Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: "Candlelight" 6/16/44

The Ranger tries to complete the apparently simple task of reuniting an elderly couple with the son they thought was killed during the Civil War. But this task is complicated by accusations of wartime treachery, kidnapping and--perhaps--murder.

This is another episode that plays a little fast and loose with the Ranger's timeline. It's set just five years after the war ends, but the Ranger's teen-aged nephew Dan (who was a baby when his dad was killed in a post-Civil War ambush) plays a part in the tale. Dan sure grows up awful fast.

I like coherent continuity in my fictional universes, but this sort of timeline compression never bothered me. The Ranger is meant to be a legendary figure, so popping him down in whatever Old West setting is best for a particular story is fine by me. That seems to be well within the masked man's abilities. Heck, this episode isn't even the most egregious example of this.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

If anyone can afford a ghost writer, it'd be Tony Stark

For most of their existence, Superheroes were largely confined to the pages of comic books and newspaper strips. But there were also cartoons, radio shows, movie serials and eventually feature films & television.

And there have been prose novels. The first of these would have been George Lowther’s 1942 novel The Adventures of Superman, which was also the first Superman story credited to a writer other than Jerry Siegel.

But prose novels based on comic book superheroes remained a very rare thing. The dam began to break, though, in 1978, when Elliot Maggin wrote The Last Son of Krypton, a novel I’ve written about before.

That same year, Marvel Comics started to get into the act as well with the “Marvel Novel Series.” Beginning that year, there were 11 novels (well, 10 novels and one short story anthology) published that featured Marvel characters such as Spider Man, Captain America, Hulk, Dr. Strange and the Avengers. Most of these were pretty good and several were excellent.

One of my favorites from this series is the Iron Man novel And Call My Killer… Modok! (1979), by William Rotsler.  Rotsler was a talented artist and a fun writer. He turned out a several tie-in novels for Star Trek and Planet of the Apes, wrote some Tom Swift novels and several movie novelizations. This includes the novelization of the Ray Harryhausen film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. I didn’t know about this last credit until I did a little research for this post, but being the guy who gets to novelize a Ray Harryhausen film automatically makes you awesome.

But for now, we’re talking about Iron Man. The plot is a great one—involving attempts by A.I.M, the organization of evil scientists, to steal the Iron Man armor. The armored Avenger manages to foil a couple of attempts at this, then sets a trap for the bad guys. This plan sort of works, but it results in Tony Stark being held prisoner at a remote A.I.M. facility while being forced to build a suit of armor for them.

The main villain is, of course, MODOK. If you aren't familiar with him, he’s basically a giant head with an atrophied body and vast mental powers who rides around in a high-tech weaponized hover chair. Which is, of course, nearly as awesome as getting to novelize a Ray Harryhausem film.

The plot is very well-constructed and Rotsler does a great job with the action scenes. The most notable fight scenes are at the finale, with Tony forced to fight first an evil Iron Man and then MODOK himself.

Tony’s best friend and chauffeur Happy Hogan gets a sequence in which he holds off a horde of A.I.M agents with a submachine gun, which is nearly as awesome as either having a weaponized hover chair or novelizing a Ray Harryhausen film. Nick Fury, nerdy SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell and the SHIELD helicarrier all get some action as well. And Call My Killer… MODOK! is an exuberant read from start to finish.

By the 1990s, superhero novels were no longer rare. For a time both Marvel and DC were churning out quite a few novels featuring their characters. Eventually, the stream of novels seemed to have slowed down, though there are still movie novelizations and the occasional original novel. I have hopes that it will occur to someone at the Big Two to re-release their novels electronically. I would love to add the cream of the Marvel Novel Series to my Kindle.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Magical Identity Theft, World Conquest and Cute Little Bunny Rabbits

Well, darn it. A couple of months ago, as part of my series on Weisinger-era Superman stories, I wrote about Mr. Mxyzptlk and commented that I didn't want to have to write any more posts in which I had to make sure I spelled the annoying little imp's name properly.

But now I feel obligated to cover this more modern Superman story to back up a point I made in that post--thereby requiring me to make sure I spell "Mxyzptlk" correctly.

It can't be helped, though. In that earlier post, I talked about how characters like Bizarro and Mxyzptlk (Thank you, God, for cut and paste) were important additions to Superman's mythos, because they allowed an occasional burst of whimsy to enter the DC Universe.

And even as late as 1981--just a few years before DC first rebooted their universe and graphic novels such at The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns pretty much tossed all sense of whimsy (and often all sense of fun) into the cosmic wastebasket--DC was still willing to take comic book logic to its silliest extremes. And the world is a better place because of this.

DC Comics Presents #33 & #34 (May & June 1981) starts off with Superman mysteriously finding himself in Captain Marvel's uniform, stripped of super-senses (but still with the super-strength and speed that Marvel also has). Over on Earth-S (the Marvels at this time existed in a different dimension than did the main DC Universe), Captain Marvel finds himself in Superman's uniform--with the extra powers added on to his

The Man of Steel zips over the Earth-S and the two compare notes. But the person responsible--Mr. Mxyzptlk--soon shows up to take credit and gloat. In the Earth-S dimension, his magic is amped up, so he's created a barrier to trap Superman there and spend years tormenting him.

This actually makes good comic book sense. On Earth-S, the most powerful heroes (the Marvel family) have powers based on magic, so the idea that dimension has more magic is pretty reasonable.

Anyways, Mxyzptlk isn't alone. He's teamed up with Mr. Mind, the super-intelligent evil worm from Venus and King Kull, the immortal super-strong barbarian who wants to conquer humanity. He's amped up their powers with his magic, making them all nigh-impossible to beat.

By the second issue, everyone is back in their correct suits, but the villains are still winning. Mxyptlk zaps Superman and Marvel in another dimension--Funny Animalville, where they find themselves desperately trying to protect panicking crowds of anthropomorphic bunnies against a giant robot rabbit operated by Mr. Mind. In the meantime, King Kull has taken the United Nations hostage, beating up Miss Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. for good measure.

But there are two things that might give the good guys an edge. First, Mr. Mind and Kull are so murderous that Mxyptlk is having second thoughts about teaming up with them. Second, the heroes get an unexpected helping hand from: Captain Marvel Bunny!

Gee whiz, I love this stuff. The script is by Roy Thomas (with Gerry Conway getting credit for the plot in the first issue), so the appearance of an obscure character from the 1940s isn't surprising. (Captain Marvel Bunny first appeared in Fawcett's Funny Animals in 1942.) The art by Rich Buckler is clean and sharp with some nice use of panel designs. And the comic book logic in the plot is flawless. The existence of an infinite multiverse means that there must be a funny animal dimension out there somewhere--allowing it to interact with the mainstream DC Universe is a wonderful idea. It's yet another example of the importance of allowing an occasional burst of whimsy into a comic book universe, reminding us that comic book stories above all else should simply be fun.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

I have no idea at all what in heaven's name is going on here. But it sure looks cool!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Friday, June 21, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Favorite Story: “Cyrano De Bergerac” 10/18/47

Ronald Coleman is spot-on in his performance as the love-struck swashbuckler with an enormous nose. This is a solid, entertaining adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s play.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Crabs with Metallic Blood

The short story "Uncommon Sense," by Hal Clement may be the best example ever of what makes hard science fiction so appealing.

Hard SF is essentially speculative fiction in which the author makes sure he gets the science right. In the past, I've talked about Poul Anderson and Robert Heinlein, who wrote superb hard SF, combining accurate science with strong plots and great characters.

But as Poul Anderson once wrote, Hal Clement set the standard for hard SF. His best-known work is Mission of Gravity (1954), set on a high-gravity world. And now that I've written that sentence, I now feel obligated to read the novel again--so I'll probably do a post about it soon. But for today, we'll talk about "Uncommon Sense," published in the September 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.

The protagonist is Laird Cunningham, a rich guy who travels from planet to planet looking for unusual animal species pretty much because he enjoys doing so. But now he's in trouble. He's learned his two assistants are planning on hijacking his small ship. He crash lands on a small planet and makes a break for it, wearing a space suit with several days supply of food and air.

The planet is only slightly larger than the Moon, so it has a low gravity. But it's very near a hot star and during the daytime Cunningham must stay in a cave to hide from the heat and radiation. The planet is also has a near-vacuum level atmosphere.

In the meantime, the two hijackers--with access to better protected suits--are repairing cracks in the hull of the ship.  During the day, Cunningham can't get to the open airlock without being spotted. During the night, the airlock is closed when the bad guys go back inside.

Cunningham passes the time by watching the local fauna. There are small crab-like things that feed on the plants, slightly larger crab-like things that feed on the little guys and 40-foot-long centipedes that feed on everything. Cunningham uses a sharp rock to dissect one of the little guys and discovers that it has liquid metal for blood. That makes sense--since the daylight temperature is hot enough to melt lead.

But isn't this useless information? In a day or two, the ship will be repaired and he'll be stranded here to die.

Well, it turns out no information is ever useless. With what he's learned of the anatomy of the little crabs--and what he's deduced about how the fauna on this world "sees"--AND what he knows about the temperature extremes between night and day--he just might come up with a plan for distracted the bad guys long enough for him to sprint into the space ship airlock and lock the villains out.

It's a fun story because in the end, it all makes sense. Clement does a fantastic job of world-building--coming up with an ecosystem that might logically exist on an airless world with vast diurnal temperature extremes. Then he comes up with a clever way for the protagonist to use this information to outwit his enemies. It's a tight, well-plotted story that could be used as a model for anyone learning how to write good science fiction.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How to take over an undersea civilization

Superman, of course, not only jump-started the superhero genre in comic books--his appearance also set off a frenzy of superhero creation that has been unmatched in comic book history.

Every month, comic book companies would be throwing new heroes at their young readers just to see who would stick. Timely Comics (the future Marvel Comics) did pretty well. The Sub-Mariner, the original Human Torch and Captain America all found readers and each of these characters was soon being featured in multiple comic books.

Then there were those who only appeared a few times before fading into obscurity. The recent trade paperback Marvel Firsts: WWII Superheroes gives us an interesting look at a lot of these guys. Some of them were pretty lame, but there were those that definitely had potential but just didn't happen to catch on.

Daring Mystery Comics #7 (April 1941) gave us the Fin. He was yet another undersea hero brought to us by Bill Everett, the creator of the Sub-Mariner. It's a fun story and the Fin definitely had potential.

The Fin is Pete Noble, a crewman on an American sub that rams a derelict and sinks. Noble manages to lock himself in an airtight room, then later puts on a breathing apparatus and cuts his way out with a blowtorch.

After confirming that the rest of the crew is dead, he finds he mysteriously can't swim to the surface. Also, the water pressure doesn't bother him.  He soon finds a cave and gets zipped up to a air-filled cavern by a whirlpool. Once there, he finds a race of bizarre flying fish people.

They attack him. He kills a couple of them, convincing them that he's an ancient hero called the Fin returning to them. So now he's the ruler of an undersea civilization. Who knew it would be that easy?

He returns to the wreck of the sub and makes himself a costume. And that's it for the first issue.

I looked the character up and discovered he was also in Daring Mystery Comics #8 and apparently Comedy Comics #9 (the same comic with its name changed). If the plot summaries I read are accurate, he fights a Nazi U-Boat commander named the Barracuda and finds a magic cutlass that can cut pretty much anything. He also discovers he has super strength while in the water, can swim at high speeds and can breath underwater on his own. As near as I can tell, no explanation for how he got his powers is ever given.

He did pop up again in a 2004 Invaders comic (in a version of the team set in modern day), in which he's called away from his kingdom and out of retirement from the Navy to command a high-tech battleship. That seems to be his last appearance.

Anyway, that first story is a lot of fun. I've always loved Bill Everett's kinetic art work--his imagery always has a snap to it that carries the story along with zest and efficiency. The design of the flying fish people is particularly entertaining.

The character's origin would have needed a little more fleshing out had he continued on, but all the elements of a great series was there. It's too bad the Fin didn't catch on.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Mysterious Traveler: “The Big Brain” 3/14/50

As an experiment, a scientist uses an experimental super-computer (the Big Brain) to predict the winners at the horse track. That leads to the temptation to place a few bets, which in turn leads him to be blackmailed by a gangster.

To get out from under the thumb of the gangster, the scientist attempts to find out if the Big Brain can be used to plan the perfect murder.

The ending is a little too willing to absolve the scientist of his moral responsibility for his actions, but it’s a well-plotted episode nonetheless.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

My Favorite Mad Scientist

Just as I have a favorite death trap, I also have a favorite mad scientist. There have been a lot of entertaining mad scientists brought to us through prose fiction, comic books and movies. And my favorite, just barely edging out Dr. Pretorius from 1935's Bride of Frankenstein, is Dr. Thorkel.

We're introduced to Thorkel in the 1940 film Dr. Cyclops, directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. Though there's sometimes a little confusion as to where Dr. Thorkel originated. There was short story adaptation of the film written by Henry Kuttner that appeared in the June 1940 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. This was later expanded into a novel with the author credited to a pseudonymous name "Will Garth," though I understand Kuttner denied he wrote the novel. Some sources identify the film as an adaptation of the short story and the story's publication DID pre-date the movie. But that issue also had stills from the upcoming film and the cover illustration of Thorkel is a dead ringer for the actor who played him.

I also ran across a 2010 blog entry that cites an editor of the magazine confirming the movie (or at least the screenplay) came first. So I'm gonna go with that.

Anyway, the movie is a great one. Schoedsack was one of the co-directors of King Kong and his experience with that film serves him well here. Thorkel has developed a way of shrinking down people to action figure size and the special effects still hold up today. Schoedsack uses rear projection, matte shots, giant prop hands and appropriately sized props to give a truly eerie illusion that Thorkel is interacting with tiny human beings.

Thorkel is a brilliant scientist, but he's also nuttier than a Snickers bar and is obsessed with secrecy. He's based in a remote location in South America, where he's mining the radium he needs for his experiments. When a small group of visitors stumble onto what he's doing, he shrinks them down. When he realizes they are slowly growing again, he decides to kill them.

Albert Dekker's performance as Thorkel is fantastic. Much of the time, he plays the scientist with a polite but ruthless air of efficiency, something that makes him even creepier than if he were ranting or hamming it up. When he does lose his temper, this is unusual enough to make him seem even more dangerous.

Also, Thorkel has very poor eyesight (an important plot point) and Dekker gives him mannerisms that constantly remind us of this without being overly obvious.

By the way, the movie's title actually isn't a reference to Thorkel's eyesight, but a reference to the Iliad--the part where Polyphemus is holding Ulysses and his men hostage. I enjoy the fact that the movie simply expects its audience to get that reference when its made in the dialogue.

Thorkel's miniaturized victims are pretty much one-note characters, but the actors play them well. Most notable is Charles Halton as the egotistical but still ethical Dr. Bullfinch, who insists on conducting himself with dignity even when he's only a foot tall and dressed in a pocket handkerchief.

The straightforward screenplay is another strength of the film. The story moves along briskly and it allows the good guys to act with intelligence and cleverness in their efforts to first escape and then turn the tables on their giant captive.

Finally, this was the first American science fiction film shot in Technicolor. As much as I love and usually prefer black-and-white, I will cite this as one of the exceptions to that rule. The film looks magnificent and the color design is effectively used to give the right mood to the story.

So there you have it. My favorite mad scientist is Dr. Thorkel as played by Albert Dekker. Dr. Pretorius is probably mad at me, but I guess I really can't do anything about that.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Secret Identities, Exploding Hard Light Duplicates and the Fortress of Solitude

When I was a kid, I stuck mostly to Marvel for my superhero comics. When I bought something from DC, it was usually one of their World War II-themed books or an issue of Kamandi. (With an occasional oddity like Strange Sports Stories.)

If I could time travel back to mentor my younger self, I'd advice me to get DC hero comics more frequently, since I now know I was missing out on some quality stuff. I did get an occasional DC hero book--in fact, I was so impressed by the O'Neil/Adams Batman issues I read that I have no clear memory of why I didn't get them more often. It was probably a financial decision. You don't make all that much money with a paper route--so I had to spend my comic book money very selectively.

I did pick up Justice League of America #122 (September 1975) and I like the story so much that--when I ran across it again as an adult--I still remembered most of it.

I probably appreciate the story even more as an adult because I can better recognize the expertise with which writer Martin Pasko and artist Dick Dillin constructed the story. It contains a lot of exposition--the villain (Dr. Light) has to give an egotistical monologue explaining his incredibly convoluted plan. But Pasko manages to do this succinctly without bogging down the plot. Later, Aquaman has to explain how he saved the day (yes, Aquaman saves the day), which also includes a lot of exposition. But Dick Dillin mixes in flashback images of the Justice Leaguers saving each other from booby-traps, so the dialogue doesn't slow the action down at all.

Besides, Dr. Light's convoluted master plan actually seems like it needs to be convoluted to work. He is, after all, planning on taking out the most powerful and smartest superheroes on the planet in one fell swoop. You don't accomplish that without some clever advance planning

His plan is this: Use a light-generated illusion to make the Justice League think they've just fought and defeated a giant monster near the Fortress of Solitude. From there, it's not too much of a stretch to assume the heroes will take it to the Fortress' zoo for study.

The monster illusion then fades, revealing Dr. Light inside. He steals a supply of Amnesium--a memory-altering mineral that Superman keeps in the Fortress to study--and uses this to swap the secret identities of
the heroes. (Except for Superman, who is immune, and Aquaman, whom Dr. Light doesn't realize has a secret identity.) So Bruce Wayne now thinks he's Ollie Queen, Ollie thinks he's Roy Palmer and so on.

He then sends out thousands of mirage duplicates of himself (essentially hard-light holograms) to set up booby traps that are specially designed to kill specific heroes when they arrive at the homes or work-places they think are theirs.

He also sets a trap to blow up Aquaman with an exploding mirage duplicate of a fish. But Aquaman avoids the trap, frees the heroes from the booby traps and everyone confronts Dr. Light back in the Fortress.

I love Dr. Light's plan. As I've already said, I think the convolutions all make sense in the context of a superhero universe and every step plays a definable part in taking out the heroes. I suppose one could argue that swapping the secret identities wasn't really necessary--Light could have still set up the correct booby traps in the necessary locations. (The trap designed specifically for Green Lantern, for instance, would have worked whether or not Hal Jordan remembered his correct civilian identity.) But what the heck--swapping their IDs was the sort of thing an egotist like Dr. Light would have done just because he could.

The final fight in the Fortress of Solitude is what I remembered most vividly from when I read this as a kid. Dillin does a great job choreographing the heroes fighting monsters released from the zoo, explosive duplicates of the monsters and explosive duplicates of Dr. Light. There's a lot of variety in just a few pages of intense action: Atom and Green Lantern have to save the city of Kandor; Batman is hit by a "hate beam" and attacks Green Lantern; Superman is trapped in hard-light kryptonite rings; Flash's after-images are turned into hard-light duplicates that will catch up to him and explode if he stops. Dillin's work is always fun to look at--I think he does a particularly great job with this complex but internally logical fight scene.

I had an especially vivid memory of Aquaman saving Flash by stringing Superman's cape in front of a door. Flash then vibrates through this and his after-images explode when they hit the cape. It's a cool tactic--something that once again makes perfect sense in the context of the DC Universe. And it looks awesome. I would love to have those particular panels on a t-shirt.

So I really should have read more DC Superhero books as a kid. During one's formative years, one can never get enough exposure to convoluted villain plans and exploding holograms.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

I love the design of this monster. A little goofy looking, but it still manages to be menacing.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Gunsmoke: “Confederate Money” 3/13/54

A man wounded in an ambush is stalking the guy he thinks shot him. But Dillon believes a story about a debt that was once paid off in useless Confederate money might be the key to the real shooter.

Click HERE to listen or download. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

We NEED to teach our astronauts to sword fight!

Read/Watch 'em in Order #35

Otis Adelbert Kline wrote five science fiction novels set within the same continuity: two set on ancient Mars and three on ancient Venus, when those planets supported human civilizations.

The Venus stories were published first, but we're looking at the series according to its internal continuity. The Mars stories take place first.

In the first Mars book--The Swordsman of Mars--Earth-man Harry Thorne was sent across space and time in a mental transfer, arriving on Mars in the body of a Martian--while the Martian (who was his physical and mental twin) takes over Thorne's body on modern Earth.

The sequel is The Outlaws of Mars, first serialized in Argosy magazine in 1933 and 1934. In this book, the Earth scientist who perfected travel by mind-transfer now has a more straightforward method of getting someone from Earth to ancient Mars. He's slapped together a time/space craft. Ex-army officer Jerry Morgan has just resigned from the military in disgrace after being falsely accused of a crime, so he's got nothing left to live for on Earth. When the scientist (Jerry's uncle) gives him a chance for a one-way trip to Mars, he jumps at the chance.

In fact, he jumps a little too quickly. Oddly, Jerry doesn't ask for or receive any sort of briefing about the culture, flora or fauna of Mars before he takes off on his journey, despite the bucket-loads of such information that his uncle had collected. It kind of makes you wonder if Jerry would have had a successful career in the army anyways. Heck, one of several Martians living on Earth in Earth-human bodies could have at least taught him how to say "Where's the bathroom?"

When Jerry gets to the Red Planet, the Martian scientist who was supposed to meet him and teach him the language is running late. Soon, Jerry gets himself in trouble when he sees a beautiful woman apparently being attacked by a monster. He shoots and kills the creature before finding out the woman is the daughter of the Vil (the ruler of the local kingdom) AND that the monster was actually her beloved pet.

Well, Jerry and the girl (Junia) soon make up and fall in love. The tardy scientist shows up as well, giving Jerry a chance to learn the langauge. But a villain (a guy with designs on the throne) the frames Jerry for the murder of Junia's brother. Jerry escapes from the city, but ends up the prisoner of Sarkis the Torturer, a rebel who has raised a large army and who has the nasty habit of burning prisoners to death with sunlight focused through giant magnifying glasses.

Well, maybe Jerry would have done okay in the U.S. Army, because he pulls off another escape and soon raises an army of his own, consisting of desert warriors, deserters from Sarkis' army and outlaws.  But that leaves him with two enemies--the king (Junia's dad) and Sarkis. It's actually a three-way war, because the king and Sarkis want to kill each other as well as kill Jerry.

It's all cool stuff--Kline does a better job this time around of providing exposition without slowing down the plot and he packed the story with a lot of well-described action. I especially like Jerry's introduction of aerial bombing and hand grenades into Martian warfare at the climatic battle. Jerry also gets a couple of awesome fighting companions: Yewd is a seven-foot tall warrior who is an expert with spear and javelin, while Koha is a drawf who wields a wicked mace. In fact, if I were to find fault with the story, it was that these two guys are underused. Never introduce a mismatched pair of awesome soldiers into a story without allowing them to do a lot of awesome

Jerry has another advantage in a fight while on Mars. Unlike Harry Thorne from the first novel, Jerry is still in his original Earth body. So he can do the John Carter trick of jumping incredible distances in the lower Martian gravity. Yes, Kline is rather overtly swiping this from Edgar Rice Burroughs, but he has fun with it and it does make sense.

But these two Martian novels have gotten me thinking. NASA is always talking about someday sending astronauts to Mars. And this is well and good--we should be exploring space.

But its obvious from reading both Burroughs and Kline that any astronaut going to Mars needs to be an expert swordsman. Heck, if Jerry Morgan or John Carter hadn't already been trained with these weapons, they wouldn't have lasted a day.

But does NASA provide fencing training for their astronauts? No, they do not. It's scandalous and all of you should write your Congressmen about this immediately.

Well, we'll return to Kline's History of Ancient Extraplanetary Civilizations soon when we leave Mars behind and visit the equally dangerous planet of Venus.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Phantom Doubles, Time Travel and Microscopic Heroes

It was still reasonably common in the early 1960s for superhero books to give us 2 twelve- or thirteen-page stories per issue rather than one full-length tale. This was not a bad thing at all. A lot of the writers working in comics at that time understood the short story format and consistently turned out some good stuff.

Atom at that time was written by Gardner Fox--perhaps the single most important writer in DC at that time. With a career that ran back into the 1940s, Fox was a veteran comic hack who could turn out fun stories based on any number of different characters. It was Fox who formed the JLA, who help craft the updated versions of many DC icons such as Flash and Hawkman, who created the idea of the multi-verse to codify how the Golden Age characters related to their Silver Age counterpoints. He did a lot of important stuff.

Fox's weak point was probably characterization--the superheroes he wrote about never really develop truly distinctive personalities. But he more than made up for this with his mastery of plot and story.

Atom #9 (November 1963) starts out with a radiation leak in Ray Palmer's lab. He loses consciousness for a moment while a phantom version of himself ("a radioactive emanation of Ray Palmer's life-force" is the brief explanation) comes into existence. When Ray regains his senses, he learns that thieves have stolen some equipment being delivered to his lab. He pursues the thieves, at first unaware that another version of himself is in turn chasing him with murderous intent.

The second story featured the Time Pool--a device invented by a friend of Palmer's that can send a magnet back in time to retrieve artifacts. The Atom often hitches a ride on the magnet just to help out with this somewhat bizarre form of research. In this instance, Atom ends up in Holland in 1609, where he witnesses the invention of the first telescope and helps explorer Henry Hudson escape from kidnappers.

Both stories are unpretentious fun. Told in a very economical fashion, they cover all the plot points one by one while still leaving room for some nifty action scenes.

And the fight scenes are what really make the story. The Atom was fortunate to have Gil Kane as his artist. Kane never drew an uninteresting panel in his life and his work here is infused with his typical energy. Whether Atom is pulling down on a thug's tie in order to bump his head against a second thug or playing a deadly game of hide-and-seek through desk drawers with his phantom double, it all comes across as tremendous fun.

Today, we often see story arcs that run through many issues--thus making them appropriate for being reprinted in trade paperbacks as a single epic tale. This is not a bad thing by itself--some stories should be epics. But it doesn't hurt to remember that there are stories that only need to be a few pages long to get the job done.

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