Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bitter Fruit#4: "Margo Lane's Honeymoon!"

Previously on "Bitter Fruit," we examined the first story in the Shadow#2. Although the cover promised the Shadow would don a super hero costume to save Margo Lane from Shiwan Khan, the first story continued the super-spy format from the 1st issue and had no Margo Lane. With this second story, there's a chance for redemption! Perhaps the Shadow's super hero costume will make its debut!

Or, perhaps not. On the other hand, we finally have an appearance by Margo Lane! The series' supporting cast seems to be comprised of just Shrevy, Weston and Margo Lane and so far all three have appeared in each issue. The introductory splash is one of those images frequently found in 60s comics, designed to make the reader wonder how this situation arose, such as that Superman cover where the hero is in a desert, taunting Jimmy Olsen with a canteen of water. Here, we see Margo and Lamont on their honeymoon, with Margo assuming the role of gun-toting hero instead of Lamont. It's a little early, but I'm pretty sure I can call shenanigans on this premise - I doubt Margo & Lamont are getting hitched in a mere back-up tale.

We open at Lamont Cranston's town house office, where Margo has just finished sending out some letters on behalf of her millionaire boss; she's happy to be paid on overtime, but Lamont tells Margo no amount of money equals her value as he kisses her on the cheek. Margo is surprised by this display of affection, telling Lamont "Maybe you don't realize how attractive you are!" Lamont is flustered by this and departs; strange how when Lamont was faced by an icy woman who wanted nothing to do with him he forced himself on her, but here a woman shows interest in him and he flees. Once he's gone, Margo reflects at how he's a "confirmed bachelor." As you can see above, she also uses the phrase "flicker of romance," even though comics of the 60s supposedly avoided using words like "flick." Margo rests her eyes and a moment later, Lamont is back and tells her after kissing her he realized there was no sense pretending any longer - he wants Margo to marry him!

I think we all know what's really going on, but let's take the story at its own pace. Before long, the duo are honeymooning on the beach in Waikiki, Hawaii. So we just skipped over the wedding? Lamont confides to Margo how dangerous his work is, but she promises to bring him good luck. However, a gang of three men spy on the couple from a cluster of nearby palm trees. That evening, a helicopter with no pilot comes flying directly at Lamont & Margo's honeymoon suite! It's like a stunt from Touch of Evil gone horribly wrong!

Lamont supposes the helicopter is full of TNT placed by his enemies so he and Margo leap from the suite into a swimming pool below. The helicopter smashes into the suite, exploding. Margo believes this affirms her status as "good luck," which is the optimistic way of viewing the affair. However, she does suggest they leave Hawaii to escape the killers, but Lamont wants to capture their enemies. The next day, Lamont goes to the beach alone while Margo arranges a new suite for them. However, the three spies from before appear and hold Lamont at gunpoint, identifying themselves as having masterminded the helicopter attack.

Before the spies can rub out Cranston, Margo approaches and throws a tear gas grenade, giving Lamont the chance he needs to attack them, while Margo captures one man with her gun. Lamont is pleased to see how Margo is a "fit wife" for him, but it's at this moment that Margo wakes up back in the town house. Yes, it was all a dream, as anyone might've guessed when Margo closed her eyes on page 2. Margo's disappointed to find she isn't in Hawaii on her honeymoon, but Lamont suggests maybe someday she will be, leaving her just a little hope. Poor Margo.

You can't say much about a 1960s imaginary-dream-hoax story, especially one as obvious and pedestrian as this. Still, it would be nice if the capable Margo Lane made a reappearance in this series, rather than playing the hostage as she did in the Shadow#1. Yet again, the Grand Comics Database credits this story to writer Robert Bernstein, but this time cover artist Paul Reinman handles the art.

This issue also contains the text story feature "the Adventures of the Shadow," continued from the previous issue. We resume the story of the Shadow's origin with Lamont Cranston in Cairo, Egypt, where he'd confronted a fakir who supposedly had hypnotic powers. The fakir attempts to hypnotize Lamont to prove his power, but somehow his hypnosis just reflects back at him; Lamont has the stronger willpower and he's startled to discover he can hypnotize men. No, Lamont doesn't learn hypnosis through any particular education, he just discovers he could always hypnotize people. He tests his powers out on a dog and sees how easy it is to make the dog see things which aren't there or to make the dog believe it's something else. So, Lamont's discovered his powers; will he use them responsibly? This feature will apparently continue in the Shadow#3.

Very well then; next time in "Bitter Fruit," we'll begin looking at the Shadow#3, which again promises to introduce the Shadow's super hero costume. Perhaps they'll finally make good!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review: John Carter - the Gods of Mars#1

In my review of the graphic novel Tale of Sand, I wondered what the future held in store for artist Ramon K. Perez, feeling he was definitely a talent worth keeping track of. Now I have my answer: he's drawing the 5-issue mini-series John Carter: the Gods of Mars for Marvel Comics.

Not an entirely prestigious assignment, especially given how lackluster the John Carter movie has been performing at the box office, but no one give up on this book before cracking the cover. My scanner can't do this beautiful art proper justice:

The Gods of Mars is adapted by Sam Humphries from one of Edgar Rice Burroughs' original John Carter novels and follows on from A Princess of Mars, previously adapted for Marvel by Roger Langridge and Filipe Andrade. That series isn't recapped here, except for in a single-paragraph block of text. Reading A Princess of Mars or having a basic familiarity with the John Carter franchise might help a new reader, but I don't think it's strictly necessary. What we have here is simply a grand, high adventure science fiction tale. John Carter finds himself on Mars, as inexplicably as his first visit had begun and ended; he quickly meets up with his friend Tars Tarkas and is anxious to look up his wife, Dejah Thoris, but Carter and Tarkas are soon emeshed within local troubles when they find a group who have been claiming their land is the afterlife ("Mars is Heaven?"). It's a standard action-adventure tale, but it's all in the telling and Perez is quite capable in that department!

However you feel about John Carter, please consider giving this book a chance. It may be the most beautiful thing Marvel is currently publishing and I doubt many will even notice its coming or going.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The case for motion lines, exhibit a

From Ultimate Spider-Man#8, page 15, by Brian Michael Bendis & Sara Pichelli:

On this page, Spider-Man sees a number of metal rings in the air; in the fourth panel, he has to duck to avoid one of them. On the following page, we learn these rings are being hurled through the air by the Ringer.

The problem with this page is that there's no sense of what the rings are or what they're doing. Are they flying through the air? Are they falling from the sky? Are they hovering in place? The only panel where the rings' nature is established is panel 4, when Spider-Man ducks one of them. Here, Pichelli realizes she needs to add motion lines for the action to make sense (if Spider-Man were ducking a seemingly stationary object it would be confusing).

This fourth panel sums up exactly what the other four panels on the page are missing: motion lines. Without the motion lines, we don't understand where the rings are coming from, what path they're following as they travel or how quickly they're moving. Is Spider-Man in danger? Are the civilians in danger? We'd know if the motion lines had been used in panels 1-3 & 5. As it is, the rings appear as threatening as soap bubbles.

Comic book makers: don't be ashamed of motion lines! These, and other such tools belonging to the language of comic books, are in your toolbox for a reason - to be used! "They don't have motion lines in movies" is not a valid defense.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Amazing Race 20-06 recap: "This is Wicked Strange"

Last night's episode of the Amazing Race was a pretty decent hour and thankfully absent from the squabbling which has lowered many recent episodes. Plus, we get to see one very colourful country!

We resume the show in Bavaria with Art & J.J. starting in first place, having held their title for three legs in a row. The first clue directs them to Baku, Azerbaijan! Despite J.J.'s frequent assertions of how their team is "dominating," he does display a little bit of humility. "When you start winning all the time you just feel like yeah, you know what, we're gonna win. But we both know we're one Roadblock or Detour away from bein' humbled." They've decided they don't want to take big risks on the Race, just outperform the others. J.J. notes how Danny, running in 2nd place with Joey "Fitness," has a pair of odd glasses; he thinks Danny's glasses belong in an 80s movie with a Wham soundtrack! Joey "Fitness" & Danny note how they've kept climbing throughout the Race and hope to seize first place soon. At one point we see a close-up of the Ford logo on the hood of a car. Who sponsors this show? You'd think they'd tell us!

As Rachel & Dave depart, Dave correctly identifies Azerbaijan's location in the Near East; however, as Bopper & Mark puzzle over the location, Mark opines it must be in Africa! Joey "Fitness"/Danny & Vanessa/Ralph arrive at the airport in Munich, Germany at the same time; the former get into an argument when Danny greets their competition with a friendly "hello." They're still arguing about whether it's okay to be friendly toward their competition as Vanessa & Ralph line up behind the duo: "Hi!" Vanessa chirps. Scenes of the teams heading to the airport in Munich, Germany follow; Brendon & Rachel visit a travel agency first, which I thought would lead to some advantage/disadvantage, but ultimately everyone winds up on the same flight, so most of the ticket booking is glossed over.

All seven teams arrive in Baku and take off in taxis for the Temple Ateshgah ("Temple of Fire"). It's still dark outside as they race; Rachel & Dave arrive at the temple first, but the building they need to enter won't open until sunrise. They decide to make the most of their surroundings and join a troupe of dancers around a big fire while musicians accompany them. "This place is like an ancient rave!" saith Dave. Ultimately, all seven teams wind up joining the dance line! It's nice to see everyone getting along (or pretending to).

At sunrise, the building opens and everyone grabs their clues; teams can either head to their next route marker, or attempt this leg's Fast Forward, only the 2nd Fast Forward we've seen this season (probably the last - I think two is the standard these days). Rachel & Dave are determined to get back in the lead after holding first on the first two legs, so they head for the Fast Forward. Joey "Fitness" & Danny have convinced themselves that having moved consistently higher with each leg, they should advance from second to first on this leg, so they also direct their taxi to the Fast Forward. This is a serious risk, as teams seldom get back into the Race if they waste time on a Fast Forward they don't win; this is precisely why Nary & Jamie decide not to bother with the Fast Forward.

So, the other five teams take their taxis to Occupational Training International to search for their next clue. Mark has to use the barf bag in his taxi, something which afflicts him whenever he has to ride in a back seat. Art sees this and thinks it's funny; to be fair, it amuses Bopper too. When Rachel & Dave arrive at the Fast Forward location, they learn the nature of the task: they must unload 150 bales of hay from a truck, then arrange them in a particular way (3x5x10). Joey "Fitness" & Danny start almost a minute after Rachel & Dave, so it's a race; Joey "Fitness" & Danny, having boasted of their strength before, would seem to have an advantage over a male/female team.

At Occupational Training International, Art/J.J., Bopper/Mark & Nary/Jamie retrieve the next clue: Roadblock! J.J., Bopper & Jamie volunteer on this task, which is to participate in a helicopter crash simulation. A mock-up of a helicopter is lowered into a swimming pool then tilted upside down; Racers have no oxygen tanks and must break through their windows then swim to the surface; their next clue waits for them atop a dinghy.

Back at the Fast Forward, Rachel & Dave speed ahead and win the Fast Forward! Joey "Fitness" & Danny are seriously off their game as they realize they have to go back to Occupational Training International. "Beaten by a frickin' girl." is Joey "Fitness'" glum comment. Rachel & Dave head to the Pit Stop, Boulevard Esplanade Estakada.

At Occupational Training International, J.J., Bopper & Jamie all perform their Roadblock at the same time on the same mock helicopter. As Nary & Mark watch their teammates, Mark confides to Nary that Bopper has a crush on Jamie. Evidently this has been going on since leg 3, although this is the first time it's been mentioned; I thought Bopper/Mark & Nary/Jamie were just friends, but Mark suggests otherwise.

J.J., Bopper & Jamie complete the simulation and collect their clues. Bopper helps pull Jamie into the dinghy with him and his hand seems to touch her posterior. Mark watches this with a disapproving glare. To Nary he comments, "He's terrible." The next clue directs teams to the Toghrul Karabakh carpet shop.

Rachel & Dave arrive at the Pit Stop; nearing the location, Dave remarks "I can smell Phil's cologne." Phil rewards the couple with first place and a pair of 2013 Ford Tauruses.

Brendon is next to attempt the Roadblock. It looked as though Vanessa & Ralph arrived at the same time, but Vanessa won't begin the Roadblock until after Brendon. Brendon does just fine, but Vanessa is a bit panicky, being afraid of close spaces and swimming, but she had no idea what the Roadblock was when she volunteered. As Vanessa performs the Roadblock, something seems to go wrong and we head to the commercials with Vanessa seemingly in mortal danger! But then the program resumes and no, she was doing just fine. Vanessa is done the Roadblock before Joey "Fitness" & Danny even arrive at the site; Joey "Fitness" finishes the Roadblock without incident.

By the time Art/J.J., Bopper/Mark & Nary/Jamie have reached the carpet shop, Brendon/Rachel have caught up to them! Their taxi driver clearly knows how to hustle! Teams run inside the shop and come out with their clues: Detour! Now teams choose between "Apples" or "Oil." In the former, teams search through a car loaded with apples and find one which has the Amazing Race flag attached to it. In the latter, teams journey to a spa and help a man bathe in oil, then clean the oil from his body. All of the teams decide on "Oil," except for Nary/Jamie who opt for "Apples," no doubt gambling on it being faster than the other option if they luck into the marked apple.

Vanessa & Ralph arrive at the carpet shop later, but can't find the clues... even though the clues are in their bright yellow envelopes, sticking out in plain sight next to the shop's carpets.

At "Oil," Art & J.J. are the first to begin grooming a man at the spa; their subject sits in a bathtub full of nice black oil. I guess it doesn't look any stranger than a mudpack. J.J. acts very startled by all of this. "What the heck is going on, Art?" and "Art, this is wicked strange!" providing this episode's quote-title.

At "Apples," Nary & Jamie begin digging through their car of apples. "Teachers love apples!" is Jamie's remark, referring to their pretend occupations as schoolteachers. At "Oil," Bopper/Mark & Brendon/Rachel begin the task. Art & J.J. are both being very vocal at how weird they find this. Meanwhile, Vanessa & Ralph finally see their clues. "We are buffoons." saith Vanessa and I doubt anyone watching would dispute her. They decide to tackle "Apples."

Back at "Oil," J.J. yells "Get in his junk, Art! Get in his junk!" Art snipes back, "How about you focus on what we've got to do instead of trying to be funny?" J.J. answers, "I'm in his five, Art! What do you want from me?" Rachel quips "I don't think he minds that I'm rubbing him all over." as she cleans up her subject. Art & J.J. finish the Detour first and receive directions to the Pit Stop. "We feel violated." says J.J. Hey, imagine how the guy you manhandled felt! Bopper & Mark finish next, with Brendon & Rachel close behind.

Art & J.J. seize second place at the Pit Stop. Art notes "it's actually a win," thanks to the Fast Forward. Joey "Fitness" & Danny have only just reached the carpet shop and decide to try "Apples," probably another gamble at luck being on their side. Meanwhile, Nary & Jamie have just finished the Detour, but Vanessa & Ralph are still searching and having bad flashbacks to their ordeal with melons back on leg 3.

Bopper & Mark arrive at the Pit Stop in 3rd place with Brendon & Rachel nipping at their heels, arriving in 4th. Nary & Jamie are a little disappointed to arrive in 5th, probably hoping the "Oil" Detour was the longer option. Vanessa & Ralph finish "Apples" before Joey "Fitness" & Danny even arrive. However, the boys seem to find their apple very quickly, much faster than the other teams who attempted it. The editors try to make this suspenseful, showing scenes of Vanessa & Ralph getting lost en route to the Pit Stop, but it's all for naught - they hold on to 6th place, both crying "Cheese and crackers!" all the way to the finish. Joey "Fitness" & Danny arrive in last place and Phil eliminates them.

I didn't think much of Joey "Fitness"/Danny for the first two legs, but they proved to be stronger than I thought; their elimination didn't strike them because of any deficiency in their gameplay, I would have bet they could have assembled the hay bales faster than Rachel/Dave. After all of their earlier remarks about wanting challenges where their upper-body strength was a factor, it's strange to see them go out on a strength-based challenge. Rachel definitely deserves some props for outplaying them! Over all, Joey "Fitness" & Danny had a good bond with each other and a gentle sense of humour; they were a relief to watch compared to some of the squabbling couples.

This leaves us with just six teams!

  1. Rachel & Dave: It's nice to see them cooperating again, although I'm sure it helped to have a leg where taxis ran everything - a lot of their recent squabbling came from navigation errors. They're an agreeable team when they're winning.
  2. Art & J.J.: Still the most consistently strongest team on the Race, they've really proved themselves over and over. It's nice to see a very strong, winning team who are still friendly to their competition.
  3. Bopper & Mark: So long as these two are in the Race, I'm a happy man. Bopper having a crush on Jamie is an odd wrinkle; I wonder if we'll see more about this...?
  4. Brendon & Rachel: These two haven't been a bother for two episodes now; I'd like to see it last, but, well, see below.
  5. Nary & Jamie: I'm getting a better sense of their gameplay style now and I think they are a strong team, but somehow they never do better than middle of the pack. Even if they make to the final three, I can't envision them winning.
  6. Vanessa & Ralph: Thankfully, these two stopped squabbling. They seemed to bleed a lot of time on this leg, most awkwardly when they failed to see the clues lying directly ahead of them! I don't think they're bad people... insensitive to others, but not bad people.

Next week: Rachel and Vanessa resume trading snark with each other! Blast it, just when this show had become pleasing to watch. Oh, but the Race is also headed to Tanzania! Africa! African legs are always fun! Ah, but this episode won't air for two weeks; I'll see you then!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bitter Fruit#3: "Shiwan Khan's Murderous Master-Plan!"

Welcome back to my continued feature on Archie Comics' 1964 series the Shadow. Previously, we were introduced to Archie's version of Lamont Cranston, wealthy playboy and super-spy who sometimes dons a cape to fight his enemies as the Shadow. We've reached the Shadow#2, which promises to transform our protagonist into a spandex-wearing super hero!

The cover depicts the Shadow with red hair rather than the blond hair from issue #1. His navy blue costume with green cape, boots, gloves and shorts is perfectly acceptable by the standards of 1960s super hero comics. However, it's a pretty lousy look for the Shadow, who looks eerie and intimidating as a man in a black coat and hat. Since issue #1 established this version of the Shadow can't cloud men's minds so they cannot see him, I wish him well as he tries to hide in the shadows whilst clad in bright green. Also, what exactly is he leaping from? He's in the middle of an airport tarmac, you don't find many high spots away from the planes and terminals! We see Shiwan Khan from issue #1's first story is back again and is menacing Margo Lane, whose hair is still black. Strange that only Lamont's hair has changed colour! The cover promises "the Triangle of Terror!" a "book length novel;" the length of this "book," maybe.

We open our story, "Shiwan Khan's Murderous Master-Plan!" and soon see... well, that today's story is not called "the Triangle of Terror!" Further, we see the Shadow is still a man in a blue suit with a cape. What gives? In the above image, Shiwan Khan is supposedly sitting at a desk in his headquarters, but with his desk upon the raised platform, he seems as though he's a judge in a courtroom.

We begin our story at a private airstrip outside New York City as Shrevy sees Lamont off for a flight on Cranston's private plane. Once the pilot has the plane in the air, Lamont takes over the controls for him so the pilot can have his dinner (there's no co-pilot, despite the size of the cabin). Just after Lamont returns the plane's controls to the pilot, the craft hits some air turbulence, caused by the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion! Lamont heads to a communications station on the plane and contacts Weston at "a secret central office." Weston says the bomb was set off by Shiwan Khan, but Cranston should continue on course to Hong Kong and pretend to be on his business trip. However, his secret mission is to journey to a small town outside Peking and find a special agent using the password "free world."

Just as Weston's face fades from Cranston's video monitor, an aircraft opens fire on Cranston's plane. Cranston activates an air-to-air missile apparatus, firing a missile which is "impossible to escape." The aircraft being targeted is the same bomber which dropped the a-bomb and piloted by Shiwan Khan himself (how did Weston learn the bomber's identity within minutes of the blast?). Khan's co-pilot compares the pursuing missile to a "shadow," irking his superior. As you can see above, Shiwan Khan's dialogue balloon doesn't make the most economic use of its space; as well, note the use of commas around "shadow."

Shiwan Khan and his co-pilot bail out of the craft before the missile strikes it and they descend to a nearby submarine. Cranston is eager to capture them, intending at first to land via pontoons, but the duo reach their submarine first. Wait, pontoons? On a luxury-sized jet? Cranston looks at the fleeing men through his binoculars, recognizing Shiwan Khan, but when the pilot asks if he saw who they were, he claims he didn't get a good look. Why? If Cranston's status as a secret agent is known to Margo and Shrevy, why not the rest of his staff? Don't they think there's something odd about their millionaire playboy boss having secret video communications mid-flight, being attacked by enemy agents and shooting down said agents with a missile launcher? Is it seriously going to hurt Lamont's double (or triple) life to admit he recognized the internationally-famous master spy Shiwan Khan?

The next day in Hong Kong, Lamont instructs his pilot to drop him via parachute over Fouwong. His pilot surmises his boss isn't making a dangerous clandestine trip into Red China for business reasons, but Lamont can only offer a lame excuse to explain himself: "Call it... er... my passion for sight-seeing!" Lamont, you're consistently terrible at covering up your multiple identities; please, at least consider telling your staff what sort of danger you're bringing them into! Lamont parachutes out at night, wearing a snappy bright green jumpsuit to give the Chinese army a sporting chance at shooting him. Lamont decides he'd better become the Shadow so he can hide... can't he use his Shadow powers at any time, not just when his glasses are off and his cape is on?

Just look at this hopeless panel. Lamont is apparently hidden in the shadows, so his thought balloon emerges from one of the soldiers? Sloppy. Somehow, it works. The text is still very unclear about what exactly the Shadow's powers are, so perhaps he can cloud men's minds? Lamont claims the soldiers are confused at his "disappearance," even though there were no panels depicting him in the soldiers' line of sight. So I guess he did cloud their minds? Anyway, the Shadow shoots out the soldiers' radio, then hypnotizes them, making them think they're inside a cage and unable to call for help. As he does this he finally uses the "clouding men's minds." Aha! Heaven knows what someone who'd never heard of the Shadow would make of this sequence, but we're only three stories into the series and I'm starting to understand what the protagonist's abilities are!

Later, the Shadow knocks out another soldier on the road and steals his uniform and jeep for cover as he enters Fouwong. Why not simply use hypnosis to travel incognito through Fouwong? How likely is it that a blond-haired white man can pass for a soldier, even with the clothing? Lamont has no idea where to find his contact, so he goes to the Dragon's Lair cabaret, hoping he'll draw some attention. Here he finally acknowledges that yes, a white man wandering into a village in communist China is a little conspicuous. Lamont uses his perfect Chinese dialect to get a table near the cabaret singer; she notices him ("like all the rest of her breed." muses the suddenly-misogynist Lamont) and asks to join his table. However, as they share a drink, Lamont begins to feel woozy. The singer leads Cranston out of the cabaret to another location, where he passes out. When Lamont comes to, the singer uses the "free world" password, identifying herself as his contact.

We now begin chapter two of the story, "the Triangle of Terror!" Aha! So the cover didn't exactly lie! Perhaps we'll see Margo Lane and the blue-green spandex yet! The singer reveals she's a freelance agent who'll work for anyone, including Shiwan Khan. This time, she's been hired by the USSR. It seems Khan intends to blackmail China into making him their ruler under the threat of his atomic weapons; the USSR fears if Khan brings down China, they'll be next. Boy, if Khan has this many atomic weapons then stopping him from getting the plans to a US rocket plane (issue #1) seems a lot less important now. The cabaret singer says they need to find Khan's ultimate weapon.

Before they put their plan into motion, Lamont grabs the singer and kisses her. She tells him this is the last time she'll tolerate such behaviour; Lamont retorts "Okay! Next time you kiss me!" But she answers icily "Such a time will never come! I am not interested in romance!" This is the most James Bondian performance by Lamont thus far. The singer's fellow freelancers keep calling her "Princess," so I guess that's her codename?

Suddenly, Princess and her men act as though Lamont has disappeared, even though he's standing in plain sight. Y'know, over in 1964 issues of the Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby never made you wonder whether the Invisible Girl was invisible to her enemies or not, but the creators of the Shadow have no clue how to tell their audience when he's using his powers. Consequently, it's hysterical to see these scenes of Lamont "disappearing" in plain sight. Anyway, Lamont is suddenly wearing his cape and has lost his glasses, so he's the Shadow now. To cover his disappearance, he cries out as Lamont that the Shadow has captured him. This works, because Princess and her men know of the Shadow and that he's an enemy of Shiwan Khan. This from people living in a village in China, whereas in the previous issue, CIA agent Weston thought the Shadow was just a legend! The Shadow grabs Princess and covers her mouth, then hypnotizes her three henchmen so they think each other is Shiwan Khan, causing all three to knock each other unconscious (all three at once? that's some trick).

Now the Shadow turns on Princess to hypnotize her into assisting him with Shiwan Khan (even though she's already offered to help Lamont!). The Shadow forcibly hypnotizes her, theorizing Khan will be trapped by "the bait of [her] beauty!" So, the Shadow's opening salvo is to mind-rape her so Khan can take advantage of her? Pretty skeevy behaviour, Lamont. Now the Shadow just has to find Shiwan Khan! Stepping back into the streets of Fouwong, Lamont "mentally x-rays" passersby until he finds some who are working for Khan. That sounds like an involved task, but the first people he checks are Khan's men. The Shadow orders Princess to surrender to Khan's men and they carry her Khan's mansion, with the Shadow hiding on the rear fender. Why does the Shadow need this deception to find Khan's manor? Couldn't he force the information from the minds of Khan's men?

Princess is brought to Khan and she identifies herself as Princess Lua, hired by the USSR to stop him alongside Lamont Cranston, but she tells Khan the Shadow is present in Fouwong. Again, one wonders why Lamont keeps the Shadow as a separate identity! All of this is according to the Shadow's plan. Lua offers to join forces with Khan to stop the Shadow, plus offers herself as Khan's lover. Lua asks where his "X-bomb" is. So, I guess Khan's super weapon is called the "X-bomb." Khan doesn't actually want to set off the bomb, preferring to ransom the world instead, but Lua suggests he should direct his ultimatum to the Shadow, demanding the Shadow surrender or the X-bomb will explode. The Shadow spends the entire time eavesdropping on Shiwan Khan outside his window while this happens; here's an idea: try using your powers to sneak inside the room, beat up Khan, pull the X-Bomb's location from his mind, then erase his memories. It's nothing you haven't proven capable of doing so far!

Anyway, now that Khan has issued the ultimatum which Lua suggested (and which the Shadow forced her to suggest), he bursts into Khan's lair and begins defeating his henchmen. The Shadow pulls out a second cape and throws it over one of Khan's men, then throws him into Khan's room as a distraction. Khan is guarded by an agent armed with a machine gun. Aha, so that henchman is toast, right? No, he quickly explains the situation to his master and the real Shadow announces his presence. Uh, what was the point of that? And what was the point of the revised ultimatum? Now the Shadow uses his hypnosis to "be-cloud" Shiwan Khan's mind, causing him to forget where he hid the bomb, how he made it and forget everything else he knew about atomic weapons. Khan passes out from this strain, hitting an alarm with his hand. Consequently, the Shadow has to run with Princess Lua to avoid the rest of Khan's guards. What? Why didn't Khan sound the alarm when he knew the Shadow was in his base? And if the Shadow can conceal himself and Lua from detection, why not take Khan along as a hostage? Not that they were able to keep Khan in prison last issue, but he should at least make the effort.

Anyway, Shiwan Khan has lost all memory of his bomb. Princess Lua sees Lamont Cranston off at an airport as she notes Khan can't explode his own bomb. "Right! I took care of everything!" Wait, what? No one's supposed to know you're the Shadow, Lamont! You just took credit for stopping Shiwan Khan! Sigh. Lamont and Princess Lua have their parting of the ways as she warns they may meet as enemies next time "I adore enemies like you!" is Cranston's response. Considering Lua earlier claimed she didn't want romance, I don't think this change of attitude casts the Shadow in a good light.

This is... a pretty crummy story. The divide between Lamont Cranston, millionaire; Lamont Cranston, super-spy; and Lamont Cranston, the Shadow; remains ridiculous, as noted above. The man should have two identities, period. The Shadow's powers remain nebulous, ill-defined and poorly represented by the art. The Shadow using his powers to alter the mind of his own ally is also a very repellent development. I hope the super-spy version of Lamont Cranston is done away with quickly - at this point, I'm eager to see him become a super hero if only to avoid the complications from his being a secret agent. This is a sloppy comic book, muddled by the attempt to fuse a super-spy Bond rip-off into an existing detective super hero. Again, the series lacks tension because the Shadow's powers are so ill-defined and versatile one never believes he's in danger; sure enough, he spent most of this tale hypnotizing his enemies into obeying his will.

Once again, the Grand Comics Database credits the story to Robert Bernstein, the art to John Rosenberger and the cover to Paul Reinman. I don't know what to make of the cover. Clearly they already knew they were going to transition the Shadow into a spandex-clad super hero, but they ran it at least a month early. So, just as last issue's Reinman cover depicted a version of the Shadow who wasn't found in the interior, so does this issue follow suit. At least they didn't lie about Shiwan Khan being the villain! He's... their only villain, after all...

Well, the super hero costume never appeared, but that's the Shadow#2... No, wait, there's a second story in this issue. So much for the "book length" promised on the cover! Man! Okay, next time in "Bitter Fruit," we'll examine the 2nd story in Archie's the Shadow#2.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bitter Fruit#2: "The Eyes of the Tiger!"

I didn't mean to continue the "Bitter Fruit" feature for a few more days, but because the second story in Shadow#1 is so brief, why not get it out of the way? I present to you the second stunning Shadow-as-super-spy tale, "the Eyes of the Tiger!" Rising up, back in the alley.

Although in the first story the title/splash page was where the narrative started, "the Eyes of the Tiger!" opens on a scene which won't come up until later in the tale as we see the Shadow attempting to hide from bullets in the shadows. Note in the above that Lamont is not relying on the shadows of any particular objects to shield him from the bullets, simply relying on the shade being cast by the building.

Lamont Cranston IS Mister Magoo.

Our story really begins at Pier 69 and the offices of Cranston Shipping Lines; Lamont has just finished work and Shrevy begins driving him back to his town house. En route, a man falls down in front of their Rolls Royce and Shrevy & Lamont exit the car to check on him, but Lamont is instantly suspicious when he sees the man is lying face-up with his legs under the car. Sure enough, the fallen man pulls out a gun and reveals he's a stuntman; two of his associates approach and knock out Shrevy, while the stuntman discards Lamont's glasses, thinking this will render him helpless.

Yeah, looking exactly like the Shadow isn't suspicious, but if they saw the costume they might begin to wonder.

Lamont notes he only pretends to be nearsighted, the glasses' true purpose is to maintain his secret identity as the Shadow. I don't believe a nearsighted person is "blind" without their glasses, but whatever, the criminals are seizing an advantage. The real question is, why don't they recognize him as the Shadow now? We already saw him fight crime in the previous story in a baby blue suit (sometime with cape, sometimes without). The three man gang load Lamont back inside his Rolls Royce and reveal their ploy: they're driving to a bank where Lamont will withdraw $1 million. Lamont protests he can't sign a check without his glasses so they pull under a streetlight (even though it appears to be noon outside). Lamont bolts from the car when it stops and runs into an alley, gleefully noting he has his Shadow costume hidden in his suit's lining. And by "costume" he means "cape." Yes, once you lace the cape around your neck you'll be a different person, by gum!

Did I say tiger? I meant kitten.

To maintain his advantage in the darkness of... noontime, Lamont throws bricks at his Rolls Royce, smashing the headlights. Lamont seems to be about 30 feet from the pursuing criminals, but they've lost sight of him and he's donned his cape. To frighten the criminals, Lamont pulls out a pen-size flashlight and holds it under his chin, scaring the criminals by using fireside tactics. They believe he has "the eyes of a wild animal! ...A TIGER!!!" Turning off the light and slipping through the shadows of the alley, the Shadow comes up on the criminals' right flank without them seeing. At this point, they really should allow Lamont to use his "cloud men's minds so they cannot see him" power from the radio, rather than portray his enemies as blind and dumb (full disclosure: Lamont claims he's performing hypnosis with the flashlight).

Yeah, it's hard to see outside when it's... noon.

The Shadow quickly knocks out all three criminals, who can only see the shadows, not him... even though the Shadow is standing in direct light in each panel as he hits them. Returning to the Rolls Royce, Lamont uses a radio transmitter in the backseat to contact police headquarters. Later, a policeman tells Lamont the criminals think a tiger came out of the shadows to maul them. Lamont replies "without glasses, the most I could see was A SHADOW!" And this brings our tale to a merciful end.

As before, the Grand Comics Database credits this tale to Robert Bernstein & John Rosenberger. This story doesn't touch on Lamont's status as a super-spy, instead playing off him as a millionaire playboy. This low-power version of the Shadow is howlingly bad, owing more to a Mad parody of the Shadow than the formidable character of the radio. I'm sure there's a brilliant comedy sketch to be had in the idea of the Shadow standing in direct sunlight while declaring "No one can see me! I'm concealed within the shadows of this nearby umbrella!" then waving around his flashlight and making eerie noises.

The Shadow#1 also contains a text story: "the Adventures of the Shadow, chapter one." I won't recap it in full, but it does some of the work the main feature didn't, relating details of the Shadow's origin. It relates how Lamont became a billionaire during his senior year at college when his parents died; despite his money and good looks, Lamont wanted more so on a whim, he journeyed to Cairo, Egypt. He met a hypnotist in Cairo and... there the story ends, supposedly to be continued in the Shadow#2. We'll see. I thought the Shadow gained his powers in "the Orient," not "the Middle East."

Later this week: the Shadow#2, in which our be-clouding hero discards his baby blue suit (and blond hair) for a mask and spandex! This could be painful.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Amazing Race recap 20-05: "Uglier Than a Mud Rail Fence"

The Amazing Race resumed last Sunday with a trip to Bavaria, in what might be the all-around best episode of the season thus far. Terrific visuals abound, some teams come off very well and only one team carries a dark cloud.

We resume the Race in Turin, Italy, with border patrol agents Art & J.J. still in first place and still very confident in themselves. Their first clue directs them to travel by train to Ehrwald, Austria, then drive themselves by car to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, Germany. Two countries in one? This leg's what 'cha might call a twofer! J.J. remarks "We're friends. It's a huge difference between two dudes running the Race who work together than a husband and wife." This suggests they're aware of Rachel & Dave's recent squabbling. And they're right: teams of friends do have an advantage over couples. Art & J.J. catch the first train to Bavaria. Rachel/Dave & Joey "Fitness"/Danny catch the second train; Joey "Fitness"/Danny are wearing goofy toques this leg, having decided to have a little fun. Good on them, the Amazing Race is supposed to be fun and good.

As Vanessa & Ralph begin the leg, we learn Ralph has been divorced three times! Vanessa notes because of their relationship histories, they're very comfortable speaking their minds to each other, but this can still create problems. As Brendon & Rachel depart, with Brendon reading the clue which mentions they'll have to find a roaming gnome, Rachel asks "The Roam? Where is he?" and Brendon has to explain the gnome is not there, they'll find him in Bavaria. I think Rachel needs to read the clues for herself, her reaction suggests she was only half-listening. They note how terrible their performance on the previous leg was and Rachel wants to remember Brendon is her "Bookie-Bear." If I had to choose between cutesy-Rachel and sobby-Rachel... well, no choice there, I prefer this cutesy-Rachel.

Bopper & Mark don't depart until nearly two hours after the 7th place team, Kerri & Stacy. TWO HOURS?! They weren't that far behind the Mississippi girls last leg when they arrived at the auto museum... they must have had some serious delays with the Detour.

Trains have to pause in Innsbruck before continuing to Ehrwald. Because of this, the last five teams are caught up together at the Innsbruck train station. The three teams in front reach Ehrwald with a considerable lead over the others.

Art & J.J. reach the restaurant where they're to receive their next clue, but the doors are closed; as they wait, Joey "Fitness" & Danny and Rachel & Dave arrive; all three teams enter the establishment together and collect a Travelocity roaming gnome statue who has the next clue printed on his underside. It's time for a Detour: "Fairy Tale" or "Champion Male." In the former, teams journey to the fairy tale town Oberammergau and follow a trail of gingerbread through the woods (collecting gingerbread as they walk) to the home of a witch, where they'll use the gingerbread to complete a gingerbread house. In the latter option, teams go to a nearby tavern and help style a man's beard/mustache into the image depicted on an accompanying photo, but the Racers won't know what kind of style they need to fashion until after they choose their bearded man.

All three teams choose "Champion Male," correctly identifying it as the quicker option. The other five teams have only just arrived in Ehrwald. Kerri & Stacy, recalling last leg's navigation problems, have decided to follow the other teams this leg, confident they can overcome the competition so long as they don't get lost en route.

At "Champion Male," we get to see some very beard-y men; Dave is even having a bit of fun for once, forming a mock-mohawk for his subject. Joey "Fitness" & Danny choose the man with the longest beard, but his style is a very difficult design. Their only recompense is that they're both great at hair styling. Elsewhere, Kerri & Stacy have lost sight of the other teams and become lost... they correctly identified their greatest problem, then failed to fix it, which is a pity.

Bopper & Mark reach the restaurant next and have to perform their Speedbump task: they must perform a yodeling number with a band in the restaurant! Speedbump tasks are never particularly hard, just a little time-consuming. Bopper & Mark have quite a bit of fun yodeling and their judge gets into it, declaring "that's American way of yodeling." after hearing their first attempt.

J.J. is quite bemused at having sculpted a man's beard, but he and Art finish first. Art & J.J.'s next clue directs them to the "Sleeping Beauty castle." I could've told them this would be Neuschwanstein (thank you, Great Castle of Europe, though I couldn't have spelled it to save my life), but once again the Race is making the clue slightly vague; probably anyone in Bavaria could tell the Racers Neuschwanstein is the castle they want, but it's a matter of getting that information.

As Bopper & Mark finish yodeling, the other four teams have all passed them; Vanessa/Ralph & Nary/Jamie go to the beard Detour, while Brendon/Rachel, Kerri/Stacy & Bopper/Mark go to the fairy tale option. Rachel refuses the beard task saying "I don't even know what a beard is." She's either a ditz, or seriously stressing out. She also calls Bavaria "Bolivia." Rachel & Dave finish the Detour, but despite Joey "Fitness" & Danny's prowess at hairstyling, their difficult choice has them lagging behind. Vanessa & Ralph arrive and Vanessa has to take charge as Ralph is out of his element.

Brendon/Rachel & Kerri/Stacy work together to find the gingerbread trail, but this just results in both teams becoming lost; meanwhile, Bopper/Mark arrive, see the marked basket pick-up spot and begin collecting gingerbread. Joey "Fitness" & Danny finish their Detour, but Vanessa & Ralph have made up a lot of time and follow fast on their heels.

Brendon/Rachel & Kerri/Stacy eventually make their way on the correct path and all three teams are soon working at their houses while a woman dressed as a witch cackles over her cauldron. Bopper has a lot of fun here, cackling along with the witch; his facial expressions are killer (you can tell Bopper has kids). Teams compare the gingerbread house building to assembling a jigsaw puzzle, which is a helpful way of looking at it.

Art & J.J. head to Neuschwanstein, but the approach to the castle is pretty long; they opt to take a horse-drawn wagon to the castle, which is a valid option. Rachel & Dave get lost en route and start to bicker. Joey "Fitness"/Danny & Vanessa/Ralph arrive and Ralph notes Hohenschwangau castle is within eyesight of Neuschwanstein, but they choose the right castle and start up on foot. Ralph is a bit impatient and wants to go on foot while Vanessa thinks they should go by horse; they start bickering as they walk up the steep path.

At the gingerbread Detour, Mark calls the witch "beautiful," but later confides to the camera she was "Uglier than a mud rail fence!" providing this week's quote-title. Nary & Jamie finish the beard Detour.

Art & J.J. arrive at the castle and quickly find King Ludwig's bedroom, where the next clue is located; you would've expected this to be the start of the leg's Roadblock, perhaps even hope Neuschwanstein would be this leg's Pit Stop... but no, the teams have a lot of travel in store for themselves this leg! Now they have to journey to Fussen and find an ice rink.

Kerri & Stacy finish the gingerbread Detour. On the hill up to Neuschwanstein, Vanessa gets mad at Ralph when he refuses to carry her coat. She starts insulting him, stating "congratulations, you just made Youtube!" Vanessa is certainly more media-savvy than Big Brother's Rachel, I'll give her that - she knows that if a Racer gets upset with their teammate it'll be sent across the internet for people to mock. Ralph says the best part of his day was watching Vanessa go up the hill because he knew "her legs were on fire," something "the devil" inside him enjoyed. This is not healthy. They're barely able to speak to each other at this point, basically as argumentative as Rachel & Dave were last week. Regardless, Joey "Fitness"/Danny & Vanessa/Ralph retrieve their clue and move on.

Bopper/Mark finish the Detour and this makes Rachel upset as she realizes she & Brendon are now in last place, but this time she stops herself from crying - seriously Rachel, good on you. Rachel & Dave head to Hohenschwangau castle, thinking it's the "Sleeping Beauty" castle. Nary & Jamie make the same mistake and both teams join a guided tour of the castle, impatiently wondering where Ludwig's bedroom is.

At the Fussen ice rink, Art & J.J. reach the next clue box: Roadblock! J.J. takes the task, which is to perform a game of Eisstockschieben, very much like curling; using a set of Travelocity roaming gnomes, they have to slide the gnomes down the ice and land in the centre of the bull's eye.

Rachel/Dave & Nary/Jamie finally figure out they're in the wrong castle and have to book it back to Neuschwanstein. However, Kerri/Stacy & Mark/Bopper both make the same mistake and head to Hohenschwangau, although they realize the error before entering the castle. This gives Brendon & Rachel an advantage as they move out of last place.

J.J. finally hits his bull's eye and receives he & Art's next clue: journey to the Landhannes Farm, site of the next Pit Stop! Danny takes the Roadblock for his team and finishes it quickly, just as Ralph arrives to do the Roadblock; Vanessa says "I'm mad at you, but I love you. How about that?" Ralph replies "I have a challenge to do right now." Wow. Did it get cold in here, or are they in an ice rink?

At the Pit Stop, Phil Keoghan waits within a stable of cattle. Art & J.J. arrive in first place for the third time in a row; Phil rewards them with a vacation to Thailand. Phil jokes they should withdraw from the Race to give other teams a chance; they reply they will, provided they can have the million dollars right now.

At the ice rink, Ralph finishes the Roadblock, just as Joey "Fitness"/Danny check in the Pit Stop at 2nd place. The other teams have all retrieved their clues from Neuschwanstein, but they all went on foot and Bopper is badly winded by the effort, saying he's near to having a heart attack. He and Mark are back in last place again, but resolve not to give up, although Mark thinks Bopper should stop "being a super hero" and go at his own pace.

At the ice rink, Nary begins the Roadblock, but despite being "great at targets," she's struggling; elsewhere, Vanessa & Ralph take 3rd place at the Pit Stop, their best performance thus far, but their in-fighting is taking a toll; they vow not to hold on to the arguments, but fear the next fight could finish them. Brendon and Dave's Rachel start the Roadblock. Dave is in great spirits as Rachel finishes quickly; Brendon & Rachel are close behind. Jamie is a little flustered to have seen two teams pass them. Kerri takes on the Roadblock while Mark takes it in lieu of Bopper because of Bopper's breathing troubles.

Rachel & Dave take 4th place and seem very happy with it. Brendon & Rachel arrive in 5th and Brendon does an accidental pratfall on the Pit Stop mat, sliding on his posterior. "Holy manure!" Rachel exclaims. Mark finishes the Roadblock quickly, but Kerri and Nary are struggling. Jamie is non-plussed to see so many teams passing them. Kerri finishes next, so four teams have beaten them now!

By now, Nary has flung nearly 200 gnomes, but she finally hits her bull's eye; she and Jamie hug, then head out to the Pit Stop, taking some solace in knowing Kerri & Stacy are bad at navigating. Sure enough, Kerri & Stacy receive directions, then quickly get lost and forget what they were told. As they try to correct their course, Bopper & Mark receive 6th place at the Pit Stop, proud to have overcome their last place finish and Speedbump task. Nary & Jamie prove to be sharp at navigating and arrive next in 7th place; Kerri & Stacy, sadly, arrive last and are eliminated. Stacy takes out a picture of her children as she talks about how she wanted to inspire them and hopes they're proud of her and "Aunt Kerri." They're proud to have done as well as they did; "We're still awesome." declares Stacy. It's a pity to see them go - they were completely correct when they declared they could compete against anyone on the Race, they just couldn't navigate... and since this wasn't a taxi cab leg, navigation done done them in. They were mostly very cool with each other and enjoyed running the Race.

We're now down to just seven teams!

  1. Art & J.J.: I'm enjoying these two, despite J.J.'s frequent crowing; he seems to be psyching himself and Art for victory, rather than simply boasting.
  2. Joey "Fitness" & Danny: This is their best finish thus far - I'm very surprised at how well they're playing. They're also one of the funniest teams on this season with a good sense of humour about the absurd tasks.
  3. Vanessa & Ralph: This was their best performance as well, yet you'd hardly know it with all of their in-fighting. Virtually every couple on the Race winds up feuding sooner or later, hopefully this isn't the start of a new pattern.
  4. Rachel & Dave: These two were on better terms this leg, with only a brief bit of snippy behaviour. They seemed to be in sync during the tasks, which is a major improvement on last leg. They may have fallen two spots this week, but they're more pleasing company.
  5. Brendon & Rachel: These two have also improved and Rachel even seems aware of how inappropriate her earlier behaviour was; if she's put a stop to the whining and sobbing, I don't mind them sticking around.
  6. Bopper & Mark: Ah, my favourite team claws back into the Race! I love to see how supportive they are to each other, how they joke their way through obstacles and how they seem to be enjoying every place they visit! Let's have some more players like these two, please!
  7. Nary & Jamie: I'm surprised at how they overtook Kerri & Stacy to the Pit Stop; outside of heading to the wrong castle, they didn't make poor decisions this leg, they just struggled at performance. I'd like to see these two stick out longer, especially as they're the only female/female team remaining.

Next week: the Amazing Race goes to Azerbaijan in the Near East! Right on! I'm always excited to see never-before visited locales on the show! Here's hoping next week's show is even better than this week's.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bitter Fruit#1: "the Shadow vs. the RXG Spymaster!!"

Welcome to the first installment of "Bitter Fruit," a new occasional feature where I'll be looking back at 1964's the Shadow, an Archie comic book based on the famous pulp/radio hero.

Archie's 1960s super hero revival is considered by many fans to be the worst super hero comics of the 1960s. And of these, Archie's 1964 version of the Shadow has been called the worst of the worst.

I've heard every surviving episode of the Shadow radio program, watched most of the motion pictures and read the 1970s DC comic book. However, I haven't read a single Shadow pulp story and I know the pulps did most of the work in establishing who he was and what he could do. As I journey through Archie's the Shadow, I'll be reading these comics for the first time as the blog posts are written. Perhaps I'll conclude Archie's Shadow is underrated; perhaps it's a camp classic waiting to be rediscovered; perhaps it's as bad as its reputation claims. Let's find out together! A misleading cover? Boy, I'm glad comics grew out of this behaviour.

The cover of the Shadow#1 depicts the Shadow in his traditional clothing, albeit lit so his garb appears green. This is the version of the Shadow I'm familiar with, so let's crack this puppy open! Jack the Ripper IS Quasimodo in the Phantom of Paris!

I won't be posting the entire issue, but I do think it's worthwhile to look at our title page: "the Shadow vs. the RXG Spymaster!!" It's 1961 and the Shadow is atop Notre Dame Cathedral with his enemy Khan (presumably Shiwan Khan, the villain in the Alec Baldwin Shadow movie - I understand he's from the pulps) closing in on him. The art isn't dynamic, but it's competent. 'I have bigger problems just now! The Devil has come for my soul!'

The Shadow's power is described as "ventriloquism" as he disorients Khan and his men by throwing his voice. He defeats Khan's henchmen, but Khan escapes with a smoke bomb. Strangely, the Shadow doesn't wear his hat or scarf in this encounter, exposing his face to Khan; when he goes back to being Lamont Cranston, he puts on glasses and takes off his cape. You call that a disguise? Practical joke in 3, 2, 1...

One year later, Lamont is in his New York City town house with Margo Lane, a familiar face from virtually every version of the Shadow. Lamont's mail includes a letter from "the Society for the Preservation of American Bald Eagles" bearing an upside-down stamp; placing the letter in a special solution, Lamont exposes a secret message on the stamp: "Tuesday... noon! Feed pigeons in Bryant Park, behind New York Public Library!" Lamont says this is a message from Weston (Weston? Commissioner Weston, the police official from the radio?). 'Which is why I borrow against my death for compound interest!'

We quickly learn Lamont's home is protected with closed circuit cameras, which he uses to contact his chauffeur. Margo is worried about Lamont, but he reminds her he and Harry (who? the chauffeur?) are agents in the US Secret Service assisting the FBI, CIA & NATO and Weston is his CIA liaison. It seems in this version of the Shadow, Lamont is the world's most famous secret agent. The Shadow meets James Bond? It's not the worst idea. Anyway, Margo worries a single stray bullet could kill Lamont, but he claims he's "immune to peril!" In this version, Margo doesn't know Lamont is the Shadow, so I suppose his claims of being invulnerable leave her searching for a good psychiatrist. 'Or his sister, Hiwan Khan?'

Lamont leaves his town house in a Rolls Royce driven by Shrevy (the chauffeur from before), who's been a taxi driver in every version of the Shadow I know. After arranging for Shrevy to return later, Lamont is followed on foot to the library by two men in gray suits... say, Khan and his men wore gray suits. Lamont joins Weston on a park bench and they discuss Shiwan Khan, whom Lamont identifies as leader of "the world's most effective spy-for-hire organization!" He's also descended from Genghis Khan, as you might expect. Weston says Khan has been hired to steal plans for the RXG experimental plane for "an Iron Curtain country." The plans are in three sets and Weston gives their locations to Lamont. And Steve McQueen is riding shotgun!

Lamont returns to his Rolls Royce, but Shrevy has been replaced by one of Khan's agents, who plans to seal Lamont within the back seat then flood it with gas! However, the car has a dual set of controls in the back seat and Lamont activates them, releasing a second steering wheel. He also sends an electric current through the front seat, stunning the driver unconscious. Lamont backseat drives to his town house and gets out of the Rolls Royce using an emergency release door. Removing his glasses and donning his cape, he becomes the Shadow! Wow, I make a terrific racket in shadows, always tripping over them.

We now begin part two of the story: "the Shadow's Doom!" Through a monitor in the garage, the Shadow sees Margo is being held by Khan and his men elsewhere in the town house. Khan's men enter the darkened garage, only for the Shadow to shoot out the garage monitor so Khan can't see them, then shoot their guns from the agents' hands and finally defeat them using karate. The Shadow opens a secret passage to his office, following a rope ladder which descends from the ceiling. Climbing to the top, he shuts off the lights in the office, grabs Khan's last agent and throws him back down the passage. And the bannister is the Mannister!

Shiwan Khan recognizes Lamont's voice in the dark, which raises some questions about the purpose of the Shadow. Khan holds a gun to Margo so he can escape the office; he tells the Shadow another of his men is going to kill Weston. As Khan backs down the town house staircase, the Shadow throws a switch which turns the stairs into a ramp; as Khan & Margo fall, the Shadow changes back into Lamont Cranston to protect his identity. Um, he's not going to check and see if Margo broke her neck in the fall? Or that Khan's gun didn't go off in Margo's back when they slipped? I agree, there's nothing legendary about THIS Shadow.

Khan exits the town house, vowing to settle accounts. After he leaves (for those keeping score, this is the second time Lamont has let Khan escape), Margo tells Lamont "they got Charley." Um, who's Charley? I still don't know who Harry is (is Shrevy's first name Charley? or Harry?)! Margo has also heard Khan reveal where he's hiding out. Lamont goes to his laboratory to contact Weston using a giant switchboard. By the time Lamont sends a radio message to warn Weston, Weston has already defeated Khan's agent. Lamont Cranson: master of timing! Lamont and Weston meet up near the George Washington Bridge and Lamont reveals Khan is staying at "Moody's Madness," an old ruined castle north of "Tarrytown." Weston wants to bring in the CIA, but Lamont says he's called in the Shadow to round up the mob. Weston is surprised, thinking the Shadow is "just a legend." Lamont stammers out a quick explanation, saying the Shadow takes assignments which are too dangerous for him. So, Lamont drives off alone to face Shiwan Khan. Not suspicious at all. I'm be-paying $8 for this?

At the castle, one of Khan's men reports seeing "a shadow, creeping over the wall into the courtyard!" They activate infra-red searchlights, even as the Shadow's laugh emerges from the darkness; Khan recognizes the laugh, having heard it "once before." Come to think of it, the Shadow didn't use his laugh in the opening sequence, so I guess Khan heard the laugh prior to the fight atop Notre Dame. Khan's infra-red lights don't seem to assist them - they wind up shooting down a scarecrow wearing the Shadow's cape. The real Shadow appears and uses hypnotism on Khan and his men, "be-clouding" their memories of Cranston & Weston's operations. To be-cloud or not to be-cloud?

When Weston arrives at the castle, he's met by Lamont, who shows him the inert Khan and his agents. Lamont explains the Shadow has "the power to be-cloud men's minds, a trick he learned in the Orient!" Wait, "be-cloud?" Weston doesn't find anything suspicious about this, instead suggesting the Shadow should do the same thing to the five men they've already caught. Weeks later, Weston & Cranston watch as the RXG goes on its test flight.

We've essentially got a reimagined version of the Shadow here - he's fighting Shiwan Khan for the first time, Weston doesn't know the Shadow, neither Shrevy nor Margo know who the Shadow is, and so forth. However, the series doesn't bother to explain who the Shadow is to the audience either, serving up a very different version of a potentially familiar character, but joining him in media res. And why is set in 1962, rather than present-day 1964?

I wonder if this comic was originally conceived of as a James Bond-esque super-spy comic, only to be reworked into a Shadow comic. The Shadow only wears his hat on the cover and seeing him represented as a fair-haired blond in a blue suit doesn't match any visual I ever entertained in my mind! Also, wouldn't an agent of the Secret Service be most concerned with President Kennedy's well-being, not going on missions with the FBI, CIA & NATO to protect secret plans?

The entire plot about the experimental plane is a wash; it's Chekov's gun, people - don't introduce the idea that the secret plans are in three hidden locations if we're never going to learn where those locations are. A better story would have raised the stakes by allowing Khan to obtain the list of locations, forcing Lamont to race against time to stop the theft. Instead we have Khan simply wandering away from Lamont's town house while our hero puts his glasses on - this does not communicate urgency! Khan is never allowed to be a competent villain because Lamont has a gadget (or scarecrow) ready for every contingency; even Khan's infra-red lights are worthless, with no explanation provided for how Cranston avoided them.

The Shadow/Lamont identity is pretty absurd here; Lamont is already known to be a secret agent by all of his enemies - why keep the Shadow as a separate identity? How is it Shiwan Khan can recognize Lamont's voice in the dark at one point, then recognize the Shadow's later yet not put two-and-two together? There no indication that Lamont's "Shadow" voice is different. And how could Weston possibly buy Lamont's lame explanation for involving the Shadow, then hear Lamont explain the Shadow's powers and origin without raising his suspicions? In the radio program, Lamont simply avoided talking about the Shadow around Weston and the Shadow communicated with Weston on his own behalf.

The Shadow's powers are barely explained; he has ventriloquism and he can "be-cloud" men's minds with hypnosis. He hides in the shadows, but it doesn't seem to be a supernatural power, he's just quite good at concealing his baby blue suit in the darkness.

According to the Grand Comics Database, this story was written by Robert Bernstein and drawn by John Rosenberger. I'm not familiar with Rosenberger, but Bernstein wrote a few early Marvel super hero comics in the 60s. The cover, by far my favourite thing so far, was drawn by Paul Reinman, a genuinely fine talent who'd been in comics since the 40s; he's best-remembered now as one of Jack Kirby's inkers in the 60s, but he was a great penciler in his own right.

There's a second story in this issue, but I'll cover it in the next installment of "Bitter Fruit." Anyway, we won't reach the supposedly very-awful stories until the Shadow#2, when we abruptly switch from super-spy to super-hero. Be there, or be-clouded!

...Say, who are Harry and Charley, anyway?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: G.I. Joe - A Real American Hero! Annual#1

Oh, for goodness sake... I'm a grown man! A grown man about to start talking about a comic book based on an old action figure! And yet, is G.I. Joe necessarily more shameful than the super hero genre? Nostalgia, continuity, aging fanbase... no, probably not.

I did play with G.I. Joe toys in my youth. Although I grew out of them, my fascination with Marvel's G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero! persisted, thanks to the strong writing by Larry Hama, who seems to have done more for the franchise than any other individual. Hama draws from his own military career to give the outrageous world of G.I. Joe some plausbility; at the same time, he has a wild sense of humour which allowed him to embrace some of the more ridiculous aspects of the franchise and offer commentary on the world around him. A couple of years ago, IDW revived the series with Hama as its author, picking up directly from where the Marvel continuity ended 15 years earlier. Just he once commented on Reagan & Bush's USA, now Hama lives in Obama's USA; which brings us to G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero! Annual#1...

Our antagonist for this self-contained story is Ted Bergendorf, a Crimson Guardsman, one of Cobra's undercover operatives. After losing his day job at a factory because of the depressed economy, he becomes infuriated, laying the blame on immigrants (and Washington DC, of course). Pulling out his Cobra-issued credit card, he buys up some explosives then calls in his local Cobra buddies, declaring they'll launch their own unapproved terrorist attack! Cobra isn't pleased to have lost control over their agents (Cobra Commander is famously a terrorist who made his fortune through pyramid schemes - he hates being taken advantage of!), so Zartan and his Dreadnoks are sent to silence the rogue Guardsmen. Similarly, Scarlett, Gung-Ho, Mutt & Junkyard have been monitoring the situation and settle in to help stop the attack.

Art comes by way of some Marvel Comics veterans: Ron Frenz, Ron Wagner, Herb Trimpe and inker Sal Buscema. Frenz draws mainly the Crimson Guardsmen pages, while Wagner & Trimpe deal with most of the other pages, so the different styles are used to some advantage. Wagner & Trimpe have contributed to IDW's G.I. Joe before, but it feels a little odd to see Frenz & Buscema here; even though both men have worked for multiple publishers, they both honed their talents at Marvel, developing the "Marvel look." But with no monthly assignments now that their Spider-Girl is cancelled, they're back on the marketplace. If you've spent your whole career excelling at being a "Marvel look" artist, how do you find non-Marvel assignments? I suppose an ex-Marvel property like G.I. Joe is a pretty good place to start! There is one page where Mutt's mustache mysteriously vanishes, but otherwise it's a solid package; I love Frenz's take on the bulky Ted Bergendorf, who looks really off-model next to the typical Cobra troopers.

The climax takes place at an amusement park, the scene of the Crimson Guardsmen's attack; this leads to a familiar trope from Hama's stories where the Cobras and Joes wind up fighting in a public place where onlookers doubt the reality of what they're seeing (here, they assume the Cobras and Joes are performers, something the Crimson Guardsmen were actually banking on). It's both humourous and pathetic - Bergendorf's great plan is to destroy a small-scale mock-up of Ellis Island; even if he succeeded, that's not the same as destroying an actual US landmark!

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero! Annual#1 runs only 40 pages of story (about double a normal issue's size), yet costs $7.99 (double a normal issue's cost). Part of the cost is probably due to the "prestige" package - a heavy cardstock cover and thick spine instead of stapled binding. It's a lot to ask for a such a small package and I did consider leaving this annual on the shelf... but seeing a Tea Party-esque take on Cobra with Ron Frenz art sealed the deal!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review: the Original Johnson volume one

As I mentioned in my review of African-American Classics, Trevor Von Eeden's biography mentioned he'd created a graphic novel about Jack Johnson, the first African-American to win boxing's heavyweight champion title. I was instantly fascinated to learn of 2009's the Original Johnson, which tells Johnson's life over the span of two volumes. I have a passing familiarity and interest in Johnson, having seen Ken Burns' 2004 documentary Unbearable Blackness.

The Original Johnson (yes, the book's title is a double entendre) volume one was the only half available at my local comic shop, but I hope to obtain volume two in the near future. Most of the text is spent detailing Johnson's early years, which, since Burns' movie skipped over that part of his life quickly, is mostly new information to me. However, by the end of the volume, Johnson's boxing career is only just on the rise, meaning the second volume must cover his entire quest for the heavyweight title, his retirement from boxing, his ultimately tragic return to boxing and loss of his title, then his death. At this pace, I think the story needs at least four volumes, not two!

The novel contains a few sex scenes, emphasizing how Johnson's unashamed virility - and frequent white female partners - would eventually earn him a lot of enemies (amongst both whites and blacks). I feel the sex scenes are more graphic than they have to be - this book should be on the shelves of high schools, but the graphic sex will restrict its distribution.

Von Eeden's art shifts in style during the book; in many scenes, his art is smooth and ground like Brent Anderson, but delves into dream sequences with brush-like strokes evocative of Gene Colan. The dream scenes also enable Von Eeden to break from reality and let his imagination take flight, as in a scene where Johnson dons golden armour, strikes down white men and takes their women.

Strangely, the narrative approaches Johnson's life in non-linear fashion, travelling back and forth within his own life and flashing back to the struggles of African-Americans in the days of slavery. For me, it interrupted the momentum of Johnson's life - it feels as though the story halts and starts over again about three times. However, overall it's a pretty satisfying volume, thanks to Von Eeden's outstanding layouts and I will add the second tome to my collection eventually.