Friday, May 30, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Tarzan: "Terror at Night" 7/19/51

The Jungle Lord meets a pair of sailors who jumped ship and have since acquired a set of pearls under very odd circumstances. Tarzan investigates, which leads to an encounter with one of the strangest lost civilizations he's ever met.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Captain Zero's Swan Song

Read/Watch 'em in Order #46    

The March 1950 issue of Captain Zero was its third and last, but the good captain goes out on a high note.

After preventing an overthrow of the government during the last issue, Lee Allyn returns to what I feel is firmer ground for the character--investigating the sort of crimes that the average hard-boiled detective or tough-guy cop might be looking into.

Because its that dichotomy--a man with a superpower dropped into a hard-boiled adventure--that gave Captain Zero its unique feel.

This time around, someone is knocking off the elderly members of a Bachelor's Club. One of the surviving members might have a motive--the club enacted a tontine (an insurance policy to be collected by the last survivor) that provides a motive. But seems to obvious a motive and, besides, the dead men are being robbed as well. In fact, after the third murder, a gang of thugs raid a bank just when the police are checking the dead man's safe deposit box, killing a cop and getting away with the box.

But that's not all that's going on. A man named Ned Brandon is being framed for murder by a sleazy crook named Fat Paul Schoenling. Brandon works at an investment firm and Schoenling holds the potential murder charge over his head, forcing him to arrange the sale of stolen securities.

The two cases soon turn out to be interconnected, so both Lee Allyn and detective Ed Cavanough are kept busy. In fact, Lee is particularly busy--he wants to clear Brandon of the murder charge without giving the poor guy away to Cavanough, but at the same time he has to work closely with Cavanough on the Bachelor's Club murders.

Pulp veteran G.T. Fleming-Roberts continues to be at the top of his game. This time, he constructs what is the best straight mystery plot of the series, planting small clues near the beginning of the story that pay off big time at the end. This mystery has several threads--what is being stolen from the murder victims; why do they need to be killed as well; who is the master mind behind all this?  The answers all come in a logical fashion leading up to a fantastic plot twist at the end.

There's several great action scenes interspersed among all this. Lee Allyn takes cleaver advantage of his invisibility, but is still hampered by the fact that he can't control when he turns invisible (always exactly midnight) and when he becomes visible again (always at dawn). The bad guys also discover that they can use a geiger counter to detect Captain Zero, so he is nearly trapped a few times. But he thinks or fights his way out of several dangerous situations and even manages to whittle down the ranks of the bad guys.

There are several other strong points. Allyn and Cavanough are still rivals for the affections of girl reporter Doro Kelly, but Fleming-Roberts underplays this nicely so that it doesn't interfere with the main plot. Had the magazine continued, this would have been a continuing plot point--probably never to be completely resolved--so Fleming-Roberts wisely realized he didn't have to continually emphasize it.

So Allyn and Cavanough are able to work together nicely--another strength of the tale is that both men are presented as intelligent and able to make reasonable deductions.

And Fleming-Roberts wrote in clear, easy prose, telling the story well while still dropping in appropriately hard-boiled observations. My favorite: A description of a villainous woman has having "a pair of eyes that any mackerel would inevitably have been caught dead with."

There are a few places where the story seems a little rushed--such as a second-tier but still important bad guy getting killed "off-screen," so the first Captain Zero story still edges ahead in my mind as the best of the three. But its a close call--that twist ending really is fantastic.

Sadly, this is Captain Zero's last case. We never learn who Doro marries; or whether Lee Allyn's odd power ever faded; or if he one day turned invisible and never reappeared. Sadly, the pulps were fading away, being replaced by paperback novels and comic books. By the time Captain Zero hit the newsstands, the Spider, the Shadow, G-8 and Doc Savage were already gone.  Popular Publications took a long chance in trying to revive the concept of the pulp hero.

They failed commercially, but they succeeded in every other way. The three Captain Zero tales are superb pulp adventures that very cleverly adds a science fiction element to a hard-boiled universe.

So that's it for Captain Zero. Next in line for the "Read 'em" section of our In Order series, I think we'll jump into the future and visit with another captain. We'll take a look at the first five Captain Future novels written by Edmond Hamilton.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Nightmare in Norway

Last week, we briefly met the Phantom Eagle, a Marvel hero who fought in the First World War and is largely forgotten today.

So this week we'll visit with an other forgotten hero, though we'll be jumping ahead to World War II. John Kowalski was introduced in War is Hell #9 (October 1974). For its first 8 issues, War is Hell was a reprint book, but with this issue, a new continuing character was introduced. Kowalski wouldn't be around long, though. The book would only run 7 more issues, ending after #15. John Kowalski has pretty much dropped into comic book limbo since then.

But his stories were good ones. Kowalski, a Polish-American, actually dies on the first day of World War II, when the Nazis invaded Poland. But the circumstances of his death were such that he was cursed as a coward and must now possess others when they are killed in combat, then use the opportunity to save others from the horrors of war.

It's potentially a great premise, allowing the character to jump around the globe to different theaters of war and use this to tell a wide variety of war stories.

War is Hell #14 (August 1975) is the only issue of the series I read growing up, but I always remembered it vividly. For years, I wanted to read it again, but I mis-remembered it as a Weird War Tales, so always looked for it under the wrong title. (Heck, I even had the wrong company.)

But thanks to a chance encounter on the Marvel wiki and a visit to Ebay, I have read it again. And I wasn't disappointed--it's an exciting and emotionally engaging tale.

The Germans are invading Norway. The commander of a company of Wehrmacht paratroopers (Captain David Mueller) is killed in an early skirmish, but Kowalski takes over his body.

Now I've only read this issue and the first Kowalski story from issue #9 (recently reprinted in a trade paperback), so I'm not sure exactly what the rules are when Kowalski takes over a dead guy. His entry on the Marvel wiki is annoying vague. Judging from this story, he seems to retain the personality and memories of the person he possesses, though Kowalski's spirit seems to guide the former dead guy towards helping the innocent. Or something like that.

Because here Kowalski/Mueller continues to lead his men into battle as they attack and capture a
Norwegian coastal town. He promises the civilians that everyone will be well-treated.

But an SS officer is accompanying the paratroopers and HE insists the Jews in the town be rounded up and imprisoned.

Kowalski/Mueller knows what is going to happen to them and, though he tells himself he doesn't care, in the end he can't stand by and let them all die. Instead, he orders his men to bring the Jews to the docks and asks the captain of a freighter to take them to England.

When the SS officer finds out about this, Kowalski/Mueller finds himself fighting a rear guard action against his own men, buying time for the freighter to build up steam.

This is a great story, given real emotion by Chris Claremont's strong script and George Evans' clean, crisp pencil work. There's a sense of real humanity here--presenting the idea that you don't simply follow your duty blindly if it makes you a party to mass murder; the idea that protecting the innocent from killers is our highest moral duty.

Also, the final fight scene--with Kowalski holding off the German troops--is superbly choreographed. The action is laid out in such a way that we always understand the situation perfectly, which in turn helps build up the suspense as the fight continues.

There's emotional bite to that fight scene as well. Kowalski/Mueller at first tries to hold off his men without killing any of them, but that proves tragically impractical. Also, at one point, the German troops open fire on the freighter as it waits to get underway. Not all the innocents aboard get to cover in time.

This particular issue of War is Hell really lives up to its title.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

Yet another great use of perspective from a Dell Comics cover.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Pat Novak for Hire: "Reuben Calloway's Pictures" 3/13/49

Why have two people been murdered over some seeming innocuous photographs of a crowd watching a fire? As usual, Novak has to find out in order to prove he's not the murderer.

Click HERE to listen or download

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Cowboy Heroes Come in Sets of Three

During the 1930s and 1940s, both Republic Pictures and Monogram Pictures  often operated under the theory that if one cowboy hero is awesome, then three cowboy heroes working together would have to triple the inherent awesomeness of a movie. Though in practice, it was often two heroes and one mildly useful comic relief.

Republic, for instance, produced 51 movies featuring the Three Mesquiteers, one of which I wrote about awhile back.  This series ran long enough to see a number of actors play the trio of heroes. A pre-Stagecoach John Wayne played one of the Mesquiteers for a few films, while B-movie and serial stalwarts Tom Tyler and Crash Corrigan also appeared in the series. The Mesquiteers were traditional cowboys, but the series often blended in more modern elements into the stories--telephones, automobiles and so on. In the B-movie and serial universe, the Old West remained the Old West well into the 20th Century. Heck, the boys were corralling Nazi spies in some of the later entries.

When Corrigan jumped over the Monogram, he did 20 of the 24 "Range Busters" films along with Max Terhune (another former Mesquiteer) and Dusty King. The one I've most recently seen is 1942's Arizona Stagecoach (I watched it last May while in South Sudan) and it was a good, solid B-Western. Most of the Range Buster stories were clearly set in the 19th Century Old West, but a couple of 1943 entries jumped ahead to modern day so that they could also battle Nazis.

Monogram also had Bob Steele, Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson as the Trail Blazers in an 8-film series
(though Steele wasn't in the first one and Maynard wasn't in the last two). Both the Trail Blazers and the Range Busters, by the way, had the actors playing the heroes using their own names. So Bob Steele is playing "Bob Steele," while Crash Corrigan is playing "Crash Corrigan."

Then we come to the Rough Riders, with Buck Jones, Tim McCoy and Ray Hatton roping in bad guys for 8 films. This is the only series in which the same actors stuck it out for the entire run. It's also arguably the best of the Monograms. Jones and McCoy both had had long careers as cowboy heroes in both silent and sound films. This series (which ended only when Jones died) revived both of their careers--both actors were likable and the stories were constructed well enough to give them both a chance to be clever and heroic. Ray Hatton
provided some pretty good comic relief.

Their characters, by the way, were Buck Roberts, Tim McCall and Sandy Hopkins--so they didn't go the "same name as the actor" route that the other Monogram series used. The names were kind of close to to the actors, though, weren't they?

Gunman from Bodie (1941) is the second of the Rough Rider films. In it, Buck Jones is working undercover with a band of rustlers, while Tim McCoy is a marshal who is supposedly hunting him. Of course, it's all a ploy designed to not just round up the rustlers, but smoke out the crooked businessmen behind the crime wave. The ending it a bit anti-climatic, but it's a fun movie nonetheless.

I want to acknowledge the wonderful site as the source for fact-checking this post and providing me with a place to steal images.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hulking Around with the Grandfather Paradox

There have been many successful comic book characters whose adventures take place during World War II. Marvel has Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos. DC has Sgt. Rock, the Losers, the Unknown Soldier, and the Haunted Tank.

These were all great characters who were dropped into strong stories, but perhaps part of their success could be attributed to the fact that World War II was still a fairly recent event when they were created. Or perhaps it was because that war was one of the few in history in which true evil was confronted and soundly defeated.

World War I was longer ago and it ended with the a "peace" treaty that did nothing more than create conditions for eventually starting another war. So comic book writers and artists looked to that war less often for heroes.

There were a few tries, though. DC was very successful with Enemy Ace, the first series to tell a war story from a German point-of-view to an American audience. DC also had the Balloon Buster, an American pilot, but he didn't enjoy the success that Hans Von Hammer did.

In Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September 1968), Marvel tried out the Phantom Eagle, an ace pilot for the Allies who assumed a masked identity because his parents still lived in Germany.

He was a fairly minor drop in the comic book bucket, though he did have a few more appearances during the Silver and Bronze Ages. One particular issue of the Hulk, in fact, shows us that the Phantom Eagle played an important role in the history of Marvel Earth.

Hulk #135 (January 1971--written by Roy Thomas & penciled by Herb Trimpe) involves Kang the Conqueror in yet another attempt to manipulate time and conquer the 20th Century. His plan is to see that Bruce Banner's grandfather dies in the trenches during World War I. Then Banner wouldn't be born; the Hulk would never exist; and the Avengers would never form. Then there would be no one to stop Kang when he invaded (invades?) the 20th Century in Avengers #8.

He tries to do the job himself, but he's stopped by a "Time Storm" blanketing that era, forcing him to return to the 41st Century. (I have no idea what a Time Storm is, but then I'm not a 41st Century temporal physicist, so I have an excuse. What's yours?)

That means he has to find someone who can withstand the rigors of the Time Storm AND be willing to kill Bruce Banner. The obvious candidate is the Hulk--this was from a time when the big guy didn't realize he was also Banner and felt a strong hatred for his alter ego without knowing why.

So he teleports the Hulk aboard his ship, tells him how he can destroy Banner, then sends him back to World War I.

So far, the plot has been delightfully convoluted in a way that few fictional genres outside of comic books can get away with. But it gets even better. To make sure Banner's grandfather dies, the Hulk must stop the Phantom Eagle from destroying a giant cannon the Germans are using to shell Allied lines. If this happens,
then Banner's grandad will be killed in the shelling.

The plan, though, goes awry when the Germans prove to be good shots with anti-aircraft guns. The Hulk takes a few hits while he's hurtling towards the Phantom Eagle's plan. Enraged by this, he switches direction in mid-air (I'm not sure how--he doesn't fly, he jumps) and destroys the German cannon himself. History then continues on more or less they way its supposed to.

It really is convoluted, especially for a single-issue story. But it works, because everything that happens follows a workable comic book logic and Herb Trimpe's art makes it all fun to look at. Heck, even the contrivance of a random Time Storm hanging over World War I is fine with me. That's the sort of thing that happens in a comic book universe.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

X Minus One: "C-Chute" 2/8/56

An excellent adaptation of Isaac Asimov's short story involving a very unlikely hero with a very human motive for his heroism.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Musical Notes and a Dead Ant

Read/Watch 'em In Order #45

Once you become an amateur detective, it becomes traditional for you to pretty much stumble over murder victims on a regular basis.

That's what happens to acerbic school teacher in 1934's Murder on the Blackboard. (This,by the way, is the second movie in the series, but is based on the third novel.)

Hildegarde is keeping a student after school for punishment when she discovers the music teacher dead--someone applied a blunt instrument to her head. The equally acerbic Inspector Oscar Piper is once again called to investigate.

But the body has disappeared. It's actually an important bit of character interaction that, though Piper is at first annoyed to find there is no body, he doesn't really doubt Hildegarde at all. The two might still trade some pretty sharp barbs, but after the events of The Penguin Pool Murder,  they know they can trust each other.

(In fact, at the end of the first movie, they were rushing off to get married. Blackboard doesn't explain why they aren't married now--though the original novel does: Piper was called away on another case before they got hitched, giving Hildegarde time to change her mind.)

From there, the movie adopts an interesting structure. Hildegarde is certain the murderer hasn't had a chance to leave the school building, so the first half-hour of this 71-minute film involving searching the school for both a corpse and a killer. They find the corpse in the school's furnace, but the killer manages to slug a cop and give them the slip.

From there, it's a traditional mystery--questioning suspects and searching for clues. There's a wonderful scene in which Piper and Hildegarde return to the school and search the cellar, only to have a mysterious assailant throw a hatchet at Hildegarde's head.

Several small clues--including musical notes written on a blackboard and a dead ant in a glass beaker--point Hildegard to the killer. But to get real proof, she and Piper will have to set a trap.

Like the early film, Murder on the Blackboard is a reasonable mystery turned into a delightful time by Edna May Oliver as Hildegard and James Gleason as Piper. The two continue to play off each other perfectly, getting on each others nerves but still working in tandem to solve a crime. Hildegarde Withers is a part Edna May Oliver was born to play, while Gleason was her perfect foil.

There's an interesting bit of trivia concerning the supporting casts of these first two films, by the way. This series was produced by RKO, which also made King Kong in 1933. The Penguin Pool Murder was made in 1932 with Robert Armstrong in the cast. A year later, Armstrong and Bruce Cabot were running around Skull Island avoiding dinosaurs and giant apes. Then, a year after that, Bruce Cabot had his turn playing a role in a Hildegard Withers movie--he's a science teacher in Murder on the Blackboard.

Edna May Oliver will play Hildegarde Withers one more time, so that will be the next film we look at in this series. There were several more Hildegarde films starring other actresses. These are quite good, but in the end Edna May is the only true Hildegarde Withers.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Ghost or an Alien?

During the Silver Age and Bronze Age, DC was fortunate to have a number of writers who understood how to simply have fun with a Superman story.
Cary Bates was one of those writers. He had a knack for coming up with plots that presented the Man of Steel with a real threat and forced him to use his powers in clever ways.  When backed up by Curt Swan's classic art, this pretty much always means the reader is going to have fun.

Action Comics 494 and 495 (April & May 1979) takes Clark Kent back to Smallville. Someone has anonymously mailed an early version of the Superman "S" to the Daily Planet, promising more secrets of Superman in the future. 

The envelope was mailed from Smallville, so Perry assigns Clark to travel to his old-home town and investigate. Lois comes along.

Once there, weird shenanigans ensue. Retired police chief Parker has been caretaker of the Kent home, but when Lois and Clark arrive, he's being threatened by the ghost of a Revolutionary War Minuteman. Soon after, the ghost of a World War II general threatens Lois. Finally, Superman is attacked by a physical (not ghostly) warrior---a seven-foot tale Dwalu, a member of a race of Kryptonian warriors that were wiped out millennia before that planet exploded.

Over the course of the two issues, Superman gradually figures it all out. Years ago, as Superboy, he saved an alien race from a dragon-like creature called a Gnmod. The monster
was supposedly destroyed, but actually its astral form hid in a trophy the aliens gave Superboy and its been gradually rebuilding its strength.

So it mind-controlled Chief Parker into mailing the "S" symbol in order to lure Superman back to Smallville. It drew on the minds of those around it to form itself into several different warriors until it was able to take solid form as a Dwalu.

So far, all this is great. There's a strong plot that makes perfect sense in a comic book universe and gives Swan opportunity to draw lots of awesome-lookin' stuff. But what rises this up to a solid 8.8 on the Bogart/Karloff Coolness Scale is the climatic battle between Supes and the Dwalu. 

The soldier is bigger and stronger than Superman, but the Man of Steel uses several clever tactics to give himself an edge. When the Dwalu throws him into the ground, for instance, Superman just goes with the flow, continuing to tunnel through the ground until he pops up behind his opponent.

But that's not as cool as how Superman wins the fight. He manages to use his cape to snatch away the Dwalu's sword, tossing the weapon far away. A moment later, the Dwalu has him in a deadly bear hug.

But Superman didn't throw the sword away. He throw is in a perfect arc that would take it around the world. At exactly the right moment, Superman reaches up, grabs the sword and uses the powers of the
weapon to subdue the Dwalu. Gee whiz, I love that.

Last week, I mentioned that recent DC Comics movies seemed to have lost the idea of simply having fun with superheroes. This was certainly true with last year's Man of Steel. I didn't hate it and there were some parts I enjoyed enormously. But the movie was a failure in my mind because it didn't have the sense of pure fun that this comic or the first two Christopher Reeve films had. If your Superman story doesn't include moments analogous to throwing your enemy's weapon around the world and then catching it at just the right moment to use against him, then you are doing something wrong.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Crime Classics: "The Alsop Family--How it Diminished and Grew Again" 8/24/53

A highwayman in 17th Century England allows his younger son to marry--but he's forbidden to ever tell her how the family earns its living. But the new bride soon proves to be both curious and persistent.

You can listen or download to this episode HERE.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Time Travel and Killer Robots

Fred Saberhagen created the Berserkers in the early 1960s, writing numerous short stories and novels featuring these robotic killers over the next few decades. The idea behind the Berserkers is this: Many thousands of years ago, self-replicating robots with advanced A.I. were built by an alien race to destroy an enemy. The Berserkers proved to be too efficient. Programmed to annihilate all biological life, it wiped out both races and then set out to destroy any other life it might run across.

It's a much-imitated idea--used, for instance, in the Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine."

The Berserkers are often in the form of asteroid-sized ships, but can build new Berserkers in all shapes and sizes as they adapt new tactics to changing situations.

Saberhagen's stories span across centuries of warfare between humanity and the Berserkers, with many of the stories focusing on human ingenuity giving us victory over the implacable killing machines. This often allows for some absolutely wonderful twist endings, such as those found in the short stories "The Peacemaker" and "The Annihilation of Angkor Apeiron."

The 1967 novel Brother Assassin (which first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine) introduces a fun new twist into the series. The novel takes place on the only planet in the galaxy on which time travel is possible. The planet Sirgol is surrounded by holes in space-time. When the first human ship landed on Sirgol, it was tossed back in time tens of thousands of years, with the warping effect wiping the memories of the crew. Civilization on Sirgol had to literally start from scratch.

When the next human ship arrives at Sirgol ten relative years after the first, they discover a thriving human civilization that's been around for 20 millennia who can warn the newcomers about the space-time holes. The planet is warned about the Berserkers in time to build a defense.

So when the Berserkers do arrive, they manage to wipe out "only" about 90% of Sirgol's population. The survivors take refuge underground. The inhuman enemy then tries using time travel to disrupt the flow of civilization and change history. If they succeed, the humans on Sirgol won't be advanced enough to fight back at all when the robots first arrive.

What follows are three separate adventures, linked together by the same human characters. The Berserkers try to wipe out a tribe of humans who would be the first to develop a written language. Humans from the present can't travel back that far without losing their memories, so they send back robots worked by remote control to act as bodyguards to the tribe.

After that, we discover that history on Sirgol roughly parallels that of Earth, with the rise and fall of a Roman Empire analogue. The Berserkers try to change history by killing a king who keeps one nation from descending into a Dark Age after the Empire falls. (The king is an analogue to King Arthur--Saberhagen borrows Sirgol's history from Earth legend as well as fact.) This time around, countering the Berserkers move means to somehow replace the dead king--at least until the duplicate can draw a Berserker dragon out of hiding.

Then, the robots try more subtle means of changing history, mucking around with the results of the trial of a Galileo analogue during Sirgol's Renaissance. Here, the book's protagonist must use an equally subtle plan to get history back on the right track.

It's great storytelling, with strong characterizations backing up the clever plot. Also, there's some thoughtful thematic subtext present. For instance, the King Arthur section deals with self-sacrifice and heroism with enough real emotion to keep it from seeing cliched. The Galileo section deals with the apparent conflict between science and faith, but in the end reminds us that both are necessary and valuable parts of human history. I have no idea what Saberhagen's personal beliefs are, but one of the reasons I enjoy his stories is that he occasionally acknowledges and celebrates the vital influence Judeo-Christian values have had on civilization.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Hijacking a Helicarrier

WARNING: Though this review talks about a 35-year-old comic book story, it does contain minor spoilers regarding the latest Captain America movie.

I have to say that I've really enjoyed the Marvel Universe movies, especially the first Captain America movie and the Avengers. They have a sense of fun to them that recent DC movies have lacked. It's as if DC's philosophy for its movie universe is "There are superheroes in the world and because of that everything is dark and depressing and you are all going to die."  Marvel, on the other hand, has its movie universe telling us "There are superheroes in the world and, though there is danger and evil present, the superheroes make the world COOL AND AWESOME!"

Anyway, the plot of the second Captain America movie reminds of a four-issue story arc published in Marvel Team-Up #82-85 (June-Sept 1979), in that this story also involved bad guys infiltrating and taking over SHIELD.

In the case of the comic book story, though, it's not a decades-long plot. Rather it involves the lady terrorist Viper and a mind-control beam.

It all starts when Spider Man rescues a lady from muggers, only to discover the lady is a amnesiac Black Widow. In fact, what little the Widow does remember is wrong--she thinks she's a school teacher named Nancy Rushman (a cover identity she used when she first came to America as a Soviet spy).

Soon after that, SHIELD agents led by Countess Valentina Allegra de Fontaine are trying to kill the confused
Widow. She and Spider Man spend most of issue #82 fighting them off, only to be ambushed and tranquilized by Nick Fury.

It's a neat set-up for a strong story. We are, at first, as much in the dark as Spider Man as to what the heck is going on. Also, the Widow with amnesia aspect is handled well. As "Nancy Rushman," she's confused and terrified, but her skills as the Widow still show up when she's under stress, so she gets to be more than a damsel-in-distress during the story.

Chris Claremont is the writer, by the way, and he really was at the top of his game during the 1970s and early 1980s. Sal Buscema provides strong, clear art work throughout the tale.

The second issue adds to the confusion. Nick Fury is worried about many of his agents acting bizarrely, worried about who he can trust. In the meantime, Spider Man is trying to rescue the Widow from SHIELD headquarters while also confused about what's going on. Then the villains Boomerang and Silver Samurai show up and try to kill everyone.

By Part Three, everything is gradually becoming clear. Viper has taken over the Helicarrier, using a hypno-beam to turn the crew into her puppets. She plans to crash the ship on top of the capital while President Jimmy Carter is giving a speech to Congress. (Black Widow's amnesia was actually caused when she was captured and tortured by Viper during the planning stages of Viper's scheme.)

Well, that certainly has to be stopped. Unable to trust his own people, Nick calls a friend in MI6 for help--The friend is Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, which means Shang-Chi soon shows up. (Something the story tries to make a surprise reveal part way into the third issue, despite Shang-Chi being prominently shown on the cover!)

More action and shenanigans ensue. In fact, the extended action sequence that takes up most of issues #84 and 85 is really superb, with the four good guys battling mind-controlled SHIELD agents, Boomerang, Silver Samurai, and Viper back and forth through the Helicarrier, with Widow occasional reverting to "Nancy Rushman" and coming close to panic. It ends when Widow and Viper face off against each other while Nick and Spidey desperately try to hot-wire the Helicarrier engines  before  it crashes on top of most of the U.S. government.

It's a wonderful yarn, with a strong plot in which the various twists and turns all make sense, backed up by some great fight scenes. There's some emotional bite involving the Widow recovering from amnesia along with Spider Man being attracted to the Nancy Rushman persona--something that Claremont wisely underplays to make it seem real without resorting to melodrama.

It makes one think. The Helicarrier is one of the most awesome fictional vehicles ever created, but it does get taken over by bad guys quite frequently, doesn't it? Is something that potentially dangerous to its owners really a wise idea? Maybe SHIELD needs to use more mundane equipment.

Oh, what am I saying? There are times when the world simply has to risk total destruction in the name of giving the good guys getting to show off their really cool stuff.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Molle Mystery Theater: "Ladies in Retirement" 1/18/46

A blackmailing relative and an eavesdropping maid turn a simple murder into a more complicated affair.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Black Swan--the movie

The 1940s were a good year for films based on Rafael Sabatini novels that don't really resemble the original novel. 1940 gave us The Sea Hawk, which was a completely original story with a Sabatini title attached to it. Normally, this would be annoying and disappointing, but the film is so much pure fun it takes away your right to complain.

In 1942, 20th Century Fox gave us The Black Swan, with Tyrone Power buckling his swashes as the protagonist. To be fair, there are a few things drawn from the book still here: A villainous pirate named Leech still sails on a ship called the Black Swan. Events still revolve around former pirate Henry Morgan now being a governor with a commission to stamp out piracy. And the hero at one point is forced to claim he's married to the girl he's protecting and improvise a story when captured by Leech.

But where that last event was what really began the story in the novel, it's used instead to set up a completely different climax at the end of the movie. The hero is now rogue-ish ex-pirate Jamie Waring rather than gentlemanly privateer Charles de Bernis and the bulk of the plot is completely original.

But, as with The Sea Hawk, this is just fine. The Black Swan is a movie made up of 110% pure fun. Henry Morgan--supposedly taken back to England to be hanged--shows up back in the Caribbean with a blanket pardon for any pirate who turns honest. Leech and his crew refuses, but Jamie Waring is drunk enough when the offer is made to accept. Soon after, Morgan must send Jamie out after Leech. Along the way, Jamie has fallen in love with Lady Margaret--who looks just like Maureen
O'Hara, so you really can't blame him.

Of course, Jamie's romantic endeavors might be more successful if Lady Margaret didn't loath him and wasn't already engaged to someone else. Then again, her romantic plans might stand a better chance of leading to happiness if the man she's engaged to wasn't selling secret information to Leech.

It's a fine story, backed up by great effects (the ship miniatures were built on a 1-inch to 1-foot scale, making them large enough to look awesomely realistic on camera) and some Oscar-winning cinematography. The movie is one of those few cases where I agree that color was a better choice than black-and-white.

Topping all this off are the performances. Everyone involved seemed to fully embrace the fact that they were in a pirate movie and all of them chewed the scenery magnificently. Tyrone Power, George Sanders (Leech), and Laird Cregar (Morgan) all seem to be trying to outdo each other in being as hammy as possible--but this is a movie where overacting is exactly what was needed to pull the story together. Any subtlety in their performances would have been out-of-place here. It's particularly fun to see George Sanders--who normally played suave, urbane roles--sport a Beard of Manliness while going to town as the crudely evil Leech.

That concludes our two-part look at the book and the movie version of The Black Swan. I think that at some point in the next few months, I'll do the same thing with The Sea Hawk, because one can never have too much swashbuckling in one's life.

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