Monday, November 11, 2019

Cover Cavalcade

From 1973. The art is by Larry Lieber, with John Romita doing some alterations to the Dakota Kid's face.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "Fragile Contents: Death" 2/1/51

A postal inspector and his men have only a few hours to track down a package containing a time bomb.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Stronger Spell--The Pusadian Tales, Part 3

Read/Watch 'em in Order #106

I'm visiting L. Sprague de Camp's Pusadian Tales in publication order, because the internal chronology of the short stories isn't set. de Camp himself, I believe, never provided such a chronology and I don't think he was concerned about that. And it is the sort of series in which the "real-life" order in which the stories take place doesn't make a great deal of difference.

At least one commentator, though, has placed "The Stronger Spell" (Fantasy Fiction, November 1953) chronologically last, because the story's Macguffin is a primitive musket and the introduction of that technology to this Bronze Age world would be a major game changer.

But, since the one guy who knows the ingrediants of gunpowder is dead by the end of the story, it can be argued that this new weapon does not have a chance to change the world. Also, the guy carrying the weapon refers to it as magic. It's likely that this simply how the character interprets the combustibility of gunpowder, its not impossible that it really was a magic substance.

Anyway, the story begins at the waterfront of a city when a poet/minstrel named Suer Peial rescues a man from bandits. This man was wielding a strange looking club during the fight, but is at first reluctant to explain what it is.

The man's name is Ghw Gleokh (Suer later quips that if you can't pronounce this name, just clear your throat and you'll come close), who is a druid from a far-away land. The two men end up sharing food and wine in a local tavern where Suer hopes to earn a few coins by singing. They are joined by a blacksmith friend of Suer's and a pair of local wizards.

After a few too many drinks, Gleokh's tongue is loosened enough to explain that his strange club is essentially a musket (though this word is not used in the story) and get into a "my magic is better than yours" contest with the wizards. It's established that only Gleokh knows the secret of gunpowder--the senoir druid who taught it to him having since died.

When the older wizard decides he wants the musket, the arguement turns violent. This brings up the question of who would win a fight between a man with a firearm and a giant, invisible snake.

The fate of the musket itself is sealed by the blacksmith, who dislikes the idea of a weapon that would make the shields and armor he sells obsolete. So the musket goes into the bay and it can be confidentally stated that "Yes, sir, armor is here to stay!"

The interior illustraton for the story is by Roy Krenkel.
The story is yet another delight, with de Camp's dry wit on display throughout. As is usual with his stories, little details, both in the setting and in the dialogue, gives the tale a feeling of authenticity.

For instance, there is a very human moment when Suer and Gloekh enter the tavern and trade gossip with the owner. It both feels real in character terms, while simultaneously helping to establish the fantasy setting:

Derende replied, "The Senate has hired a new wizard, a Tartassian named Barik.

"What happened to the old one?"

"They had him impaled because of that sandstorm."

"What is this?" ask Ghw with interest.

Derende explained. "He conjured up a sandstorm to overwhelm a camel-raid of desert-dwelling Lixitans, but by misdirection buried a score of our own warriors instead."

All this juicy gossip--and the rest of "The Stronger Spell"--can be found online HERE.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

In the Days of King Arthur

Last week, we looked at Iron Man #149, which ended with the title character and Doctor Doom getting thrown back in time.

Iron Man #150 (September 1981) shows us where (and when) they ended up. As with the previous issue, this one was co-plotted by David Michelinie and Bob Layton, with Michelinie writing the final script. John Romita, Jr. did the breakdowns and Layton finished the art.

The two find themselves standing outside King Arthur's castle at Camelot. It's actually a foreshadowing to Doom's later actions that he immediately recognizes the place. As we'll soon discover, he'd been planning on visiting this time and place anyways.

Two guys in powered armor are attention-getters, so they're soon confronted by a squad of knights. Doom briefly tussles with them until Tony points out that they are currently stranded here, so it might be a good idea to calm down until they figure out what's going on.

 There's a well-written scene in which the two are brought before King Arthur, where they use Standard Time Traveler Ploy #32, claiming to be from faraway lands and using their technology to build up credibility as magicians. Within that context, characterizations remain consistent. Tony acts respectfully towards Arthur, where Doom arrogantly announces himself as co-royalty.

The Arthurian characters all speak an ornate style of English, by the way--a language that didn't even exist at that time. But, as is the case with so many stories about time travel or alien contact, ignoring language issues keeps the story from being bogged down in details. Besides, it's entirely possible that both Tony and Doom have translation devices built into their respective suits of armor.

The two are given rooms for the night while Arthur tries to figure out what to do about them. Tony spends his time sweet talking a pretty maiden. Doom, on the other hand, hypnotises a pretty maiden to find out where evil sorceress Morgana Le Fey hangs out, then busts out of Camelot to pay her a visit.

Doom has to figure out how to bypass a couple of magical booby traps, but is soon cutting a deal with Morgana (who dresses in the sexy-evil style that seems to be required of all evil sorceresses). Doom has been time traveling to learn from powerful magicians of the past to figure out how to rescue his mother's soul from hell. Morgana promises to teach him how to do this if he leads an army of zombies against Camelot--she's magically imprisoned in her castle at the moment, so can't lead the undead soldiers herself.

Doom's all on-board with this plan, while Tony volunteers to fight for Arthur. During the ensuing battle, though, Tony realizes that it must be Morgana--not Doom--who raised up the undead.

So he flies off to her castle, using technology to figure out how to punch past various magical threats, all the while complaining that he really hates magic.

When Morgana realizes the jig is up, she teleports away. This is a bit of a plot hole, since she's supposed to be magically tied to her castle. But perhaps she's moving through time rather than space.

In any case, once she's gone, the zombies simply collapse. Doom realizes what happened and is quite ticked off.

But he also realizes that he and Iron Man must work together to cannibalize parts of their armor and make a time machine to get them home. So a truce is called and they are soon able to zap themselves back to the 20th Century.

Like the previous issue, this is a solidly written adventure story, with a strong plot and great action. Michelinie keeps his characterizations of Tony and Doom consistant, once again counterpointing their attitudes towards life and other human beings to effectively  highlight their respective natures. I mentioned last week that this was published at the tale-end of the time when Marvel superhero comics were consistantly fun for me to read, but this two-issue story arc hit all the right notes to produce a really fun yarn.

Next week, we'll move on from two Marvel Universe geniuses to visit with a Duck Universe genius.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Cover Cavalcade

A Gil Kane cover from 1957. If you live in a Comic Book Universe, don't ever say something is impossible.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Friday's Favorite OTR

Philip Marlowe: "The Quiet Magpie" 8/11/50

A man is on trial for killing his father to ensure his inheritance. Marlowe is hired to prove the guy is innocent by finding the real killer. No one else involved in the case is who they appear to be, but a seemingly unimportant detail will be key to allowing Marlowe to uncover the truth.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Always Make Sure Your New Home isn't a Ghost Town!

Prior to hitting the big time with Stagecoach in 1939, John Wayne appeared in over 100 B-movies and serials, almost all of them Westerns. Though Wayne did not quite have the on-screen presence he would have as an A-lister, he was still effective and personable in what were almost always enjoyable films.

Winds of the Wasteland (1936) is very enjoyable. It has a fun premise--John Blair (Wayne) and Larry Andrews (Lane Chandler) have just lost their jobs when the Pony Express closes up shop. But Blair has a new plan for making money. Their severance pay included a quartet of fast Pony Express horses. So why don't the two men use those horses and the pay they've saved to start a stagecoach line?

Sadly, they get swindled when they buy a stagecoach and the rights to a route from dishonest businessman Cal Drake (Douglas Cosgrove). The stagecoach is a wreck and the town of Crescent City (the hub of the route) is a ghost town with a grand total of two citizens.

But there's no sense in giving up. Soon they have the stagecoach up and running and, surprisingly, Crescent City begins to slowly gain citizens. When Blair manages to arrange a telegraph line to run through the town, things actually begin to look up.

Then an opportunity to win a government mail contract comes up. This involves winning a stagecoach race to Sacramento. But Drake is running one of his stages in the race as well and he's willing to do anything--including arson, having Blair arrested on trumped-up charges and having his henchmen set dynamite booby traps along the road.

I watched this movie specifically because I like the premise of two men starting up a stagecoach line with a broken-down coach. I ended up really liking the execution of that premise. Wayne and the rest of the cast all give enjoyable performances and the plot moves along quickly and economically.

In fact, I wish the run time of the film had been 10 or 12 minutes longer, as the one real fault is the abruptness with which the plot jumps from one plot point to another. But that's a pacing issue rather than a story issue--the plot itself makes perfect sense within the context of a B-movie universe.

The director was Mack V. Wright (who directed a number of Wayne's film during the '30s), who provides us with some nice location photography, making the climatic stagecoach race look particularly nifty.

It's impossible to watch this film without thinking about John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). Though Winds in the Wasteland can be enjoyed for what it is, it's hard not to image what it would have like had a genius like Ford been behind the camera, or if Yakima Canutt (who has an uncredited role as a henchman in Winds) had been creating his magnificent under-the-stagecoach stunt that was the visual highlight of the later film. That's not fair to the Winds. I know. In fact, it would be fun to watch both films as a stagecoach-themed double feature. If I ever get around to writing a sequel to This Week's Double Feature, I'll have to keep that in mind. 

Here's Wind in the Wastelands on YouTube. If you have Amazon Prime, there's a slightly better print available there.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

How to Mistreat Your Employees

cover art by John Romita, Jr.
with inks by Bob Layton
I had dropped Marvel superhero books completely by 1986, when a poorly written, multi-title crossover called Mutant Massacre made it clear that (for my sensibilities, at least) reading them simply wasn't going to be fun anymore. Besides, I resented being forced to buy muliple titles to follow along with just one storyline.

But in the half-decade before that, Marvel still had its high points. For instance, writer David Michelinie was always a reliable source for entertaining superhero stories. A few years ago, I reviewed a two-part Avengers tale from 1980, written by Michelinie, that I enjoyed enormously.

Michelinie's strongest run as a writer is arguable his work on Iron Man, fleshing out Tony Stark's character, introducing now-classic supporting characters like James Rhodes, and consistently gave us strong plots with great action sequences.

Iron Man #149 (August 1981) was co-plotted by Michelinie and artist Bob Layton, with Michelinie writing the finished script. John Romita, Jr. did the breakdowns and Layton did the finished art.

It begins with Iron Man rather easily putting down some pirates who were trying to hijack one of Tony Stark's cargo ships. Iron Man showed up because radio communications with the ship were being blocked, so the Avenger is also bringing word that the ship is to turn around without delivering its cargo.

What follows is an example of how well Michelinie had defined Tony Stark's character. The ship was recalled because it was carrying high-tech equipment bound for Latvaria. At the time, Doctor Doom had been overthrown as that country's ruler, but Tony still had the country on a "no-sell" list because there was no guarentee that it wouldn't be misused. In fact, Doom (who was still living in his Latvarian castle) is the buyer of the equipment. Tony then fires the executive who improperly made the sale. The dialogue, though, makes it clear that Tony isn't just being a jerk boss, but reacting appropriately to someone who messed up big time.

This is nicely counterpointed by a scene with Doctor Doom. Doom's been time traveling to study magic with past masters (for reasons not yet explained). He needs to go farther back in time and needed the circuits he was buying from Stark to do so. When he learns the sale was cancelled, he reacts by threatening the life of his assistant for "allowing this to happen."

Both Doom and Tony can be tough bosses, but Tony is expecting his people to act with reasonable moral responsibility, while Doom acts with almost capricious cruelity. This will have consequences.

By the way, in a nice call back to previous Marvel continuity, Doom's current assistant is the brother of a previous assistant--killed by Doom back in Fantastic Four #87.

Well, if Doom can't get the circuits he needs fairly, he'll gladly use foul means. Tony knows this, of course, but a couple of mercenaries in a Doom-designed death vehicle still manage to get away with the the circuits after a brief fight with Iron Man.

Tony personally travels to Latvaria to get he circuits back. As Iron Man, he fights his way into Doom's castle, eventually confronting the villain. A brief discussion devolves into another fight which...

... ends when the bitter and hate-filled assistant sends both of them back into time, then smashes the controls to ensure that they can never come back.

This really is a strong story. The Romita/Layton art is great, helping to tell the story in a straightforward manner and providing us with a series of well-choreographed, exciting action scenes. The counter-point between Tony and Doom as authority figures in a really nice touch.

But where do the two reluctant time travelers end up? We'll find out next week.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Cover Cavalcade

From 1943, with cover art by Earle Bergey. Why can't giant bug-eyed monsters all just get along?

Friday, October 25, 2019

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "Commuter's Ticket" 8/1/46

A man depends on the anonymity of a crowded commuter train to help him establish an alibi after committing a murder. No one pays attention to the fellow passengers on those trains. Right?

Click HERE to listen or download.

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