Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Old Castle's Secret

Scrooge McDuck first appeared in a 1947 story titled "Christmas on Bear Mountain," written and drawn by the great Carl Barks. And I've just realized--now that I think about it--that I'm not sure if Barks had plans to bring Uncle Scrooge back for more appearances at that time, or if it just turned out that way.

Because whether Barks had realized it or not, he had created someone who would evolve into the greatest comic book character of all time. It would take awhile for Scrooge to fully develop his unique personality, but he'd get there eventually.

If nothing else, Scrooge proved to be an effective plot device to thrust Donald and the nephews into adventures. Scrooge's second appearance was in Four Color #189 (June 1948) in "The Old Castle's Secret," in which the rich water fowl does indeed get the boys into trouble.

To be fair, he does go along with them and share in the trouble. It seems Scrooge is on the verge of bankruptcy. (Barks hadn't come up with the concept of the Money Bin yet.) But there's hope. There's a treasure hidden in his ancestral castle in Scotland. Scrooge plans on bringing the boys to help him out as he scans the walls with an X-ray machine to find the treasure.

Of course, they'll all have to take care to avoid or fend off the ghost that haunts the castle.

This leads to the sort of delightful adventure that is representative of Carl Barks' storytelling genius. While Donald and Scrooge take turns panicking over apparently supernatural shenanigans, the three nephews keep their heads. When the Ducks are trapped on a balcony, it's the nephews who come up with a clever escape plan. When the boys are trapped outside the castle, they deduce the location of a secret tunnel that gets them back in. When they encounter the ghost--who is alternately either completely invisible or shows the shadow a skeleton against the wall, they... well, mostly they run. But eventually they gain the upper hand, catch the "ghost" and find the treasure.

Barks does here what he did in other Donald and/or Uncle Scrooge tales: He combines visual gags and slapstick humor with a strong "realistic" plot. This time around, he combines elements of a detective story with those of a horror story. This is combined with his clean and appealing visual artistry to turn "The Old Castle's Secret" into something very unique.

Scrooge McDuck hasn't yet developed the personality traits that would soon turn him into a comic book character whose pure awesomeness makes Batman cry and Wolverine beg for mercy. This time around, he allows the nephews to carry the bulk of the action. But it won't be long before he becomes awesome in his own right and--in the meantime--we'll still have enormous fun hanging out with him.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "Death on Highway 99" 10/4/45

The most inept murderer in the history of crime watches as his plans to get away scot free slowly disintegrate. What makes this episode work is that we are warned right at the beginning that the killer has been incompetent at covering his tracks--so the fun comes from learning exactly how justice catches up to him.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Murder by Mold

When I was a wee little one, Pyramid Books was publishing paperback reprints of the original Shadow novels. It was these novels that served as my introduction to the coolest of the cool pulp characters.

About the same time, The Warner Paperback Library was reprinting most of the original Avenger novels,
with author Ron Goulart then commissioned to continue the series. But I didn’t get around to reading these until a few years later, when I picked a few of them up at a used book store.

And I’m glad I did, because the Avenger stories nearly rival the Shadow’s adventures in pure Rule of Cool. I reviewed the December 1939 issue not long ago, in which Richard Benson and the rest of Justice Inc clean up a corrupt town. But Benson doesn’t just deal with common thugs and organized crime. Like the Shadow, he’ll have to deal with a more science-fictiony threat from time to time.

In the January 1940 issue, for instance, Benson took on “The Frosted Death.” This is a man-made plague, accidentally unleashed on New York City by an amoral scientist. The plague is actually a mold that is passed from person to person by touch. It then spreads across your entire skin, making it look like you are covered with a light snow, but eventually suffocating you.

It’s an unpleasant and scary way to die, giving the story a large dollop of suspense right from the first page. But the villain ups the ante when he frames his business partner for both murder and for releasing the plague, while he uses slave labor in a secret lab to produce enough of the deadly stuff to sell to a foreign power.

The foreign power, by the way, is unnamed, but is obviously meant to be Germany. This was actually very common in popular fiction in all media during the early years of World War II. Though America wasn’t in the fight yet, many writers recognized Nazi Germany to be pure evil.  But isolationist feelings ran deep in many Americans before Pearl Harbor. This made many publishers, editors and filmmakers nervous about directly using the Nazis as villains in fiction. So many writers used spies or invaders who were Nazis in all but name. Milt Caniff did this (with both the Japanese and the Germans) in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates, while faux-Germans turned up in several “Adventures of Superman” story arcs on radio. Paul Ernst (who wrote the Avenger stories under the house name Kenneth Robeson) pulls the same trick here.  

[There are, by the way, several examples of storytellers who did directly reference the Nazis as villains before we entered the war. The Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, a number of Warner Brothers films and Timely (later Marvel) Comics all took overt shots at Hitler’s thugs prior to Pearl Harbor.]

Anyway, back to “The Frosted Death.” It doesn’t take long for Benson to deduce who the real villain is, but the main problem is destroying the stockpile of the deadly mold before the Nazis get it AND finding a cure as the horrible stuff spreads across New York.

Well, one of Benson’s men—Fergus MacMurdie—is the world’s foremost chemist. He soon whips up a cure. But he and Josh Newton (another Justice Inc operative) are captured by the Nazis along with the only samples of the cure.

In the meantime, Benson uses his mastery of disguise to replace a Nazi thug and locate the secret lab. But he soon discovers that he’s going to have to multi-task. Not only does he need to destroy the mold, he also has to rescue Mac and Josh, recover the cure, scuttle a U-boat and somehow outwit or outfight a score of heavily-armed Nazis.

I already mentioned that the story’s basic premise generates a lot of suspense. This is amped up to Eleven in the climax. Paul Ernst was a skilled pulp writer, with a strong understanding of how to tell a story clearly while still injected one exciting action set piece after another. He plops Benson down into one seemingly hopeless situation after another, but the Avenger is always one step ahead of the bad guys.

In the end, I do think the Shadow edges out both the Avenger and Doc Savage in pure coolness, but it really is a close call. “The Frosted Death” is unquestionably in the top-tier of the many entertaining stories produced during the Golden Age of the pulps.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Legion-Full of Heroes

It took a little while to work out the continuity for the Legion of Super Heros. In their initial appearance in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958), they were from the 30th Century. This story was written by Otto
Binder, in which several Legionnaires travel back in time to meet Superboy (their inspiration) and bring him into the future to join the Legion.

A few of their subsequent early appearances had them coming from the 21st Century, which is kind of annoying since we are now in the 21st Century in real life and we don't have a Legion of Super Heroes yet. Gosh darn it. But before long the writers settled on 1000 years in the future.

Their third appearance was in a Jerry Siegel-penned story from Action Comics #267 (August 1960), in which they invite Supergirl to join the Legion. Here's where continuity becomes weird. As with Superboy, the visiting Legionnaires were Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy. But they claimed to be the children of the Legionnaires who met Superboy years before.

Well, eventually, the creative staff at DC realized that with time travel, there was no need for this generational shift. So the whole "children of the original Legion" thing was conveniently ignored, allowing Superboy and Supergirl to work together in the 30th Century despite living a generation apart in the 20th Century. Both heroes would occasionally travel forward in time to serve as concurrent members of the futuristic team. That's why Time Travel is awesome.

It also resulted in one of my favorite bits of comic book logic. If Superboy meets Supergirl when he's Superboy, why doesn't Superman remember Supergirl when he "firsts" meets her as Superman?

That's easily solved. Saturn Girl, whose powers involve telepathy and mental control, plants a post-hypnotic suggestion in Superboy to cause him to forget anything he learns about his own personal history whenever he returns to the 20th Century. Nothing could be simpler. Although that must have been annoying for Superboy whenever he got back to Smallville. He'd know why he couldn't remember everything, of course, but wouldn't it drive you kind of nuts wondering exactly what you can't remember about your own future?

The futuristic setting for the LSH stories had a major advantage for Mort Weisinger and his writers. With a full millenium separating the Legion from the rest of the DC Universe, it could progress according to its own continuity. That gave it a freedom the mainstream universe didn't have. Heroes could actually get killed and relationships between characters could progress without having to preserve a status qou. The Legion eventually become a rich and more malleable sub-universe, separate but still connected to the main DC Universe.

Eventually, Edmond Hamilton became the primary Legion writer. A master of comic book logic, he was key in developing the Legion's mythology and using it effectively to tell fun stories.

For instance, Adventure Comics #309 (June 1963) pits the Legion against the Legion of Super Monsters. A guy who can control animals is rejected by the Legion when he applies for membership. In a snit because of this, he uses his powers to recruit a squad of monsters with bizarre powers, then goes on a crime spree. The Legion confronts him, but he and his monsters put up a good fight. Chameleon Boy impersonates one of the monsters to infiltrate the enemy camp, but that plan goes awry. Bouncing Boy (despite his silly seeming
power) surprises everyone by taking out a powerful Earthquake Beast. The story ends with a nice bit of irony: the villain, embittered when rejected by the Legion, is done in by a monster he himself rejected earlier in the story.

Mixed in with these purely entertaining bits of escapism were a surprising number of more mature stories about death and self-sacrifice. For example, Adventure Comics #342 (March 1966) is a great story involving Star Boy, who is forced to kill a villain in self-defense. He's cleared by the cops, but the Legion has a code against ever killing. The presumption is that Legionnaires should be able to use their powers creatively and avoid deadly force. So Star Boy is placed on trial within the Legion to debate whether he should be thrown out. The story isn't perfect--Superboy is Star Boy's defense attorney and his attempts to get his client acquitted are laughably ineffectual. But some of the debate over whether a superhero should be allowed to kill is quite thoughtful.

It just goes to prove that if you mix together time travel with superhero shenanigans, drop in the proper amount of comic book logic, and add just a dollop or two of real emotion to the usual Silver Age innocence, then you really can't go wrong.

We're almost done with our look at the Weisinger-era Superman universe. I'm pretty sure we've covered nearly all the subjects I originally intended to cover. All that remains is a peek at Lois Lane and Turtle Boy... er, I mean Jimmy Olsen.. and we'll be done.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

I'm not sure how you can possibly get yourself into a mess like this in the first place.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philo Vance: "The Idol Murder Case" 1/25/49

Several art collectors are desperate to obtain a rare idol being displayed at the city museum. The question for Philo Vance is which one was desperate enough to commit murder?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Enslaved by Giant Ants

Read/Watch 'em In Order #36

Planet of Peril, by Otis Adelbert Kline, was serialized in Argosy All-Story Weekly in 1929, so it was the first of his sword-and-planet adventures to see print.

But chronologically it comes after the two Mars books as it moves the action to Venus. Dr. Richard Morgan has sent several men to ancient Mars via a mind-swap technique. Then he sent his nephew to Mars in a space-time ship.

He's having difficulty building a new ship, so--after establishing telepathic contact with Venus as it existed millions of years ago--he sets up another couple of mind swaps.

Robert Grandon--a former soldier who's now bored with his life--is recruited to make the jump to Venus. Also, Harry Thorne--or rather the Martian guy in Harry Thorne's body after they swapped bodies in The Swordsman of Mars--makes the trip as well. The two end up on different sides of Venus, so "Harry" only as a brief role in this novel, but he'll get to play hero the next time out.

In the meantime, Grandon finds himself in the body of a guy sentenced to slavery in a mine because he once hit on Vernia, ruler of the powerful kingdom of Reabon. Which is ironic, because Grandon and Vernia will end up in love with one another well before the novel ends.

It's a rather unusual romance, because Grandon soon escapes from the mines and, after learning the language, soon finds himself leading a rebel army in the small country of  Uxpo, fighting to win their freedom from Reabon. That should make he and Vernia mortal enemies, but political intrigue changes the situation dramatically. Vernia's evil cousin is planning to usurp her throne, so arranges for her to be kidnapped by her own bodyguard. Shenanigans ensue, resulting in Grandon and Vernia on the run together.

Eventually, they end up in a remote valley where humans are enslaved by giant, intelligent ants called sabits. So a big chunk of the novel involves Grandon organizing yet another rebellion to free the humans from the sabits. After this is resolved, Vernia gets captured by her evil cousin. Grandon thinks she's dead and returns to lead the Uxpo rebel army once more. More shenanigans ensue, resulting a really cool battle sequence when the rebels attack a castle in tandem with cavalry riding giant ants.

It's all a lot of fun. Kline doesn't hesitate to use (and once or twice overuse) coincidence to move the plot along, but he handles the action scenes well; Kline gives us a nice mix of epic battles, smaller brawls and fights with the bizarre monsters that roam the Venusian landscape. He also manages to slip in several unexpected and interesting story arcs involving a couple of the supporting characters.

Vernia's a strong female lead, keeping her head in dangerous situations and outsmarting the bad guy at the denouement. In fact, it's a strength of the book that Grandon and Vernia can't just fight their way out of dangerous situations, but have to use their brains as well. Both have opportunity to come up with clever plans.

And, heck, the novel includes human cavalry riding giant ants. You really can't go wrong with that.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The coolest vampire hunter this side of Peter Cushing

A few months ago, I wrote about Marvel's Tomb of Dracula comic from the 1970s--a series that numbered among its strengths a truly epic cast of vampire hunters.

It was with the pages of ToD, for instance, that we first met Blade the Vampire Slayer.  In his original incarnation, he hunted vampires armed with a bandoleer of wooden throwing knives. His M.O. has since evolved over the years--which is a tragedy. Because the idea of taking out vampires in hand-to-hand combat with wooden knives is astonishingly, breathtakingly, and majestically awesome. No other variation of the character has ever come close to being as cool.

It was in a black-and-white magazine called Marvel Preview that Blade got his first full-length solo adventure. The September 1975 issue (#3) had a story written by Chris Claremont, with the first half drawn by Tony DeZuniga and the second half by Rick Rival.

The story, like most of the Tomb of Dracula continuity, was set in London. It involves a plot by a vampire named Anton Vierken and a human allied with the bloodsuckers named Lady Marguerite D'Alescio. They want to get rid of Blade, so they kidnap his girlfriend to lead him into a trap.

The trap, though, isn't to kill Blade, but to frame him for murder. They do it quite effectively, because by the time Blade has sliced his way through a trio of Red Shirt vamps, he's convinced that a knife he threw at
Vierken instead killed a little girl.

One of the strengths of the story is Blade's reaction to this. He's horrified by what he thinks he's done and plans to take responsibility and turn himself in, but first he's got to rescue his girl.

Soon, he's teamed up with a psychic cop named Kate Fraser, who is able to pull the little girl's dying moments out of the corpse's mind. She sees Blade is innocent, but psychic evidence isn't admissable in court. (This is one of several minor weak points in the story--the cops also find some hard evidence that points to Blade's innocence, but this is ignored for rest of the story.)

Kate and Blade are eventually forced to team up, taking out vampires in clever ways--such as hanging a crucifix around the neck of one and tossing another onto an electrified rail in the London Underground. Actually, I'm not sure this last method would work. The vampire might be charred, but wouldn't he still be alive unless you used a more traditional method to finish him off? Oh, well, I guess Blade would know better than me.

Eventually, Blade needs to sneak into a remote castle to rescue the girl and prevent a scheme to develop a serum that would allow vampires to operate in daylight.

Despite the minor plot holes, it's a strong story, punctuated by some great fight scenes. The black-and-white pencil work provided by both the artists is strong. And it's the fact that it is done in black-and-white that makes the story work so well. There are some undeniably gruesome stuff happening. The lack of color still allows the horror to come through, but prevents the imagery from being graphic or too gross. If this story had been done in color, it would have simply been unpleasant. In black-and-white, it works as both an action story and a horror tale.

There was one bizarre glitch that happened when the story abruptly switched artists (and I have no idea why DeZuniga couldn't finish the job). At the end of one chapter, Vierken and Lady Marguerite are watching as Kate Fraser is about to be torn apart by vampires. Marguerite is wearing a sort-of Dark Victorian dress that's prim and proper while still giving an "I'm evil" vibe.

Then, at the beginning of the next chapter, with the story now being drawn by Rico Rival, Marguerite has apparently done a quick clothing change. She's now in full-scale Vampirella mode. I guess that's the correct fashion choice when observing a brutal murder.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

I don't normally care for photo covers on comics, but this one looks pretty darn cool.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Casey: Crime Photographer: “Tough Guys” 3/4/48

A fun episode. Two crooks seem likely to get away with robbery and murder. Casey comes up with a plan to separately feed the pair false information, turning them against each other.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Good, Old-Fashioned South Seas Adventure

One nifty side-effect of electronic publishing is the number of pulp-era stories that are being reprinted. I assume this is because it wouldn't be economically viable to do physical print runs featuring stories by some of the more obscure authors. The relatively small overhead of e-publishing, though, changes the situation.

For instance, it's within the "pages" of an e-book that I ran across a story by George Armin Shaftel, a pulp writer from the 1930s and 1940s whose work has fallen into relative obscurity.

Shaftel knew how to tell a good story, though. "Mystery on Dead Man Reef" was published in the October 1940 issue of South Sea Stories. The main character is John Gregg, who has traveled to a remote Pacific island to find DeCourcey, the one man whose testimony can clear Gregg of a robbery charge.

But DeCourcey, who is running a trading post on the island, doesn't want to go back to the States to testify. Gregg isn't sure what to do next, but then another problem arises when a supposed film crew arrives by yacht to film background scenes for a movie.

At least, that's the story they tell. It turns out they've hijacked the yacht while hunting for a lost treasure and are holding a brother and sister hostage. Gregg now has a more immediate problem on his hand that might just take precedent over his legal troubles.

This story is just-plain fun. Shaftel sets up the situation with economical prose and also manages to insert the right amount of South Seas atmosphere into it all. Little touches add to the flavor; the lost treasure, for instance, is said to be gold buried during World War I by a German ship captain. It had been taken off of merchant ships captured by the German's warship, but the captain buried it when he realized the war was lost.

It's a nicely thought out bit of background that makes the story's Macguffin all the more interesting. There's also an ironic twist at the end regarding the actual nature of the island's treasure. (Which is one of several twists that help bring all aspects of the story to a conclusion)

But before we get to the end, Gregg has to sneak out to the yacht, free the brother, get back ashore, rescue the sister and team up with DeCourcey to take out the villains. We only get a little background information about Gregg, but by golly he knows it's always a good idea to bring a revolver to a fist fight.

"Mystery on Dead Man Reef" is a fine example of why pulp-era fiction remains entertaining and will always remain entertaining. It jumps right into the story without wasting any time; it generates the proper atmosphere to draw us into the adventure; and it moves along at a brisk pace while giving us some cool fight scenes. Reading it won't change your life, but you'll be a better person for having read it anyways.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

For Heaven's Sake, Shang-Chi, PUT SOME SHOES ON!

Shang-Chi first appeared in 1973, so there's no doubt that Marvel simply wanted a character who could ride the Bruce Lee-inspired martial arts craze that was sweeping through popular culture. According to an interview I read with Roy Thomas (the then-editor at Marvel), writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin came to him with the idea of doing a book based on the TV series Kung Fu.  That never happened, but doing something similar to Kung Fu was possible. Thomas came up with the idea of making the main character the son of master criminal Fu Manchu (who had been created by Sax Rohmer in 1913), though he now works against his father. So Marvel acquired the rights to Fu Manchu and things took off from there.  Then, a few years later, Marvel lost the rights to Fu Manchu and poor Shang's dad became a nameless master criminal in all future appearances. (Actually, I think he may have been given an alternate name in a more modern story.)

This, sadly, is why it seems unlikely that we will ever get a Masterworks or Essential series reprinting the early Master of Kung Fu stories. Darn you, copyright laws. Darn you all to heck!

Well, the idea of tossing Fu Manchu into the mix did produce a book that was both unique and pretty gosh-darn cool. Shang-Chi soon teamed up with Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, the aging protagonist from the original Rohmer novels. The end product was a clever combination of the martial arts genre and James Bond-esque spy stories. Doug Moench took over writing the series fairly early on in its run and regularly produced complex, action-driven story arcs filled with nifty plot twists, making good use of both Shang and his supporting cast.

Paul Gulacy was the artist through much of Moench's run as artist. Gulacy's clean and energetic art was complemented by his ability to choreograph incredibly fun fight scenes, in which the action flows in a logical and understandable manner while still looking awesome.

For instance, let's take 1974's Giant Size Master of Kung Fu #1. Nayland-Smith and the other supporting cast members are absent from this one, but it's still a good example of the strengths that both Moench and Gulacy brought to the book. There are three Shang-Chi stories (and a reprint of a Yellow Claw story from 1956).

The first story involves Fu Manchu sending a series of assassins after Shang-Chi. It's his wayward's son's
birthday and Fu wants to give him DEATH as a gift.

Shang takes out several of the assassins, then sneaks into Fu's secret HQ to fight the rest of them. Fu gets away, but his plans are thwarted for the moment.

It's a fun story. The premise of the hero being stalked by a cult of assassins is an old trope, but Moench uses it well here, depending on Gulacy's great art to effectively carry the story along while it builds up to its violent climax.

The other two Shang stories each have different artists. One (drawn by Ron Wilson) involves Shang being refused a room by a racist landlord, then attacked by hitmen. The fight ends when he has to save the landlord's life. The anti-racism message is a little heavy-handed, but Shang's actions towards the landlord are part of the character's appeal. He's a hero and he'll save even the jerk who hates him for being Chinese.

The other (drawn by Craig Russell) involves Shang foiling a robbery at a museum. It's another fast-paced and entertaining story, but it also highlights the one thing about this series that sometimes annoyed me. This happens when Shang enters the museum and a guard calls him out for being bare-foot.

Shang comes back with what's supposed to be a wise and philosophical reply: "Why do you fear touching the Earth? Does not the concrete separate you from it enough?"

Gee, Shang, good point. Wearing shoes separates us from Mother Earth and thus is evil. Of course, in a big city, it also separates us from shards of broken glass and used drug needles. But that, apparently, is beside the point.

Just shut up and put some shoes on, will ya?

Moench is a good writer, but he sometimes over-wrote and his efforts to make Shang-Chi seem wise sometimes backfired. This only happened occasionally--most of the time his take on the character gave us a compassionate and clever hero. But there were moments like this where poor Shang said something that was supposed to sound deeply philosophical but was really just really pretty dumb--and you are left wondering why the other characters in the story look so impressed.

Oh, well, as long as Shang remains a likable character who can kick butt and act as the centerpiece for awesome fight scenes and complex stories, then we can put up with little faux-philosophy.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Friday's Favorite OTR

Nick Carter: "The Mystery of Hangman's Woods" 5/20/45

Nick is asked to find a rational answer for a supposedly supernatural apparition. This investigation soon evolves into a case involving stolen gunpowder and a ruthless criminal.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Two Billy the Kids for the price of one

In real life, Billy the Kid had a short but violent career before being gunned down by sheriff Pat Garrett. In the B-movie universe, though, he had quite a long (and rather more heroic) career.

In a series of 6 films made in 1940 and 1941, Bob Steele portrayed the Billy as a wandering Western hero who, despite his reputation as an outlaw, fights for the underdog and brings villains to justice.

The real Billy was involved in the Lincoln County War--a violent range war fought in New Mexico Territory in 1978. That's the backdrop of Billy the Kid Outlawed, Steele's first adventure as Billy. The villains are the owners of Lincoln's general store, who hold IOUs for just about everyone in the county and are using this to make sure one of them is elected sheriff. He has his thugs kill a troublesome rancher, but the murder victim was an old friend of Billy's. So Billy helps a federal judge try to clean up the town.

But the judge is murdered and the bad guy becomes sheriff. Billy and his two sidekicks are declared outlaws, forcing them to use outlaw tactics to fight back.

It's not a bad movie, though it has its flaws. It clocks in at under an hour, but still seems a little too long. The pacing is off--scenes of cowboys galloping from one location to another always seem to be a few seconds too long. The gun fights and fist fights are too loosely choreographed, with no real cleverness to them and with an over-dependence on Billy's comedic sidekick Fuzzy to provide slapstick moments.

But the story is a pretty good one and Steele does a good job of as Billy--especially in a scene where he bitterly decides the law is helpless and his only option is to embrace being an outlaw.

Buster Crabbe returned from Mongo and took over the role in 1941, playing Billy the Kid in 13 films. In 1943, he put on a lighter-colored shirt and became Billy Carson for 23 more films. He still had the same sidekick (with the same name) for a partner, though. Rumor hath it this was because someone (distributors, theater owners, or perhaps parents) were worried about making a real-life outlaw a hero. I suppose technically the Billy Carson films are a different series, but I prefer to think of them as the same--with Billy eventually adopting an alias so that he could leave his reputation as an outlaw behind. (You can even theorize that he and Pat Garrett faked his death between movies.)

Anyway, in 1942's The Sheriff of Sage Valley, Billy is still an outlaw. Despite this on his resume, the mayor of Sage Valley asks him to take the job of sheriff to clean up the town. He's reluctant at first, but
circumstances soon convince him to agree.

This puts him up against an interesting villain--the local outlaw leader is Kansas Ed, who just happens to be Billy's physical double. (And he just may turn out to be Billy's actual evil twin brother.) When Billy arrests one of Kansas Ed's men for murder, the villain kidnaps Billy and forces him to switch clothes. Then Kansas, posing as Billy, springs his man from jail. This convinces the townspeople that Billy has joined the outlaws. Now he not only has to catch the bad guys, he's got to prove his own innocence.

Sam Neufield was the director of all 42 Billy the Kid/Billy Carson films and he got better as the series progressed. Though still a little too dependent on poorly-done slapstick humor during the fight scenes, the action in Sage Valley is better choreographed and the story is better paced.

Crabbe is very likable as Billy (I like him better in the role than Steele, though that's very much just my opinion--both are good in the role) and he also manages to give a pretty good "evil" vibe in his double role as Kansas Ed. An actress named Maxine Leslie does a nice job as Kansas Ed's femme fatale girlfriend.

So Billy the Kid was quite active in the B-Movie universe. And changing his name and his shirt doesn't fool me a bit, by golly. Neither does changing actors. That's still Billy the Kid!

This clip will give you a chance to compare Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe in the role.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Angel Before the Angel

When you say "The Angel" to most people familiar with the Marvel Comics Universe, they're almost sure to reply "The guy from the X-Men with wings." Many modern readers would then recount that mind-numbingly depressing story arc in which he gets his wings cut off, has them replaced with metal wings by a super-villain and then seems to alternate between being a bad guy and a dark anti-hero. Gee whiz, it's no wonder I read so few modern comic books!

But there was an Angel before that Angel--A World War II-era hero who was introduced in Marvel Comics #1 along with the Human Torch and (sort of) the Sub-Mariner. (Namor appeared in a black-and-white giveaway comic before Marvel Comics was published. But, in my opinion, that was more of a test-drive than a true premiere.)

The first Angel was a costumed vigilante without any powers. At first, he didn't really have much of a back story--he was simply a guy who took on a costumed identity to better hunt down mobsters. (In modern comics, he was given a pretty nifty back story involving being inspired by an elderly Matt Hawk--aka the Two-Gun Kid. So, yes, modern comics do occasionally have moments of sincere coolness.)

Written and drawn by Paul Gustavson, the Angel stories were straightforward and exciting action stories. He was pretty ruthless--it wasn't unusual for him to leave a number of corpses in his wake with just one or two living criminals still around for the cops to arrest. But that actually wasn't an unusual thing for many of the 1940s Marvel heroes. They were quite a ruthless bunch.

 Like the Torch, Namor and Captain America, the character was popular enough to earn appearances in three or four different comics each month. In Spring 1941, he popped up as a back-up story in Sub-Mariner #1.

This was a cool story. Angel, a guy named Tex and a gal named Jane are in the small seaport of Sabatino. (The story isn't clear on this--but Sabatino seems to be a part of a Caribbean island nation. Given the nature of the story, it's probably meant to be an expy of Haiti.)

Jane has inherited a castle known as the House of Horrors and intends to take possession. But someone thinks that's a bad idea and kidnaps her. So it's up to the Angel and Tex to break into the castle and rescue her. Along the way, they discover a villain is running a secret gold mine under the castle and is using zombies as his labor force.

So the Angel and Tex rather ruthlessly dispose of some human guards, go toe-to-toe with some zombies, rescue the girl and escape just before the gold mine gets blown up.

It's a simple plot enhanced by fun, energetic art and some nicely-choreographed fight scenes. The Angel pretty much faded away after the initial superhero craze of the 1940s died out, never making the same comeback as did Namor, the Torch and Captain America. But he did okay for himself while he was around.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Cover Cavalcade

Worlds Unknown was a short-lived series from 1974 that adapted prose stories and films. This wonderful Gil Kane cover is from the last issue, which featured Part Two of an adaptation of the equally wonderful Ray Harryhausen film The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

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