. The amazing thing is that they are probably surprised by their irrational willingness to die.”

So Lee begins working against Moto. It soon turns out that Sonya is really on his side. Well, maybe. Or maybe she has an agenda of her own.

Soon, intrigue, escapes and assassination attempts begin to run deep. Everything turns out to revolve around a message that gives the location of a certain very valuable object that might change the balance of power in the Pacific. A powerful Chinese crime-lord is also involved by now and may have a jump on everyone in recovering that object. But Lee’s ability to fly an airplane might just upset everyone’s plans.

The Moto novels get off to a great start with No Hero. Marquand (who would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize—though not for any of the Moto novels) was a superb writer who employed clear and clever prose while presenting both Americans and Asians as complex and very real people. This is especially notable in the character of Mr. Moto. Though he’s technically the antagonist this time out, we can’t help but admire him. He might be ruthless when he feels he has to be, but we understand that he does what he does in service to his country. We really can’t help but like him. Besides, he’s so darn polite to everyone—how can anyone dislike him? There are five more books to come and Moto’s presence ensures all of them will be worth visiting.

Mr. Moto has had a pretty varied career in the various media in which he has appeared. He was a detective/spy working for Western political interests in the excellent Peter Lorre film series from the 1930s, then became an American-born CIA agent in the 1950 radio series. Gee whiz, one of the books should have been titled Make Up Your Darn Mind, Mr. Moto.

But then, you all already knew all that. You have read my books, haven’t you?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: September 1970


Kirby’s last issue is the beginning of a pretty good but flawed story arc. Namor has found an unconscious Magneto (who just suffered a defeat at the hands of the X-Men) and taken him to Atlantis for medical aid. But once there, Magneto starts using his powers to secretly attack New York City (and specifically the FF), as well as secretly shake apart some of Atlantis. He convinces Namor that the surface world is attacking him, determined to get him to do the dirty work of destroying mankind.

This sets up the story for John Romita’s first two issues as the FF’s new artist. (We’ll cover those issues, by the way, before leaving our regular coverage of this book. It would be rude to leave our heroes behind in mid-story.)

It’s a good story—visually strong and with some fun moments in which Johnny and Crystal are trying to nurse a flu-stricken Ben. But it does have a few annoying flaws.

I’m reading this story in a black-and-white Essential volume and I’ve never happened to see it in color, so perhaps some of the finer details of the art are lost. But, all the same, I can’t tell if—while Magneto is in Atlantis—whether he’s somehow breathing underwater or if Submariner’s palace is not water-filled. There’s any number of explanations for how Magneto could be water-breathing at the moment (Heck, Marvel Universe science includes oxygen pills), but if Stan and Jack had Atlantians other than Namor breathing air, then they made an embarrassing mistake. But, as I said, a black-and-white reprint may be fooling me. Perhaps the original color makes it clear the palace is water-filled. Anyone with access to the original comic or a color reprint is welcome to comment and clarify this.

The other misstep, I think, is how quickly Namor believes Magneto’s claim that he’s being attacked from the outside. Yes, Namor is impetuous and prone to distrust surface dwellers. But Magneto is a surface dweller as well—you’d think even the quick-tempered Namor would want to do a little fact-checking before going to war on Magneto’s word alone.

Oh, well, it’s still a good set-up for what is a strong story idea, even if the execution is a little flawed. Still, I wish Jack Kirby had gone out on a bit more of a high note. I liked his last Thor story arc a lot. With the FF, after a classic 100th issue, he ended with a pair of merely average stories.


Peter’s grades are dropping because he keeps missing so many classes, but there’s no time to worry about that now. Doctor Octopus has escaped and hijacked a plane that has an important foreign dignitary aboard.

So Peter gets aboard the plane as well, managing to distract Ock long enough for the hostages to get free. The plane blows up and Spidey escapes, but is Doctor Octopus dead?

Well, of course he’s not. In fact, he’s going to be the main villain for the next few issues, in which Stan Lee and John Romita will give us yet another classic story arc.

This particular issue is pretty much self-contained, though it establishes that Doc Ock has escaped from prison and thus sets up the next story. What makes it work are the fun fight scenes.

For instance, Doc escapes by mentally summoning his mechanical arms, even though they are being stored hundreds of miles from his prison. This leads to a short but delightful scene in which Spidey tangles with the disembodied arms.

Then there’s the fight on the plane, in which Romita uses the fact that it takes place in an enclosed space to give the short sequence a lot of intensity.

That’s it for September. In October 1970, we’ll see that Namor and Magneto just can’t get along; while Spider Man gets his butt handed to him by Doctor Octopus.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Cover Cavalcade

Great composition and figure work here. Covers like this are typical examples of why I love the superb illustrations that came out of the pulp era.
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