Monday, February 27, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

You don't ever--EVER--want to get Andy Panda mad at you.  From 1947.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Friday's Favority OTR

The Green Hornet: “Underwater Adventure” 9/25/46

Often, I’ll pick a particular episode to listen to based on its title. The Green Hornet normally centers around an urban crime adventure, so a title like “Underwater Adventure” stands out.

Well, it was still an urban crime adventure, but it was a gosh darn good one. The Hornet suspects that a salvage scow working out in the bay is up to no good. He’s right—the thugs on board are attempting to find a quarter million dollars in bank loot.

The Hornet, posing as he always does as yet another bad guy, forces himself into the deal. When the diving suit being used is damaged, it becomes the Hornet’s job to steal another one. This gives him an opportunity to lead the police right to the bad guys—providing he and Kato don’t get caught first.

It’s a straightforward, entertaining episode, with the high production values typical of the shows produced at WXYZ in Detroit. (The station that also produced The Lone Ranger and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.) The title’s a bit misleading—the Hornet actually only spends a few minutes underwater. But the story is a good one anyways, so we’ll forgive this.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Greatest Collection of Villains Television Has Ever Seen!

It's always fun to examine how different pop culture media cross-pollinate each other. For instance, if it weren't for the influence of pulp magazines and comic books (combined with the popularity of spy stories and Westerns), then we would never have gotten to watch one of the rare jewels in the barren wasteland of television--Wild Wild West.

Wild Wild West was set in a steampunk universe before the term "steampunk" was even coined. It was completely unashamed of itself as it went as far over-the-top in plot and character as it could go--giving us bizarre plots and hammy villains that would have been perfectly at home in a Silver Age comic book. And it did all this perfectly, providing us with a steady diet of entertainment. My nephew Josiah considers Wild Wild West to be the greatest TV show ever. Of course, he likes Captain Picard better than Captain Kirk, so his opinions can't be completely trusted. But he is right in W.W. W. being at least near (if not at) the top of the heap.

The first four episodes of the second season are prime examples of just how much pure fun the show could be. In fact, it is very possible that the bad guys who appear in these episodes represent the greatest collection of villainy that has ever appeared on the small screen.

"Night of the Eccentrics" (9/16/66) was the second season premiere. Here we have Victor Buono in the first of two appearances as Count Carlos Mario Vincenzo Robespierre Manzeppi, a magician who leads a small circus troupe. This particular troupe, though, does not depend on ticket sales to turn a profit. Rather, they use their individual skills to work as assassins. Here, they have been hired to kill the president of Mexico.

I'm just guessing, but I'm going to say that Buono had fun playing the count. He certainly appears to have a ball hamming it up while still giving the role just the right element of real menace.

Buono was frequently appearing on Batman about the same time, playing the villain King Tut. When asked why he kept returning to that role, he said  "Batman lets me get away with doing the one thing that we're taught not to do in drama school... overacting!" The same attitude probably applies to playing Count Manzeppi as well.

By the way, the count's minions include Richard Pryor as an evil ventriloquist.

The wonderful Boris Karloff was next. "Night of the Golden Cobra" (9/23/66) has James West getting kidnapped by Mr. Singh, an Indian Rajah with a charming manner and a murderous soul. Mr. Singh has a lot on his table--aside from engineering a bizarre swindle to take land away from an Indian tribe, he also wants West to tutor his sons in the "gentle art of killing."

Mr. Singh also has a dancing gorilla, who appears in a bizarre scene that does nothing further the plot, but adds enormously to the episode's atmosphere.

Michael Dunn shows up in "Night of the Raven" (9/30/66) in one of ten appearances as Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless--James West's true arch enemy. Gee whiz, if ever there was an instant when just the right actor turns out to be the perfect person to play a specific role, than this is it. Hammy, funny, childlike, murderous and scary all at the same time, there isn't a single episode of Wild Wild West featuring Dr. Loveless that isn't wildly entertaining simply because of his presence.

Here, Loveless has kidnapped an Indian princess to lure West and Gordon into a trap that will involve--among other things--West in a battle to the death with a... kitty cat?

"Night of the Big Blast" (10/7/66) brings us a female villain. Ida Lupino is Dr. Faustina, a mad scientist who can resurrect the dead, give them the appearance of someone else, and use them as walking time bombs. Her plan is to kill President Grant (it was dangerous to be a president in the W.W.W. universe) because he turned down her request for federal funds to continue her research.

Though if she managed to build a Frankenstein-like lab and bring the dead back to life on her own dime, you have to wonder why she needs our tax dollars.

Anyway, this episode is unique in that James West is presumed dead for most of it, giving Artemis Gordon a chance to shine on his own, including an opportunity to show off his remarkable fencing skills. The one slight disappointment is that neither West nor Gordon get a scene in which they can verbally spar with Dr. Faustina--the repartee between the heroes and the villains in the other three episodes are among their high points.

Not all the villains survive to the end. That's too bad. because these four villains would have made a wonderful Legion of Doom for West and Gordon to battle.  Though, come to think of it, if they had teamed up, their conflicting egos probably would have destroyed the universe.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Green Behemoth and a Crystal Girlfriend, Part 2

So Hulk's gal Betty has been turned into a fragile glass statue and the Hulk has been busy fighting imaginary opponents. Or, as they say in a Comic Book Universe, it was an average Tuesday.

Those were the events we looked at last time. This week, we have to jump over to Avengers #88 (May 1971) before jumping back to Hulk #140 (June 1971).

What we have here is a two-parter that is justifiably considered a classic, with Roy Thomas writing a script from a plot by Harlan Ellison and Herb Trimpe's art never looking better. So I'll get my main pet peeve out of the way first.

There was no reason for this story to be split between two different books. Making it a two-parter is fine. In fact, I think it could have been expanded into a three-parter and been even more epic than it is. But the entire story should have been contained with the pages of Hulk's book. 

Guest-starring characters from other books set in the same shared universe is fine and using those guest appearances as a way to advertise other books is also quite legit. But I am philosophically opposed to forcing someone to buy a book they may not normally buy in order to get a complete story. Also, though the Avengers do help move the plot along, nothing they accomplish takes them out of the realm of "guest star." The focus of the story is on the Hulk throughout both issues.

Oh,well. Enough of my whining. The story begins with Reed Richards and Professor X rigging up a trap to finally capture the Hulk and perhaps cure Banner. In the meantime, the Avengers are getting involved in some shenanigans in New Orleans that takes them into the surrounding swamps, where they fight monsters and eventually find a cavernous underground facility.

 That facility is the home of a humanoid bug creature named Psyklop. Psyklop's people inhabited the Earth before we pesky humans showed up. Now he wants to use the Hulk's life energy to feed the Dark Gods his people worshiped and use them to once again take over the world.

To do this, he captures the Hulk via a teleportation ray, then uses a shrink ray to make the Hulk more manageable.

But when the Avengers fight their way through various monsters to reach Psyklop's control room, things get out of control and the Hulk is shrunk into nothingness. In a snit, Psyklop zaps the Avengers back to New York City and removes their memories of recent events.

So the Avengers are abruptly taken out of the story, after functioning largely as a distraction so Psyklop's science experiment can go awry. As I said earlier, this is why (aside from fairness to readers) I think the story should not have been a crossover.

And, if I may be allowed to second-guess one of the best comic book writers in the business (and one of the most renowned writers in recent decades--remember that Harlan Ellison is providing the plot, though a lot of elements involving the Avengers might have been added by Thomas), there are several extraneous elements to the story that might have been smoothed out had this not been a crossover. Reed Richards and Professor X really don't affect the story at all with their attempt to capture the Hulk--Psyklop could have beamed the green guy away from anywhere. And what the Avengers accomplished could have been done in a number of other ways without the need to involve them in the story at all. That last point is made more valid, I think, by the fact that they are so abruptly removed from the story.

Removing these characters also could have allowed a little more time to be spent with the romance and palace intrigue that enter the plot in the next issue.

Hulk #140 begins with our hero now on a microscopic world, where he promptly saves a city from being destroyed by a pack of huge animals.

This is where the story really starts to hit the right emotional notes despite its brevity. The city is inhabited by a green-skinned, humanoid race ruled by a beautiful queen named Jarella.

The Hulk is now the city's savior, so Jarella decides he should be king. When a technology that either involves magic or telepathy is used to teach the Hulk the local language, it also gives Banner's mind control of the Hulk's body. Banner, figuring he can never get back to Earth and Betty, decides to just go with it and marry the queen.

But this does not please a jealous nobleman, who sics some assassins on the Hulk. It's never-ever-ever a good idea to sic assassins on the Hulk.

So it appears that Banner/Hulk is about to finally get a happy ending. But that's not to be. Psyklop has located Hulk and returns him to Earth. This causes the Hulk personality to take over again and really tics off the Hulk. And it's never-ever-ever a good idea to tic off the Hulk. Psyklop gets a major beat-down until his Dark Gods show up to haul him off to some nether region to be eternally punished for his failure.

I probably spent too much time complaining about the crossover thing, because this really is a classic story, pulling honest emotion out of the Hulk's perpetually tragic existence. Jarella would eventually return in other stories, but it is noteworthy how fondly remembered she was from just this initial appearance.

But what about Betty Ross? She's been a lifeless glass statue for three issues now. Isn't about time somebody did something about that?

Well, someone will. Because the solution to being turned into a lifeless glass statue lies in psychiatry! We'll take a look at that story in two weeks. But before that, we will take a break from the Hulk with a side trip to the latter days of the Wild West.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

I'm not a huge fan of Charlton's Phantom comics, but this cover (1973) by Pat Boyette, is very good.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday's Favority OTR

The Lone Ranger: “The Temple of the Sun” saga 3/29/43 – 4/9/43

The Lone Ranger usually did self-contained half-hour episodes, but the show didn’t shy away from doing multi-part story arcs from time to time. There was a series of stories in which the Ranger and Tonto spent some time in San Francisco, outsmarting smugglers and dealing with an outbreak of the Plague. On another occasion, they spent four episodes helping prevent some villains from stopping construction on the Union Pacific railroad. A 6-parter from 1942 took them to the American Northwest, where they found the Ranger’s long lost nephew Dan.

A 1948 4-parter involving the Ranger escorting a piece of meteorite (needed for early atomic research) from California to the East, battling spies along the way. Another multi-part saga involved still more spies trying to get hold of the Ranger’s unique pistols—custom-made for him by Sam Colt. And in 1941-42, the Ranger and Tonto spent over 60 episodes breaking up the Legion of the Black Arrow, a group using terror and murder to set up a despotic empire in the Western territories.

The Temple of the Sun saga is yet another multi-part story arc, this one covering six episodes. What makes it notable (and a lot of fun) is the nature of the bad guy. Calling himself El Mundo (which means “The Universe” in Spanish), he’s a basically a mad scientist. He sets up shop in an ancient Mayan temple he’s discovered in a small piece of land near the Mexican border.

This particular piece of land is disputed territory, claimed by neither the U.S. nor Mexico. Safe from the law because of this, he uses a combination of murder, kidnapping and extortion to try to take over nearby ranches. His eventual goal is to establish a small nation of his own, strategically located to allow him to control trade between the States and Mexico.

El Mundo uses electricity to set up death traps in and around the temple. His minions include some outlaws who are simply working for the promise of money, but most of his followers are poor slobs he’s drugged into a zombie-like stupor after convincing them he holds the secret of immortality. His femme fatale sister Myra is equally ruthless in her efforts to further his plans.

All this makes him very different from the sort of bad guys that the Lone Ranger usually battles. El Mundo reminds me of Fu Manchu in his use of sneaky methods of employing poison or poisonous insects to do in his enemies. Then again, his death trap-filled headquarters is reminiscent of many James Bond villains.

And the uncredited actor who plays him does a great job, giving him a calm, usually emotionless voice with just a hint of a stutter at the beginning of most of his sentences. All this helps to toss just a dollop of science fiction into the Ranger’s usual Old West setting and still have it all make good story sense.

The first two episodes consist of the Lone Ranger finding out about El Mundo and finding his headquarters. He and Tonto fight or think their way out of some death traps and make a getaway, but because the HQ is in the disputed territory, the Ranger can’t simply call in a posse or the Army, as there’s no legal authority in place there.

So the Ranger spends the next few episodes reacting to El Mundo’s attempts to take possession of several nearby ranches. The plot construction here is particularly good—all the various good guys have their moments. The Ranger gets plenty of opportunities to be heroic, but it’s Tonto—using his knowledge of Indian medicine—who whips up an antidote to El Mundo’s stupor-inducing drug. The Ranger’s nephew Dan outsmarts some kidnappers at one point, while the local sheriff finds a clue that proves El Mundo has framed an innocent man for murder.

Finally, a frustrated El Mundo manages to capture Dan and force the Ranger to return to the ancient temple headquarters. This all leads up to an explosive and satisfying conclusion.

It’s a very unusual Lone Ranger story, but that just adds to its overall appeal. With Brace Beamer’s authoritative portrayal of the Ranger backed up by the show’s typically superb sound effects and production values, this story arc is as entertaining as it is memorable.

Click HERE for the first episode in the story arc.

The remaining episodes are included on THIS PAGE.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Apprentice Cargo-Handler.... IN SPACE!

Read/Watch 'em In Order #77

According to science fiction, there are essentially two kinds of merchants plying the space lanes between the stars. You have the Han Solo-types, who take jobs without worrying too much about legalities as long as there's a likely profit.

Then you have the legitimate merchants, who obey the laws has they conduct legitimate trade.

It's not surprising that writers most often turn to the "half-witted, scruffy-looking nerfherders" as the character-type most likely to have real adventures. Heck, writing that last sentence makes me want to watch The Empire Strikes Back for the umpteenth time.

But in 1955, the prolific Andre Norton wrote the first in a series of novels that would clearly show that those staid, organized & law-abiding merchants can have some pretty thrilling adventures of their own.

The main character in Sargasso of Space is Apprentice Cargo-Master Dane Thorson, who has just finished his training and is waiting for his first assignment on an interstellar merchants. Most of his classmates hope for a berth on one of the ships owned by a big company--they travel the safest but most profitable established routes. Dane wouldn't have minded such a berth either, but he is sent to The Solar Queen, a small independent merchant.

When he boards the ship, though, he's not at all unhappy. The Solar Queen is a little beat-up looking on the outside, but it's clean and in good repair. It is soon apparent to Dane that the experienced crewmen are good at their jobs.

Which is a good thing. The Queen's captain wins the rights to a newly discovered planet in an auction. The planet, though, turns out to be a "burn-out," a planet destroyed millennia ago in a war that destroyed a pre-human galactic civilization referred to as the Forerunners.

But there are some areas on the planet that can still support life. So the crew of the Queen, after dropping off a group of scientists who want to explore some ruins that might have been part of the Forerunner civilization, take a look around.

But events do not unfold smoothly. There are reasons to believe the scientists are not scientists, there are wrecked spaceships--some of them centuries or even millennia old--all over the place, and a mysterious force prevents the Queen from taking off again. A crewman goes missing and a band of armed men surround the Queen and demand its surrender.

What the bad guys don't realize is that a few of the Queen's crew are not on the ship. This includes Dane. They soon realize that the bad guys have found some sort of Forerunner technology and are using it for nefarious purposes. This means Dane and his fellow merchants will have to play commando, avoid capture, find a hidden Forerunner installation, and figure out how to put a stop to those nefarious purposes.

Andre Norton was a wonderful storyteller. In Sargasso of Space, she gives us an exciting and well-constructed Space Opera tale, built around a mystery to which she eventually provides a satisfying answer.

Dane is our point-of-view character. He makes a few rookie mistakes, but performs intelligently and contributes to the eventual good-guy victory. But he's still the newest and least experienced member of the crew and Norton makes no effort to artificially thrust him into "the hero who saves the day" mode. He's one part of a team.

This is exactly the right decision on Norton's part to make Dane work as a character and for the novel to work as an adventure story. It allows us to believe that the Solar Queen is a real ship that functions successfully because the entire crew is competent.  It makes for a great start to a series of books that will eventually bring Dane into the captain's seat.

We'll look at at least the next two books in the series--frankly because these are the two that have fallen into the public domain and are easily available. There are four more books after that, so whether I continue to review the series depends pretty much on whether I can dig up inexpensive copies or get them via interlibrary loan.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Green Behemoth and a Crystal Girlfriend--Part 1

Poor Betty Ross. Being in love with a man who turns into a big, green monster at inconvenient moments is bad enough. Having a nervous breakdown makes it worse. Getting kidnapped and used as a medical guinea pig by a supervillain is even worse than that. But getting turned into an unliving statue of fragile crystal as a result of all that just takes the cake. Betty really shouldn't even get out of bed in the mornings. Whatever happens to her, it won't end well.

The Incredible Hulk #138 (April 1971) begins with Betty in a hospital, recovering from her nervous breakdown. The Hulk, in the meantime, has just returned to Earth after fighting some ill-tempered aliens in a space ship during the previous issue. Turning back into Bruce Banner, he sneaks into the hospital to visit Betty.

That would be all fine and good, except the Sandman is also in the hospital. After a recent fight with the Fantastic Four, the villain is turning into glass. One hand has already transformed and he's worried that the change will continue. He's heard of a complete blood transfusion technique that a doctor at the hospital has developed. In desperation, he wants to try that as a cure.

Actually, though its called a transfusion, it seems to involve swapping blood between two people. The process isn't clearly explained (and it doesn't have to be--Comic Book Science works best when the techno-babble is kept to a minimum), but when the Sandman forces the doctor to use Betty as a donor, she apparently ends up with some of his blood in her after donating her blood to him.  But in terms of plot exposition, it all works well. We know why the Sandman is doing this and we know what the purpose of the medical technique is. Anything else is extraneous.

[By the way, I just realized I answered my question I raised a few weeks back about when to use techno-babble in a comic book story.]

Banner sees all this and Hulks out. A nifty fight between Hulk and Sandman follows, which eventually ends up shifting to the Atlantic Ocean, allowing Hulk to kick up a whirlpool and disperse his sandy opponent.

But what about poor Betty? The Sandman's blood is having a rather detrimental effect on her--she
turns into an unliving statue of fragile crystal.

You would think this is the sort of thing that should be dealt with right away, but Betty's dad (General Ross) and Major Glenn Talbot (a character defined entirely by his constant whining that Betty doesn't love him) spend Hulk #139 distracted by another problem. The gamma-irradiated villain known as the Leader shows up with a plan to capture the Hulk. He wants to use his mental abilities to power up an experimental "Brain Wave Booster" and force the Hulk to hallucinate that he's being attacked one-after-another by all his old enemies.  Of course, the Leader is planning on double-crossing everyone eventually, but not before the Hulk overexerts himself and dies from heart failure.

Trying to give the Hulk a heart attack doesn't seem like a wise plan to me, but I haven't had my brain enhanced by gamma radiation, so what do I know?

The bulk of this issue is Hulk being attacked over and over again by various enemies. It's yet another nifty fight, showing us several of the bouts against his opponents in detail, then giving us a splash page showing the battle continue against a horde of additional sparring partners.

The Brain Wave Booster is sabotaged by Jim Wilson (a reoccurring character who had more-or-less taken over Rick Jones' role as teenage sidekick). The story comes to a nicely ironic conclusion with the Leader nearly catatonic as he hallucinates that he's being attacked by multiple Hulks.

Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Herb Trimpe, these two issues are both a lot of fun, giving us solid plots, super-scientific devises and cool fight scenes. It can be legitimately argued that Roy Thomas may have gone a little overboard during his run as writer in continually dumping personal tragedies on the Hulk and his supporting cast. Even Peter Parker caught an occasional break and had a good day. But, on the other hand, tragedy is the lynch pin of good drama and the whole point of the Hulk's character.

But what of Betty? She's still a crystal statue. Well, it will turn out that Hulk will have to spend some time as the king of a microscopic world, dealing with palace intrigue and assassination attempts, before we can focus our attention back on the poor girl. We'll take a look at that next week.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Thin Man: “Haunted Hams” 7/13/1948

The radio version of Nick and Nora Charles’ adventures was as delightful as the movie series upon which it was based. (By this time, Nick and Nora no longer had much of a connection with Dashiell Hammett’s original novel.) Claudia Morgan played Nora Charles throughout the show’s run, pretty much channeling Myrna Loy, while the various actors who played Nick patterned their performances after William Powell. Consequently, the radio show managed to generate the same charm, humor and sense of real marital love that Loy and Powell had brought to the film series. Les Tremayne plays Nick in this particular episode.

In most episodes, Nick and Nora would stumble across a murder victim and become involved in solving the crime. But in this very funny installment, no one gets killed. Nick and Nora, while vacationing in the country, get involved with a traveling theatrical troupe. Nora gets bitten by the acting bug and lands an important part in an upcoming play. But someone seems to be trying to sabotage her performance.

There’s no sense of danger here—the acts of sabotage involves things like luring noisy pigs and chickens into the barn where Nora is rehearsing. The story is played strictly for laughs. And it succeeds—providing all those involved with some drop-dead funny dialogue that parodies pretentious playwriting and egotistical show-business people.

It might normally be disappointing to listen to a supposed murder mystery in which no one gets murdered (or even commits anything that might be construed as a crime), but it really doesn’t matter. The show existed as much to allow us to spend time with Nick and Nora as it did to provide us with a whodunit. And Nick and Nora are always worth spending time with.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Edward G. Robinson Film Festival--Part 2

By 1933, Warner Brothers had released Little Caesar, Public Enemy and Scarface. It was King of the Gangster movies and would be releasing many more classic films in that genre throughout the decade.

So it was, naturally, time to start having a little bit of fun with the genre. And one of their resident gangsters--Edward G. Robinson--had a talent for playing tough guys and add subtle variations that suddenly made him funny without taking away any of his toughness.

In The Little Giant, he's a Chicago bootlegger (Bugs Ahearn) who wisely realizes that the repeal of Prohibition is going to be bad for business. So he sells out and retires, moving to California with plans to fit in with the snooty upper crust. He hires a local woman (Mary Astor) as a sort of social secretary, not realizing that Astor actually owns the mansion he's renting--she was rich but has fallen on hard times.

Bugs falls for a snooty upper crust woman. But he's out of his natural environment and has no idea that the woman is a gold-digger and her family are all crooks and con artists. Soon, the gal's dad has talked Bugs into buying the dad's investment firm--a firm that is being investigated to for selling worthless bonds.

But when Bugs finds out he's been had, he calls in some of his old Chi-Town associates to... well, re-negotiate the deal.
let's say

The Little Giant isn't quite as funny as Robinson's other great comedy/gangster mash-up--1942's Larceny Inc.  But it's still funny, maintaining a pleasant ambiance throughout and giving us a fair share of laugh-out-loud moments.

Besides, when Edward G. Robinson wants to be funny, you had better laugh. You don't want to have him... well, let's say re-negotiate your attitude.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

When Conan became Conan

It's in this issue--Conan the Barbarian #3 (February 1971)--that Marvel Comics' Conan  became the "real" Conan.

The first two issues in the Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Smith--were both perfectly good sword-and-sorcery tales. But neither of them had that Robert E. Howard vibe to them. Conan was there. Smith drew him effectively and Thomas did a good job of catching his personality. But something really didn't quite seem right. I think it's the plots. One involved a wizard who was peering into the future. This includes allowing us to see some of his visions, which includes the sight of a NASA space ship in orbit--which is simply a bad fit for a Conan story. The second issue involves a small, hidden civilization of intelligent apes, which seemed to belong more in an Edgar Rice Burroughs universe than in the Hyborian Age.

(Roy Thomas makes these points about the first two issues himself in the afterward to Dark Horse's trade paperback reprints of the early issues, so I'm stealing from the author here.)

The 4th issue of the series would be an excellent adaptation of "The Tower of the Elephant," one of the original Conan tales. But I would argue that the 3rd issue is when the book really hit the right tone. This issue, by the way, was apparently written and drawn after "The Tower of the Elephant," but published first because Thomas realized it fit better there in terms of internal chronology.

It's got a great title: "The Twilight of the Grim Grey God." It is itself an adaptation of a Robert E. Howard story, though the original prose tale did not star Conan. "The Grey God Passes" is a fictionalized account of the 11th Century battle of Clontarf, in which the Christian Irish defeated the pagan Vikings. The point-of-view character (who would be transformed into Conan in the comic adaptation) was Turlogh Dub O'Brien, who fights at Clontarf for the Irish, but not before meeting the Norse god Odin. The worship of Odin is dying off, so the god is dying as well.

Barry Smith does a wonderful job bringing a lyric beauty (a phrase I am also stealing from Thomas' afterward) to the idea of a dying god. Names and settings are changed to fit the concept into the Hyborian Age. The story is streamlined a bit and one can argue even improved upon. The prose story (unpublished in Howard's lifetime) is largely excellent, but Howard gets a little too carried away in name-dropping historical figures who really fought at Clontarf and this throws off the pacing.

So this time, it's Conan who meets the God Borri and then ends up fighting against the Hyperboreans--who are the people that worship Borri. Other plot elements include a femme fatale who is playing a king and a soldier against one another; another soldier who befriends Conan but who is prophesied to die by his girlfriend; and Conan's drive to find and kill a particular Hyperborean who had tortured him.

Thomas effectively weaves all these elements and diverse personalities into the 19-page story without ever seeming like he's rushing the plot or leaving anything undeveloped. Smith, as mentioned above, really rises to the occasion with the art work. All the plot elements are properly set up and then satisfyingly crash together in desperate battle and vile treachery.

The scenes with Borri bookend the main events of the story. The dying god does not seem to directly effect events, but give the entire story a sense of finality and perhaps a small sense of futility regarding the wasted efforts and small-minded goals of us short-lived humans. But whatever moral we take from the tale, Barry Smith's art makes it look awesome. And, for the first time, the Conan of Marvel Comics was really believable as Conan.

Next week, we see what happens when the girlfriend of a giant, super-strong green guy gets turned into glass.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

This cover, from 1974, might very well have won the award for "Most Action-Packed Cover of the Decade."

Friday, February 3, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Adventures of Superman: "The Dead Voice," 9/26/46-10/16/46

One of the interesting things about Superman on radio was just how well-constructed the show was as a straight mystery. Clark Kent, less of an overt wimp than he was portrayed in the comics at the time, was a skilled investigative reporter, following clues in a straightforward and logical matter as he looked into a case.

In fact, Superman rarely encountered a super-powered threat in the series (though this did happen on a few memorable occasions). Most of the time, he was busy busting up fairly normal criminal rackets. He spent a lot of time exposing crooked politicians and city officials, with a nice emphasis on how corruption really hurts the poorer citizens of Metropolis.

In "The Dead Voice," Superman teams up with Batman--something that occured a number of times on the radio show in the late 1940s. In this particular version of Superman's universe, Batman lived in Metropolis rather than Gotham City, making their occasional team-ups more convenient and believable.

This time, Bruce Wayne calls in Clark Kent to help with a rather puzzling mystery. Bruce's ward Dick Grayson (alias Robin) was receiving threatening phone calls and letters. The real mystery is that the person making the threats was supposed to have died in prison two weeks earlier!

It's a well-plotted, solid mystery, with Clark and Bruce investigating the threats. Sometimes they're in their civilian identies and sometime they are in their superhero identities--depending on the particular situation. The case takes a turn for the worse when Dick Grayson and Jimmy Olson are both kidnapped.

Great storytelling throughout. Back then, it wasn't automatically assumed that children were wimps, so there was no hesitation in dropping an occasional dead body into the mix as the story progresses. At the same time, the violence is not particularly graphic or overly horrific--it's just a natural part of a story that respects the intelligence of its young listeners. The producers and writers of The Adventures of Superman never talked down to their audience. Consequently, it remains excellent entertainment for both kids and adults seven decades later.

Click HERE to listen or download the first episode. The entire serial is available HERE.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Always Wear Your Bulletproof Underwear

 Read/Watch 'em In Order #76

The Devil Genghis from Doc Savage magazine, December 1938.

Someone or something is driving men insane. An Eskimo, a pilot and a rich guy in a Monte Carlo casino all go nuts, exhibiting the same strange symptoms despite never having been in contact with one another.

It's the sort of case that would attract Doc Savage. But even before Doc hears about the epidemic of insanity, someone tries to kidnap him. The idea is to wait for him to come out of a building after a rare public appearance, use a machine gun to pump him full of mercy bullets, then use a fake ambulance to haul him away.

Fortunately, Doc rivals and perhaps even surpasses Batman in being Crazy Prepared for anything. Chain-mail long-johns stop the bullets, though Doc pretends to fall unconscious anyways--willingly going into captivity because that's the most straightforward way to find out what's going on.

But there's nothing straightforward about this case. What follows is a series of plot twists involving successive captures and escapes that make this excellent pulp novel very, very difficult to summarize. Doc soon realizes he's up against a tough opponent and by the time the action has shifted from New York to London, two of Doc's men are missing and a third has been rendered insane.

It's actually a bit of a spoiler to tell you that the villain behind all this is John Sunlight. Presumed dead after his last appearance.two issues earlier, Sunlight has not only survived, but had also managed to hang on to several of the terrible weapons he had stolen from Doc's Fortress of Solitude.

But this is the second half of a look at the John Sunlight stories, so there's no way to hide that particular spoiler. In the first story, Sunlight was front-and-center on the first page and frequently reappeared throughout the story. Here, he's hidden for most of the tale--sending out his minions to tangle with Doc while he builds an army in a remote Asian location.

Because of this, Sunlight has a slightly less impressive impact on the readers than he had in Fortress of Solitude. But despite this, I would still rate The Devil Genghis as the better of the two Sunlight books. Lester Dent (writing, as usual, as Kenneth Robeson) is at the top of his game here. The action sequences, especially a thrilling aerial dogfight, are intense. The various mysteries that Doc must solve along the way (such as how and why men are going nuts) are all intriguing.  The plot twists come at such a white-hot rate that it would probably render me insane if I did try to write a detailed summary, but everything properly follows the internal logic that exists in Doc's universe. The action moves from New York to a ship at sea to London to the skies over Asia to a remote mountain near Afghanistan, with Doc and Sunlight's minions scheming and counter-scheming against one another non-stop. The story never stops to take a breath--nor does it need to. This is simply great storytelling.

That's it for John Sunlight. When we return to the In Order series, we'll look at the first few Solar Queen novels by Andre Norton. There are, I believe, seven in the series and we'll go through at least the first three. I'm as yet undecided whether to continue beyond that.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Searchers

John Wayne was in so many great films that it's impossible to name a "best" film. But if you threatened to throw me off a cliff unless I picked one, I'd probably go with The Searchers from 1956. 

This is perhaps the Duke's darkest role. His character--Ethan Edwards--hates Indians. I mean he really, really hates Indians. When his young niece Debbie is kidnapped by Comanches (after the rest of his family is killed in a raid), he spends five years obsessively searching for her--and plans on killing her when she's found because in his eyes she's no longer white.

Accompanying Ethan is Martin Pawley, Debbie's adopted older brother. He knows what Ethan plans, but works with him as the best way of finding Debbie. They can kill each other when deciding her fate when she's found. That they work well together and gain respect while developing something of a father/son relationship only complicates matters more.

That brief summary doesn't do this brilliant film justice. The intensity of the emotions involved; the performance by Wayne; the beautiful location shots and director John Ford's visual artistry all combine to make this a true classic. 

Like most movies in the 1950s, The Searchers got a comic book adaptation published by Dell Comics. It appeared in Four Color #709 (June 1956) with art by Mike Roy.
I suppose when a comic book adapts a movie that good, it's bound to suffer in comparison. Roy, for instance, is a very good artist, but there was nothing he could draw that would match the visual magnificence of Monument Valley as filmed by John Ford. 

The story is reasonably faithful in telling the story, covering all the major plot points. The main difference, though, is something that I think probably relates to Dell's pledge to parents that their comics were "good" comics--that nothing they publish would ever be objectionable.

In retrospect, this was one of the reasons Dell was so good at graphic storytelling. They couldn't depend on anything even remotely lewd or tasteless to garner interest in their comics. Their only option was to tell really good stories.

The adaptation of The Searchers is a rare example of how this could work against them. All through the story, Ethan Edwards' hatred of Indians and violent intentions might be hinted at, but could never be shown overtly enough to give the story the emotional punch it needed. Ethan has to be a morally broken man. Otherwise, a lot of the tension in the story vanishes and his decision to allow Debbie to live at the end losses most of its impact. 

I'm going to give you an example of what I mean. Below is a one-and-a-quarter pages from the comic book, followed by a clip from the movie that shows the scene these panels are adapting. Notice that Ethan's clear intention to kill the girl doesn't make it to the comics.

Gee whiz, this is bizarre. Normally, I'm first in line to bring modern pop culture to task for being crude, lewd or gross and will never stop believing that lack of high standards in these areas (aside from moral issues) is often a block to good storytelling. But here, an effort to clean up Ethan Edwards' act led to a less effective story. It's not the portrayal of violence and personal darkness that's bad--it's how its portrayed. 

Next week, we'll jump back to the Hyborian Age to visit once again with our favorite barbarian.
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