Monday, April 29, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

I'm not a huge fan of Lin Carter's fiction, but Frank Frazetta gave us a fantastic cover for this particular novel.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Beyond the Black River--a video review

Here's a new video for my YouTube channel--it's a look at "Beyond the Black River," one of Robert E. Howard's original Conan the Barbarian stories.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Police Woman 6/29/47 “Scheming Bridegroom”

This was a short-lived 15 minute show that ran for about a year in 1946 & 1947. In this episode, female police woman Mary Sullivan lays a trap for a man who lures women to their deaths with promises of marriage.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

An absurd number of suspects

Read/Watch 'em In Order #33

After the Thin Man (1936) was made two years after the original, but picks up the action just three days after Nick has solved the Thin Man murders in New York.

He and Nora arrive home in San Francisco, where the movie immediately has some fun counterpointing the crooks, newsboys, boxers and assorted riff-raff that Nick knows with Nora's wealthy and somewhat snotty relatives. It's something that sets the tone of this movie and the rest of the series; though Dashiell Hammett provided the story outline for the sequel, any hint of a hard-boiled atmosphere has evaporated completely. The Thin Man movies are going to be silly fun build around a murder mystery and the chemistry of its two stars.

The Charles' are exhausted from their train trip and just wants to relax, but there's no rest of the weary. Aside from a home full of people determined to give them a surprise party, another case pops up.  It seems that Nora's Aunt Katherine, though she doesn't think much of Nick, needs a detective for a problem she prefers to keep in the family to avoid scandal. One of Nora's cousins has a wayward husband who hasn't been home for days. Nick is asked to find him.

That doesn't take long--the drunken jerk is hanging out at a nightclub, making time with the club's singer. But the singer is in a plot with the club's owner to swindle the husband out of money. The singer's brother has issues with the husband as well. Then there's his wife's previous fiance, who is still in love with her. And--don't you know it--nobody involved as an alibi when the husband is gunned down on a foggy Frisco street.

That makes for a large pool of suspects. Neither Nick nor the local homicide cop make any head-way in the case, though the likeliest suspect seems to be Nora's cousin. But soon, more bodies turn up--one strangled and another also shot. Nick keeps digging up possible clues (and, in fact, has a clue literally thrown to him through his kitchen window), but new facts just seem to keep adding to the general confusion.

In the end, Nick gets all the suspects together in one room, where he spots the clue that allows him to finger the killer.

And we all have fun watching Nick get there. The comedy is turned up to High, but it's sincerely funny stuff in the form of screwball comedy and sincerely witty word play. As I stated in our look at the first film, William Powell and Myrna Loy were perfect together--their comedic timing as Nick and Nora is flawless.

But though the movie is sillier than the original, it still works as a murder mystery. The case is interesting in its own right and director W.S. Van Dyke stages the action with his usual expertise. The fog-enshrouded streets of San Francisco are effectively used to generate a sense of danger at the right moments. A scene in which Nick trails a suspect down staircases to a basement--and then stumbles across a corpse (stiff with rigor mortis) locked in a large hamper--is genuinely tense.

That's Sam Levene on the right.
As was typical of films made during the Studio Era, the actors in the supporting roles are great. Most notable is Sam Levene, one of my favorite character actors of the 1930s and 1940s, playing police Lt. Abrams. A very young Jimmy Stewart is there as well, playing one of the many suspects in the sort of role you're really not used to seeing him play.

There's four more films to go and they will continue to get sillier. But every one of them will be worthwhile. I'm probably going to run out of ways of saying that Powell and Loy are always perfect together, so you'll all will just have to get used to it. I'm going to have to say it at least four more times.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

There Should Always be Room for a Little Whimsey

Superman had a lot of silly, low-threat villains. While Braniac and Luthor were always trying to conquer/destroy worlds or kill the Man of Steel, guys like Toyman and the Prankster were played largely for laughs, pulling off less extreme crimes while playing practical jokes or employing high-tech toy soldiers as minions.

Mr. Mxyzptlk is another such villain, though his seemingly all-powerful magic could often be very dangerous. A version of Mxyzptlk first appeared in the Golden Age, with the Silver Age version introduced in Action Comics #208 (September 1955). He'd pop in from the Fifth Dimension and use his magic in annoying ways to make Superman's life miserable. Eventually, Superman would trick him into saying his name backwards, sending him back to the Fifth Dimension for 90 days and undoing all his magic tricks.

Then there's Bizarro. In Superboy #58 (Nov. 1958), a scientist   invents a duplicating ray that works imperfectly and creates a bizarre clone of Superboy. This first Bizarro is soon destroyed, but in Action Comics #254 (July 1959), Lex Luthor uses the ray to make (he hopes) an evil clone of Superman. But this Bizarro turns out to be more silly than evil.

I'd have to do an entire multi-part series to cover the evolution of Bizarro's story arc, but in a nutshell that duplicating ray turns out to be the most abused item of super-science in the history of the DC Universe. Soon, there's a Bizarro world (a square version of Earth) populated by many, many Bizarro Supermen married to many, many Bizarro Lois Lanes and having Bizarro babies. There are also Bizarro versions of Jimmy Olson, Perry White, many of the Justice League Members, Krypto, Lex Luthor and I'm not sure who else.

Anyway, Bizarro's do everything backwards. They have Ugly Contests instead of Beauty Contests. They eat cold dogs instead of hot dogs. Bizarro dogs are chased by Bizarro mailmen and it takes an hour for a Bizarro Lois to make instant coffee. The original Bizarro (who wore a sign reading Bizarro #1) would also occasionally return to Earth and get into mischief.

Bizarro World got it's own back up feature in Adventure Comics for a time, written purely for laughs by Jerry Siegel. It was in Adventure Comics #286 (July 1961), that Bizarro meets Mr. Mxyzptkl. Or at least he meets a Bizarro version of the imp called Bizarro-Lktpzyxm. But that's close enough for me. I refuse to do another post that requires me to make sure I'm spelling Mxyzptkl correctly, so I'm just going to cover both characters together.

Bizarro #1 is broke, so he decides to go into business as a private detective. And there is indeed a crime spree on Bizarro World. Someone turned the mayor's broken-down mansion into a beautiful building and filled it with priceless art. From a Bizarro perspective, this is a horrible crime, since all that beauty is just plain ugly.

Bizarro checks out several suspects, including the mayor whom Bizarro figures is guilty because he had no motive. But the culprit turns out to be Bizarro-Kltpzyzm, who's idea of mischief is fixing broken stuff the other Bizarros don't consider broken.

Bizarro #1 tries several plans to de-power the imp or trick him into saying his name backwards, but these all fail. It turns out, though, that he simply had to ask Kltpzyzm to surrender, because this is a plan that would NOT work for the original Mr. Mxyzptkl.

And that's pretty much that. The humor in the Bizarro stories is never laugh-out-loud funny and occasionally the jokes fail completely. But there's a sense of whimsy and a sort-of cuteness to the stories that still make them fun to read.

The existence of characters such as Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptkl in the Silver Age DC Universe was, in the end, one of its strengths. It was, after all, a multi-faceted universe with countless diverse elements. It's nice to know that Mort Weisinger and his writers remembered that there was room for some occasional whimsey along
with the constant barrage of Earth-threatening evil plots.

That finishes our look at Superman's Rogue's Gallery. Our next visit to Weisinger's Superman universe, I think, will finish off the Legion of Super Pets with a look at Streaky and Comet.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Six Shooter: A Review and Episode Guide

I've written a review and episode guide for The Six Shooter, a Western that ran on NBC radio for 39 episodes in 1953-54. The series starred James Stewar as Britt Ponset, a "Texas plainsman who wandered through the western territories, leaving behind a trail of still-remembered legends."

Stewart played Britt in a laid-back, folksy manner that made him old-time radio's most purely likable hero. The premise of the show allowed anything from straightforward action to character drama to comedy. One week might find Britt stalking a killer through a dark canyon. The next week might find him judging a preserves-tasting contest. This show is one of the treasures of Old-Time Radio.

The link above is for the Kindle. It should be available for the Nook very soon--Barnes and Noble seems to have a much longer processing time for newly-published ebooks before they show up on their website.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The History of B-Movies

I've made another video for my work at the Ringling College of Art Library. This one is about B-movies from Hollywood's Golden Age--the lower budget but often excellent films made to be the second half of a double feature.

Also available on this YouTube channel are videos I've made on the history of Dell and Gold Key comics, J. Allen St. John and Roy Crane.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Casey, Crime Photographer “King of the Apes” 5/1/47

An animal trainer performing with a circus is killed by one of his trained orangutans during his act. But it’s possible the ape had been trained to commit the murder.

To catch the killer, it’s not just a matter of figuring out who did it—or rather who got the orangutan to do it. It’s also a matter of luring him or her into a trap in order to prove it. And that might just get someone else strangled by a trained ape.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A spacesuit named Oscar

Robert Heinlein is quite properly considered one of the masters of science fiction. He wrote ground-breaking and important novels throughout his career, but my personal favorites are among the "juvenile" novels he wrote in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s.

Today, we'd probably call these young adult novels, but they in no way wrote down to their audience. They are great stories in terms of plot construction, full of intelligent ideas and philosophies. They are simply great science fiction adventure stories.

His later works just don't appeal to me. I admit that this is in part because the views he often presents about subjects such as religion or sexual morality are significantly different from what I believe, but my main problem is that he seemed to often sacrifice good plotting in order to hammer us over the head with those ideas. Gee whiz, if he had just told stories as well as he did in his juveniles, I would have been happy to enjoy his later novels while still disagreeing with him.

(Though, at the risk of seeming inconsistent, I love Starship Troopers despite the fact that a good 40% of the novel consists of pausing the story to pontificate about what makes a healthy society. Then again, I agree in general terms--if not always in specifics--with much of what he has to say in that novel. Also, the armored soldiers vs. alien bugs battles are awesome.)

Of his juveniles, the last one he wrote is my absolute favorite. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel was first serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1958, then published as a book that same year.

It's got a wonderful premise. The setting is the future--we've begun to go out into space and have a permanent city on the Moon. But Earth is otherwise just like 1950s Earth, with the main character (high school student Kip Russell) working as a soda jerk at the local drugstore.

But Kip has plans. Encouraged by his father to self-educate himself beyond what he learns in school, Kip already has an expert's knowledge of engineering, mathematics and astronomy. He wants to go to the Moon more than anything else in the world.

He enters a contest to write a slogan for a soap company, with the first prize being a trip to the Moon. But he wins second prize--a used spacesuit.

Kip tinkers with the suit (he names it Oscar), gets it working and is taking it on a sort of test-run across his back yard when he's kidnapped by aliens and taken to the Moon.

This is the start of an absolutely wonderful adventure story. Kip isn't the only prisoner of the aliens (called Wormfaces by Kip). There's also Peewee, a pre-teen girl who still carries around a doll with her everywhere, but who also happens to be a genius. Then there's Mother Thing, an alien who is the enemy of the Wormfaces and who exudes a sense of protection and love to the humans.

The Wormfaces are planning on soon taking over Earth. Kip, Peewee and Mother Thing are tasked with the job of escaping and hopefully foiling their plans.

During this, Heinlein avoids the trap of turning his young protagonists into action heroes, something that would be realistically beyond their capabilities. Instead, they have to use their brains to problem-solve their way out of dangerous situations. Heinlein uses this basic premise to generate an enormous amount of tension. When Kip and Peewee are trying to escape by travelling 40 miles across the surface of the Moon to the human settlement, there are several problems to overcome. How do they take Mother Thing with them when none of the available space suits fit her? How does Kip share oxygen with Peewee when the valves on her suit aren't compatible with the air tanks he has available? Heinlein takes these problems and adds them to the physically strenuous task of hiking 40 miles over rough terrain and creates a mini-epic within the novel. The entire sequence is un-put-downable.

He does it again later on when the protagonists end up on Pluto. Kip must walk one hundred yards outside a building to plant a radio beacon--but his suit isn't properly insulated against the extreme cold. Once again, there is an epic mini-adventure within the main story.

On top of all this, Kip and Peewee find out that the Wormfaces might just be the least of their problems, when they encounter a sort-of federation of alien races that are debating whether its safe to leave us potentially dangerous humans alive.

The characterizations are among Heinlein's finest. Kip is completely believable as an intelligent teenager, able to keep his cool in dangerous situations largely because he had great parents who taught him self-discipline and how to think for himself. Peewee is precocious and downright adorable--Heinlein finds the perfect balance between portraying her as a genius at science and math while still reminding us that she's just a little girl. Her relationship with Kip, which quickly evolves into a big brother/little sister dynamic, is heartfelt and honest.

Portraying a child genius in a realistic way is never easy. Star Trek: The Next Generation tried it with Wesley Crusher, but (despite Wil Weaton's skill as an actor) was largely a failure in that Wesley is in the end simply annoying. But Heinlein succeeds (as did Orson Scott Card in Ender's Game). Peewee seems very real and, though she can get on Kip's nerves from time to time, we quickly come to love her as much as does Kip.

Another strength of the novel is that Heinlein never loses track of just how wondrous outer space is. Even in the midst of dangerous adventures, Heinlein smoothly integrates descriptions of the mountains of the Moon or the landscape of Pluto or the Milky Way as seen from a planet in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. He reminds us of the enormous scale of space--of the mind-boggling distances between planets and stars and galaxies.

Some SF universes, such as Star Trek and Star Wars, make interstellar travel pretty routine. And this is fine--that's a part of the stories being told in those worlds. But it's nice to be reminded that traveling in space isn't something that will ever be completely routine. And this isn't just because Space is a harsh environment that is always trying to kill us. It's also because Space is...well, Space--full of planets and nebula and neutron stars and countless other majestic sights. Even when Heinlein is tossing his characters into what seems to be certain death, he never lets us forget that.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When Villains clash

There's so many super-villain running around most comic book universes that it would be surprising if they didn't get in each other's way from time to time.

This is what happened in Avengers #154 -156 (December 1976-February 1977), with a side trip to Super-Villain Team Up #9. One bad guy is Attuma, an Atlantian warlord who was always trying to overthrow Namor and then subjugate all us pathetic surface dwellers.

He wants to steal a new device--a "chloro-beam" designed to increase food production in the oceans, but that Attuma can use to turn his henchmen into super-powered giants. I'm not sure that makes sense, since the name implies it was affecting chlorophyll and not other sorts of cells, but what the heck. Comic book science is pretty all-encompassing.

So his plan is this: Attack and capture the Avengers; equip them with slave collars to force them to attack Namor; then, while they are all hopefully destroying each other, he'll attack the sea base at which the chloro-beam is being tested and steal it. But Namor isn't where Attuma thought he would be and the Avengers end up attacking Dr. Doom instead.

I enjoy the way the story plays out, with several sets of character acting independently with them all coming together in the same place and time at the end. A superpowered thug of Attuma's--named Tyrak--attacks Avengers Mansion by surprise and knocks out most of the team. Only the Beast escapes. It's a very nice touch that the Beast realizes he doesn't stand a chance and just runs away, intending on getting reinforcements.

Attuma attaches the slave collars to his captives and sends them after Namor, who at the time has was residing at Hydrobase, a floating U.S. government facility. But the story arc taking place in Super Villain Team Up has put Namor in Latvaria, while Dr. Doom is at Hyrobase.

The Avengers don't fight well while enslaved and are captured. In the meantime, Beast has recruited two heroes who had been involved in the previous storyline--the recently resurrected Wonder Man and the World War II-era speedster with the unfortunate name of the Whizzer. (Seriously, even in the 1940s, how could that name NOT have made 8-year-old boys giggle?)

Attuma captures the chloro-beam. The Avengers work together to allow the Vision to escape from the trap Doom has put them in. Namor shows up and mistakes Beast and his allies as Attuma's henchmen. Vision talks to Doom and convinces him to join forces with the Avengers against Attuma. Everyone ends up fighting Attuma, his troops and a now giant-sized Tyrak. Doom snitches the chloro-beam for himself, which means the Avengers have one last fight ahead of them even after Attuma is defeated.

The art is by George Perez, whose work is always exceptional but who really seems to shine  particularly bright on team books. Gerry Conway wrote the script and handles the twists and turns quite expertly. I really do enjoy the way he took the characters down different roads to get them all to the same place.

The way the story was marketed back in 1976, though, does touch on a pet peeve of mine. It encompasses three issues of Avengers, but it's a four-parter. Part 2, which was the fight between the enslaved Avengers and Dr. Doom, carried over into an issue of Super-Villain Team Up. (With that part of the story written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Jim Shooter.)

I grant that events taking place in the team up book cross over with this story line, but all the same I dislike this. It forces you to buy an issue of a comic you don't necessarily want to get the entire story. I understand that comic books are a business and must be marketed effectively. And I love it when characters from different books cross over with each other. That can be a lot of fun and its a legitimate way to get readers interested in other books.

But buying a particular book should always be a choice. It should never be forced upon you. Crossing stories throughout different books has become annoyingly common over the last couple of decades. In 1976, it was fortunately more rare. And comics were only 30 cents at the time, so it wasn't has painful a financial experience buying one as it is now. But was still an annoying thing to have to do. Besides, at the time, comic book stores were still rare. You got comics off the rack at your local 7-11, so missing an issue was all too real a possibility.

But I suppose that after 36 years, it's time to stop whining about having to spend an extra 30 cents. On the other hand, if I had saved that 30 cents and invested it wisely, I might be a multi-billionaire today.

Darn you, Marvel Comics. See what you did to me.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

I'm not sure that attacking an enemy-held position by surfing in is a tactically wise option. But, by golly, it sure looks cool!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Richard Diamond, Private Eye: “William Logan and the Ivory Statue” 4/5/50

A man delivers a package to Diamond just before collapsing and dying with a bullet in his back. All this snowballs into a case involving a 7-foot-tall master criminal being chased by the chief strangler from a cult of Thuggees.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

March 3, 1967--Part 2

The Wild, Wild West was a combination of two genres that were popular in the 1960s--Bond-style spy stories and Westerns. Though the term hadn't been coined yet, it's also an example of steampunk, with both the good guys and the bad guys using devises that were often a little too advanced to believably exist in the 1870s.

But that's okay, because the show played its premise straight, while Robert Conrad (as Secret Service agent James West) and Ross Martin (as master-of-disguise Artemis Gordon) each brought a distinctive personality to their respective roles. Also, the gadgets they used--such as West's derringer kept in a spring-loaded sleeve holster--were pretty darn awesome.

The show was bizarre from the get-go, involving anything from super-explosives of near-nuclear level to a Fountain of Youth serum to steam-powered and life-sized marionettes. But no matter how outlandish the weekly Macguffin might be, Conrad and Martin always played it straight. That, plus the cool devises and kinetic fight choreography, meant The Wild, Wild West was consistently entertaining.

The March 3, 1967 episode ("The Night of the Surreal McCoy") was certainly outlandish, but it could not help but be entertaining. Because this was one of ten appearances by 3'10" actor Michael Dunn as the mad scientist Dr. Miguelito Loveless.

Gee whiz, Loveless may be the single greatest villain ever--simply because Dunn made him so much pure fun to watch. Dunn was a very talented actor and singer, as well as extremely intelligent and (by all accounts) a class act in real life. His portrayal of Loveless was a bizarre but completely believable combination of genius, boyish charm and enthusiasm, meglomaniacal egotism and a complete disregard for human life. He was a ruthless killer who often planned to massacre thousands of people, but Dunn still made you kind of like him. It was a role tailor-made for him--an instance of exactly the right actor in exactly the right role.

This time around, he's developed a way of using sound to transport people inside paintings, where the scenes depicted in the paintings become three-dimensional reality. (Loveless explains this pretty much by using the word "metaphysics" in a sentence.) Using this technique, he's able to sneak into a museum and steal some priceless jewels. But that's just the beginning. His master plan involves using paintings to sneak an army of assassins into the residences of every single leader of every single country, killing the lot of them all at once.

To back him up, he's recruited a cattle baron and the seven fastest guns in the West as henchmen. It takes West and Gordon about half the episode to figure out what's going on. By then, West is a prisoner of Loveless, but Gordon shows up in disguise as usual and they soon get a chance to foil Loveless's plot--though they first have to win a gun battle against the seven fastest gunmen. West and Gordon soldier on, despite the fact that--unlike most episodes--there is no pretty girl handy for James West to sweep off her feet.

It would have been a good episode no matter what, but tossing Dr. Loveless into a Wild, Wild West plot always made it better.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. started out as a relatively serious spy show with a large dose of tongue-in-cheek humor. Like The Wild Wild West, it benefited from having two stars (Robert Vaughn and David McCallum) who played off each other very well and who brought charm and likability to their roles.

It had a good premise also. U.N.C.L.E. was an international spy organization trying to stop the evil organization known as THRUSH from taking over the world. Every week, some innocent or average person would somehow get involved in helping top agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin complete their latest mission.

By the way, according to the novelizations of the show that were published in the 1960s, THRUSH was founded by Professor Moriarty's top assassin Sebastian Moran after Moriarty fell to his death of Reichenbach Falls. I don't think the actual TV show ever mentioned this, but it's too cool an idea not to accept at face value.

By the time we get to March 3, 1967 (well into the show's third season), the silliness and tongue-in-cheek elements had increased and The Man from U.N.C.L.E was becoming more of a comedy than an action show. This is why a lot of fans prefer the earlier seasons and I admit I fall into that camp as well. But the cast was good and the humor was done well more often than not, so the show remained entertaining throughout its run.

The March 3 episode was "The Matterhorn Affair" in which a hapless and inept used car salesman (played by comedian Bill Dana) comes into possession of a film strip that contains a valuable secret. Solo and Kuryakin spend the episode either preventing THRUSH from kidnapping him or rescuing him after he is kidnapped. (He's actually kidnapped twice before the show is over.) A lot of the humor is drawn from the fact that Dana's character doesn't actually know he has the film. When he "refuses to talk" under the threat of torture, the head THRUSH agent thinks he must be a top spy with nerves of steel.

This is probably the weakest of the shows broadcast that night, but it's still not bad. Dana was a pretty good comedian and, though a few of the gags fall flat, there's enough successful humor (along with a couple of nifty fight scenes) to make the episode work. I do think the first season was the best--where the humor was less broad and the balance between humor and drama was better maintained. But whenever you get to watch Illya Kuryakin take on four THRUSH henchmen in a fist fight and win, your time can never be considered wasted.

The Avengers was one of the first British-made TV series to air in the U.S.--something that was relatively rare in the days before cable and satellite television.

Like The Man from U.N.C.L.E, it was a show that gradually grew more outlandish and tongue-in-cheek as the series progressed. Originally, John Steed (Patrick McNee) was a spy who partnered with amateur sleuth Dr. David Keel, with Keel being the main character. When the actor who played Keel left the show, Steed become the main character and was revamped into the bowler hat-wearing old-school English gentleman we're more familiar with. Over the course of the show's run, Steed has several female partners. The most popular episodes--and the ones that found an audience in the States--co-starred Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel, an expert in martial arts and a certified genius in several areas of the arts and sciences.

It's really no wonder the Steed/Peel years of the show are the most fondly remembered. Unlike U.N.C.L.E., the additional humor and general silliness made the show better. McNee and Rigg bantered with each other to perfection--their chemistry together might just be the only case in the history of acting that nearly rivaled the chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy. The two fought bizarre criminals with unfailing British reserve, effortlessly trading witticisms and occasional innuendos while facing assassins, thugs and the occasional killer robot. Steed was the old-school Englishman, while Mrs. Peel was the chic modern women. But there was nothing forced about their partnership--it all seemed perfectly natural. (Whether their relationship extended beyond their professional lives was always left vague. Even the actors and the head writer all had different opinions about this.)

Also, though the other ladies who starred in the show were certainly pleasant to gaze upon, Diane Rigg as Emma Peel was--well, she was Diane Rigg as Emma Peel. If you look up "Hubba Hubba" in the Oxford English Dictionary, it has Emma Peel's picture to act as the definition.

The March 3 episode was "The Living Dead." Steed and Peel are sent to investigate the sighting of a ghost in a cemetery, located near the site of a tragic mining accident a few years earlier.

Why the two best agents in England are sent to look into the sighting of a ghost by a drunken man is not explained, but it soon proves fortuitous. The agents gradually realize that something strange is going on. Mrs. Peel disappears. Steed eventually discovers a large underground complex and is taken prisoner. Mrs. Peel is already in a cell in the same complex, where the head villain conveniently explains that the place is funded by a foreign power to safely hide an army while they launch a nuclear strike.

Steed is put in front of a firing squad. Mrs. Peel breaks out of her cell. The climax is hilarious, with the firing squad going through a lengthy series of absurd rifle drills before shooting Steed, giving Mrs. Peel time to fight a guard, get a sub-machine gun and open fire on the firing squad in the nick of time. It's a silly story from start to finish, but the silliness is a strength, not a weakness.

It's interesting that The Man from Uncle lost something when it became sillier, while The Avengers gained something when it did the same thing. But then, Mrs. Peel would make any show nicer to look at.

Laredo was an entertaining show to watch mostly because of Neville Brand. Brand was one of the many skilled character actors that used to populate TV shows and movies. He was a pug-ugly guy with a distinctive gravely voice. He was great at playing villains--for instance, he was downright scary as a brutal killer in the 1950 film noir classic D.O.A.

But he could also ham up his performance a little more and turn on enough charm to be an effective combination hero and comic relief. This made him a good fit for a show like Laredo, which was almost as much a comedy as it was a Western adventure show. Brand played Reese Bennett, a slightly dense guy with a tendency to be a bit of a blowhard, but still dependable in dangerous situations.

Brand, Peter Brown and William Smith played three Texas Rangers, first appearing on an episode of The Virginian before spinning off into their own show. The three had a good rapport with one another, bringing enough humor to the pretty average scripts to make the show entertaining. Later, Robert Wolders joined the cast as Erik Hunter, though I don't think he ever fit comfortably into the group dynamic. All things considered, if Laredo never had the depth of story and characterization that made Gunsmoke or the early seasons of Bonanza true classics, it was still good for what it was.

Smith and Brown don't appear in the March 3 episode, titled "The Small Chance Ghost." It's mostly Brand's show. Reese Bennett arrives at the town of Small Chance and finds it almost deserted. All that's left is a former army sergeant, an elderly telegraph operator, the sheriff and a female saloon owner. Everyone else has fled, because the town is apparently haunted.

Soon the sheriff and then the telegraph operator are murdered. It all turns out to be a plot by the sergeant and the woman, who have discovered gold in a mine located under the town. In fact, another former soldier--a really big guy named Monte--has been pretty much living in the mine digging up the gold. With everyone else run away or dead, these three can keep the gold for themselves.

But now they have to kill Reese. And the woman also plans for them to kill or abandon Monte, so there is dissension in the ranks of the villains. Reese ends up a prisoner in the mine just as Erik Hunter shows up looking for him.

The episode is typical of the show. It's fun, though there are times when the humor falls flat. For instance, there's an almost-slapstick sequence in which the villains arrange several consecutive "accidental" deaths for Reese--traps he keeps avoiding through dumb luck. This simply doesn't generate the laughs it should.

But there are some sincerely funny moments as well, in addition to a good fight scene between Erik and the sergeant at the climax. And the episode has some depth given to it by Edward Binns and Ted Cassidy (Lurch from the Addams Family), who play the two soldiers. These two have a George-and-Lennie style relationship that the two actors handle very nicely.

(By the way, if you don't get the George and Lennie reference, you must now ask the person standing closest to you to dope-slap you. Hard.)

 And so that's it for our look at the network TV shows that aired on Friday, March 3, 1967. Thanks again to Gary Shapiro for sending me these discs. I enjoyed watching them. Though I'm a little annoyed by the experience as well. I like to whine and complain about how much TV usually stinks and how it killed dramatic radio as a viable part of our pop culture. In fact, I seriously enjoy complaining about TV. It's one of the highlights of my life.

Now I've watched seven different shows that all aired on the same night and I liked each of them. This ruins everything. -sigh-

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Private Eye and the Vampire

One of the strengths of Marvel's 1970s Tomb of Dracula was the cast of characters that made up the vampire hunters. In the first issue, there was Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula. But as the ranks of the good guys grew, he was overshadowed by others who were frankly much cooler than he ever managed to be.

There was Quincy Harker, the elderly and wheelchair-bound son of Jonathan and Mina Harker. He was leader of the group, rich enough to pay expenses and get his wheelchair tricked-out so that it could do things like fire wooden, garlic-tipped darts.

There was Taj Nital, the big Indian who lost his son to a vampire attack.

There was Rachel Van Helsing, Abraham Van Helsing's granddaughter--an action girl armed with a crossbow.

There was Blade, of course, who normally worked alone as he stalked vampires with his bandoleer of wooden throwing knives. Because of the movie trilogy, Blade is probably the best known of the characters, though eventually he stopped using the throwing knives and went to different and significantly less cool weaponry. (We'll be looking at an early Blade story soon just to show how awesome he used to be.)

And then there's Hannibal King, who debuted in Tomb of Dracula #25 (October 1974). He's a private detective, born in the States but working in London, who is hired by a young widow to find out why Dracula killed her husband.

It's a great story in a great series. Gene Colan's art work through the run of the series was always perfect, expertly showing us the horrific elements of the stories without every being gross or overly graphic. Marv Wolfman, who began writing the series starting with the seventh issue and really helped it find its proper voice, smoothly mixed single-issue tales with extended story arcs.

King's debut is constructed as a typical hard-boiled P.I. tale, with King himself giving us the expected first-person narration. If the story has a weakness, it's that the short length means the case he investigates if pretty straightforward and isn't that difficult to solve. He stops by a tavern the dead man used to frequent and nearly gets killed. He checks out the accounting office where the man worked and pretty much stumbles over an important clue. This eventually brings him to a warehouse where Dracula and a few vampire minions are hiding out. It a very arguable point, but a more complex case in the vein of Chandler and Hammett, stretched over two or three issues, might have been better.

But there's something going on within that story to give it an extra layer of awesome.

If you don't know the character of Hannibal King, I'm afraid there's no way to talk about it without giving away the twist at the end of his first appearance. King is himself a vampire. But unlike all other vampires as portrayed in the Marvel Universe, he retained his humanity. Draining blood from corpses or stealing from blood banks, he survived without ever attacking anyone.

It also turns out he was vampirized (I may have just coined that word, by the way) by Deacon Frost, the same vampire who killed Blade's mother. It takes him awhile to get around to it, but you can see Marv Wolfman was already thinking about getting Blade (who hates all vampires with a passion) to team up with the one morally good vampire in existence.

Wolfman and Colan do an excellent job of hiding clues of King's real nature throughout the story--such as King having no reflection in a mirror that in the background of one panel.

I dislike the modern Twilight-inspired trend of turning vampires into romantic figures who make teenage girls go all atwitter. Vampires, when handled correctly, are great villains. You can make individual vampire characters sympathetic, but they still gotta be the bad guys to be effective.

So I am particularly impressed that Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan managed to give us a good guy vampire that I approve of. They do so by using him in a horror series that was already giving us strong stories, giving him a good back-story, and making him an exception to the rule that becoming a vampire turns you into a soulless monster.

No one has ever managed to come up with a group of monster hunters as interesting and varied as did the creative people behind Tomb of Dracula. Hannibal King was a worthy addition to this group.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

This is a very effective and creepy cover.

And, as another extra--I've been playing with some new video/audio editing software I now have access to at work. (We have it to make videos about various art related subjects for the library's YouTube website, such as the history of Dell and Gold Key comics I posted recently.)

So I made the following video for practice. Last week, I included a video made by someone else highlighting Dell Comics covers. Here's my video showing one comic book cover for each year from 1934 to 1975:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

X Minus One: “A Wind is Rising” 10/3/57

Two men are studying a planet where the winds normally blow at hurricane velocity and a storm can get the wind speeds up to 200 miles per hour.  But they have a shelter and even a vehicle designed to withstand such winds. So they seem to be in good shape… right up until they find out just how bad a real storm on this planet can be.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

March 3, 1967--Part 1

Gary Shapiro--host of the excellent interview show From the Bookshelf--did me a great kindness recently. Knowing that it might make an interesting post for this blog, he sent me a set of DVDs on which he included seven network television shows that aired on the night of March 3, 1967.

Well, he was right. It will indeed make an interesting post. In fact, there's enough to talk about that it's going to be a two- or three-parter.

Anyway, that Friday night in 1967 included the ABC shows The Time Tunnel and The Avengers; NBC's Tarzan, Man from UNCLE and Laredo; and Hogan's Heroes & The Wild Wild West on CBS.

We'll start with The Time Tunnel, a show I've talked about before. This was about two scientists who are lost in the time stream, dropping down into different times and places each episode while the scientists back in the Time Tunnel complex try to bring them home. It was without question a premise rich in potential for great stories.

The March 3 episode is "The Death Merchant," written by the husband & wife team of Bob and Wanda Duncan. It is, I think, one of the strongest episodes in The Time Tunnel's short run, though it also highlights some of the show's problems.

The two scientists (Doug Phillips and Tony Newman) drop in to Gettysburg during the height of the battle in July 1863. The plot starts off with several awkward contrivances in order to set up the story--Tony is given amnesia by an exploding artillery shell, then mistaken by a Confederate patrol to be the courier they've been waiting for. With no memory of anything else, Tony assumes this must be the case and goes along with it. In the meantime, Doug falls in with a Union officer who's tracking the Confederates. This sets the two men--normally the best of friends--against each other.

It really is painfully contrived, but once the story gets going, it also gets interesting. The Confederates are trying to retrieve a large supply of gunpowder from an arms dealer. The arms dealer turns out to be Machiavelli, who was accidentally caught up by the Time Tunnel and dropped into what is his future. He's getting involved in the Civil War pretty much just because he appreciates observing a war in which the armies are more evenly matched and so wants to help the South close its supply deficit.

The episode is directed by Nathan Juran, a talented veteran of B-movies and Ray Harryhausen films--and it benefits enormously from his skill. The story is laid out in a very straightforward manner, allowing us to follow the plot through its various twists and turns. The action scenes are handled very well, with fun and enthusiastic fight choreography.

I have always wondered, though, when and where two career scientists (presumably physicists) learned to fight so well in both hand-to-hand combat and with a variety of weapons from different eras. Heck, in this episode alone, they use their fists, swords and pistols with skill. It's not as if they were planning on getting lost in the time stream and so got some training first. They must have attended one heck of a grad school.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the episode is the great job it does in humanizing the supporting characters, something helped along by talented character actors. Most notably, John Crawford as a Union officer and Kevin Hagen as a Southern sergeant both do superb jobs of bringing their characters to life. The end result of this is a real sense of the tragedy of war--a reminder that the people getting killed on both sides in the Civil War were often good people. This plays off nicely against Machiavelli (effectively played with a serving of Large Ham by Malachi Throne), who just wants to watch and enjoy a bloody battle.

By the way, there's no historical accuracy at all to the way Machiavelli is portrayed here--but he's a great villain nonetheless.

Also, props should be given to James Darren as Tony. Because of the amnesia plot line, he's effectively playing another character through most of this episode and does a terrific job of mixing confusion, exhaustion and anger into the part.

There's also an effective character moment back in the Time Tunnel complex, where the general in charge and the top scientist butt heads over whether they should concentrate on retrieving Doug and Tony or first work on returning Machiavelli to his proper time, even if that means losing track of their time-lost friends.

But, as I said, the episode also highlights one of the show's consistent weaknesses in that it never clearly establishes the rules of time travel that exist within the Time Tunnel universe. At one point, a character says that Machiavelli can't change history at Gettysburg, but Doug is working frantically to stop the gunpowder from getting to the Confederates. If history can't be changed, what difference does this make? Besides, there's at least one episode in the series in which Doug and Tony are working frantically to prevent history from being changed. And at least one where they are trying to change history. Oh, and there's the one in which Doug and Tony are in the 19th Century Old West trying to stop aliens from sucking away all of Earth's oxygen. But if history can't be changed, then the Earth can't die in the 19th Century, can it?

This is all complicated by the fact that Machiavelli--while he's out of his proper time--can't be killed. At one point, he's shot several times at close range, but the bullets apparently vanish or pass harmlessly through him. So does that mean Doug and Tony can't be killed? Or is it because Machiavelli is historically important? Machiavelli thinks its because he's in (from his perspective) the future and therefore is technically already dead, but he's a 15th Century philosopher, so what the heck does he know about time travel?

I enjoy The Time Tunnel for what it is, but it could have been so much better if the writers and producers had thought all this through. Good science fiction needs rules--things that the characters can or cannot do on a consistent basis--in order to build a believable universe. As fun as it could be, The Time Tunnel never quite succeeded in this area.

Tarzan starred Ron Ely as the Lord of the Jungle. His depiction of Tarzan is an interesting one, setting aside the monosyllabic ape man that Johnny Weissmuller had popularized in movie adaptations and playing the part as an educated and articulate man. So to an extent, he was much closer to Edgar Rice Burroughs' original character. Ely's Tarzan had been raised by apes, then returned to civilization to be educated. Afterwards, he decided he preferred the jungle and moved back there. There's no Jane in this version of the Tarzan universe, but he did care for an orphan named Jai (played by Manual Padilla, Jr.)

The March 3, 1967 episode was "Jungle Dragnet," which manages to rack up a pretty impressive body count before the end credits role. The villains are an African revolutionary named Kasembi and an American soldier-of-fortune named Thompson, who are using mercenaries dressed as government soldiers to terrorize villages and get them to sign over their mineral rights. This is because they've learned that there are rich oil deposits in the area.

When a geologist in one village also learns of the oil, the bad guys shut him up by massacring the entire village. Only the geologists young daughter survives. She has to be tracked down and killed also, because she might also know about the oil. Tarzan gets to the girl first and the bulk of the episode is Tarzan avoiding or outwitting the villains while he gets the girl to safety.

There are several things that make this a pretty strong episode. First, as in The Time Tunnel, several fine actors give the various characters real personality. In this case, Kasembi is played by William Marshall, who a few years later would play Blacula in the infamous 1972 blaxploitation film. But in my mind, his real geek cred comes from playing the no-longer-quite-sane Dr. Daystrom  in the Star Trek episode "The Ultimate Computer." Marshall had a great voice and could exude intelligence and authority. But he could also give an aura of vulnerability to his characters. Kasembi is a perfect role for him--an educated man who had once dreamed of leading his nation to freedom, but had allowed tragedy and bitterness to drive him into a scheme involving mass murder for profit while still giving lip service to political ideology.

Thompson is played by Simon Oakland, a fine character actor who seems to have guest-starred in pretty much every television show every made, often playing short-tempered authority figures. Here, he portrays an absolutely reprehensible character--a man willing to kill anyone to achieve his goal. What makes him interesting is that you at first assume he's in it just for the money, but he does get a few lines of dialogue that imply he actually does at least partially believe the revolutionary politics he spouts.

Putting these two great actors together and allowing them to play off each other is part of what makes this a strong episode. It's also a good, solid story with an unusual conclusion.

This was a prime time show when it first aired, but I'm virtually certain I remember watching it on Saturday mornings when I was a kid--I assume it was rerun or syndicated later on and marketed towards kids. So--not having seen an episode in years--I was a little surprised at the amount of violence it contained. The poor little girl watches as her father takes an arrow in the back; an entire village is massacred, with the bodies lying around like cockroaches; and the village chieftain deliberately sacrifices his life in a ploy to hide the girl. But the violence isn't visually graphic, its a legitimate part of the plot and it gives the story a lot of honest emotional impact. I really should have been outside playing on Saturday mornings, but I don't think watching Tarzan left any psychological scars.

By the way, here's an interview with Ron Ely about Tarzan, recorded a year or so ago when the series was released on DVD. I got to contribute a question to the interview via Facebook because--well, because I'm awesome.

Hogan's Heroes ran from 1965 until 1971, running a little longer than World War II did in real life. It's premise, of course, involved Allied POWs in a German Stalag who were running spy and sabotage missions. Led by Colonel Hogan (played as a sort of cocky con man by Bob Crane), the supposed prisoners would pull off an absurdly elaborate mission each week and once again pull the wool over the eyes of those darn Nazis.

In the 3/3/67 episode, for instance, they need to convince a recently captured Free French pilot that his girl has not double-crossed him--a story the Nazis are using to try to make him talk and give away the location of his airbase. So they smuggle the girl into the camp, stage a play that involves a wedding, con a Gestapo officer into allowing the French guy to appear in it, and sneak the girl into the wedding scene. The camp commander, Colonel Klink, is playing the minister, which apparently makes the wedding legal. Or something like that.

With his faith in the girl restored, the French pilot now refuses to talk.

The show has often been criticized for making light of the Nazis--in real life the proponents of one of the most purely evil ideologies that has ever existed. In Hogan's Heroes, they are mocked as incompetent clowns.

But others have argued that's the point. Mel Brooks (who mocked Hitler in the movie The Producers) was once asked if it was possible to get revenge on Hitler through comedy. Brooks answered "Yes, absolutely. Of course it is impossible to take revenge for 6 million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths." (I've added the italics.)

Mocking the Nazis holds them up to ridicule in a way that really can rob them of the ability to gain power over others. I think this is a legitimate point-of-view and, while I respect those who have a problem with the concept of Hogan's Heroes, I myself am okay with the show.

Besides, John Banner (Sgt. Schultz) was an Austrian Jew who lost most of his family to the Nazis. Robert Clary (Corporal LeBeau) spent time in Buchenwald and lost a lot of his family as well. So if those guys were okay with Hogan's Heroes, then so am I. Banner, in fact, once responded to criticisms of Sgt. Schultz by saying "Schultz is not a Nazi. I see Schultz as the representative of some kind of goodness in any generation."

In fact, I would argue that Schultz is the heart of the show. First, John Banner was a great comedic actor. Also, Schultz is shown to be disdainful of the Nazis and to be a decent human being. The running gag for his character, of course, is that he often sees a lot of what Hogan and his men are doing, but refuses to acknowledge it. He doesn't want to rock the boat, get into trouble and end up getting sent to the Russian Front.

But there's an alternate interpretation of Schultz's character that--even though I doubt the show's writers intended it--I like enough to consider "true." This interpretation is that Schultz isn't as dumb as he acts. He realizes Hogan is running a full-scale espionage operation, even if he doesn't always know the details. He doesn't say anything not just out of self-preservation, but because he hates the Nazis and this is his way of helping knock them out of power. In his own way, Sgt. Schultz is working to save Germany from the evil men who have taken it over.

Yes, that's right. In the universe of Hogan's Heroes, the greatest hero and bravest man is Sgt. "I know nothing!" Schultz.

That's it for this week. If I can do so without once again rambling on far too long, I'll cover the remaining four shows in next week's post. Otherwise, I'll make this series a three-parter.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

One Hit and One Strike Out

The anthology book Strange Sports Stories (published by DC Comics) ran for just six issues in 1973 & 74.

It's easy to see why it had a short run. It's a fun idea (sports-oriented stories given a supernatural or science fiction twist), but I suspect that the theme was limiting enough to give a lot of the stories a very contrived feel.

The very first issue (October 1973) is a good example of this. There's two stories in this one, both written by Frank Robbins and illustrated by Curt Swan. In the first, a pro baseball team plays against the devil for their souls, while in the second a group of supernatural creatures teach a teenager to.. um, well, to bowl. Because that's what supernatural creatures spend their time doing.

The first story--"To Beat the Devil"--is pretty good. A team called the Meteors is flying to the World Series when their plane is essentially hijacked by Satan. Satan will play them in a game. If they win, they go free. If he wins, he gets their souls.

The set-up is a little sloppy. The devil is pretty much just forcing them to play, possibly dooming them to Hell whether they were destined to eventually go there or not. There needed to be more of a hook. For instance, in the Charlie Daniels song "The Devil Goes Down to Georgia," the fiddle player was given a choice about whether to compete with the devil and would get a golden fiddle if he won. That's the sort of thing that needed to be happening here. I suspect there just wasn't time for anything more complex in a story that only runs 12 pages total.

Also, the Meteors manager and players accept the situation with remarkable aplomb, but I kind of like that despite it's lack of reality. Heck, professional baseball players have to deal with the unexpected, whether it be a grounder taking a bad hop or being kidnapped by the universe's Source of all Evil.

Once the game itself starts, the story does get interesting. The devil plays all nine positions on his team, teleporting from one spot to another as needed. He hits one home run in the first inning, all while keeping the Meteors scoreless.

When the manager realizes that Satan can't be in two places at once, he comes up with a plan for forcing his opponent into a forfeit. But a little bit of improvisation from the first baseman will be needed to make sure the plan works.

So despite a sloppy set-up, the overall story is reasonably well-executed. I remember reading this when it first came out and deciding that this was a fictional retelling of something that really happened to the 1969 Mets when they were flying to Baltimore for the first game of the World Series. There's nothing in the story that suggests this, but it was an idea that simply made the tale all that much more fun for me.

The second story, though, doesn't really work at all. Swan's art work makes it work great, but the concept and execution are just weak.

A teenager named Rip Van Wynne is a lousy bowler, tossing gutter ball after gutter ball as he embarrasses himself in front of his friends. He goes for a walk in the nearby woods and stumbles across the same guys who had put Rip Van Winkle to sleep a few centuries earlier.

They don't put Rip down for a 20-year nap. Instead, they give him a few bowling tips--enough to turn him into an instant expert. Returning to the bowling alley, Rip proceeds to bowl strike after strike.

But he'd been warned never to bowl a perfect game, because then he'd be guilty of the sin of vanity. So when he ignores this warning and tries to throw his last strike, one of the little people supernaturally kicks the ball into the gutter.

It's a silly ending to a silly story, because Rip wasn't acting like an arrogant jerk. The worst you can say about him was that he was hoping to impress one of the girls in his group of friends, but that doesn't sound all that horrible. Heck, it's not as if he were burning an entire civilization to the ground for the sake of the girl! 

The story makes it sound as if an athlete is guilty of vanity if he simply performs at his best level. Which is, of course, just plain dumb. An athlete might let vanity get the best of him when he wins--but he might also stay a humble and decent person. Bowling a perfect game is not inherently prideful.

If the story had simply depended on charm or humor to carry through with the idea, it might have worked. But the characters are too flat to generate either charm or humor.

"A Tall Tale of Tenpins" is a good example of why Strange Sports Stories didn't catch on. It was simply too limiting a theme for a monthly anthology comic. Weak and contrived plots, with the writer desperately trying to force a sports story into a fantasy or science fiction setting, were pretty much inevitable.

But the idea of the '69 Mets beating Satan in a game of baseball is wonderful. Heck, if the worst team in baseball can take the whole world by surprise when they suddenly win 100 games and take the Major League powerhouse Orioles in five games, then they likely could out-play the devil.  There's a part of me that still believes it really happened. I still don't care that the story doesn't hint at all that the Meteors secretly represent the Mets.

So--despite its flaws--I'm glad Strange Sports Stories was around.

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