Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Time-Traveling Detective

A few weeks ago, I posted about a Brave and The Bold issue that featured a Golden-Age Batman fighting Nazis.

Well, if we're going to look at Batman in the past, then it's only proper to balance that out by looking at Batman in the future. Because it's my blog, darn it, and those are my rules.

Brave and the Bold #179 (October 1981) was published at the tale end of the era in which it was possible to simply tell an entertaining Batman yarn without a requirement to fill it with angst and depressing themes. (Which I can bizarrely say this without irony even though the villain in this story is planning on detonating a bomb in the middle of a city.)

The villain is Universo, a member of the Legion of Superhero rogue's gallery. He's teamed up with a one-shot villain who, like Universo, has reason to want to take revenge against the Legion. Their plan is actually a clever one:

The bad guys steal an egg that is filled with potentially explosive anti-matter. It's due to "hatch" in almost exactly 1000 years. So Universo's partner (Anton Halkor) travels back in time to 20th Century Gotham City, swapping the egg with a time capsule that will be buried and opened in the 30th Century. Essentially, he's just planted a time bomb with a 1000 year fuse.

Batman encounters Halkor in the 20th Century, but inadvertently comes along for the ride when Halkor jumps back to the future. So the Dark Knight breaks into the Legion HQ to get their help, then uses his detective skills to track down first Halkor and then Universo. Along the way, the villains kidnap some Legionaries, then displace them in time. Later, Universo uses his hypnotism power to turn several Legionaries against each other--getting them to fight to the death.  But there are few things that can stop Batman from getting the job done.

It's a lively and entertaining story, with everything proceeding along nicely according to Comic Book Logic. Like the WWII Batman story we looked at, I think it may have benefited from being a two-parter--it would have been nice to have more space to emphasize Batman's detective skills and show a little more of the Legion fighting one another. And maybe show some mini-adventures involving the time-displaced Legionaries, giving them something to do other than be hostages.

But that's more of a personal opinion than a legitimate criticism, because the story is handled very well within the space it's been given. Batman is shown to be clever--the Legion is shown using effective team work--and Ernie Colon's art is clean and fun to look at.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

Doing this cover image feature is sometimes expensive. After seeing this cover, I find I MUST acquire and read this book!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: "The Thirteenth Time"  5/17/44

How could Big Mike Stiller rob a stagecoach while he was in jail 15 miles away from the scene of the crime? The Lone Ranger will have to solve that puzzle before he can bring the outlaw to justice.

You can listen or download HERE

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Black Swan--the book

Rafael Sabatini is one of the best adventure writers who ever existed, producing classic novels such as Captain Blood (1922), The Sea Hawk (1915) and Scaramouche (1921). A lot of his novels have been adapted into classic movies--the best of these is almost inarguable the 1935 version of Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn. The doctor-turned-slave-turned-pirate was a role that Flynn was literally born to play.

Flynn's Captain Blood was fairly close to the book in terms of the plot and his character arc, though a number of subplots were dropped and the story was streamlined. Also, Flynn's version of Blood is a much more typical action hero than the book's more sensitive protagonist, but Flynn is so good in the role that it's impossible to complain about this.

There are a couple of Sabatini novels, though, that were made into movies very, very different from the original books. Despite this, both movies were awesome in their own way.

The 1932 novel The Black Swan introduces us to Charles de Bernis, a French buccaneer who has been helping Sir Henry Morgan clean up the piracy problem in the Caribbean. But now de Bernis is heading home for France.

Or so he says. The journey is interrupted when the pirate Tom Leach (aboard his ship The Black Swan) captures the vessel on which de Bernis is a passenger. The lovely Priscilla Harridine and the somewhat annoying Major Sands are taken prisoner as well.

de Bernis and Leach know each other. The Frenchman explains that their meeting is fortuitous. He'd been planning on outfitting a ship to find Leach and join up with him. It seems de Bernis has learned that a Spanish plate fleet--loaded with treasure--is sailing for Europe soon. de Bernis needs Leach's help to take it.

Is de Bernis telling the truth? Is he improvising to save himself and the other prisoners? (He protects the others by telling Leach Priscilla is his wife and Sands is her brother.) Or did he already have a plan in mind when The Black Swan appeared on the horizon?

Actually, most attentive readers will probably figure out what's going on before the novel's climax, but the story is well-constructed, so it's still fun getting there. There's not a lot of overt action--much of the novel is set on a remote island while Leach careens The Black Swan in preparation for attacking the plate fleet. The fine line de Bernis must walk to keep the pirates happy while still protecting the innocent hostages provides a lot of solid suspense.

As a character, de Bernis is in many ways a clone of Captain Blood--a man who dresses in fine clothes as a way of subtly projected authority while always thinking quickly and improvising when necessary to keep one step ahead of everyone else. Heck, if there had been a way to fit this story into Blood's continuity, very little of de Bernis' dialogue or actions would have had to be changed.  But that's also okay, because this is the sort of character that Sabatini knows how to make interesting.

In 1942, The Black Swan was made into a swashbuckler, with Tyrone Power hamming it up as the lead. He isn't playing Charles de Bernis, though, but Captain Jamie Waring. It's a lot different from the book, but it's a fun and charming swashbuckler in its own right. We'll take a look at the film next week.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Well OF COURSE everyone speaks English!

Though their art styles and the ambiance of their individual works is completely different, I think you can put Carl Barks, E.C. Segar, and V.T. Hamlin together in a rather odd category. Barks, of course, wrote and drew many classic Donald Duck & Uncle Scrooge stories. E.C. Segar wrote and drew the comic strip Thimble Theatre, which eventually gave us Popeye the Sailor. V.T. Hamlin wrote and drew the comic strip Alley Oop, which introduced a character many people consider to be their favorite caveman. (And if you don't have a favorite caveman--what the heck is wrong with you?)

All three creators managed to walk a sort of thematic tightrope, giving us excellent stories that combined comedy (often slapstick in nature) with a sense of honest-to-gosh adventure generating real suspense and a palpable sense of danger. And they did this without these two extremes clashing with each other at all. The stories flowed along smoothly with comedy and adventure complimenting one another rather than competing against one another.

We've looked at several of Barks' tales in the past and we'll eventually get around to Popeye. Today we'll take a look at Hamlin's Alley Oop, which began its long run on the newspaper comic page in 1932.

At first, it was set in a prehistoric past, with Oop riding around on his pet dinosaur and getting into fights on a a fairly regular basis. Despite its ancient setting, Hamlin often used the strip to satirize American suburban life. It was a great strip right from the beginning, with likable protagonists and a real sense of fun inherent in both story and art.

In 1939, Hamlin decided to shake things up a bit by having a 20th Century scientists inadvertently kidnap Oop and his girl Oola forward in time via a time machine.

This is the moment, I think, that Alley Oop truly becomes a classic strip--it literally opened up all of Eternity for story telling purposes. There's a great story involving Oop wandering around the 20th Century getting into minor trouble, redeeming himself when he accidentally catches a couple of bank robbers.

But Professor Elbert Wonmug, the inventor of the time machine, is having problems. He allowed a colleague named Dr. Bronson to travel to the prehistoric past to prove the machine works. But Bronson hasn't returned and Wonmug may be accused of Bronson's murder.

Oop volunteers to go back to find Bronson. But he soon discovers that he (and Bronson) are actually in the city of Troy--while its being besieged by the Greeks.

Oop--being Oop--promptly beats up a Trojan soldier and gets tossed in the slammer. He reunites with Bronson and, during an escape attempt, they meet up with Helen of Troy. Shenanigans ensue and Oop is
soon Troy's new champion, fighting in single combat against the Greek champion Ajax. It's a fight Oop wins mostly due to his unorthodox use of swords and spears.

The two time travelers can't get home because Oop can't remember the exact spot at which he arrived. Oola is sent back to find them, but she hooks up with the Greeks, where she's declared to be the goddess Minerva after she fires a pistol.

This all leads up to the Trojan Horse affair, some more fighting, Oola finding Oop and Bronson and everyone getting home just in time to save Prof. Wonmug from being arrested. Oop would eventually return to Troy,
as well as visit Robin Hood, ancient Egypt and the Moon.

Hamlin's art strikes just the right balance between cartoon imagery and realism. Elements that would be jarring in hard science fiction, such as everyone (regardless of their point in history) speaking colloquial English, was somehow appropriate within the panels of Alley Oop. It couldn't sillier, but Hamlin was able to make a time-traveling cavemen shouting "dadgum your hide" seem natural.

V.T. Hamlin knew how to have fun with his storytelling and that's what makes Alley Oop so successful.  No matter how absurd the subject matter, Hamlin could turn it into an entertaining yarn.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

I've been to Africa five times on short-term mission trips, but I have yet to run into any of the many, many Jungle Girls that comic books and pulp magazines assure me are there. They... they haven't been lying to me all these years, have they?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Jeff Regan: "The Diamond Quartette" 8/14/48

Regan has a simple job. Take a diamond necklace from a gambler (who was holding it as collateral) and return it to its owner. But in a hard-boiled universe, no simple job ever stays simple. Soon, a number of corpses are cluttering up the landscape.

Lurene Tuttle (as the heiress who owns the necklace) and Barry Kroeger (who channels Sydney Greenstreet while playing a jeweler with an agenda of his own) are particularly good in this one.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"...a tiny creature entombed in the bowels of a planet."

The fourth time Leigh Brackett took us to Mercury was in the novella "Shannach--the Last."  (Published in the November 1952 issue of Planet Stories.) And as that tale begins, we discover that a prospector named
Trevor is having a really bad day.

Trevor has been flitting around Mercury's Twilight area for years in his small ship, hoping to strike it rich by finding at least one sun-stone--a valuable radioactive mineral that exists only on our innermost planet. But his luck has turned bad--a quake "brought down a whole mountain wall on his ship, leaving him with a pocket torch, a handful of food tablets, a canteen of water, and the scant clothing he stood in."

The Twilight area is made up of self-contained valleys surrounded by mountains that climb up over the edge of the thin atmosphere. So climbing out isn't an option. Instead, Trevor finds a cave entrance and blindly hopes to find his way through pitch-dark tunnels.

He's exhausted and dehydrated by the time he does find an exit into another valley, but there's no chance to rest. Because this second valley is inhabited and many of the inhabitants are rather nasty.

The situation is thus: three centuries earlier, a ship crashed in the valley. Most of the surviving passengers were colonists. But a number of them were convicts--at the time, convicts were sent to Mercury to help work the mines. Soon, the convicts (now known as Korins) were enslaving the colonists. The Korins used flying creatures to help track and attack escaped slaves. Both the Korins and the flyers (called "hawks" though they are more reptile than bird) wear sun-stones on their foreheads, which apparently allow the humans to stay in telepathic contact with the hawks.

Trevor falls in with an escaping woman slave and they join a larger band of escapees. But though Trevor sympathizes with the slaves, he simply wants to get his hands on a priceless sun-stone and get away. But his attempt to do this leads to the discovery of an alien creature named Shannach.

And that's all I'm going to tell you--because this is the sort of story that needs to unfold for you while you are reading it, without any spoilers getting in the way. It's available online HERE.

All I can say without ruining it is that Shannach is an imaginative and unique creation--a creature with perhaps a hint of Lovecraftian horror to him that makes him an effective villain and and throws Trevor into very intense battle of wits, willpower and courage. It is, I think, my favorite of the four Mercury stories and one of my favorite Leigh Brackett stories of all.

That finishes up our tour of Mercury as told by Leigh Brackett. Of course, she took us to Venus, Mars and a few of the outer planets as well, so though this is the end of this particular series of posts, there's every chance we'll return to the Brackett Solar System in the future.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Batman and Blackhawk

Cover art by Jim Aparo

I have the impression that The Brave and the Bold #167 (October 1980) was a fill-in issue. The art was done by Dave Cockrum rather than B&B's regular artist Jim Aparo and it was a "special story of the Golden Age Batman."  I think editor Paul Levitz saw he was going to be short a story one month, so recruited Cockrum and writer Marv Wolfman to come up with something.

What they came up with is pretty nifty. Set during World War II, it has Batman and the Blackhawks investigating what turns out to be the same case. In Gotham City, the Dark Knight is looking into the theft of scientific equipment by Nazi spies. In Europe, the Blackhawks are trying to find a missing Allied agent. The agent eventually turns up, frozen to death in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

The presumption is that the Nazis have built a freeze ray. But when the various heroes both track down a hidden Nazi base in the Arctic, they discover its a bit more convoluted than that.

Follow along closely. The ray gun in the secret base melts a part of the ice cap into vapor, then transports the vapor to a big submersible hovercraft hidden in Gotham Harbor. Here the vapor is converted back into water, which then smashes into Gotham City as a tidal wave. The
Nazis plan on repeating this on a much larger scale, flooding the East Coast.

Visually, it's a great story. Cockrum's art is excellent and the image of the Bat-plane joining the Blackhawks' Grumman XF5F Skyrockets in a fight against a Nazi super-weapon is alone worth the price of the book.

There are, though, several elements to the story that make me think its a rush job. The scenes in which both Batman and the Blackhawks are following their own lines of investigation are rushed and not really explained well enough to form a strong story. This element of the tale was practically screaming aloud "I need to be a two-parter!"

Also, the final action scene doesn't quite make sense even in a comic book universe. Follow along again: the good guys are bombing the Nazi base, but not doing enough damage. They realize they've got to get inside and simply beat the snot out of every German inside. Okay, in a comic book universe, that's acceptable.

So we see the Blackhawks landing atop the base via parachute. Batman joins in the fight, having presumably also parachuted down. That means they've abandoned their planes.

But when they learn the base is going to self-destruct, they are suddenly back in their planes flying away to safety in the nick of time. No matter how convoluted the comic book logic I employ to explain that away, I just can't get Batman and his allies back in their planes. How the heck did they DO that?

So the story is in many ways a missed opportunity. Had it been made a two-parter, a writer of Wolfman's skill and experience could have done wonderful things. Instead, the story is almost but not quite what it should be.

Even so, there are a few nice Easter eggs hidden in the issue. When the Gotham docks are flooded, take
note of the Hildago Trading Company--a shout-out to Doc Savage. There's also a line of dialogue referencing the Shadow.

We also see a panel in which Bruce Wayne is out with Linda Page, a Golden Age socialite character who appeared in a dozen or so issues during the 1940s. She was also used as a character in the 1943 Batman movie serial. Linda's appearance here is another nice shout-out to the Golden Age.

Besides, for all the faults this story has, it really is pretty sweet to see the Bat-Plane sharing the clouds with those Grumman Skyrockets.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

Well-composed point-of-view shots such as this are always fun to look at.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Hercule Poirot: "Money Mad Ghoul" 9/13/45

Poirot investigates a series of recent grave robberies. The oddest aspect of the crime is that the graves are being robbed in alphabetical order according to the last name of each corpse.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Black Hush

The August 1, 1933 issue of The Shadow Magazine is a wondrous thing for two reasons. First, the cover painting by George Rozen is arguably THE iconic image of the Shadow.

Second, the story is a rambunctious action/mystery with just the right dollop of science fiction added to it. It is pure fun to read.

The Black Hush starts out with a bang. Or, rather, it starts out with a fusillade of revolver shots as two men attending a banquet for the Association of Electrical Engineers are gunned down. Just before the crime occurs, everything electrical in the banquet hall stops working and a thick darkness envelops the room.

It's quite a trick and the cops aren't quite sure how it was done. They are sure of one thing, though. The victims were shot by accident--it was a racketeer at a political banquet in a neighboring room who was the intended victim.

The Shadow, though, isn't so sure of that. He also has an idea of how the electricity was turned off and why two electrical engineers were targeted for murder.

There's a need for the Shadow to follow up his deductions quickly. The mysterious darkness is used to commit two more crimes, robbing rare jewels from a penthouse and knocking over a bank. The Shadow manages to foil these crimes and thin out the ranks of the street-level thugs working for the main villains, but until he tracks down the source of the darkness, the crime wave will continue.

In many Shadow novels, the identity of the main villain is unknown until the final pages. Here, writer Walter Gibson freely identifies the bosses early on and lets us know that a newly-invented ray projector is causing the darkness. But there's still a strong mystery element involved in discovering where the ray is located and what exact crimes are being planned.

Mixed into all this are several exciting action sequences typical of Gibson's stories. Of particular note is a car chase, with the bad guys using the Black Hush projector to disable pursuing police cars and even take down a plane.

Also, there's shenanigans going on with the Shadow's agents: reporter Clyde Burke is targeted for death at a time when the Shadow isn't around to save him, while Harry Vincent gets captured near the end of the story. the sequence with Burke is notable in that a fairly minor side character--someone who appears in many of the novels without really being given much personality or anything important to do--is given a Crowning Moment of Awesome by coming to the rescue.

The Black Hush is a great Shadow novel, with a strong plot and several exciting gun battles and chases. The mystery elements are very strong, with the Shadow and his agents doing believable detective work and making believable deductions to track down the bad guys.

I share the fairly common view that the Shadow is the greatest of the pulp heroes. The Black Hush is one of the reasons why I hold this opinion.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Running the Gauntlet

In real life, Running the Gauntlet was often a military punishment--a soldier being punished runs along a line of his comrades while they all whack away at him with straps or clubs. In some cultures, enemy prisoners were forced to make the run. In 1778, for instance, Daniel Boone was captured by Shawnee and forced to run a gauntlet while they hacked away at him with knives and tomahawks. Fortunately for Boone, he was really good at ducking and dodging.

In fiction, heroes are often required to run a gauntlet when they are forced to face off with one villain after another in quick succession. In Spider Man's 1964 annual, for instance, the web-slinger ran a gauntlet of enemies when he had to face off against the Sinister Six one by one. A DC Imaginary story we looked at not long ago had Batman running a gauntlet of booby traps set by Lex Luthor.

In Korak, Son of Tarzan #3 (May 1964), the Jungle Lord's spawn ends up running a gauntlet.

By the way, the cover image for this issue is for the other of the two Korak stories in this issue. Since it's impossible to look at that cover without wanting to know the story behind it, I promise I'll cover it on another day. But for now, we'll take a look at "Warrior's Test."

Gold Key's Korak stories were similar in many ways to their Tarzan stories, since both father and son had identical skill sets and spent most of their free time traveling through the jungle and stumbling into adventures. But for the first 11 issues of his own book, Korak differed from his dad by traveling with a sidekick. This was an ape named Pahkut, who popped up in at least one later issue as well during Korak's 45-issue run.

So when Pahkut and one other ape disappear from their tribe, Korak takes an immediate interest. During the ensuing search, he finds a big village located on a river island. The villagers are holding a young elephant prisoner. Like his dad, Korak is the friend of all elephants, so a rescue is in order.

This doesn't go well--Korak is overwhelmed by guards and captured. The villagers' queen then gives Korak a choice: he can either be fed to crocodiles OR he can take the warrior's test. Not surprisingly, he opts to take the test.

This involves Korak essentially running a gauntlet. He's given a spear, a bow and two arrows, then sent into a maze of thorn hedges. There he encounters two archers with four arrows. When he's able to outshoot them, he encounters a warrior in full armor (and discovers his spear is made from rotten and easily breakable wood).

Once past this guy, he finds himself facing off against Pahkut and the other missing ape, who have been starved and tortured to turn them vicious. But Pahkut knows his best friend, so they let Korak pass. (They themselves are chained to a wall, so Korak will have to come back later to free them.)

THEN there's a whopping big crocodile. But he's past the gauntlet after that, forming an army of apes and elephants to attack the village and free his friends.

The story was written by veteran writer Gaylord Du Bois and drawn by the great Russ Manning. It's a wonderfully compact tale, moving along quickly as it effectively tells its tale in just 10 pages.

Edgar Rice Burroughs created Korak in the novel The Son of Tarzan (serialized in All-Story Weekly in 1915/16, then published as a book in 1917). It's a great novel, but after than Korak was confined to a few cameos in the remaining books. I think Edgar Rice Burroughs found that Tarzan was more than awesome enough to carry the series without the need to bring in a proxy.

But Gold Key (and later DC Comics) discovered that Korak carries his own unique sub-set of awesomeness around with him, resurrecting the character to give him his own adventures. Whether father or son, you just can't keep a Lord of the Jungle down.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Favorite Story: "The Bet" 3/5/49

A superb and very emotional adapation of Anton Chekhov's short story.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Captain Zero Returns!

Read/Watch 'em In Order #44

The second issue of Captain Zero (January 1950) contains the novel "The Mark of Zero." The first story had set up the character and given Lee Allyn some valuable experience in the problems of invisibility and how to best use the power to battle crime. At the end of the novel, the city's new commissioner--Ed Cavanaugh--knows Allyn is Captain Zero and works with him. They both have a thing for spunky girl reporter Doro Kelly--but this aspect of their relationships is actually underplayed nicely, so unnecessary melodrama is avoided.

Speaking of Doro, she really gets to shine this time out. The first novel portrayed her as intelligent and capable, but she also spent a large part of the story "off-stage" after she had been kidnapped. Here, she takes risks, makes deductions, comes up with clever plans on her own initiative and plays a key role in bringing down the bad guys.

Not that she isn't terrified the whole time. Author G.T. Fleming-Roberts continues to do an excellent job of presenting us with fallible and often frightened protagonists who still stand up and do the right thing when faced with evil. This comes across in several different ways. For instance, both Alynn and Doro make understandable mistakes that would be expected of people who aren't actually trained in law enforcement,. Allyn's reaction to being forced to kill another man is another example.

Also, it's more dangerous for Captain Zero to be out-and-about. The existence of an invisible man is now known to the public, so clever crooks are using methods such as spray-paint guns to even the odds.

The main bad guy this time is known only as the Man in the Black Hat. Keeping his identity secret even from many of his henchmen, he is building up a vast organization. Several known criminals--each with specific skills--are sprung from prison. Escape routes are meticulously planned--in one case a bridge was rigged to blow up to cut off police pursuit. A man up for appointment as Secretary of the Treasury is kidnapped and ransom notes are sent by untraceable carrier pigeons. (The pigeons were stolen from their rooftop cages and would return there one by one with instructions about the ransom.) The bad guys wear "hearing aids" that are actually radio transmitters, keeping them in constant touch with one another.

What is Black Hat's master plan? Zero, Cavanaugh and Doro all try to find out, but they seem to be hitting dead ends. People who might know something have a habit of ending up dead. But Doro tries a dangerous plan on her own, taking the place of one of Black Hat's few known associates.

In the meantime, the FBI lucks into information about another jail break.  That leads to an undeniably contrived coincidence, but it's a twist that is otherwise well-written.  Lee Allyn just happens to resemble the con being sprung from prison and the FBI asks him to take his place. Lee does so--and he and Doro (posing as a henchwoman) end up in the same car being taken to Black Hat's current hide-out. Allyn can only hope they reach the hide-out by midnight and he has a chance to duck out of sight, when he'll start to turn invisible whether he wants to or not.

The whole thing really is handled well enough for us to forgive the coincidence, though I still have one problem with Allyn's escape from prison. The FBI knew it was coming, allowing the "prisoner" to escape in order to find the hide-out. That's fair enough. But the thugs who break Allyn out kill at least one guard and get a couple of others either hurt or killed as well. That means the Feds were too dumb to consider this might happen--despite gun play being a part of earlier escapes--or they were deliberately willing to sacrifice innocent lives. None of the characters ever make note of this.

It actually bugs me, because one of the strengths of the heroes of pulp magazines is a firm sense of right and wrong. It's possible that Fleming-Roberts simply failed to think the situation through when he wrote the scene. He's one of the best writers to work in the pulps, but he wrote over 300 stories, many of them novel-length, so he's allowed to have an off-day.

It's also possible he saw the situation, but was working against a deadline, so he might have had to sigh and run with it.

Whatever the case, it's one of two flaws in what is otherwise an excellent novel.

The other flaw--well, it really isn't a flaw, because it's not a criticism of the prose or the plot. It's simply my opinion of what sort of story best suited the character of Captain Zero.

In the first novel, the villains were gangsters and corrupt officials who controlled a town. It was a plot you would fully expect to find in a work of hard-boiled fiction. The fun of the story comes from the dichotomy of sticking a character with science-fiction level powers into such a plot. You'd normally expect the Continental Op or Philip Marlowe to be taking the lead in catching the crooks--not a guy who turns invisible every night.

This time around, the villain has a master plan that includes eventual world domination, using a method that has an element to it that would also be more at home in a science fiction tale. It's a great story for what it is, but I would argue it was not the right direction in which to take the character. That hard-boiled vs. science fiction dichotomy was a major strength in the first novel. The series would have been better served if the villains remained more mundane (but still clever and dangerous) gangsters.

But that point is arguable. "The Mark of Zero" is exciting, with a good mystery element involving the identity of the Man in the Black Hat, a pair of wonderful protagonists, and several exciting action scenes. And the story is pretty hard-boiled even granting the grandiose schemes of Black Hat.

Well, we still have one more Captain Zero novel to go--we'll see what direction that one takes us in.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Talking Horse Riding a Non-Talking Horse

I've always liked Horace Horsecollar. He first appeared in the 1929 cartoon short "The Plow Boy" as Mickey Mouse's plough horse. He wasn't quite anthropomorphic in that appearance, but he soon took to walking on two legs regularly and appeared as a supporting character in a number of Mickey cartoons. He was also Mickey's regular partner in adventure in the mouse's daily newspaper strip. Within that context, he had his share of kick-butt moments.

But by 1942, poor Horace had disappeared from the cartoons and faded into relative obscurity. So did Clarabelle Cow and prima donna singer Clara Cluck.

But good characters are never completely forgotten and Horace would still pop up from time to time--mostly within the pages of Disney Comics.

The first issue of Disney Comics Digest (June 1968) contains a Horace story titled "Westward Ho-Ho." The Gold Key digests were mostly reprints, but I can't find a reference for this story  as having a previous appearance, so this may be its first appearance.

It's a straightforward and fairly funny tale. Horace is managing the "Sagebrush Songbirds," a singing duo consisting of Clarabelle Cow and Clara Cluck. They are touring the West, but things take a dangerous turn when they arrive at the town of Greasewood Gulch.

Reoccurring villain Black Pete is robbing the bank. When Pete barrels into Horace and gets his mask knocked off, he decides he has to kidnap Horace to keep his identity a secret. He tosses Horace on his horse, but the horse (that's the actual horse horse, not Horace) panics at the sound of the girls rehearsing and runs off without Pete.

Pete steals Horace's car, which means he also takes along the attached trailer with the girls still in it. Everyone ends up at Pete's hideout, where a bit of slapstick allows Horace to get the upper hand and capture the bandit.

Tony Strobl--a regular Disney artist from the late 1940s into the 1970s --provides crisp, clean art that tells the story well and highlights the humor.  This essay accurately states that "Strobl's drawing style is characterized by its clean, even and harmonious lines, with a tendency towards the static. Sometimes this is what gives it an extra flair, stoically calm figures in the midst of chaotic events."  

There's one aspect of the story that is kind of subtle, but is important to bringing the humor across effectively. Black Pete kidnaps Horace, then later tells the girls that he has to hold them prisoner as well.  But at no time does he seem overtly threatening. In fact, he actually pleads with the girls when he tries to take them prisoner, rather than making threats.

This is important. There's no shortage of superb Disney stories in which the characters are in life-threatening situations and face off against murderous villains. Heck, Mickey once engaged in a pretty intense dogfight against a pirate zeppelin! But here we have a short and extremely lighthearted tale in which overt danger would have been a distraction. It would have gotten in the way of the humor. Strobl and the uncredited writer understood this and the story is all the better for it.

"Westward Ho-Ho" also reminds us that the Disney Universe is a very odd place. Horace is a "person," but Pete's horse is an "animal." Heck, there are "real" cows and chickens in the Disney 'Verse, but here we have Clarabelle and Clara presented as "people." It's another example of the classic Goofy/Pluto dilemma (which was recently parodied in one of the excellent new Mickey Mouse cartoons.)

I suppose it's kind of like C.S. Lewis' Narnia, where there are both talking and non-talking variations of animals and there's a clear distinction made between them. Or maybe the Disney Universe was built on the remains of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where only a small number of humans survive and radiation has mutated a percentage of animals into intelligent beings. Or maybe I'm over-thinking this.

But it's the sort of thing that's just plain fun to over-think. Horace Horsecollar is riding a horse, for gosh sakes. How can that not be a subject for discussion?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hey, I'm in a podcast!

This is the audio for a podcast that I and several friends recorded with the hopes that it will eventually be posted on the website for our local comic book store:


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