Friday, March 30, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Dragnet: "The Big Escape" 1/5/50

An old friend of Joe Friday is doing time for armed robbery. Convinced the friend has earned another chance, Friday helps line up a job on a low-security prison farm. Only time will tell if this is a good idea.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Madmen and Moon Cities

Read/Watch 'em In Order #93

Thrilling Wonder Stories (August 1939) finishes off its fiction for this issue with a wonderfully entertaining Space Opera tale titled "Race Around the Moon," written by Otis Adelbert Kline.

A scientific organization holds a contest, offering a million dollar prize to whatever privately owned space ship can be the first to circle around the moon and find out what's on the dark side.  Where a scientific organization gets that sort of money is not discussed. Maybe science is just better funded in the future. Besides, it probably saves money by getting private citizens to make the flight rather than getting government contracters to build them their own ship.

Anyway, Jerry Lee owns the Streak, one of four ships that will take part in the race. This number is quickly reduced to four when the ship piloted by the lovely Risa Gordon stalls out on its launch pad. Not wanting to miss the race, she quickly stows away on the Streak.

What follows is Space Opera done right. Unlike "The Dweller in Outer Darkness," an earlier story in the issue, Kline introduces super-scientific elements without adding unnecessary technobabble to explain or justify it. He trusts his readers to know the genre and simply accept the advanced technology for what it is. Give it a name; siccinctly explain what it does; then move on.

The race gets dangerous when one of the other participants shows he's willing to simply blow his opponents up in order to win. So a race around the moon quickly becomes a race to avoid horrible death.

That by itself would probably make an interesting story. But Kline then throws in another wild element. There's an alien city on the dark side of the moon, exisiting in a crater that holds in a breathable atmosphere. The city is surrounded by a bunch of big volcanos. Except the volcanos aren't volcanos. They are rocket exhaut pipes. The moon is actually a really big space ship.

The Streak lands at the city. Lee and his crew explore, learning that the city was once inhabited by a sort of giant spider-people who died out from a fungal infection they picked up on Earth.

Then the bad guy shows up, takes everyone prisoner and gains control of the big moon rockets. He then declares himself Emperor of the Earth, since he can cause mass destruction just be moving the Moon a little closer or a little farther away.

Lee has to put a stop to this. Fortunately, he has several elements working in his favor. Risa Gordon is playing up to the villain but really working as an inside agent to stop him AND there's a surviving member of the alien spider-people who isn't overly pleased with his home being used as a Weapon of Mass Destruction.

Kline does a nice job of tying all these elements together in an exciting climax, mixing together the science fiction elements and likeable protagonists to give us a lively and boisterious Space Opera.  It's a great ending to a fun issue that reminds us why so many people consider the Pulp Era to be a true Golden Age of storytelling.

You can still access this issue online HERE.

As of writing this (about six weeks before it posts), I'm not sure what I'll pick next for the In Order series. I'll figure out something soon, though.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Angry Ape-Men and an Angry T-Rex: Tragg and the Sky Gods #5

cover art by Jesse Santos

As Tragg and the Sky Gods #6 (May 1976) picks up, the title character and his gal Lorn are still looking for other tribes to help fight the alien invaders. They finally find another tribe, but things don't go well.

This particular tribe is made up of ape people who use tools and have a language, but haven't learned much about abstract notions of friendship and gratitude yet. (By the way, they share a language with Tragg. This seems unlikely, especially since the respective tribes have never met, but perhaps there's still one primitive language in the world that hasn't broken off into different dialects yet. Yeah, that's it!)

I shouldn't make fun of little details like the language, though, because this issue has writer Donald Glut and artist Dan Spiegle add yet another interesting element to the world that Glut has been expertly building. The ape tribe is a great addition to the overall story arc--a sort of wild card element that can be left alone or brought back into the story at any time.

Tragg saves an ape they dub "White Top" from a ceratopsian, but this also causes a landslide that snuffs out flames coming up from a narrow crevasse. This was the tribe's source of fire, since they haven't figured out how to make it themselves yet. They had also worshiped the fire as a god.

Tragg and Lorn figure this is no problem, since they can just teach the apes about this. But the tribal leader decides instead that the strangers must die. The two humans make a break for it, but end up falling into a large crevasse. They end up in a large cavern that is also the home of a T-Rex. There's also a pool of thick, black liquid that tastes terrible.

White Top feels badly about Tragg and Lorn--they had, after all, saved his life. He climbs down after them. Soon after that, the rest of the tribe also climbs down, having decided the humans need to be sacrificed to appease their god and get their fire back.

The T-Rex attacks and, in a short but exciting action scene, Lorn and White Top team up to save Tragg's life. The T-Rex gets a torch stuck in its mouth and makes the mistake of tumbling into that thick black liquid.

The dinosaur is dead. The tribe gets their fire back in a big way. Tragg and Lorn have a friend in the tribe, so there is hope of a future alliance. AND Tragg now knows the black liquid goes boom, which might come in handy later.

While all this is going on, Keera, the alien woman who has the hots for Tragg, finally gets herself tossed in the slammer by Zorek. This isn't a surprise twist in of itself, since Keera really hasn't done a very good job of covering her tracks whenever she has helped Tragg. But we do learn that at least one other among the aliens is unhappy with Zorek's leadership. The dissension in the ranks might be a little more wide-spread than we have seen so far.

So Tragg and the Sky God gives us another issue that is entertaining and reasonably self-contained on its own, but also progresses the overall story arc and adds new details to Tragg's world.

We'll return to Tragg before too long. Next week, though, we'll watch Dick Tracy meet a new enemy and make a new friend.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Cover Cavalcade

Awesome cover from 1974. Sadly, the artist is uncredited.

Update: Identified by a member of Facebook's Comic Book Historians group as a George Wilson cover.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Let George Do It: "Unfit Mother" 6/21/1948

A woman is going to lose custody of her daughter after she's arrested for drunk driving. But was she drunk--or was she drugged against her will?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Secret of the Sun

Read/Watch 'em In Order #92

"Secret of the Sun," by pulp stalwart Ray Cummings, is the next-to-last work of fiction from the August 1939 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. In this one we meet Dr. Argon, a scientist who prefers to do his research in an isolated house, assisted only by "the stolid, slow-witted Olaf Stevens."

His research is trying to unlock the secrets of the sun and produce an alloy that will replicate the temperatures reached in the core of the sun. One can argue that conducting experiments that can potentially fry the whole planet with the help of one unskilled assistant is a bit unwise.

In fact, his choice of assistants is unwise in another area as well. Olaf doesn't quite understand Argon's technobabble, but he does get that a new alloy will be produced that he (Olaf) assumes will be worth millions. So all he has to do is kill Dr. Argon, make it look like a lab accident, replicate the experiment (he's been paying attention to what buttons to push) and then run back to Europe with the alloy. Once he finds a buyer, he'll be a millionaire.

Olaf's plan is inpractical on several levels and the consequences of his crime will come swiftly. By golly, science can administer justice as effectively as a court of law!

"Secret of the Sun," is the shortest story in the book. This is good. The premise isn't particularly strong, but it's enough to prop up a fast read and give it the appropriate sense of irony at the conclusion.

Remember that you can read it for yourself HERE.

Well, a really short story makes for a really short post, doesn't it? There's one more work of fiction left in this issue--a fun novella about a race around the moon. That will give me more to say as I regale you with my brilliant analysis.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Batman Powers Up

Two weeks ago, I used World's Finest #272 as an example of how a good writer can use Batman's human level skill and his high intelligence to make him a viable partner for Superman.

That story continues in WF #273 & 274 (November and December 1981). Cary Burkett is still the writer, with Adrian Gonzales still doing the art.

While cleaning up the debris from last issues battle in the Fortress of Solitude, Superman happens to show off his newest invention--a power charger that gives someone superpowers. It's a tad bit on the flawed side, though, since anyone using it would burn out and die in four hours.

This abrupt introduction of an obvious Chekov's Gun is a bit contrived, but the rest of the story flows smoothly. Examining the memory of one of the wrecked robots gives the heroes a clue to where the bad guy is hiding with the super-weapons he stole.

With Batman providing a distraction by allowing the Batplane to be shot down, Superman tunnels into the villain's lair. The villain, by the way, is an alien called the Weapon Master. He was after a devise Superman had found floating in space that is part of a weapon capable of mind-controlling an entire planet. He also has an arsenal of weapons powerful enough to hurt a Kryptonian.

So Superman is captured and mind-controled, along with the rest of the world.

Well, except for Batman, who is back in the Fortress of Solitude and protected by a force field Supes had put up to keep any more teleporting robots out. But what can he do alone and without super powers? Give himself super powers, of course. Even though it will mean his death, this is the only way he can save his friend.

 And THAT is another way you effectively use Batman as an equal partner for the most powerful man in the universe. That final panel of WF #273 packs a huge emotional whollop with the use of just five words: "And besides, he's my friend."

The final issue is an effective fight scene in which Superman (freed from mind control) and Batman work together to defeat the villain. Batman isn't used to his powers and Superman is weakened, but clever tactics and team work eventually give them an upper hand--with Batman coming up with a last-minute brilliant plan to give them the win.

Batman, remember, has been slowly dying from the affects of the power charger, but (in what is kind of another contrived moment) Superman uses a piece of Weapon Master's technology to save his friend.

World's Finest #272-274 make up a really strong story arc, with the two heroes acting in the best traditions of true heroes and a plot (aside from a few stilted moments) flowing smoothly along the path of Comic Book Logic.

We're probably overdue in looking at the next issue of Tragg and the Sky Gods, so we'll do that next week.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: "Rats, Lice and Chinatown" 12/1/43

San Francisco is invaded by an army of plague-carrying rats. The Lone Ranger has a plan for saving the city from an epidemic--but the cure may be as destructive as the plague.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

From Thief to Soldier

They Met in Bombay (1941) starts out as a light-hearted heist film, with two thieves (Clark Gable & Rosalind Russell)--each of whom is initially unaware that the other is also a thief--plot to steal a valuable jewel from a duchess staying at a swanky hotel in Bombay.

Gerald Meldrick, who we find out was once a soldier and is a bit of a danger junkie, plans to swap the jewel with an expertly made fake. He's posing as a Lloyd's of London detective in order to manufacture the opportunity. Anya Von Duren plans to make friends with the Duchess and then quietly slip away with the jewel when she gets the chance. She's posing as a baroness and has meticulously researched the duchess' family in order to impress her.

Both Gable and Russell seem to be having a lot of fun with their roles and both make the best of the witty dialogue they are given.

After a number of shenanigans, the two thieves have the jewel, argue about who should get to keep it, then have to make a run for it together when a local police detective gives chase.

The two take refuge on a seedy merchant ship sailing for Hong Kong. Here the movie smoothly morphs into something that has a look that would later be equated with Film Noir. The ship's captain is wonderfully portrayed by Peter Lorre, who looks as seedy as the ship he commands. When he figures out who is passengers are, he makes plans to turn them over the the cops for reward money as soon as they reach Hong Kong. This forces Anya and Gerald to steal a life boat and row ashore during a foggy night.

What I like about this second act of the movie is the characterization. The  two thieves spend a month or so on this ship and--possibly for the first time in years--they have no reason to lie or maintain a facade. When they begin to fall in love, the performances, dialogue and situation help make it seem real and not simply something that is supposed to happen because movie conventions demand it.

The third act of the film morphs it into a war story. They hide out in Hong Kong, unable to sell the jewel and running out of cash. So Gerald comes up with an idea for a con that requires him to pretend to be a soldier again. But this leads to him getting picked up by a staff car and taken to the British army base when the Japanese land nearby. Gerald abruptly finds himself in command of British troops with the job of evacuating a Chinese village.

The Japanese show up at the village as well. Gerald can't just play soldier now. If he and the soldiers and civilians he's reluctantly responsible for are going to live, he's going to have to actually become a soldier again.

It's a fun movie that manages to switch from one genre to another several times, but to do so smoothly and in a way that makes story sense. They Met in Bombay doesn't seem to be particularly well-remembered, but it should be. It is a fun blend of humor and adventure that eventually deals with themes of honor and responsibility in a very genuine manner. It's definitely a movie worth watching.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Microscopic Femme Fatale

Marvel Two-in-One #87 (May 1982) is a real blast from the past, since it features a character who hadn't been heard of since Fantastic Four #16. That's a 19-year gap.

Writer Tom DeFalco and artist Ron Wilson reach back a couple of decades to pull Pearla, Queen of Sub-Atomica, out of comic book obscurity to use her in yet another issue of Two-in-One that drips with fun. The issue starts with some shenanigans in the Baxter Building as Ben helps Reed with an experiment and ends up crashing through a floor. This scene might exist in part because the main story ran a little short, but it's funny and Ben (when he has a good writer backing him up) is always fun to hang around with.

Anyway, Ben soon inexplicably shrinks down and disappears. Reed immediately deduces that he's been taken to a sub-atomic universe. But the FF's vehicle for minuature travel was recently wrecked in an adventure with the Micronauts.  Gee, if only Ant Man were around!

I like this story enough to be reluctant to point out even a tiny flaw, but what happens next is a tad contrived even in a Comic Book Universe. An ant is nearby when Reed and Johnny mention Ant Man. So the ant gets a message to Scott Lang that he's needed in the Baxter Building. The Random Ant Messenger Service just doesn't quite work for me. Of course, I'm perfectly okay with shrink rays, sub-atomic universes and a guy made out of rocks. so... Actually, I've forgotten what my point was.

Anyway, Scott comes to the Baxter Building and has to have Reed explain to him the concept of shrinking to sub-atomic levels that Hank Pym used back in FF #16--just keep zapping yourself with the shrink gas over and over and over again. "The science sounds right," muses Scott uncertainly. That line of dialogue defines Comic Book Science perfectly--come up with dialogue that makes something impossible sound possible and then just go with it.

Scott arrives in Sub-Atomica and gets into a tussle with some guards, but then discovers that Ben apparently doesn't need rescuing. He's been brought there by Pearla to fight in the arena against the king of the Lizard Men and thus save her kingdom.

But Scott soon tumbles onto the truth. Ben's duel with the Lizard Man king is just a distraction while she launches an invasion fleet. Ben is drugged so that he's pliant and agreeable to the idea of the duel, but this also means he'll be in no condition to win the fight.

Ben is in fact losing the fight when Scott shows up with some of the local insects. The bugs zap Ben, snapping him out of his stuper, after which he finishes the fight and quite handily stops the invasion fleet.

Before using an enlarging ray to head home, Ben and Scott sit everyone down for truce talks. I really like the ending with Ben expressing a realistic but not cynical opinion. He knows the talks won't make for a permanent peace, but "I ain't gonna lose any sleep over it. We did the best we could."

Next week, we'll finish up our look at the Superman/Batman team-up we began last week.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Wheel of Geekiness

This was a failed experiment, but since I went to the trouble of creating it, I'm going to subject everyone else to it anyways. (insert evil laugh here)

I tried a podcast in which I spun the above "Wheel of Geekiness" and then made off-the-cuff remarks on whatever subject came up. It turned out to be a fairly uninteresting podcast, but I think if I can get a few friends of mine to participate, I'll try it again. With the interaction of several people, I think it might still turn out to be a  fun idea.

So here is the initial effort:

Monday, March 12, 2018

Cover Cavalcade

A double feature today, featuring two kinetic and atmospheric Western covers. The first cover (from 1949) is by Everett Raymond Kinstler. The second (from 1967) is by Luis Dominguez.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Friday's Favorite OTR

Whistler: "Christmas Bonus" 12/25/44

An ex-con working at a department store is fired when he's suspected of embezzling money. He had turned over a new leaf, but now he has second thoughts about going straight.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Best Episode in My Not-Quite-Favorite Western

If you asked me to list my top-five favorite TV Westerns, then Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel and The Rifleman would always be on the list. The other two spots might actually rotate between a few others such as Wild, Wild West, early seasons of Bonanza, Wagon Train, Maverick, and a few others.

The Big Valley, which ran for four seasons from 1965 to 1969, would not quite crack that Top Five in my mind. It was often an excellent show, with Barbara Stanwyck doing her usual superb job as an actress as Victoria Barkley, the matriarch of a wealthy family in California. And the rest of the cast was good, with the personalities of Victoria's adult children playing well off of each other.

I think it drops a couple of points in my mind because it worked so hard to maintain the status quo. Nothing could every change, so if one of the Barkleys fell in love--well, you might as well paint a target on their loved one's back. That person is going down. The Barkleys suffered heavily from the Cartwright Curse. None of them could ever move on as adults, form healthy relationships with a potential spouse, and get married. Oldest brother Jarrod actually did get married in one episode. She was dead before the first act ended.

Now in some shows maintaining the status quo is appropriate. Despite its long run, Gunsmoke was correct in never having Matt Dillon and Kitty officially get together; and in keeping Dodge City stuck in the Old West even after decades had passed. That show was a rarity in striking gold with just the right dynamic between characters and setting.

But Big Valley, like Bonanza eventually did, suffered from never having any real character growth. In both shows, introducing a new character in the form of a wife (or a husband for Audra Barkley) would have given a freshness to the show. And, since they lived in a huge mansion, the married sibling could have still lived there and been easily available get involved in any episode. Of course, all this would have been dependent on introducing a new character that would have meshed with the rest of the cast, but if the new cast member didn't work out, he or she could always get shot later.

I'm also a little annoyed that the youngest brother, Eugene, simply ceased to exist after the first season. If I remember correctly, the actor who played him went into the military, but there was no need for the character to vanish. Eugene was usually back east at college and an occasional mention of him would have been nice.

But individual episodes were indeed often excellent, so perhaps my criticism isn't a fair one. In fact, "Court Martial," which aired during the show's second season on March 6, 1967, is outstanding.

Nick and Heath (two of the Barkley brothers) are away on a cattle drive when a retired Union general (played by veteran character actor Henry Jones) visits the ranch to buy beef for the army. Soon after, five Confederate veterans break in, taking General Alderson hostage along with Jarrod, Victoria and Audra.

Their motive is revenge, though they call it justice. They accuse Alderson of ordering a Southern town to be wiped out during the war and slaughtering 16 civilians. Alderson doesn't deny the massacre happened, but claims it was the work of drunken, green troops acting without orders.

Nick and Heath get back early and are also captured. Nick had been Alderson's aide at the time of the massacre, so when the Confederates decide to hold an impromptu trial, Nick is facing the hangman's noose along with Alderson.

It's a well-written and tautly directed episode, steadily building tension as the story progresses. The script does a great job of giving all the characters definable personalities and the acting is exceptional. Henry Jones and Peter Breck (as Nick) are particularly on their game here. Even Lee Majors, who was sometimes a little stiff as Heath, puts strong emotion into his lines when he believes Nick and the general are going to be hanged.

There's a wonderful twist at the end--one I can't hint at without spoiling it if you haven't seen the episode. But it is one of my favorite twist ending ever.

So The Big Valley doesn't quite break into my Top Five. But my criticisms of it are with the unchanging nature of the overall premise, not with the individual episodes. So I think we can safely ensconce it in my Top Ten.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

World's Finest vs. Super-Robots

World's Finest Comics was an odd duck of sorts. When it began its run in 1941, it featured Superman and Batman in seperate stories--it was an outlet to showcase two enormously popular characters in addition to their solo books. Stories featuring other DC characters rotated through the book, but comic book readers at the time could not get enough of the Man of Steel or the Dark Knight.

In 1954, the two began teaming up in every issue. This was a tricky proposition. Batman is a great character in his own right, but he's still a mere human. Finding a way to make him useful while working alongside one of the most powerful superheroes in the universe occasionally led to some pretty contrived stories.

But good writers managed to come up with clever plots over the years that made the team seem viable and World's Finest had a successful 45-year run.

World's Finest #272 (October 1981), written by Cary Burkett and drawn by Rich Buckler, is a particularly entertaining example of how good writing can make Supes/Bats a viable team.

It begins with Superman worried that his friend is overworked and in need of a break. He invites Batman to the Fortress of Solitude to see his new hologram projector (a neat way to get in a Chekov's Gun). Batman tries to beg off, but Supes flies him there at superspeed before he can really object.

But they don't get much of a break. Superman is called away to rescue some scientists from the effects of an earthquake. The quake turns out to have been caused by an as-yet unidentified super-villain, who then teleports robots into the Fortress to steal the super-weapons that the Man of Steel keeps stored in his armory.

Batman, though, is an unexpected factor. Though the robots are much more powerful than he is, he uses clever tactics to at least delay them. Superman returns only to get zapped with kryptonite, but a clever use of the new hologram projector allows Batman to save his friend.

This is the way a Batman/Superman team up should be written. Batman is presented as a non-powered hero, but uses his skill and his brains to realistically hold his own during the fight with the robots and eventually save Superman. The fact that he could not completely stop the robots until Superman was able to help is also a strength of the story--adding to the realism (well, realism for a Comic Book Universe) and allowing the bad guy a chance to get away with the weapons even after the robots are destroyed.

This also sets up the events of the next issue--and since it seems rude to review only one issue of what will be a 3-part story, we'll return to World's Finest in two week. Next week, though, we'll visit a microscopic world with the Thing and Ant Man.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Cover Cavalcade

John Romita art from 1975. One of the occasional issues of Team-Up that did not feature Spider Man.
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