Monday, February 29, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

Wait-a-minute! Is Samson using the monster's tongue to slam it into the wall?

Best monster-fighting move ever!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Author's Playhouse: "The Kraken" 7/8/44

A really, really creepy yarn about a submarine that is captured by a giant octopus and dragged into an undersea cavern.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Someone Really Wants the Cardinals to Lose the Pennant.

In real life, 1934 was a great year for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Gashouse Gang--as the team was nicknamed--had five .300 hitters, while Dizzy Dean was a 30-game winner on a regular basis. They won 98 games in '34. They were matched against the Detroit Tigers (who had 101 regular season wins) in the World Series and won it in seven games.

In the B-movie universe, though, the Cardinals were struggling to take the Pennant. A job made harder, by the way, when someone starts knocking off their best players.

This is the premise of the 1934 film Death on the Diamond (based on a novel by Cortland
Fitzsimmons). It's a fun, fast-paced movie that reminds us the three most American things in the world are baseball, apple pie and... murder.

As the movie opens, the prospects for the Cardinals look good, especially with rookie pitcher Larry Kelly (Robert Young) racking up wins. But there are some gamblers who have a vested influence in seeing the Cardinals lose. A guy who wants to buy out the Cardinals would rather see them lose as well--that would lower the value of the team and force the current owner-manager to sell out.

But, when bribery and minor mayhem don't work, are either the gamblers or the wannabe owner willing to commit murder to make sure the team loses? Because someone is pegging off key players during key games. It's really hard to win a game when you find one of your best players stuffed in a clubhouse locker during the 7th Inning Stretch.

The mystery is a good one, well-written and and full of red herrings. The dialogue is witty, with Robert Young and Marge Evans (as the manager's daughter) playing nicely off one another.

For me, though, it's the supporting the cast that sells the film. Paul Kelly, one of my favorite tough-guy actors, plays a sports reporter with a nose for sniffing out bad guys. Nat Pendleton and Ted Healy respectively play a catcher and an umpire who bicker like an old married couple throughout most of the film--leading to a surprisingly emotional scene when the murders begin.

The real-life Gashouse Gang might have been one of the best teams in baseball history, but by golly, they never had to solve a murder mystery while simultaneously winning the pennant.

Then again, a murder mystery in which Dizzy Dean and the rest of the gang solve the crime would be too cool for words.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Leper of Krypton!

Cover art by Neal Adams

A story arc running from Action Comics #362 through #366 (April - August 1968) reminds us of several important undeniable facts about the world:

1. All ventriloquists are homicidal maniacs
2. All prison wardens are idiots.

Ventor Caine is actually an interesting villain, though he has more of a Batman Rogues' Gallery feel to him. (This is about two decades before another ventriloquist did become a Batman villain.) His twin brother was sent to prison by Superman, then died while behind bars. Now he hauls a life-size mannequin of his brother around and throws his own voice to have conversations with the dummy. He's both convinced himself that his brother is alive AND become obsessed with killing Superman to avenge his brother's death. In other words, he's moved permanently into Crazy Town.

How does a ventriloquist defeat Superman? He captures one of Superman's friends--in this case, Clark Kent. Not wanting to give away his secret identity, Clark allows this to happen. This turns out to be a mistake, since Ventor has developed a super-hypnotism technique that convinces Clark he hates and MUST kill Superman.  

Here's where we get our reminder that you can't get a job as prison warden in the DC universe without first failing an intelligence test. Lex Luthor is allowed to work in the prison's bio-chemistry lab. To be fair, the warden had orders from the governor to get Lex to help find a cure for a cattle epidemic, but Lex is completely unsupervised. This allows him to use Kryptonite to re-create Virus X, a virulent disease that once ravaged Krypton years ago.

Lex smuggles the virus out to Ventor while the ventriloquist is performing at a prison show. (I love that part--Ventor deliberately uses a Superman dummy in the show because he knows the prisoners will react badly and throw things at him. This allows Lex to throw a shoe containing a vial of Virus X without anyone thinking this is odd.).

A confused Clark is given the vial and told to find Superman. Clark ends up spilling the virus on himself. The initial feverish reaction to this snaps him out of the hypnotic trance, but now he's infected with a fatal, incurable and highly contagious disease. He's become the leper from Krypton.

Despite some of the goofy elements, both Neal Adams' cover illustrations and Ross Andru's interior art  are excellent--both artists do a magnificent job of emphasizing just how horrific Superman's situation is.

Lex manages to trick everyone into giving him a million dollars (which he teleports to a hiding place after its delivered) to pretend to cure Supes. Then he and Ventor Caine disappear from the story. This makes for several odd dangling plot threads that, as far as I can find out, are never resolved. There is never a reference to recovering the million dollars and a search of both the Grand Comics Database and the DC wiki turn up no more appearances by Ventor. It's possible all this was referenced in some future issue, but if so, I couldn't find it.

In the meantime, Earth's medical science can't find a cure, the Phantom Zone criminals prevent Superman from entering the Zone to wait for a cure, and he can't go to Kandor without the risk of infecting all of them. He's gonna die. So he climbs into a rocket and shoots himself towards the core of the hottest sun in the galaxy, knowing that in his weakened condition his body and the virus will be destroyed.

Cover art by Neal Adams

Action Comics #365 is largely a brief Superman biography, as Superman's life literally flashes before his eyes in the form of Ross Andru's excellent art. We also get a brief reminder that Supes was quite the ladies' man, as Supergirl brings Lois, Lori Lemaris and Lana Lang to see him one last time.

I enjoy this story enormously and I would argue that its goofier elements are a strength rather than a weakness. But I think the writer, Leo Dorfman, stumbles a little at this point. Superman is saved through the most unlikely combination of dumb luck and comic book science in the history of the superhero genre.

One his way to his fiery end, he just happens to pass near Bizarro World. The reverse logic of the Bizzaros convinces them that the thing to do is throw Red and White Kryptonite at Superman as he flies by. White Kryptonite kills plant life and apparently viruses are a form of plant. So Superman is cured, though he's still weak and unconscious as he plunges into a star. Fortunately, some fire-based alien life forms he once helped as Superboy are nearby to literally pull his fat out of the fire.

Superman returns to Earth and discovers everyone already knows he's alive because someone has been impersonating him. This concludes the story with a brief mystery in which Superman figures out that various members of the Justice League are behind the impersonation in order to squash a crime wave that began after the Man of Steel "died."

I like this story a lot--as I said, I think the goofy elements are a large part of what make it fun. My impression of Leo Dorfman is that he recognized the superhero stories are inherently unrealistic and simply went with that, having fun with comic book logic without any attempt to justify that logic in real life terns. That's really the best way to approach the genre. And that attitude, despite perhaps going a little too far into goofiness at the climax, is what makes the Leper of Krypton story arc so much fun. 

Next week, we'll stick with the Super-family for one more post. There's a Supergirl back-up story in Action Comics #363 that I simply HAVE to write about.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Friday, February 19, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Sam Spade: "The Rushlight Diamond Caper" 7/4/48

Sam is hired to guard the wedding gifts at a swanky wedding. Considering how this sort of thing usually works out for him, it's really no surprise that someone is soon murdered.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Man in White

Read/Watch 'em In Order #65

At the end of "Diamonds of Dread," Filipino detective Jo Gar had learned that "the one who walks badly--always in white" was apparently the leader of the gang that had stolen the ten Von Loffler diamonds and murdered a number of people (including Jo's friend Juan Arragon). So when the next story in the serial--"The Man in White"--begins, Jo is on a ship sailing to Honolulu, keeping tabs on a man in a white suit who walks with a slight limp.

But this guy is a former cop himself. And when Jo's cabin is broken into and searched, so is the man in white's cabin. Soon after that, someone tries to put a few bullets into Jo. A steward who could have ID'd the shooter is found with a knife in his back. Is the shooter the man in white, or is there another killer on board?

The situation seems to be getting confusing, but Jo actually has a pretty good idea of what's going on right from the beginning. In fact, so do a lot of the story's readers. Raoul Whitfield was great at plot construction and keeping the level of mystery high. This time, he writes an atmospheric and interesting tale, but the real killer isn't as well-concealed behind the plot twists as Whitfield probably hoped. An attentive reader will have a firm lock on the plot fairly quickly.

It's a tribute to Whitfield's skill as a storyteller that even when he's not entirely successful in constructing the tale--it's still engrossing and entertaining. Like all great heroes in fiction, Jo Gar is someone we want to hang around with. And despite the climax being telegraphed a little bit too obviously, the tale moves along a logical path to a satisfying conclusion.

And that conclusion involves a dying crook managing to speak a few cryptic last words. It's interesting to note how some of the best mystery writers could reuse a particular devise over and over again but still make it work. In the Ellery Queen stories, for instance, murder victims left dying clues with amazing frequency. With Whitfield's Jo Gar stories, there was a tendency for villains to gasp out an important sentence fragment before expiring.

This time, the dying criminal turns out NOT to be the head of the gang, but just one of their allies. Jo Gar recovers one of the ten diamonds, but that means he still has one gang leader and nine diamonds to go. But, by golly, he has yet another sentence fragment to give him a clue to where to look next: "The blind--Chinese--Honolulu--you can find---."

It's a very small clue, but it's enough to take Jo Gar into the next story of the Rainbow Diamonds serial. We'll take a look at that one soon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Desert Planets & Asteroid Belts

Star Wars has more than its share of super-science--usually taking the form of a super-weapon able to destroy anything from single planets to entire solar systems. But its a universe that does not overtly deal with alternate dimensions and time-lines to the degree that, say Star Trek has.

All the same, the currents of popular culture have split Star wars into several clearly identifiable alternate realities. (As well as one debatable split--does the alternate versions of the original trilogy, with Han no longer shooting first, constitute an alternate universe from the original version?)

Star Wars had a detailed and ever-growing Expanded Universe, which included novels, TV shows and comic books, with reasonable if not always successful efforts to give them a consistent continuity. So you had a choice--did your SW universe include just the movies, or could you toss in the other stuff. And, of course, the new movie departs from the Expanded Universe and goes off into its own direction.

On top of that is the original Marvel Comics Star Wars book. Marvel started turning out the comics concurrently with the first movie, with the series beginning with an adaptation of the movie. What makes this series an alternate universe is the simple fact that no one had any idea what was going to happen when then next movie came out. No one writing the movies knew that Darth Vader was Luke's father; that Leia would fall in love with Han (and that falling in love with Luke would have turned out to be a tad bit icky); that Jabba the Hutt would turn out to be a giant slug; and a myriad of other things.

So the comic book has to be considered an alternate universe, where Jabba is a small humanoid alien and where Han Solo at one point teams up with a giant, intelligent rabbit. And that's just fine, because it was a fun universe.

A story arc from issues 31 to 34 (January-April 1980) is a fun story that actually would fit into the mainstream universe if you wanted it to, though Carmine Infantino's art work was always a little bit off-model. That's not a criticism, by the way. Infantino's art is always beautiful.

The story takes Luke back to his home planet of Tatooinie--he's heading for Mos Eisley to recruit pilots to run Imperial blockades. But he also runs across a few interesting facts--first, an old enemy named Orman Tagge (a rich noble who is allied with the Empire) has set up shop on Tatooine AND there's a frozen bantha in the middle of the desert.

 But Luke has a mission to complete.When he gets to Mos Eisley, he finds Han and Chewie in the middle of a bar fight. (The two were off on a mission of their own settling affairs with the Marvel
version of Jabba.)  A skirmish with some stormtroopers quickly follows, which results in the three friends lost in the desert, then teaming up with a sandcrawler full of Jawas.

They run across Tagge's super-weason, a freeze ray capable of taking out an entire world or fleet of ships. One can legitimately argue that Star Wars returned to the super-weapon trope as a plot device a little too often, but writer Archie Goodwin uses it effectively here. Also, the sequence involving the heroes forming an alliance with the Jawas is a lot of fun.

Halfway through the story arc, the action moves into space. The heroes trail Tagge and the freeze weapon to a planet named Junction--a Rebel supply depot. Han flies off to warn the rebels and bring back reinforcements, while Luke attempts to sneak about the Imperial ship carrying the freeze ray. He's briefly captured, escapes and confronts Orman Tagge in a lightsaber fight. Tagge's not a Jedi, by the way. He's just practiced quite a lot. He's also blind--a consequence of an injury received after he once unwisely ticked off Darth Vader. He wears googles that allow him to see in the dark, so he figures a fight with the lights out will give him an advantage. He's wrong.

By this time, Luke has learned that the Imperials have planned all along for the arrival of a Rebel fleet. The freeze ray is meant to wipe out that fleet, not the planet. That leaves Luke tasked with destroying the weapon despite a protective force field before the fleet Han is bringing comes into range.

It's a good, solid Space Opera, with great art and a fast-moving, well-plotted story. Yes, it is a story that takes place in a reality one or two universes removed from mainstream Star Wars, but perhaps the Marvel SW series is a good argument to justify the existence of continuity reboots. An individual reboot might be done well or done poorly, but the idea of expanding the pool of universes in which to tell good stories is never an inherently bad one.

Next week, we return to Earth to visit with Superman as he contracts a Kryptonian form of leprosy.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

It doesn't look like he has any duct tape. Without duct tape, I'm afraid Popeye is doomed.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Shorty Bell: "Shorty Scoops Photographer" 6/26/48

Shorty manages to "acquire" some pictures of a robbery-in-progress taken by a rookie girl photographer working for a rival newspaper. All's fair in love, war and the news business, but Shorty still feels pretty bad when the girl is fired.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Femme Fatales in Westerns, Part 1

When we think of Femme Fatales, we probably automatically think of Film Noir or perhaps spy stories. That's where those conniving females seem to congregate in vast numbers.

But the character template is too useful to be confined to one genre. It's not that uncommon to find a beautiful woman in the Old West who is twisting some poor sap around her finger as she plans to double-cross him and run off with a stolen fortune. That's not really too surprising--Westerns are the father of the Hard-Boiled Detective story, with Film Noir being the Hard-Boiled story's Evil Twin.

Duel at Silver Creek, a 1952 Western directed by Don Siegel, gives us one example of this. The story involves an organized gang of claim jumpers. They force small mine owners to sign over their claims. The owners are then murdered, so no one can question the sale later on. But killing the father of Luke Cromwell (better known as the Silver Kid) is not part of a wise long-term plan. The Silver Kid (like the actor playing him--Audie Murphy), knows a thing or two about gun play.

The interesting thing about this movie, though, is that Murphy, despite having top billing, is not the primary protagonist. This honor goes to Stephen McNally, who plays Sheriff Lightning Tyrone, the guy tasked with bringing in the claim jumpers. The Silver Kid ends up working as his deputy, though circumstances later causes Lightning to distrust and fire the Kid. (The movie, by the way, does overdo it a little in giving nearly every character a "Western" nickname.)

That distrust is a result of the machinations of Opal Lacey, a beautiful woman with whom Lightning is falling in love. She seems to return the feelings. Or at least, she seems to do so when she's not busy strangling a wounded outlaw to keep him from talking.

Opal is really the gal of Ron Lacey, a local businessman who is secretly running the outlaw gang. She claims to be Ron's sister, but that's just part of her cover as she manipulates Lightning and tries to subtly foil his efforts to catch the gang. And if Opal finds out that a recent wound prevents Lightning from pulling the trigger after drawing his gun, then the sheriff might be in real trouble.

Duel at Silver Creek is worth watching. The story is economically told and well-directed, with the short but exciting gun battle between the outlaws and a posse at the film's climax really standing out. Both McNally and Murphy give strong performances and Faith Domergue gives real strength to Opal. The other female lead is Susan Cabot, who plays the tomboyish "Dusty" and, at one point, manages to put some buckshot in the buttocks of a fleeing outlaw. Lee Marvin is fun to watch in a small role, while Gerald Mohr takes time off from his busy schedule as a radio actor to do an effective turn as the gang leader.

Eugene Iglesias deserves special mention as Johnny Sombrero, one of the outlaws. Johnny is an arrogant killer--the type of villain you are supposed to immediately dislike. Iglesias pulls off this vibe perfectly. Pretty much from the moment you first see Johnny Sombrero, you hate him. The actor carries himself in just the right way to highlight all of the character's negative traits in both expression and body language. The instant he walks on screen, you find yourself screaming "Shoot him in the face! Shoot him in the face!"

I THINK remember reading somewhere that Don Siegel disliked the script for this movie and treated it as a parody. I haven't been able to track that down anywhere, so it's very possible my memory is simply wrong. If I really did once read this, it might explain the over-reliance the movie has on using stereotypical nicknames for so many characters. But other than that, I don't see any real parody. It is, in many ways, a pretty standard Western, made worthwhile by a good script, good direction and a good cast. It doesn't seem to be making fun of itself at all and it can be enjoyed at face value.

Within the next few weeks, we'll be returning to the Old West one more time to watch the Lone Ranger also tangle with a beautiful Femme Fatale. Those women are everywhere!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Never Fly Without Your Wingman

Last week, we spent some time with comic book hero Buz Sawyer, who flew two- or three-man bombers for the Navy during World War II. Terry Lee (title character of Milt Caniff's brilliant strip Terry and the Pirates), in the meantime, was training to fly single-seat P-40s for the Army.

But that doesn't mean Terry would ever fly into combat alone. Or if he did--he'd get himself a stern talking-to afterwards.

Terry seems determined to get himself in trouble during a story arc that stretched over the winter months of 1943/44. First, when a transport plane full of important Chinese officials lands at his base, he's a little too free with blurting out this news in a public setting.

When the plane takes off, it's ambushed and shot down by the Japanese. On board at the time aren't just the officials, but the comic strip's current Eye Candy--USO performer Grett Murmer.

By the way, it's a little unfair to call Grett (or Milt Caniff's other female characters) Eye Candy. Not completely unfair, mind you. Like many other comic strip artists of the time, Caniff knew it was the father of the house that bought the newspapers, so he made sure that at least one pretty girl was present in nearly every story arc. But his female characters all had strong, individual personalities as well.

Back to the story--the enemy knew about the plane, but it's not Terry who is responsible for the security breach. A visiting Free French pilot named Captain Midi isn't really Captain Midi. In fact, he's not even a HE.

Midi is really a female criminal named Sanjak (whom Terry had encountered in an adventure from the late 1930s). She's currently working for the Japanese, but it takes awhile before Terry eventually picks up on a clue that gives Sanjak away.

In the meantime, a radio message is received from the downed plane. Terry's C.O.--Flip Corkin--quickly puts together a rescue mission. What follows is a brilliantly executed action sequence, with Terry and several other soldiers parachuting down to the plane to help hold off approaching Japanese troops until another transport plane can land and pick everyone up.

The rescue mission is a success, but a bombing mission flies into another trap and circumstantial evidence points to Grett Murmer as the Japanese spy. When Terry finds firm evidence pointing to Midi/Sanjak, the spy steals a plan and makes a break for it. On his own initiative, Terry flies another plane in pursuit. In another great action scene, Sanjak is nearly shot down by the Japanese, but manages to land on one of their air strips. Caniff often allowed his villains to escape so that he would have the option of bringing them back again--though I'm pretty sure never got around to using Sanjak again before he left the strip at the end of 1946.

All this means Terry is alone and surrounded by enemy planes. Only the timely arrival of Flip Corkin and a squadron of P-40s save Terry's sorry butt.

Terry learns himself a lesson about flying into combat without your wingman. And Colonel Corkin, just to make sure Terry has really learned, gives him a rather lecture on the subject.

Milt Caniff has been called the Rembrandt of the Comic Strip and, gee whiz, he earned that title. His figure work and compositional skills are impeccable; his storytelling skill and his synergy of writing and art was breathtakingly good; and his characters are so real it's sometimes surprising when you remember that they are fictional. This story arc is a well-constructed and exciting tale that showcases all these strengths. 

I'm writing this particular post in December and saw the new Star Wars movie last night. This will influence my choice of comic books to examine next week--we'll visit the original Marvel Star Wars series and return to Tatoonie with Luke Skywalker.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Friday, February 5, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Abbott and Costello: "Making a Movie with the Andrew Sisters" 4/26/45

The boy are being sued by the Andrew Sisters, so agree to appear in a movie with them as part of a settlement.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Death Rides the Ceiling.

We've visited with master spy and ace pilot G-8 before. Robert J. Hogan, who wrote all 110 G-8 novels, could always be depended upon to give us bizarre but internally consistent plots peppered with great action set pieces. Frederick Blakeslee provided wonderful covers, with this one (November 1936) being particularly action-packed.

The story that goes with it is equally action-packed, even though it starts with both the hero and the villain on vacation. German mad scientist Herr Doctor Krueger is recovering from the near-fatal injuries inflicted upon him by G-8 pretty much every time the two butt heads. When he learns that
G-8 is taking a few days off on the Riviera, the doctor decides to combine recuperation with a little spying and arranges to be smuggled into the Riviera himself.

I'm not sure this is the world's most brilliant plan, but the book allows the Germans to be extremely clever opponents to the Allies throughout most of the novel, so I'm feeling forgiving about this. Anyway, the end results of these shenanigans is that both G-8 and Krueger learn that some sort of powerful magnetic force is being used in the German town of Neurthrum--something that can literally pull planes out of the air. Krueger orders a strafing attack on G-8's hotel, but the spy survives and soon manages to capture the German.

So far, the novel is off to a swift and entertaining start. But it gets better. G-8, disguising himself as an old woman, enters Neurthrum and gets a job scrubbing floors in the town hall, which seems to be the epicenter of the magnetism. He soon makes progress in spying (and in cleaning--he's all over that place with his mop and bucket). He pretty much figures out that the head janitor is behind the magnetism.

There is a plot thread left dangling here. Does the janitor intend to use his invention to help the Germans or does he have his own agenda? He does use his device to help G-8 escape a firing squad later on and there's a scene that implies he's later tortured by Krueger to give up that device. Is he pro-Ally? Neutral? Just plain nuts, as most scientists in G-8's universe seem to be? This is never resolved.

It's actually an indication of how much fun this novel is that a significant plot thread left blowing in the wind doesn't spoil the story at all.

German agents in Paris pull off a complex but really very clever plan to rescue Krueger from his prison cell. This puts G-8 at risk, because Krueger knows the spy has gone to Neurthrum. This results in an edge-of-your-seat escape sequence, in which G-8 (still in his old woman disguise) has to fight past a guard, steal a car, survive being strafed by a Fokker, crash his car, steal another car and then steal a plane to get away--taking a bullet to his shoulder for his troubles and then nearly getting shot down by his own men. This is Hogan at his best, presenting the entire sequence in clear, breathless prose.

Another great sequence comes later when one of the Battle Aces, Bull Martin, flies a solo mission to
try to blow up Neuthrum's town hall, only to be caught in the magnetic force.

As the novel approaches its climax, we learn that Krueger already had a plan in the works to lure thousands of Allied troops into a trap. Now the super-magnets are used to support this effort. Mounted in the wings of Fokkers, they deflect any bullets fired at the planes. Invincible fighter planes give the Germans complete air superiority.

G-8 has to improvise plans to take out these Fokkers and save the American army. But another twist comes when he finds he's been fed false information by Krueger, causing his initial plan to fail miserably. Now he literally has just minutes to improvise yet another plan before countless Allied soldiers are slaughtered.

This is great stuff. G-8's escape and Bull's doomed mission are the highlights, but the entire story moves with lightning speed and is enormously fun from start to finish. Another satisfying element to the story is G-8's cover story when he's posing as an old woman--"she" explains that all four of her sons have died in combat and now she just wants to serve the Fatherland in any way she can. G-8 literally makes several German soldiers fall all over themselves to get "her" a job at the town hall.

I also really do appreciate that the bad guys are smart--as demonstrated both by their plan to spring Krueger from the slammer and Krueger's later successful effort to feed G-8 bad information.

This is one of my favorite G-8 stories, containing all the elements that make G-8 one of the great pulp heroes.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Two Men versus One Submarine

A few years ago, I wrote a post comparing Buz Sawyer and Terry Lee--two comic strip characters who both flew combat aircraft during World War II. That comparison was a general one that didn't examine any specific story arcs in detail. It's taken me awhile to get back to them, but I think we'll spend this week flying with Buz on one of his more intense missions, then drop in on Terry next week.

Buz Sawyer was written and drawn by Roy Crane, who had left his classic Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy strip in 1943 for financial and ownership reasons.

Wash Tubbs had been a joyously entertaining adventure strip with no real pretense at realism. With Buz Sawyer, Crane was more down-to-earth, toning down the cartoony aspects of his art and giving us relatively realistic war stories that dealt with themes of patriotism, courage and responsibilty.

Early on, Buz flew Dauntless dive bombers off a carrier in the Pacific, with his best buddy Roscoe Sweeny serving as his radioman/gunner. But by 1945, Buz had spent some time back in the States training in Avenger torpedo bombers. This presented Crane with a challenge in terms of how he handled his characters. He'd created a fun and believable dynamic with Buz and Roscoe, but the Avenger needed three crewmen. Crane had to add a new character into the mix. This is "Kissable" Jones, an eager young rookie who was quickly used for some comic relief moments.

A six-week story arc starting in late June 1945 had Buz and his crew flying anti-submarine patrols. They find and bomb a sub, but take an anti-aircraft hit. Buz is forced to belly flop in the Pacific. He and Roscoe get into the plane's life raft, but Jones is missing. Did he drown? Did he bail out on his own?

Determined to find his missing crewman, Buz takes a dangerous chance in showing lights and shouting. This backfires on him, though. He and Roscoe are spotted by a Japanese sub and taken prisoner.

So that's how Crane dealt with his new character--by shoving him off onto the side lines as quickly as possible so that Buz and Roscoe could share the lime light. It would turn out that Jones did bail out on his own and was rescued by an American ship. The war ended soon after that and Buz returns to civilian life (becoming a trouble-shooter for an oil company), so Crane never had to worry about establishing a new three-way character dynamic on a regular basis.

That's not a criticism, by the way. Crane knew his characters and if shoving poor "Kissy" Jones out of the picture was the best way to tell good stories, then we can trust Crane to know this.

Anyway, the sub commander wants to know where the American fleet is. Despite threats of torture and a casual comment that Roscoe will simply be killed, Buz won't talk. The sub, though, runs across the fleet on its own. The commander orders everyone to battle stations, leaving Buz and Roscoe alone with a single guard. This is not a good idea.

Buz and Roscoe are quickly free, with a rifle, a bayonet and a knife to share between them. But what can they do against the sub's crew? They're outnumbered and outgunned.

But Crane has set up the situation to give Buz a plausible opportunity for checking this one off in the Win column. Remember that the sub is at battle stations, with the crew scattered in different compartments behind water-tight doors. Crane gives us a cutaway panel to make sure we understand the situation--if the two Americans can simply capture the control room, they can hold it against the crew and maybe figure out how to bring the sub to the surface.

The fight that follows is short, sharp and beautifully choreographed. Buz and Roscoe take out the crew in the control room quickly and brutally. While Roscoe plays with the various wheels and eventually stumbles across the ballast control, Buz uses the rifle to plug any of the enemy unwise enough to try to enter the room.

The sub comes to the surface and promptly gets rammed by an American destroyer. Buz and Roscoe get out into the water and are soon rescued.

It's a fun, expertly told story that is typical of Crane's genuis. Roy Crane pretty much invented the adventure comic strip with Wash Tubbs, influencing a lot of other artists ranging from Gil Kane to Charles Shultz. Between his two strips, Crane spent a half-century spinning absolutely wonderful yarns.

But Crane wasn't the only brilliant comic strip artist to recount the adventures of a combat pilot during the war. Next week, we'll see what Terry Lee is doing over in the Chinese-Burma-India Theater of Operations.
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