Monday, November 30, 2015

Cover Cavalcade

I really like the way the overcast sky in the background both highlights Lancelot and adds to the overall atmosphere of the painting.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: "Tonto Takes Charge" 9/19/41

As part of a plan to expose the head of a smuggling gang and catch the rest of the gang, the Lone Ranger allows himself to be captured.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

It's the Little Mistakes That Will Get You Killed

Plunder Road is a little gem of a Noir/heist movie. Made in 1957, it stars Gene Raymond as the leader of a five-man gang that pulls off an elaborate train heist, getting away with 10 million dollars in gold.

The first 10 or 12 minutes of the film covers the heist--which, for our "heroes"-- turns out to be the easy part. The gang divides the gold into three trucks. The plan is for them to travel (singly or in pairs) to California, where they have a scheme set up to smuggle the gold out of the country.

That seems simple enough compared to pulling off the heist, but the rest of the movie shows us just how hard this can be. The cops have roadblocks set up in an effort to catch them, so any little mistake is likely to give one of them away. And when fear and paranoia gradually build up inside you, it is notoriously difficult not to make little mistakes.

It's a simple plot--following the gang as they drive across the country, cutting back and forth between the three trucks. The gradual building of tension and suspense is expertly done, helped along by both the subtle performances of the actors and Hubert Cornfield's tight directing.

I also appreciate that the movie remembers just how heavy gold is. Even otherwise great heist films, such as Kelly's Heroes, often gloss over or ignore this. In fact, the gold's weight is a factor in Plunder Road's mildly contrived but still tense conclusion.

There's another interesting part to the film. Inevitably, in any heist film, we end up kind of rooting for the bad guys to get away with it--even if the movie isn't otherwise trying to justify the theft in some way. That's certainly the case here for most of Plunder Road. Intellectually, we know that the robbers are in the wrong. But the whole movie is told from their point-of-view and we can't help emphasizing with them and appreciating their cleverness.

Then--about halfway through the movie--one of the robbers commits a particularly brutal act of violence. It's a stark reminder that these really are bad guys.

Of course, the violence also adds to ever-building tension. Maybe this particular scene was in the movie for that purpose and any moral statement was simply an afterthought or side effect.

For me, that scene also highlights one of the reasons I like classic Film Noir. We often hear the story told from the perspective of bad people, but great Noir never forgets that they are indeed bad and that there are always consequences when we do evil.

I'm embedding a YouTube version of the film--but if you have Amazon Prime, a better quality print is available there.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Don't Step On the Rug!

John Stanley is best remembered for writing the brilliantly funny Little Lulu comic books. But, boy-o-boy, Stanley could shift gears and get really creepy if he needed to do so.

Of course, there are some pretty creepy elements to a few of the Lulu stories, so perhaps its not that surprising.

Stanley wrote what might be the scariest comic book story ever for Dell's Ghost Stories in 1962. That same year, Dell did an 84-page one-shot titled Tales from the Tomb, for which Stanley provided what might just be the second scariest comic book story ever.

It involves a young man named Harry, who needs a room for the night. No one answers the door at the first rooming house he tries. This seems fortunate, because the landlord there is a crappy old man, while the next house down is run by a sweet, kindly old lady named Mrs. Wittly.  Heck, she even provides a freshly cleaned throw rung for Harry's room.

Later, when she knocks on Harry's door and asks him to open up for a moment, he casually tosses the book he's reading to the floor. This has an unexpected result.

It turns out the rug is the home of a creature named Mr. Green. And, as Mrs. Wittly calmly points out: "Mr. Green MUST be fed!"

In the ensuing struggle, Harry realizes Mr. Green must stay close to the rug, so he tosses the rug out the window. Mr. Green leaps out after it.

In the meantime, the crappy guy next door has heard the commotion and called the cops. But that darn rug is now just sitting there on the sidewalk--a horrific booby trap that no sane person would suspect represents a danger.

With strong art by Frank Springer, "Mr. Green Must be Fed" is a concise horror story that sets up its premise effectively, then brilliantly uses this to provide honest terror. It has one of those "the bad guy doesn't get caught" endings that often seem contrived and unsatisfying, but in this case fits the rest of the tale perfectly.

The story is available to read online HERE.

Next week, we'll watch two of Marvel's Old West "Kids" team-up with one another.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Cover Cavalcade

The top cover is by Joe Kubert. The bottom is by Jerry Grandenetti. Two great examples of how effectively the DC war comics covers used dramatic points-of-view.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

Hopalong Cassidy: "Four to Go" 9/10/50

A list found on a dead man contains four names. One name is that of the corpse. One of the other names is Hopalong Cassidy.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

THAT'S Who Shot Liberty Valance!

Sometimes, a great movie is so good there is danger of forgetting that it was based on a great novel or short story.

This isn’t always the case. Alan Lemay’s The Searchers or Charles Portis’ True Grit, for instance, are well-known enough by themselves to be remembered alongside the movies they inspired.

But I’ll bet a lot of movie fans—and even a lot of fans of prose Westerns—don’t know or remember that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is based on a 1949 short story written by Dorothy M. Johnson.

Johnson combined a sparse writing style with wonderful characterizations. She was able to give us an effective snapshot of a character and a setting in just a few words, setting up the ensuing story without wasting any words. To a large degree, her Westerns remind me of the best hard-boiled detective stories.

It’s interesting to compare Johnson’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” to the movie version. In the film, Jimmy Stewart is a tenderfoot coming west—a man who is convinced that the law (and NOT the gun) is what is needed to bring civilization to the West. But he meets and gets the snot beaten out of him by Liberty Valance, a brutal thug who pretty much everyone in the territory fears.  Even after this, though, Ranse (Stewart’s character) is determined to follow the law and not turn to violence. When he does finally take up a gun, it is only after a long and heartfelt moral struggle.

Interwoven with this is his growing relationship with Hallie (Vera Miles) and his antagonistic “friendship” with Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). All of this plays a part in Ranse’s final confrontation with Liberty.

Director John Ford uses these personal stories to make cogent points about civilization, the use of violence within a civilized society, and tensions between fact and legend.

In the original story, though, Ranse isn’t quite as admirable. He’s coming West after a family argument; his encounter with Liberty makes him want to kill the thug; and his behavior is all carefully calculated to lure Liberty into the town so that Ranse can confront him. This version of Ranse has no qualms about using a gun, though he has no real expectation of winning a fight.

Hallie is still there, as is Bert (the character renamed Tom in the film). The interpersonal relationships between these three is pretty much the same, leading up to a similar ending. Liberty himself is much less visible in the story than in the movie—he no longer represents the savage, uncivilized Wild West, but is simply one man’s personal demon.

So the short story is much more about just the characters and only touches lightly on other themes. It is, therefore, a much smaller story. But NOT smaller in a bad way. It is an engaging and suspenseful tale that surprises you by making you care for an unlikeable protagonist.

That John Ford took the story and built it into something else is fine—since he ended up making a truly classic Western. But this is a case where it’s important not to forget that the short story came first and is a classic in on its own terms.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Dinosaurs vs. Evil Corporation

Quasar was a good character, but also a second-tier hero who never hit the big time. So, even though I know a lot of you reading this are up on your comic history, I'll give a brief "Who the heck is Quasar?" recap.

His real name is Wendell Vaughn and he used to be a security guard at Stark International. When a powerful alien artifact called the Quantum Bands were being studied at a Stark facility, AIM agents tried to steal it. Wendell used the Bands to fight them off, became the hero Quasar, got some training from SHIELD, then became chief of security at Project Pegasus--a government research project looking into alternate energy sources.

Ben Grimm and Quasar worked together during a Marvel Two-in-One story arc set at Project Pegasus, so its no surprise when Quasar asks Ben to accompany him an a raid to break up the organization that had been persistently trying to wreck the project. This brings us to Marvel Two-in-One #73 (March 1981), written by Ralph Macchio and drawn by Ron Wilson.

The bad guys are unpowered mooks, so you would think Ben and Quasar could mop the floor with them pretty easily. But they don't count on the villains having a dimensional projector--sending the heroes on an unplanned vacation to a jungle planet in another dimension--a planet inhabited by cavemen and dinosaurs.

Frankly, I don't know why anyone would have to be forced to visit a planet full of dinosaurs. I don't care what the Jurassic Park franchise has been desperately trying to teach us--if it's got dinosaurs, then, by golly, I'm going.

Well actually, in this case, the planet is spoiled by Roxxon Oil, the Marvel Universe's go-to company whenever they needed an evil corporation. Roxxon has gotten the idea of drilling for oil in other dimensions. By itself, this actually isn't a bad idea. But Roxxon has also enslaved the local cavemen as a source of cheap labor. 

Soon, Ben and Quasar are attacked by hovercraft. Ben is hit with knock-out gas and captured. Quasar manages to hook up with free cavemen, who have learned English from their captors and have gathered an army of dinosaurs to use in their fight for freedom. Quasar soon agrees to help them.

Meanwhile, the head bad guy conveniently explains the entire situation to Ben--a contrived and over-used plot device, but justified in this case because the bad guy wants to bribe Ben into switching sides. Naturally, this does not go well for the villian. Not only does Ben rip his way out of his shackles, but Quasar and his dinosaur/caveman army attacks.

This, of course, is the point of the whole issue. The story is a really good one, well-constructed and making complete sense in the context of a comic book universe. But it was clearly built around the idea of showing us dinosaurs wrecking havoc on puny humans. And I, of course, am fine with that. As the ancient proverb teaches us: If you tire of dinosaurs, you tire of life itself.

I also appreciate a clever plot twist at the end. The leader of the villains gets back to Earth via the dimensional projector and takes the projector with him, apparently leaving the heroes stranded on another world. But Quasar realizes that the oil pipeline also travels between dimensions--that's how Roxxon was getting the oil back to their refineries on Earth. So Quasar fiddles with the controls, redirects the oil into the bad guy headquarters, then forms an energy bubble that allows he and Ben to ride the oil flow back home.

It's a neat twist, adding some more tension to the climax and forcing the heroes to use their brains rather than just punch stuff.

So we have a good story plus dinosaurs wrecking havoc. Why scientists in real life haven't invented dimensional portals, time machines or dinosaur-cloning so that we can see this sort of thing for ourselves is beyond me. It really is.

Next week, we'll find out why its a bad idea to step on an unfamiliar throw-rug.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Cover Cavalcade

I've always preferred Dell/Gold Key's painted covers, but I'm becoming more and more appreciative of their effective photo covers.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

Gunsmoke: "Letter of Law" 7/15/56

Matt Dillon believes in the law. But if the law requires him to violate his own conscience--well, that's a line he just won't cross.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fairy Tale Superheroes

I'm far from the first person to point this out, of course, but it is interesting to note that among the cultural influences that eventually led to the creation of the modern superhero were fairy tales. A lot of the characters have what is essentially superpowers and the heroes often accomplish some pretty epic deeds.

So when L. Frank Baum wrote the fairy tale Queen Zixi of Ix in 1904/5 (originally serialized in St. Nicholas magazine)---over three decades before the first comic book superhero appeared--it's not surprising that it reminds a modern reader of a Silver Age Legion of Super Heroes story.

The story is enormously entertaining--considered by many Baum fans to be one of his best. In it, the fairy queen and her fairies make a magic cloak (pretty much because they are bored). The cloak will grant one wish to each person who wears it, as long as the current person wearing it didn't steal it from the previous owner.

The cloak ends up in the possession of an orphan girl named Fluff. Extremely odd circumstances make Fluff's younger brother Bud the king of Noland, so Fluff is now a princess. The cloak ends up being inadvertently passed around among the young king's five counselors, each of whom makes an off-the-cuff wish without being aware of the cloak's power. So each of them ends up with an odd power--giant-size; the ability to reach out and grab things many yards away; granting a pet dog the ability to talk; and so on. Before all this happens, Fluff's ill-tempered aunt gives herself wings.

When Queen Zixi of Xi decides she wants the cloak, she leads her army against Noland. But the various wish-granted powers are used in several ways to send her soldiers fleeing in panic.

Later on, the cloak as gone missing. Fluff and Bud must now enlist Queen Zixi as an ally to find it and save Noland from rampaging creatures called Roly-Rogues.

I love how Baum so efficiently establishes the internal logic of the story, then uses this logic to move the plot along in unexpected ways. I enjoy the surprising depth of some elements of the story--Zixi's character arc is believable and mature; while Bud's child-like attitude to being king is handled realistically without ignoring the consequences of this (such as a seemingly wise decision causing an injustice to an innocent person). The aunt who gets wings also shows remarkable character growth.

But mostly, I like the part where a winged woman, a few super-powered politicians and a talking dog work together to defeat a large army without actually hurting anyone.

Queen Zixi of Xi was made into a silent film in 1914, which I'm embedding below. By then, it was obvious that Oz would always be where Baum's readers most wanted to go, so the film version ended up with the title The Magic Cloak of Oz.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Redemption on an Airless Asteroid

Cliches exist for a reason. Elements commonly used in many stories have become cliches because--if used well--help make a story stronger.

Of course, in a poorly told story, cliches are awkward and annoying. But if the story is well-told, then those same cliches turn into strengths.

"The Space Traitor," from Tom Corbett, Space Cadet #7 (Aug-Oct. 1953) is a good example of this. The character arcs involving Bob Keen--an upperclassman at the the Space Academy--and his ne'er-do-well brother Jim are completely predictable. Yet, all the same, they help form the backbone of a very entertaining yarn.

Bob joins Tom's group of younger cadets to lead them on war-game maneuvers. With some sage advice from Tom, Bob proceeds to kick butt and take names.

The maneuvers end with a visit to a prison asteroid. It's here that things go ill for Bob. Jim, his criminal brother talks Bob into allowing him to stowaway on the rocket so he can "prove my innocence." That's a trick, of course. Jim sneaks a couple of friends aboard, hijacking the ship and making their escape.

Bob is court-martialed and tossed out of the Academy. Soon after, he ships out on a freighter, then apparently turns outlaw himself and joins Jim's gang.

Tom and his pals--initially trying to help Bob and then later trying to catch him, trail him and try to foil a plot to rob a freighter. This doesn't go well--Tom and Astro end up getting captured.

It's here that the character arcs begin to follow completely predictable patterns. Because OF COURSE Bob is working undercover to catch the outlaws. He is soon helping Tom and Astro to escape and go for help.

And OF COURSE Jim decides to side with his brother when Bob's life is at stake. To the surprise of no one, Jim ends up sacrificing himself to allow the cadets to escape. (These last panels, by the way, were printed in black-and-white on the inside back cover of the comic book.)

I'm okay with this, though. The story is well-constructed and the artwork--though a little weak in places--is imaginative. A theme like redemption is always a strong one. Perhaps that's why some elements are used often enough to become cliches--because they speak to something important about human nature. So, though cliches can often represent lazy writing, they will always be with us. And that isn't always a bad thing.

This comic is in the public domain, so you can read it HERE.

Next week, we'll follow along with Ben Grimm as he once again fights dinosaurs.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Green Hornet: "Poor Substitutes for a Prison" 2/1/49

Poor women--each of whom has a husband in prison--suddenly have money. It doesn't take long for the Hornet to figure out that there's something fishy going on. Proving it, though, is another matter.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Montezuma's Treasure Again?

Wasn't Montezuma's treasure found in yesterday's post in a comic book adaptation of Tales of Wells Fargo?

Well, it turns out the TV version of the wild West had Montezuma stashing his treasures all over the darned place.

What made me look up and watch "The Alexander Portless Story"--the March 16, 1960 episode of Wagon Train--was running across the fact that Peter Lorre was the guest star. Lorre in a Western? That's something everyone in the world should be legally obligated to watch.

Not surprisingly, Lorre play a villain and a "fish-out-of-water" role. Alexander Portless is a British archaeologist who believes he's found evidence that Montezuma's treasure--hidden somewhere in the American Southwest to keep it out of Cortez's hands--actually exists. He's found the general area, but now he needs a scout who knows the territory to help track it down more precisely.

This by itself wouldn't make him a villain. What does tip him into bad guy mode is his obsession to find the treasure before a fatal disease finishes him off. That treasure is his immortality. If he finds it, the British museum will have an "Alexander Portless" room and he'll live forever. So Heaven help anyone who gets in his way.

He embezzled the money he needed to outfit his expedition and recruited a quartet of thugs to help him. The thugs are in it for a share of the Aztec gold, so naturally Portless will have to eventually kill them so the treasure will go to the museum in its entirety. And to find a scout--well, he just has his men kidnaps Flint (Robert Horton), the scout for the wagon train.

Lorre is superb in the role, convincing us that Portless is indeed a highly educated scholar and giving him a polite veneer that doesn't quite hide his complete lack of a moral compass. Portless is one of the best sorts of villains in a work of fiction--someone we can sympathize with, yet still not feel like the story is asking us to excuse the crimes he commits.

On top of this, the plot is well-constructed and Portless' thugs are given individual personalities. In many ways, it's a typical treasure hunt story employing the cliche of the treasure hunters turning on each other at the first opportunity, but it is skillfully and effectively done.

So apparently, Montezuma didn't hide his treasure all in one place. Two different stashes have been respectively found in today's post and yesterday's post. Maybe we all had better go out and take a look. No tellin' how many more Montezuma's treasures are out there!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Montezuma's Pay-Off

I've never seen Tales of Wells Fargo, a 1957-1962 Western about a trouble-shooter for the famous stage line. When I was growing up, a number of old Westerns were shown in syndication on weekday afternoons. But this just didn't happen to be one of them. Even as an adult, I've never run across a re-run anywhere. There was a DVD release that includes an inexpensive "Best of..." disc, so I may rectify this failing soon.

It's a nifty premise for a Western, though. And Dell Comics, in seven issues of Four Color and a single one-shot, did some really good stories.

At least one of the Four Colors and the one-shot changed the name to Man from Wells Fargo--I'm not sure why, though these issues came out the year the show ended, so it might relate to word of the cancellation coming down from on high.

Four Color #1287 (Feb-April 1962) used the Man from... title.  That doesn't effect the quality, though. It was written by Gaylord DuBois, Dell's go-to guy for Westerns, and superbly drawn by Alberto Giolitti. That combination pretty much guarantees quality storytelling.

The first story is "Montezuma's Pay-Off." We find Jim Hardie--the protagonist--tracking stage robber Chris Demaray, who is rumored to have "gone Indian" and joined a tribe of Utes.

Jim is ambushed by the Utes and jumped by Demaray. But the criminal whispers a request to fake a good fight followed by Jim surrendering.

Jim complies. This sets up an interesting situation. Demaray has turned over a new leaf. He wants to live with the Utes, but he'd also go back with Jim to keep the tribe from being persecuted. But the Utes won't let him leave--he hasn't been with them long enough to completely earn their trust.

So he is going to have to escape with Jim. He comes up with a story that lets the two of them ride off, but a war party tales them to make sure Demaray returns.

Demaray still has ideas, though. What if he was able to give Jim enough gold to pay off what he stole?

He even knows where he can get the gold. There's a legend that Aztec warriors hid something nearby centuries ago. An Aztec symbol carved on a cliff-face shows where this might be. The Utes have never looked because its rumored to have ghostly guardians.  Demaray and Jim break in and they do find treasure, probably brought here for safe keeping when the Spaniards arrived.

But the Utes trailing them show up, forcing the two men to improvise. Demaray will pretend to kill Jim and leave his "body" in the treasure room. Jim can later leave with enough gold to pay off what Demaray stole.

A booby-trap nearly kills them both, but also convinces the Utes to run for it, leaving the two men safe and free. Jim, who never actually agreed to Demaray's deal, insists the former criminal come back with him, but still leaves him with hope that he'll be able to return to his people after paying back what he stole.

It's a very entertaining story, with an unusual premise and a plot that unfolds logically. There's a lot of small details that add to the story, such as the two men having to wait several minutes after breaking open the treasure room--the air at first is foul after the room has been sealed for three-and-a-half centuries. It's the sort of touch that Gaylord DuBois was always adding to his tales--a detail that isn't essential to the plot but still helps give it verisimilitude.

Giolitti's art is as strong and crisp as it always is, with the panels showing off the landscape being particularly magnificent.

The last panel, in particular, is downright beautiful--as purty a "riding into the sunset" scene as you'll ever see.

This comic is in the public domain, so if you want to read it, you'll find it HERE.

Next week, by the way, we'll leave the Old West for a trip into the future and a visit with space pirates on an airless asteroid.

Monday, November 2, 2015

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