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.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Richard Diamond: "Joyce Wallace" 3/12/50

Diamond is hired by a Broadway actress after someone tries to shoot her. Her ex-husband is the obvious suspect, but in Richard Diamond's world, the obvious suspect is rarely the guilty one.

Click HERE to listen or download.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Nick Carter Really Should Avoid Airplanes


Read/Watch 'em In Order #83

If Nick Carter is ever sitting next to you on a airplane, try to get your seat assignment switched. Because, inevitably, someone is going to get murdered or the plane is going to be hijacked or something bad is going to happen.

Nick Carter, Master Detective, the first in the three movie series starring Walter Pidgeon, began with an attempt to steal secret plans out of a plane Nick was riding in. In Sky Murder (1940), Nick agrees to investigate reports of homegrown spies working for a foreign country. This leads him to be on a plane with a guy who is probably one of the heads of the spies; a pretty female private eye named Chris Cross, and a half-dozen beautiful fashion models. This actually makes sense in context, by the way.

By the way, this is yet another case in which the foreign power is supposed to be Germany, but the country is never overtly identified. It's also clear that the spies are the American Bund (and the movie makes no bones about portraying them as the brutal thugs they were in real life), but they are also never identified by name. Still, few people watching the movie would have missed the intention. I've always given the pre-war movies of Warner Brothers a lot of credit for openly identifying the Nazis as bad guys. The Nick Carter films were produced by MGM and I'm happy to see another studio going after the Nazis as well, even if they didn't do so quite as openly.

Anyway, the guy suspected of being a Nazi is murdered on the plane, despite being alone in a sleeping cabin that no one else appears to have had access to it. The only other person who had been in the cabin with him was a woman named Pat, who is a refugee from Germany. But, despite being the only possible suspect, Nick doesn't think she did it. When they land, someone kills the co-pilot and tries to run the plane into a hanger, killing everyone on board--including the woman refugee.




Pat, by the way, is played by Kaaren Verne, who actually fled Germany in real life and played another refugee a year later in the excellent Bogart picture All Through The Night. Type casting, I suppose, but she's very good in both films.

Anyway, it's soon apparent that Pat is being targeted by the Bund to prevent her from spilling information about them. (She's not a member, but had been pressured to join.) What follows is Nick, his sidekick Bartholomew, and Pat dodging machine gun bullets, time bombs and lethal items while trying to figure out who the Bund's head man is and how the murder on the plane was committed. The resultant story is fast-moving and a tremendous amount of fun.

I particularly enjoyed Donald Meeker as Bartholomew. In the first film, he came across as a little nuts as he simply started showing up and helping Nick even though Nick clearly didn't want him along. But Bartholomew actually helped save Nick's life at the end of that one.

In this one, he's still popping up even though Nick clearly doesn't want him around. Soon, Nick is making use of him apparently because he just won't go away. But over the course of the movie, Bartholomew comes up with an idea to save everyone when they are trapped in a jail cell with a ticking time bomb right outside. He later proves surprising adept at fighting a couple of Bund thugs, and proves equally useful in the end when Nick carries out a scheme to catch the main bad guy. Along the way, he still comes across as a little nuts and sometimes a little annoying from Nick's point-of-view, but he certainly earns his sidekick cred and, as I watch the Carter films in order, he's quickly becoming one of my favorite B-movie characters.

I don't know why the Nick Carter series came to an end after just three films--whether they had tepid box office or Walter Pidgeon was moving up to A-movies or what--but we are lucky to have the ones we do. They are gems. We'll be taking a look at the last one in the series soon.





Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nick Fury Goes Nuts.



Both the DC and Marvel war books more often than not gave us over-the-top action that bore little relationship to realism. But both publishers managed to hit some very effective and honest emotional notes all the same.

Perhaps one of the most effective gut-punches in this genre comes from Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #122 (July 1973), with a script by Gary Friedrich and art by Dick Ayers. It starts us off in the middle of the story, in which we quickly learn that most of the Howling Commandos are dead, while Fury is being hunted through an African jungle by natives.


How did Fury get in this situation? We learn that in a flashback. In response to information that the Nazis are stirring up trouble in the Congo, the Howlers are sent in. The intention is to drop them into the region via parachute, but a sudden encounter with anti-aircraft fire brings them to earth much more abruptly.






The pilots and the rest of the Howlers are killed. Fury is the only survivor. And it's not a mistake on Fury's part--there are bodies for him to see. In fact, its only after he pulls Dum Dum Dugan out of the wreck that he realizes the big Irishman is dead.

The resurrection of supposedly dead comic book characters hadn't yet become quite the cliche it would become over the next few years, so this must have had quite an impact on readers. Especially older readers who remembered the deaths of Junior Juniper and Pamela Hawley. Howlers had died before. So the possibility of the bulk of the Howlers getting killed now would not have been shrugged off.






Anyway, the natives catch Fury and their leader turns out to be Baron Strucker. With Fury finally in his power, Strucker decides to play a Most Dangerous Game with his arch enemy, letting the American get a head start while armed with just a knife. Strucker then follows while armed with a long-range rifle and scope.

a

Fury manages to fake his death, but when he stumbles back across Dugan's grave, he breaks down in despair.

And then--all of a sudden--he's back in Strucker's camp, still a prisoner. The entire issue has been a drug-induced hallucination, leaving Fury angry and confused over what had really happened. Are his friends really dead or was it all just an illusion?





It's not often that the "It's all just a dream" cliche is actually used effectively. More often than not, it always comes across as a bit of a cop-out or Deus Ex Machina. What we have here is one of those rare occasions where it is used effectively and is dramatically appropriate. We ourselves still don't know if the Howlers are dead (though most readers at this point would guess they probably weren't). That the hallucinations were being used as a mental torture device by Strucker adds a lot of emotion to the story. We know that Fury is one of the toughest men in a Comic Book Universe full of tough men, but here we can really believe that Strucker has hit on a method to break his spirit.


Issue #113 was a reprint, which must have driven readers at the time up the wall. One of the best cliffhangers in recent history is followed by a reprint? Gee whiz, Marvel. It probably wasn't planned, but it must have seemed like Strucker was mentally torturing the readers has well.


Also, if you were reading the Marvel superhero books as well, you were processing the death of Gwen Stacy in Spider Man that exact same month!


Anyway, we get to Sgt. Fury #114 (September 1973) and immediately learn the Howlers are indeed alive. They've made it back to an Allied base, where they are having funeral services for Nick Fury. He thinks they are dead and they think he's dead.

We actually get two more flashbacks in short order. One in which we see the plane crash again, learning that the Howlers survived, but that they think Fury was killed when the plane exploded after the crash. Then another flashback shows us how Strucker's men sneaked an unconscious Fury out of the plane.



It might be argued that so many successive flashbacks (three, including the one in the first issue) is a flaw in the story construction. But I think it actually works to highlight the mental stress and confusion that pretty much all the good guys are operating under.

The Howlers return to the jungle to try and complete there mission. Fury, in the meantime, is being driven closer and closer to insanity by Strucker. When the Germans and their Congo native allies ambush the Howlers while the commandos are crossing a river, it seems like they are doomed. Their weapons are lost and the bad guys have them pinned down.



But Fury hears the battle, rips loose the straps holding him to a bed, takes out some guards and then--while duel-wielding Schmeisser submachine guns--drives off the bad guys.

But he's not doing this with a "gotta pull it together and save my friends" attitude. He's doing it because he has now gone over the edge and is operating in a mode of insane rage. When he sees the Howlers, he assumes that they are another hallucination. Not knowing what it real and what isn't, he just begs to be shot and put out of his misery.


I don't own issue #115 (which involves Nick being treated by a psychiatrist that the Howlers have to first rescue from the Germans), though I'm going to try to track down a copy and eventually review it. But these two issue are worth looking at on their own. Nick Fury's mental breakdown arguably represents Gary Friedrich's high point as a writer, delivering a series of emotional blows to the readers and creating a situation in which we believe and accept that Sgt. Fury--of all people--can be broken.

That's it for now. Next week, we'll return to our look at the Micronauts.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017

Friday's Favorite OTR

Tarzan: "Strange Island" 11/8/51

A dishonest colonial policeman (and the most annoying Frenchman ever) decides to manufacture criminal charges against Tarzan to further his own career. Unfortunately for the Ape Man, his alibi consists of spending a day on an island that doesn't exist in the company of a woman who has been dead for years.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Secret of the Su


I generally prefer the pre-war Doc Savage stories, as the later tales often toned down the super-scientific stuff too much for my tastes. But all the same, there was rarely a Doc story I didn't like at all and the later stories have their gems.

"The Secret of the Su" was in the November 1943 issue of Doc Savage Magazine and it is definitely one of the gems. The story begins in the small town of Logantown, Georgia. The local doctor (named Wilson) has found out a secret about an undiscovered tribe in the Everglades that literally amazes him. His servant, Slow John, is supposedly a Seminole who served Dr. Wilson for years after the doc saved his life. But he's actually a Su. Who are the Su and what is their amazing secret?  Well, it'll take us most of the story to find that out.

But we'll have a lot of fun getting to those answers. Another local doctor--Dr. Light--also finds out about the secret. But Light is actually a German whose attitude is to look after Number One. He isn't himself a Nazi, but he knows how to contact Nazi spies and plans to sell them the secret of the Su.

But first he has to stop Wilson from calling in Doc Savage. So Light hires a local thug named Snuffy Gonner (I love that name) to help kidnap Wilson and tuck him out of the way. But Wilson proves quite resourceful and escapes. He makes it to New York and, worried that he's being followed, contacts Doc's cousin Pat Savage. But he gets recaptured all the same.

By now, there are three sets of bad guys. Dr. Light is trying to trick Slow John into taking him to the Everglades and leading him to the Su. Snuffy Gonner and his men are trying to join him there, though they don't know they are being pursued by Doc Savage and Doc's crew.




Then there's the gang of Nazi spies that Dr. Light contacted, who are dealing themselves in. Of course, all the villains are ready and willing to double-cross each other. Everyone ends up in the Everglades, with Doc joining Light and Slow John by disguising himself as one of Snuffy's thugs, the Nazis capturing Pat and three of Doc's partners, and Snuffy's crew of gunman willing to pretty much shoot everyone.

When the Su finally show up, everything gets really interesting.



This is a fun story, fast-moving and running from one plot twist to the next without pausing for a breath.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

All For One and One For All


In a comic book universe, all myths are true. Robin Hood really existed. King Arthur really existed. And so on. This concept often extends into public domain characters from classic fiction. So, in 1976--probably in response to the Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers theatrical films--DC Comics added D'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis to their universe.

Well, actually, the four issues of DC Special in which the Musketeers appear do not overtly tell us they share a universe with Batman and Superman, but what fun it is to assume otherwise?





The first of the Musketeer stories appeared in DC Special #22, with art by Jorge Moliterni, was written by Denny O'Neil. In it, the Musketeers are tasked with delivering a treaty to the Spanish ambassador at Calais. Along the way, they stop some outlaws from robbing a coach and briefly encounter an ape-ish monster.









They lose track of the monster in some woods, but stumble across a beautiful woman who is also traveling to Calais. Sharp-eyed readers at this point might notice that the monster and the woman are both wearing identical amulets around their respective necks. This is actually a nicely placed clue. It's never mentioned overtly until the end of the story and it's a tiny enough detail to miss.







When the Musketeers stop at an inn for the night, they are attacked by the monster, who proves to be nigh-invulnerable and gets away with the treaty.


It's D'Artagnan who has a Sherlockian moment (or, considering who wrote this story, a Batman moment) and figures out that the woman is both the monster and an English spy. The Musketeers gallop to Calais, leaping their horses about the woman's ship just as its leaving port. D'Artagnan improvises a tactic for defeating the monster and--once it transforms back into a human--capturing the spy. The treaty is recovered and properly delivered.


The next three issues of DC Special also had Musketeer stories, each one by a different writer. These later stories did not have any Bat-deductions or supernatural elements, but were pure swashbucklers. I don't know if this was just writer's preference or an editorial decision.

All the stories are fun, so it's a shame the Musketeers did not catch on as comic book characters. The main flaw of the stories is probably too many protagonists. In fact, in this first story, Athos is out of most of the action with a wounded shoulder, almost certainly because O'Neil needed to pare down the number of main characters. In none of the stories is there room for the Musketeers to get more than one-note personalities (Porthos is a big eater, Aramis is a womanizer, etc.). Had they spun off into a regular series, there would have been time to flesh out their characterizations.

Next week, we'll jump ahead three centuries to World War II and watch Nick Fury go nuts.


Monday, July 3, 2017

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