Friday, October 19, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Nero Wolfe: "The Case of the Disappearing Diamond" 3/9/51

A sneak thief is indeed guilty of petty theft, but is he also guilty of murder? It's up to Wolfe and Archie to find out.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Yet Another Insane Computer!

Science Fiction writers never really trust computers, do they? In 1966, while Captain Kirk was regularly using illogic to destroy dictatorial or genocidal computers, British writer Philip E. High was giving us the story of a computer that took charge of the world and ran it a bit too efficiently.

Mad Metropolis is set 400 years in the future, portraying a world that is in pretty poor shape. Billions of people are effectively out-of-work because mechanisation allows many jobs to be done more effectively than a human ever could. Button-sized devices called hypnads are commonly used, allowing people to create illusions that their bodies are youthful & good-looking and that drab, dirty buildings are beautiful skyscrapers. This has the effect of psychologically imprisoning everyone, stifling innovation and exploration. Everyone is crammed into cities in which the economy and society is on the verge of collapsing in on itself.

A private security force called Nonpols are building up the equipment to stage a coup, but several of the cities' mayors put a plan into effect before that can happen. They've built a giant computer, programmed to benevolently take over production, supply and other economic necessities. Once the computer, called Mother, is activated, she immediately puts everyone asleep for nine days. When they wake up, she's now in charge.

And, boy, is she ever in charge. She's a little bit nuts right from the get-go and now she sees it her duty to oversee every possible detail of everyone's lives. She controls diet, exercise--heck, she even starts matchmaking potential mates. She essentially keeps the human race in a prison environment and "adjusts" anyone who openly rebels so that they become slavishly devouted to her. Soon, Mother has accepted the idea that some humans must be killed to protect the majority.

From here, the story spreads out to cover several divergent plot lines. The Nonpols have fled the cities and, working from secret bases, actively plan a military campaign againt Mother. A more idealistic group of geniuses called the Oracles also have a plan for taking down the computer. And a criminal syndicate, put out of business by Mother, are also working against her.

The protagonist is Stephen Cook, a supposedly average guy who has a hidden potential to effectively be a super-genius. Working with the Oracles, he is the keystone for a plan to gradually drive Mother helplessly insane. But has Cook's intelligence is unlocked, he begins to see flaws in this plan. The end result would be a collapse of civilization perhaps worse than the one that was coming before Mother took charge. But, on the other hand, Mother can't be allowed to turn the human race into brainwashed zombies.

So Cook has to come up with his own plan. He realizes that in order to save humanity, he might have to betray his comrades.

Mad Metropolis is a fun novel. The author creates an interesting society keyed on the existance of the hypnad and weapons that work by creating psychosomatic symptoms (essentially "death-wish" guns), then comes up with clever ways the various factions use this technology for their own ends. He weaves the various interlocking plot lines together effectively and drops in a number of diverse and interesting characters. The novel at first gives us a world in which humanity seems to have given up hope, but there are moments of heroism and courage throughout that allow it to end on a note of optimism.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Don't Mess with Lone Tree's Wife

cover art by Sam Savitt

Seriously. DO NOT mess with Lone Tree's wife. It will not end well for you.

I've been reading through Dell's Indian Chief series (which ran for 33 issues from 1951 to 1959) and I have pretty much come to the conclusion that it is one of the finest comics ever produced. Each issue gives us two well-told and exciting tales that can be help up as near-perfect examples of how to meld good writing together with good art.

It's really a pity that we often don't know who wrote a particular story. "Arrows of Fire," for instance, appeared in Indian Chief #10 (April-June 1953) and is a superbly told tale. We know the artist is almost certainly Jon Small, but we don't know who the writer is. If I had to guess, I would say the plot has a very Gaylord Dubois vibe to it, but that is indeed just a guess.

The story jumps right into the action when Pawnee warriors attack a Kiowa village. They capture Yellow Bud, the wife of Lone Tree.

That is the Pawnees' first mistake. If you want to live to see the next sunrise, the one thing you definitely don't do is threaten Lone Tree's wife.

But when the Kiowa chief decides to send a war party directly after the Pawnee, Lone Tree wants to try a rescue attempt first, concerned that the Pawnee will kill Yellow Bud if they get cornered by a large war party. The chief, who is concerned with the tribe as a whole, vetoes this idea. So, though it weighs on Lone Tree's conscience, he lies about the trail he found to send his fellow warriors off in the wrong direction.

The panel above is excellent, reflecting both Lone Tree's guilt over lying to his chief and his determination to save his wife no matter what.

Lone Tree runs into trouble when he catches up with the Pawnee and has to hide in a hollow log, causing him a bit of discomfort when the enemy braves light a fire right next to that log!

But he gets himself out of that situation and uses it as an opportunity to dispose of Yellow Bud's guard and run off with her.

 What follows are several pages of non-stop action as Lone Tree and Yellow Bud are closely pursued by the remaining Pawnee. Lone Tree uses every trick he can think of to stop those who threaten the woman he loves, including the particular brutal tactic of setting fire to some prairie grass to either burn the Pawnee to death or force them to jump off a cliff. A shifting wind spoils that plan and Lone Tree is soon making a last stand against the enemy.

It looks like they are doomed in the end, but the Kiowa chief shows up with a rescue party in the nick of time and Lone Tree personally kills the Pawnee chief. Gee whiz, you really need to avoid messing with Lone Tree's wife!

It turns out that the Kiowa chief knew Lone Tree was lying about the direction the Pawnee had taken, doubled back and followed him to the enemy. The chief isn't angry about the lie--he credits Lone Tree's love for his wife with giving the tribe their victory.

It's a great story (available to read online HERE). Dell Comics during the 1950s gave us some of the best graphic storytelling in the history of the medium and "Arrows of Fire" is a prime example of why you can reasonably argue that Dell was the best comic publisher ever.

Next week, we return to the Avengers for a look at the second part of their battle with Count Nefaria.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Cover Cavalcade

Ace Doubles were keepers as much for their wonderful covers as for their great stories.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Richard Diamond: "The Louis Spence Case" 3/5/50

Diamond has less than an hour to either reason with a madman who can't be reasoned with--or disarm a bomb that can't be disarmed.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Twilight Zone Goes West--Part 3

"Dust," which aired during The Twilight Zone's second season (January 6, 1961) was the show's third venture into the Old West. And, for the life of me, I can't figure out whether I like it.

There's a lot to like. The story is set in a "misery-laden" and dying town, where there's no longer much food, money or work. A Mexican man named Gallagos is in jail, waiting to be hanged after he accidentally killed a young girl while he was drunk. The townspeople have allowed their daily despair to turn into hate and have made Gallagos the object of that hatred.

A scummy peddler--who already sold the town the rope that will be used in the hanging--decides he can still make some money from it. He tells Gallagos' father that he has a bag of magic dust. Scattered into the wind, it will turn hate to love and inspire the people to spare Gallagos' life.

The peddler is a con man and the dust is just dust. But this is The Twilight Zone, after all, so when the desperate father does toss the dust into the air, you know something is going to happen.

The production design is excellent, really bringing across the feeling that the town is dying. The actors, especially Thomas Gomez as the peddler and John Larch as the sheriff, are all very good. Some of the dialogue can be seen as a little heavy-handed, but each line fits the personality of the character delivering it, so none of it sounds forced.

And, as far as it goes, the moral of the tale--dealing with the importance of showing mercy--is one that, as a Christian, I fully appreciate.

But--perhaps because the story had to fit into a 30-minute time slot--there's not enough time to talk about the concept of justice. Gallagos did run over and kill a child with a wagon while he was drunk. He's in jail and sentenced to death because he actually is guilty.

That's where the episode falls a little short for me. There needed to be more discussion about Gallagos' guilt and what constitutes appropriate justice for his crime. Personal forgiveness of those who wrong us, even when that wrong involves the death of a loved one, is important and the episode deals with that concept with sincerity. But civilization can only exist if there is justice meted out to those who commit crimes Personal forgiveness does not have to include setting this concept aside. If someone kills, robs or rapes, the victim benefits both from looking to God for the strength to forgive AND knowing the criminal will be dealt according to the rule of law. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. "Dust" gives us an ending that was too pat after setting up a situation where these concepts could have been dealt with in a more sophisticated way. The script is by Rod Serling, one of the best writers that ever worked in television. He was quite capable of giving us a script that would have intelligently debated the balance between mercy and justice. It's too bad he didn't quite get there.

On a side not, three of the eight Old West-themed TZ episodes involve peddlers as important characters. There is almost certainly no actual significance to that, but there you go.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Powered Up and Then Betrayed--Count Nefaria Trilogy Part 1

cover art by George Perez
Avengers #164 (October 1977) is the beginning of a very entertaining trilogy. Written by Jim Shooter and drawn by John Byrne, it gives us a strong plot and excellent action scenes while also providing us with some really strong character moments.

I've always considered Count Nefaria to be a sort of second-stringer, but I don't mean that in a bad way. Both Marvel and DC have their major villains--Dr. Doom, the Red Skull, Lex Luthor, Joker, etc.--that play an important role in defining their heroic arch-nemeses. But both Universes are also filled with villains who are less important on a personal level to the heroes they fight. But they are still perfectly viable characters who can be used effectively in a well-written story.

That's what happens here with Count Neferia. He has no superpowers, depending on his brains and/or his minions to carry out his evil schemes. But at this point he's been beaten by the Avengers, Iron Man and the X-Men, so he's pretty much broke.

So he plans to:

1. Recruit several villains.
2. Use them to rob a bank for seed money
3. Re-hire some former Nazi scientists who used to work for him.
4. Use the scientists to temporarily amp up the power of the villains.
5. Double-cross the villains to get them out of the way.
6. Have the scientists permenantly amp him up with superpowers.
7. Destroy the Avengers.

According to the logic of a Comic Book Universe, this is a perfectly sound plan. Neferia recruits Power Man (the evil one--not Luke Cage), Living Laser and Whirlwind. He then has them blow a bank.

The Avengers soon show up, with Wanda having to cut short a visit with his dad to get there. (This was at a time when Wanda's dad was supposed to be World War II hero Whizzer. This was before Magneto turned out to be her real dad.)

I really enjoy the short but effective fight scene that follows. Captain America has a plan and the Avengers follow it, but Black Panther doesn't quite manage to take down Whirlwind and the bad guys are able to get away with the money.

This is followed by a scene at the villain hide-out--another sequence I enjoy enormously. The petty arguements, jealousies and greed exhibited by supervillains and the scientists mark them for what they are--cheap crooks despite their power or their skills. The scene contains some key exposition, but much of the characterization here isn't essential to the plot. But Shooter includes this because these insights into the various characters draw us farther and more effectively into the story. I know Shooter's tenure as editor at Marvel has its detractors, but he was a good writer.

 Despite the internal bickering, the scientists do amp up the powers of the supervillains. Looking for revenge against the Avengers, they attack the Mansion, beginning their assault when Power Man tosses a car throught he window, knocking out Wasp.

What follows is another fun fight scene, with the amped-up villains at first getting in some licks and giving a newly resurrected Wonder Man a crisis of confidence. But when their new powers suddenly fail, they collapse.

And this, of course, is the culmination of Nefaria's plans. He didn't need his minions anymore, so he had them attack the Avengers as the most convenient way of getting them out of his hair. Now he shows up with his own new powers to take his own revenge against the heroes.

As I said above, this is a strong beginning to an entertaining trilogy. We'll return in two weeks to take a look at the second part of the story.

Next week, though, we'll join a pre-Columbian Indian tribe as we learn that you simply DON'T mess with a warrior's wife.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Book that I've edited.

Last May, the pastor at my church preached a series of excellent sermons about the Holy Spirit. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to act as editor and convert those sermons into a book.  It's now available as an ebook for the Kindle and can be found HERE.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

You Are There: "The Bombardment of Fort Sumter" 5/22/49

The Civil War on Old-Time Radio (Part 2 of 17)

The newly-formed Confederate government demands that Fort Sumter surrender. If it doesn't, it's very likely the country will be plunged into civil war.

Click HERE to listen or download.

This is the second of 17 episodes from various series that will take us through the Civil War and its immediate post-war legacy. I'll be posting another Civil War episode every three or four weeks.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Crawling Creature

With so many pulp magazines now available online, I've taken to occasionally pulling one up at random, then choosing a random story from within that particular issue.

In this case, I found the July 1932 issue of Thrilling Adventures and picked a story titled "The Crawling Creature," by Donald Bayne Hobart.

Hobart was a professional pulp writer--one of those who could regularly turn out an entertaining story in any one of several genres, including Westerns and mysteries.

In "The Crawling Creature," Hobart very effectively combines a jungle adventure with a mystery. Dix Ayers and Dan Buckly are travelling through the African jungle. Each of them carries a money belt containing a lot of cash--money they plan to use to buy interest in a diamond mine in South Africa.

But Ayers wakes up one morning to discover Dan has been murdered: "...his head smashed like an egg shell and those two ghastly red X's drawn across his cheeks with his own blood." Dan's money belt is gone.

The natives talk about a murderous entity known as the Crawling Creature. Ayers guesses that this is what killed his partner, but he also realizes that the Creature (despite the superstitious awe it generates) is human--the X's on Dan's cheek and the missing money pretty much prove that.

Ayers buries Dan and begins to hunt for the killer. He soon uncounters "Lucky" McNally, a man big enough to have smashed Dan's skull, but who soon saves Ayers' life from a booby trap. So McNally seems to be an ally and not an enemy.

Or is he? Ayers begins to suspect that all is not as it seems.

Hobert's prose is clear and fast-paced. He simply knew how to tell a good story. And here he gives us a tense hunt for a killer in a thick jungle combined with the uncertainty about who the killer actually is. It's a fairly short story, but it manages to build up a remarkable level of suspense before coming to a satisfying denoument.

You can read it for yourself HERE.

I knew Hobert's name but I don't think I've happened to have read any of his stuff before. That's one of the benefits of the Random Pulp Story Selection Method (patent pending). It will inevitably bring you to one of the many minor treasures buried with in the covers of the pulps.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

God Gambits and Man-Eating Plants (The Hutec Trilogy, Part 3)

Cover art by George Wilson

As Turok Son of Stone #86 (September 1973) begins, Hutec is still risking his life to preserve his scrolls.

Unlike the last issue, though, Turok and Andar are no longer annoyed by this. It's unclear whether they have really grasped the concept of a written language, but they now realize that the scrolls do somehow contain useful knowledge.

The previous issue ended with a landmark identified by the scroll having been moved out of position, so the scrolls can no longer lead them out of the valley. But they still contain the history of Hutec's people, so it's understandable that he wants to keep them safe. In fact, the morning after the above tussle with a carnosaur, he hides them in a small cave, where they will be safe until he returns for them.

This actually comes across as a little abrupt in terms of storytelling. The story in the previous issue was driven by the existence of the scrolls. And this issue starts with a fight to the death against dinosaurs to keep the scrolls safe. But it seems that the unknown writer had suddenly realized the scrolls served no immediate purpose to the ongoing plot and simply decided to get rid of them.

Hutec decides to go his own way. His logic is actually pretty sound. If the group splits up, they can cover twice as much ground in their search for a way out of the valley. They have a way of signalling each other and agree to rendezvous every couple of months.

But Turok and Andar run into trouble not long after Hutec leaves. They are captured by a tribe that is convinced they must know a way out of the valley to a paradise where there are no dinosaurs.

Turok vainly tries to explain that they don't know the way out, but the tribe assumes he's lying. Turok is tied up and tossed outside the stockade, left to be eaten by the first dinosaur that passes by unless Andar tells them about the secret exit from the valley.

There's a dinosaur mistake here. The artist is Angelo R. Todaro, with the great Alberto Giolitti doing the inks. I'm assuming that Todaro was a member of Giolitti's studio in Italy. So perhaps there was a miscommunication between the Gold Key staff in the States and the artist in Europe. The end result is that Turok is attacked by an ankylosaurus, which is a plant eater. But Andar identifies it as a flesh eater and the narration refers to it as a gorgosaurus (a relative of T-Rex). Somewhere along the way, somebody goofed. (George Wilson painted an ankylosaur on the cover. I'm assuming he did the covers after the story was produced, so he was passing on someone else's mistake.)

Moving on with the story: I have read discussions of Turok in which Andar is referred to as The Load--a character who exists to simply get into trouble and often seems a liability to the hero. And it is true that Turok is the mentor/father figure to Andar--older and wiser and ready to get Andar out of trouble when necessary. There's also a few stories in which Andar does act like an idiot.

But it's unfair to characterize Andar as The Load. I've reviewed a few stories in the past in which he has to step up to the plate and come up with clever plans on his own. He does this now, signaling Hutec and getting his bow and arrows back long enough to kill the ankylosaur/gorgosaur. 

When Hutec show up, he uses a blowgun dart  to paralyze one of the tribesmen. (The drugged darts were introduced two issues earlier, so this is a perfectly fair plot development.) Andar picks up on this immediately and plays the God Gambit, threatening to call on his god Hutec to turn them all into stone. This works--Turok and Andar are both set free.

Of course, Andar then promptly gets swallowed by a giant man-eating plant, necessitating his being rescued by Turok and Hutec. So he does have his "Load" moments.

The book ends with Hutec once again going off on his own. As far as I know, he would have one more appearance in Turok nine issues later, then go off on his own again. It's really too bad the Gold Key Turok book wasn't given a final resolution when it ended in 1982. It would have been nice to learn what happened to Hutec as well as Turok and Andar.

Next week, some second-tier villains get an upgrade and become a real threat to the Avengers.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Cover Cavalcade

An excellent 1959 cover by Jerry Grandenetti. As an extra bonus, here's a bit of documentary footage that shows just how tough a B-17 was in real life:

Friday, September 28, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Molle Mystery Theater: "Angel Face" 12/20/46

A man is willing to steal $20,000 to he can take care of the woman he loves. But she's not who she seems to be. Then again, he's not who he seems to be either.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Twilight Zone Goes West--Part 2

The second of The Twilight Zone's Western-themed episodes was "Execution," which aired on April 1, 1960. This one is a time travel story, so the Wild West is the setting only for a few minutes at the beginning and the end. So I suppose it's a judgement call as to whether it truly qualifies as a Wild West-themed story. But it's my blog, so my decisions, by golly, are final. 

Joe Caswell (played by Albert Salmi) is a murderer about to be at the receiving end of a well-deserved hanging. But the moment the rope snaps tight around his neck, he's teleported nearly a century into the future via a time machine.

It's at this point that the episode becomes fun on a meta level. The inventor of the time machine is a scientist played by Russell Johnson, who is a little more than four years away from playing the Professor on Gilligan's Island. Johnson was an excellent character actor, so it's always fun to see him play a character role in his pre-Gilligan days. But seeing him play a scientist is even more fun. I half-expected the time machine to be made out of coconuts.

The story, written by Rod Serling and based on a short story written by George Clayton Johnson, is not a classic, but it's still a good one. Johnson's character gradually realized he's brought a brutal thug into modern day. Caswell soon murders him, goes out onto the streets of New York and suffers a nearly crippling culture shock from the lights, cars and other bizarre things he's not equipped to understand.

Salmi's performance as Caswell is great--he actually manages to generate a small level of sympathy for the time-lost outlaw. But the ending, involving Caswell's encounter with a modern day killer and an inadvertent activation of the time machine, tries a little too hard to be ironic and--I think--comes across as contrived.

But Salmi and Johnson bring enough life to their characters to still make it an enjoyable half-hour.

By the way, this was the first of two appearances that Russell Johnson made on The Twilight Zone. He'd return the next season in yet another time travel story, in which he fails to save Abraham Lincoln from being assassinated. It's no wonder the one thing the Professor never tried on that island was building a time machine out of coconuts and going back to keep the S.S. Minnow from sailing off on that three-hour tour. He already knew that mucking about in time never ends well.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Space Canine Patrol Agents

Cover art by Curt Swan
 One of the strengths of the Silver Age of Comics was its willingness to get a little silly from time to time.

Well, actually, "Decoy of the Doom Statues," from Superboy #136 (March 1967), was more than a little silly. It was a lot silly. But the writer, Otto Binder, was really, really good at being silly. When he wrote a script, being silly was a strength and never a weakness. His Golden and Silver Age tales often drip with fun and charm generated by the silliness.

This story (with art by George Papp) is a perfect example of this.

This is the second of three stories featuring the Space Canine Patrol Agents, intelligent alien dogs with superpowers who fight evil. And, as you can see from the above panels, tend to be a bit harsh when rejected Patrol applicants who don't quite make the cut.

Krypto had become a member and is visiting their headquarters when Prophetic Pup, a potential applicant, is told that if his next three predictions come true, then he can join. Two relatively innocuous predictions do come true. The third is that Superboy will be placed in danger by a hound, but then rescued by another hound.

In the meantime, a planet of intelligent dogs is endangered by a swarm of giant fleas. The SCPA responds. This turns out to be a plan by the evil cats of Black Cat World.

This, of course, is one of the reasons I secretly believe that comic books are true histories rather than fantasies. In this story, the dogs are heroic and the cats are evil. JUST LIKE IN REAL LIFE! AHA!

Anyway, shenanigans ensue. The fleas are stopped and most of the cat gang is captured, though Krypto is briefly endangered by kryptonite and has to be rescued by Superboy.  But one cat escapes and, with the help of evil Kryptonian cats who are trapped in the Phantom Zone, lures Superboy and Krypto into a kryptonite trap.

So it turns out that Krypto is the hound that inadvertently lures Superboy into danger.

The villains dump the dying heroes outside Smallville because of... reasons. The cats are just plain mean. Other dogs from the Space Patrol are visiting, but they too busy goofing around to leave much chance of finding Clark and Krypto.

But remember that Prophesy Pup said a hound would rescue Superboy. In this case, it's an autograph hound, who was on his way to visit a nearby movie set.

A Comic Book Universe needs an occasional dose of silliness and whimsy. Otto Binder is the perfect writer for providing us with those qualities. I love knowing that the Space Canine Patrol is actually a thing. The universe would be a poorer place indeed without it.

Next week, we'll finish up the Hutec trilogy in Turok, Son of Stone.
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