Friday, January 19, 2018
Thursday, January 18, 2018
Read/Watch 'em In Order #89
We continue our trip through the August 1939 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories with "Cosmic Cube," a story written by a fan as part of a contest. The author is Graph Waldeyer, who went on to write 4 other published SF short stories during the 1940s. I have no information on how he ended up being named Graph.
"Cosmic Cube" is a neat little story. The protagonist is a scientific genius named Herbert Monroe, who is directly compared to Sherlock Holmes. Monroe is a scientific detective who's "field was the cosmic scene, rather than mundane crime." So he won't solve your murder, but he will figure out how to save the planet if the need arise. He even has his Watson, a friend named Rob Gilton.
The story is set in a space opera future, in which Earth has waged a successful war against the Venusians. But now there's a bigger threat threatening the planet. A giant cube--as large as a sun--is tumbling towards Earth.
Monroe is the only person who knows how to destroy the cube before the Earth collides with it. But his solution is based on a theory so fantastic that Monroe knows there's a good chance that he'll be dismissed as a madman.
His theory proves to be true, but I don't think I'll even hint at it. The story has a really fun twist to it that I don't want to spoil. You can find the magazine online HERE, so you can read it yourself.
After "Cosmic Cube," there's a surprisingly difficult science quiz. For example:
People living in New York partake of the following velocities:
___ mile per second, due to the diurnal revolution of the Earth.
___ miles per second, due to the annual revolution of the Earth around the sun.
___ miles per second, due to the translation of the Solar System toward Vega.
___ miles per second, due to the rotation of the galaxy.
Gee whiz, the science fiction pulps might have occasionally run silly stories, but no one can say they didn't think their readers were reasonably smart.
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Somebody is rustling stagecoaches. Not just robbing them and their passengers, but stealing the entire stagecoach after forcing the rider and passengers to disembark. And the oddest thing is that each stagecoach's tracks simply disappear when a posse tries to trail the stolen vehicle.
This is the situation Roy Rogers rides into in the tale "Graveyard of Stagecoaches," which appeared in Dell's Western Roundup #2 (1953). The art is by Mike Arens and the writer is uncredited.
Roy is briefly mistaken for one of the outlaws, but soon establishes himself as a good guy. He meets the owner of the stagecoach line--pretty young Maggie Temple who has run the business since her dad died. Maggie is now up to 20 missing stagecoaches and her business is--not surprisingly--in trouble.
Roy, of course, sticks around to help. This leads to a couple of attempts on his life, but he soon begins to harbor some suspicions as to what is actually going on.
The villain is a thug with the highly appropriate name of Hog Garber, who was sent to prison by Maggie's dad. He's arranging to hijack the stagecoaches and then uses a hand-car on an old railroad spur to transport them to an abandoned mine. His henchmen go along with it for a share in the profits of the loot taken from the coaches.
Hog's motive? "I've watched these coaches slowly rotting month after month...just like I rotted in jail! Sometimes I come here at night an' prowl among th' dead coaches. I get a funny feelin'... a good feelin'."
In other words, Hog is Crazy Pants. But don't tell him that to his face. One of his henchmen does that and gets shot for it.
In the end, Roy tracks Hog to the graveyard of stagecoaches. There's a brief but nifty chase over the tops of the coaches (I would have loved to see this scene in one of Roy's movies), then Hog crashes through the rotted roof of a coach, into a nest of rattlesnakes. Ouch.
This is a fun story. Like many B-movie cowboy tales, it effectively combines elements from the detective genre with Western elements, making for a strong plot. And Hog is an unusual and effective villain.
You can read this one online HERE. Or you can read it while its set to music:
Next week, we'll visit with the Justice League as they follow Adam Strange into the 73rd Century.
Monday, January 15, 2018
Friday, January 12, 2018
Thursday, January 11, 2018
Geoffrey Houseman's 1939 novel Rogue Male has a great premise. A skilled hunter decides--just for the sport--to see if he can successfully stalk the dictatorial ruler of a totalitarian nation. He doesn't intend to actually pull the trigger (though that is called into doubt later in the novel). He just wants to see if he can do it.
The dictator and nation are unidentified. Houseman wanted his readers to decide for themselves if it was Hitler or Stalin, though he admitted he considered the target to be Hitler. That, I think, makes the most sense. In fact, as least one later edition of the book used Hitler in the cross hairs on the cover.
Also, the 1941 movie version---Man Hunt, starring Walter Pidgeon--overtly used Hitler as the target. I saw the beginning of that one years ago on TV, so I'm just gonna go with that and, for the remainder of this review, I'll refer to the bad guys as Germans.
I can't give a name to the book's protagonist, though. The narration is all first person from his point-of-view, but he's careful never to give us his name.
Whoever-the-heck-he-is is captured by the Germans while stalking Hitler. He's tortured even after he freely admits his motivation. Without excusing the torture, it's actually not surprising the Germans don't believe he wasn't actually planning to pull the trigger. Who would believe that?
They decide the best way to dispose of him is to fake an accidental death, so they toss him over a cliff. But he lands in a bog, which at least partially breaks his fall.
This sets up an incredibly tense sequence in which the protagonist is unable to walk on his injured legs, has hands that are nearly useless after his fingernails were torn out during his interrogation, and has one eye swollen shut from the beatings he took. Despite all this, he needs to successfully hide from those who will soon arrive to "discover" his body and then he needs to escape the country.
The novel can be said to have three long acts and a short fourth act to bring it to a close. The first act is the escape from Germany, which is breathlessly suspenseful. Despite his injuries, the man still has his quick intelligence and his skills as a hunter (which translate into skill at foiling those hunting him). He crawls, painfully climbs trees, and lays false trails as he gradually regains the use of his legs. Because his fall off the cliff was supposed to be accidental, he'd been given back his money and papers. The papers don't do him much good, but the money is enormously useful in acquiring a small boat and drifting down a river until he reaches a port city.
Eventually, he gets back to England, where he realizes that he can't approach his own government for help and that enemy agents are still on his trail. When he's forced to kill one of them, he's then pursued by the cops as well, though the cops don't know who he actually is. His escape from London, his efforts to again lay false trails and his establishing a hidden lair in the country makes up the book's second act.
He successfully eludes the cops, but Germany's top agent is soon dogging his heels. This is the third act, ending with an extraordinarily tense sequence in which the agent has trapped him in the small underground hiding place he had established. Now, to get out, he'll need to use scraps of wood, metal and brick--along with a dead cat--to improvise a weapon and kill the agent.
It is one of the few times in either fiction or real life that a cat has actually served a useful purpose.
The last act is an escape from England and his decision about what to do next. He considers himself as waging a personal war against Germany by now and this informs his future plans.
Rogue Male is full of action, but it is more accurately defined as a novel of suspense, especially during the first and third acts. And it works wonderfully well in this regard. The tension builds on the very first page of the novel, when the protagonist finds himself at the bottom of the cliff the Gestapo had thrown him off. The tension stays high until the story ends.
So the author is successful in keeping us in suspense for 191 pages AND actually finds a use for a cat. He's two-for-two.
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Though Jessie Santos still paints the cover for Tragg and the Sky Gods #3 (December 1975), Dan Spiegle takes over the interior illustration. Santos' style was perfect for the story, so he will be missed. But I'm a huge Spiegle fan also and he continues to give the story a rawness that makes Don Glut's strong writing even more effective.
At the end of last issue, Tragg's enemy Gorth (who is now brainwashed by the aliens as well as just being a jerk by nature) has convinced the tribe that the Sky Gods are benevolent. Tragg and Lorn are once again exiled. When the tribe's chiefton allows Gorth to convince him that all their strongest warriors should visit the Sky Gods and say Hi, Tragg's brother Jarn decides its time to leave.
The visit to the Sky Gods goes as well (or rather--as badly) as you would expect. The warriors are easily captured by the raygun-armed aliens and put to work as slaves. The alien leader Zorek as decided to move their base from their damaged space globe to inside a dormant volcano to protect their remaining equipment from dinosaurs. The captured tribesmen are put to work carrying the heavy stuff.
Jarn warns Tragg and Lorn of the danger to the tribe, but when they try to help, Lorn gets knocked into the volcano crater by an attacking Dimorphodon. Darn Dimorphodons. Never trust 'em, says I.
Tragg and Jarn get captured trying to help. The alien guard actually tries to just kill him, but his raygun is too low on power to finish them off. It's an effective reminder of of why the aliens aren't just rampaging across the valley--with their ship damaged, they are low on resources and power.
The story can be said to be very effectively divided into three acts. The capture of Tragg, Lorn and Jarn brings the first act to a close. The second act presents us with a variety of shenanigans going on at the aliens' new volcano base. Keera still has the hots for Tragg, but when he rejects her, she orders Lorn to be deliberately overworked and then punished when she can't keep up. Zorek tries to experiment on Tragg with a De-Evolvo Ray, taking way his genetic enhancements of increased strength and intelligence, but Keera secretly sabotages this. The alien woman is trying to convince herself she now hates Tragg, but can't suppress her feelings for him or her increased doubt about her own peoples' plans.
All this is extremely well-done. Despite the absense of overt action, the pacing does not seem slow while we are provided plot exposition and characterizations are steadily advanced.
Act Three begins when Tragg manages to get the drop on a guard, allowing him, Jarn, Lorn and Korr (the tribes' chief) to make a break for it. This involves running through a chamber inhabited by a giant crocodile, which promptly eats the guard Tragg has taken prisoner during the escape. This proves fortuitous, though, as the crocodile distracts the pursuing aliens long enough for the good guys to get away.
The story concludes with Tragg and Lorn hoping to find other men to help battle the aliens, while Jarn and Korr head back to the caves to see if they can free the other prisoners.
Tragg and the Sky Gods continues to be an excellent series, with each issue self-contained enough to be enjoyed on its own, but still advancing the overall story arc. Add to this exciting action and interesting characters and we continue to read through a comic book series that should be better remembered and appreciated than it is.
Next week, we return to the Old West, where Roy Rogers is trying to find a... Secret Stagecoach Graveyard?
Monday, January 8, 2018
Friday, January 5, 2018
Thursday, January 4, 2018
Gee whiz, I really want to recommend 1941's Desperate Cargo, because there were aspects to it I enjoyed enormously and it was a pleasant way to spend 62 minutes (IMDB lists it as 67 minutes, but I think that's because it's in the public domain and the surviving prints have some awkward jumps where a few moments are obviously missing.)
But it does have a flaw. It spends the first 40 minutes or so as what is essentially a romantic comedy. Ralph Byrd plays Tony Bronson, who is the new purser aboard a clipper plane that's about to fly from South America to Miami. Ann Howard plays Julie Duncan, half of a two-girl vaudeville act which can't afford a ticket on the clipper to get home. The two fall in love, but shenanigans ensue that get them mad at each other, with Tony convinced Julie was just using him to get free tickets on the plane.
In the meantime, a former pilot named Carter (played by Stanford Jolly) is planning on hijacking the plane and stealing a valuable cargo. Jolley was a perennial villain in Westerns, but plays a more modern crook with equal effectiveness.
Anyway, Byrd and the rest of the cast are likable and reasonably witty, so the first part of the film is reasonably entertaining as long as you remain patient while you wait for it to turn into the crime drama that the poster and title promise it will be.
That part is pretty good. The film essentially becomes a hostage drama with an interesting setting. I suspect that the interior of a clipper isn't presented with the least realism--I think that real clippers have less in the way of private cabins and more regular seating to accommodate more passengers than the half-dozen we see in the film. But the setting is a neat one, giving a mildly claustrophobic feel that adds to the tension.
Tony tries to come up with a plan to retake the ship after the crooks take over, but Julie is more proactive with an attempt to lay a Honey Trap on a bad guy who thinks she's pretty hot. To be fair to the bad guy, she is pretty nice to gaze upon. In the end, though, it's Tony who has to come up with a last-minute desperate plan to catch the crooks before they get to their destination and decide they don't want to leave any witnesses behind.
So Desperate Cargo boils down to about half-romantic comedy and half-crime drama. Even though I think the comedy part goes on too long, I did enjoy both halves, so I recommend the film with the proviso that you can't track me down and beat me up if you watch it and then feel that you've wasted 62 minutes of your life.
Here is is on YouTube, though if you have Amazon Prime, they have a print that is slightly better in quality.
Wednesday, January 3, 2018
Astonishing Tales #4 (February 1971) picks up Ka-Zar's story again, using this issue and the next one to finish up the current story arc. And there's a lot that happens in this story arc. It's actually interesting to consider how much story writer Gerry Conway and artist Barry Smith manage to fit so comfortably into a total of 20 pages.
It's another case in which multiple plot twists make it difficult to effectively summarize the plot. Ka-Zar is back in the Savage Land, hoping to somehow stop the rampaging army of the Sun People. The army is currently attacking a city of peaceful lizard men, who have been at peace so long they have no idea how to fight back.
I love Ka-Zar's attitude when he arrives to help. The story as a whole is an effective portrayal of the tragedy of war. But at the same time, Ka-Zar is given some dialogue that also points out the necessity of being ready to confront evil. "While you awaited your champion," he tells the lizard people when they say they can't fight for themselves, "your women died. Is this peace--or sheer folly?" Comic books from this era often don't get the credit they deserve for how thoughtful they could be.
In the meantime, the Petrified Man's continuing mutation gives him the power of the Sun God and he pretty much just orders the army to stop fighting. Queen Zaladane objects to this and has her pterodactyl snatch up Ka-Zar. The P. Man, though, soon goes insane with power. The action moves to the temple of the sun god, where lots of shenanigans ensue and Zaladane and Petrified Man end up dead.
The Dr. Doom half of the book is also fun, but I think a little less effective in its storytelling. Written by Larry Lieber, the art in issue #4 is still by Wally Wood (who had been the regular artist on the feature), with George Tuska taking over for the fifth issue. Doom, while he's waiting for his castle to be rebuilt after the events in the previous issues, decides to spend a few days at the French Riveria to see how more mundane rich people entertain themselves. He's not impressed and after wrecking the casino in the hotel after someone implies he might be interested in mere money, he heads home.
In the meantime, the Red Skull--who is currently hanging out with a band of would-be despots known as the Exiles--decides that Latvaria would be a good place to start a Fourth Reich. Taking advantage of Doom's absense, he and his gang take over.
Doom returns and is, I think, too easily captured when he's knocked out via a gas attack. How many times in the past have we been shown his armor is air-tight? Gee whiz.
He escapes, though, fairly easily and sends the Red Skull and his gang packing without too much trouble. He also uses hypnotic gas to make them think he's shrunk them down before sending them back to their island hide-out.
The story has some fun imagery in it, but the Skull and his gang are far too underpowered to give Doom any significant trouble. There are some effective moments in the story showing how living under tyranny can bring out the worst aspects of human nature in some of the populace, but the action sequences simply don't have enough tension or excitement to them. Also, Doom seems far too merciful to the Skull and the other Exiles.
On the other hand, watching Doom taking some vacation time in the Riveria is undeniably fun.
Doom's feature lasted just a few more issues, though this does involve a great story featuring the Black Panther which I'll probably review eventually. Ka-Zar took over the feature as the sole lead through issue #20, then we got an unusual but fun set of stories featuring It, the Living Colossus--a character taken from a Tales of Suspense story from 1961. Deathlock the Destroyer showed up in issue #25 and stuck around until Astonishing Tales came to an end with its thirty-sixth issue.
So the days of anthology books featuring the seperate tales of two different characters came to an end. As I said last week, I miss books like that, but the economics of modern comics would probably never allow for it again. Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted.
We are overdue for a look at the next issue of Tragg and the Sky Gods, so we'll do that next week.
Monday, January 1, 2018
From 1938. A great example of a non-superhero comic book published the same year that Superman's premiere began a decade-long period of domination by superheroes of the comic book industry. This was followed by a decade-long lull in the 1950s when superheroes were a small part of what was published before reasserting the dominance again beginning in 1956.