Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Robot vs. Robot

G.I. Robot, who first appeared in Star Spangled War Stories #101 in 1961, is one of writer Bob Kanigher's most magnificent creations. A experimental combat machine, G.I Robot was supposedly emotionless and would perform the task of fighting the Axis with mechanical efficiency. But there were always subtle hints that maybe--just maybe--the Robot had feelings.

The early G.I. Robot stories were drawn by Ross Andru, who had the ability to put just a hint of emotion into the robot's unchanging visage. I have no idea how Andru did that, but by golly he did.

Today, we're looking at a later Robot story from Weird War Tales #122 (April 1983). Kanigher is still the writer, with George Tuska. And Tuska is almost (if not quite) as good at giving the Robot a subtle sense of emotion as was Andru.

By the way, this story involves the fourth version of the Robot. G.I. Robots take a lot of casualties, which kind of makes you wish that they don't have emotions.

This Robot is J.A.K.E. 2 (Jungle Autonomous Killer Experimental) and his human partner is Sgt. Coker . The two are with a marine unit on a Pacific island, tasked with the job of sinking a Japanese ship that is bringing tanks to the island.

Coker and J.A.K.E. fail to sink the ship, but J.A.K.E. pretty handily takes care of the tanks with a volley of mini-bazooka rockets fired from his fingertips.

This is, of course, awesome. But there is a detail of story construction that is open to criticism. The marines were in a panic about the Japanese tanks being delivered, implying they have no anti-armor weapons at all. Coker and J.A.K.E. nearly get killed in a desperate attempt to stop the tanks from getting to the island. But then J.A.K.E. destroys the tanks in a single casual gesture. So why were they considered such a threat in the first place?

But that's a small criticism. All these shenanigans are simply to set up the meat of the story, in which the Japanese send a Sumo Wrestler Robot to destroy J.A.K.E.

They've tried a Samurai Robot 9 issues earlier. A Japanese officer mentions they had also tried a Geisha Robot, which I don't think we actually ever see in a G.I. Robot story. I try to keep my blog family friendly, so I won't speculate on how exactly a Geisha Robot tried to do away with J.A.K.E.

Anyway, we get a fight scene between the two robots that Tuska does a wonderful job of illustrating. At first it looks as if going to lose, but Coker gives him a "remember you're a Marine!" speech and J.A.K.E. pulls off a come-from-behind victory.

He then carries Coker through a mine field, but without warning the soldier beforehand that he has mine detectors in his feet and there was no danger.

So does J.A.K.E. respond to Coker's speech during the fight against the other robot? Does he show a sense of humor in carrying Coker through the mine field and giving the sergeant a scare? Does he have emotion? Does he dream?

Coker isn't sure. And neither are we.

That's it for now. Next week, we'll look at one of the many times Batman and Superman teamed up.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Cover Cavalcade

Jack Vance was a superb writer who was also fortunate enough to have some great cover artists help sell his books.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dragnet: "The Helen Corday Murder" 7/7/49

A young lady is murdered. The crime scene yields a few weak clues. A lot of leg work and an intense third-degree with a suspect is needed to nail the killer.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Pluto and Space Pirates

Read/Watch 'em In Order #90

We continue our journey through the August 1939 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories with "The Dweller in Outer Darkness," by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

This one is pure space opera, something I have no problem with when done well. "Dweller," though, is only mostly done well. Long was a prolific writer for the pulps and later as a novelist and his stuff is usually quite good. This story, though, has a few flaws that keep it from flowing smoothly.

It's set on Pluto, being explored for the first time by a small ship with a crew of three. The narrator, Mark Banner, is in love with fellow crew person Helen Torrey. But Helen has eyes only for Peter Miles, who has the air of a reckless adventurer about him and is willing to take chances that Mark will not. That Mark is constantly critical of Miles' risk-taking ("Heroics and science don't mix") doesn't make him look good in Helen's eyes.

After acquiring a specimen of an apparently dead and vaguely human life form, the three blast off for Earth. But when they are intercepted and captured by the ruthless space pirate Delcha, we get to see which of the crew really has courage. We'll also get to see if the Plutonian life form is actually dead or merely waiting for the right conditions to wake it up.

The setting and plot are fine and Long succeeds in making the climax appropriately creepy. The drawback is the techno-babble. Of course, this is space opera, where super-scientific devices are common and a degree of techno-babble is necessary to explain those devices. Long simply spends a few too many words during the relatively short tale explaining the "science" behind several weapons and protective belts the characters are using. There are moments in science fiction when the author just needs to say "force field belt" or "stun gun" and then just leave it at that.

But, as I said, the story turns effectively creepy when the Plutonian thing turns out to be not-quite-dead and any story that involves a space pirate gets points for that alone, so "The Dweller in Outer Darkness" is worth a read.

Remember that you can find this issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories online HERE.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Captain America Fought Zombies Before Zombies Were Cool!

I am not a fan of modern zombie fiction. In part, this is because of my distaste for graphic violence, which I think is one of the worst things that ever happened to the horror genre. It is also, in part, simply a matter of personal preference. Give me a dead guy raised by voodoo or because of a curse rather than a world-wide zombie plague and I'll then be okay with the story. The second episode of the 1974/75 TV series The Night Stalker involved a voodoo-created zombie and contains one of the purely scariest moments ever produced in fiction from any medium.

But there at least one Zombie Apocalypse story that I enjoy. We have to go back to All-Winners Comics #1 (Summer 1941) to find it, but by golly, it's there.

The comic contained five stories respectively featuring the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, the Black Marvel, the Angel and Captain America. It's Cap who has to deal with the Zombies.

These particular zombies are created by a Nazi mad scientist, who is kidnapping hobos, turning them into mindless killing machines that feel no pain, then having them rampage and destroy American military assets.

Joe Simon wrote the story and Jack Kirby illustrated it. It was a story that depends on really creepy images to work effectively and generate the appropriate horrific atmosphere. I think Kirby's best work as an artist came in the 1960s and 1970s, but he succeeds beautifully here in hitting that creepy vibe. The panels showing us the rampaging zombies put any thing from a George Romero movie to shame.

Anyway, Cap and Bucky go undercover as hobos, get kidnapped, and (after the villain conveniently explains his plan) beat up the bad guys and put a stop to this particular Zombie Apocalypse.

If you like modern zombie films and TV shows, then I have no problem with that. There's much of it I have never watched, so my opinion isn't a well-educated one and I freely admit it is based on personal preference. Just as I would hope no one would be dismissive of the fiction I can be passionate about, I hope that I would never be dismissive of someone else's tastes.

But for me, this Captain America story--published 27 years before Night of the Living Dead gave birth to modern Zombie movies--this is a story that shows us how to do such a story right.

Next week, we'll go on a mission with G.I. Robot as he takes on a Japanese Sumo-robot.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Ozzie and Harriet: "Lodge of the Unicorn" 9/16/45

In order to join a lodge, Ozzie must go through the day agreeing with absolutely everything said to him.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

For More Fun, Add a Gatling Gun

Novelist and screenwriter Clair Huffaker published the novel Badman in 1958. The title character is a guy named Jack Tawlin (called "Taw"), who has just gotten out of prison and who has a reputation as a gunman and a trouble maker.

Taw, though, wants to go straight and live a quiet life. He arrives at the town of Pawnee Fork, where his brother Jess works as a shipping clerk for a mining company. His good intentions don't last very long after that, since Jess and several others are planning to rob the mining company's next gold shipment and want Taw to be a part of this. When Taw has to kill a man in self-defense, he comes to the conclusion that he'll never be allowed to leave his past behind. He might as well join in on the robbery.

There are several aspects to all this that make it interesting. The first interesting thing is the wagon that will carry the gold. It's armor plated and guarded by over two dozen men. To separate the wagon from the guards and then get the wagon to wreck itself in a gully will require a complex, multi-part plan that includes--among other things--blowing up a bridge at just the right moment and tricking a tribe of Sioux into attack the guards at also just the right moment. If any one part of the plan goes awry, the whole thing can fall apart.

The second interesting thing is the way Jess is obviously manipulating his brother into becoming a part of the gang. It's easy to see--but Taw can't see it. He sees his little brother as a friend and someone who is in need of guidance. Taw cannot see Jess for what the despicable worm he is. Heck, Jess' wife Christine warns Taw that he's being set up as a fall guy and will never live to see his share of the gold. But Taw's blind spot regarding his sibling cannot be overcome.

That's the irony of the title. Badman apparently refers to Taw, but many of those involved in the gold robbery are probably worse than he is.

The novel is a really, really good one. Huffaker builds tension steadily in the events leading up to the robbery and during the unexpectedly rainy night in which the gang pulls off the job. Then events spiral out of control for pretty much everyone involved, with Taw getting a chance to do something noble that makes us feel he's earned a happy ending.

If he can live long enough to get a happy ending, that is.

In 1967, Huffaker wrote the screenplay for a movie version that would star John Wayne. The film takes the basic premise (coming up with an intricate plan to rob an armored wagon carrying gold) and plugs in new characters and an entirely different atmosphere. The novel was full of dark tension and moments of violent action. The movie is full of a sense of fun and, though it still has its share of violent action, it has a completely different feel to the story.

Jack Tawlin becomes Taw Jackson, played by the Duke. He's still getting out of prison, but this time its after being framed by mine owner Frank Pierce, who wanted Taw's ranch after gold was discovered on it. Pierce also hired a gunman to shoot Taw, though the tough rancher survives the wound. Now that Taw is out, he plans to rob the War Wagon to get payment for the ranch he was cheated out of. So where the novel version of Taw needed a chance to redeem himself before we could really root for him, the movie version of Taw is simply given a moral justification for the robbery right from the get-go.

The first act of the movie involves Taw putting the gang he needs together. This includes a gunfighter and safe cracker named Lomax, who also happens to be the guy who shot Taw. But Lomax is the only safe cracker Taw knows.

Lomax is played by Kirk Douglas and its the pairing of Wayne and Douglas that really makes the movie stand out. The two play off each other perfectly and both at least appear to be having enormous fun playing their parts.

The movie was directed by Burt Kennedy, who also added some humor to the script--something Huffaker apparently disliked but which the finished product shows to be the right decision. Both production crew and actors were vets at making Westerns and the end result is 101 minutes of solid entertainment.

Also, the War Wagon just looks cool. One interesting thing about the movie version of the wagon is the addition of a gatling gun. In the book, it is mentioned that a gatling gun was considered for the wagon, but dismissed as unnecessary. But in the movie, the wagon actually has a gatling-armed turret on top. The idea of that weapon was probably just too visually cool to leave out of the film.

95 times out of 100, the movie version of a book is never quite as good as the book itself. But in this case, the book and the movie split too far apart in characterization, theme and atmosphere to make them comparable. Each is its own animal and each is great in its own right.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Man/Tiger Hybrid & a Woman Scorned: Tragg and the Sky Gods #4

Tragg and the Sky Gods #4 (February 1976):

Last issue we left off with half of Tragg's tribe now held as slaves in the aliens' newly established volcano base.  Gee whiz, volcano bases are pretty common among villainous organizations. It's interesting to discover the tradition goes back to prehistoric times.

Tragg and Lorn are attempting to find other tribes to help in the fight against the aliens. This entails going through a very dangerous forest that is responsible for the tribe's isolation--there's usually no reason to risk walking through the forest.

But the danger to them isn't going to come from the indigenous wildlife. Zorek, the leader of the aliens, decides to send a special assassin after the two humans. He takes Gorth--the guy who hates Tragg and led the tribe into captivity--and uses a variation of their evolution ray to combine Gorth's body with that of a saber-tooth tiger. Thus, Sabre-Fang is born.

I do miss Jesse Santos' pencils on this title, but Dan Spiegle's work here is excellent. The above panel is visually striking and has all the information we need to follow the story. I think the image actually generates some sympathy for Gorth, who has been such a complete jerk throughout the series so far that this is quite an accomplishment in of itself.

Zorek also still suspects that his gal Keera has a thing for Tragg. He's right, of course, but she vehemently denies it. Then she sneaks out of the base to warn Tragg about the Sabre-Fang.

A side-note. "Zorek" is very similar to "Zorak," an evil alien who fought Space Ghost several times in the Saturday morning cartoon not too many years before Tragg was published. It's very likely a coincidence, but I wonder if writer Donald Glut was giving us a shout-out to another alien bent on conquest.

Back to the story: Sabre-Fang finds Tragg and Lorn. Stronger and faster than either of them, he's about to finish off an unconscious Tragg when Keera shows up. Sabre-Fang has been programmed not to attack the aliens, so she is able to protect Tragg by standing near him.

What follows is a really nifty action sequence in which Lorn barely stays one step ahead of Sabre-Fang, though an encounter with an ill-tempered brachiosaurus makes this task even more difficult.

Back with Tragg and Keera, there's a neat bit of characterization when the alien casually tells Tragg to forget Lorn. Tragg, naturally, reacts badly to this.

Keera is attracted to Tragg because of his courage, intelligence and loyalty. So she's attracted to Tragg in ways that--in other circumstances--would be considered healthy. But that attraction does not magically make her a good person. She is still a product of her militaristic and brutal culture and is, in fact, surprised when Tragg doesn't share her innate ruthlessness. Having never been taught any real moral standards, she does not exhibit any real moral standards

It's really a sophisticated bit of characterization, arguably making her the most interesting (if not likable) character in the story.

Tragg pursues Sabre-Fang and manages to save Lorn--who, by the way, remains proactive in her own actions and is never a mere damsel in distress. The final confrontation is at a tar pit, giving Dan Spiegle a chance to give us yet another really cool panel:

Through brains and determination, Tragg kills Sabre-Fang. Keera, in the meantime, has a "if I can't have him, no one can" moment and nearly fries Tragg with her ray gun.  But she can't force herself to do it, bringing the story to an end with Tragg and Lorn still on their quest to find allies.

No new major plot points are revealed in this issue, but the action and characterizations are still excellent and the overall story arc continues to progress steadily. Tragg and the Sky Gods continues to be an entertaining and skillfully executed example of science fiction world-building.

Next week, we'll return to 1941 and join Captain America in fighting off a Zombie Apocalypse.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Friday, February 9, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Voyage of the Scarlet Queen: "The Tatooed Beaver and Baby Food for Pare Pare" 10/9/47

The Scarlet Queen doesn't normally carry passengers, but Captain Carney agrees to carry 4 people for a short trip to their shared destination. One is a preacher, one a doctor and the other two are a married couple--with the husband being an invalid who can only digest baby food. It's a weird assortment of passengers, but the job is still simple enough. What can possibly go wrong?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Fifth Napolean

Most of the Shadow novels published in the 1930s and 1940s were written by the prolific Walter Gibson. But, though Gibson had no trouble keeping up with deadlines even after The Shadow became a twice-a-month magazine, the publishers brought in Theodore Tinsley to contribute a set number of novels per year.

Gibson will always be THE writer of the Shadow, but Tinsley proved to be a worthy substitute. He understood the character, had a talent that nearly equaled Gibson for coming up with surprise plot twists and could write truly exciting action scenes.

The Fifth Napoleon (February 1, 1938 issue of The Shadow Magazine) may be my favorite Tinsley novel. It begins with a crook named "Lifer" Stone getting released from Sing Sing. But Lifer's freedom is short-lived. He's kidnapped and replaced by disguised Shadow.

This is the Shadow's opening shot in a battle against the five Napoleons. There are four known criminals, each of whom runs a different racket, but who remain free because the cops can never pin anything on them. A master criminal--the Fifth Napoleon--is their boss of bosses. None of the other four know their leader's true identity.

There's another crook out there as well. Tiger Marsh has formed a gang of his own and is operating in opposition to the Napoleons. Posing as Lifer, the Shadow is in position to join or to work against either side. Or he will be, if he can avoid one faction or the other deciding to kill him.

The plot is full of wild twists and turns as the bad guys fight each other and the Shadow gathers information while occasionally whittling down the ranks of the ungodly himself. Everything builds to a bizarre and exciting conclusion, with the Shadow and police inspector Joe Cardona playing a deadly game of hide-and-seek with the bad guys in a large underground lair. By the time it all ends, we will discover that several of the people involved aren't who we thought they were.

The Fifth Napoleon is terrific fun, with the final extended action sequence in the underground lair particularly noteworthy. The plot twists are usually unexpected, but fair--Tinsley effectively explains each plot twist in a way that fits perfectly with what we've been reading. As I said earlier, no one has ever (or will ever) match Walter Gibson as the best Shadow writer. But Tinsley's efforts are nothing to wave a Tommy Gun at. He was also a great writer who knew how to effectively build a truly exciting tale. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Yet another visit to the 73rd Century

A few weeks ago, we took a look at Justice League of America #138, in which the League has to travel to the 73rd Century to help out Adam Strange, who had become an unwilling time traveler.

JLA #139 (February 1977) follows up that story. Through Adam has been rescued and returned to Rann, his problems turned out to be just the first step of an elaorate trap. The heroes who followed them into the future soon fade into intangible and invisible ghosts, unable to communicate with other League members.

Like the previous issue, this one is written by Cary Bates and drawn by Dick Dillon. And, like the previous issue, it's full of imaginative fun.

Adam Strange shows up to explain what's going on.  The destructive radiation he had been infused with was now infecting the heroes who also travelled to the future. The alien super-crook Kanjar Ro is responsible for all this--a plot to take out some of the Justice League and torture Adam with the knowledge that he (Adam) was a tool in doing so.  Kanjar's motivation seems to be pure revenge, but its a motive that fits him well. Kanjar Ro was always a big meanie.

But the elaborate trap is even more elaborate. Finding a way to save the incorporeal heroes requires a return to the 73rd Century, which Green Lantern accomplishes by using his ring to zap the entire satellite 4300 years forward in time. But before that happens, Flash becomes solid again when he saves GL from an exploding console. So it seems that the sight of a friend in danger can allow the incorporeal heroes to return to normal.

But that's just another step in the trap, arranged by Kanjar Ro so that the heroes--who are due to be attacked by 73rd Century soldiers--will be at a psychological disadvantage because they are subconsciously expecting their invisible allies to pop up and save them.

And those 73rd Century soldiers are tough opponents, using weapons that analyze their opponents and automatically use effective tactics against each individual hero.

I really like the elaborate, multi-step nature of this trap. Looked at through the lens of Comic Book Logic, it follows a step-by-step process that would have made the Mission Impossible team proud. If the Mission Impossible team were evil, that is.

But though Kanjar Ro may be clever, Adam Strange is no slouch in the brains department. He figures out what's going on and how to reverse the "incorporeal" thing. The formerly trapped heroes join the fight, with Superman using his heat vision to disable the soldiers' super-weapons. After that, the battle is pretty much a curb stomp.

It turns out that Kanjar had set up shop in the 73rd Century, using his Energi-Rod to control the soldiers. The villain makes an attempt to getaway by disguising himself as the 73rd Century Green Lantern, but Adam tumbles to that trick as well.

In addition to Kanjar Ro's entertainingly complex plot, I also enjoy the almost casual depiction of super-science and time travel. The Justice League, even more so than Marvel's Avengers, work best when their stories are at a truly cosmic level. Super-science, time travel and bizarre plots fit the title well. In this case, those strengths are reinforced by Dick Dillon's strong artwork.

Next week, we'll time travel again--back into the prehistoric past for another visit with Tragg and the Sky Gods.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Cover Cavalcade

From 1966. The cover art is by Al Wiseman, who also penciled and inked the stories inside. The book did include a few cartoons by Dennis' creator Hank Ketcham.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Six Shooter: "Helen Bricker" 1/24/54

The titular character is being shunned by the citizens of Yellow Crest because she is married to a man about to hang for murder. When those citizens decide to run her out of town even if it means burning her out of her home, Britt feels obligated to step in and help her—whether she wants his help or not.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Nazi Spies on the Waterfront

I am, as any regular reader of this blog knows, I'm huge fan of B-movies from the 1930s, '40s and '50s. At the time, "B-movie" was a reference to low budgets but not usually to low quality. The B-movies produced by the major studios were often superbly told stories. The old Studio System, which placed actors and other creative staff under contract to specific studios, meant the big studios had a strong pool of talent to draw from even for their lower budget fare.

When you get down to the Poverty Row studios, which produced nothing but "Bs" as quickly as possible, the quality was more hit and miss. They simply didn't have the same variety of talent available to them. But all the same, they produced a fair percentage of good stories.

Waterfront is a 1944 film from PRC (the poor relative even by Poverty Row standards) that was very fortunate in the actors who appeared as the villain. J. Carrol Naish, a talented character actor able to play a seemingly infinite variety of roles, plays an eye doctor with an office on San Francisco's waterfront. Eye exams are just a side roll for him. His main job is running a Nazi spy ring.

John Carradine is a Gestapo assassin who shows up for a specific assignment. But someone has stolen Naish's code book and is attempting to blackmail him, so Carradine is soon involved in getting the book back and paying off the blackmailer--with a bullet.

The Nazis manage to raise their "despicable" factor by threatening the families of German immigrants (people who have no love for Hitler) and forcing the immigrants to help out with the spy ring. ("It would be too bad if your mother back in the Old Country ended up in a concentration camp.")

Both men are great in their roles. Like other actors from the Golden Age (Karloff, Lorre, Price, etc), they never phoned in a performance no matter how minor the film is. They were pros who always gave their best.

This is especially notably in John Carradine's case. His real love was theater, especially Shakespeare, and appeared in scores of B-movies to finance a theatrical troupe. (Listen to THIS episode of radio's Information Please to hear the ease with which Carradine answers questions about the Bard and quotes long passages from memory.)

But Carradine always gave real personality to his roles. Here, he exudes menace as the Nazi assassin, giving an average movie more depth than it would otherwise have had.

Certainly the villains are more interesting than the protagonists. B-movie vets Terry Frost and Maris Wrixon play a rather dull couple who get involved in the shenanigans, with Frost getting framed for one of Carradine's murder. Fortunately for him, Carradine's habit of doodling sketches might just provide a badly needed clue.

Waterfront doesn't belong on the same level as Charlie Chan or Hopalong Cassidy, but it's still a fun, well-made B-movie that's worth a little more than a hour of our time:

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