Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Series Well-Calculated to Keep You In...

In an earlier post (found here), I briefly discussed how CBS' great radio program Suspense was transformed into a 1949 comic book series published by the entity we would now call Marvel Comics (back then, a shell company known by many names). As I indicated in the earlier post, early issues of the series adapted episodes of Suspense from early in the series' run, back when the program was primarily written by John Dickson Carr. As a fan of comic books and a fan of old-time radio, I thought I'd try to bridge the gap between these two genres and discuss how the two came together. There's just one problem: I'm not a fan of John Dickson Carr.

After a pilot broadcast in 1940, Suspense finally became a series in 1942. Through the end of 1943, many of the series' scripts were either written or adapted by British author John Dickson Carr; some of the material was adapted from Carr's fiction, including radio scripts he'd written for BBC dramas. Although Carr's last episode of Suspense came in January, 1944, some of his scripts would be recycled over the years - as late as 1959 (Suspense ceased broadcasting in 1962).

By the time the Suspense comic book arrived in 1949, a Suspense mystery magazine had already come and gone (lasting four issues). Strangely, while that earlier publication drew from certain popular Suspense scripts of recent years, Suspense's comic book drew almost no content from the radio show - and what content they did, came from John Dickson Carr's scripts. Only the first two issues of Suspense featured photo covers - and likewise, only these issues contained actual Suspense scripts.

Let's list the adapted stories in order:

Suspense#1: "The Graveyard Ghouls" by Matt Baker.

Adapted from John Dickson Carr's Suspense episode "the Body Snatchers" (November 24, 1942).

Suspense#1: "The Bride Vanishes"

Adapted from John Dickson Carr's Suspense episode "the Bride Vanishes" (December 1, 1942).

Suspense#1: "Here Comes the Hangman!"

Adapted from John Dickson Carr's Suspense episode "The Hangman Won't Wait" (February 9, 1943), but the episode itself is lost to time. Carr later adapted it again for the BBC series Appointment With Fear as "the Clock Strikes Eight."

Suspense#2: "I Bet With Death!" by Gene Colan.

Adapted from John Dickson Carr's Suspense episode "Will You Make a Bet With Death?" (November 10, 1942).

Suspense#2: "The Man Who Lived Again!"

Adapted from John Dickson Carr's Suspense episode "Mr. Markham, Antique Dealer" (May 11, 1943).

As I outlined in my earlier blog post, it's odd that the comic book only drew material from the early years of the program - and only from Carr's scripts at that! Perhaps it was part of a package deal when the contract was made between CBS & Marvel - they got the Suspense name and Carr's scripts, but nothing else. Did Carr even receive payment for his stories being adapted in the comic (unlikely as they appeared without credit and publisher Martin Goodman was a notorious skinflint). Perhaps the original intent was to adapt episodes from the early years of the show and gradually work up to more recent stories, but the plan was abandoned to save money on soliciting material from CBS.

Again, as I stated before, I think John Dickson Carr has to be one of the worst authors you could hope to adapt to the comic book medium, especially in the 8-page format (although "I Bet With Death" ran 11 pages). Carr's stories are extremely convoluted - he seemed to place a lot of emphasis on subverting the expectations of mystery fans, matching wits with them. He really belonged in prose (his true career) rather than radio or comics, because his stories are full of red herrings and characters jumping to far-fetched conclusions just to distract his audience from the real solution. Inevitably, his stories would end with a drawn-out explanation of what we'd just witnessed - for instance in "the Body Snatchers," it's that the supposed dead woman isn't dead (which is even more abrupt and head-scratching in the comic book version than on radio); in the radio version of "the Bride Vanishes," the solution to the women vanishing from a balcony is a cowboy who's been roping victims with his lariat - for some reason, the comic changes this to an insane countess who can wield a whip, causing the finale to play out with even more belaboured explanations (as the cowboy is still present and thus is a red herring requiring more explanation). "Will You Make a Bet With Death?" is the one Carr story amongst this batch which I think actually works well on radio and in comics - it definitely helps that it runs to 11 pages, granting it the space to let the story unfold.

Given the years I've spent on my hobby of Marvel Comics and Suspense combining the two should have been just about the greatest thing ever printed; instead, the comic book version of Suspense didn't come into its own until it dropped its connection to CBS, instead becoming a horror comic no different than any of its companion mags on the rack. Ah, for what might have been...


Mike Cheyne said...

I'm listening all the way through Suspense right now (about at the tail end of the Roma Wines run)...I share your thoughts on the Carr episodes. They're incredibly verbose and while Carr usually concocts a fine premise and scenario as well as an ingenious "now what's the solution?", that's all the episodes have. The characters are usually ciphers (frequently the stereotypical Bright Young Man and his wife/girlfriend), a lot of times the twist isn't fair or is nonsensical, and they always close with an insanely long speech summing up what happened. I do think that Carr was capable of good stuff, like Cabin B-13, which has all the Carr trademarks but actually improves things (the lead is sympathetic and the twist plays fair).

Michael Hoskin said...

I'll drink (a delicious glass of Roma Burgandy) to that!

Frequently too, the Bright Young Man is either a terrible sleuth who is then corrected by the Wise Old Detective or he's the killer, unmasked by the Wise Old Detective. But you're right, Cabin B-13 is one of Carr's best - probably the most well-regarded of all Carr's scripts.

Suspense to me is at its best during the William Spier years; I doubt that's a contentious opinion among Suspense fans!