Friday, May 31, 2019

Friday's Favorite OTR

You Are There: "The Capture of John Wilkes Booth" 6/5/49

The Civil War on Old-Time Radio (Parts 14 of 17)

Booth did not long escape the consequences of his actions. Union troops ran him to ground on April 26, 1865.

Click HERE to listen or download. 

This is the 14th 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, May 30, 2019

The Mirror Universe Perry Mason!

I have had occasion in the past to post information and reviews about both Erle Stanley Gardner's excellent Perry Mason novels AND about his excellent non-Perry Mason stories. Gee whiz, this guy was a prolific and superb storyteller. Mason deserves his success and his status as an iconic character, but it's too bad that many of his other characters have faded into Popular Culture Limbo. The Gardner Universe is a diverse and endlessly entertaining place.

District Attorney Doug Selby appeared in nine novels (most of them first serialized in magazines before being published as novels) between 1937 and 1949.  I've never gotten around to reading any of the Selby novels--Gardner was SO prolific it sometimes seems impossible to get caught up with all of his characters.

So The D.A. Takes a Chance, first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1948, is the first I've read, chosen because my local public library happened to have that one. It's the 8th in the series, but the stories are self-contained enough so that my usual obsession with reading things in "proper" order really didn't kick in.

It's a good, solid detective story that deals as much with Selby butting heads with obstructive politicians and a sleazy lawyer as with the crime. A woman is stabbed to death while recovering from a gunshot wound. Certain people with political pull want it declared a suicide. But Selby and county sheriff Rex Brandon don't buy this. Getting to the bottom of the case will inevitably mean stepping on a few toes. Selby had only recently been reelected after returning from service during the war, so a misstep could mean the end of his career as D.A.

But dogged investigations by himself, Brandon and lady report Sylvia Martin slowly uncovers interesting clues. Among these is a knife that wasn't the murder weapon having a fingerprint on it that should not be there. A box of chocolates laced with barbituates also play a key role in figuring out whodunit.

Selby, Brandon and Sylvia Martin form a dynamic very similar to the Perry Mason/Paul Drake/Della Street that is so key to the Mason novels, though Sylvia acts independantly of Selby more often than Della did with Perry. Another interesting element is the sleazy lawyer who causes Selby the most trouble during the novel. A.B. Carr (known as "old A B C") is a sort of Evil Perry Mason, clever and able to improvise plans on a moment's notice, but without the ethics and real concern for justice that was an inherent part of Mason's character. As I understand it, Carr is a regular nemesis in the series, which increases my desire to read more of the Selby books. He's an effective villain and nearly (though not quite) matches the protagonist in sheer cleverness.

So I can whole-heartedly recommend The D.A. Takes a Chance. I think Gardner's skills as a storyteller are high enough to take it on faith that the rest of the series is worth reading as well. I really which more of Gardner's stuff would get reprinted.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Super-Intelligent Pterodactyls!

Comic books MUST be telling us true stories. Because if we live in a universe in which a planet ruled by super-intelligent pterodactyls does not exist, then nothing makes sense.

We learn about this planet in Green Lantern #30 (July 1964), in which a story written by John Broome and drawn by Gil Kane furthers our education in this vital field of knowledge. Things start out with a bang when a Forest Ranger patrol plane spots an area of prehistoric terrain near Coast City and then barely manages to escape getting tagged by a pterodactyl.

Soon, there are pterodactyls swarming all over the city, ripping down buildings and bridges while proving to be immune to gunfire and explosives.

How is all this possible? Well, it seems that there is a planet out there somewhere ruled by intelligent pterodactyls with super-mental powers. During the Age of Dinosaurs, then fired a ray of "M-Energy" at Earth, hoping to give intelligence and mental powers to the primitive pterodactyls of our world.

But an ion cloud blocks their view of Earth and presumable blocks the M-ray as well. In modern times, they are finally able to observe the Earth again, only to discover that pterodactyls are extinct and we pesky humans have overrun the planet.

Well, the super-pteros won't stand for that! Their new, modified plan is to open a time portal, zap the pteros from the past with the M-Ray and loose them on the modern world. Their mental powers can be used to give them super-strength and invulnerability, so getting rid of humanity doesn't look like it will be a problem.

Green Lantern returns from a mission in space to find out about the pterodactyl-led shenanigans. He flies off to stop the creatures, only to discover that their powers give him immunity from his power ring. Hal barely escapes with his life.

This calls for a Plan B. And, by the rules of Comic Book Logic, it is a magnificent Plan B.

First, he uses a burst of super-bright light to dazzle the pterodactyls and get them all to chase him.

Second, he opens a time portal back to the Cretaceous Age. He is counting on the hereditory fears of creatures like the T-Rex to scare the metaphorical pants off the pteros, weakening their mental powers.

When this happens, Hal is able to take down the leader. This takes out the other pteros as well, since the leader's mental energies turn out to be controling the entire flock. The day is saved and the alien pteros wash their metaphorical hands of the whole thing, giving up on conquering Earth.

I really do love G.L.'s plan. Writer John Broome takes Comic Book Logic and runs with it, coming up with a clever and entertaining solution to a unique problem. And, of course, Gil Kane's art makes it all look magnificent.

So somewhere out there in the universe, there is a planet ruled by intelligent pterodactyls with super-mental powers. There is. There really is. How can there NOT be?

Next week, we'll jump back to the relatively mundane Wild West to visit once again with the Pony Express.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Cover Cavalcade

Great cover for an excellent Western. I'm afraid I'm not sure who the cover artist is.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philo Vance: "The White Willow Murder Case" 3/22/49

A stock broker has given bad advice that leaves one man ruined and is fooling around with another man's girl. So when he's murdered, there is no shortage of suspects.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Last of Elak

Read/Watch 'em In Order #103

There was a three year gap between Henry Kuttner's first three Elak of Atlantis stories and the last one. "Dragon Moon" is a novelette first published in the January 1941 issue of Weird Tales magazine. It scored a nifty if not entirely accurate cover illustration as well.

It was worth the wait. "Dragon Moon" is arguably the best of the four. In any case, I think it can be definitely said that the two longer stories--the first and the last ones--are superior to the shorter ones.

Also, I had been wondering about the internal chronology of the tales. The first ended with Elak saving his brother's throne and ending up with a lady who looked to be his One True Love. The two following stories, in my mind, seemed to take place before this, when Elak was wandering around having random adventures and meeting a different girl in each one. The internal chronology didn't really matter, but it's the sort of thing I'm required to think about by the National Geekiness Over-Analyzing Fiction Act of 1978, passed by Congress that year and signed into law by Jimmy Carter.

Anyway, this last story is clearly set after the first, since it references the events of that previous entry. But Elak's One True Love isn't around or even mentioned. In fact, the story begins with Elak getting into a brawl over a tavern maid.

So there's no denying it. Elak--the dog--is a love 'em and leave 'em kind of guy. Oh, well. At least he's good with a sword and tends to defeat evil beings on a fairly regular basis.

Elak is saved from being skewered during the brawl by Dalan, a Druid wizard who was one of his allies in the early novelette. But Dalan isn't saving Elak just to be a nice guy. He has a job for the wandering swordsman.

Elak, remember, is royalty from the kingdom of Cyrene. But the king of a neighboring country has been possessed by a being of cosmic power--a creature beyond good and evil who is now using his puppet body to form an army and invade Cyrene. The creature tried to possess the king of Cyrene as well, but that king (Elak's brother) killed himself rather than allow this to happen.

The villian is very Lovecraftian, which is not surprising. Kuttner was a member of the Lovecraft Circle--those writers who corresponded with Lovecraft and often added stories to Lovecraft's Cthulu-verse. In fact, it is easy to consider the Elak stories as being set within Lovecraft's continuity, though I don't think there was a deliberate intention to do so.

So Elak is asked to head home and lead an army against the invaders. He doesn't want to and, in fact, refuses at first. But a barely thwarted attempt by the cosmic being to take over his mind convinces him to take action.

He and his perpetually drunken sidekick, Lycon, find a ship heading in the right direction. It might have been preferable, though, if the ship's captain had not been the guy Elak fought in the tavern brawl. He and Lycon soon find themselves working as galley slaves.

That situation requires an escape and incitement of rebellion among the other galleys slaves. Then a telepathic message from Dalan puts Elak on the track of the one person who can help them defeat the villain. That person is the villain's mom, who also happens to be the daughter of a god.

All of this leads to an epic battle and the requirement of a goddess to make a profound sacrifce in order to provide Elak with a particular talisman at just the right moment.

This last Elak tale is exciting, full of the vivid other-worldy imagery that was the main strength of the series. The plot is solid and internally logical and both Elak and Lycon are great characters. It's too bad Kuttner never returned to those characters. Elak and Lycon undoubtably had a lot of unrecorded adventures.

You can read "Dragon Moon" online HERE.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Tales of the Pony Express, Part 2

cover art by Sam Savitt
 Gee whiz, A Dell Comic makes an historical error in one of their Westerns? Say it ain't so, Joe! Say it ain't so!

But there is a slight historical glitch in the second story featuring Pony Express rider Craig Garrett. The story is set in the winter of 1861, so would be taking place a short time after the Pony Express had disbanded.

Oh, well. Not even the greatest comic book company that ever existed is perfect.

This is the second of the two Pony Express stories that appeared in Dell's Four Color #829 (August 1957). As with the first tale, the writer is uncredited and the art is by Dan Spiegle.

Titled "Storm Rider," it opens in the remote Nevada mining town of Drewsville , which is currently snowed in and running out of supplies. There is supposed to be a trainload of supplies coming, but the snow keeps any word of this from reaching them. The people are losing hope.

At a Pony Express station 90 miles away, Craig Garrett has decided to carry word to Drewsville that the train is on its way. But an old back injury acts up and sidelines him. So Drew's 11-year-old brother Davy volunteers to take on the job.

The station's manager refuses to allow Davy to go, but Craig insists the boy should be allowed to take on the dangerous job. I like this part of the story a lot, with Craig defending Davy's capabilities and taking note of the fact that in the West, a boy grows up fast. Craig doesn't see it has risking the life of a child. He sees it has allowing a boy who is growing into a man to be a man. It would be a fair counter-argument to make that, even in that time and place, 11 is too young an age for a dangerous job. But there's simply no one else around who can do it.

I do wish, though, that Davy's mission was something meatier that simply a message that someone else will eventually save the townspeople. I don't mean to downplay the idea that hope is important and the story handles this theme quite well by shifting back to the despairing townspeople during Davy's ride. But, on the other hand, it wasn't as if the townspeople were ready to commit mass suicide. The supply train would have eventually saved them whether Davy brought word or not.

But there's no denying that Davy's ride is an epic one, with Spiegle's strong art work allowing us to feel the biting cold and growing exhaustion along with the young rider. He gallops through a blizzard, crosses an iced-over river that may or may not hold his horse's weight, and tangles with a mountain lion.

He gets to Drewsville half-frozen and alive, bringing a message of hope to its citizens. I do believe the story would have worked better with a stronger motivation for the ride, but "Storm Rider" is still an exciting yarn.

You can read this issue online HERE.

That's it for now. There are still two more Craig Garrett stories to look at and we'll be doing that soon. But next week... well, I don't think I've ever reviewed a solo Green Lantern story. So what has inspired be to do so? A G.L. story with dinosaurs in it, of course!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A plug for a plug

The latest installment of the Mysterious Old-Radio Listening Society discusses an episode of Favorite Story that I recommended to them. The podcast hosts were kind enough to mention my book Radio by the Book several times. So I'm providing a link to this podcast because it's only fair to give them a plug in return for plugging my book.

The podcast is an excellent one and I recommend any episode of it highly to any OTR fan.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Friday, May 17, 2019

Friday's Favorite OTR

You Are There: "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" 7/7/47
Crime Classics: "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" 12/9/53

The Civil War on Old-Time Radio (Parts 12 & 13 of 17)

The war was finally over, but the killing was not yet done. On April 14, 1865, a fanatical Southern actor named John Wilkes Booth would perform one last act of vengeance for the fallen Confederacy. Old Time Radio gives us two excellent perspectives on this event. One is a "news" report that abruptly switches from a fluffy story about Lincoln attending a play to a frantic account of an unfolding tragedy. The other is told from the point-of-view of Lincoln’s incompetent and alcoholic bodyguard.

These are the 12th and 13th 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.

Click HERE to listen or download You Are There.
Click HERE to listen or download Crime Classics.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Hey, Isn't He Cheating?

It Happens Every Spring (1949) is a great movie to watch at the beginning of the baseball season. It's a funny, charming and completely unpretentious film that mixes a little bit of slapstick with a lot of clever, dialogue-driven comedy.

It stars Ray Milland as a mild-mannered college professor who is in love with the college president's beautiful daughter (Jean Peters). He doesn't make enough money to marry her. But when a foul ball from a nearby baseball diamond crashes into his lab and smashes his latest experiment, he ends up with a solution that repels wood. That means if you rub it on a baseball, the ball would loop around a baseball bat.

Milland is a baseball fan (which proves he's pretty smart), so he comes up with a plan to make money. He'll try out as a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, keep a small piece of felt coated with the solution in his mitt and pitch balls that literally cannot be hit.

Both the owner and the manager think he's just a nut when he shows up at the stadium, but he manages to annoy them both enough to get a tryout just so they can watch him make a fool out of himself. But, to their surprise, he consistently strikes people out.

From there, the movie draws comedy from several situations: his growing friendship with his catcher (Paul Douglas); his desire to keep his new career as a pitcher a secret (he's working on the assumption that it would bring shame to the science department at the college); and his girlfriend's growing conviction--drawn from several misunderstandings--that he's become a gangster.  It's great comedy.

But the movie also shows how a work of fiction can--on occassion--blissfully ignore some problems with the logic of its plot. For instance, Milland has a pitch that can't be hit. He's shown to be winning consistently and becoming a national star, which is fine. But shouldn't his fame be even greater? Shouldn't the solution on the ball mean he's pitching no-hit shutouts with 27 strike outs every single time?  He probably walked a few guys, but all he really had to do was lob the ball into the strike zone three times for every batter. No one mentions his stats, but this is something that should have been impossible to ignore.

Perhaps more importantly, Milland is cheating by coating the ball with a foreign substance. He's throwing the world's most effective spitball. Even if he's never caught in-universe, shouldn't our attitude about him be tarnished by this?

But we like him just fine. It Happens Every Spring is a perfect example of how ambiance, humor and the likability of the characters allows us to overlook logical holes in the plot. The problems I detail in the above two paragraphs really aren't problems at all. Even if we think about them while watching the movie, it really won't bother us. The movie exists in a world where coating a baseball with a secret scientific formula doesn't constitute cheating. And that's just fine. It's too funny and just too darn pleasant to allow us to worry about such things.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

From Prose to Radio to Comics

Tarzan first appeared in the pulp magazines in 1912, but his enormous popularity soon had him spilling off the page into film and radio. In 1934 and again in 1936, there were two 39-part syndicated radio serials produced that were nothing less than superb, telling excellent stories and capturing the Ape Man's personality perfectly. 

{For more detailed information on these serials, check out the chapter about Tarzan in my book Radio by the Book or read this article I wrote a few years ago.}

The 1936 serial was Tarzan and the Fires of Tohr. And, since Tarzan's wanderlust is insatiable, he soon wandered off the airways and onto the pages of Dell Comics' Four Color, bringing the Fires of Tohr with him. 

Four Color #161 (writer unknown, cover and interior art by Jesse Marsh) is a 30-page streamlined version of the radio serial. The story is greatly simplified, with several characters and sub-plots dropped, but what is left is a strong, entertaining and exciting Tarzan adventure. 

Tarzan and his friend Paul D'Arnot are travelling through the jungle when they find two people--a scientist and his daughter--lost after having been abandoned by their safari. Tarzan agrees to help them, which soon means protecting them from some hostile natives.

Jesse Marsh has never been my favorite Tarzan artists--I don't think his figure work is as strong
as Kubert or Manning--but he was an excellent visual storyteller all the same, with strong compositions and some beautiful-looking jungles and backgrounds. So his art quickly draws us into the story and carries us along quite nicely.

The escape from the natives via canoe eventually takes them through a cavern and into completely unknown territory. And.... well, Tarzan can't run out to the corner store to buy a newspaper without stumbling across a lost civilization. So it should be no surprise to anyone that he finds a lost civilization here. The natives are claw-footed and, for reasons we are never told, speak English.

To be fair, the justification given in the original radio serial was pretty weak, so this is a flaw in an otherwise strong story that has simply carried over from the source material.

The natives come from the city of Tohr, which is ruled by the evil queen Ahtea. Ahtea soon demonstrates her penchant for evil by sacrificing someone to the titular fires of Tohr.

So Tohr is not a healthy place to be. Ahtea, though, wants to make a deal. If Tarzan stays in Tohr as her mate, the others will be allowed to leave. Tarzan is willing to agree to this if it saves the others, but his companions refuse. Even if they were willing to agree to this deal themselves, they figure Ahtea would simply have them killed regardless.

They are likely correct about this, because Ahtea abruptly tosses Ruth Barton (the girl Tarzan had initially rescued) into an arena to be devoured by a hungry lion. Tarzan kills the lion and the incident allows them to befriend Ukah, a rebel leader.

The group, now joined by Ukah, is locked in a vast cavern that supposedly offers no escape. Tarzan, though, soon finds a way out, though it leads them through a chamber in which the Fires of Tohr originate. This sequence is especially riveting, as it involves Tarzan using his intelligence as well as his physical capabilities to bypass several dangers to get his friends back into the city.

But once in the city, they are recaptured. Ruth is about to be tossed into the Fires. Ukah manages to push Ruth to safety and it is Ahtea who falls to a horrible death.

It's a strong ending. Ukah was actually going to sacrifice himself to get Ahtea, but is dragged to safety by Tarzan in the nick of time. It was a nice touch to give the local rebel leader a chance to be proactive in the story rather than having all the action fall solely on Tarzan's shoulder.

For all my complaints about Marsh's figure work, much of this story looks magnificent, especially the sequence set in the caverns below Tohr. The story, though simplified from the original serial, is still a strong one. So both the radio version and the comic book version of The Fires of Tohr have their value.

Next week, we'll return to the Old West to ride again with the Pony Express.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Friday, May 10, 2019

Friday's Favorite OTR

Favorite Story: "Tom Sawyer" 6/19/48

A fun adaptation of the Injun Joe portion of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

A Quick Trip to a Really Weird Underworld

Read/Watch 'em In Order #102

The October 1938 issue of Weird Tales brought us the third (and penultimate) story about Elak of Atlantis, written by Henry Kuttner. As with the previous Elak story, this one snagged a cover illustration. Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, must have liked these stories. Or at least felt that the vivid and unusually imagery in the stories made for great illustrations.

In "Beyond the Phoenix," Elak and his perpetually drunken sidekick Lycon are working as bodyguards for the king of the city of Sarhaddon. A wizard named Xandar lures them away from the king before sending in a team of assassins. Xandar wants to usurp the throne, release an ancient evil being named Baal-Yagoth and spend his time on the throne torturing people. Xandar is not a nice person.

The king is killed and Elak, Lycon and the king's beautiful daughter have to make a quick getaway on the king's funeral barge. The barge, though, does a bit more than simply travel over water. It's designed to take dead kings back to the land of the Phoenix from which legends say the first king of Sarhaddon came.

So Elak and his allies end up in a very, very strange place, where two powerful maybe-humans are locked in a power struggle, with one of them allying herself with Xandar to release Ball-Yagoth upon the world. Elak is pretty much drafted to help stop this, so he'll have his work cut out for him.

The Elak of Atlantis stories continue to be good, with vivid prose carrying us along through clever and unusual plots. This one is a bit weaker than the first two--it ends a little to abruptly and Elak doesn't get to be as proactive as a hero in a sword-and-sorcery tale should be. At key moments, he's simply being ordered or compelled to take action by a god. Because of this, he's simply not as cool as he was in the first two tales. But this criticism is subjective--if taken on its own without direct comparison to the previous tales, it is entertaining.

We'll see how Elak does in the last story from this series.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Tales of the Pony Express, Part 1

cover art by Sam Savitt

The Pony Express didn't last long. Operating from April 1860 to October 1861, it soon disappeared when intercontinental telegraph lines were strung.

But while it lasted, it served a real purpose, getting letters, messages and newspapers from one coast to another in just 10 days. Buffalo Bill Cody (before he was Buffalo Bill) was an Express rider.

After it faded away, the Pony Express became a part of the romantized history of the Wild West. It's not surprising that when Westerns were at the top of the popular culture pyramid, stories about the Pony Express made their way to various media, including comic books.

Four Color #829 (August 1957) was Dell Comics' attempt to introduce a Pony Express character as a regular character in their line. Like Indian scouts Lee Hunter and Reb Stuart, whose adventures first appeared in Four Color that same year, Pony Express rider Craig Garrett didn't catch on sufficiently to get his own title, but appeared in a total of four stories contained in two issues of Four Color before fading away into Pop Culture Limbo.

We'll take a look at all four of Craig's stories over the course of the next month or two. As usual, I'll alternate these with other comic book reviews to maintain variety.

Both the stories appearing in FC #829 are tentatively credited to Dan Spiegle and it does look like his work to me. The writer is uncredited.

Craig's premiere adventure is "A Letter from Lincoln." The story is actually a bit contrived in setting up its premise, since it involves incredibly poor planning on someone's part.

Way out in Nevada, war between settlers and the Paiute tribe seems inimate. When a calvary officer is seen talking to the Paiute troops, the local commander assumes he's a traitor.

The officer explains that he's on a secret mission from President Lincoln to negotiate a peace. But the only other person who can confirm his story was recently killed. So the poor guy is sentenced to be executed by firing squad.

That really is contrived. Why an attempt to make peace is something you would keep secret from the local military commander is unexplained and inexplicable.

But if you just go with this, the rest of the story is excellent. There are no telegraph lines in place to the fort yet, so by the time word gets back to Lincoln, there's only a week left before the execution. But it's normall a nine-day trip to get a message back. Someone needs to ride like the wind and cut two days off that record.

And so we are introduced to Craig Garrett, one of the Pony Express' best riders. He takes the challenge and we are treated to several pages of an exciting and beautifully illustrated montage of Craig's lightning ride across the continent.

But when he is approaching his goal, things start to go wrong. His horse goes lame and he's soon captured by the Paiutes. But here we learn that Craig is as quick a thinker as he is a rider. Employing some off-the-cuff diplomancy, he gets the Indians to release him AND give him a fresh horse. He arrives at the fort in the nick of time to stop the execution and peace with the Paiutes is soon negotiated.

Despite the contrivance necessary to get the story started, "A Letter from Lincoln" is a strong start for Craig Garrett's all-too-brief comic book career. The art is excellent. The exchange of dialogue between Craig and the Paiute chief is effectively and realistically written. The last-minute reprieve regarding the execution might be cliched, but it is well-paced and well-drawn.

You can read this issue online HERE.

We'll return to Craig in a couple of weeks. Next week, we'll jump over to Africa for a visit with Tarzan in a story adapted from a radio serial.

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