Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Substitute Heroes

cover art by Curt Swan

The Legion of Substitute Heroes don't get no respect. Heck, in their first appearance (Adventure Comics #306--March 1963), they didn't even rate a cover appearance (though they did at least get a blurb along the bottom).

The Substitutes are made up of five people with superpowers who tried out for the Legion of Superheroes. Because their individual powers were not quite up to snuff (or--though no one is mean enough to say it--kind of dumb), all were rejected. But they still admire the Legion and want help, so they secretly form the Substitute Legion, waiting for a chance to step in and save the day when the real Legion is on the ropes.

The Substitutes are led by Polar Boy, who can generate cold. Over in the Marvel Universe, the X-Men's Iceman was demonstrating that this is indeed a useful power, but Polar Boy doesn't have proper control over his ability yet. He's joined by Night Girl (super-strength when not exposed to sunlight), Fire Lad (literally breaths fire), Chlorophyll Kid (can accelerate plant growth) and Stone Boy (turns into a statue).

Though they are eager to help, the Substitutes don't get an opportunity to do so. They start to jump in whenever there's an emergency, but the real Legion is always there before them and always has the situation well in hand.

But then the Legion is lured into space by an alien race that intends to use mobile, man-like plants as an army to conquer Earth. The Substitutes finally get a chance to show their stuff, destroying the plant army on Earth, then back-tracking the aliens to their home planet. The heroes use their powers in clever combinations to defeat the aliens.

John Forte did the art and Edmond Hamilton was the regular writer for the LSH at the time. Long-time readers of my blog will know that Hamilton is one of my favorite pulp/comic book writers and this story really demonstrates why. The idea of idealistic young people determined to do good--while remaining in the background and taking no credit--is by itself an awesome concept. Hamilton skillfully constructs a situation in which their powers--despite their limitations--can be used effectively. I have to say that Hamilton's use of Stone Boy does come across as contrived. But Stone Boy may have the world's most useless superpower, so making him useful probably can't help but be contrived. Despite this, the story is a fine example of Hamilton's skill at clever plot construction. 

cover art by Curt Swan

The Legion's second appearance is also an impressive story. Adventure Comics #311 (August 1963) finally earned the Substitutes a cover appearance, but the story itself brought them trouble. The real Legion apparently finds out about them, but it also appears that the Legion has betrayed Earth and is soon tracking down the Substitutes with the intent to kill them. In fact, it briefly appears that they succeed in killing Stone Boy.

It turns out that the real Legion was trapped in a space warp by yet another alien race bent on conquest. (One wonders why aliens don't concentrate on conquering planets that don't have a Legion of Super Heroes based on it.)

The Substitutes figure out what's going on, stop the bad guys and free the Legion from the warp--all while still keeping their existence a secret.

Both stories clearly show that the Substitutes do indeed have limited powers or are as yet undisciplined in using them. (Polar Boy did eventually become a member of the real Legion.) But all five are shown as eager to be heroes for the right reasons, to be able to think their way out of dangerous situations and to keep going when things get tough. Their powers might be limited (or even just plain dumb), but they are indeed heroes.

That's it for now. Next week, we'll jump back to the Civil War and ride with a Union cavalry officer.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philip Marlowe: "The Big Book" 9/29/50

Marlowe almost accidentally gets involved investigating the apparent suicide of an aging actress, Usually, it's Marlowe's job to uncover secrets. This time, he ends up feeling obligated to keep a secret.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

I Have a Bone to Pick with Christopher Morley

Read/Watch 'em In Order #84

Christopher Morley's sequel to his delightful 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels was written in 1919. By this time, the U.S. had fought in the Great War and Germany had been defeated. This is a factor in The Haunted Bookshop, which is still drips with a love of good books, but also adds a really nifty mystery to the plot.

Roger and Helen Mifflin have given up their travelling book wagon and opened a second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn ("that borough of superb sunsets and magnificent vistas of husband-propelled baby carriages"), where they have just taken in a young lady named Titania Chapman as a clerk. A young man named Aubrey Gilbert, an advertising man looking to get Mifflin's business, also enters the story. In fact, Aubrey soon takes over as the main character.

Aubrey quickly falls in love with the charming Titania. At the same time, he realizes there's a mystery afoot. A certain book keeps appearing and disappearing from the shop. This inexplicably ties in with a German pharmacist whose shop is nearby and a German cook who works at a local hotel. Aubrey has no clear idea what's going on, but he fears that Titania might be in danger. In fact, his best guess is that Mifflin is working with the Germans to kidnap her for ransom (Titania's father is wealthy).

Aubrey is, though, an amateur detective. The bad guys almost manage to do him in at least once and he makes several mistakes and comes to several erroneous conclusions. But overall, Aubrey does pretty well and it is he that saves Titania and the Mifflins during a literally explosive conclusion.

The mystery is a good one, while Morley's prose is full of wit & gentle humor, while his characters are all immensely likable. Seeded throughout the mystery plot are opportunities for Roger Mifflin to talk about books, the importance of reading and refining one's taste in books. Morley does this skillfully, both through his honest passion about this subject and in fitting it into the story without usually slowing down the A plot.

Morley even uses Mifflin to fit in his opinions about the then-upcoming peace conference in Paris. It's really too bad that the world leaders weren't given a copy of The Haunted Bookshop at Versailles. His prescient urging of something like the post-World War 2 Marshall Plan would have been a vast improvement over the disastrous Treaty of Versailles.

But I do have a particular bone to pick with Christopher Morley. Presuming Mifflin is a mouthpiece for Morley's own opinions, then I do take issue with his slightly snobbish dismissal of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Gee whiz, Chris, if Burroughs' style didn't appeal to you, then that's fine. But a complete failure to recognize Burroughs as the enormously skilled storyteller he was is disappointing. You hear that, Morley? I'm very disappointed in you.

Both Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop are truly wonderful books and, leaving aside the lack of respect for Tarzan, both books share Morley's love of literature and reading. What's not to like?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Micronauts, Part 5

At the end of Micronauts #8, the heroes had wrapped up their business on Earth and headed back to the Microverse. This changes the feel of the series in a way--we go from what were relatively small-scale fights to epic space battles and world-wide rebellions. This works, though, as the story has effectively built up to these events.

In Micronauts #9 & 10 (September & October 1979), the Micronauts arrive on Spartak, the home of Acroyear. The Acroyears had been fighting for Baron Karza, but this was the result of a planet-wide "thought-washing." When Acroyear's rotten brother Shaitan failed to defeat the heroes on Earth, Karza sent him home and released the planet from his control, leaving the population very, very displeased with Shaitan.

This might seem a tactically unwise move--allowing a planet of kick-butt warriors to go from loyal minions to angry enemies. But Karza has already sent a fleet to Spartak large enough to destroy the Acroyears. This is actually an effective look at the pettiness and evil of Karza. He's essentially willing to commit genocide as part of an off-hand gesture to punish an underling who failed him.

But he has another motive as well. He knows the Micronauts are on Spartak. He wants to capture Rann alive to hopefully find out more about the Enigma Force (the power that the mysterious Time Traveller embodies or is a part of). Get rid of the Enigma Force, Karza figures, and nothing else can stand against him.

The Micronauts join in the defense of Spartak, but they are badly outnumbered. The good guys  are getting curb-stomped. Before long, Rann and Mari are both prisoners of Karza. Bug is presumed killed in action.

What is Acroyear, once again the leader of the Acroyears, doing while all this is going on? He's having a heartfelt conversation with the planet.

According to ancient legends, Spartak is actually a living being, pledged to help defend itself and the Acroyears in times of great need. This definitely qualifies. Acroyear wakes up the planet, which then starts tossing chunks of itself at the invaders.

The series has taken not just a more epic, but a much more brutal turn with this issues. This is not a criticism--everything that happens makes sense in context of the story. But bad stuff happens, especially when some of Karza's troops manage to land on Spartak and go on a killing spree, taking out women and children as well as enemy soldiers.

In the meantime, back on Homeworld, Prince Argon takes advantage of Karza being off-world and leads an open rebellion, attacking the body banks. With the Shadow Priests switching sides, they soon overwhelm the enemy troops.

As the good guys achieve victory on both Spartak and Homeworld, we get some more examples of how brutal life in the Microverse can be. Are you a snotty rich person who has oppressed and killed the poor to achieve immortality? Are you a murderous invader who has been slaughtering civilians on Spartak? Then don't expect much in the way of due process.

Michael Golden's art work gives the entire story an appropriately epic feel. And I must once again repeat what has become a standard refrain during my look at the Micronauts: Writer Bill Mantlo continues to give us sophisticated, complex world-building wrapped around a strong, well-constructed plot.

Next week, we'll jump from the Microverse to the 30th Century and visit with the Legion of Substitute Heroes.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Friday, August 4, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Nick Carter: "Death Plays the Lead" 12/3/44

Nick investigates the murder of an actress playing in an U.S.O. show. This leads to a case which, as Nick says, "has too many suspects and two few clues."

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

When the World No Longer Turns

"Swordsman of Lost Terra," a novella by Poul Anderson, fools you a little at the beginning by making you think its a straight fantasy. It's set on a version of Earth which doesn't rotate and has a Medieval level civilization and involves some apparently magical bagpipes that--if played just right--can instill panic in attacking enemies.

In fact, at first it's only the story's title that tells us the planet is Earth at all. But if we find out that it was originally published in the November 1951 issue of Planet Stories, then we have our first clue that it is in fact science fiction. Not hard SF--Planet Stories was not terribly concerned about getting the science right--but science fiction all the same. Those darn bagpipes are an artifact of lost science from before the world stopped spinning and old civilizations collapsed.

We get more details as the story progresses. There are legends of a time when the Earth rotated and at least one small kingdom has men who have developed scientific thought and deduced things such as the Earth being round and distant stars being suns. At some point in the distant past, another planet or large asteroid passed near the Earth; its gravity stopped our world's rotation.

But mostly the characters in "Swordsman of Lost Terra" are concerned with hacking one another to death. The reader travels with what is essentially a nomadic warrior band--wandering around the Twilight area of the world until their homeland recovers from a famine. They make a living either hiring out as mercenaries or plundering what they need from others. They remind me a little of Vikings, which is not surprising in a Poul Anderson story. The man loved his Vikings.

There are three clans joined to form the band. Their overall leader is Red Bram, who is a pretty impressive kick-butt warrior. One of the other clan leaders is Rhiach, who is the only person able to play the god-pipe that brings madness or even death. Rhiach's son Kery--also a skilled warrior--is the story's main character.

When the band is attacked by a horde of well-armed, disciplined warriors from the dark side of the planet, it is only Rhiach's well-timed use of the pipes that saves them. But Rhiach is killed by a stray arrow. Kery inherits the pipes, but he has not yet been trained to use them. Now no one lives who can teach him.

All this is setting up a lively and exciting tale. Anderson puts his remarkable skill at world-building to work here, creating an Earth that in many ways has become an alien world compared to what we know. Then he manages to smoothly fit quite a lot of plot exposition and several epic battle scenes into the novella, along with several engaging characters.

The band soon allies itself with a city that is under siege from the Dark Lander army. There's a beautiful queen who falls in love with Kery, bloody battles, betrayals, kidnappings and desperate escapes. Everything revolves around the god-pipes. If either Kery or the leader of the Dark Landers can figure out who to use them, then the balance of power will rather abruptly shift.

"Swordsman of Lost Terra" is an excellent example of Sword-and-Planet fiction. It's really too bad Anderson never returned to this particular world. There are, I think, a lot of cool stories left to tell about it.

By the way, I read this story in a long-out-of-print anthology titled Swordsmen in the Skyi. I recommend this highly--keep an eye peeled for it in used book stores or online.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Home for Retired Outlaws

Western Round-Up was published by Dell Comics from 1952 to 1959, featuring stories about Western B-Movie stars (some of whom, such as Roy and Gene, had moved to TV by then) and eventually also including stories based on TV Westerns such as Wagon Train and Tales of Wells Fargo. Many of these guys had books of their own as well, but in the 1950s, people could not get enough Westerns. Printing a western-themed comic book with good quality stories and recognizable stars was essentially the same as printing money.

The first issue (cover-dated June 1952) starts out with a nifty Roy Rogers story titled "Gunfighter's Retreat." The writer is unknown, but the solid artwork is by Pete Alvarado.

Roy has been asked for help by Ma Stebbins, who has bought an old, abandoned fort and opened a sort of retirement home. The old coots living there are all aging gunfighters--many of them former outlaws. But all have done their jail time and now they have a good, clean home, allowing them to swap tall tales and re-live old battles using blanks. (No one is allowed to have live ammo.)

Ma Stebbins has done this out of the goodness of her heart and now has the cash to pay off the last of the loan she had taken to buy and set-up the home. But the man to whom she owes the money--Toothpick Tolin--would rather foreclose than collect the money. He plans to use the fort as a base for an outlaw gang.

Roy is asked to deliver the money. This proves to be no easy task, but with the help of Trigger (who twice alerts Roy to ambush) and Pa Stebbins (a former quick-draw who now has an artificial arm), they fight their way past some thugs, deliver the money and force Tolin to give them a receipt. All this includes a wonderful scene in which Pa Stebbins, despite now being short a right arm, forcing a frightened Tolin to back down rather than draw on him.

Tolin isn't giving up, though, sending a small army of outlaws to stop kill Roy and get back the receipt. This forces Roy to stage a last stand, holding off the outlaws while Pa and Trigger make it back to the fort. Pa then forms the ageing gunmen living there into a kick-butt posse that saves Roy and sends the outlaws packing.

This is a fun story--a great example of just why Westerns were so popular. Clear storytelling, interesting characters and solid action scenes all combine to give us a very entertaining tale. I love the idea of the old gunmen bringing a gang of young whippersnappers a well-deserved comeuppance. Our culture has lost touch with the idea that our elders have wisdom and experience to share with us. This story--and especially Pa's confrontation with Tolin--reminds us of how important it is to recognize that wisdom does indeed come with age.

You can read this one online HERE.

Next week, we return once more to the Micronauts.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Update about Friday's Favorite OTRs

Over the years, I've used several different hosting services to share old-time radio shows on Fridays. All proved unreliable or difficult to access for at least some readers. Awhile back, it finally occurred to me that in most cases, I could simply link episodes directly to the Internet Archive. That's become my standard procedure and seems to work fine for most if not all my readers.

I have finished going back through my past Friday's Favorite OTR posts and updating the links for easier access. In a few cases, I could not find a particular episode on the Internet Archive, so I linked to a nifty site called "Old Time Radio Downloads." In either case, clicking on the link provided in any OTR post should take you directly to where you can listen or download to the specific episode I'm highlighting in each post.

There were a few very rare instances in which I could not find an episode on either of those sites, so I kept the link to my account. But for nearly all of the OTR episodes I highlight on Fridays, there should now be very easy access for you all. Click on the "Friday's Favorite OTR" link on the right side of the blog--or the label for a specific show--and have fun exploring.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "The Wreck of the Old 97" 3/17/52

The tale of a deadly 1903 train wreck told in both story and song. This episode is from Elliot Lewis' tenure as producer of Suspense. Lewis often used experimental or unusual formats for telling stories on radio and the results were nearly always great.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Thieves, Protoplasmic Monsters and Hounds from Before Time

Last week, we looked at H.P. Lovecraft's novella "The Whisperer in Darkness" and mentioned that Lovecraft included a couple of shout-outs to the horror stories of other writers, effectively making those stories a part of the Cthulhu mythos.

This led me to read both those stories, because it would have been literally impossible for me not to read them.

Frank Belknap Long's short story "The Hounds of Tandalos" appeared in the March 1929 issue of Weird Tales and is impressive in how effectively it generates an atmosphere of horror in such a relatively short story.

The first-person narrator is asked by a guy named Chalmers (who has "the soul of a medieval ascetic") to participate in an experiment. The narrator is reluctant to do so, because he thinks the idea is insane--Chalmers wants to take a mind-expanding drug while concentrating on complex Einsteinian mathematics. This, he thinks, will allow his mind to travel back through time. He wants the narrator to write down whatever Chalmers observers.

Well, the experiment works--or perhaps Chalmers is just vividly hallucinating: "All the billions of lives that preceded me on this planet are before me at this moment. I see men of all ages, all races and colors. They are fighting, killing, building, dancing, singing. they are sitting about rude fires on lonely gray deserts, and flying through the air on monoplanes." Real or not, Chalmers provides us with some awesome imagery.

But then he goes back before life existed--only to discover that some sort of perverse life is there at the beginning of time: "All the evil in the universe was concentrated in their lean, hungry bodies. Or had they bodies? I saw them only for a moment; I cannot be certain. But I heard them breathe. Indescribably for a moment I felt their breath on my face. They turned towards me and I fled screaming."

These were the Hounds of Tandalos--the source of all that is evil in our universe. Chalmers is terrified that they might follow him into the present and enter our world. The narrator at this point, deciding that Chalmers is now completely off the deep end, leaves in disgust. But later events may just prove that Chalmers had reason to be scared...

You can read the story HERE.

Clark Ahston Smith's creation--the evil god Tsathoggua--also gets a mention in Lovecraft's story. "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" was published after "The Whisperer in Darkness," appearing in the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales. But Lovecraft and Smith were regular correspondents. Lovecraft got to read the story before it was published and loved it.

There's a lot to love. Despite being a very effective and creepy horror story, Clark's story has a lot of humor in it. The story is set in Smith's Hyperborean cycle--a time before recorded history similar to the Hyborian Age that Robert E. Howard would create for Conan.

The title character is also the narrator, who claims that he and his partner are the best thieves in the world. One of the fun things about the story is that you can debate just how good these guys actually are at their chosen profession. Zeiros recounts some details of several amazing jobs they pulled off in the past, but at the moment they are broke. They spend their last few pennies on wine instead of bread because getting drunk will supposedly give them inspiration for their next job. So are they great thieves temporarily down on their luck, or are they mediocre thieves with delusions of grandeur?

In either case, they decide their next job will be to loot a city that was abandoned centuries ago and reputed to be a place of evil. Since the city was abandoned in a hurry after a prophesy warned the population to flee, the thieves figure there's likely to be a lot of valuables left behind.  They don't stop to wonder why no one had ever looted the supposedly empty city in the past.

The monster they inevitably meet is a protoplasmic creature that grows out of a basin full of thick liquid and pursues them relentless through the jungle surrounding the city and then back into the city once again. There is simply no escaping this thing and getting away with one's life will not be an easy task.

Like Lovecraft, Clark had a infallible skill at choosing just the right words and sentence structures to make his stories beg to be read aloud. The drawback to this, of course, is that you pretty much have no idea how to pronounce any of the names. And, no matter how smart and well-read you are, you will have to stop to look up word meanings at least a half-dozen times. None of this distracts from the fun of reading his stories, though. In fact, it enhances that fun.

"The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" is, like Long's story, very short but still very effective in generating the proper atmosphere. Where Long went for pure horror, Clark accomplished even more in that he inserted humor without lessening the horror. I have read a lot of Clark's stuff over the years, but this is one of my favorites.

You can read this story HERE.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Where the Buffalo (and the Dinosaur) Roam

cover art by George Wilson

It was a rare Turok cover that didn't have a dinosaur on it. Turok, Son of Stone #69 (1970), though, prominently features a buffalo. But what does this modern animal doing in a story set in a lost valley full of prehistoric creatures?

That's what Turok and Andar want to find out. A fight between a pair of carnosaurs drives them into a cave, where they notice a cave painting of a buffalo. That means one of the cave tribes that live in the valley must have actually seen a buffalo once. That means the buffalo somehow found its way into the valley, which might mean there's a way out.

Tracking down the tribe that painted the image, though, proves to be a bit tricky. The Indians save some local cavemen from a big meat-eater and ask about the painting, only to be told that the tribe that painted it migrated away months ago. Also, that particular tribe always kills strangers--though that's hardly a unique attitude in the Lost Valley.

They find a tribe that does indeed try to kill them. Turok and Andar avoid vine-swinging warriors and stumble across a stone alter with a buffalo horn mounted on top of it. They finally discover that yet another tribe, living a little farther on, is responsible for creating the alter and (presumably) the cave painting that started all this.

So the two friends march on to meet yet another tribe that immediately decides to kill them. I don't know what to think sometimes. Turok always had this mentor/teacher vibe to him that makes him one of the most likable characters in comic book history, but nearly everyone he meets in person wants to impale him with a spear.  Maybe its a body odor problem?

More shenanigans follow and Turok eventually gets the drop on the chief--who is wearing a buffalo robe and carrying another horn attached to the end of a spear. From him, they eventually get the story behind all this.

An earthquake had briefly opened a break in the cliff wall, through which the buffalo had entered the valley. The tribe credited this strange beast with bringing rain that ended a long drought. Later, the buffalo drove off a carnosaur, but was mortally wounded in the fight.

After this story is told, the cave men manage to capture Turok and Andar, forcing Turok to improvise a plan proving his "medicine" is stronger than the buffalo horn.

Created by the usual team of Paul S. Newman (writer) and Alberto Giolitti (artist), this story is yet another example of why Gold Key's original version of Turok still stands head and shoulders above all the ultra-violent reboots of the character.  Turok thinks his way through each situation they encounter as they try to track down the story of the buffalo. He fights when he has to and doesn't stint on the use of poisoned arrows against dinosaurs. But in the end, his natural intelligence and ability to think on his feet is his best weapon.

The plot unfolds logically (Newman was a master at plot construction) and Giolitti's art is typically strong. With Turok's strong characterization giving it all backbone, "The Phantom Mystery" is yet another example of why Turok Son of Stone is one of the best comic book series ever.

Next week, Roy Rogers and some really old guys shoot it out with a gang of thieves.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

The rise in popularity of Bruce Lee and Asian martial arts movies were a big influence on comic books and resulted in a number of great characters, of which Iron Fist and Shang-Chi are two of my favorites.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Great Gildersleeve: "Rain Maker" 9/10/44

During a drought, Gildy risks his job by spending $500 of city money to hire a supposed scientist who claims he can make it rain.

Click HERE to listen or download.

This is the first episode in a story arc in which Gildy deals with being unemployed. The rest of the episodes in this arc can be found HERE.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Real Name of the planet Pluto!

The August 1931 issue of Weird Tales gave us one of H.P. Lovecraft's best stories. It also tells us what the actual purpose the planet Pluto serves. (And yes, I know Pluto isn't considered a planet anymore. Tough toenails--on my blog, Pluto still gets to be a planet!)

"The Whisperer in Darkness" was written right after Pluto was discovered. That plus Lovecraft's admiration of Arthur Machen's 1895 book The Novel of the Black Seal, from which Lovecraft drew plot ideas and themes, resulted in a truly creepy tale.

The narrator is Albert Wilmarth, a professor at Miskatonic University--the school where you are as likely to die horribly or be driven insane as get a graduate degree. Wilmarth is interested in certain aspects of New England folklore. He begins a correspondence with Henry Akeley, who lives in a secluded area of Vermont and believes he has found proof that alien beings have set up a small mining colony nearby and have been visiting Earth for centuries.

Like most aliens who inhabit Lovecraft's perpetually horrific universe, these creatures do not share any human concept of right and wrong with us. As Wilmarth, who eventually comes to believe Akeley, describes them:

I got this image from the Lovecraft wiki--
I couldn't find an artist's credit.
The things come from another planet, being able to live in interstellar space and fly through it on clumsy, powerful wings which have a way of resisting the ether but which are too poor at steering to be of much use in helping them about on earth. I will tell you about this later if you do not dismiss me at once as a madman. They come here to get metals from mines that go deep under the hills, and I think I know where they come from. They will not hurt us if we let them alone, but no one can say what will happen if we get too curious about them. Of course a good army of men could wipe out their mining colony. That is what they are afraid of. But if that happened, more would come from outside—any number of them. They could easily conquer the earth, but have not tried so far because they have not needed to. They would rather leave things as they are to save bother.

I really admire Lovecraft's story construction here. The first part of the story consists of Wilmarth and Akeley exchanging letters without ever actually meeting. At first,they calmly trade ideas and information. But Akeley gradually becomes more and more concerned that the Mi-Go (as the aliens are called) are stalking him with help of human agents. Eventually, Akeley is essentially besieged in his home, exchanging rifle fire with those human agents. His dogs manage to hold off the Mi-Go themselves.

Lovecraft employs his usual skill with sentence construction and perfect word choices to gradually build up the tension. Akeley is reluctant to leave his family home, but his situation is becoming untenable. Then Wilmarth gets a long letter (typewritten rather than handwritten) in which Akeley says he's been misinterpreting the Mi-Go's intentions and has actually made friends with them. Why doesn't Wilmarth come to Vermont and meet them?

It's actually fair to consider this a weak point in the story. That Wilmarth is being drawn into a trap is mind-numbingly obvious, but Wilmarth goes to great lengths to explain his absurd reasons for thinking its not really a trap. Gee whiz, Wilmarth. You were doing so well up to now and suddenly you are too dumb to live.

But he actually does manage to live. That's not a spoiler--he's narrating the story, so we know he lives. The second major part of the story comes when he does visits Akeley's home and learns, among other things, that he's not very safe there; that there's a planet located beyond Neptune called Yuggoth, which is a sort of base for the Mi-Go; that travel between planets, stars and dimensions often requires having your brain temporarily moved into a jar; and that Akeley is no longer--well, let's just say that he's not quite himself any more. In fact, Wilmarth learns a lot of things so bizarre and frightening that it puts his sanity at risk.

The story ends with a wonderfully horrific twist, but not before Wilmarth has time to wonder about the discovery of Pluto, which he knows must be Yuggoth. What reason do the Mi-Go have for allowing us to discover the planet they've always kept hidden from us? One horrible day, we'll probably find out.

I suspect the Mi-Go will be mad at us for reducing Pluto from planet to dwarf planet. And who can blame them?

Lovecraft mentioned the Mi-Go in one future story--In the Mountains of Madness--in which we learn they once fought a war with yet another race of ancient aliens. Cthulhu is also mentioned, so this is a part of what would become one of the first shared universes in literature. Other writers would contribute stories to this mythos, while Lovecraft would often mention elements from their stories in his own prose.

For instance, "The Whisperer in Darkness" mentions a being from Clark Ashton Smith's story "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," which hadn't itself been published yet, but which Smith had allowed Lovecraft to read. There's also a shout-out to "The Hounds of Tindalos" a 1929 story by Frank Belknap Long. Looking up those references also led me to read those two stories, so I think we'll examine both of them in another post sometime soon.

You can read "The Whisperer in Darkness" HERE.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Micronauts, Part 4

By the end of the 6th issue of The Micronauts, there was a ton of stuff going on. Good guy human Ray Coffin & bad guy human Phil Prometheus has fallen into the Prometheus Pit, transporting them to the microverse. But Ray had been grabbed by the enigmatic Time Traveler, while Phil goes nuts from the experience and is found by Baron Karza's forces.

The other major event in the Microverse happens when Prince Argon, who has been turned into a centaur as a part of Karza's genetic experiments, is rescued by the resistance.

And that's just in the Microverse. Back on Earth, Ray's son Steve and the Micronauts are hiding out in a cabin in the Everglades, trying to figure out their next move and make repairs on their ship.

That brings us to Micronauts #7 (July 1979), which places the series firmly in the mainstream Marvel Universe and continues to throw more back story and exposition at us.

I continue to be impressed with writer Bill Mantlo's skill at weaving in all this information amidst the action, keeping the necessary exposition interesting and never allowing it to slow the story down. I am tending to repeat myself with each installment of my Micronauts reviews, but it must be said again: Of  the various merchandise-based comic series that Marvel produced in the 1970s and 1980s, this series arguably gives us the most sophisticated and well-constructed world-building.

Also, my summary will not attempt to jump back and forth between the various plot lines, as the actual comic expertly does. Instead, I'll once again talk about each separately.

We get more back story about Rann and Biotron's 1000-year space journey. Events during that journey left them telepathically linked and gave Biotron human emotions. (Though Microbot also seems to have emotions, so go figure.)

Argon and the lady resistance leader named Slug contact a resistance cell and discover that Karza's Shadow Priests have been secretly working against the dictator. By the time we get to Micronauts #8, Argon is equipped with armor and ready to lead the resistance against Karza. That the Resistance had centaur-compatible armor available seems a bit odd, but artist Michael Golden makes it look cool.

Back on Earth, Steve and the Micronauts are attacked by Man-Thing, who reacts to the despair Steve is feeling over the supposed death of his dad. Steve, though, pulls himself together and shreds Man-Thing apart with the fan of a swamp buggy. Man-Thing can't be permanently killed this way, of course, but it at least gets the good guys out of a bad situation.

Jumping back in the Microverse, Karza realized he can get to Earth via the Prometheus Pit. By swapping his molecular structure with the insane Phil Prometheus, he'll be regular human-sized when he gets to our world. In the meantime, the Time Traveller gives Ray Coffin power and turns him into Captain Universe, giving him the task of saving the Earth from Karza.

Ray has a neat little character arc built into his transformation. He thinks of himself as an over-the-hill ex-astronaut and doesn't want to be a hero at all. But his world and (more importantly to him) his son are in danger, so he'll do what he has to do.

Karza arrives on Earth as a full-sized human and starts blasting stuff, delighted to have another world to conquer. Karza, by the way, was briefly seen a few issues ago with a centaur body. Now he has a completely human body again. I may have missed a reference to this, but his body-swapping doesn't seem to be explained. This might be a detail that Mantlo simply failed to explain properly--a minor point when compared to his otherwise meticulous plot construction.  His original toy could be combined with his steed Andromeda to form a centaur, so I suppose that (unlike the altered Argon), the centaur body is armor of some sort. There's a Micronauts wiki (because of course there is), but that only gives us one short paragraph about comic book Karza.

Karza curb-stomps the army. When the Micronauts show up, he begins curb-stomping them as well. Then Captain Universe appears and goes mano-a-mano with Karza. The dialogue during the fight makes a point of letting us know that Karza's power comes from usurping it from others, while Captain Universe is using powers freely given to him--this gives the hero a bit of an edge.

Rann, in the meantime, is sick of fighting defensively and comes up with a more proactive plan. The Micronauts will use the Prometheus Pit to return to their own universe. If Karza follows, he'll have to return to his regular size. If he stays on Earth, the Micronauts will seal the Pit behind them and trap him there.  I guess they are counting on Captain Universe winning the fight--otherwise, they are leaving Earth with a bit of a mess to clean up.

Karza guesses their plans and does indeed swap his molecular structure back with Phil Prometheus. That leaves an unconscious Prometheus back on Earth and all the main characters back in the Microverse. Ray loses his Captain Universe powers when they are no longer needed and he and Steve reconnect as father and son.

I'm still loving my first visit to this very first Micronauts story arc. Marvel had a lot of success of taking merchandise-driven titles and building strong characters and stories within them. G.I. Joe and Transformers (though both excellent titles) were often hurt a little by the necessity of adding more and more characters as the toy lines grew. Micronauts, ironically, probably benefited from the fact that the toy line never caught on to the same degree. It meant that Mantlo could concentrate on developing his original characters and perhaps have more freedom in building an interesting back story for them.

Next week: Turok and Andar usually hunt dinosaurs, but they suddenly have a chance to once again hunt buffalo.

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