Wednesday, December 31, 2014

TV Tough Guys Come to Comics--Part 3

The Untouchables almost couldn't help to be cool. It was set during the 1930s and therefore involved cool cars, fedoras and Tommy guns. On top of this, it had Robert Stack playing a fictionalized version of Eliot Ness--giving Ness a moral strength and pure toughness that often threatened to make the television screen implode.

It was a well-written show as well, as most Quinn Martin-produced shows were. The stories made sense, with Ness and the other Untouchables following up leads in a logical manner.

It was also a violent show--something that brought it a lot of criticism at the time, but something that was also appropriate to the setting and the stories being told. The violence wasn't just tossed into a story to show cool gunfights and let the actors shoot Tommy guns. Well, that's partially why, but they were also a naturally inherent part of the show.

For their comic book appearances, Ness and his boys appeared in two issues of Dell's Four Color anthology book, then two issues (numbered #3 & #4) of their own book, all with art by the great Dan Spiegle. We'll be looking at a story from The Untouchables #3 (May-July 1962).

"The Escape of 'Avenger' Jory" begins with... well.. with "Avenger" Jory escaping from the federal pen. And his nickname isn't because he hangs out with Thor and Iron Man--it's because he kills anyone who crosses him. He even kills anyone who might cross him at some point in the future, such as the guy who helped arrange his escape.

The uncredited writer does a fine job of quickly introducing the various characters. Ness and his men want to find Jory before people start dying. Chicago gangster Silky Scott (who secretly ratted out Jory and got him sent to prison) knows Jory will be after him. Jory is reassembling his gang, intending to whack Silky and take over Chi-Town's bootlegging trade.

From here, the story progresses logically. A box of candy gives Ness a lead to finding Jory, but this runs into a dead end. One of Jory's men tries to whack Silky, but kills a henchman and an innocent bystander instead. Jory's gang hijacks a truck fill of illegal booze, but a badly wounded driver gives Ness a dying statement that puts the Feds back on the trails.

Ness trails the truck to an abandoned warehouse and captures one of Jory's gang. But Jory himself is setting a trap despite Ness' presence--hoping to lure Silky to his death.

In the end, Silky is killed and Jory is recaptured. This ending is a little weak, since it almost seems as if Ness deliberately allows Jory to kill Silky in order to smoke him out. I doubt this was the intention, though and otherwise the story is well-constructed and exciting. I especially enjoy Ness' concern that Jory will end up taking innocent lives if not caught quickly. Ness isn't tough on crooks just for the sake of being tough. He's tough on them because its his job to protect the innocent and, by gosh, he's going to do just that!

Two weeks ago, when I was writing about Dell's adaptations of Gunsmoke, I mentioned that I thought there was a deliberate effort to reduce the body count as compared to the TV show. With The Untouchables, the comic book body count remains high. This particular story has seven corpses to its credit, though much of the mayhem happens off screen and the good guys don't personally kill anyone.

You can read this issue online HERE.

Well, that's it for our look at the comic book version of some of TV's toughest heroes. I do regret there was never a comic book adaptation of Combat. As much as I like Paladin, Matt Dillon and Eliot Ness, Sgt. Saunders could have taken them all one and won. He was so tough his glare causes Chuck Norris to whimper in fear. But, then again, he got to carry around a Tommy gun in nearly every episode. That would increase the anyone's Toughness Level by at least 238%.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

The cover story here is for the 7th of 10 stories written by Earl and Otto Binder (under the byline Eando Binder) about a self-aware robot. The concept from this story reminds me of DC Comics' G.I. Robot.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Great Gildersleeve: "Shady Political Supporter" 4/9/44

Gildy is running for mayor. A local businessman wants to support him, but there might be ulterior motives involved.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Telepathic Undersea Plants

It's Christmas Day, so I'm writing about a Space Opera horror story because.... um, because...

SHUT UP! I just am.

Leigh Brackett's science fiction stories often have horror overtones. I've just read "Terror out of Space" (first published in the Summer 1944 issue of Planet Stories) and it is arguably the best example of this.

Some bizarre life-forms floating around in space have landed--perhaps inadvertently--on Venus. Seemingly intelligent, these creatures can gain control over males, somehow inspiring worship and complete obedience. Often, the men under their control end up dead. The creatures are called the Madness from Beyond or the Vampire Lures or simply the Things. To find a way to fight them, one of them has to be captured alive.

An attempt to bring one in alive results in an aircraft crashing in one of Venus' vast ocean with one human survivor and the Thing loose again. The survivor, named Lundy, must don a vacuum suit, gather up some extra oxygen tanks, and walk across the sea bottom to get to the coast.

Along the way, he encounters an intelligent undersea plant-life living in a ruined city. The species has two sexes, which I'm not sure makes much sense for plants, but by now the story is so engrossing that this is forgivable.  Besides, we aren't given any real details about their physiology, so there's probably any number of ways this can be explained.

The males of the species have been lured away by the escaped Thing and are now in danger of being attacked and killed by another plant species called the Others. What follows is Lundy's attempt to save the males, himself escape from the Others and re-capture the Thing. We learn the Thing's motivation along the way, which just might provide Lundy with a way to survive this whole business.

It's a great story, hitting just the right creepy vibe at the start and leading into a truly exciting sequence at the end when Lundy is trying to escape from the Others. The undersea setting adds to the atmosphere and the plant creatures have a unique vibe to them.  But the horrific elements in the tale do not overshadow the real feeling of humanity that Brackett infuses into her work. We like and care about Lundy and we easily think of him as a real person.

Brackett's protagonists are in the end heroic characters who always understand the difference between right and wrong. As a result, no matter how horrific or bizarre her stories may be, they are never without a sense of hope.

You can read or download "Terror Out of Space" HERE.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Death-Knell for a Traitor!

Wow! How often are the plans of a superhero thrown off because government bureaucracy is too efficient?

That, surprisingly, is what happens to Batman in Batman #248 (April 1973). A former navy officer named Friss is being released after spending 30 years in the slammer. Batman has a hunch that Friss might be in trouble the moment he steps out of the prison into supposed freedom. And he's right--but the Dark Knight gets there late because the prison had released Friss a little early!

Batman isn't quite able to save Friss from being kidnapped, though he does bag a thug and get enough information to confirm some suspicions.

When he gets back to the Batcave, we get the background information. Friss was an intelligence officer aboard an aircraft carrier early in World War II. He sold out to the Japanese, getting a diamond in exchange for giving his ship's position. But he's caught and still on board when the Japanese attack. The carrier is severely damaged, but survived. Friss goes to jail, but the diamond goes missing. It might be at the bottom of the sea. Or it might still be around.

A villain named Colonel Sulphur--a spymaster who can extend a knife-blade from one of his fingers-now has Friss and is probably after the diamond. (This, by the way, is Sulphur's second appearance. He'll fade into comic book limbo after this.)

Playing another hunch, Batman figures the diamond is aboard the carrier--now retired and docked at
the Gotham Navy Yard. If so, Sulphur and Friss will be heading there as well. He's right, of course.

The action on the carrier involves a fight with Sulphur, followed by an encounter with a now-insane Friss., The traitor has recovered the diamond but now believes himself to be back in World War II. Batman goes along with this and soon Friss is convinced he's once again in the midst of a Japanese air attack. He leaps off the deck and plunges to this death.

Running only 13 pages (the rest of the issue is a Robin story), "Death-Knell for a Traitor!" moves along economically and provides all the exposition we need quickly. Friss's back-story is interesting and unique, while the deck of a retired aircraft carrier is a fun place for the climatic fight. As a villain, Colonel Sulphur doesn't rate a spot in Batman's regular Rogue's Gallery, but he's strong enough to carry along a short story like this one.

This is all enhanced by Mike Kaluta's awesome cover and Bob Brown's strong interior art.

I really enjoy stories like this--simple enough to be told effectively in just a few pages, but well-constructed and interesting enough to entertain. It was written by Denny O'Neil, who understood Batman better than pretty much any other writer who approached the character. This time, Batman doesn't get to do any amazing detective work--he pretty much just follows up a couple of hunches. But they are hunches backed by his experience and training, so this works in the context of this story. Aside from that, we have Batman's skill as a hand-to-hand combatant and his ability to think quickly under pressure.

He does get scary and threatening with the thug he captures at the beginning of the tale, but that was the appropriate thing to do in that circumstance. What made the Batman stories from the 1970s so good was that O'Neil and other writers remembered that Batman was more than just Scary Guy. He is a well-rounded detective and hero who can think his way through a case. Of course, he's thrown for a loop when the federal government actually does something right, but who wouldn't be?

I really miss that Batman.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

Yet another very effective cover from Dell Comics. One image without any narration generates suspense and tells you all you need to know to understand the situation.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

American Trail: "Lewis and Clark Expedition" 2/28/53

This is part of a 13-episode series that effectively recounted important events in American history.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

How to Make Money Out of World War II

The December 15, 1942 issue of The Shadow Magazine features a novel in which our hero faces one of the nastier villains of his career. Which is saying a lot, because the Shadow has run across some pretty nasty bad guys.

But Eric Zorva--aka "the Money Master"--manages to slip ahead of some of the others in the Official Nasty Index because of just how epic his evil scheme is in terms of sheer audacity.

Zorva is sort of an investor. He invests money by converting the currency of one nation into the currency of another. For instance, he'll take a million dollars, turn it into French francs, then later into German marks, and so on--increasing the value of the cash by taking advantage of fluctuating exchange rates.

Actually, just writing it out like that doesn't make Zorva sound all that insidious, does it? But remember that this is 1942. Zorva is making millions by essentially betting on who is going to win the Second World War. At the very least, he's exchanging currency based on who is winning at the moment. He has no particular political motive. He just wants to make money.

Aside from the fact that this often means he's making investments that help the Axis, by the time the Shadow picks up his trail he's dealing in such vast sums that his actions can be directly responsible for the rise and fall of governments and industries.

Also, he's okay with the idea of killing people to get his way and he's personally trained his minions to be knife-throwing experts. This is rarely if ever considered an ethical business tactic. So Zorva is indeed one nasty person.

But he's not the only bad guy around.  A dishonest private eye and a gangster have teamed up and are trying to horn in on Zorva's racket. A group of European vigilantes are also after Zorva. These guys look like they might be the Shadow's allies, but Zorva has a knife-throwing mole in the group.

And on top of all THAT, several European refugees who seem to be in danger just might have agendas of their own.

All this makes for a complex and satisfying Shadow story, with plot twists zipping by at a fast and furious pace.

But my favorite part of the novel does not at first involve the Shadow. At one point, four of his agents have been captured by the gangster. They're getting worked over by some thugs when the door to the room in which they are held is smashed open.

As the novel describes it: What knocked the door loose was [the] lookout... He came through catapulted by some unseen force, that he had tried to stem without success.

Enter Jericho Druke, the big African-American agent of the Shadow who had a habit of coming to the rescue of his fellow agents with true style. For instance, in a 1939 story, he helped the others in a brawl with some thugs by ripping a stove out of a wall and throwing it.

Jericho Druke is awesome.

He proves this again because in The Money Master, he's faced with a room full of thugs, all of whom are aiming pistols at him. There's too many. Unless he can miraculously take them all out simultaneously, he is going to be gunned down. He clearly doesn't have a chance.

Jericho Druke wins the fight. Using a rather unexpected but brutally efficient tactic (which I will not presume to spoil for you), he clears the room of villains in one move. Because Jericho Druke is indeed awesome.

Of course, it's a Shadow novel, so the Shadow takes the lead for most of the novel. But writer Walter Gibson always makes good use of the Shadow's agents, making them viable co-heroes. Jericho appears relatively infrequently, but he's one of my favorites.

It's interesting to compare Jericho with Josh and Rosabel Newton, assistants to the Avenger, whose adventures (like the Shadow) were also published by Street and Smith.  Josh and Rosebel were also black, but in a departure from most of the  popular fiction of the day, they were capable, intelligent agents who were treated as equals by the Avenger and the other members of Justice, Inc.

The Shadow's agents were also portrayed as capable and intelligent. But when Jericho Druke shows up, he was normally there just to beat the snot out of the bad guys. It's the other agents that actively assisted the Shadow in actual investigation. But, on the other hand, Jericho is regularly portrayed as beating the snot out of white people, which is in itself unusual for the time period. Besides, he's just so darn cool when he beats the snot out of bad guys--regardless of their color. And there's no denying that the tactics he uses to win fights demonstrate that he thinks a little faster than his opponents.

So is Jericho regulated to his specific role because of his skin color? Or is he placed in that role simply because that's where his skills are put to best use? I really don't know. But what I do know is that Jericho Druke will clear a room of armed men in the space of a few heartbeats if by doing so he saves the lives of his friends. I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

TV Tough Guys Come to Comics--Part 2

Between the radio version of Gunsmoke and the TV version, Matt Dillon racked up quite a body count. On television alone, there were 635 episodes produced and (until the last season or so when network TV was going through a "AHHHH--WE CAN'T SHOW ANY VIOLENCE!" phase without giving the issue any real rational thought) it was more common than not for Matt to drop at least one outlaw. I recently watched a 1967 episode titled "The Wreckers" in which Matt had killed five men before the end credits rolled .

He was also shot or otherwise wounded a total of 59 times during the run of the show and over the course of the TV movies made after the show ended. But that hardly ever slowed him up. Heck, in the excellent 3-parter "The Bullet," Matt is temporarily paralyzed with a bullet in his spine, but he still manages to drop two bad guys. Yes, Matt Dillon is indeed a tough guy.

What makes Matt a hero and a legitimate tough guy rather than a cold-blooded killer is the Old West setting, the quality of the stories and James Arness' excellent portrayal of the character. It was always obvious that Matt wasn't eager to kill, but it was only the legitimate necessity of self-defense or defending others that forced him to take lives. The body count got so high simply because the show lasted such a long time.

Dell Comics did five Gunsmoke stories in its Four Color anthology book before giving the show its own series. This lasted 22 issues, with the numbering beginning with 6. We'll be looking at Gunsmoke #8 (April-May 1958).

This is the only Gunsmoke issue I own, but the impression I get is that though Dell still successfully presented Matt as a tough guy, the comic toned down the body count. Comic books didn't shy away from showing people getting killed--but I think the family-friendly company simply didn't want the corpses piling quite as high in Matt's comic book adventures. For instance, the first story in the book--"The Taming of Bull Halloran"--has Matt shooting a gun out of someone's hand. That's the Lone Ranger's schtick, though, and doesn't comfortably fit into Gunsmoke's more realistic take on the Old West.

In the book's second story--"Six Gun Fury"--Matt again uses non-lethal force on two occasions to take down outlaws.

On the other hand, Dell Comics often didn't shy away from violence. Heck, they once ran a story about a bizarre monster that crushed children to death. So perhaps downplaying the violence just reflected the style of the uncredited writer rather than an editorial fiat. I honestly have no idea.

But even though I think the shooting-the-gun-out-of-his-hand bit doesn't belong in a Gunsmoke story, I'm largely okay with the lack of dead bodies in these stories. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier. Matt Dillon wasn't ever presented as blood-thirsty or casually quick on the trigger. When he killed, it was because he had to. The comic book still presents him as a tough lawman, willing to stand up to outlaws and make sure Dodge City is protected and the law is obeyed. He clearly knows the difference between right and wrong. That's the important part.

"Six Gun Fury" is the better of the two stories in this issue. Like many of the original TV and radio episodes, it introduces a couple of new characters and provides us with enough background to make them the focus of the story, using them to provide drama and suspense. In this case, this is an aging trapper named Buckskin Charlie and his young partner--an Indian named Young Bear. Young Bear's dad was Charlie's partner for 25 years and died saving Charlie from a grizzly. Charlie has saved enough money to buy a farm and plans to continue to raise Young Bear as a son.

But a couple of thugs at first decide to make the pair a target for bullying and later plan to outright rob them. This all comes to a head one evening in the town stables, with Charlie unconscious and Matt being held at gunpoint.

It's a well-constructed story that moves along briskly while still taking the time to give us Charlie's background. This is important, because it makes Charlie and Young Bear more than just two generic victims. It makes them actual people in our eyes, thus generating real concern for their safety. This is an especially deep concern for those of us familiar with the TV show, which did not shy away from tragic endings.

So Matt Dillon, like Paladin, fairs well in a comic book universe, remaining a tough guy and a hero. It is perhaps a tribute to how well the radio and TV shows presented Matt--in that the violence can be toned down in the comics and we don't see him as any less heroic.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Superman: "The Dead Voice" 9/25/46

This episode wraps up a story arc about a crooked politician, then launches into a brand new story in which Batman's young partner Robin is receiving threatening letters and phone calls--from a man who died two weeks earlier!

Click HERE to listen or download.

The rest of this story arc can be found HERE, but remember that you are only allowed to listen to one chapter per day or you'll spontaneously blow up.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"I then believed that all misguided or cruel people should be shot, and I shot some."

When Rex Stout created the obese detective Nero Wolfe, he was performing a rather delicate balancing act. Wolfe works as a detective only because he needs money to maintain his brownstone, care for his orchids and keep to a gourmet diet. Some of his most obvious traits are less-than-admirable. He's stubborn, sometimes a little childish, and is quite often a quarter-ton pain in the butt.

But if Wolfe was too obnoxious without any traits to balance this out, then we would get tired of visiting him. We might enjoy a few Nero Wolfe novels or novellas simply because they are nifty mysteries or because we like Archie Goodwin, but if we didn't like Wolfe, we wouldn't come back.

Of course, it probably helps that we spend most of our time with Archie and get Wolfe in relatively small doses.

So why do we like Nero Wolfe? There are a number of reasons, but one of them is that he does have a sense of right and wrong. He does have a code of honor, even if he doesn't care to admit to this if he doesn't have to. The novel Over My Dead Body (abridged in American Magazine in 1939; published as a novel in 1940) is perhaps the best example of this.

A recent immigrant from Montenegro needs Wolfe's help--she's been accused of theft by one of the clients of the fencing school at which she works. Wolfe's bank account is full at the moment, so he's not interested. But then it turns out the young lady might be Wolfe's adopted daughter.

We get to learn a little bit about Wolfe's background--that he wasn't always fat and that he spent a few years in what is now Yugoslavia during the World War. ("I then believed that all misguided or cruel people should be shot, and I shot some." One of the best lines ever.) While there, he stumbled across a starving three-year-old girl and took her in. Later, the two lost track of each other. Now she seems to be back.

So Wolfe sends Archie to the fencing school, despite the fact that no fee is likely to be collected. The theft thing is cleared up pretty quickly, but then a corpse turns up and Wolfe's daughter (if she is his
daughter) is a suspect. And the murder weapon turns up in the pocket of Archie's coat. It's the sort of thing that happens with surprising frequency to poor Archie.

What follows is a very faced-paced story. The action covers only two days (with Wolfe and Archie only getting a few hours sleep during this time), so there is an inherent excitement to everything. But the pacing never gets ahead of the story--when the complex mystery is finally sorted out, everything falls nicely into place. The twist at the end  is absolutely wonderful. Oh, and we learn that Wolfe is still perfectly capable of looking after himself in dangerous situations.

Along the way, Rex Stout has fun with his characters. Inspector Cramer realizes that Wolfe's clients always turn out to be innocent and that the corpulent detective often digs up vital information before the cops. So he eventually camps out in the brownstone, even following Wolfe up to the greenhouse during orchid-time.

But the best part comes in the last chapter, when Wolfe finally has time to talk to his daughter without worrying about solving a mystery. Boy, is that awkward. But its also legitimately sweet and if you want to know why people like Nero Wolfe despite all his annoying traits--well, here's your answer. It is this as well as the great mystery that makes it one of my favorite in the series.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Monster Society of Evil: Parts 16-20

When we last saw Captain Marvel, he was sitting atop a newly created volcano in Scotland to prevent it from erupting. And can I just pause here to remark that I loved writing that sentence?

Some of the locals manage to set up a volcano plug and the World's Mightiest Mortal is once again free to give chase to Mr. Mind. This time, the chase takes them underground, where Marvel discovers a civilization of Sub-Americans--who are apparently midget Pilgrims who moved underground a few centuries earlier.

I will pause again to remark that I love being able to write "midget Pilgrims" and have it make sense in context.

These guys keep Allied oil wells filled with oil and also had a back-up plan to put into effect if the Axis managed to conquer Europe. They had wired a giant cavern with tons of dynamite. If necessary, they could set this off and split the world in half, thus keeping the Western Hemisphere safe from the Nazis. Now that the Axis are losing, they no longer plan on blowing anything up, but they hadn't bothered to defuse the bomb. Apparently, midget Pilgrims aren't strong on safety procedures.

Naturally, Mr. Mind decides to light the fuse, forcing Marvel into a race against time to save the world.

This allows Mr. Mind to make a clean getaway. And it's at this point that, as much as I love this story, I think Otto Binder and C.C. Beck begin to lose a little momentum. Most of the next two issues involve the famous movie director Mr. Hitchblock making a movie about Mr. Mind--with the intent of helping reminding people just how dangerous the little worm is. The ensuing story, in which Mr. Mind hijacks the studio and attempts to make his own movie, is funny enough. But the momentum of the tale in terms of telling an adventure story is lost. There's no feeling of immediacy to the danger and the emphasis on humor detracts from the superhero stuff. That's a judgement call, of course. The story was already filled with humor. But I think that here the balance shifted just a little too far in that direction.

Also, Mr. Mind suddenly shifts from being a cunning villain to a big cry-baby, breaking into tears whenever something goes wrong. It's already hard enough to be threatening when you are a one-inch-long worm. You don't want a tendency to whine making this even harder.

The movie shenanigans are followed by Mr. Mind employing a "Back Death Ray," only to discover that it only works on metal, not on people. He follows this up with a plan to fool the general population into supporting him by publishing a propaganda book titled "Mind Kampf." (Which actually is pretty funny.) Part of this plan is using a minion named Evil Eye to hypnotize Billy Batson and force him to help run the printing press.

But that plan goes awry as well. Interestingly, Captain Marvel Adventures #41 (chapter 20) concludes with Mr. Mind about to get crushed in a printing press. It's rare to have the villain, not the hero, involved in the cliffhanger.

There is one bizarre moment I want to specifically mention. At one point in the story, Captain Marvel is about to finally catch Mr. Mind. But the clever worm escapes by putting his glasses on a normal caterpillar. This is enough to fool a man who's been given the Wisdom of Solomon.

Actually, I'm okay with that--it fits right in with the absurdist feel of the entire story arc. But when Marvel thinks he's holding the real Mr. Mind in his fist--he does this:

Yes, in an act of brutal vigilante justice that is worthy of the Punisher (30 years before the Punisher would be created), Captain Marvel simply squishes the bad guy. (Or at least thinks he does.) Gee whiz, even the SQUISH sound effect looks pretty graphic! I actually don't care for this--the inherent brutality is both out-of-character for Captain Marvel and sounds a false note in a story that otherwise drips with innocent fun.

Then again, Mr. Mind has been working closely with the Nazis--real-life and purely evil villains who slaughtered millions of innocent people. Maybe it wasn't possible to keep the story completely innocent. All the same, that SQUISH is just unpleasant.

Well, we'll just have to wait and see if things pick up for the last five chapters of "The Monster Society of Evil."

You can read the entire epic HERE.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Adventure Ahead: "Two Years Before the Mast" 8/5/44

Adventure Ahead was a Saturday morning children's show. This episode takes the title of Richard Henry Dana's account of sailing on a merchant ship and pretty much builds an original story around it. It's a good story, though.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Murder and a Ghostly Pirate

It's as if the poor woman planned to be murdered!

Miss Nodbury has a treasure map that supposedly leads to a fortune in hidden pirate loot. She makes several decisions that--in the context of living in a B-movie universe--are practically suicidal.

First, to search for the treasure, she hires a ship that was until recently a pirate museum, giving the vessel an inherently creepy atmosphere.

Then she divides the map up into four pieces, keeping one for herself and giving the others to three of the passengers who will be coming on the pirate cruise. None of these passengers know who else has a piece. (Passengers are aboard because Miss Nodbury is making the treasure hunt a cruise. That way it will turn a profit even if no treasure is found.)

Finally, she admits to being superstitious. An ancestor of hers was the notorious pirate known as Black Hook. The family legend has it when one of her family is about to die, the ghost of Black Hook shows up to escort them to the next life.

Well, of course she gets murdered. And of course the method of murder is scaring her to death when Black Hook apparently shows up at her door. Her piece of the map is stolen as well.

Fortunately, Charlie Chan is on board, along with Number Two son Jimmy. And this is the set up for a tight and atmospheric murder mystery. The killer has to be someone aboard the ship--one of the passengers or Miss Nodbury's business manager or the ship's ill-tempered captain. All act suspiciously in one way or another. All seem to have something to hide.

The investigation is made harder when the various pieces of the treasure map begin disappearing (and occasionally reappearing) at inopportune moments. Glimpses of what is apparently Black Hook's ghost lurking about the ship does little to calm anyone's nerves.

This is the plot of Dead Men Tell, a 1941 Chan picture directed by Harry Lachman. Lachman's film career mostly involved B-movies, including five Charlie Chans. But before and after his work in Hollywood, he was a respected painter--a post-impressionist. Dead Man Tell is one of several of his films that show how he effectively used his painter's eye to add atmosphere to a film. The movie is obviously done on a shoestring budget. But the script keeps all the action either aboard the ship or on the docks nearby, allowing the story to unfold without having to spend a lot of money to get it on film. Lachman's skill is on display here--visually, the film looks great, with the fog-bound dockyard, photographed in crisp black-and-white, generating a good deal of tension. The murder mystery itself is a pretty good one, but the movie is also simply fun to just look at.

The supporting cast, as was typical in the Studio Era, is excellent, helping give the story a strong backbone. I especially enjoy seeing George Reeves--a decade or so before becoming Superman--smirk nastily as a supposed newspaper reporter who may not be a reporter at all. There's also a nice touch in naming one of the women aboard the ship Anne Bonney--the namesake of history's best-known female pirate. The name isn't emphasized in the film. It's simply there as an Easter Egg for anyone who recognizes it.

My favorite Chan is Warner Oland and the best chemistry in the series was between Oland and Keye Luke as Number One son Lee Chan. But the Toler films, with Victor Sen Yung as Jimmy, are quite good as well. Despite its low budget, Dead Men Tell is one of Toler's best. Or perhaps it's good because of the low budget. Who knows--perhaps more money for sets and extras would have left Harry Lachman without the need to use his painter's eye to make it all look so cool.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

TV Tough Guys Come to Comics--Part 1

Arguably, the four toughest tough guys in the history of television characters are as follows:

Sgt. Chip Saunders from Combat (Vic Morrow)
Eliot Ness from the Untouchables (Robert Stack)
Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke (James Arness)
Paladin from Have Gun Will Travel (Richard Boone)

These were guys you simply didn't want to mess with. If you were a villain, then deciding to go up against any one of them would be unwise. It would be so unwise, that it's likely to be the last decision you would ever make.

Any one of these four tough guys can whip any other TV hero with one hand tied behind his back. (With the possible exception of Mrs. Peel.) If two of them were to fight each other, the universe would implode. They are simply that tough.

Combat, sadly, never had a comic book adaptation.  I don't know why--during the 1960s, just about every TV series got a comic book adaptation. I suppose that an agreement with the producers or network was never reached. Or maybe Vic Morrow's inherent toughness makes him impossible to draw.

But the other three did get comic books. Today, we're going to take a look at one of Paladin's comic book outings. Two weeks from now, we'll visit with Eliot Ness. Two weeks after that, we'll travel to Dodge City and pay a call on Marshal Dillon. (In between, we'll have non-related random comic book reviews as usual.)

Have Gun, Will Travel--like many of the TV westerns from that era--had strong scripts and great character actors in the guest-star roles each week. It was Richard Boone's nuanced performance as the
professional but honorable (and well-educated) gunman named Paladin that really made the series work, though, giving each episode a strong, moral center. He'd work as bodyguard, bounty hunter or (in one hilarious episode) baseball umpire--always doing his job with a firm sense of the difference between right and wrong.

Three issues of Dell's Four Color comic featured the show, so when it got its own book, the numbering started with 4. We're going to look at one of the stories from Have Gun, Will Travel #5 (April-June 1960).

The writer was Paul S. Newman--the most prolific writer in the history of comic books and a man who could always be depended upon to give us a well-constructed and entertaining story no matter what the genre. The artist was Ray Bailey, who also did fine work in different genres, working for both Western Publications (the creator of Dell (and later Gold Key) comics) and Harvey Comics.

"The Fatal Photo" really feels like it could have been a regular TV episode. A well-known photographer named Herbert H. Higgins asks Paladin to look after him while he photographs Indians. And Paladin proves to be needed right from the get-go when Higgins angers the Indians, who think the photographs are stealing their souls.

By the way, this is something of a stereotype in Westerns, but it does seem to be some fact behind it. Some Native Americans did fear this at first, though many did eventually come to enjoy being photographed. (On the other hand, be aware that I did very minimal research into this before writing this post.)

After rescuing Higgins from the Indians, Paladin realizes the photographer doesn't actually care about getting any pictures--he just wanted to get out of town because some outlaws were hunting for him after he accidentally took their picture during a bank robbery. Higgins still has the negative, but destroying it won't do any good because the outlaws would never trust that he actually did so.

So Paladin's job changes. He's now protected Higgins against a trio of bank robbers. So he makes use
of Higgins' photography equipment to get the drop one them, at first using a picture of Higgins to draw their fire away from the real target, then (when the outlaws egg the Indians into attacking Higgins) using a massive amount of flash powder to blind everyone long enough to get the drop on them. Paladin then throws a fight with the local chief to convince him his soul is still intact.

The bit about using photography might have been contrived, but it is worked into the story organically--it's perfectly logical for Paladin to make use of all the assets at hand.

For a reader not familiar with the TV show, I think this story can still be enjoyed simply as a good Western yarn--it has a clever plot and Bailey's art work is strong. For a fan of the show--someone who can mentally insert Richard Boone's voice, mannerism and strong presence into the story--then the tale becomes even more enjoyable.

You can read this story online HERE.

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