Monday, August 26, 2013

Amazing Mysteries of Suspense!

In a well-circulated anecdote about EC Comics in the 1950s, we learned how they once swiped a plot from Ray Bradbury for their comic, only for Bradbury to confront them. Rather than suing the company, Bradbury opened the door to official adaptations, resulting in many EC titles advertising Bradbury's involvement on their front covers.

As I've learned more about the horror comics published by Atlas (aka Timely or Marvel Comics) during the same era, I've found plagiarism ran rampant in those days; to judge by the sheer number of rip-offs I've seen, it's little wonder EC thought they could get away with an uncredited Bradbury adaptation - everyone else was! Atlas swiped Bradbury's "the Small Assassin" on at least two occasions. If you know your short fiction of the era pretty well then you can easily recognize the stories which hijacked the likes of Nelson S. Bond's "Conqueror's Isle" or Carl Stephenson's "Leiningen Versus the Ants."

However, given the sheer number of pulps, magazines and anthologies being published in the first half of the 20th century, there are scores upon scores which simply vanished into the ether; heck, even authors who are remembered to this day (such as F. Scott Fitzgerald) haven't kept all of their short fiction in-print. "The Small Assassin" remains a popular tale, which makes the rip-offs easy to spot. Regardless, there are times when I ponder over Atlas' horror books and wonder... just how many of these stories were pilfered from tales I have never heard of?

Atlas began their run of horror comics in 1949 with three titles: Amazing Mysteries, Marvel Tales and Suspense; others would follow. At the time, the boom markets were in westerns, romance books and crime comics. These first three horror titles have much in common with the crime comics - in fact, after just two issues of horror, Amazing Mysteries switched formats to crime. Like Atlas' crime books, many of these early tales had an obsession with setting the time and place (month and year are almost always established on the opening page). Several tales contain framing devices wherein a narrator relates the supernatural proceedings to his audience, often needlessly. For instance, Marvel Tales#97 contains the tale "The World That Vanished" in which a man journeys to a hidden valley in China to discover a secret library with the complete history of Atlantis, but is told he can never leave the valley; the man reads the histories and then the real story begins as he learns how Atlantis was destroyed. There was a definite lack of economy in how the stories were being told, but horror comics were something new for Atlas - and comic book makers in general. It would take time for EC Comics' beloved "O. Henry-style twist" to become the norm.

And now, just like a poorly-conceived 1950 Atlas comic, the real point of this post: in 1949's Amazing Mysteries#32, there's a story called "With Intent to Kill!" in which a man murders his girlfriend, believing she's unfaithful; the surprise ending reveals she was dead of a disease hours before he shot her. Reading this tale, I was stunned to realize it was a familiar piece, but the revelation it was a rip-off just lead to more questions! "With Intent to Kill!" is a complete theft of Elliott Lewis' Suspense episode "Can't We Be Friends?" (which you can hear here). Lewis' story was broadcast July 25, 1946, three years before the uncredited comic book.

My lingering query: how did the adapter select Lewis' Suspense play?

As noted above, 1949 was the year Atlas began their Suspense series (7 months after this issue of Amazing Mysteries). Although the series' connection to the CBS radio program was tenuous at best, they proudly advertised the radio (and TV) show on their covers up to 1951; it probably helped Atlas' circulation as Suspense was an extremely popular show in its time. The first few issues of Suspense did adapt some familiar scripts from the radio Suspense... but for some reason these adaptations all dated back to 1942 when the radio program began its run under the (tepid) guidance of John Dickson Carr; the early issues of Suspense struggled with Carr's over-expository convoluted scripts and the comic book was certainly better for it to have ditched the 1942 clunkers in favour of their own material.

Looking at "With Intent to Kill!," Suspense the comic book would have been better off to have adapted stories from later in the radio series run (basically anything from William Spier's involvement onward). It still wouldn't have made Suspense a proper horror comic book - because Suspense was not a horror radio program - but the program's later system of employing (usually) first person narration would have been a better fit for comics than Carr's drawing room drudgery.

Although certain radio shows would be rebroadcast from time to time - such as Suspense's own "Sorry, Wrong Number" - in 1949 it would have been difficult to obtain a copy of a 1946 broadcast. Is it possible the creator(s) of "With Intent to Kill!" had excellent memories of "Can't We Be Friends?" Or had the initial arrangements to create a Suspense comic book at Atlas enabled them access to the original script? Did the creator(s) have a personal copy of Lewis' script or a transcription of the broadcast? Or could the identical plots just be a fantastic coincidence?

I have no solution to the problem I've described. I'm afraid I shall have to keep you in...


Friday, August 23, 2013

Homepage updates

I'm pleased to announce that - after apparently 3 years - I've updated my website. It remains an old, out-of-date format, but I can't bear to let it go.

The site's primary function is to serve as an index of 1950s Atlas titles, divided by genre into western, war, crime, romance and "horror" (a catch-all for horror, science fiction and fantasy). Further, it was first designed (circa 2000) to identify the original sources of western & horror comics Marvel reprinted in the 60s & 70s. Back when the page was new, even the Grand Comics Database had a lot of gaps where reprints were concerned.

This update reflects three years worth of culling from various sources to make the pages as near-complete as they'll get. Of all the horror & western reprints, I believe I've written up plot summaries for about 95% of them. I might never get around to the last 5%, but we'll see. There have also been many errors over the years, but I've done my best to double-check my work. These days there are many other fine sources for information (like Atlas Tales) out there, so what was once fertile ground is now well-tended; the site exists mainly for my own interest and probably not for many others. Still, the plot summaries might be of interest to some.

If you get some value out the site - thank you very much; I'm always open to criticism and compliments.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: Sergio Aragones Funnies#8

At some point last year I assumed Sergio Aragones Funnies had been quietly cancelled. It's often difficult to know what the present status of a non-"Big Two" comic book series; for a time, I assumed I'd missed an issue and kept checking at shops and online to see where issue #8 was - to no avail.

Issue#8 arrived a full 14 months after #7 and opens with an explanation of Sergio's absence: he'd undergone major back surgery. Although he states (above) he can't "put in fourteen-hour days" any more (seriously? 14 hour work days? we should all have his work ethic), he'll continue to work on his own book, Funnies, plus Groo, Mad and Simpsons. Funnies will now be a bi-monthly book. Somehow, even when he's slowing down his pace, Sergio still finds a way to make 90% of comics pros seem lazy by comparison.

As is typical for Funnies, issue#8 includes a variety of features written/drawn by Sergio; there are one-page gag strips (just like his Mad material), puzzle pages (just in case kids are reading?) and a short humourous story; in this issue, Sergio tells a western story: "the Bank Robbers." This tale concerns two robbers who experience many pitfalls in their attempts to make money through outright theft; eventually, they invest their meager fortunes in a bank of their own and quickly discover the best way to steal money is to do it honestly! I was reminded of a line from the movie the Long Riders (1980) where Frank James (Stacy Keach) muses how his preferred occupation was farming - after "banking" (by which he meant, "bank robbing"). Sergio;s "the Bank Robbers" is clearly a reaction to the recent economic meltdown - crafting its own scenario where thieves escape punishment through the veneer of "respectability."

My main reason for supporting Funnies is to get at Sergio's back-up features where he relates interesting anecdotes from his life history. This issue, it's "the Mexican Trip," a story about how Sergio was placed in charge of the Mad magazine creators' annual vacation. Not being much of a Mad fan and fairly unfamiliar with many of Mad's personalities, I wouldn't have imagined I would be too interested in seeing Sergio's "vacation slides" (as it were), but "the Mexican Trip" is successful. As Sergio prepares for his friends' arrival in Mexico, we see him make several unusual arrangements, but their meaning is unclear; as the story develops, we discover Sergio prepared a variety of practical jokes to greet his friends. Each joke is set up in the opening when Sergio makes the arrangements, but Sergio doesn't inform the readers of his intentions until the jokes unfold.

I would be pleased to keep following Sergio Aragones Funnies even if the schedule slipped to annual publication; I choose to accept bi-monthly as the gift which it is.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: Supermag

I have a lot of time for Jim Rugg - his Street Angel was one of the first independent comic books I collected. Recently, Adhouse Books has released Supermag, a magazine-sized 58-page collection of various drawings, strips, stories and (seeming) excerpts of Rugg's work. What did I think of it?

It is definitely a mixed bag. For most of the book, it reads like someone's tumblr account set to print. A page of story here, a pin-up there, etc. There are appearances by a few of Rugg's familiar characters (Bald Eagle of Street Angel and Afrodisiac of Afrodisiac). There are some short strips such as "USApe," whose adventures are told in the style of a 1980s action movie (similar to how Afrodisiac is everything 70s). It's only in the latter half of the book that some stories are permitted the space to be told in full.

It's in the latter half that I finally warmed up to the book; one of the longest features - "Captain Kidd" - I'd read before when it was published in Image's Next Issue Project#1, but as it was the easily the best entry in that comic, I don't mind seeing it printed again (likely in a place more of Rugg's fans will see it). There's also a charming "Duke Armstrong: the World's Mightiest Golfer" story which relates the saga of a very good golfer defending England from the Nazis.

At $10, it's an expensive luxury; if you're a very devoted Jim Rugg fan who doesn't mind paying for a few items twice (and with colour!), it's worth checking out; otherwise... well, I can't imagine you'd give this book a second glance.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: Rifftrax Live - Starship Troopers

I didn't follow the program Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its original television run, but fortunately I began obsessing with the show around the same time MST's Mike Nelson started up Rifftrax; I believe my first download was Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace. Much like MST, Rifftrax features comedians making quips about a movie as you watch it; on MST, the films were simply bad, easily-obtainable flicks with the silhouettes of the three riffers laid over part of the screen. In Rifftrax, the films run the gamut from the classics, the popular and the well-received to films which are infamously terrible, but instead of seeing the riffers' silhouettes, you have only an MP3 audio file which you synch to your copy of the film (often imperfectly).

I was happy to support Rifftrax's Kickstarter, in which they attempted to obtain the rights to riff the movie Twilight live in theaters across North America. Although the Kickstarter was a success, Twilight's owners were leery of accepting good money for bad press. Enter Sony, who happily offered 1997's Starship Troopers as a consolation prize.

Although there have been many live Rifftrax shows in the past, this is the first to broadcast into Canadian theaters; I found two good friends to accompany me and as the event went on just one day after my birthday, I was pretty stoked; how did the night turn out?

For starters, the theater screwed up somehow by playing the show on the wrong screen; the patrons who had expected to see Red 2 had to be evacuated from the theater (sounds painful). Those of us who were in the right screening room had to relocate to the mixed-up screen and the film started up about 40 minutes later than it should have. Thus, I didn't actually see the show live, but because they started the live stream from the beginning I didn't miss anything. We all received coupons for a free Cineplex show by way of apology (I don't know what the Red 2 customers received; a copy of Your Movie Sucks?)

The greater problem was with the actual presentation of the show; as I've seen others complain on the internet, the sound mix between the three riffers (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy & Bill Corbett) did not mesh with Starship Troopers whenever the film's action scenes began (and the movie has a lot of action scenes). Something should have been done to adjust the audio, to at least lower the volume of the movie whenever the riffers began speaking. Some of the quips were completely inaudible.

The film was usually presented on screen as you would normally view it, but on occasions 1/3rd of the screen would project the Rifftrax crew at their microphones; occasionally the view would change to show the full stage where the performance was being made; there were also two instances (both of the film's nude scenes) where Kevin organized "gorilla grams" to distract the audience (and cameraman) from the on-screen nudity; the gorillas exited the theater at about the same time as the bare flesh. It reminds one of the MST episode ("City Limits") where Joel Hodgson suddenly opened an umbrella, "coincidentally" covering up the on-screen nudity.

Otherwise, it was a typically funny Rifftrax offering. Given the MST/Rifftrax folks have expressed how difficult it is to make funny of a comedy (even a bad comedy) because their jokes are in competition with the jokes on-screen, I was very impressed at how well the riffs worked with Starship Troopers; although Troopers is a satire, the straight-faced performances by the actors left plenty of room for riffing; the intended satire sat perfectly alongside the riffers' mockery; no one who actually enjoys Starship Troopers would be ashamed by the production.

Some of the best jokes came at the expense of Denise Richards (portraying "Carmen Ibanez" in the film; all quotes from my faulty memory):

Carmen (buzzing a ship near the moon): "I'm flying that tomorrow."
Riffers: "Honey, no, that's the moon."
"You're going to be the worst Bond girl. Like, ever. Seriously, your name is 'Christmas Jones!'"
(Carmen makes a blank smile) "Gah! It's the Smile-a-tron 4000!"
Character (to Carmen): "What will you be doing?"
Riffers (as Carmen): "Oh, Matt Dillon and Neve Campbell."
"Even I get the Nazi thing and I'm Denise Richards!"
(Carmen is flying recklessly) "Wheee! I'm John Solo!"

Of course, there were many, many others:

Rico: "Someone asked me once if I knew the difference between a civilian and a citizen. I know now."
Riffers (as Rico): "Spelling."
Rico: "Welcome to the Roughnecks."
Sugar: "Rico's Roughnecks!"
Riffers (as Rico): "Seriously? 'Cause I kinda suck."
(Rasczak enters wearing his artificial arm) "I love the Power Glove. It's so bad.
(Zander first sees Carmen) "Hi! I'm discount Rob Lowe!"
Rasczak: "I need a corporal. You're it until you're dead or I find someone better."
Mike Nelson: "Just like my wedding vows!"
"Quit playing Wing Commander on your 386 and get back to flying the ship!"
Rico: "Carmen!"
Riffers: "San Diego! Where in the world were you?"

If more Rifftrax live shows find their way into Canada, I may well wind up attending!



Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The virtues of typecasting

One of the most pleasant aspects of watching older movies is taking notice of the stock actors who make up the background; sometimes a bit actor could ascend to greater things (ie, Boris Karloff & Humphrey Bogart), but many of them toiled on in similar parts from one film to another. My personal favourite company of stock actors are the Warner players of the 1930s; you can always count on Frank McHugh to be a loudmouthed, skirt-chasing comedic bumbler; Hugh Herbert will be a man of upper class pretensions constantly undone by his nervous habits and foibles; Alan Hale will be a big, brawny, jolly fellow; and Allen Jenkins will be a thick-headed subordinate.

Moreover, some actors weren't simply typecast in particular kinds of roles... but would become typecast by a certain role. Witness one Charles Middleton, a character actor who demonstrated a particular flair for portraying world leaders. Just as Bobby Watson would later play Adolf Hitler nine times, Charles Middleton found himself cast again and again as...

...Abraham Lincoln (left, from 1934's the Road is Open). Apparently just as you would imagine a casting director might say, "I need a comedic Irish maid - quick, get me Una O'Connor!" you might also hear, "This film needs Abraham Lincoln - get me Charles Middleton!"

And yet, for the 1940 feature film Virginia City, Middleton was to suffer a strange fate indeed; therein, he was cast in the part of...

...Jefferson Davis? Yes, the film business was one of cruel ironies. Middleton had won the larger role of Confederate President Davis, but at the price of his signature part, Abraham Lincoln, which instead went to actor Victor Kilian. If only the director had cast Middleton in both roles! Then the US Civil War would have truly been waged brother against brother (or self against self).

If I may be serious for a moment... there is still one other world leader Middleton portrayed who must be mentioned, for it was the largest role of Middleton's career - the part for which he is remembered to this day, a performance which would influence that of succeeding actors down through the decades. I speak, of course, of...

...Ming the Merciless in the 1936, 1938 & 1940 Flash Gordon film serials. Proving once again that just because you've spent a lot of time rendering performances of the most deified US President of them all is no reason not to portray the Lucifer of outer space!

Monday, August 12, 2013

The language of comic books

Comic books are closely related to the comic strip medium, but are also frequently compared to film and television media - and not just because film and TV sometimes employ animation. Yes, comic books are a unique form of art with a particular storytelling language all their own; therefore, it's no surprise to see...

1957: Comic books want to be novels.

1964: Comic books want to be motion pictures.

1997: Comic books want to be home videos.

2003: Comic books still want to be motion pictures.

2004: Comic books want to be television programs.

2007: Comic books want to be television programs.

2008: Comic books still want to be television programs.

Some of this (admitted) rimshot came about from comic book creators packaging their content with the language of other media in the hopes of enticing fans of such media to sample their wares. However, it betrays a lack of confidence in the media of comic books themselves; comic books were an inferior media form in the 1930s and spent decades building up the cache needed to be accepted as a legitimate art (infamously, the Library of Congress once refused to catalog comic books; today, they house 100,000+ samples). However, the inferiority complex still needs to be lived down; expect to see more examples like the above as the industry's therapy continues.