Monday, March 31, 2014

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Casey, Crime Photographer: "Great Grandfather's Rent Receipt" 10/30/47

Casey takes time out from solving mysteries to tell a story about his Great-Grandfather, who once had to fulfill a very unusual request made by a dead man in order to prove he had paid the rent on his farm.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

"He hated meeting something he couldn't beat."

"Cube from Space" was first published in the August 1942 issue of Super Science Stories. I've read a lot of Leigh Brackett's stories in the past, but this is the first time I've happened to read this particular one.

It has instantly become one of my favorites. The main character is Red--that's the only name he's ever had. Red has had a miserable life. He was born aboard a tramp interplanetary freighter and apparently abandoned immediately. His childhood was spent in what was essentially slavery as he was sold from to different freighters. ("I never set foot on any ground until I was sixteen," he tells us at one point.) He eventually got into smuggling and piracy, working alone because he never met anyone he didn't have good reason to hate.

When the story opens, Red is having a particularly miserable day. He was chased into the Asteroid Belt by patrol ships, crashed, ejected into space and was now drifting towards Jupiter, with his suit running out of air.

But then a very odd-looking space ship drifts by and he enters an airlock. Inside, he discovers the remnants of a race that comes from outside the Solar System.

What follows is a situation that drips with Nightmare Fuel. The aliens--called the Rakshi--number just three hundred. They once enslaved a human race on an alien planet. A human hero--using a sword forged from a unique metal--had destroyed the power source of this ship and sent the surviving aliens drifting aimlessly across light years.

All but ten of the Rakshi were kept alive as disembodied brains. Human slaves provided the biological material needed to constantly replace the bodies of the remaining ten, who operated the ship as best they could. This all happened many thousands of years ago.

Oh, and that human hero that defeated them? He's still aboard the ship as well, kept alive while being chained down for centuries with his sword hanging over him--allowed to live so that he could eternally "meditate on my sins."

The Rakshi pump Red for information and decide that Mercury is the best place to set up shop and get some more human slaves for labor and culture vat materials. They also introduce the possibility of Red working for them--power and money in exchange for being their human agent.

The cube--already in poor shape--crashes upon landing near a human colony in the Twilight era. In the ensuing confusion, Red manages to meet up with some of the colonists. Here's where things become confusing for the criminal. The colonists treat him with compassion, which is something he's never encountered before. Now he's not sure what to do--help the colonists when there's nothing in it for him or go for the power and money.

And is there's anything he can do? The Rakshi move very fast and have these nasty hand weapons that can kill, burn or blind depending on the sadistic whims of the aliens. They soon have most of the humans rounded up. Is there anything the colonists can do to stop them?

It's a well-constructed and truly exciting story, with a creepy and original premise that makes this as much a horror story as a science fiction adventure. It really is one of my favorite in Brackett's canon.

That leaves us with just one Brackett story set on the planet Mercury. I'll get to that one soon.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How Many Kids Can Fit into the Old West?

With a few exceptions, it seems you aren't allowed to be a Western gunslinger in the Marvel Universe unless you use a nick-name that includes the world "Kid" in it.  There was the Rawhide Kid, who wandered about the West fighting evil despite his reputation as a ruthless fast-draw. There were Kid Colt and the Outlaw Kid, both of whom were also wanderers around the Old West.

Just about all of these characters had an older mentor who taught them how to defend themselves. I've always imagined a scene in one of them was deciding his nick-name and the mentor had to explain the word "Kid" had to be included. "It just does, okay? Don't ask why. The first rule of picking a Wild West nick-name is to never talk about the rules of picking Wild West nick-names."

Two-Gun Kid, unlike the other homeless Kids, generally stayed around the town of Tombstone. He was in reality a lawyer named Matt Hawk. A retired lawman had trained Matt how to fight (with both guns and fists), then urged his protege to assume a secret identity. That way, he could live in peace as Matt Hawk without an endless series of young punks calling him out to make their reputations.

Cover art by Jack Kirby

In Two-Gun Kid #69 (May 1964), he's called on to use his fists more than his guns. A giant of a man--appropriately named Goliath--comes to Tombstone and tears up the saloon just to show off his strength. The sheriff locks him up, but he merely rips the bars out of the cell window and gets away. After beating up
Matt's large friend Boom-Boom Brown and tossing Two-Gun Kid around, Goliath flees the town.

Hoping to avoid any killing, the Kid tells the sheriff that he'll pursue Goliath alone. This proves to be a bad idea when Goliath nearly knocks him off a cliff. While the Kid is delayed by this, Goliath rides back into town and says he's taking over.

There's a bit of poor storytelling here--the sheriff is no longer in town, having ridden off to another county.
That pretty much means that within minutes after Two-Gun Kid galloped out of town in pursuit of Goliath, the sheriff must have shrugged his shoulder, washed his hands of the whole business, then rode out of town so fast that there was no chance of anyone catching up with him to bring him back--even though no more than an hour or two could possibly have elapsed since Goliath escaped.

This might have worked if the sheriff had been portrayed as cowardly or incompetent, but he was supposed to be a stalwart good guy. Stan Lee needed to get the sheriff out of the way so Two-Gun Kid could do all the heroic stuff, but this led to a awkward bit of story construction. Oh, well, perhaps the sheriff was just having an off-day. Or perhaps someone brought word of another emergency that needed to be dealt with.

Anyway, the Kid gets back into town, gets into another fight with Goliath and this time uses his agility to avoid getting hit while he himself lands a number of good punches. The fight starts on the street, but moves into a building, where a falling lantern starts a fire. The Kid ends up having to save Goliath, but not before injuries from the flames leave the bully blinded for life.

Endings in which the hero risks himself to save the villain's life never seem corny or contrived to me--they simply reflect the actions of good men who understand the difference between right and wrong. I never get tired of it.

In terms of storytelling, there is that awkward moment mentioned above and another strange moment when the Kid first pursues Goliath out of town. Despite having changed into his Kid identity just a few minutes before, his horse is saddled and ready to go. Does he have a "Two-Gun Cave" in town, with a butler who keeps his horse ready for instant action?

But despite these contrivances, Stan Lee and artist Dick Ayers tell a fun tale punctuated by several nifty fist fights. Ayers' design of Goliath is an effective one--giving him a look that defines the character as much as his actions do.

But I can't help but wonder if Matt Hawk originally objected to the name Two-Gun Kid. "I'm a grown man, for pete's sake! I've been to law school!" "It doesn't matter, Matt. You gotta include Kid in there somewhere. You just gotta!"

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Gunsmoke: "Sunny Afternoon" 12/4/55

It's one of the coldest and harshest winters Dodge City has ever seen. Tempers wear thin and it's probably no surprise at all that Matt Dillon soon finds himself with a murder to solve.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Crazy Roommate

If I could time-travel, one of the first items on my "things-to-do" list would be to barnstorm through the late 19th and early 20th Century and attend a lot of baseball games.

I'd love to see a few 19th Century games, with Hoss Radbourn pitching for the Providence Grays. It would be wonderful to jump ahead a few decades later and watch teams led by Connie Mack or John McGraw or Miller Huggins in action; to see Rogers Hornsby slap a single or Babe Ruth hit one into the bleachers or Tinkers, Evers and Chance turn a double play. Watching Satchel Page and Josh Gibson face off in a Negro League game would be another highlight.

Of course, my view of early baseball is dangerously close to being romanticized. The racial segregation would be there and I'd probably get beaten up if I suggested it was a bad idea. The stands would be full of rowdy, drunken fans spitting out so much tobacco juice that my gag reflex would be activating several times an inning. The players wouldn't be much better.  But I think I'd be willing to put up with that for the sake of seeing a few games from the days before designated hitters, wild card teams and other Abominations Against Nature.

But at least we still have the excellent baseball fiction from that era. I wrote about Zane Grey's baseball fiction a few years ago. Probably the most respected writer of baseball fiction from the early 20th Century is Ring Lardner. Lardner had a conversational prose style that vividly brought his stories to life.

"My Roomy" is a combination of slapstick humor and an examination of an obsessive personality who can't handle being in the Majors. The unnamed narrator is explaining why he slumped at the end of one season--it was a lack of sleep caused by his roommate.

That roommate is a rookie named Elliot, who can hit just about any pitch thrown at him, but is an utterly hopeless fielder. So he ends up serving as a pinch hitter--smashing out homers and triples. Well, smashing out hits if he doesn't strike out because he was laughing at something he saw at the nickelodeon the night before. He's also stubborn--tell him not to steal home after a triple and he'll try it just out of spite, getting thrown out easily. The manager wants to release him, but he whacks game-winning RBIs just often enough to keep him around.

On road trips, no one can stand Elliot as a roommate for more than a couple of nights. He runs the water in the bathtub all night because he likes the sound; or he turns on all the lights at 2 am so that he can shave, waving the razor around just enough to keep his roommates from complaining. On several occasions, he breaks into song loudly enough to nearly get the entire club ejected from the hotel.

The narrator uses some reverse psychology to keep Elliot quiet at night, but that doesn't stop him from being nuts in other ways. This all comes to a head when the team plays in New York, Elliot gets a promise from Giants manager John McGraw that he can sign with the Giants (and be more likely to get World Series money) if he strikes out. Of course, John McGraw would lie to his own mother on her deathbed if it would get him an extra run, so that doesn't lead to anything other than Elliot finally getting released. Elliot heads back to his home town, where he'll discover that never bothering to read his girlfriend's letters can have rather tragic consequences.

The story starts out funny and it never loses its sense of humor, but things do turn just a little creepy by the end. It's a fascinating tale--taking a look at a man who was frankly nuts in circumstances where no one quite knew what to do about him.

Besides, how can you worry about a crazy man when you're in a pennant race?

Sidenote: Here's an article I wrote about baseball on old-time radio.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Kraa, the Unhuman

Before publication of first issue of Fantastic Four brought the superhero revival to Marvel Comics, Stan Lee wrote a lot of monster stories. And I mean a LOT of monster stories--a huge variety of these creatures were used to fill the pages of Tales of Suspense, Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales before Iron Man, Thor and Dr. Strange took up residence in those books.

Most of these stories were fun; many had neat little plot twists; and pretty much all of them--drawn by either Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko--looked great.

A fine example of this comes from Tales of Suspense #18 (June 1961)--it was reprinted in Where Monsters Dwell #15 (May 1972). Both covers are shown here. It's a rare thing when someone can outdo Jack Kirby in cover images, but I think I would have to pick the later John Severin cover as the better of the two.

 "Kraa, the Unhuman" introduces us to a mild-mannered high school teacher who craves some adventure in his life. So he flies to Africa to investigate why a remote tribe has suddenly decided to a strange new idol. The teacher (who is apparently so mild-mannered that he never bothers to tell us his name despite providing first-person narration) is robbed and left out in the jungle, but he still determinedly presses on.

He finally finds the tribe and discovers their "idol" is actually a living being. Kraa was once a human, but a communist nation sent troops to the jungle to do secret atomic bomb tests. Kraa was mutated by radiation into a huge, ugly monster. Taking over the tribe, he vows revenge on all civilized men.

Kraa is confused, though, when the teacher reacts with compassion rather than fear or cruelty. So when a giant python attacks the teacher, Kraa sacrifices his own life to save him.

Like most of the monster stories from this era, it's not really an exceptional story. But the plot is reasonably clever and Kraa's heroism gives it some real heart. It's real strength, though, lies with Jack Kirby's art.

It's accurate, I think, to call the first couple of years in the 1960s Marvel's "monster phase." Other titles cover-dated June 1961 included four more anthology books with monsters on the cover. There were also four humor books and one Western (The Rawhide Kid--who fought a MONSTER that month when he encounter the Terrible Totem.) During this phase, Stan Lee wrote a lot of undeniably fun stuff. But I would have to say that it was Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko who really made these tales memorable. They were stories that depended heavily on simply looking awesome. And Kraa the Unhuman is nothing if not awesome-looking.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

Actually, Porky really does look like he's ready to kick butt and take names, doesn't he?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Green Hornet: "Political Racket" 5/5/38

The Hornet frames himself for murder. Not something that's generally a good idea, but it's all part of a clever plan to take down a corrupt politician.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Dog Sidekick and a Killer Gorilla for a Pet. It HAS to be Awesome.

As of the day I'm writing this (about six weeks before it is scheduled to post), I have just watched the first chapter of the 1942 Republic serial The Perils of Nyoka. Normally, I'd wait until I've watched the entire serial--at the legally and morally prescribed one chapter per day--before writing about it. But the first chapter alone is so Awesomely Awesome with an Awesome filling & covered in Awesome Sauce, that I simply can't wait.

Perils is sort of a sequel to 1941's Jungle Girl, which starred Frances Gifford as Nyoka Meredith in a story that claimed to be based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, but pretty much just took the title and went its own way.

For the sequel, the name Nyoka was reused, but this character has a different last name (Gordon) and is played by a different actress (Kay Aldridge). This Nyoka has been living in the desert since her scientist father was supposedly killed during an expedition. She's convinced he's still alive and is searching endlessly for her. Along the way, she's gained the loyalty of a band of friendly Arabs and is accompanied by Fang, the world's coolest dog.

Well, there's another expedition coming into the desert, looking for the lost treasure of Hippocrates. The good guys want the treasure because it includes golden scrolls that record a cure for cancer. The bad guys--led by the beautiful but evil Vultura--want the treasure because... well, because the golden scrolls are made of gold. Vultura, by the way, is a great villainess. Played by Lorna Gray, she exudes both intelligence and evil. She also keeps a killer gorilla as a pet, which I now believe should be a standard practice for all villains.

As is typical of most serials, the opening chapter runs about a half-hour. The script does an excellent job of
succinctly explaining the plot, then tossing us into the action. The good guys have a papyrus that will lead them to the treasure, but only Nyoka can translate it since her dad was an expert on this particular dead language. Vultura has Nyoka kidnapped, but Fang helps the girl escape.

Therre's a murder, an ambush, and a pitched gun battle, which all results in Vultura getting the papyrus--though she no longer has Nyoka handy to translate it. The finale involves Nyoka and Dr. Larry Grayson (played by future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore) infiltrating Vultura's base to get the papyrus back. This leads to an energetic and magnificently choreographed sword fight and a cliffhanger that involves a collapsing ceiling.

I wonder what year in medical school is it that they teach you to sword fight three thugs at the same time? Or is that covered in Pre-Med?

It was an Awesome half-hour from start to finish, with the sword fight being one of the most entertaining battles I've ever watched. Though I've only watched Chapter One so far (and I've never watched this particular serial before), I'm going out on a limb to say this is one of the best serials ever.

The following clip shows two scenes from the first chapter.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Frankenstein's Monster vs. Nazis

The website has a page labeled "Cool vs. Awesome," listing various movies, books, comics, etc in which unlikely opponents are tossed together into the same story. So we get cowboys vs. dinosaurs (or aliens) and King Kong vs. Godzilla and flying saucers vs. Spitfires and Abraham Lincoln vs. a Klingon and pirates vs. zombies and so on and so on.

Whether or not it's well-executed, the basic idea is nearly always appealing. It's something that's especially easy to do in a comic book universe, where time travel, lost worlds and mad scientists can result in countless unusual match-ups. Want Wolverine to fight a velociraptor? Well, toss him back in time or have him visit the Savage Land. No problem.

The Invaders #31(August 1978) is a great example of trope. The series was set during World War II and usually written by Roy Thomas. This issue, though, was written by Donald Glut.

Glut is a writer who clearly understands the appeal of Cool vs. Awesome. He wrote a series of books set in present day, but starring Frankenstein's Monster--the creature is found frozen in Arctic ice in the first novel and revived by the human protagonist. Over the course of the first novel, the human guy is dodging Eskimo assassins who are ticked off at him for taking the Monster, while the Monster is placed under the sway of an evil hypnotist who is clearly a shout-out to Dr. Caligari.

The second novel involves a James Bondish evil organization who want to use the monster for their own nefarious purposes. Later books in the series feature Dracula, the Wolfman and dinosaurs.

In this issue of The Invaders, Glut also calls upon the services of the Monster. Well, actually, he doesn't quite do this. A new monster, built by an ancestor of Victor Frankenstein, fills in for the original.

This might be bad enough, but Basil Frankenstein is also working for the Nazis. He manages to capture the Human Torch (this is the original android Torch) and Toro, with a plan to siphon off the Torch's "android energies" to give his creature increased size and power. He'll then build an army of monsters to serve as Nazi stormtroopers.

All this is taking place in Castle Frankenstein, which is located in the Swiss Alps. Captain America and Bucky show up looking for the Torch and Toro, but they get captured to. Then Namor shows up with a bunch of the local villagers. The locals decide they really don't like Nazis and start fighting the soldiers guarding the castle. Namor, in the meantime, frees the other Invaders. But the Monster has already received his power-up, so defeating him is no easy task.

The issue is just-plain-fun. It has a well-constructed plot and a contextually logical reason for tossing Frankenstein's Monster into the same story as World War II-era superheroes. It's got several other nice touches that give it more atmosphere. Basil, for instance, has had a lab accident and is confined to a wheelchair with hands to damaged to allow him to perform any more surgery. But a beautiful Japanese surgeon is doing the operations for him and plans on transferring Basil's brain into Captain America's body.

That also explains why Cap is kept alive after he's captured. (Though no reason for keeping Bucky and Toro alive is given--though I suppose they might be potential hostages if Cap or the Torch got loose.)

Another good touch: The Human Torch shows a natural empathy for the Monster. After all, they are both artificially created beings.

The issue ends when Namor lands a solid punch on the Monster. This doesn't hurt the creature, but it does damage a mind control implant--it turns out that Basil was using this to keep the Monster under his control. Now free of this, the Monster grabs Basil and the Japanese surgeon and leaps off a cliff to his apparent doom.

I don't think this Basil-created version of the Monster ever reappeared. But his one appearance was pretty darn cool. This is a story that really does understand the concept of Cool vs. Awesome.

Facebook Group: DC and Marvel World War II-Themed Comic Books

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

THIS is exactly why I do my swimming in a pool rather than at the beach!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Off to Guatemala

I will be leaving tomorrow for Guatemala, where I will spend a week teaching Bible lessons at an orphanage. I will have little or no opportunity to be online. Posts will still appear normally, but any comments left may be delayed before they appear, as I won't be able to approve them until I get back.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Favorite Story: "The Lady of the Lamp" 7/31/48

The story of Florence Nightingale, who pretty much inventing modern nursing. It's an effective episode that manages to hit all the right emotional notes.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Got it right the first time

There are at least three occasions in which a newly published children's book was fortunate enough to stumble across exactly the right illustrator for the first printing--illustrators who gave us what are still the iconic images of the characters of those books.

In 1865, Lewis Carrol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published with John Tenniel providing the images: 

And THAT'S what the characters are supposed to look like. Heck, even Batman villain the Mad Hatter was modeled after Tenniel's version. There may be other versions of the characters out there--including some very good ones--but this is what they "really" look like. 

In 1900, L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with W.W. Denslow doing the illustrations:

In this case, the 1939 movie has pretty much supplanted Denslow's pictures in the consciousness of most of the public. But for those of us familiar with Baum's original books, Denslow provides us with the true likenesses of Dorothy and her friends.

Then came Winnie the Pooh, written by A. A. Milne in 1926. Ernest Shepard let us know what the denizens of the 100 Acre Wood really looked like:

Here's another case where newer versions have probably replaced the original--in this case, the Disney animated versions of these characters are the ones that populate our culture today.

That's kind of too bad. The Disney designs are actually quite good and are a fine fit for the cartoon version of Pooh's world. But that's one of the downsides of how popular culture works--the Disney cartoons (at least the orginal ones) are great. The film of The Wizard of Oz is indeed a classic. And there's nothing wrong with newer and different interpretations of classic characters.

But popular culture has no inbuilt sense of history, does it? If it did, you wouldn't need me around desperately trying to save civilization itself. We tend for focus on the new stuff and sometimes forget how cool (and entertaining and still relevant) the old stuff can be.  It always help to look behind us to make sure that something awesome isn't being abandoned.

Once again, this isn't a condemnation of new versions of characters. That's a good thing. Heck, I'll include a YouTube video below that has a magnificent version of Winnie the Pooh that's completely different from either Shepard's illustrations or the Disney cartoons. But let's all always remember that something can get old but still be worthwhile.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Tidal Waves, Crocodiles, Dinosaurs and Really Big Pigs.

Last week we visited with Captain Kirk. This week, we'll roam the jungles with Tarzan. Which makes me think about who would win a fight between Kirk and the Jungle Lord.

No.... no, I won't think about it. That way lies madness!

Anyways, "Strangers in Lost Pal-Ul-Don" first ran in Tarzan #112 (May-June 1959) by Dell Comics. It was reprinted by Gold Key Comics in Golden Comics Digest #4 (August 1969).

Pal-Ul-Don is an area in Africa that's almost inaccessible because it's surrounded by swamps. Tarzan, though, managed to find his way through those swamps in the the 1921 novel Tarzan the Terrible, when he was pursuing some German soldiers who had kidnapped Jane. There were dinosaurs in Pal-Ul-Don, because no Lost World worth its salt forgets to include dinosaurs. There was a civilization there as well, made up of people who weren't quite human--they had fur and long tales.

The Dell Comics versions of Tarzan and his son Korak would pay return visits to Pal-Ul-Don from time to time. In these stories, they would be visiting a civilization of people who were clearly human.

I've only read a few of these stories, so I'm not entirely sure what the deal is. Either the Dell Universe replaced the original semi-human tribes with full humans, or there was yet another city in Pal-Ul-Don that Tarzan simply didn't run into during his first visit.

In either case, Pal-Ul-Don was a good place to have adventures and rather shamelessly throw an occasional dinosaur into the story. This particular story starts off with a literal bang when a new volcano lifts itself out of the lake upon which the island kingdom of Lutor is located. Tarzan is visiting and he gets the people to high ground before the ensuing tidal wave hits.

An RAF plane flying overhead comes too close to the volcano and is forced to crash. Tarzan rescues the plane's three-man crew from the lake after fighting off a force of Terribs--savage tribesmen who wear crocodile-skin armor. Tarzan then agrees to escort the men back to civilization.

This involves an encounter with a dinohyus--a giant boar the size of a rhino. The pilot ignores Tarzan's advice and puts a few revolver rounds into the creature. This just gets it mad, forcing Tarzan to take the big pig out in personal combat.

And that's pretty much it. It's a very simple 15-page story that exists to provide artist Jessie Marsh with a chance to draw some fun action scenes and jungle landscapes--and throw in a couple of dinosaurs.  And that's just fine, because Marsh's art work always has a fun quality to it. Even though his Tarzan sometimes seemed a little wrong (here's an article by Alex Toth where his one criticism of Marsh's work is anatomy), he still brought a vibrant energy to the stories he drew. If his Tarzan doesn't look quite as awesome as a Tarzan drawn by Foster, Hogarth, Manning or Kubert, his stories are always visually engaging and you never regret the time spent reading them.

But enough of this comic book stuff. Let's get back to the important issues. Because Tarzan would be faster and stronger than Kirk....but then again, Kirk beat Khan in hand-to-hand combat.. but then again, Tarzan could probably beat Khan... but then again, Kirk once fought with a Klingon and Genghis Khan at the same time.. but then again, Tarzan....

No. I won't go there. There's no right answer. I won't do it. I won't.

Kirk or Tarzan.  Kirk or Tarzan. Kirk or Tarzan. Kirk or Tarzan. Which one? Which one?


Monday, March 3, 2014

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