Thursday, February 28, 2013

"...two wild natures, thirsty for each others' life."

Last time we visited with Robert E Howard, we met Kirby O'Donnell, an Irish-American wanderer who found adventure in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

But, by golly, Kirby wasn't the only Irish-American adventure who hung out in that part of the world in the early 20th Century. Howard also wrote about Francis Xavier Gordon, better known as El Borak ("The Swift").  Gordon wasn't quite as boisterous as Kirby. Whereas Kirby traveled alone or with a single companion, Gordon was often leading local tribesmen into battle. But both men were fantastic fighters and both were prone to find trouble wherever they went.

We've been taking a look at instances in which Howard's heroes were obligated by circumstances to team up with deadly enemies. It was always a temporary alliance, with the parties involved certain to return to killing each other at the first opportunity.

It's something that happened to them a lot. Which is just fine by me--it was a plot devise that Howard used very effectively.

We've already seen it happen once to Conan (and we'll have to return to the Barbarian again for another reluctant team-up with an enemy) and once to Kirby. It happened at least twice to El Borak.

"Son of the White Wolf" was published in the December 1936 issue of Thrilling Adventure magazine. This story is set during the First World War, during which Gordon allied himself with the British and helped out Lawrence of Arabia. But this time out, he's not going up against the Germans or the Ottomans. Instead, he runs across a band of Turks who have fallen under the sway of a madman--a man who plans to carve his own kingdom out of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. He rescues a beautiful German spy from their clutches and runs for help. But he finds not the allies he was hoping to find, but a tribe of Arabs who fight for the Ottomans.

To stop the renegades, he must convince the Arabs that the mad would-be emperor is a danger to everyone. Then he has to lead the Arabs into a wild battle while simultaneously remaining wary of one of his erstwhile allies putting a bullet in his back.

But that wasn't the first time Gordon had to team-up with a deadly enemy. It also happened in "Blood of the Gods," which first appeared in the July 1935 issue of Top Notch magazine.

El Borak learns that a ruthless Englishman named Hawkston (along with Hawkston's band of thugs) has discovered where a hermit named Al Wazir is living. This particular hermit is owner of priceless rubies called the Blood of the Gods. Hawkston wants those rubies and he's willing to use murder and torture to get them. (Al Wazir's back story--explaining why he's a hermit and why he owns valuable treasure--is an interesting part of the story.)

Gordon is the hermit's friend, so he rides his camel across a trackless desert to find and protect Al Wazir. But a violent encounter with a band of Arabs (members of a tribe with whom he has a blood feud) leaves him on foot.

He still manages to reach the cliff-side caves in which Al Wazir is currently living. But the poor hermit--someone Gordon once knew as a compassionate and wise man--has degenerated into a homicidal maniac.

Then Hawkston shows up. But he's being pursued by the same Arabs who are also after Gordon. They've already killed Hawkston's followers, so the two men must team up to fight off their mutual enemy. If they survive that, then they can go back to killing each other over Al Wazir and the rubies.

"Son of the White Wolf" is a great story, but--even though it has some flaws--I really love "Blood of the Gods." Howard always does fantastic action scenes, but he outdoes himself in "Blood." There's a particularly intense hand-to-hand struggle at an oasis during Gordon's journey to the hermit's cave. The defense of the caves by Gordon and Hawkston against the attacking Arabs is equally intense and very exciting--involving both gun play and more hand-to-hand combat. And there's a sword fight at the stories climax that is nothing short of awesome.

I also like the way Gordon and Hawkston are portrayed when they are forced into a partnership. Howard makes it clear that Hawkston has no morals at all, but he's otherwise like Gordon in a lot of ways. Both men are brave, clever and experienced fighters. Hawkston is a sort of evil mirror image of Gordon. It's something that adds a lot of tension to an already tense situation.

This all makes me very forgiving of the story's flaws, which mostly relate to the plot structure. Most of the story is just fine in terms of good storytelling, but Howard relies a little too much on several unlikely contrivances at the denouement to get Gordon out of trouble and wrap up Al Wazir's story arc. And the ironic twist that ends the story is arguably predictable.

But that's okay. Awesome sword fights make everything better.

We still two more REH stories I want to look at--a Conan yarn set early in the barbarian's career and one involving the pirate Black Vulmea. Two more cases in which the protagonist must team up with a man who wants him dead. It's something that seems to be a genetic predisposition in Howard's adventurous heroes.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Let's All Do the Charlton!

The Blue Beetle was originally Dan Garret, first appearing in Mystery Men Comics #1 (August 1939), published by Fox Comics. Dan was a beat cop who, through the ingestion of Vitamin 2X, would gain super-energy. He would then put on a bullet-proof costume and fought crooks as the Blue Beetle.

He was a fairly successful character, getting a comic strip as well as a comic book and appearing in a radio serial in which he was played by Frank Lovejoy.

But superheroes were temporarily on their way out by the 1950s. Fox went out of business and sold its characters to Charlton. Dan's last appearance was as a back-up character in Nature Boy #1 (March 1956). I love Golden Age comic book silliness more than anyone else in the known universe, but a character ending his run in a comic book titled Nature Boy is just sad.

Charlton's best-selling comics during the 1950s and early 1960s contained ghost stories and romance stories, but they stuck their toe back into the superhero genre in March 1960, when Captain Atom appeared in Space Adventures #33: The good captain was an Air Force officer who was caught in an atomic explosion and thus gained incredible powers.

Most of the Captain Atom stories were only five pages long. This didn't allow much in the way of complex plot development or characterizations, but artist Steve Ditko made it look epic nonetheless.

Ditko, of course, left Charlton for Marvel during the early 1960s, where he made Spider Man and Doctor Strange look equally epic. He returned to Charlton in 1966, at which time editor Dick Giordano was looking to expand Charlton's superhero output.

Giordano came up with the term Action Heroes, defined as heroes who would might have gadgets and special skills, but would not have superpowers. As Giordano phrases it in the introduction to one of the Action Heroes Archives: "Although they often prevailed, they were mortal and could be hurt. It was not a given that at the end of a storyline they would be alive and well--something that gave their adventures more dramatic potential."

Well, Captain Atom had superpowers, but he was grandfathered in as an established Charlton hero. He was, though, given an updated costume after an encounter with an overloading reactor reduced his power levels.

Ditko created the Question as well. This is Vic Sage, an investigative reporter who had a mask that made his face appear to be blank. The Question's adventures were hard-boiled mystery-adventures in which the hero often dealt out harsh justice. To quote Giordano again: "[The Question's] actions in an early story allowed a bad guy to drown in a sewer--something that unleashed a flood of mail to Charlton. That just wasn't done in those days!"

Blue Beetle was yet another of the Action Heroes, but Ditko made some major changes to the original continuity. Dan Garrett was given an additional T at the end of his last name. Slightly more importantly, he was now an archaeologist rather than a cop, getting his powers (including super strength and flight) from a strange scarab he'd found during an Egyptian dig.

And even more important than that--Dan Garrett was now dead. His successor was Ted Kord, who didn't have the scarab, but depended instead on his fighting skill and inventive genius to catch crooks.

Ted's origins were handled quite cleverly. During his four appearances as a back-up feature in Captain Atom and for the first issue of his own book, we're only told that something mysterious happened on a place called Pago Island and that Dan Garrett was somehow involved. It wasn't until Blue Beetle #2 (August 1967) that we learn Dan died on the island fighting a mad scientist and an army of killer androids. Dan passed on the task of being Blue Beetle to Ted, but a cave-in prevented Ted from getting the scarab.

Instead, Ted builds the Bug (one of the coolest superhero vehicles ever) and dons a variant of Dan's costume. The costume is equipped with a remote control device so he can operate the Bug even when he's not aboard.

All three of these characters are pretty cool. Heck, the Justice League animated series from the early 2000s made the Question nothing short of awesome. But Ted is my personal favorite of the three, so we'll bring our look at Charlton to a close by highlighting one of his stories.

Captain Atom #85 (March 1967) includes Ted's third appearance. The story is only seven pages long, but it's packed with cool stuff.

Ted hears a radio report that an airliner has been hijacked by a spy and is being flown out to sea. Using the Bug, he intercepts the plane just as the panicky spy is about to make it crash into the sea.

Ted uses the Bug to save the plane, but the spy bails out and is picked up by a Soviet sub. So, once the airline pilots regain control of the plane, Ted takes the Bug underwater. Donning scuba tanks, he then uses a bazooka to damage the sub's screws.

But he'll still have to fight a couple of enemy frogmen and tangle with a giant squid before this particular adventure comes to an end.

It's a tight, fun story. The action progresses with a logic that's appropriate for a comic book universe and it's all designed to highlight Steve Ditko's impeccable talent for fight choreography. In the end, the Charlton Action Heroes never had the same level of character development that the Marvel heroes of the 1960s often had, but they still formed a viable and entertaining reality of their own.

Charlton Comics went out of business in 1985. Two years prior to that, DC Comics bought the Charlton heroes. Alan Moore was originally going to use them for his game-changing miniseries The Watchmen, but this was vetoed by Dick Giordino, who by then was also working for DC. Instead, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons used variations of the Action Heroes--Dr. Manhattan, Night Owl and Rorschach. The Charlton heroes lived on as part of the DC Universe.

In that capacity, they were used in some fun ways. Blue Beetle's partnership with Booster Gold was a stroke of genius. And, while I loath the idea of Ted Kord being killed off, what little exposure I've had to his successor Jaime Reyes has made me like the newest Blue Beetle quite a lot. (I don't always hate modern comics. I just usually hate them.)

But I've never been completely convinced DC was correct in combining heroes bought from other companies with the rest of DC's heroes. The Action Heroes, like the Marvel Family and Plastic Man and the Blackhawks, had their own unique flavor that was at least partially lost when they were all merged together.

Then again, the Question in the Justice League cartoon was indeed filled with awesome sauce, so some good came out of it all.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A new article by me.

I've had another article on Old-Time Radio published at

Peter Lorre in Mystery in the Air--a series based on the idea that it's entertaining to hear Peter Lorre go insane each week.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

This is a wonderful cover design, with the narrow panel effectively emphasizing Easy Company's precarious position.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philip Marlowe: “Indian Giver” 8/13/49

The owner of an antique shop gets hold of a piece of Indian pottery that several other people are desperate—even murderously desperate—to get their hands on.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Now, indeed, the essence of pure nightmare was upon me."

H.P. Lovecraft once wrote: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

Lovecraft played on that idea in his wonderful horror stories. He didn't depend on splashing blood and disembowelment and gore--he built a sense of fear on the idea that there are unknown things in the world that we are better off not knowing about. Because when someone finds out about them, death or insanity (or something even worse) is that person's likely fate. Someone (and I can't find the quote to credit it) once remarked that the central theme of the Lovecraftian universe is that we only remain sane because we don't fully understand its real nature.

And he backed up his themes and ideas with a fantastic prose style that (like Poe) begs to be read aloud--full of perfect word choices and sentence structures that keep you riveted to the story until your done reading it. Don't start one of Lovecraft's longer stories if it's close to your bedtime. You aren't going to be setting it aside until you finish it.

In Lovecraft's version of the universe, human beings aren't the only intelligent beings on the planet. There are other--well, things. Impossibly old things that came here in the distant past from other parts of the universe. Our physical laws and our understanding of logic and reason don't apply to them. They're still out there, you know. Sometimes, they interact with us. When that happens...

His 1936 novella "The Shadow Out of Time" is one of Lovecraft's finest tales. (Author Ramsey Campbell considers it "awe-inspiring.") First published in the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories, it's narrated by an economics professor named Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee.

Peaslee was teaching at Miskatonic University (located in Arkham, MA) in 1908.

 By the way, if you ever get a chance to teach or attend Miskatonic University--FOR THE LOVE OF HEAVEN, DON'T! It won't end well for you.

In the middle of a lecture, Peaslee is struck with a strange sort of amnesia in which a secondary personality seems to take over. This by itself is strange, but by itself would be easily explained by assuming that Peaslee has simply taken a trip to Crazy Town. But that doesn't explain the strange knowledge of many languages and obscure facts this other personality seems to have.

In 1913, Peaslee's original personality returns and he manages to pick up the pieces of his life. But he's troubled by vivid dreams and fragmentary memories of living in an ancient city (about 150,000,000 years ancient) inhabited by strange creatures.

He discovers that there are rare other cases of this sort of temporary amnesia, where the victims afterwards have eerily similar dreams. Could there be some sort of strange reality behind the dreams?

Well, this is a Lovecraft story, so of course there can be. It all involves the Great Race--originally from the planet Yith--that has the ability to swap bodies with other intelligent beings. What makes this ability really scary is that they can traverse space AND time to do this. They swap with someone like Peaslee in the distant future and gather information. They have thus compiled a very extensive library of all history and all things that will happen--both on Earth and elsewhere in the universe.

This ability gives them a sort of immortality. They came to Earth originally when their home planet was about to die, swapping enmass into a strange pre-human race that lived eons ago. When that race eventually dies out (as the Great Race already knows it will), they'll be swapping into an intelligent race that will exist on Earth after mankind dies out.

It's a handy ability--though it's a bit hard on the creatures they permanently swapped into, since those poor slobs are transferred without warning into the bodies of a completely alien species that's about to go extinct.

Poor Peaslee has a hard time dealing with this, but eventually convinces himself that his dreams and visions can't possibly be real. But an archaeological dig in Australia might convince him otherwise. And what about the Elder Things--the subterranean creatures that eventually destroyed the bodies the Great Race were using millions of years ago? It's not possible that they're still around, is it?

Gee whiz, this is a creepy story. I love the little details Lovecraft puts in to the story--the descriptions and hints of other humans and various alien beings Peaslee meets while he's trapped in the distant past are particularly effective in establishing atmosphere. (By the way, one of these characters is a shout-out to Conan the Barbarian, created by Lovecraft's friend Robert E. Howard.) All the elements of the story, in fact, work together to gradually build up a palpable feeling of increasing dread.

Whether the strongest emotion known to man is fear is probably open to debate in calmer moments. But after you've read "The Shadow Out of Time," you'll be convinced of it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Looking into the eyes of the man you just killed

Cover by Joe Kubert

I know it's only been a few weeks since I've reviewed a Russ Heath-drawn war comic, but I want to do another one. So you'll all just have to live with it. 

A year or two ago, I talked about a Sgt Rock comic that dealt with the theme of cowardice--with how anyone, including experienced soldiers, might break and run under the right circumstances.

Just two months prior to that issue, writer Bob Kanigher touched on a similar subject. Our Army At War #246 involves a rookie soldier who runs the first time he find himself under fire.

The rookie and Rock are both captured. The Germans strip them of their uniforms, making escape across the snow-covered countryside impractical. But, despite the young soldier being too scared to help, Rock manages to take out their guards. The brief but brutal fight scene Russ Heath provides for us at this point is nothing short of magnificent.

The two Americans don the German uniforms to stave off the cold. But it's not long before the young soldier panics and runs AGAIN when a German machine gun opens fire on them.

Rock rather graphically expresses his displeasure with the soldier when they both make it back to their own lines, but he still keeps the guy in Easy Company. Rock knows anyone can run under the proper circumstances.

It's an idea that is raised in several Sgt. Rock stories during the early 1970s. Natural fear was not condemned and--though a man was expected to eventually find courage and do his duty--the stories were sympathetic to those who were sometimes overpowered by fear.

But that's actually not the best part of this particular story. The best part is a scene that comes right after Rock and the young soldier are separated. Rock is found by a lone German soldier and uses a bandage on his throat as an excuse for not talking. The German is kind to him, but a moment later spots a couple of Easy Company soldiers. He's about to open fire when Rock yells a warning.

The German is shot. His shocked and confused expression as he looks into the eyes of the man he had just helped and who had apparently betrayed him is one of Heath's finest moments. The imagery has a palpable emotional impact.

I'd be hard pressed to pick the best issue of Our Army at War from this time period, but this one would definitely be in the running.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Michael Shayne: “Phantom Neighbor” 1/8/49

A woman calls Shayne at one in the morning because she’s in a hotel room with a corpse, uncertain as to whether she’s the one who killed the guy.  When Shayne seems to luck into the crime’s solution fairly early in the episode, you just know there’s a twist coming. But it’s a good twist all the same.

Jack Webb is in this episode as reoccurring character Inspector Lefevre—Shayne’s police contact/sometimes nemesis. Webb is so good in the hard-boiled shows he did prior to Dragnet hitting it big that it sometimes make me wish Dragnet hadn’t been so successful. Webb is always a blast to listen to in these roles.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

"Because deceit was the same as erosion of character"

Read/Watch 'em in Order #31

After Last Laugh, Mr Moto (1942), it was 14 years before John Marquand returned to the character. World War Two got in the way of writing about a Japanese agent who was admirable even when he was working for the other side.

But in 1956, Mr. Moto turned up one last time. Stopover: Tokyo was first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in '56 and '57, under the title Rendezvous in Tokyo. It was published in book form in '57, with later editions using alternate titles such as The Last of Mr. Moto and Right You Are, Mr. Moto.

It's a darker and more cynical novel than the pre-war entries in the series. As was always the case, Moto isn't the main protagonist. But where the earlier novels featured more-or-less innocent men unwittingly caught up in espionage schemes, this time the hero is a spy every bit as professional as Mr. Moto.

Jack Rhyce presumably works for the CIA, though the novel is one of those cases in which the organization isn't specifically named. He, along with a lady agent named Ruth Bogart, is sent to Tokyo to look into a Communist assassination plot intended to lure Japan away from an alliance with the U.S. and bring it closer to the Russians.

Rhyce is a man who is used to playing different roles and constantly thinking about details to maintain cover identities--he's so used to it that he often wonders if he could still exist as an individual if he ever left the business and returned to the "outside." He wonders if the things he has to do as a spy have made him unfit to be a regular human being. Is deceit and a self-imposed ruthlessness now too much a part of him?

This is a subject matter that's been explored in other spy novels as well. And I think Marquand actually spends a little bit too much time sharing Rhyce's introspection with us--the novel tends to plod along too slowly during its first half. But even so, Marquand is skilled at creating believable and sympathetic characters, allowing us to remain interested in Rhyce even while we're wishing he'd leave off with his internal self-evaluations and actually do something.

Fortunately, the death of a fellow agent starts events moving a little more quickly. By then, Rhyce and Ruth have fallen in love with each other, tentatively planning on leaving the business when the current mission is done. But first, they'll have to live through the next few days. That will be no easy task.

And where is Mr. Moto in all this? He shows up fairly early on, but he and Rhyce don't necessarily seem to be on the same side at first. But when they are eventually forced to compare notes, they discover that they share a common goal in stopping the upcoming assassination. What makes this problem interesting is that they know why the assassination will take place--but they don't know for certain who the exact target is.

Moto's closer involvement in the case is another reason the book improves so much in its latter half. Moto isn't quite as interesting in a post-war setting--one of the strengths of the earlier novels is that you often didn't know whose side he would be on at first. But in 1957, any spying he does for Japan will mirror American interests. You know he'll be an ally this time around.

Also, paring him up with another skilled agent instead of a fish-out-of-water does detract from his overall coolness a little bit. He's no longer quite as unique. But you can never completely take Mr. Moto's mojo away. It's still a pleasure to hang around with him. (Though he's gotten a little bitter as he's gotten older: "Americans are always so sentimental when they are not using flame-throwers and napalm.")

Unexpected plot twists keep the tension and suspense during the climax. Stopover: Tokyo is my least favorite in the series, but it's still worth reading.

That's it for Mr. Moto. I may one day do the Peter Lorre films series as part of the Read/Watch 'em in Order series, but for now we'll add some more science fiction to the mix. Our next book series will be Otis Adelbert Kline's Mars/Venus series. The Venus novels, by the way, are titled Planet of Peril (1929), The Prince of Peril (1930) and The Port of Peril (1932). As you've probably guessed, Venus turns out to be a very perilous place.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Baldness = Evil

Lex Luthor's first appearance was in Action Comics #23 (April 1940). He actually had hair in that initial appearance.  But whether his head was full of hair or whether he was bald as a cue ball, he soon established himself as Superman's most persistent enemy.

He was, of course, a mad scientist, able to invent all sorts of bizarre super weapons in his attempts to destroy Superman and/or conquer the world. It was his intelligence--he may very well be the smartest man in the world--and the imaginative albeit evil inventions he uses that made him a villain who could believably take on the Man of Steel.

[Later attempts to retcon him into an evil businessman were never completely satisfying--though Clancy Brown's superb voice work on the 1990s Superman animated series still made him an extremely effective villain.]

Before long, Lex was being drawn as a bald guy--probably to give him a little more visual distinctiveness. But it was a full two decades after his first appearance that we finally find out why he's bald.

Jerry Siegel, who created both Superman and Lex, was back with DC Comics in 1960 and he--appropriately enough--finally explained Lex's lack of hair AND his hatred of Superman.

"How Luthor Met Superboy" was published in Adventure Comics #271. It's here we find out that a teenaged Lex, with a full head of red hair and dreams of becoming a scientist, lived in Smallville at the same time Clark Kent did.

This is a pretty cool situation for Lex, because he has a serious case of hero-worship for Superboy. When he gets a chance to save Superboy from some kryptonite, the two become friends. Superboy builds Lex a modern lab.

Lex quickly shows his scientific smarts by creating artificial life.  But a lab accident causes a fire and, when Superboy blows the fire out, some toxic chemical fumes cause Lex's hair to fall out.

That sends Lex off on a quick trip to Crazy Town. He vows eternal hatred of Superboy. The situation is exacerbated when Lex tries several experiments to improve crop production around Smallville. These go awry, forcing Superboy's intervention. Lex, in his current frame-of-mind, assumes the Boy of Steel is actually sabotaging his efforts.

By the end of the story, Lex has made his first attempt to kill his former hero. This becomes his life goal. In Superboy #86 (January 1961), for instance, he uses a mind-helmet to animate a small army of rock-men made from kryptonite.

So by the time Lex and Clark are adults, the now-mad scientist is one of the world's most nefarious super-villains. He was pretty much an out-and-out villain, but there were occasional (and relatively successful) attempts to humanize him.

For instance, in Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane  #23 (February 1961), we discover that Lex had a sister who was still a baby when he turned evil. Her parents changed their name and Lena Thorul never knew who her brother was. But Lex knows about her and even set aside his vendetta to team up with Superman when Lena needed to be rescued from the Bottle City of Kandor. (That happens in Action Comics 297 and 298-two issues I'd love to review, but I sadly do not own them or reprints of them.)

In another instance, he shows regret when he inadvertently stops Superboy from preventing Abraham Lincoln's assassination. 

But it's in Superman #164 (October 1963) that Lex receives his most effective bit of character development. I've actually written about this story before in an old post about Edmond Hamilton, but it's worth revisiting.

After escaping from prison again (because some doofus of a warden let him use the machine shop!), Lex challenges Superman to a one-on-one fight on a planet with a red sun, where the Kryptonian will have no powers. Figuring that the world will lose confidence in him if he refuses, Superman accepts.

The duel starts with a bare-fisted boxing match, but soon Lex is using some of the scientific gadgets he smuggled to the planet to cheat. But the situation changes when Lex discovers there are people living on the planet--a race that has forgotten how to use the technology designed by their ancestors and is now suffering from a massive water shortage.

Lex helps them drive off some large birds that were about to ravage their crops and becomes a hero. He finds he likes being a hero and, when his duel with Superman resumes, he throws the fight and willingly goes back to jail in order to get Superman's help in saving the people.

It's a great story. On top of Hamilton's usual skill in using comic book logic to built an imaginative but internally consistent story, this view of Lex really does give him some depth and generates a bit of honestly-earned sympathy for him. Heck, Lex is such a hero to these people that they rename the plant Lexor. He even marries one of the inhabitants--a pretty lady named Adora. They later have a son.

It gives Lex an aura of tragedy, making him that much more interesting a character. Here's a planet where he's admired and respected. He has a wife and son who love him. He is able to live a constructive life of service to others whenever he visits and take satisfaction from that service. But he can never bring himself to completely give up his vendetta against Superman. His unwillingness to give up his hatred means he stays a villain forever. In a 1983 issue of Action Comics, this has some rather tragic consequences for the entire planet of Lexor.

We have a couple more villains to cover, but eventually, we'll visit one of the "imaginary" (out of continuity) tales from the era. That one involves Lex at his most villainous and it my personal favorite of those imaginary yarns.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

It's lucky for them that the dragon is standing in exactly the right spot to line up their train-mounted crossbow.

Though, to be fair, I've never read this comic. There might be an in-story explanation for this.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Mystery in the Air “The Marvelous Barrastro” 8/7/47

As I said in a chapter in my book Radio by the Book (which I’m quite sure you’ve all read, right?), Mystery in the Air was predicated on the idea that it is entertaining to listen to Peter Lorre go insane each week. This time, he’s an illusionist whose rival attempts to steal his blind wife by learning to imitate his voice and mannerism. Naturally, Lorre’s character doesn’t handle this well.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Solving murders is a good way to keep a marriage healthy.

Read/Watch 'em in Order #30

Dashiell Hammett's last novel--and last important work of any sort--was 1934's The Thin Man. I'll be covering the movie series, but proper context requires a brief look at the novel, which introduces us to former detective Nick Charles and his wealthy wife Nora.

The novel is a sort-of dark comedy of manners, full of dysfunctional and unpleasant characters, all of whom lie through their teeth about pretty much everything. And as far as the protagonists are concerned, I've always felt there was an aura of wasted lives hanging over Nick and Nora; a sense that they don't really accomplish anything useful and are in their own way as dysfunctional as the murder suspects they encounter. They just sort of exist while drinking far too much. Nick's reluctant return to detective work shows us that he has a skill that can be very useful. But he'd just as soon not bother with that sort of thing any more.

That would make an in-depth examination of the book particularly interesting. Nick Charles is an obvious expy of Hammett himself, who drank too much and effectively gave up on his career as a writer. How much of the book is Hammett's attempt at self-examination? What does it say about him as a writer and as a human being?

But we're looking at the 6-film series that grew out of the novel, so we can leave meta-textual criticism aside. Because the movie version of The Thin Man (1934) drops much (though not quite all) of the darker and more cynical aspects of the novel and basically gives us a combination mystery/screwball comedy.

In any other case, this would give us good reason to complain. The novel is excellent and its the inherent darkness and cynical view of human nature that gives it backbone. Losing that ambiance should have ruined the movie, at best giving us a serviceable mystery.

But then the movie fools us when it presents us with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora. And that, of course, makes everything all right.

Powell and Loy starred in the 6 Thin Man films and in 8 other films during the 1930s and 1940s. And they were, by golly, perfect together in every one of them. Their comedic timing was flawless, they literally ooze charm and class, and they convinced you in every one of these movies that they were madly in love with one another. Put Bill and Myrna together and we will have fun watching them.

They were funny, they were in love and (in the case of the Thin Man films) they were constantly stumbling over corpses. What more can two people ask for out of a relationship?

Also, Myrna Loy is a goddess--without question the single most beautiful woman who has ever existed in the history of the entire universe. Don't argue with me about this. It's incontrovertible fact.

Fall to your knees and worship her, you fools!

The actual plot of the first film mirrors the book fairly closely. Though one of the many dysfunctional supporting characters from the book is made more sympathetic (to ensure a happy ending to a romantic subplot), the actual detective stuff is very faithful to its source. Nick and Nora are in New York City for a visit. Nick is reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation that also involves a missing man (the titular thin man). Nora is thrilled by this at first, though she later on has some second thoughts when she realizes that Nick might actually be in danger. But once Nick is involved, he sticks to it--running down several clues that the cops had missed. Soon, he has an idea who the killer might be. 

It's a good, strong plot and could have made for a pretty good movie on its own. Had the movie been more faithful to the novel's darker ambiance, it might have kick-started Film Noir a few years early.

But because of Powell and Loy, The Thin Man is a classic in its own right.  Because they are so perfect as Nick and Nora, the movie works for what it is. In fact, it worked well enough to spawn five sequels over the next fourteen years. Each successive movie might have been a little more screwball and a little sillier than the last, but (as we'll be seeing) that's not going to be a problem. All we need is William Powell, Myrna Loy and a few corpses. Everything else will then work itself out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Holding a Tank Hostage

I'll be reviewing G.I. Combat #97 (Dec/Jan 62/63) this time out.

No, wait-a-minute. I'll be reviewing G. I Combat #152, from Feb/March 1972.

Hey, it's the same dang story! Well, the Haunted Tank story--"The Decoy Tank"--is the same.

G.I. Combat #152 was a giant-sized 52 pager (costing a whopping 25 cents!) containing a total of five stories--four from the Second World War and one from the Civil War. I THINK all the stories are reprints, but I'm not sure. The DC wiki is very sparse on information for either this issue or issue #97. I know the Haunted Tank story is a reprint from the earlier issue and the wiki does identify one other story as a reprint. The 52-pagers from that era often featured reprints, but not always. Also, this was during a brief time in which every issue of G.I Combat was 52 pages, with the Haunted Tank story  being original and some of the back-up tales being reprints. But when the back-up stories were reprints, they weren't usually identified as such. So I simply don't know if the remaining stories in this issue are original or reprints. I also think I may have just used the world "reprint" far too many times within a single paragraph. Reprint-reprint-reprint.

Not that I'm critical of reprints. Even in 1972, most of the potential readers would have been too young to read the story the first time around. In the days before trade paperbacks were common, this was how we young 'uns learned about DC and Marvel history.

What makes this reprint a bit interesting is that the first page of "The Decoy Tank" is original. You see, in 1963, the Haunted Tank was still an M3 Stuart--a class of armored vehicle named after the Civil War general who haunted this particular tank (a vehicle commanded by a young officer who also happens to be named Jeb Stuart). So that's the tank Jeb and his crew were using in this particular story.

But in G.I. Combat #150 (Oct/Nov 1971), the Stuart is destroyed. The guys build a sort of Frankenstein tank out of the wrecks of other vehicles. This becomes the new Haunted Tank.

(I'm going to review that issue soon--because it's a really good one.)

So when "The Decoy Tank" was reprinted, a page of original art was added in which the new tank has engine trouble, so they take an old Stuart out on patrol. The art for that page looks like Joe Kubert's work to me, though it's uncredited. There would have been nothing wrong with simply doing a straight reprint, but it's actually kind of nice that editor Joe Kubert was trying to fit everything into the proper continuity. Besides, the new tank had only been around two issues by this time, so I suspect Kubert didn't want to confuse readers by suddenly switching back to the old tank. Kubert's page also segues quite nicely into Russ Heath's art starting on page 2.

I also suspect that a deadline was missed, forcing a last-minute reprint. Which makes Kubert taking the time to add the new page all the more appreciated.

Anyway, the story is a good one. Jeb and his crew take the Stuart on patrol, surviving a few close calls with the enemy.
But then they stop to pick up a wounded G.I. Except the wounded G.I. is really a Nazi soldier who's holding a live hand grenade.

The idea is for the Germans to take a tank hostage, then force the crew to lure other American units into an ambush.

It's a perfectly good idea for a story, but Jeb's reaction to the situation makes the tale particularly noteworthy. He knows he can't let the Germans use his tank to kill other Americans--and he's perfectly willing to risk or even sacrifice his own life to stop it. But it's not just him--there's his crew to think about as well. If he jumps the German and fails to keep the grenade from detonating, then they die along with him. Does he have the right to get them killed in order to do his duty?

It's a point that gives the story a strong emotional backbone. And this is emphasized by Russ Heath's typically wonderful art.  I consider Heath, Jack Kirby and Carl Barks to be the three greatest comic book artists ever. And even though their individual styles and the subject matters of their stories were completely different from one another, all of them did the same things exactly right.

First, all three used their visuals to clearly tell their stories. Aside from simply looking cool, their art moved the plot along and always made sure we knew what was going on.

Second, all three were able to hit the correct emotional notes to highlight the important points of the story. In "The Decoy Tank," for instance, Heath gives us a lot of panels showing the cramped interior of the tank, emphasizing the tension of the hostage situation.

Third, all three were good at adding great detail to their art, both in the primary images and in the background scenes. It's fun to just look at any panel or page these guys drew and appreciate all the attention to detail. (Heath was noted for the amount of research he did--including often building models of what he'd be drawing.)

The page above is a good example of Russ Heath's ability to do all this. The first panel, for instance, shows a German Tiger tank visible through the observation slit. This effectively sets up the next panel, where Jeb manages to land the grenade in that Tiger's hatch--it shows us Jeb had a target at which to aim the grenade and the ensuing destruction of the enemy tank wasn't just dumb luck. The reversal of the "camera angle" between the first two panels adds to its effectiveness.

The fourth panel is a tight shot of the crew inside their tank, desperately blasting away with every weapon they have at the enemy tanks that surround them. Even with the hostage situation resolved, Heath still uses the image of cramped conditions to add tension to the situation.

The last panel--with the Stuart using its small size and speed to outfight a squadron of huge Tiger tanks-- is absurd from any sort of realistic view point, but Heath makes it look cool enough and "real" enough to be acceptable. The art (with a little help from the narration) makes it clear exactly how the Haunted Tank is able to win this apparently uneven contest.

That last panel actually might have been more effective without the sound effects, but that's arguable and a minor point regardless. It still ranks as a 9.3 on the Bogart/Karloff Coolness Scale.

Reprint or original--it doesn't really matter. It's a great story regardless.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

This is an effectively spooky cover; a nice combination of science fiction and horror.
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