Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "I Had an Alibi" 1/4/45

Keenan Wynn stars in a tale about a man who marries a wealthy but critically ill woman. When she fails to actually die (preventing him from taking her money and then marrying the woman he really loves), he decides that he's going to have to help the process along. But first, he'll need to set up the perfect alibi.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Tarzan Just Wants to Play with the Baby

Well, that doesn't look much like an adventure magazine, does it? But Blue Book Magazine actually published a lot of cool stuff, including a number of Edgar Rice Burroughs' tales. This issue--cover-dated September 1916--was the first of those publishing the stories that were later collected into The Jungle Tales of Tarzan in 1919.

Jungle Tales is the 6th of the original Tarzan books and the only one to be an anthology of short stories rather than a novel. Over the course of the first five books, Tarzan had married Jane and now had an adult son. (Which, by the way, causes no end of confusion to putting together a timeline for Tarzan's life.) Burroughs, at the time, was thinking that it would be more convenient to get Tarzan involved in adventures if he were single. He would soon try to kill off Jane, but publishers would balk at this and Jane was allowed to live.

But before Burroughs' turned the cross-hairs on poor Jane, he jumped back to Tarzan's days living with the apes. The 12 stories that make up Jungle Tales all fit into Chapter 11 of the first novel, set between the death of Tarzan's ape-mother Kala and Tarzan becoming leader of the apes.

My favorite is the third story, "The Fight for the Balu," published in the November 1916 issue of Blue Book.  I think this is because it is such an effective example of straightforward storytelling.

The story is simple. A she-ape named Teeka has mated with a male named Taug. Both were childhood playmates of Tarzan, so when they have a baby (a balu in the ape language), Tarzan wants to see it and perhaps play with it.

But as a new mother, Teeka reacts to situations on pure instinct--all centered around protecting her baby. She bites Tarzan when he approaches the balu. This involves Taug in the conflict.

What none of the apes realize is that a panther is lurking nearby, waiting for a chance to pounce forward and snatch up the balu while the rest of the apes are distracted...

It's a simple, fun story with Burroughs' doing his usual excellent job of giving us several fun fight scenes. Jungle Tales is an entertaining sort-of "time out" from Tarzan's adult adventures.

You can read it online HERE.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Spears vs. Ray Guns: Tragg and the Sky Gods #1

I really wish Tragg and the Sky Gods had lasted longer. It eeked out eight issues over a 20 month period and managed to tell a pretty epic science fiction tale, but it ended too soon--though it actually did come to a reasonably satisfactory conclusion. But the bad guys were still around and it was a universe that still had stories to tell us. Also, it had dinosaurs. It ended too soon.

(There was a 9th issue, by the way, but it came out five years after the first and simply reprinted the first issue.)

Tragg #1 (June 1975) begins the story. Written by Donald Glut and drawn by Jesse Santos, it's an outstanding example of how to write concise exposition and do some quick, effective world-building.

There's a tribe of primitive humans that live in an isolated area of Earth where dinosaurs have survived, making the lives of the humans ones of constant danger. A pair of alien scientists pay a visit to the planet. They come from a benevolent society and, to help out the tribe, they treat two of the women, changing them so that any children the women have will be more evolved.

This works. One woman has a boy named Tragg. The other has a girl named Lorn. These two grow up to be stronger and smarter than others in their tribe.

The scientists have gone home, planning to return one day to see how the tribe is doing. But there's a revolution on their planet. When an alien space globe does return (when Tragg and Lorn are 25 years old), it is now crewed by militaristic aliens who are an advance guard for an invasion force.

They know about the previous expedition and know there may be two more advanced humans living among the humans. They also learned the local language from the records of that previous expedition, so that problem is dealt with right away.

All this is explained in the comic a lot more effectively than I've managed here. In the space of 25 pages, the background for the series is clearly laid out for us. And we still have time for some adventure before the last page arrives, which also helps set up the overall story arc.

The tribe has been waiting for the "Sky Gods" to return for years. This, combined with jealousy over Tragg's and Lorn's natural competence at everything, leads the tribe to decide that the gods won't return until the two are dead. After all, the gods left on they day the pair was born. Obviously, they are cursed.

When their fellow tribesmen begin hurling spears at them, Tragg and Lorn run for it. So, when the Sky Gods do return, the pair is close enough to scout them out.

The aliens are led by a guy named Zorek and the exotically beautiful Keera. Tragg hears enough of their conversation to know they are evil and planning on conquest. It might be a bit of a stretch that the aliens speak to each other in the local language when they don't know any locals are around, but maybe they are just practicing, so we'll give this to them.

Humanity gets a break when a tyrannosaur and a triceratops get into a fight next to the space globe. The globe is damaged, leaving Zorek's group stranded on Earth until they can rig up a communicator to call the main invasion force. But they still have the rest of their equipment, including their ray guns. So conquering the local tribe should not be an issue.

Tragg and Lorn plan to put a stop to that. They are spotted, but are presumed killed in an avalanche caused by ray gun fire. This allows them to escape and later get the drop on one of the aliens. Tragg kills the guy, discovering that the supposedly divine Sky Gods are mere mortals.

He also smashes the guy's ray gun, which is a less than brilliant move. Tragg, you have spears and clubs. They have ray guns. If you have a chance to capture a ray gun, then don't smash it!  Gee whiz, man, you're supposed to have enhanced intelligence!

So that's the first issue. It really does do an excellent job of setting up the premise for the series and nicely incorporates a number of action scenes into the story, using the action to enhance our understanding of the characters as well as simply looking cool.

I enjoy Jesse Santos' art here. His line work has a rawness to it that reminds me just a little bit of Joe Kubert and works very well illustrating a story set in prehistoric times.

I believe we'll return to Tragg's world every three or four weeks, eventually looking at the entire series. Quality storytelling continues throughout the short-lived series, so this is worth doing. Also, it has dinosaurs in it.

Next week, we'll jump from Earth to Neptune as well look at a Jack Kirby-illustrated science fiction story.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

A 1956 cover by Jerry Grandenetti. The close up makes the image feel appropriately claustrophobic as well as frightening.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Murder by Experts: "Case of the Missing Mind"  12/26/49

A small-time hood is given 50 grand by someone who is apparently a genie. But this leads to a bizarre series of events that leads the hood to apparently commit murder and get tossed in the asylum. Is there a rational explanation?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Slaves of the Soarers

Read/Watch 'em In Order #86

A few years ago, I had a lot of fun writing a post that gave quick overview of all the stories that appeared in the October 15, 1935 issue of Adventure Magazine. I wanted to do the same thing again with another pulp, but this time make it a part of my In Order series by looking at the stories in the order they appeared in a particular issue of that pulp. Whether this is a proper use of the In Order concept may be debatable--until you remember that its my blog and I'm probably the only person in the world who would be tempted to debate the point.

So I have chosen the August 1939 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. This particular issue was picked in part because it is available electronically both on the Internet Archive and can be purchased at Amazon nicely formatted for a Kindle. Mostly, though, I picked it because it has a really, really cool dinosaur-themed cover.

There are 8 novellas and short stories in this issue. One of them--Race Around the Moon--is listed in the table of contents as a novel, though I think the editors may have been stretching the definition a bit. It's not that long.

So, you've just bought Thrilling Wonder Stories from the newsstand. Eagerly leafing through an annoying 10 pages of advertisements, you come to the first story: "The Man from Xenern," by Stanton A. Coblentz.

This story is narrated by a humanoid (largely human looking, but with a prehensile tail) native of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. A member of a once great civilization, the species had waged global war and bombed themselves back to the Stone Age. Another intelligent species, large flying creatures dubbed Soarers, then swooped down to take over and pick up the pieces. The humanoids, now called Crawlers by their new masters, are used as slaves by the brutal Soarers.

The main character is someone captured by the Soarers and, at first, taken as property by a young female Soarer who is also a spoiled brat. When the protagonist can't take the abuse he endures from her any longer and bites her, he is sent first to work in the hatcheries and then in the mines, where Crawlers are used to mine radioactive materials until the radiation kills them.

He eventually makes a break for it, but has nowhere to go in the maze of tunnels that make up the mines. But when a pair of Soarers finds him, they don't turn him in. Instead, they make him an offer that might not only get him out of slavery, but also get him away from what has become a Hell Planet.

"The Man from Xenern" is a pretty good story, creating an interesting alien world. It does, though, have a couple of flaws. The minor flaw is the protagonist's tendency to compare things to Earth animals: "trapped like rats" or "screeched like a parrot," for instance. Of course, we could assume that, since the story is being presumably translated for us from an alien language, the metaphors are translated into Earth terms. All the same, it puts a small bump in the road to Suspension of Disbelief.

The major flaw is that the protagonist doesn't actually ever do anything significant. He does bite his first owner and make a desperate but quickly futile attempt to escape near the end, but mostly stuff just happens to him. To be fair, you can argue this is the point--the story is a metaphor for people helplessly trapped in slavery or other terrible situations. As drama, though, it makes the story a little disappointing.

But this is just one story out of eight. When we return to Thrilling Wonder Stories, we'll experience some time travel shenanigans in "The Time Twin."

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Ben Grimm Gets Even Uglier!

Marvel Two-in-One #81 & 82 (November & December 1981) is a solid, entertaining superhero adventure with some excellent action scenes drawn by Ron Wilson. What makes it notable, though, is the skill with which writer Tom DeFalco catches important aspects of the personalities of the heroes involved in the tale. These two elements--solid storytelling and sharp characterizations--are combined to make this particular story stand out even amidst Two-in-One's generally excellent run.

The first issue teams Ben Grimm with Namor, though we're about two-thirds of the way into the story before the two heroes actually meet. Namor is visiting New York to get away from the pressures of ruling Atlantis. He's trying to find a homeless woman named Sunshine Mary, who had been kind to him when he had amnesia and was living in the Bowery just before the events of Fantastic Four #4.

Ben, in the meantime, is going through one of his periodic "I'm not good enough for Alicia" phases when he runs into a robot kidnapping a homeless man. Even in a comic book universe, that's something you don't see every day.

The robot gasses Ben and takes him to a secret AIM base, where MODOK is experimenting with a new deadly radioactive virus on the Bowery bums his robots have been snatching.

MODOK's unique visual design and monumental ego have always made him a great villain. Find a logical reason to stick his big head in a story and that story's fun factor instantly rises 38.743%. 

By the way, MODOK's AIM henchmen are in blue rather than yellow because at the time MODOK is in charge of a breakaway faction after an internal rift in the organization. It's an unspoken but nice bit of continuity with the larger Marvel Universe.

Namor, in the meantime, has discovered that Sunshine Mary is among the missing. Accompanied by an army of homeless people, he tracks down MODOK's lair. Ben also breaks out of his containment bottle and the two trash the place, saving homeless and forcing MODOK to retreat. But some of MODOK's Virus X has leaked and, in the last panels, we discover that Ben is infected.

But before that, we have one of those insightful bits of characterizations I mentioned. Namor greets Sunshine Mary after the rescue, but she is horrifed by him. He's no longer "one of us.... but... a freak! A monster!"

Ben and Namor have never really liked each other, but Ben's attempt to comfort Namor and Namor's prideful rejection of the idea that he needs comforting catches both men's personalities in a nutshell.

As the next issue begins, Ben is wandering the streets of New York, mutating physically into an even uglier form that he's normally stuck with and so weak that he's threatened by a trio of common thugs. Fortunately, Captain America happens by and teaches the thugs a much-needed lesson.

Cap gets Ben to the Baxter Building and Reed calls in Bill Foster (the then-current Giant Man) because he need's Foster's expertise as a biochemist. But an antidote alludes them.

Cap takes it upon himself to track down MODOK and get an antidote right from them. He trashes a known AIM front operation and soon (with Ben and Giant Man in tow) finds a transporter that will zap them directly to MODOK's secret base in Antarctica. MODOK is waiting with a platoon of minions and a Thing-based robot.

The fight scene that follows is quite excellent, with fun visuals and strong choreography.
Ben, despite his growing weakness, pulls himself together and beats down the robot. Cap cleans up the minions while Giant Man searches for an antidote. He finds it and discovers that it might actually cure his radiation poisoning as well as cure Ben.

That, by the way, was Giant Man's problem during the 1980s. He was slowly dying of radiation poisoning. It was a story arc that showed up whenever he guest-starred in a comic.  Because he never had his own book, it's a story arc that probably went on too long, but even so it was something that helped give his character depth, allowing him to show his basic generosity of spirit despite knowing he's likely to die soon.

In the fighting, the devise containing the antidote is damaged and there's only enough for one person. Foster, without telling anyone this, uses it to save Ben. His internal monologue tells us "The world needs heroes like the Thing, not second-rate losers... like Giant-Man."

This makes me think of several occasions during the Lee/Kirby run of Fantastic Four where Ben would risk his life for somone else, convinced in his own mind that Reed, Johnny or Sue are simply worth more than he is. He and Giant Man parallel each other here. Both are clearly heroes. Both are noble, brave and more than willing to die to protect the innocent. But neither of them recognize themselves as heroes. Their worth is incalcuable, but they simply cannot see this in themselves.

Next week, we'll begin a look at Gold Key's regrettably short-lived Tragg and the Sky Gods.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My Lecture on DC & Marvel War-Themed comics

Here's the lecture I gave at my local public library on November 6, 2017. To make a brief correction: I adlibed some information that wasn't in my notes and was simply wrong about the length of time the two series "The War That Time Forgot" and "The Losers" ran.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

I generally don't feature anything on my blog that requires the adjective "adorable" to be attached to it, but this cover is downright adorable.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Sam Spade: "The Farmer's Daughter Caper" 9/3/50

Sam stops overnight in a small town while travelling home to San Francisco. But no famous detective ever spends a quiet, uneventful night anywhere & Sam is soon dealing with a dead body in a cave, while someone lurking in the dark repeatedly tries to kill him.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Few Drinks Too Many

Sam Peckinpah was a great director and screenwriter and (though I personally can't get into The Wild Bunch) many of his films are rightfully considered classics. He was also an alcoholic whose drinking brought him to an early death and undoubtedly hurt both the quality and the quantity of his work as a filmmaker.

So its interesting to look back at his perhaps underappreciated career in television and see how he handled drunks in several episodes.

Peckinpah was involved in the creation of The Rifleman, writing the pilot episode (which aired first on the Zane Gray Theatre on March 7, 1958) and sticking around for a few more early episodes. This included. "The Marshal," the series' fourth episode, which aired on October 28, 1958. Peckinpah both wrote and directed this episode, which brought the character of Micah Torrance (played by Paul Fix) to the town of North Port.

Micah was once a great lawman, but a bullet had deprived him of the use of his right arm. Now he's a scared, bitter man who stays perpetually drunk.  When Lucas McCain meets him and finds out who he is, he gives Micah a job on his ranch and a chance to straighten himself out.

Later, when North Port's current marshal is killed, the outlaws lure McCain into town with the intention of killing him. Without the Rifleman hanging around, North Fork would be a wide-open town.

Micah guesses that McCain is walking into a trap. McCain, in fact, is making the same mistake that Micah once made--depending too much on a fast gun and not enough on his brains.

So Micah needs to pull himself together and--instead of facing off against the outlaws in a straight-up fight--use his wits to give himself enough of an advantage to walk away alive.

So here we have alcoholism presented as the life-destroying thing is actually is. When Micah is drinking, he's stripping himself of all dignity and worth. He's only a man again when he sets the bottle aside and starts acting with courage to help his only friend.

It really is a classic episode, with a great script that manages to populate the story with great characters. James Drury, Warren Oates and Robert J. Wilke are especially notable in how their performances give each of the outlaws real personality.

If you're in the U.S., you can watch the episode HERE.

A couple of years later, Peckinpah created the excellent but sadly short-lived series The Westerner, starring Brian Keith as an illiterate drifter who travels from job to job, accompanied by his dog Brown. Like Lucas McCain, Dave also carries a unique rifle, but there's otherwise little similarity between the two characters.

The format allows the show to tell a wide variety of stories ranging from tragic drama to slapstick comedy. Literate scripts and a consistently great performance by Keith as Dave Blassingame make it all the more tragic that The Westerner only lasted 13 episodes and has been largely forgotten.

This show also aired on Zane Gray Theatre before jumping off on its own. It's third episode, "Brown," was written & directed by Peckinpah and, by coincidence, aired exactly two years to the day after "The Marshal."

This one is a comedy--and it really is hilarious. Blassingame meets a fellow named Burgundy Smith, played by the great character actor John Dehner. Burgundy wants to buy Dave's dog and offers a lot of money, planning to turn a profit by eventually re-selling Brown to be a sled dog in the Yukon. Dave won't sell. The two men go off on a bender and, when Dave eventually passes out first, Smith sees an opportunity to stick some money and a bill of sale in Dave's pocket, then ride out of town with Brown.

When Dave wakes up in jail and realizes what is happening, he is not happy.

So we have two wonderfully written TV episodes, one of which condemns alcoholism and the other that is literally just about two men on a bender and that treats this as pure comedy. I'm not making any judgments or conclusions and there is probably no deep insights into Peckinpah to be taken from this. But as far as it goes, it is interesting to see how the filmmaker, whose own life would be destroyed by alcohol, treated the subject early in his career.

Burgundy Smith, by the way, became a reoccurring character on The Westerner. Also, it is fun to note that the town in which "Brown" is set is named South Fork. A shout-out to The Rifleman's town of North Fork, perhaps?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Man Who Died Twice

It's really neat when a writer and artist can take a very cliched trope, play it straight and still do something fun with it.

"The Man Who Died Twice," published in House of Mystery #225 (June/July 1974) does just that. Written by Jack Oleck and drawn by Alfredo Alcala, it does indeed play the "Deal with the Devil" cliche completely straight. A man sells his soul to Satan to get the thing he most wants. He gets it, but in a way that leaves him worse off than he was before.

You know from the first panel that Giles Mornay is going to come to a tragic if well-deserved end. But all the same, the story is fun due to a combination of Alcala's atmospheric art work and enough interesting details to keep the reader intrigued.

Mornay is a poor cobbler who dreams big. He's a peasant, but feels he was destined to be a nobleman and looks down his nose at his equally poor neighbors. Determined to actually become a nobleman, he is constantly trying to summon the devil, must to the disgust and fear of his long-suffering wife.

It's only after Mornay murders his wife in a fit of rage, the devil finally appears. The deal is this: Mornay confesses to the murder and gets executed. He must spend a year in the grave--but the devil promises he won't die. Then he'll get the body of a noble.

Mornay goes along with this. He's hanged for the murder and buried, but he remains suspended in a sort-of not-quite-dead state. Though he rots away into a moldy skeleton, he still lives.

The devil, of course, hopes that this experience will drive Mornay insane. But the cobbler's overwhelming desire to become a noble keeps him going. When the year is up, he digs his way out of his grave and confronts the devil, demanding his new body.

The devil lives up to his part of the bargain, moving Mornay's soul into a nobleman's body. Mornay, though, had no idea that there had been a revolution during his year in the grave. It was no longer healthy to be a nobleman.

Alcala's art really does sell the story. Setting it in 18th Century France--along with the irony of Mornay's disdain of his fellow peasants & desire to be a noble--effectively sets up the twist at the end and gives clever readers a chance to guess what's coming without this spoiling the story. It's similar to the satisfaction of figuring out who the killer is in a mystery novel by legitimately spotting the clues--it enhances the big reveal rather than spoils it.

Cliches often exist because they are effective storytelling tools. Used poorly, they can ruin a story. But if used skillfully, even the oldest cliches can still be effective.

Next week, we'll get back to superheroes with a look at a two-part story from Marvel Two-in-One that packs a lot of emotional punch.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Bible Teaching

A bit off topic for my blog, perhaps, but then my beliefs as a Christian are a big influence on what I write, even when I write about comics and old-time radio.

Here's a teaching I did at my church this past Thursday:

Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Voyage of the Scarlet Queen: "The Lily in the Chimopo Bar" 7/31/47
                                                "The White Cargo Act and Ah Sin" 8/7/47 (A direct sequel to the first episode.)

In Korea, Phil Carney takes aboard a cargo of ginseng bound for Shanghai, but a femme fatale turns the simple job into an adventure involving several murders and a battle with pirates on the high seas.

Arriving in Shanghai, the femme fatale continues to make trouble, landing Carney and his first mate in prison. It's the second of these two episodes that introduces a Chinese criminal named Ah Sin. Short, fat, with a child-like face and a voice like Charles Laughton, he also has a Texas gunman as a "confidential secretary."  It's an open question for most of the episode whether Ah Sin is another enemy or a reluctant ally.

Ah Sin makes only one more appearance in a later episode. It's probably best he wasn't overused, but he's a really fun character and I'm sorry we never got to "see" more of him.

You can listen or download the first episode HERE and the second one HERE.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

We Lost Our Moon 18 Years Ago!

In the 1970s, if you were a young science fiction fan, you watched pretty much any science fiction show that came on TV. In the days before science fiction became the common staple of pop culture it has since become, you simply didn't want to miss the rare attempts to bring that genre to the small screen. (The same thing held true of superhero shows.) Grown ups who were SF fans might show a little bit more critical discernment, but I'll bet many adult fans made a point of also watching any SF show that came around, regardless of quality.

So in 1976 and 1977, I watched Space 1999, though I don't think I saw more than half the episodes at the time. It was a show whose premise is both awesomely cool and absurdly silly at the same time. An explosion of nuclear waste being stored on the moon throws it into deep space. So the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha are essentially castaways in deep space, hoping to some day find a new planet on which they can settle.

I'm okay with the silly premise--the idea of the moon wandering about the galaxy like a space gypsy is cool enough to make us overlook the absurdity. But that absurdity is there. No explanation, no matter how silly from the viewpoint of real-life science, is ever given to explain how the moon can apparently travel at faster-than-light speeds between solar systems, but still slow down to more reasonable speeds within a new system to give the Alphans a chance to interact with the Alien-of-the-Week each episode.

I found a great quote from Johnny Byrne, a writer for the show: "I found it difficult to accept that the Moon could travel through space at... whatever velocity they gave it... There was a basic element that was unbelievable, and SF has to have a basis in truth, or experience or psychology, or something you can latch on to."

I'm sure fan theories abound to explain this. My own idea is that the initial explosion that through the moon out of orbit created a warp field around the moon that takes it through Einsteinian space at hyper-speeds, with the gravity fields of stars & planets it passes temporarily slowing up the Moon as they pass through solar systems. 

This explanation is, of course, as silly as the premise. But at least it IS an explanation. The show needed that. Other weaknesses voiced by the cast included stilted dialogue (a concern voiced by Barry Morse) and a lack of occasional humor to balance out the drama (a concern repeatedly voiced by Martin Landau)

The cast, headed by Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and (in the first season) Barry Morse, was one of the show's strengths. Even when a script might be particularly weak, we never doubt that the crew of Moonbase Alpha are well-trained professionals who carry out their duties in an intelligent manner.

And the design work on the show was fantastic, particularly in the look of the base and the Eagle space craft with which the base is equipped.

All things considered, the show could have been better. But all the same, as as an adult  I still remember some episodes with fondness and when the show become available to watch online, I have enjoyed the two or three episodes I've watched. 

So, when I had a chance to acquire a novelization of the show (part of a series of paperbacks published while the show was airing), I did so without hesitation.

Like James Blish's Star Trek novelizations, the book contains short story adaptations of several episodes. The first one in this book is an adaptation of "War Games," considered by many of the original cast and many fans to be one of the best.

The last of the four stories in the book is based on another strong episode titled "The Last Enemy," which aired on February 19, 1976, In this one, the Moon has entered a solar system in which two planets orbit in direct opposition to each other--they are always on opposite sides of their sun.

They are also locked in eternal warfare. The Moon is in a position where either planet can use it as a gun platform to fire on their enemy. The planet Betha gets there first. A really, really big war ship, generating interference that cuts off Alpha's communications and prevents the Eagles from launching, lands nearby and begins shooting huge space cannon at the other planet.

That planet returns fire with a barrage of missiles. So the Moon base is trapped in the middle of a war, unable to do anything about it. When the Bethan ship is damaged, its commander seeks sanctuary in the Moon Base. The commander, as was her crew (who she claims are now dead), is a very beautiful woman.

Heck, when the Alphans later talk to the leader of Betha via radio, she pops up on a view screen and turns out to be an older woman, but still a knockout. Presumably, Betha is a planet of Amazons. This is never clarified, but since the Alphans spend their entire time in this system just trying to survive, providing us hints of Bethan culture without further clarification is actually the right way to go.

Anyway, the warship commander, named Dione, is eventually revealed to be pulling a con job on the Moon Base. She helps the Alphans contact both planets and arrange a cease fire until the Moon leaves the system. But Dione then sneaks back to her ship to launch surprise attack on the other planet. She had faked the damage to her ship.

This will violate the cease fire, which means Alpha will be specifically targeted for retaliatory strikes, since the Alphans had promised to oversee the cease fire.

After reading the book I pulled up this episode online and watched it. I want to comment on the ending in the book as opposed to the ending of the actual episode, so beware--THERE BE SPOIILERS AHEAD. If you want to watch it before reading on, for U.S. viewers its available HERE.

The novelization is based on the original script and, judging from the copyright information on the title page, was likely written before the episode was filmed and certainly before it was aired.  In prose, to save Alpha, Commander Koenig (Landau's character) gives the other planet the coordinates of Dione's ship and lets them blow it up.

The script for the actual episode, though, apparently ran short, so new scenes were added during production. This allowed for a much more tense finale. Dione is monitoring the Moon Base's communications and threatens to blow them up if they try to transmit her coordinates. So Koenig has to improvise a Mission Impossible style plan in which he pretends to panic and abandon his crew, then come to her ship in a moon buggy. In reality, the space suit in the buggy's drivers seat is empty and the buggy has a nuke hidden in it. (The show doesn't actually say its a nuke, but it causes a really big explosion to destroy a really big space ship, so its more fun to assume it's nuclear.)

So the book has the weaker ending, but that is no fault of the writer, who was working with the information he had and otherwise does a fine job in converting the story to prose.

So I still have problems with Space 1999 and share many of the concerns voiced by cast and writers back in 1976. But all the same it did give us at least occasional good stories, fun space ships and pleasant memories. Revisiting the show as an adult has, in fact, raised my opinion of it to a degree.

But to those who think the show was simply great--and a large number of you are out there--I get why you do and completely respect your point of view.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Man in the Iron Mask--No, not THAT one!

As far as keeping a secret identity is concerned, Alan Armstrong is fortunate that his boss Admiral Corby & Corby's daughter Eve are more unobservant than any member of the Daily Planet staff ever was. The Nazi spy attacks; Alan disappears; Spy Smasher shows up and tussles with the Nazi; Spy Smasher disappears; Alan reappears.  Admiral Corby doesn't suspect a thing. I have no idea how the man got to be an admiral.

But, despite the fact that writer Otto Binder wasn't really even trying to handle the secret identity thing in a rational way, "The Man in the Iron Mask" (from Spy Smasher #4--April 1942) is a fun little story, packed with action and featuring an interesting villain.

The story is set in an old castle that's being converted into an army fort. Fatal accidents keep happening to the workers, usually followed by creepy organ music. This soon proves to be the work of The Man in the Iron Mask, a spy with an interesting origin. He had been a famous musician in Germany, but got into hot water when he refused to salute Hitler. Being threatened with execution changes his loyalties pretty quickly, though. He has the Iron Mask wielded on to him as punishment, but then he's sent out to do spy stuff to prove his new-found loyalty to the Reich. The logic of sending out someone with a visually distinctive mask stuck to his face to be a spy is not discussed.

Anyway, when Alan Armstrong arrives at the castle with Corby and Eve to look into the deaths, Alan finds that this is a job for Spy Smasher. The hero and villain tussle, but Iron Mask escapes and continues his sabotage.

Otto Binder was a writer made for superhero comics, able to follow the winding streams of Comic Book Logic no matter where they took him, embracing the absurdity of super powers and using that to invoke both humor and excitement.

Here, he's working with a non-powered hero and I think that actually works against his writing style to a small extent. This is a story in which its important for plot to hang together in terms of basic plot construction. So when the story has the Iron Mask committing murder after murder with apparent abandon, we can't help but wonder why Admiral Corby isn't bringing in troops to thoroughly search the entire castle--or at least stand guard over the workers. Without any overt fantasy elements to the tale, stuff like this stands out. An extra page or two laying out a system of secret doors and passages would have helped.

All the same, the story is fun. Emil Gershwin's art is strong and the action is nicely choreographed. And, as I mentioned above, the villain is a neat one--combining a little bit of Dumas with a dash of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera.

The Iron Mask ends up capturing the three protagonists, so Spy Smasher has to escape from a death trap, rescue Corby and Eve from another death trap, then fight the Iron Mask one more time. This time around, the Nazi falls into the water and drowns. For real, too. I can't find another reference to the character reappearing.

This story is in the public domain. You can read it HERE.

Next week, we take a trip back to 18th Century France to meet "The Man Who Died Twice."

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