Friday, October 28, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Frontier Gentleman: "The Honky Tonkers" 2/16/58

A man accidentally shoots himself when he tries to draw on Kendall. Kendall is tasked with trying to remove the bullet and save the guys life--with two saloon girls for nurses and with the locals betting on whether he succeeds.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

PT Boats from My Childhood, Part 2

John Clagett knew his PT Boats. He commanded one of the small craft during the War and, when he became a novelist, based much of his fiction on his experiences.

Torpedo Run on Iron Bottomed Bay (1969), is the second of two young adult novels about PT boats I read as a kid. And, like The Hostile Beaches, it is a gripping and exciting story.

The main character is a seventeen-year-old sailor named Larry Cushing, whose experience working on small boats while growing up makes him a good fit for a PT. Larry is in some ways a generic character--pleasant, easy to get along with, and eager to learn. He demonstrates good marksmanship also, which gets him assigned to one of the twin .50 caliber machines guns.

What keeps Larry from being a cipher is Clagett's skill in making him likable and realistically describing emotions like fear and terror. Combat is scary and Larry definitely gets scared.

But he still does his job, demonstrating an intense loyalty to his friends and fellow crew. Larry is meant to be someone the book's target audiences can identify with and in this Clagett succeeds completely. I undoubtedly identified with him when I read the book as an 11-year-old and I still identified him reading the book as an adult.

Clagett does a great job with the action scenes as well. Especially notable is PT 107's first attempt to make a torpedo run against Japanese warships. The PT's engines suddenly conk out and the boat is floating helpless in the water while searchlights sweep around looking for them.

There's also a magnificent section describing the naval battle of Guadalcanal, as seen by the PT crews from an island hilltop---several successive nights of watching capital warships blasting each other apart.

There another plot-line running through the book. One of Larry's crew-mates is a Japanese-American named John Watanabe, with whom Larry develops a close friendship. When John is seen talking with several sick and ragged Japanese soldiers who are still lurking in the jungle surrounding the PT boat base, he's arrested as a traitor. Larry, though, is convinced that whatever John was up to, it was legitimate. Saving his friend from a court-martial means contacting the Japanese stragglers himself--something that could get Larry and another friend killed.

If I had to pick a favorite between Torpedo Run at Iron Bottomed Bay and The Hostile Beaches, I think I would lean towards the latter as being a little more intense and edge-of-your-seat. But it's a close call. Both are excellent war stories stuffed to the gills with authenticity.

But we're not done yet with the World War II fiction of my youth. Finding these two books launched a personal jihad of Googling until I was able to identify the two remaining books from my youth that I had always wanted to re-read. One is another story of naval combat in the Pacific. The other is an anthology of tales dealing mostly with infantry combat. Over the next month or two, we'll visit with each of these.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Shogun Warriors, Part 7

Wow. Shogun Warriors #16 (May 1980) is a surprisingly brutal issue and a game-changer for the title.

I will get one complaint out of the way right up front. We know before we even read the story that the Shogun Sanctuary is destroyed and the Followers of the Light all killed. We know this because THE DARN COVER TELLS US SO! I know that covers sometimes lie, but this one is telling the exact truth. Gee whiz.

The story starts in California, where the Shoguns are getting in some practice near Richard Carson's house. Carson's gal Deena is still feeling some jealousy towards Genji, but she recognizes this as irrational and is actually going to get a few Crowning Moments of Awesome in the upcoming story.

This is an effective bit of characterization. Deena is given enough flawed humanity to make her seem like a real person, but she's still likable and the character moments enhance rather than hinder the main plot.

That main plot involves the "men in black" guys who had been seen sneaking around Carson's home in previous issues. They return with a vengeance, hitting the heroes with a gas that weakens them and taking the pendants that allow them to communicate with the followers. The "men in black" guys" turn out to be robots and the three pilots (along with Deena, who wields a mean shotgun) manage to take a number of them out and get to their robots.

They quickly fly to the Sanctuary, but the bad guys have gotten their first and destroyed the place, killing the Followers. Abruptly, the Shogun pilots are on their own.

It is indeed abrupt. But it works in terms of effective storytelling. The appearance of the Men in Black in previous issues let us know something fishy was going on. This provided enough foreshadowing to give the plot twist dramatic viability without taking away the shock of what happened.

It's showing the stupid plot twist on the stupid cover that takes away the shock. Though I guess I might be a little unfair--experienced comic book readers would have known that covers often distort or mislead for dramatic impact, so perhaps this cover is a sort of double-bluff, causing readers to assume the event was really just an illusion or a holographic training program.

Anyway, a dragon-like alien shows up. This is the creature responsible for destroying the Sanctuary--it now tries to talk the Shoguns into simply abandoning their robots. It's logic is that humanity is advancing technologically too quickly. They might be heading into space too soon, bringing death and destruction with them. Their motivation is very similar to Klaatu's mission in the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, but their methods are more overtly aggressive. The alien has destroyed the Sanctuary, but also plans to kill Reed Richards, Tony Stark and pretty much every other really smart guy on the planet.

The Shoguns defeat the the alien, but now they are on their own, without a safe place to store the robots and without anyone who knows how to do maintenance on them.

From a really good issue, we now arrive at what is so far the only really weak link in the series. The pilots need a new place to store their robots. Savage can store his in an underwater cavern near his lab in Madagascar. Genji, who is relocated to San Francisco, and Carson make the bizarrely dumb decision to store Combatra in an abandoned tenement building--a completely unsecure location--and Genji doesn't even bother to turn off the "shimmer tube" that allows access to the robot's flight deck. Genji has been presented as an intelligent woman for 16 issues, now she metaphorically leaves the car keys in her unlocked Giant Robot of Death. It is a rare instance of poor storytelling from Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe.

So when a family of migrant workers decides to sleep in the tenement, the kid in the family stumbles into the shimmer tube, ends up on the flight deck and accidentally causes Combatra to take off. Carson has to follow in Raydeen and spend most of the issue trying to force Combatra down without hurting the kid.

It is a weak and uninteresting issue. It also brings up an interesting point about the future of the Shoguns. The kid keeps accidentally firing off Combatra's weapons, many of which are missiles and rockets. With the Sanctuary destroyed, how are the Shoguns' getting ammo reloads? I would give them a pass on their fuel--we can assume that the advanced tech of the robots includes power plants that last a long time or perhaps can refuel by solar energy. But they are going to need a steady supply of missiles. Remember that I'm reviewing these as I read them for the first time, so I'm curious to see if this is becomes a plot point. To be fair, there is only a few issues left, so the story might come to an end before ammunition shortages become an issue.

Next week, we'll see the first of two "Comic Books Take on Real Life" with a look at a comic book biography of Crazy Horse published in 1950.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

Automobile Polo was actually a real-life sport--for a very brief period of time.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Bold Venture: "Deadly Merchandise" 3/26/51

A cargo that Slate Shannon did NOT transport from Key West to Havana leads to a pair of murders and an inadvertent involvement with would-be revolutionaries.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Every Good Lawyer has Skeleton Keys and a Solid Right Hook

Read/Watch 'em In Order #72

Poor Ken Corning. The lawyer can't spend more that a few minutes working quietly behind his desk before someone tries to frame him.

Actually, in "Making the Breaks," (Black Mask, June 1933), it's his secretary Helen Vail who gets framed. Or rather, she's framed so that Corning can in turn be framed so that Corning's client can in his turn be framed.

The client is accused of killing a man during an armed robbery. Both the dead man's friend (present during the robbery) and two other witnesses make positive identifications. But someone is willing to hedge their bets even further when two hundred-dollar bills--part of the loot taken from the victim--turn up in Helen's purse after someone tries to snatch it.

Corning is convinced his client is being framed, which means one or more of the witnesses are lying and are probably plants arranged by the notoriously corrupt NYPD. He sets Helen Vail out to make friends with the girlfriends of the witnesses and eventually does a little breaking-and-entering, steals a diary, sets a fake fire and essentially kidnaps someone. But that's how you get things done in the Hard-Boiled Universe, by golly. Corning identifies the real killer and clears his client without ever setting foot in a courtroom--AND all because he carries a set of skeleton keys and can knock a man out with one punch. Who needs law school?

That faking a fire bit, by the way, is emulating a similar trick once used by Sherlock Holmes. Everybody learns from Holmes.

This is the fourth of the six Ken Corning stories and, if anything, they are getting better as the series progressed. The pace grows faster and the stories more exciting, while the plots remain strong and logically constructed. Erle Stanley Gardner was an excellent storyteller and (as I've said before) it's a shame that Perry Mason has overshadowed so many of his other characters. Mason deserves his fame, but the other guys are pretty cool as well.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Giant Inter-Dimensional Alien Hand!

I don't want to tell Batman his job. I really don't. He's been doing it for nearly 8 decades now and we should all presume he knows what he's doing.

But in Batman #130 (March 1960), he and Robin are told by Commissioner Gordon that a giant hand holding two aliens has been seen near a zinc factory. All three men immediately assume it's a prank. Because when you live on an Earth that is filled with super-powered beings, supernatural creatures and is regularly invaded by aliens, a giant hand is just too silly.

Also, Batman is apparently having a slow day, since he volunteers to personally give the supposed prankster a stern lecture. But when they arrive at the factory, they are shocked--shocked, I say--to discover the giant hand is real.

I am making fun of the story, but I also had great fun reading it. It is a prime example of Silver Age silliness, but it also has a well-constructed story that follows Comic Book Logic and Dick Sprang's art fits it all perfectly. Batman is hardly the Dark Knight (I do prefer his more serious Bronze Age stories), but if you imagine Adam West's voice while you read this one, it all works perfectly.

That darn hand seems to be unstoppable. The two aliens, able to understand English via a translator device, control it as it shrugs off bullets and artillery to steal zinc, copper, platinum and tin. Batman tries to wrangle it with a cable tangled from Bat Plane, but that doesn't work out well. The aliens, by now, have given away their plan--they need certain materials to build a larger dimensional transmitter, allowing them to launch a full-scale invasion of Earth.

Bill Finger's script treats all this completely seriously, which is what makes it work. Yes, it is silly and its pretty much impossible not to make fun of it to a degree. But the story never makes fun of itself. And when Batman uses the fact that the aliens can't speak Eskimo to deduce that the giant hand is a fake, it all makes perfect sense.

Lex Luthor turns out to be the mastermind behind it all. By faking a potential inter-dimensional invasion and stealing a lot of low-value ore along with valuable platinum, Lex hoped to make off with a fortune without anyone ever noticing.

This, by the way, is Luthor's first appearance in a story that does not feature Superman.

Batman tracks the fake aliens to Luthor's hideout and uses the hand to catch the mad scientist. This also allows the Caped Crusader to end the story with a really, really bad joke. But to be fair to Batman, I think most of us would have been tempted to make the same joke had we just used a fake giant alien hand to catch a super-criminal.

The video below will show you the entire story, Next week, we return to giant robots & giant monsters.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dimension X: "Dwellers in Silence" 7/19/51

A faithful and touching adaptation of a story from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Don't Fist Fight the Pharmacist!

John Wayne doesn't normally play the well-mannered dude from the East in a Western, but in 1942's In Old California, this is just what he does. He's Tom Craig, a druggist from Boston who plans to set up shop in the untamed town of Sacramento.

We actually meet him while he's passing through San Francisco, waiting for the steamboat for Sacramento to leave. He stops in a saloon wearing a top hat and fancy duds--the orders a glass of milk. We get a few hints early on, though, that he's not a man you want to intimidate.  He's strong as a mule, knows how to use a six-gun (how a druggist learned to be a skilled gunman is never explained) and has more than his share of guts.

In other words, he's a John Wayne character, but given enough of a unique personality to make him stand out from other John Wayne characters from that era. Wayne handles the role quite well, adding some humor to his demeanor while still allowing us to take Tom Craig seriously as the hero.

He soon finds himself at odds with Britt Dawson (Albert Dekker), a crook who is using threats and violence to grab ranches and businesses away from their legitimate owners. Britt's gal is saloon-singer Lacey Miller (Binnie Barnes), who herself is distracted from her gold-digging ways by Tom.

Tom's a natural leader. He manages to organize the ranchers to fight back when Britt makes another land grab. Britt wants to simply kill Tom in revenge, but Lacey's got him wrapped tightly enough around her finger to make him back off. Instead, he'll be sneaky about it, poisoning some of the medicine that Tom sells and nearly getting Tom lynched by angry townspeople.

Then gold is discovered nearby. This is enough of a distraction to spare Tom from a lynching, but his drug store is pretty much out of business unless he can prove he wasn't responsible for the poisoned medicine.

When a typhoid epidemic strikes the gold camps, Tom takes charge of a wagon train bringing in medicine and supplies to treat the sick. But Britt figures if he gains control of the wagon train, he can make a fortune selling the medicine to the typhoid victims.

This is a fun movie, rambling in an easy-going but logical manner from one plot point to the next while giving us several well-choreographed gun battles and a nifty saloon brawl. Albert Dekker is very good as Britt.

Tom Craig's sidekick is Kegs McKeever,who joins Craig in San Francisco after the druggist cures his toothache. Edgar Kennedy plays Kegs and has several hilarious scenes with Lacey's maid (played by the "Queen of Wisecracks" Patsy Kelly). Getting two of the most skilled comedians of that era to play the comic reliefs is one of the film's strengths.

I also appreciate the final fate of Britt Dawson, allowing Dekker to give what would have been a standard villain role some depth of character.

The Westerns John Wayne made with Republic Pictures in the early 1940s aren't usually listed among his classics--and they don't compare to films like The Searchers or True Grit. But they were fun movies in their own right, telling entertaining stories and giving their plots and/or setting unusual twists to set them apart from the gazillion other Westerns being produced at that time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Captain Kirk vs. Space Pirates

I suppose that if you live in a galaxy where worlds can develop civilizations almost identical to Earth (the 20th Century Roman Empire seen in the episode "Bread and Circuses") or worlds that deliberately imitate absurdly narrow periods of Earth history (1920s gangsters as seen in "A Piece of the Action") to the point of copying slang, clothing, architecture and technology to the exact detail...  well, I suppose having space pirates that copy Earth pirates of the 18th Century in slang, clothing, etc isn't that unlikely.

Besides, if you are a space pirate, why wouldn't you look to Blackbeard and Treasure Island for role models? What would be the sense in being a pirate otherwise?

This is the situation Gold Key's Star Trek #12 (November 1971) presents to us. And so we get to see how the greatest Star Trek captain (and no one is allowed to suggest otherwise, by gum!) go toe-to-toe with a guy who is essentially Blackbeard IN SPACE!

Writer Len Wein actually gives us a logical rational for the existence of space pirates--a big galaxy with a lot of interstellar commerce + a mere 12 starships to police many square light years of space = good business for pirates.

Alberto Giolitti's typically excellent art gives the story life and provides us with some really fun ship designs. The pirate vessel Windjammer is particularly cool. It is designed to look like an old-school pirate ship, including a large sail. I suppose you could justify the sail by saying it collects solar energy or something, but the Rule of Cool is really reason enough for its existence.

The pirates have recently stolen a badly needed supply of dilithium crystals. There's a map leading to where the crystals are buried. Half the map has fallen into the hands of Federation authorities. The other half is in the possession of Black Jack Nova, the afore-mentioned Blackbeard-esque pirate who hangs out on the pirate planet Tortuga IV.

Enjoying the story depends on lot on whether you accept all the parallels and shout-outs to the Golden Age of Piracy and just go with it. Do that and you'll have a lot of fun reading it.

Kirk, Spock, Scotty and McCoy go undercover on Tortuga, looking to join Black Jack's crew and use the now complete map to find the crystals. Scotty helps things along here. It's his idea that starting a bar fight and beating the snot out of some of Black Jack's crew would impress the pirate and (along with having half of the treasure map) get them berths aboard his ship.

This works. And somehow it seems right that it's Scotty who comes up with a plan that involves a bar fight.

Scotty doesn't have long to enjoy the success of his plan, though. He and Spock are overheard by a pirate talking about being undercover agents. This means two things. First, Scotty and Spock are terrible undercover agents.

Second, it means Kirk (who eavesdropped on the eavesdropping pirate) has to betray two of his friends to maintain his own cover.

Spock and Scotty are tossed into space to eventually die of asphyxiation. In a neat and (for Gold Key) rare connection to the continuity of the TV series, they are rescued by the Enterprise, which has been following the Windjammer by using a Romulan cloaking device stolen in episode "The Enterprise Incident."

Both ships reach the planet on which the Dilithium is buried. Spock takes down a landing party and meets Ben Cannon, the former captain of the Windjammer who was marooned by Black Jack. Cannon has also dug up the crystals from their original hiding place and hidden them in a cave.

I don't know why, but this obvious shout-out to Treasure Island's Ben Gunn strikes me as awkward. I can't explain it. I'm fine with the other piracy parallels in the story. In fact, I think these parallels are strengths. But Ben Cannon's presence seems to be taking the idea just a little bit too far.

The other small glitch comes when the Enterprise crew moves in to capture the pirates. Kirk opts to chase Black Jack alone, seemingly just so that the two of them can have a climatic sword fight. Of course, Kirk should have brought a few Red Shirts with him and even given his reputation as something of a Cowboy, it's downright silly that he doesn't do so.

It's too bad--there's no reason the final action couldn't have been choreographed in a way to logically pit Kirk and Black Jack against one another eventually. Kirk's men could have distracted by phaser fire from other pirates, for instance. Or maybe they could have tripped a booby-trap and gotten killed. They were Red Shirts, after all.

Well, perhaps the page count required Wein to rush things a little. Giolitti still gives us a cool looking fight and the overall story is indeed more fun than a barrel full of rum-soaked pirates.

Next week, a giant alien hand terrorizes Gotham City. Some days, it doesn't pay to leave the Batcave.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

Great Jack Kirby cover. I have a particular appreciation for covers that can include a lot of characters and kinetic action, but still be composed in such a way as to not seem overcrowded.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Friday's Favorite OTR

Tarzan: "Gold of the Sudan" 7/5/51

An old enemy of Tarzan is kidnapping and torturing older members of a Sudanese tribe in a brutal attempt to learn where a hidden cache of gold is located. The ending, despite involving Tarzan losing a hand-to-hand fight way too easily, is exciting and ties everything up with an effective ironic twist.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Sherlock Holmes isn't a Rugby Fan

"Please await me. Terrible misfortune. Right wing three-quarter missing; indispensable to morrow.—OVERTON."

This is the confusing telegram that arrives at 221B Baker Street at the beginning of "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter" (1904). Neither Holmes nor Watson can make heads or tails about it.

I love this particular Holmes story. The case unfolds in the logical fashion that is one of the marks of the great Holmes stories and it smoothly hits a series of various emotional notes ranging from comedy to tragedy. 

That telegram,by the way, is about a missing rugby player--someone the Cambridge team needs to find before their next big game. It's a subject that Holmes (and apparently Watson) aren't up on--so the terminology at first baffles them.

The subject of Holmes' knowledge (or lack of knowledge) about subjects not related to crime is interesting. The premiere Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, is famous for establishing the detective didn't know the Earth revolves around the Sun. But stories like "The Bruce-Partington Plans" and "The Adventure of the Three Students" tell us about Holmes' researches into medieval music. This essay suggests that this might relate to his violin playing. I like to think that it was a combination of Watson's influence and perhaps Holmes realizing that he never knows what sort of information might be useful in an investigation. But, whatever the reason, he didn't know a thing about rugby.

But he still follows up clues better than anyone else. The missing man received a telegram before going missing. Holmes backtracks this and runs a little con on some poor girl in the telegraph office to get more information. The trail leads them from London to Cambridge, where he runs into the brilliant Dr. Leslie Armstrong. Armstrong knows what's going on, but assumes Holmes has sleazy motivations and would make certain private matters public. 

Armstrong is smart--Holmes compares him to Moriarty. But he's a good guy who is simply wrong about thinking Holmes is a bad guy. With the help of a dog named Pompey, Holmes does eventually figure out what's going on and makes peace with Armstrong.

"The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter" does often make lists of the best or most famous Holmes stories, but I think it really is one of the most purely fun tales in the Canon.

It's available online HERE

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hulk Does Not Love Lizards

Most issues of Marvel Team-Up featured Spider-Man teaming up with some other fairly random denizen of the Marvel Universe. This was fine--since Spidey's personality made his interactions with other characters a lot of fun.

But all the same, it was nice to get an occasional departure from this formula with a story that tossed two pretty much randomly chosen characters together for an adventure. One of the advantages of a large and vibrant comic book universe is that it produces these opportunities.

This is what we get with Marvel Team-Up #104 (April 1981, with script by Roger MacKenzie & art by Jerry Bingham). We get a few pages of Ka-Zar hunting a misbehaving T-Rex, then encountering some mercenaries who are scouting out the Savage Land for as-yet unknown purpose.

We then get a few pages of the Hulk having an encounter with the San Francisco police that ends as badly as Hulk's encounters with the authorities normally end. Both these vignettes are very well-written, especially the Hulk sequence, but there's a downside to them that I'll get to in a moment.

The Hulk un-Hulks and becomes Banner, who takes a job on a cargo ship. That ship turns out to be smuggling high-tech weapons, AIM agents and MODOK to an unknown location. When Bruce and another crewman stumble on to this, they and the rest of the crew are taken prisoner. MODOK recognizes Banner and keeps him too sedated to Hulk-out.

MODOK's plan is to set up shop in the Savage Land (those were his agents who got beat up by Ka-Zar earlier), capture a bunch of dinosaurs and subject them to the same procedure that made him Big Head Guy with vast mental powers.

At first, the plan goes well. A bunch of dinos, along with Ka-Zar are captured. MODOK decides to have some fun before proceeding with his plan by tossing Ka-Zar and Banner into the cargo hold where the captured dinosaurs are being held. This doesn't end well. 

Between the two heroes, they make quick work of the dinosaurs and trash MODOK's chair, rendering the villain helpless. The issue ends with the freed crew of the ship taking the captured AIM personal back to the U.S. 

Next week, we will look at a Gold Key Star Trek story written by Len Wein that was a lot of fun, but depended on a contrivance near the conclusion to set up the final confrontation. Here, we have the exact same situation. The story as a whole is a lot of fun and it is well worth reading. But towards the end...

I'm not bothered by MODOK tossing the two heroes to the dinosaurs rather than just killing them. That fits his personality--as the concept of death traps fits the personality of any egotistical and arrogant super-villain. But Banner is supposed to be sedated. To be fair, there is narration explaining that Banner's pure fear made him Hulk-out despite the sedation, but that's something MODOK would have known to guard against. Give him an extra dose of sedative, MODOK. Shut down his brain with a mental blast. You still get to watch him being eaten alive, so it doesn't spoil your fun.

Also, though he is chained at first, Ka-Zar still has his knife.

That's what makes the opening scenes a sort of Catch-22. Giving Ka-Zar and Hulk their own brief stories was a great way to introduce the characters to any reader not familiar with one of them. Both sequences really are well-written.

But losing those pages meant that MacKenzie had to rush through the ending, forcing him to put in several contrivances to set up the finale. As is the case with the Star Trek story we'll be looking at next week, it doesn't ruin it and we still have a good time, but its not quite as good as it might have been.

I suppose that having a specific page requirement is both a blessing and a curse for a talented writer. It would train a writer to be concise in his plot development, but there would be occasions when fitting a particular story into 22 pages would have forced a little bit of cheating on proper story construction.

In this case, if the opening scenes had been dropped or shortened, there might have been time to flesh out the ending. But then we would have lost some strong action sequences and a look at the Hulk that generates sincere emotion. Catch-22. There's no right answer.

Oh, well. We still get to watch Hulk slug a tyrannosaur. That's always worthwhile.

Next week, it's Captain Kirk vs. Space Pirates.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Cover Cavalcade

Whether or not the ghost actually is Tomahawk, would firing the cannon at him do any good?
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