Monday, May 30, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

art by John Schoenherr

A gripping or engaging cover illustration can sometimes scream at you: "You MUST read this!"

Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "Want Ad" 7/11/56

Stacy Harris plays a thief who accidentally kills one of his victims. With the heat on, it's time to leave town. But he soon learns that bringing your air-headed wife along when you're on the lam isn't a good idea.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Blue Glass

Read/Watch 'em in Order #67

With this entry, we get to the next-to-last story in the Rainbow Diamonds serial (published in the July 1931 issue of Black Mask).

I whined about the previous story being a little contrived, but by golly this time Jo Gar is in the center of a very tense and well-told hard-boiled yarn.

"Blue Glass" has Jo Gar back aboard ship, this time leaving Honolulu enroute to San Francisco. With all the corpses left in his wake, he's now at a disadvantage--pretty much everyone knows who he is and that he's in search of the remaining nine Von Loffler diamonds.

Soon, he's getting anonymous phone calls--someone is using phones in unoccupied cabins to prevent tracing the calls. The tipster reveals that a particular woman has the diamonds and will be using the child that accompanies her to sneak the diamonds past Customs.

But what's in it for the tipster? He claims he wants a cut of the reward, but Jo immediately realizes the guy could collect the entire reward by simply reporting the problem himself.

Jo Gar tentatively identifies the man phoning in the tips. But when the island detective makes his next move, he soon finds a pair of hands around his throat, choking the life out of him.

It's no spoiler to tell you Jo Gar survives---the serial isn't over yet. But how he survives makes for a great plot twist. When the dust settles, Jo has five more of the diamonds and a pretty good idea of who has the remaining four, but there's still someone around willing to put bullets into convenient backs.

What happens next? We'll find that out when we look at the final chapter in the serial. We'll do that sometime soon.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Shogun Warriors, Part 2

Last time we talked about the Shogun Warriors, I covered the first five issues and planned on covering the rest of the 20-issue run in three more 5-issue lumps. But I'm having such fun reading these for the first time that I've decided to take a little more time--with each entry covering from 1 to 3 issues. That'll let me talk about them in a little more detail without making any one post too long. (Not that any of you read my blog while you should be working and so need post entries to be relatively short. That would be wrong.)

Today, I'm just going to cover Shogun Warriors #6 (July 1979), because it really is a rolicking and particularly fun story that I don't want to gloss over too quickly. Remember that the previous issue ended with the robots Raydeen & Danguard Ace fighting the science/alchemy hybrid Mecha-Monster, while Combatra back-tracked the monster to the villains' lair. (I really loved writing that sentence, by the way.) Both Combatra  and its pilot Genji were captured.

Mecha-Monster is a pretty tough cookie, but the Shogun pilots come up with a strategy that allows Raydeen to fire an explosive arrow down its throat, blowing it up from the inside.

With the monster out of the way, the two robots follow after Combatra, only to be find out that robot is now being piloted by Maur-Kon, the leader of the bad guys.

Meanwhile, Maur-Kon's lieutenant Magar is still up to shenanigans. Maur-Kon and Magar have a
relationship that might remind modern readers a little bit of Megatron & Starscream--though those two characters didn't exist in 1979, so the parallel is coincidental. Also, the parallel isn't exact. Magar doesn't want to take over simply because he's an arrogant jerk who wants power. He also still objects to Maur-Kon giving up sorcery and turning to pure science to create monsters.

So Magar hangs Genji over a pit of magma, planning on sacrificing her and using her life force to create another monster. Magar has messed up with this once already--that's why Mecha-Monster was rampaging around without still being under the villains' control. But Magar is nothing if not single-minded.

Well, he's also kind of incompetent. Things go awry again when Genji wakes up and swings aside before the magma can reach up to her. Apparently, you should never play with the food of magically-animated magma, because it instantly decides to try to eat Magar instead. The magma ends up destroying the base in its efforts to catch its dinner. Whether Magar gets away made isn't clear--I have a feeling he might reappear in the future as a monster.

While all this is happening, Maur-Kon is using Combatra to clean the collective clocks of the other Shogun Warriors.  Fortunately, Genji shows up in a "borrowed" tank and knocks Combatra's block off with a surprise shot.

Maur-Kon gets away, but his organization seems to have been defeated. This brings the premiere story arc to an end, with the three pilots all told they can now go home and try to explain to friends and family just where they've been for the last few weeks. Each has an amulet via which they can be summoned if needed again.

This is a really fun issue. Trimpe's art is great and both the major action set pieces (The fight against Mecha-Monster and the Shogun vs. Shogun battle) are effectively choreographed. It's completely fulfills the mission of all giant robots vs. monsters stories by giving us nifty looking robots, bizarre monsters and exciting battle scenes.

We'll return in the about a month for a look at issues #7 & 8, which will begin to expand on the human characters. That's always a little bit dangerous in a book where we come for the robots and monsters. If the abysmal live-action Transformers movies taught us nothing else, it's that you don't spend too much time with puny humans when you have giant robots in the story. But we'll see how it works out for the Shogun Warriors.

Next week, Ben Grimm puts together a poker game with some friends--but he should know by now that his poker games always include something other than poker.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

Wonderful use of perspective that draws your eyes to the cover and heightens the overall tension in the illustration.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Rogue's Gallery: "Murder with Muriel" 10/25/45

Richard Rogue is mailed one-half of a treasure map. But the mail is slow and the map is late in reaching his mail box--something that might just get Rogue killed.

I always thought Dick Powell's later series--Richard Diamond--was wittier and better written, but Rogue's Gallery is still a fun listen.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Wow. That was a Fantastic Battle Scene!

I like to think I'm reasonably knowledgeable about older films, but every once in awhile, I run across one I haven't seen and may not even have been familiar with. That's the case with The Real Glory, a 1939 film directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper.

It's set in the Philippines near the beginning of the 20th Century, during the Moro Rebellion. The Moros are a Muslim people group who had been violently objecting to the various nations that had claimed the Philippines over the centuries. They also often attacked non-Muslim Filipinos.

The movie begins with the U.S. Army deciding to largely pull out of a remote village being menaced by the Moros, leaving a few soldiers to train the villagers to defend themselves. This includes army doctor Bill Canavan (Cooper) and two of his buddies, played by David Niven and Broderick Crawford.

Niven, by the way, felt his was badly miscast in the film and made no effort to hide his British accent. But he brings his usual aplomb to the role and you can give him any number of different back stories to explain the accent.

Crawford, normally cast as a tough guy, is still a tough guy, but one who breeds orchids in his spare time and pontificates enthusiastically about them.

Together, the trio are great characters, effectively counterpointing each other as the story progresses.

Training of the natives goes slowly, inhibited by the almost superstitious fear the Filipinos have of the Moros. Dr. Canavan has some ideas about how to change that, but he clashes about this (and several other matters) with a higher ranking officer. In the meantime, the Moros come up with a plan to assassinate the American officers, starting with the commander and worker their way down the chain-of-command. Also, the Moros have an inside man in the village.

On top of all that, a cholera epidemic breaks out. Gee whiz.

The Real Glory does a magnificent job of gradually building up suspense as the story progresses, combining the worsening situation with just an occasional action scene to increase the tension to a fever pitch by the time we arrive at the climax.

The final battle is a real doozy--one of the best movie battles I've ever scene. Canavan and a large patrol are away from the village, intending to blow up a dam and bring some fresh, clean water to the disease-ridden village. But the Moros are taking this opportunity to launch an all-out attack with the intent of capturing the supply of rifles and ammo stored there.

The patrol is racing back on hastily built rafts, while a disease-weakened officer (Niven's character) mounts a defense against a multi-pronged attack.

Director Hathaway does a truly outstanding job of choreographing the battle. There's a lot going on (including the Moros using make-shift catapults to toss men into the village armory), but we always clearly understand what is happening. That's a key part of any movie battle scene, of course. The better we understand the situation, the more inherent excitement there is in the scene.

The clip I'm providing is from about halfway through the movie. I thought about showing you the final battle, but I really don't want to spoil it for any one. If you get a chance to see this one, do so.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Stagecoach Stops, Dark Caves & Sixguns

Laramie, which ran on NBC from 1959 to 1963, was not in syndication when I was growing up. At least not where I was growing up. So, though I was well-steeped in Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman and Big Valley, I didn't happen to see an episode of Laramie until I was well into my adult years.

That meant that Robert Fuller was, in my mind, the doctor from Emergency. So what the heck is Dr. Bracket doing wearing a six gun? And who's manning the E.R. while he's shooting it out with outlaws? Where's Gage and DeSoto? It actually took an effort to wrap my mind around the idea that he had been a cowboy--I hadn't seen later seasons of Wagon Train at that point either.

Despite the absence of paramedics, Laramie was a good, solid show. Many consider it one of the best Westerns of its time. I haven't seen enough episodes to pass judgement, but I have liked the ones I've seen.

The premise is a neat one--Slim Sherman, along with his young brother Andy and his partner Jess Harper run a stage stop near Laramie. Jonesy--played by Hoagie Carmichael--also worked there during the first season. It's a premise that allows for different characters to pass through their lives, bringing various adventures to their doorstep.

Dell Comics devoted three issues of the anthology book Four Color to Laramie and also gave the show a single issue of its own. All four of these comics tell good solid Westerns backed with excellent artwork. In fact, Four Color #1125 (Aug-Oct. 1960) is especially notable in its art.

The pencils are by Gil Kane and the inking was done by Russ Heath. Kane and Heath were two of the best artists in the industry during the Silver and Bronze ages. FC #1125 has two very well-written stories (the writer is unknown), but its the art work that really shines. The book is a pleasure to simply look at.

The first story is "The Stage Frame-Up." A stage with no driver charges past the station. Slim catches and stops it, but there's no sign of the driver or the money that was aboard.

Later, the driver's body and the empty strongbox that had carried the money are found at Slim's station. Someone is framing him for murder & robbery.

I love the attention to detail in the art that helps to subtly set the mood. The top right panel above, for instance, has the top of Slim's head in shadow, highlighting the shocked expression centered in his eyes when the body is found. I wonder if that was something Kane indicated when he did his pencil work, or something Heath added with the inks. It's the sort of emotional touchstone that both men were brilliant at creating.

The killing is actually a plot by a local rancher to get the contract for the stage stop. Slim and Jess do some investigating, find out what's going on and set a trap.  After a sharp and violent shoot-out, they catch the real villains and get the proof they need.

The story really is well-written, with the story progressing in a very logical manner.

"The Passenger" involves a witness to a murder being escorted to the trial by a lawman. But the witness doesn't trust the law to protect him. When the stage stops at Laramie, he knocks out Jonesy and makes a break for it.

This is a bad idea--soon the gang he would be testifying against is after him, while Slim and his crew find themselves pinned down inside the station. Slim and Jess use a home-made smokescreen to slip away, which leads to a confrontation between themselves, the witness and the gang inside a huge cavern.

The ensuing gunfight is nothing less than remarkable--comic book art at its best. The action is clearly laid out, so that we always know what's going on; the tension is high as Jess struggles against several outlaws for possession of a gun; and light & shadows are expertly used to highlight the action and generate the appropriate atmosphere.

Four Color #1125 is now in the public domain, so you can read it online HERE.

Next week, we'll move from the Wild West to the equally Wild East, trading in our six guns for some giant robots.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Hall of Fantasy: "The Diamonds of Death" 8/31/53

A remote tribe in Africa piles diamonds at the foot of the idol they worship. A fortune there for the picking. The diamonds supposedly come with a curse, but who takes such things seriously?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dinosaurs Save the World!

We have many reasons to be grateful for dinosaurs. Few other creatures have been responsible for firing off the imagination of so many writers, filmmakers, artists and fans. Dinosaurs are cool. Dinosaurs are awesome.

Dinosaurs are also responsible for saving the world on at least on occasion.  We find this out in "One Prehistoric Night," a short story by Philip Barshofsky published in the November 1934 issue of Wonder Stories.

Here we learn that, eons ago, Mars was already a dying planet with its ecology wrecked by countless wars. In order to survive, the Martians need to relocate. It's possible that the next planet closer tot he sun might be inhabitable. An expedition is sent to investigate.

The Martians land. To keep their ship safe, they build an electric fence. Individual Martians are armed with heat rays, while a giant electron gun is set up to provide heavy firepower if needed.

And, boy, is it ever needed. The story shifts to the scene outside the Martian camp, where we learn that whenever a large dinosaur is killed, just about every creature in the area charges to the corpse for a feeding frenzy.

A wandering brontosaurus approaches the ship. Heat rays only get it mad and it manages to damage the electric fence before its finished off by the electron gun. In this case, the fence burns up the bronto's carcass, so no feeding frenzy ensues.

But when an allosaurus and another large sauropod get into a titanic battle just outside the fence--a crowd of large dinosaurs start to gather in anticipation of dinner. A panicking stegosaurus damages the fence again. The two combatant dinosaurs crash completely through it, where the allosaurus decides the ship might also be edible. More dinosaurs swarm in. The electron gun accounts for a lot of them, but soon the camp is overwhelmed. And, well....

Let's just say we owe the dinosaurs a debt of gratitude. Without them, we'd all be speaking Martian today.

The prose here is a little stilted in the way a lot of non-classic pulp stories sometimes are, but the pacing, the continuous action and the Rule of Cool make it a very entertaining tale. Though primarily an action tale, it also manages a sincere element of melancholy. The Martians aren't evil. They're just trying to survive. Because of the events recounted here, they don't.

I've always loved dinosaurs. When one tires of dinosaurs, in fact, one tires of life itself. Now I'm more appreciative of them then ever. They saved us from the Martians.

"One Prehistoric Night" is available to read online HERE.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Road Trip with Hercules

cover by Jack Kirby

I guess those days are over---the days when anthology books that was used to try out new characters were a thing. Anthology books like this were--I imagine--impulse buys and comics are simply too expensive to quality now. If you are going to buy a comic, it's going to be one that regularly features a character you enjoy.

Marvel Premiere had started with two issues featuring Adam Warlock, then had actually settled down for a 12-issue run with Dr. Strange, then another 11 with Iron Fist. But when Iron Fist teamed up with Luke Cage to form Heroes for Hire, the book began to feature different characters or groups for one or two issue runs. This began in issue #26 (November 1975), which featured Hercules and sported a wonderful Jack Kirby cover. The writer is Bill Mantlo and the interior art is by George Tuska.

Herc shows up in his own story for two reasons. First, it was the 10th anniversary of his Marvel Universe premiere in Thor Annual #1. Second, he was currently a member of the Champions, so this story was an opportunity to plug that book.

Hercules had met the other Champions on a college campus where he was appearing as a lecturer. I love that, by the way. It makes so much sense in a universe where the Greek myths are a part of real history to ask an immoral demi-god to give talks on the subject.

So he and his agent, Richard Fenster, are driving to a lecture gig. Hercules stops to help put out a forest fire. 

What caused the fire? The usual sort of thing: Typhon, one of the Greek Titans, and the witch Cylla had just busted out of Hades--a side effect of which was to set the forest ablaze. Another side effect was Typhon's battle axe getting painfully wielded to his hand, so he can't let it go.

In a comic book universe, that really is the usual sort of thing.

Typhon had appeared in Avengers #49 & 50 a few years earlier and had been condemned to Hades after the Avengers (which included Hercules at the time) defeated him. Now he's out for revenge. Cylla also wants to do away with Herc, because he had once declined to her amorous advances.

Typhon attacks and trashes poor Fenster's car. The Titan and the god begin to pound away at each other. Cylla slants the battle towards Typhon by magically trapping Hercules' legs in quicksand. But no good agent lets his most lucrative client get killed--Fenster whacks Cylla from behind, allowing Herc to free himself.

The fight continues apace. I've always enjoyed Tuska's art without ever being a really huge fan of it, but he does a particularly fine job here in giving the fight a sense of real power. 

Hercules comes out on top, of course. There's a wonderful bit in which Fenster then wonders if they can get Typhon to join them on the lecture circuit, but Zeus ruins this idea by zapping the Titan and the witch both back to Hades. 

It's all great fun--a one-and-done single issue story that does its job in giving us our money's worth in entertainment. As mentioned above, one of the reasons for featuring Hercules in a solo story was purely commercial--a ploy to boost sales of The Champions by showcasing one of their members. But that's okay. The story was good and you weren't required to buy The Champions if you didn't want to do so. If you saw Hercules on the cover and had an extra quarter in your pocket, then you had all you needed.

The days of impulse buys for comics are largely over. And that's too bad. The world need every opportunity it can get to watch Hercules fight Typhon.

Next week, two of the finest Silver/Bronze Age artists team up and take us to the Old West.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

A Norman Saunders cover--very basic composition that still manages to effectively generate the right emotions.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Off to Africa

As of today, I will be in South Sudan on a mission trip for the next two weeks. Entries for the blog are scheduled to post automatically, but I will not have internet access for most of the time I'm away. Please be patient if there is a delay in any comments you leave being approved.
Typical day in Africa

Friday, May 6, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Whistler: "Panic on Mulberry Street"  7/3/49

A man proposes a theory to a friend in the police that there is a pattern to local crimes and Mulberry Street is next on the list. This is all to set up an alibi for a murder, but the story then takes multiple unexpected turns before the climax. All this makes a wonderful story.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Wagon Train Conspiracy

It's really a clever plan. There's gold in the Little Big Horn area. The Sioux are no longer a major threat--their power broken by the Army after Custer's 7th Calvary was massacred a year earlier. So you can organize a wagon train--large enough to keep what Indians you may meet at bay--to move into gold country and start a town. Anyone who comes has to have at least one wagon and carry a load of goods. With a town established, some will prospect for gold. Others will ranch. One man plans to start a freight company. Another will run a general store. In a brand-new town in a country yet to be tamed, the possibilities are endless.

But there's another, somewhat darker plan underneath that one. One of the men who organized and now leads the wagon train realizes that the total value of goods and cattle being brought with the train can be valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If something were to happen to the wagon train--something that might later be blamed on the Sioux--then that man and a few select others can claim the goods and make a fortune.

That's the premise for Louis L'Amour's 1950 novel Westward the Tide. The protagonist is Matt Bardoul, a man with a reputation for being good with a gun. This is something that--to a degree--works against him as he begins to suspect that the wagon train is in danger. The villains in the train immediately see him as a threat, but some of the other wagon train leaders distrust his reputation too much to take his warnings seriously.

Also, Matt himself isn't completely certain his suspicions are accurate. It's a situation that L'Amour uses very effectively to build up tension as the wagon train moves out into unsettled territory. Matt sees that a few of the wagons are carrying more men and less supplies than others; and that many of those men are outlaws and thieves. But he's got no proof of anything overtly illegal and he himself can't be certain of what the villains are planning.

He's also reluctant to bring things to a head, because there are women and children on the train who would be caught in the crossfire if open battle broke out. That includes Jacquine Coyle, the beautiful daughter of one of the wagon train leaders, to whom Matt has taken quite a shine.

Of course, his relationship with her would be less rocky if she weren't spending her time with Clive Massey, co-leader of the wagon train and the probable leader of the outlaws.

So Matt and the few men he can trust have to bide their time--even when most of their ammunition is stolen from their wagons and a good man is killed in what Massey claims is self-defense. Matt knows that the outlaws will strike soon and that they can't afford to leave any witnesses behind. But he needs to bide his time and consider the women and kids first. In many ways, the novel plays out like a pure suspense tale.

Not that it lacks for pure action. Like all L'Amour westerns, this one has plenty of action. There's a lot of gun play, a tense knife fight between a wounded Matt and a Sioux warrior, and a exciting fist fight.

Of course, in a L'Amour novel, there's always an exciting fist fight. L'Amour was (among many other things) a boxer. He knew the Sweet Science well and he knew how to choreograph a fight. When you read one of his novels, you know the hero is going to start trading punches with somebody at some point and you always look forward to it.

The extended climax of Westward the Tide is particularly tense, with Matt wounded and the innocents on the wagon train in truly horrible danger. All this builds up into the expected but no less exciting confrontation between Matt and Clive Massey.

In fact, it's interesting how often L'Amour uses the same tropes--brutal fist fight at some point and a final confrontation between hero and villain at the climax--in so many novels, but it never gets old. Often, he adds some factor (such as a trick Massey has up his sleeve in the final shootout) to give these scenes variety. But mostly these moments are often so good just because L'Amour was a great storyteller who simply knew how properly to spin a yarn.

Westward the Tide may also be L'Amour's most cynical novel in its dissection of civilization and remarks about the death of the open frontier. At one point, he even stops the story for a few pages so an old Indian stopping by the campfire can pontificate on the difference between living on the land and simply pillaging the land. This attitude never gets in the way of the story and, in fact, L'Amour makes sincerely interesting philosophical points. But one really gets the feeling that Louis L'Amour really was born 70 years too late.

Well, lucky for us he did wait around for the 20th Century before being born. The world would be a poorer place without his novels.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

He's a Pig. His Partner's a Cat. Together--THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

Four Color #271--art by Robert Armstrong

Porky Pig #5--not sure if it's the original re-colored or if it was redrawn by another artist.

As I've mentioned before, the Looney Tunes comics published by Dell and later Gold Key was not set in the gleefully chaotic universe of the animated cartoons, but had more story structure and a degree of logic to the plots. This was perhaps a necessary change to make the characters work in a different medium & the comic book Looney Tunes universe was a fun place to visit in its own right.

Porky Pig #5 (March 1966) is a prime example of this. The story, by the way, is a reprint from Four Color #271 (March 1950), with art by Roger Armstrong and a script by the prolific "unidentified."

Porky and Petunia are heading West, intending to visit Petunia's uncle, who owns a big ranch. But their car is stopped by a gun-wielding cat (proving, by the way, my constantly-made claim that all cats are evil). When Porky happens to snap his fingers, the cat suddenly unmasks and wonders what the heck he's been doing.

The cat turns out to be Sylvester. Has Porky's friend gone bad? (Tweety Bird isn't in the story to voice his opinion.)

It turns out that a villain known as Hypnotic Harry is hypnotizing innocent people and getting them to commit crimes. Also, Petunia's uncle is missing.

Porky, Petunia and Sylvester begin investigating, foiling another attempt by Harry (who would prefer to be called the Phantom) to hypnotize Sylvester into committing a nefarious deed. Soon, Porky finds out the missing uncle had recently discovered a lost gold mine, but the map he made has also gone missing. It's reasonable to assume that Harry is after the gold and that he's now holding Petunia's uncle a prisoner at the mine.

So the story is indeed unfolding in a fairly logical manner, with Porky following up reasonable clues and making reasonable deductions. Mixed in with this are gags, malapropisms, and one-liners to add humor. And it is indeed a funny story. But the chaos so inherent to the Looney Tunes cartoons is toned down.

There's also a sense of real danger that doesn't exist in the cartoons. If you are shot with a gun in a Looney Tunes comic book, you are apparently in real danger of getting killed. When Porky and his friends find the lost mine, a teetering rock poses an actual threat of being crushed to death, rather than simply being squashed into a pancake shape without really being hurt.

Porky uses a tried-and-true method of identifying the bad guy as well, When the ranch foreman blurts out a piece of information he can only known if he's actually the villain, Porky immediately calls him out. It probably would have been better if he had waited until the villain wasn't armed before doing this.

At the same time, the story never completely loses track of its cartoon roots. The day is saved because Sylvester just happens to be holding a mail-order boomerang that just happened to be delivered to the ranch cook moments before. The bad guy then makes the classic mistake of telling Sylvester to throw it away.

So the Looney Tunes comic book universe is indeed a different reality from the cartoons. But it's still a place well-worth visiting. Just remember--when you're there, avoiding taking any boomerang hits to the head. It really will hurt.

Next week, we discover that going on a road trip with Hercules is rarely a good idea.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

This cover convinces me that Porky could kick any of our butts without so much as working up a sweat. Don't mess with the pig, man!

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