Friday, March 31, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: “Banquo’s Chair” 6/1/43

Scotland Yard’s best detective knows who killed wealthy, elderly Miss Ferguson, but he can’t prove it. So he comes up with a plan to frighten the superstitious killer into confessing. Anyone familiar with Macbeth can guess from the title what his plan will be.

At first, this seems like an extremely well-done but straightforward story, in which the detective explains his plan to several confederates before carrying it out. We, like the protagonist, knows exactly what is happening, even if the killer is convinced that something supernatural is going on.

It’s not until the story begins to draw to a close that we realize that there will indeed be a twist at the climax. Many listeners may deduce (as did I) exactly what that twist is a minute or so before it occurs, but it’s nonetheless a satisfying conclusion to what only pretended to be a predictable story.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

North or South?

Revolt at Fort Laramie (1957) has a nifty premise. It is 1861 and the troops at the titular fort are dealing with a Sioux uprising. But the tensions among the troops might be more dangerous than the Indians--about a quarter of the men are from the South and everyone is, by now, pretty sure that war between the North and the South is coming soon.

They are right, of course. So the fort's second-in-command (Captain Tenslip--played by Gregg Palmer) is understandably worried morale and even the loyalty of his men. His situation is made even more tense by the fact that his commanding officer (Major Bradner--played by John Dehner) is from Virginia. There's a gold shipment being delivered to the fort and Tenslip now has to worry not only about the Sioux taking the gold, but his own C.O. doing so before heading off to Texas to enlist with the Rebs.

It's really neat to see John Dehner with a lead role in a movie. Of course, he did play the lead in several OTR shows (Frontier Gentleman and the radio version of Have Gun Will Travel), but his roughly 36 gazillion appearances on radio, film and TV were usually supporting or character roles. Dehner is one of those actors who--for fans of classic films & TV--can come to feel like a good friend we've known all our lives. So this movie scores points right off the bat.

It's interesting to note that about the same time this movie was being filmed, Dehner was the lead in the audition show for OTR's Fort Laramie. Though Raymond Burr was given the lead in that show when it aired, Dehner returned a number of times in various other roles. So 1956 & 57 had the actor spending a lot of metaphorical time in different versions of the fort.

The movie's plot and various character arcs unfold in various ways, with tension hitting a high point after news about Fort Sumter arrives. Major Bradner is conflicted--torn between "breaking an oath and breaking a heart" as he struggles to decide where his loyalties do lie. The Southerners among the enlisted men aren't conflicted at all--they want to make a break for Texas even if it means risking a ride across Sioux territory. They also think it would be a good idea to take the gold with them.

There is one particularly brutal scene in which the Southern troops deal with a guy who ratted them out to Captain Tenslip. That's an interesting part of the film--because it is indeed a brutal and cold-blooded act committed while the men are still officially Union soldiers. But the movie otherwise treats these guys as men who are brave soldiers loyal to the cause they've chosen. In fact, the movie's climax has them choosing to fight along side Bradner even when the major can save them by giving himself up to the Sioux. So are they murderers or are they soldiers dealing appropriately with a traitor? This is a 73-minute-long B-movie that necessarily concentrates on story and action, but I really wish a few more minutes had been added to deal with this moral issue in more depth.

Not that the film is completely without depth. The interactions between various troopers, the decisions they make, and the final battle in which they are forced to again fight together do provide a nice thematic backbone to everything.

The movie was directed by Lesley Selander, a B-movie and TV vet who knew how to churn out good stories quickly. Films like The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold show that his action scenes usually have pizzazz. This time, though the action is usually handled well, there are a few moments where the stunt work is awkward and fake-looking. (For instance, a soldier is a little too obviously sticking his knife in the ground rather than in the Sioux he's fighting.) I'm assuming time and budget restrictions can occasionally get the best of even pros like Selander. But overall, the actions sequences are fun.

The movie seems to have fallen into the public domain and is available to watch on YouTube. I've embedded it here, so you now have an enjoyable 73 minutes to look forward to.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fred Flintstone---Pirate Hunter

There's a theory I once came up with--it later turned out that others had beaten me to the same theory--that The Flintstones isn't actually set in prehistoric times, but in a post-apocalyptic future. That would mean the re-emergence of dinosaurs and the fact that they can often talk is due to radioactive or germ warfare-induced mutation. That would also explain Bam-Bam's super strength.  So the society as a whole paralleling 20th Century America is a cultural or racial memory buried in the minds of the descendants of those who survived whatever disaster wiped out our civilization.

If so, then Gold Key's The Flintstones #28 (August 1965) indicates that these cultural memories stretch back even further, since Fred, Barney and their families have a run-in with a villain who is straight out of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Silly theories aside, though, "The Flintstones and the Pirates of Skull Island" is a fun read--with lots of effective humor and a script that catches Fred's personality accurately. It begins with the Flintstones and Rubbles taking a cruise on a rented boat. Naturally, Fred has gotten them lost. Then a storm hits, forcing them to look for a safe harbor.

The writer is unidentified. A knowledgeable member of Facebook's Comic Book Historians group identifies the artist as Harvey Eisenberg and accurately refers to him as "Hanna-Barbara's equivalent to Carl Barks for Disney."  We need to give both writer and artists a lot of credit. This panel below, with Fred spotting the dreaded Skull Island (a known pirate hang-out) in the distance, is yabba-dabba-do impressive.

 The boat is damaged when they land on the island and their engine gets loose and runs away. (This  is the Flintstones, remember--their engine was a dinosaur in a large hamster wheel.) They take refuge in a cave, but are captured by a large parrot who has a pirate sitting on its shoulder.

Its a funny scene, with wonderful character designs for the pirate and the parrot. It's a tragedy that these two never got their own comic book or animated series. The Misadventures of Pirate and Parrot would have been a classic.

The pirate forces Fred and Barney to take his treasure chest aboard the boat and repair a hole in the hull. But the villain doesn't realize the boat has no engine. In the confusion, Fred fires the pirate's cannon at him.

This does no damage, but allows the families to escape and get on board the boat. Bam Bam then uses his super strength to work as a replacement engine.

They still have the treasure chest aboard, but between paying for repairs to the boat and buying Wilma and Betty new dresses (their "best dresses" were ruined during the adventure), they just about break even. But Fred learns its just as much fun to play with toy boats with Pebbles and Bam Bam than it is to go on a real boat trip, so everything ends happily.

I only occasionally review a humor comic, simply because the old saying about analyzing humor is true--it's like dissecting a frog. You can do it, but the frog dies in the process. But--much like the the Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny stories I've talked about in the past, this particular story is so much fun that it deserves to be remembered.

Also, Betty is prettier than Wilma. I just thought someone should openly acknowledge that.

For next week--One of the most exciting chase scenes ever appeared in a comic strip in 1949. We'll ride along on that chase.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Tarzan: "Cathedral of the Congo" 9/20/51

I've been to Africa a half-dozen times as a short-term missionary, but I've been lucky. No one's ever garroted me to death.

The missionary who appears at the beginning of this Tarzan episode isn't nearly as lucky. He gets strangled by a couple of thugs about a minute into the story, caught in a dirty alley in a small town along the Nile River.

The thugs find a letter telling them who their victim is. They also learn he was planning on meeting a lady missionary just arriving in Africa--the lady is bringing funds to help build a big church in the jungle.

This leads to a nefarious plan in which one of the thugs impersonates the guy they just murdered with the hope of getting hold of the money. But their plans go awry when Tarzan takes passage on the same small river boat upon which the ersatz preacher and the lady will be traveling.

It's an effective, well-constructed story with a nice bit at the end emphasizing that the size or shape of the church doesn't matter as long as the worshipers in it are faithful. I'll have to warn my friends still in Africa about dark alleys, garrotes and fake preachers, though. Or at least tell them to make sure Tarzan is hanging around if they go out for a walk.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Casting the Movie while Reading the Story

A big wolf called "Old Gray" has been killing cattle--sometimes for food and sometimes for fun--for years, but no one has ever managed to catch him. But a tracker named Brink is going to give it a try. Brink's not interested in the five thousand dollar reward being offered by local ranchers. Tracking is simply what he does.

"The Wolf Tracker," written by Zane Grey in 1930, is an atmospheric and suspenseful short story with a fascinating protagonist. Brink doesn't hate wolves or take bloodthirsty joy in killing. Instead, he's a solitary man who enjoys being alone in the wilderness, pitting his skill against the animals he tracks. Brink will spend the next six months on the trail of the wolf and not consider a second of it to be wasted time.

From the story: Brink had only dim remembrance of home and family, vague things far back in the past. He never loved a woman. He had lived apart from men, aloof even when the accident of life and travel had thrown him into camps or settlements. Once he had loved a dog. Seldom did his mind dwell on the past, and then only in relation to some pursuit or knowledge that came to him from the contiguity of the present task. 

I like Grey's novels, though I sometimes feel he can be a little too verbose in his prose. But under the discipline of a short story, his descriptive powers are excellent and, as we follow Brink in his six-month quest to find and kill the wolf, we are immediately caught up in the quest along with him.

What's neat about the story is its realism regarding Old Gray. Many "man vs animal" stories portray the animal with human-like intelligence and cunning. It's not wrong to do that if it makes a good story, but here Zane Grey takes a more realistic approach. Old Gray is smart and cunning--but he's not a person. When the hunt reaches its climax, the wolf reacts as you would expect a desperate animal to act.  There's no clever tricks to be played on the man. He's not really an equal opponent to Brink, because he can never match a human being in intelligence. "The Wolf Tracker" plays that up, but does so without losing any dramatic tension or making the conclusion any less stunning.

I don't believe "The Wolf Tracker" has ever been made into a movie or TV episode. A quick search did not turn up an episode of  the 1956-1961 Western Zane Grey Theater with that title, though I suppose it might have been adapted with a different title. While I was reading it, though, I began to picture a specific actor as Brink. It seems to be that if the story had been dramatized in the 1960s or 1970s, Charles Bronson would have been the perfect choice for the lead role.

Bronson was acting in the 1950s, of course, but I don't think he was quite grizzled enough to play Brink at that point in his career. For a 1950s Brink--maybe Randolph Scott.

If the story had been filmed soon after it was written in the 1930s, then I'm not sure. Gary Cooper, perhaps--but his natural friendliness might block him from really bringing across Brink's solitary nature. Gee whiz, the decade that brought us the best actors ever and I'm having trouble casting a specific role?  That's downright embarrassing.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Night of the Shadow

Cover art by Nick Cardy
It's well-known, of course, that one of the major influences in the creation of Batman was the Shadow. In fact, Bill Finger lifted the plot of the first Batman story from a Shadow novel that had been published a few years earlier. He wouldn't have suspected that both characters would become iconic and still be active decades later. 

When DC Comics had the license for the Shadow in the 1970s, they quite wisely kept him in the 1930s. (A later attempt to move him into contemporary times is better left undiscussed.)  It's too bad DC never did a story set on Earth-2, where we could have had a Shadow/Batman team-up with both men in their prime.  

But Earth-1 Batman had a few chances to meet his inspiration. In Batman #253 (Nov. 1973), he was helped from the sidelines by a retired Shadow. I haven't read this one myself--it's never had been reprinted and the original is always out of my price range. But a plot summary from the DC Wiki tells me the Shadow hinted he would indeed become active again.

Gee whiz, the guy apparently ages well. He was a World War I vet, which means in '73 he would have been (at best) in his late 70s. 

He next visited Batman in an issue I do own--Batman #259 (December 1974). Here we learn that the future Caped Crusader briefly met the vigilante when Bruce Wayne was still a runny-nosed brat.

It happened when a "Boy Genius of Crime"named Willy Hank Stamper robs a bank in Gotham. The Shadow shows up and blasts down several of Stamper's gang. The crook takes a hostage, but stumbles into a few more innocent bystanders on the way out of the bank--including Thomas and Bruce Wayne. Poor little Bruce is terrified by the ensuing gun battle.

That terror isn't helped much when Bruce sees his parents  gunned down in Crime Alley a few months later. 

Now lets jump ahead a few decades. Following up on information that someone is planning on stealing a priceless tiara, Batman encounters an older Willy Hank Stamper, who seems to want to get revenge on the various bystanders he blames for getting himself caught and sent to prison for most of  his adult life. Batman nearly catches Stamper fairly quickly, but the need to deal with a medical emergency prevents this. 

There's an attempt on Bruce Wayne's life soon after. Then that tiara goes missing, but someone leaves a clue that sends Batman to the scene of the bank robbery from his childhood.

He does find Stamper there. A thug with a gun wouldn't normally be a serious threat to the Dark Knight, but the location and the sound of pistol shots causes Batman to revert to crybaby mode.  It' is only the sound of spooky laughter that pulls him out of this and allows him to subdue Stamper.

Yes, that was the Shadow's laughter. He'd been around the entire time, leading Batman back to this location, where the younger hero then proved his worth.

The meeting between the two heroes is fun and insightful, especially a moment in which the Shadow offers Batman a gift of a pistol, which Batman declines. "Sure I admire him.. I've been inspired by him... But I'm my own man."

It is very possibly the first time Batman's aversion to firearms is codified as a part of his psychology rather than just a part of superhero tradition. 

The story was written by Denny O'Neil, who was also writing DC's The Shadow at the same time. That O'Neil clearly gets both characters is obvious and one of the reasons the story is so good. Irv Novick does a fine job with the interior art. 

That's it for now. Next week, we'll follow along with two of the most successful pirate hunters in history--Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

She's a ghost. He's a guy who apparently doesn't know how gravity works. It's not a good start for a relationship.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Adventures by Morse “City of the Dead” 1/8/44 – 3/11/44

Carlton E. Morse was one of the jewels of radio’s Golden Age. A skilled writer, he is perhaps best known for creating and writing the serial I Love a Mystery, a blood-and-thunder adventure show in which a trio of adventures traveled the world solving mysteries, slugging it out with bad guys and rescuing beautiful girls. (He also created and wrote the popular soap opera One Man's Family.)

I Love a Mystery was a great show. Morse had a perfect sense of just how much information to pass on to his listeners in each episode, gradually building up tension and suspense throughout each multi-part story arc. The three protagonists were fun as well—stalwart Jack Packard; Texan and (self-proclaimed) ladies’ man Doc Long; and the very English Reggie York.

I Love a Mystery ran in the early 1940s, then had a very successful revival in 1949. Sandwiched in-between these two runs, though, was a syndicated show titled Adventures by Morse.

A half-hour show, Adventures alternated between 10-part and 3-part story arcs. The main characters were pretty much clones of Jack Packard and Doc Long. Re-named Captain Friday and Skip Turner, their personalities were exact duplicates of Jack and Doc.

But that’s okay, because they’re just as fun to hang around with. “City of the Dead” is the premiere adventure (and, in fact, doesn’t involve Skip at all). A ten-parter, it takes place in a remote cemetery, whose caretaker happens to be Captain Friday’s father. When apparently inexplicable things start happening, the old man calls in his son (a private investigator) to look into the matter.

What follows is a convoluted but ultimately satisfying yarn involving a phantom church bell that starts ringing at irregular moments; several murders; disappearing and reappearing bodies; graves mysteriously dug open and then just as mysteriously filled in; arson, kidnapping; deadly booby-traps; and a half-million dollars worth of hidden pearls. There’s an oddly dressed man who doesn’t seem to be quite human wandering around the graveyard and letting out eerie howls. Everyone involved seems to be up to something either secretive or downright nefarious, including Captain Friday’s dad.

It’s a delight to listen to from beginning to end. As is typical in Morse’s stories, all the apparently supernatural aspects of the case turn out to have “rational” explanations, but that doesn’t make the spooky parts any less spooky. By the end, Captain Friday has it all figured out, but it actually takes him the entire last episode to explain it all to everyone. The good captain knows how to milk the suspense himself, though, so his explanation is as entertaining as the events leading up to it.

Listening to a serial such as this one requires self-discipline—not because it’s hard to listen to, but because one is tempted to go straight from one episode to another. But it’s more fun to limit yourself to one episode per day; to allow yourself to experience the pleasant suspense of a good cliffhanger. Few writers did cliffhangers better than Carlton E. Morse.

Click HERE to download or listen to the first episode of the serial.

The remaining episodes can be found HERE.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

An Unusual Pairing of Guest Stars

For the second time inside of a month, I'm going to talk about a TV show. I used to whine and complain a lot about how awful television is because it killed old-time radio and usually isn't as effective a medium for good storytelling. In fact, I still whine and complain about that a lot. It think that's why I never get invited to parties anymore.

But while writing for this blog over the last decade, I have found myself from time to time obligated to admit that there occasionally was some really good stuff on the small screen.

An episode from Have Gun Will Travel's second season is evidence of this. Broadcast on December 27, 1958, it is a pure delight. And it brings us the oddest pairing of guest stars that might ever have appeared together.

 The episode begins with Paladin (Richard Boone) attending a performance of Othello in San Francisco. Impressed by the leads, he invites them to dinner. He then learns they have accepted an engagement in San Diego, which was then a rough cattle town. Paladin warns them of potential danger, but the actors are unable to recognize the fact that these dangers are real. San Francisco, after all, is a large and cultured city. So the rest of the so-called "Wild West" can't be that bad, can't it?

The actors are beautifully played by Vincent Price and Patricia Morison, who bring just the right notes to their roles. Yes, they are making a dumb decision in going to San Diego, but it's not out of stupidity. We never doubt that they are skilled actors and relatively intelligent people. But they are naive and unable to see past their own romantic view of the world.

Paladin rides to San Diego ahead of them and wrangles a job working security for the saloon at which the actors will be performing. That was actually one of the neat things about Have Gun Will Travel. Clients often came to Paladin, but just as often he would search out employment after learning of a potentially dangerous situation somewhere.

Anyway, the saloon owner is Morey Amsterdam. So we have Morey Amsterdam and Vincent Price together in the same story. For no particular reason, I just think this is way cool.

Anyway, the actors show up and are shocked--SHOCKED, I SAY--to discover that they are being advertised as cheap vaudeville performers and that the theater is actually a saloon. They initially decide to pack up and leave. But a local gunfighter (with a reputation for maybe--just maybe--being faster than Paladin) is somewhat smitten with Patricia Morison and threatens to tear up the saloon and kill the owner if the performance is cancelled. The actors, in the meantime, decide to stay and ram some culture down San Diego's throat, but only after publishing insulting remarks about the gunfighter in the local paper.

So Paladin has to see that the performance goes on--that no one gets shot--and that the saloon remains intact. It's a job that's not made any easier by the fact that the actors still refuse to accept the idea that their lives are really in danger.

It's a fun episode, with a light-hearted feel that does not distract from a real feeling of danger at the right moments. And it's got Vincent and Morey on the same screen together. That is way cool. I still can't explain why. It just is.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ship of Crawling Death

I always liked Boomer--one of the supporting characters from the original Battlestar Galactica. He was in most episodes and probably followed only Starbuck and Apollo as the best fighter pilot in the fleet. It was probably Herbert Jefferson Jr's performance that made Boomer a likable and fondly remembered member of Galactica's crew, giving the pilot a aura of competence, courage and dependability.

So an issue of the Marvel Comics adaptation that gives Boomer center stage is something to welcome. Battlestar Galactica #15 (May 1980) did just this.

As was often the case, Walt Simonson and Roger Mckenzie came up with the plot, with McKenzie writing the script and Simonson doing the breakdowns. Klaus Janson did the finished art. Together, the three men created what is an effective and downright terrifying little horror story.

It begins with Boomer, his usual wingman Jolly and nurse Cassiopeia in a shuttle, with Apollo flying escort, checking out a derelict spaceship. They had picked up a faint distress single from the craft and there was always hope of finding fuel and food--both of which the human fleet are chronically short on.

But the mission gets scary fast. The ship turns out to be an old battle cruiser. When the humans approach, the ship's guns open fire on them, but then stop as soon as Apollo tries to get radio contract. But then the ship goes silent.

Boomer suits up, flies over and blows his way in through an airlock. But inside, he's attacked by a swarm of monsters. Liberal use of his laser and a few concussion grenades keep him alive.

Moving farther into the ship, Boomer finds a room full of human corpses. One woman, the ship's commander, is still alive, greeting the pilot with an encouraging "Get off this ship of death!"

She lives long enough to tell a pretty tragic tale. After the Cylons had destroyed the colonies, the Galactica gathered up whatever survivors could be found, forming the ragtag fleet that has been fleeing the Cylons ever since. But, inevitably, they had missed a few survivors.

These people managed to scavenge up a ship of their own, then set out to find the fleet. By the Cylons had left behind one last, brutal trap, seeding the colony planets with deadly germs. This had the effect of killing the crew and mutating vermin aboard the ship into the monsters that Boomer had encountered earlier. The crew had been dying one by one.

But we are not done with the tragedy yet. The woman turns out to be Commander Adama's wife, who had been presumed dead after the initial Cylon attack. Boomer is able to tell her that Adama is alive. He does tell her a fib when the conversation gets to her children. He opts not to tell her that her youngest son Zac had been killed.

She dies. Boomer sets the ship to self-destruct and fights his way back out. Then he tells another fib--informing Adama and Apollo that there had been no survivors.

This is a really strong story. The emotions are real and we are given some relief from the emotional downs of the story in two ways: First, Boomer's determination to live while fighting his way through the monsters is noteworthy. Second, Adama's wife is given a hope spot before dying by learning her family is still alive.

The Simonson/Janson artwork complements the story perfectly.

So this issue works as an exciting action-adventure tale, a horror story, and an effective character piece.

But it's another tragic story in a long line of tragic stories I've been reviewing recently, isn't it? Over the past month, we've visited several times with the Hulk to see him cheated of a happy ending on several occasions, then watched Jonah Hex get murdered, stuffed and placed on display. I didn't plan that, but we need to move on to something more upbeat.

So next week, we'll look at a team-up between Batman and the pulp character that inspired him--the Shadow. That should be fun and upbeat. A super-violent vigilante.... um... working with a character famous for his... er.. incredibly tragic backstory. So, yeah. ... fun.

Gee whiz.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Tarzan: "Stolen Jewels"--7/5/1951

Tarzan, partially for a lark and partially to prevent a war, attends the wedding of a wealthy ruler. He ends up playing detective when the wedding is preceded by a rotating set of thefts and false accusations. Why aren't weddings in real life that interesting?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Plague Ship

Read/Watch 'em in Order #78

Gee whiz, I don't know why I never read the Solar Queen novels before. They are more fun than a barrel of space monkeys.

In Sargasso of Space, the crew of the independent merchant ship Solar Queen was instrumental in helping clean up a band of space pirates, so they have claimed trading rights on a remote planet as a reward. It's the sort of contract that the big merchant companies usually leave to the independents because profit margins are thin. 

But the planet has proven to be the source of a valuable jewel, so a ship from one of the big companies (Inter-Solar) shows up and tries to muscle in on the trade, despite the overt illegality of this. And trading with the natives on this planet is already a tricky and sometimes dangerous thing. For instance, several of the Queen's crew must help the natives fight an amphibious race of reptilian frog-crab things at one point. Later, the Inter-Solar men use the traditions of the natives to rope the Queen's captain into a duel. Interstellar trade is literally a cut-throat business.

The world-building here, by the way, is really fascinating. The native culture on the planet is believable while still being very, very alien.

Our point-of-view character is still Dane Thorson, the Apprentice Cargo-Handler and still the youngest guy on the crew. As in the first novel, we see that Dane is still learning. In fact, early on, he makes a serious mistake which only the dumbest of luck turns to the ship's advantage. But Dane is intelligent and willing to learn from his mistakes.

Another parallel to the first novel is that Dane is not the automatic hero--he's a capable member of the crew, but only one member of that crew. Other crewmen contribute to the Queen's success according to their own capabilities and specialties. This continues to be a strength in these stories, creating a sense that the Solar Queen is a real ship that operates in a realistic manner.

At the same time, Dane is given several moments to shine even more so than in the first novel. It's obvious that Andre Norton is still setting him up to one day become a leader of men, taking him through a tough and dangerous learning process in order to get him there.

The crew staves off the efforts of Inter-Solar to muscle in on the trade, but ends up in a situation where they have to carry a cargo to Earth and return within a relatively short period of time. This would have been doable, but soon after they lift off, members of the crew start to get sick and drop like flies.

This is the premise for the bulk of the story. The sickness aboard the ship soon leaves only Dane and three other of the youngest, least experienced crew still on their feet. Whey are they apparently immune? What is the source of the sickness? If it's a plague, they might be banned from landing on any inhabited planet or even forced to fly into a sun.

Why is the ship's cat suddenly terrified of certain sections of the ship? That bit of weirdness is, in fact, one of several clues that help the young crewmen figure out what is going on. (A useful cat? Well, this is a work of fantastic fiction.)

But figuring out the reason for the illness isn't enough. The Solar Queen has been declared a Plague Ship AND (because the Queen grabbed supplies from an Inter-Solar emergency station) a pirate ship. In order to work everything out, the young crew is going to have to hide out in the radioactive ruins left over from an atomic war; kidnap a Medic to treat the sick crew; and commit what could be considered an act of terrorism in order to get their side of the story out to the public.

It's a wild plan worthy of Captain Kirk that leads up to a truly exciting action set-piece.

We're not yet done with the Solar Queen--I'll be reviewing at least one more book in the series eventually.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Green Behemoth and a Crystal Girlfriend, Part 3

Gee whiz, graduate school and medical school in a Comic Book Universe must be HARD! No one is every an expert or specialist in a single field. If you are a scientist, you are pretty much a multi-disciplinarian in everything.

Reed Richards, for instance, is the top man in pretty much every branch of science known to man. Hank Pym is an entomologist, but based on all the other stuff he's invented and personally built, he's also an expert in robotics, computer programming, engineering and inter-dimensional physics.

Nobody is really a specialist. A scientist in the Marvel Universe might claim to be a specialist, but when he was in school, he simply majored in SCIENCE!

We meet Doctor Leonard Samson in Hulk #141 (July 1971). He's been called in to cure Betty Ross, who has spent the previous four issues as a fragile crystal statue. Doc Samson is a psychiatrist, which means he did pre-med, medical school proper and a residency in his chosen specialty. But this proves my point about how hard schools in his universe must be--he's also clearly an expert in physics and engineering to pull of his plan to cure both Banner and Betty.

First, there's the matter of capturing Hulk. This is pure psychiatric manipulation at work, using an image of Betty to calm Hulk down enough to get him to turn back into Banner.

Then he jumps to other disciplines and builds a machine that drains Hulk of gamma radiation (leaving Banner cured) and using some of that radiation to cure Betty as well.

THEN--because being a psychiatrist/physicist/engineer isn't enough, he uses the excess radiation to turn himself into a superhero.

THEN--he proves himself to be a tad bit inept as a psychiatrist by wooing Betty and making Bruce jealous. Bruce, who is not thinking clearly because of an endless slew of horrible things that keep happening to him, uses Samson's machine to turn himself back into Hulk. This gives Samson a chance to earn superhero cred, but he's no match for an angry Hulk.

I think I've been sounding critical of the story, but I'm not. The scientists we meet in comic book stories are generally the cream of the crop and making them multi-disciplinary experts opens up a lot of storytelling potential. Like the previous issue involving Hulk and Jarella, I do think this story might have worked a little better if it had been a two-parter. All the character moments, such as Bruce deciding to turn himself back into the Hulk so soon after being cured or Betty's apparent decision to dump Bruce of Samson (that happens on the last page) are very abrupt.

But, also like the previous issue, the story still works, hitting powerful emotional notes while still telling a strong story. It's not quite the classic the Jarella story is, but its still a great yarn.

That's it for now. Next week, we go into deep space to explore a not-quite-abandoned derelict ship.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Cover Cavalcade

Even Swamp Thing endorses the view that Everything is Better with Dinosaurs. From 1974.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Adventures of Sam Spade: “The Missing Newshawk Caper” 7/18/48

Sam’s hired by the publisher of a newspaper to find a missing reporter who’d been working on an expose of organized crime. Sam’s worried the reporter has been killed by the mobsters he was writing about, but it soon turns out the guy has his own reasons for not wanting to be found. Before long, a couple of people turn up dead. Spade’s missing person case quickly evolves (as his cases nearly always do) into a murder investigation.

As is typical of this top-notch show, the plot is a solid mystery in the hard-boiled tradition, while Howard Duff’s portrayal of Sam Spade perfectly treads the line between treating the story seriously while also parodying the genre. Duff spouts out rapid fire narration and truly funny one-liners without missing a beat.

Well, actually, he might have missed a beat, but I’m not sure. One of the many pleasures of the show is always Spade’s banter with his secretary Effie at the beginning and end of each episode. At the end of this one, Spade is explaining who had killed whom and why, but it having a hard time getting Effie to understand it all. Partway through this scene, he mispronounces the name of one of the people involved. I THINK Duff blew the line during the original live broadcast, but Lurene Tuttle (playing Effie) simply goes with it, tossing in remarks about the guy using an alias and allowing this to add to Effie’s confusion. Duff, in turn, plays along with this.

I suppose this might have been scripted, but if not, then it’s an example of just how skilled and professional Duff and Tuttle were, improvising their way past a mistake and staying in character the whole time. Whether they stayed on script or improvised, the two actors meshed perfectly together. The Adventures of Sam Spade was great radio for its writing, direction and production values as well, but none of it would have clicked as well as it did without Howard Duff and Lurene Tuttle to bring it all to life.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Edward G. Robinson Film Festival--Part 3

Of the four movies in the DVD set I bought--all of which I'll eventually talk about in my periodic Edward G. film festval--Kid Galahad (1937) is arguable the weakest, with the a few cliched characters and plot twists along with perhaps a tad too much melodrama.

But it is a tribute to the actors, director Michael Curtiz and the awesomeness of black-and-white photography that the movie is still entertaining. Besides, anyone who reads my blog at all knows I don't object to cliches as long as they are used skillfully, advance the story and provide us with entertainment.

This one has Eddie G. as a fight promoter named Nick Donati. He's honest, but also has a quick-tempered and ruthless side. If you're a young boxer and he's promoting you, then you had by golly better follow his instructions to the letter or you'll be out on the street. Also, if you are a young boxer--STAY AWAY FROM HIS SISTER. He knows what sort of mugs are in the fight game and you simply aren't good enough for her.

Humphrey Bogart (still in his pre-Maltese Falcon gangster stage) is Turkey Morgan (I love that name), the film's dishonest fight promoter. Nick and Turkey are in a feud of sorts. Turkey manages the current heavyweight champ and Nick would love nothing more than to bring up a fighter that can beat the champ.

He might have just found that fighter--a bellhop (Wayne Morris) who knocks the champ down at a party for getting rough with a girl. The girl, by the way, is Fluff Phillips, Nick's smart and capable gal Friday (and implicitly his mistress--the two obviously like each other).

It's this cast that really lifts the movie out of its otherwise so-so script. Robinson and Davis play off each other nicely, while Wayne Morris brings a believable naivete to the bellhop who would soon be boxing under the name "Kid Galahad." Harry Carey is typically great as the Kid's trainer.

Well, melodrama ensues, with Fluff falling for the Kid and the Kid falling for Nick's sister. Nick, who is slowly building the Kid to the point where he can take the champ, isn't happy with the "I love your sister" thing and--well, I said he was ruthless sometimes. He is soon setting up the Kid to lose a fight with the champ.

Fluff and his sister might convince him to change his mind, but that would put him and the Kid on Turkey Morgan's hit list. It's a no-win situation.

This leads up to an ending that drips with far too much melodrama even by the standards of the 1930s , but is still fun to watch. I think there was a federal law in existence during the 1930s and 1940s that made it a requirement for Warner Brothers to make nothing but entertaining gangster films, just as Universal was required to make great monster films and RKO had to make great Film Noir. Individual movies might be flawed, but they would always be good.

This movie was eventually remade as an Elvis Presley movie. I haven't seen that version. No offense to the King as a singer--he deserves his fame in that area.  But his movies were usually horrible.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Last Bounty Hunter

A downer ending for a character can often be an unsatisfying and cop-out way to bring that character's story to a conclusion. But there are times when a tragic or sad ending is appropriate.

Jonah Hex was always a cynical and violent guy, so when DC Comics used DC Special #16 (Fall 1978) to bring his story to a conclusion, a cynical and violent ending was indeed appropriate. It is one of my favorite Jonah Hex stories.

Written by Mike Fleisher and drawn by Russ Heath, "The Last Bounty Hunter" is set in 1904. Jonah is now 66 years old. The world is changing--automobiles are replacing horses and there's a story that someone back East built a working airplane (though Jonah is convinced nothing will come of that). But Jonah is still working as a bounty hunter. He might be a tad slower with a gun than he used to be and he needs eye glasses, but he's still bringing in bad guys---usually dead rather than alive.

As the last active bounty hunter, Jonah is pretty well-known. In fact, a former teacher named Michael Wheeler has come west to find Jonah and write his biography. Jonah is amused by Wheeler's enthusiasm and brings him to his cabin, where Tall Bird--Jonah's common-law Indian wife--is keeping house.

I like the character of Wheeler. There might have been a temptation to make him a little bit of a jerk who wants to write sensationalized dime novel versions of Hex's adventures. But, since Jonah lives in a Comic Book Universe, his adventures are already a bit sensational.

Wheeler is a likable guy and is trying to write an accurate biography. This story appeared a few years before a later series that had Jonah Hex transported into a post-apocalyptic future. I wonder how Wheeler would have reacted to those stories. "Oh, come on, Jonah! I want to write the truth! Stop pulling my leg!"

Wheeler is also dependable and has guts. When vengeful outlaws kidnap Tall Bird, Wheeler takes part in the rescue.

But Jonah's failing eye sight allows one of the outlaws to escape. Later, this guy ambushes Jonah in a saloon and kills him.

It's an abrupt death for Jonah. You would expect him to go down with guns blazing, surrounded by a heap of corpses. But the script and art are excellent and, though tragic, the ending feels right for both this specific story and for Jonah Hex in his entirety.

And things continue to get even more tragic. A circus owner who earlier tried to hire Hex as a sharp shooter arrives to steal the body. Wheeler ends up getting murdered. Tall Bird also apparently dies, though she turns up alive as a old lady in a 1987 issue of Secret Origins. (Though that was set after the '86 reboot of the DC universe, so might be a retcon.)

But we're still not done with tragic irony. The circus guy is killed in a robbery and the thieves take Jonah's corpse (now dressed in his sharpshooter outfit) to a fence. After being stashed away for years, Jonah ends up being used at as a display in a Wild West-themed amusement park.

Mike Fleisher had a tendency to slant his writing towards the dark side. Here, it fits. As sad as it all is, it has the right vibe for the world Jonah Hex carved out for himself during life. Sometimes, tragic irony is just what a particular story needs.

In the mid-1980s, Jonah got a series in which he was thrown forward in time to a post-apocalyptic future. The last book in that series, from 1987, had him seeing his own stuffed corpse and taking comfort that one day he would find his way home. I'm in the camp that thinks that series was a misstep--Jonah belongs in the Old West and doesn't really work as a character outside of it. Though the few stories I've read from that series were all good, they never felt completely right. (And its only fair to concede that I haven't read more than a couple of issues from the futuristic series, so my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt.)

But, if you look back at "The Last Bounty Hunter" with the knowledge that Jonah had been in the future, it adds an interesting slant to it. It means when the circus owner tried to hire Jonah and showed him the sharpshooter outfit, Jonah would have recognized it as the suit his stuffed corpse was dressed in. Makes you wonder exactly what was going through his mind at that moment and adds poignancy  to the moment.

Next week, we'll return to the Hulk and find out what he finally does about having a girlfriend who has been turned into glass.
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