Saturday, January 30, 2016

Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Quiet Please: "I Always Marry Juliet" 4/5/48

A pompous Shakespearean actor known for playing Romeo marries three different "Juliets," all of whom have a tendency to die when they become inconvenient.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"A vast cloud of utter darkness"

There's a huge dark cloud--billions of miles across--near the center of the galaxy. It is an area in which visible light literally does not exist. You can't even bring an artificial light source into it, because not even this will not work. A scientist flew into the cloud some years ago to investigate, but he never came back. So the cloud is an unsolvable mystery.

Its position puts it right along side the futuristic version of Route 66. When the galaxy is united under one Federation, a lot of interstellar traffic will pass right by the cloud. So when a magnetic force suddenly reaches out from within the cloud, literally thousands of space ships are sucked into it.

This is the situation we find in "The Cosmic Cloud," the last of Edmond Hamilton's wonderful Interstellar Patrol stories. This story appeared in the November 1930 issue of Weird Tales. 

*Just as an aside, this was a pretty epic issue, including one of Robert E. Howard's Bran Mak Morn stories (in which Bran teams up with a time-travelling King Kull), stories by Clark Ashton Smith and Seabury Quinn and a poem by H.P. Lovecraft. It also had a dinosaur on the cover.*

Hamilton's Captain Future was frequently saving the Solar System, but to the Interstellar Patrol, saving a mere solar system is what we would call "Tuesday." The Patrol stories dealt with threats that would annihilate the galaxy or perhaps the entire universe. At least one story involved the potential destruction of three universes.

So when Patrolmen Dur Nal and his crew are sent to investigate, it's no surprise that they do indeed find a galaxy-level threat. The Patrol ship is soon caught in the same magnetic beam that caught other ships and they are dragged onto a planet inside the cloud. The planet is just as pitch dark as the rest of the cloud.

This is where the story gets really cool. The Patrolmen are taken prisoner by aliens who apparently navigate purely by sound. Dur Nal manages to get away, but this leaves him wandering around a strange city in pitch darkness, not able to make the slightest sound without getting caught.

It is a unique and very creepy situation. And even when Dur Nal manages to hook up with the scientist who went missing in the cloud years ago and gets a pair of lenses that allows him to see, the overall situation is very grim. The blind aliens captured all those ships because they plan to launch an invasion that will bring utter darkness on the rest of the galaxy and allow them to take over.

Edmond Hamilton knew how to generate excitement and had a talent for making us believe in all the super-scientific stuff he throws at us. With around 10,000 words, he gives us the cosmic cloud that cancels visible light through some natural process, portable machines that can accomplish the same thing artificially, super-magnets that work by electrically charging the poles of the cloud planet, and ultra-violet googles that let you see in total darkness. Plus a race of aliens that use sound as effectively as we use sight.

And, by golly, I believe every word of it. I really do.

"The Cosmic Cloud" is available to read online HERE.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


cover art by Herb Trimpe

As Transformers #27 (April 1987) opens, Optimus Prime is dead. Which is a sadly common experience. No matter what version of the Transformers universe we are talking about, Optimus gets killed with frightening frequency. He rarely stays dead permanently, though--it's a wonder the other Autobots even notice any more when he gets killed.

But, to be fair, his death a few issues earlier was the first time he died in the Marvel Universe continuity. So the other Autobots aren't expecting a resurrection any time soon and are debating who should take over as leader.

One Autobot who wants to toss his hat into the ring is Grimlock, the head of the Dinobots. Actually, he doesn't want to toss his hat into the ring. He wants to stomp the ring flat and then eat it. In other words, he just wants to declare himself leader of the Autobots and smash anyone who stands in his way.

So he and the Dinobots are on their way to the Ark (the crashed space ship the Autobots use as a base) so he can claim leadership. Along the way, he encounters a human girl; she's an assistant to a paleontologist who is trying to figure out why they are finding dinosaur footprints in Oregon. To Grimlock's surprise, the girl doesn't immediately scream and run away. Grimlock's opinion of us humans is that we're all weak and cowardly, so an act of bravery impresses him.

In the meantime, the Decepticons have decided to destroy the Autobots and loot the Ark of its fuel and resources. To carry out this plan, they teleport in their most dangerous and brutal member: A giant robot dinosaur called Tripticon.

The Dinobots are still outside the Ark when the giant robot attacks--at first happy to just watch while Tripticon takes out Grimlock's potential competitors for leadership.

 But two things change Grimlock's mind about the wisdom of sitting out the fight. First, it occurs to him that "I'll be ruling over piles of scrap metal soon." Also, the brave girl he met earlier gets caught up in the fight and is in danger.

In one of my favorite panels of all time, Grimlock single-handedly jumps Tripticon.  I mean, look at that. A T-Rex-sized robot T-Rex is jumping on the back of a Godzilla-sized robot T-Rex. That is literally the definition of fun.

The other Dinobots jump in to help their leader, allowing artist Don Perlin to give us several successive half-page panels of Robot Dinosaur action.

Tripticon is forced to retreat and the Autobots are impressed enough to make Grimlock their new leader, deciding he's "exhibited wisdom, compassion, courage, charisma [and] military skill."

This leads to a very important moral to the tale that I hope all the younger readers of this book remembered: ALL AUTOBOTS ARE MORONS!

Because future issues show that his new power goes to Grimlock's head. Despite his one moment of concern for a human, he proves to be indifferent to protecting human lives, causing several Autobots to desert. He then becomes so obsessed with finding the deserters that the Decepticons are able to rampage around Earth unchecked.

But that doesn't effect the entertainment value of this story (or the entertainment value of the Grimlock-in-charge story arc as a whole). Writer Bob Budiansky did an excellent job of turning the Transformers toy line into a rich fictional universe (something Marvel was really good at with several toy lines during the 1980s). Budiansky obviously wrote with the expectation that younger readers were his primary audience, but he never wrote down to them. He gave the various characters individual personalities and dropped them into complex and coherent story arcs. Marvel's Transformers universe was a boisterous and lively place--always worth visiting.

And, heck, ROBOT DINOSAURS! I'm not sure its possible to have robot dinosaurs in a story without it being fun.

Next week, we'll jump back a few decades and join Buz Sawyer as he hunts for Japanese subs in the Pacific.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

Nicely designed vehicle and city, giving an effective futuristic atmosphere to the illustration.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philip Marlowe: "Grim Echo" 2/14/50

Marlowe is trapped in a remote lodge during a snow storm. This by itself wouldn't be so bad--if it wasn't for the fact that pretty much everyone else in the lodge wants to kill him.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Little More Grizzled, But Still the Good Guy

In the 1930s, Buster Crabbe made a name for himself playing heroes such as Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. And he was good in these roles--combining his athelticism with a likable personality to bring us a hero we enjoyed rooting for.

Crabbe made his share of Westerns during this time, starring in a series of B-movies in which he played a heroic version of Billy the Kid.

What's interesting about his career, though, was that has he grew older, he was able to put on a tougher and more grizzled persona--a character type he handled quite well. In fact, in 1965's The Bounty Killer, he is legitimately scary as a brutal outlaw.

A few years before this, in Gunfighters of Abilene (1960), he's still a good guy, but at age 52, definitely tougher-looking and more grizzled than Flash Gordon ever was. In this film, he's is estranged from his brother because of his reputation as a professional gunfighter.

His character's name is Kip Tanner, who gets a letter from the brother he hasn't seen in years asking for help. The brother (named Gene) is a small rancher who is butting heads with the local large land-owner, so now needs Kip's guns. But when Kip arrives, Gene is missing and has been accused of stealing $68,000 from other small ranchers.

So Kip has enemies on both sides. The small ranchers think his brother stole their money, ruining them. They also figure Kip is probably in on the theft. The large landowner--effectively played by Barton MacLane--wants Kip dead before Kip can find out what really happened to Gene.

To uncover the truth, Kip has to play detective. Along the way, he also has to deal with an attempt to frame him for murder.

The movie is a little too slowly paced and the final shoot-out has some awkward choreography. But to steal a phrase from a comment on IMDB, it's "unfussy and authentic," telling its story in an interesting and straightforward manner. And there are several plot twists I enjoy--the most notable one being what happens when an apparent lynch mob snatches Kip out of jail. I like Russell Thorson's portrayal of the town's strict but honest marshal and Rachel Ames is good as the love interest. Though, frankly, I think Kip should have been more interested in the Mexican hotel clerk who risks her life to tell the truth about Kip's brother. Played by Eugenia Paul, she is so pretty that it is literally painful to look at her.

This one is available on Amazon Prime if you're a subscriber.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

How to Make Golf Interesting.

Golf is boring. It is seriously boring. Just thinking about golf makes me hyperventilate. It's even more boring than watching paint dry, because at least there's a chance that a mysterious cosmic ray from space will hit the paint and mutate it into a sentient being that will then become my invisible magic-powered sidekick. But there's no chance at all of golf being even remotely interesting.

But in the future--ah, the future, when we'll have flying cars, jet packs and hoverboards. When our greatest achievement will be to make golf an interesting and fun game!

We learn about this in "Danger on the Martian Links," (Brave and the Bold #46--Feb/March 1964), written by John Broome and illustrated by Carmine Infantino. In the future, golf courses are laid out over dangerous areas of various planets. Golfers are required to play through no matter where the ball lies--no matter what the ball lies. If you have to fight a monster, don scuba gear or outwit aliens before you can take your next shot, then that's just the way it is.

Earth's champion golfer, Wale Marner, certainly knows this, having quite literally fought his way across golf courses on many planets.

Gee whiz, this is the way to make golf interesting! Toss in a few death traps and alien monsters and I'll watch a tournament from start to finish!

Heck, the skills Wale has to hone to be a good golfer even help save the Solar System! It's while he's playing in the big Nine Planets tournament on Mars that alien invaders land. Fortunately, a good swing with a 9-iron is just what's needed to send those pesky aliens packing.

"Danger on the Martian Links" is a fun story, with Infantino's art bringing life to a silly but entertaining concept.

Comic book stories have always had enormous value in building our sense of wonder, touching our imagination, taking us to other worlds and simply entertaining us. But this story also shows that comic books can even save the world's most uninteresting game from collapsing under the weight of its own dullness.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

The guy about to slug the Phantom with his pistol butt is George Wilson, the artist who painted this cover.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Crime Classics: "Roger Nems: How He, Though Dead, Won the Game." 3/3/54

If Roger Nems dies without getting married, his cousin will inherit everything. Roger Nems is planning on getting married. This makes the game of croquet he plays with his cousin particularly dangerous.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Death of a Friend

Read/Watch 'em in Order #64

Raoul Whitfield was one of the many great writers who contributed strong hard-boiled tales to Black Mask magazine.

Whitfield created a number of hard-boiled detectives, but Jo Gar is the most unusual and arguably the best of his creations. Whitfield had lived for a time in the Philippines while growing up (his dad worked for the Territorial Government), so he drew on this experience to give us Jo, a Spanish-Filipino P.I. who works out of an office in Manila. He used the pen name Ramon Decolta for the Jo Gar tales.

The Jo Gar stories are short, sharp, and often violent tales, with Jo often having to bring his Colt automatic into play before he could wrap things up. As Jo's entry at the Thrilling Detective website phrases it: There was no doubt Gar meant business -- his small, Colt automatic was called into service with alarming frequency, and the dying confessions of men who thought they'd get the drop on "the Island detective" were as much a part of the stories as his seemingly endless supply of brown-paper cigarettes.

But Jo was smart as well, often working directly with the police and helping them stay on the right track by picking up on clues they would miss.

His usual police contact was Juan Arragon--a cop who inevitably ended up suspecting the wrong man and would need Jo to find the real killer. But, despite this, Juan was friendly and appreciative of Jo's help. The two were friends and, except for a few stories that took Jo out of Manila, Juan was a series regular.

So when Juan is abruptly killed in the story "Diamonds of Death," it's a bit of a shock.

This story was published in the February 1931 issue of Black Mask. It was the 10th Jo Gar story published and the first in a series of six dealing with the theft of 200 grand worth of diamonds.

The story starts out with a bang--Jo happens to be nearby when a diamond merchant is robbed and, in fact, one of the getaway cars collides with the horse-drawn taxi in which Jo is riding. The robbers also killed two men during the heist. Juan Arragon responded to the crime, commandeering a car to pursue them. But both Juan and the car he was in vanish.

Not long after, Juan's body is found in Jo's office. It looks as if Juan had made it there on his own and manage to write a note before he died. But Jo notices several clues that show the note is a forgery--an attempt to lure him into a trap. The crooks fear him more than the official police.

The criminals have, in fact, planted several false leads, which results in a police car being ambushed by a pair of thugs with machine guns. The private eye is nearby when this happens. He plugs one of the bad guys. "The one who walks badly--always in white," mutters the wounded man before dying. Dying men in fiction seem to be legally required to talk in cryptic sentence fragments.

Jo decides not to pass this information on to the cops. In fact, he tells the police chief that he's out of it--it is, after all, a police matter.

But Juan had been his friend. Jo will trail the killers on his own.

All the Jo Gar stories are good, but I think this particular story arc is the best of the lot. The plot is well-constructed and moves along at a brisk pace, while Jo Gar is an effective and likable protagonist. Whitfield gives us not just an unusual setting in these stories, but a detective who both fits the profile of the standard hard-boiled detective while simultaneously defying stereotypes. We'll continue to follow the Island Detective through the next five stories as he leaves the islands to track down the stolen diamonds and the killers of his friend.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I Saw That Coming!

Cover art by John Buscema

If you're a superhero, you can pretty much expect to encounter death traps and vengeful enemies on a regular basis.

But in Avengers #78 (July 1970--interior art by Sal Buscema), Captain America is a tad confused when he's jumped by Man-Ape. This is a villain Cap has never encountered before--he's a Black Panther arch-enemy.

Some other Avengers show up, forcing Man-Ape to retreat. But he soon reappears again, kidnapping Panther's current lady-friend and daring T'Challa to meet him in one-on-one combat.

Panther rather unwisely agrees to this. And I mean unwisely. Gee whiz, if you have a half-dozen of the most powerful beings in the world right there in the same room with you, you don't say "No, my friends" and take off on your own. That's just dumb.

I suppose that criticism is a bit unfair. Panther promised to go alone and "The vow of a Wakanda chieftan is a sacred bond." One of the reasons I like heroes like T'Challa so much is that they have unbreakable codes of honor and are unfailingly honest. It's a point that can make for an interesting debate: is a promise made under duress (in this case, because a hostage is threatened) something an honest person is obligated to honor? One can admire Panther for keeping his word under any circumstances, but what if the best way to ensure the safety of an innocent is to break a promise the bad guy has essentially forced you to make?

And, to the surprise of absolutely no one, it is indeed a trap. After a brief fight, Panther is captured. He then finds out that Man-Ape isn't alone in this--a whole bunch of foes of the Avengers have banded together to form the Lethal Legion.

from left to right: Living Laser, Power Man,
Swordsman and Grim Reaper

That brings us to Avengers #79, with John Buscema now doing the interior art as well as the cover.

Here we have the Avengers and the Lethal Legion essentially trying to out-con each other. Grim Reaper assigns locations to the other Legion members while a confined Panther is right there listening, then a convenient power failure allows Panther to escape long enough to radio this information to the Avengers.

Gee whiz, Grim Reaper is an idiot! Or--is he? It is, in fact, a trap. The villains are waiting to ambush the Avengers and manage to capture them.

Gee whiz, Panther is an idiot for falling into such an obvious trap! Or--is he? Actually, Panther knows a mind-numblingly obvious trap and warned the Avengers by using a pre-established code phrase.

I actually like that part. It only makes sense for a team like the Avengers to have code phrases they can drop into a conversation to indicate traps or duress.

So the Avengers have just allowed themselves to be captured, giving them the opportunity to jump the villains and capture them all.

I missed this one when I was a kid and didn't read it until it was reprinted in an Essentials volume a decade or so ago. So I first read it as an adult. I enjoyed the story--Roy Thomas at that time was still overly-fond of melodramatic dialogue, but the plot is economically constructed and fun. The Buscema brothers (as always) provide great art and well-choreographed fight scenes.

But as a grown-up, I could see the plot twist at the end (they knew it was a trap all along!) coming from several miles away. It's just too obvious to fool an experienced comic book reader.

But what if I had read it as a nine-year-old when it was first published? Would I have seen it coming then? As a less sophisticated reader (not that I wasn't brilliant for my age, mind you), would I have had a "Wow, that is SO cool!" reaction to the plot twist? I suspect I would have.

I'm afraid I don't know the demographics for the average Avengers reader in 1970. By then, the Marvel Revolution of the 1960s had brought in a lot of older readers (or kept kids reading comics as they grew older), but I think the bulk of comic readers were still kids dropping their dimes for books pulled from the spinner racks at the local 7-11 and that the Marvel bullpen still wrote their stories with younger readers in mind. But I haven't seen any statistics (if such stats even exist) to back this up.

I brought this point up on a comic book historians group on Facebook and someone made the following sharp comment: Seriously, 1970 was at the height of the "comics on campus" fad, and Stan Lee was about to embark on his college lecture tours to spread the faith. I think the Marvel writers liked to believe they were resonating deeply with the college crowd, but I suspect their sweet spot truly was the average 12-year-old boy.

So most of the original readers of this story probably did indeed shout "Wow, this is SO cool!" at the end. How I envy them!

Next week, we'll take a look at how to make golf an actual interesting game.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

Gee whiz, when was the last time someone actually made rounds in this hospital?

Friday, January 8, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Nick Carter: "The Man Who Lived Too Long" 7/1/45

A man frantically reports his own murder--except he's not dead yet and he's apparently worked enough hours over the last week to account for one day too many.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Damsel isn't THAT Distressed!

The thing about Peter Blood, the hero of Rafael Sabatini's 1922 novel Captain Blood, is that he really couldn't help himself---he was a hero. No matter that the circumstances of his life had forced him to become a pirate. He would continue to act with honor, to show mercy and--when necessary--rescue damsels.

The original novel covered Blood's career from start to finish, but there was plenty of room for some "untold adventures" that took place during his piratical days. So in 1931, Sabatini published Captain Blood Returns (later titled The Chronicle of Captain Blood), giving us ten more tales of daring-do. He would published another anthology of short stories in 1936.

Now remember that Captain Blood is as quick on his feet as he is with a sword--a savvy and skilled commander who out-thinks as well as out-fights his opponents. But he wasn't perfect. Sabatini knew an identifiable protagonist--no matter how capable--needed to screw up on occasion.

That's what happened in "The Expiation of Madame De-Coulevain," the eighth of the ten stories in Chronicles. While Blood's flagship is being careened, he took three smaller craft and forty men to raid Spanish pearl boats. But they are caught by a warship. Blood is the only survivor of the expedition and finds himself floating at sea, clutching to a piece of wreckage.

He's found by a Spanish ship commanded by the boorish Don Juan de la Fuente. Thinking quickly, Blood claims to be a Dutch national and is taken aboard as Don Juan's guest. So now all Peter has to do is pretend to enjoy Don Juan's crude jokes and ribald songs until they put to shore, then find a way to return to his own ship. That shouldn't be too hard.

But first, Don Juan will stop to raid a French port. Blood knows how brutal Spanish soldiers are when looting a town, but there's nothing he can really do about it except grit his teeth and wait until its over.

When Don Juan returns with a woman prisoner, though, the situation changes. Blood can't stand by and allow a woman to be abused. He's going to have to do something about that...

Of course, if a woman is there by choice and doesn't want to be rescued, then that's another matter, isn't it? It's really too bad Peter Blood didn't know that before cracking open Don Juan's skull.

It's odd to call a story involving several instances of brutal violence "delightful," but I can't help it. That's the feeling Sabatini gives to the story--with Blood doing his best to protect a woman and then having to improvise his way out of his troubles when he discovers the whole purpose of the raid was so Don Juan could run off with another man's wife.

All this leads up to the next story in the collection, when Peter runs into more trouble by simply trying to return the woman to her husband.
All ten stories in The Chronicles of Captain Blood are fun. Peter Blood is one of the most consistently entertaining heroes ever created and hanging out with him is always worthwhile. But "The Expiation of Madame De-Coulevain" is arguably the best of the bunch. Backed by Sabatini's always engaging prose, it has Blood making poor judgement calls without forgetting that he's usually the smartest guy in the room, then has him thinking fast on his feet to get himself out of a difficult situation. It is, as I said, a delightful story.

You can access The Chronicles of Captain Blood online HERE.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

One of the Best Fight Scenes Ever.

Our Army at War #254 (February 1973) is an unusual issue in several ways.

The first few pages are a bit odd. Sgt. Rock seems to be on the verge of a break-down, panicking unnecessarily a couple of times. So at first the story seems to be setting up a tale showing us that even the toughest soldier has a breaking point or needs a rest.

But then Rock pulls himself together on his own, suffering a wound to save the life of fellow soldier Jackie Johnson. From there, the story branches off to give Jackie a Day in the Limelight.

So the prologue of the story seems a little disconnected from what follows. The point very well may have been that Rock pulled himself together when one of his men needed him--which is fine by itself. But there's no follow-up to this.

But, despite this bit of awkwardness, the story goes on to be one of my favorites.

Jackie Johnson, by the way, became a regular part of Easy Company in 1961's Our Army at War #113. A composite of Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, he was (to quote DC's wiki page) "one of the first non-stereotypical African-American characters in comics."

That the military was segregated during World War II was deliberated ignored in order to make Jackie a part of Easy Company. Interestingly, his first appearance, in which he and Wildman had to work together to man a machine gun after both are wounded, did not heavily play up his race. The story simply shows a white guy and a black guy working together without further comment. Future stories did the same--Jackie is just one of the guys. This isn't that notable today, but in the 1960s, having a black comic book character that didn't make his color a major plot point was very notable indeed.

On with the story from issue #254: Jackie is left in a German village to look after the wounded Rock while the rest of Easy continues their patrol. There's no German troops around, just a lot of civilians, with the men too young or too old to be in the military. Jackie tries to find food and a doctor for Rock, but the villagers see him as an invader and won't give him the time of day.

Then a trio of German soldiers show up and (after the former boxing champ lands a couple of epic punches) capture Jackie. But they aren't really soldiers anymore--they are deserters who soon murder an old man and begin looting the town. A young boy frees Jackie and asks him to help.

Jackie takes out the deserters, earning the gratitude of the town. They even help hide Jackie and Rock when actual German troops arrive.

It's a great story, with writer Bob Kanigher and artist Russ Heath infusing the situation with real emotion. After the disjointed prologue, the plot is strong and the various characters seem very real.

This by itself would have made it one of my favorite Easy Company stories. But Jackie's short, violent battle against the deserters at the climax really puts it over the top. Take a look at the three pages I'm including below. The fight is a textbook example of comic book fight choreography. You can easily follow the action from one panel to the next. You understand the geography of the situation and where the various characters are in relation to each other. Heath uses light and shadow magnificently to add suspense and atmosphere to the fight, while also adding little details (such as the one soldier getting tangled in the laundry after being shot) that add complexity and make the entire sequence more visually interesting.

If you are interested in all about the mechanics of visual storytelling, these pages are really worth studying and appreciating Heath's skill at composition and laying out the action in a logical & exciting manner.

Next week, we'll return to the world of Super Heroes and watch the Avengers get thoroughly outsmarted...   Or do they?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

For gosh sakes, man! You live in a comic book universe! NEVER say you don't believe in something!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: "The Adversary" 5/6/54

Two men are after a fortune in pearls--but they also have trouble with the concept of sharing. This one has a nifty twist at the end.

Click HERE to listen or download.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...