Friday, April 25, 2014

"There is a world within the cool shadows." The Thirty-First of February

Earlier I looked back at sci-fi/fantasy author Nelson S. Bond's Mr. Mergenthwirker's Lobblies and the Far Side of Nowhere. Completing my look at Bond (for now), I recently finished reading his second short story collection, the Thirty-First of February (1949), published in softcover by Gnome Press; the stories collected date from 1938-1946.

Cover obtained via ISFDB

As before, these stories usually have a humourous bend and delve into light fantasy; it's gentle fiction and quite enjoyable.

"The Sportsman": I don't think this story can truly be called fantasy - it concerns a crippled hunter who befriends the able-bodied hunters at his club and how his presence enriches their lives. It's a sedate, sentimental story.

"The Mask of Medusa": I first heard this tale adapted on the radio program Mystery in the Air with Peter Lorre (go hear it at via this link). This story concerns a waxworks whose owner turns real people into displays. How does he do it? Say, have you ever seen the Medusa's head before...? It's interesting to discover the original text is quite brief - the radio version padded it out considerably, but both are good stories.

"My Nephew Norvell": An average mechanic meets his great-grandnephew from the future who's come back to get first-hand information for a biography he's writing. And yet, the mechanic couldn't possibly create the inventions his "nephew" credits him with, so he attempts to fashion by a paradox by suggesting his nephew simply give him the schematics!

"The Ring": A mystical ring grants its bearer dominion over others but carries with it a terrible doom; it's been worn by many men over the ages and as this story is set in Weimar Republic Germany... you can guess who it's owner turns out to be.

"The Gripes of Wraith": Beyond the very cute title lies a cute story about a drinker whose new drinking buddy is a ghost; he concocts a plan to get his good buddy out of eternal purgatory.

"The Cunning of the Beast": A dull story which tells the story of the Garden of Eden through the lens of science fiction. The parallels are so instantly obvious and it goes on for so long that, no, you can't redeem your story by revealing the "beasts" were named Adam & Eve - you have to either do a better job of distracting the reader from recognizing the parallels or insert a very clever dodge from the reader's expectations.

"The Five Lives of Robert Jordan": A somewhat Rod Serling-ish tale; Robert Jordan purchases a most unusual timepiece and finds his life jetting off into five different directions as he becomes different men, but pretty soon the five of us are... er, five of them are dying.

"Take My Drum to England...": During the retreat of Dunkirk, Sir Francis Drake helps spare the crew of a boat; sorry to ruin the twist ending for you, but it ain't one of Bond's best.

"Saint Mulligan": A humourous story about a police officer who helps out an angel; the angel insists on rewarding Mulligan and upon learning the cop wants a promotion, misunderstands this and turns Mulligan into an angel. Many complications insist, not the least of which is a fellow who goes by either "Abe Addon" or "B.L. Zeebub."

"The Monster From Nowhere": Here's an interesting curve - true horror story, quite unlike the other tales, although it does delve into the fourth dimension, one of Bond's favourite subjects. An explorer in Peru capture a 4-dimensional creature - or at least, part of the creature. Problems ensue when he decides to introduce the scientific community to the monster. The story notably invokes Ambrose Bierce's "the Damned Thing" and is definitely more in Bierce's line than Bond's usual fare.

"The Man Who Walked Through Glass": Speaking of the fourth dimension, here we have a man who discovers he can travel through glass, provided he's naked. It starts out seeming very whimsical, but it seems the sensation of traveling through glass is a little too addictive to the man...

"The Enchanted Pencil": A fun story about a pulp author whose pencil can write terrific stories, but without it he's as hopeless as, well, me. There is a clever solution to the problem of how he can continue being a writer after the pencil is used up: go work for Hollywood!

"Pilgrimage": This tale features Meg & Daiv, characters of Bond's I first encountered in "the Magic City" (the Far Side of Nowhere), but this is the first of his Meg & Daiv tales, telling of a post-apocalyptic world where the history of humanity has been corrupted by time and legend. Meg is introduced here as a very fine protagonist, easily the best female character of Bond's I've read - although the story's implication that Meg's matriarchy is inferior to Daiv's patriarchy raises other problems. Still, a good story - I'd like to read the other Meg & Daiv tales.

Once again, I'm very pleased to have explored Bond's writing more closely. Perhaps I'll unearth more of his anthologies in the future.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Shedding some light on "Snake Doctor"

One of my favourite episodes of the old-time radio series Escape is "Snake Doctor," a fine tale from a very fine program. Written by Irvin S. Cobb, it's a very tight drama about a murderous hunter who believes the local legend about the "Snake Doctor" possessing a horde of hidden riches; the hunter coolly plots to murder "Snake Doctor" and take his money.

You can hear the episode from here. As I began looking up my favourite episodes of Escape in their original print form, "Snake Doctor" is one I only recently obtained, via the 1923 hardcover Snake Doctor and Other Stories. It's interesting to note that while the radio program gives the hunter a son, there's no such character in the original tale - it certainly suits radio for him to have someone else to speak with and fits seamlessly with the rest of Cobb's tale.

Something I realized while reading Cobb's original text is that the Snake Doctor was a Caucasian man; not that he was portrayed as African-American in the radio version, but somehow it made to sense to me to assume that an unspoken reason for the hunter's intense hatred for Snake Doctor was simple racism; reading the text, however, it's clear that Snake Doctor was supposed to be white. In Cobb's other stories, it's also extremely clear which characters are black (there are instances of the n-word-I'm-too-ashamed-to-type).

I had also hoped Snake Doctor and Other Stories would open me up to more of Cobb's work, considering how much I think of the titular story (it also won the 1922 O. Henry Prize). However, said Other Stories don't possess the tense thrills of "Snake Doctor." They possess some simple humour and charm (plus some unfortunately-expected racism) and a certain longing for one's old Kentucky home, far, far, away. Cobb was an immensely popular US author in his day, but he's virtually forgotten today; we OTR fans who enjoy the Escape adaptation of "Snake Doctor" are probably doing more than anyone else at keeping his name remembered.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Across the Gap with a Neanderthal

Recently I listened again to an episode of Arch Oboler's Lights Out, but this time had some new thoughts on the program which I don't believe others have considered.

The episode in question was first broadcast in 1936 during Oboler's first year as writer/producer of Lights Out; then, it was dubbed "Across the Gap." We don't seem to have a surviving copy of this broadcast, but the 1942 version (usually called "Neanderthal") is with us and can be downloaded from here.

In this play, a Frenchman, American man and British lady are traveling together via motor car. The Frenchman believes in solving problems with his bare hands, holding a very pragmatic outlook; the American is a diplomat who thinks reason will solve mankind's problems; the British lady doesn't seem to hold any opinions - we might (charitably) consider her as being undecided.

Being an Oboler play where people who openly voice their philosophies must then face them in grim, stark reality, they crash their car and travel back in time (just roll with it). They encounter a Neanderthal man and the American attempts to reason with it, but eventually must concede that for the sake of survival, he must kill the Neanderthal.

In 1936, Oboler meant the play to comment upon the situation in Europe, the rise of fascism and looming threat of Nazi Germany. Strangely though, the allegory he created doesn't quite fit. Prior to World War II, the British were the ones who thought reason & diplomacy could solve the problem while the Americans were neutral. Surely the perfect allegory would have been a British diplomat accompanied by a weak-willed American woman (Oboler's stereotype, not mine)? Surely by 1942 it would have been obvious to Oboler that the British in his story were a little miscast.

Truly, the British lady is a distraction - Oboler surely meant the diplomacy-speaking American to represent his isolationist brethren who had to learn an important lesson about standing up against aggressors; that part of the allegory works and - fortunately for Oboler - history has justified his position.

Er, that's it - that's what I thought. Thanks for indulging me.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

An OTR Easter

We old-time radio fans certainly enjoy the holidays; why, come Christmas time you're liable to find us listening to something related to the season - perhaps Jack Benny bargain hunting for a pair of shoelaces for Don Wilson, or one of Lionel Barrymore's turns at the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, possibly even the Christmas where the Great Gildersleeve must give up his foundling baby to the child's true father.

Yet, we come to Easter and... the pickings are notably slimmer. Perhaps the best Easter drama surviving is an episode of Quiet Please entitled "Shadow of the Wings" from April 17, 1949; you can download it from here.

Quiet Please is sometimes called a radio horror program; while there are a few episodes which delve headfirst into horror, it would be more proper to dub it a fantasy series; it ranges from gentle, light fantasy to terrifying, dark fantasy. This particular episode definitely falls on the "light" side - series star Ernest Chappell portrays here the Angel of Death itself, sent to collect the life of a little girl.

Of couse, if the prospect of a mother confronting an angel to preserve her daughter's life sounds a little heavy, I offer you this April 17, 1949 episode of the Jack Benny Program where Jack and Mary go walking in the Easter Parade: you may download it from here.

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Nowhere is that tiny spot of space between now and here." The Far Side of Nowhere review

Having previously spoken to you about Nelson S. Bond's great book Mr. Mergenthwirker's Lobblies, I felt I might as well continue with a look at another of Bond's short story anthologies - this one from late in his life: the Far Side of Nowhere, published in 2002 by Arkham House and featuring short introductions from Bond himself.

Image from ISFDB

Many of the stories in the Far Side of Nowhere were first published in magazines during World War II, although the book's contents include stories from the 1950s and even 1990s. I would say this book belongs to the hardcore fans of Nelson S. Bond - the completists. I don't think the Far Side of Nowhere is as good as Mr. Mergenthwirker's Lobblies, but the stories are very similar; therein lies the problem: Bond's stories involve so many familiar ideas and approaches, especially where time travel is involved. For this reason, I won't bother going through the stories one at a time; instead, here are my arbitrarily-chosen most interesting stories from the Far Side of Nowhere:

  • "Command Performance" Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story of an analyst attempting to uncover the meaning behind a man's nightmares is that he employs Dianetics to do so. I experienced a very brief panic as I wondered whether Bond converted to Hubbardology, but this story seems to be Bond's only foray into it.
  • "Time Exposure" Like the previous book's "Johnny Cartwright's Camera," this concerns a camera with temporal powers - it can take pictures of the past or the future, but pictures of the future can't be developed until the moment reaches the present.
  • "Private Line to Tomorrow" Concerns a man who accidentally "fixes" his telephone so that it receives calls 24 hours in advance; it takes him a while to catch on to what's happened and even then, it's difficult to sort out your personal life when all of your messages arrive 24 hours after you send them.
  • "The Battle of Blue Trout Basin" is a brief, odd story about a fisherman who finds a place where the fish are so eager to die they crowd up for the opportunity!
  • "The Unusual Romance of Ferdinand Pratt" features a shabby, wanna-be djinn who offers to make Ferdinand's typist fall in love with him via magic; instead, he makes Ferdinand's typewriter fall in love with him. It only gets worse when the typewriter becomes jealous!
  • "Herman and the Mermaid" tells the story of a man who falls in love with a mermaid and convinces her people to enter the War on behalf of the Allies to sink German submarines. For a moment, it's like reading a wartime Sub-Mariner comic book!
  • "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble" features Nelson S. Bond himself - twice over! Due to an unfortunate experiment, there are two Nelson S. Bonds, which gets to be very irritating to editor John W. Campbell as both Bonds are trying to sell him the same stories!
  • "Magic City" The protagonist of this story, Meg, has appeared in other Bond stories which I've yet to read. It's a post-apocalyptic world where a new matriarchal society has arisen with only dim memories of what had been; it's pretty well-told and often very subtle, leaving it to the audience to decipher the scrambled-up elements of contemporary times for themselves.
  • "The Masked Marvel" A sequel to the earlier "Bacular Clock." Pat Pending is back, his dialogue more wonderiferous than before. Sample: "My inventulation is stupendically importulant. One of the greatest things ever discoverized by man. It hasn't even been patentated yet." This time, Pat's built a robot golfer and sends it out to win big at a tournament, but an unfortunate downpour throws the robot off its game.
  • "The Scientific Pioneer Returns" brings back Horse-Sense Hank from "Socrates of the South Forty," but this time it's as a crossover with Bond's other character Lancelot Biggs and after a pretty good set-up, it becomes a lot of goofy technobabble.
  • "Miracles Made Easy" The Lobblies themselves are back!!! However, this story is a fairly typical Bondian time travel story; men try to use the Lobblies' knowledge of the future so they can bet on a football game. It has a neat enough solution, but it's not as special as the original Lobblies story.
  • "The Amazing Invention of Wilberforce Weems" Wilberforce invents a chemical which can impart all the knowledge of a book to one's mind by simply tapping the book against your head. This works well in giving Wilberforce the confidence and data he needs for work, but unfortunately his sister has absorbed a text on nudism, his brother-in-law absorbed "Mein Kampf" and his little nephew struck his head on a ribald men's magazine.
  • "The Man Who Weighed Minus Twelve" features exactly what the title says; a horse owner realizes that with a man who weighs -12, you could have a second jockey on your racehorse and still come in under weight. Sounds like a good plan...
  • "Occupation: Demigod" Finally, this is a charming story of a jazz musician who picks up an ancient horn which connects him to the Greek pantheon, causing some question as to whether or not they'll admit him into their ranks as a demigod.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Sea Hawk versus the Sea Hawk

Last year I began reading the novels of Rafael Sabatini - a near-forgotten author now, but he enjoyed quite a bit of fame about 100 years ago; if he's remembered at all, it's probably because his novel Captain Blood became an extremely entertaining 1935 film starring Errol Flynn.

Knowing that Sabatini had also written a novel called the Sea Hawk, I assumed the 1940 film of the same name (and like Captain Blood was directed by Michael Curtiz, featured an original score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and starred Errol Flynn; the same trio also created the Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938) was an adaptation of the novel. Considering Flynn's great success with Captain Blood, it would have made sense for his patrons at Warner Bros. to find him another vehicle from the same author.

Curtiz & Flynn's Sea Hawk notably contains a very obvious depiction of Spanish forces standing in for Hitler's Germany; that element had obviously been invented by the studio, but how much of the film truly did come Sabatini's 1915 novel? As it turns out: the name. That's it. Warner Bros. used the name because Sabatini & Flynn had been linked before by Captain Blood, but the story was an original piece called "Beggars of the Sea." They could have titled the film after Sabatini's Fortune's Fool and it would have been almost as accurate.

Therefore, if the novel the Sea Hawk is not the story of an English privateer defending his native land from a Spanish conspiracy, what precisely is it?

The Sea Hawk tells of one Sir Oliver Tressilian, betrothed to Rosamund Godolphin but unable to get along with her brother Peter. When Oliver's brother Lionel kills Peter in a duel, suspicion of the deed falls upon Oliver, but Oliver is unwilling to incriminate Lionel; however, Lionel doesn't trust Oliver to remain silent and sells him into slavery; Oliver is presumed dead, enabling Lionel to seize control of the estate and romance Rosamund. Some time later, Oliver returns from slavery as Sakr-el-Bahr ("Hawk of the Sea"), having risen from slave to sailor to captain and converting to Islam. Sakr-el-Bahr sets out for revenge on Lionel & Rosamund.

The Tressilians & Godolphins are certainly a tangled-up family, fit for any soap opera: Peter is a gullible fool, Lionel is a crafty liar, Rosamund consistently thinks the worst of Oliver. At the point where Sakr-el-Bahr kidnaps Lionel and Rosamund, bringing them to Algiers so he can finally prove how Peter truly died, Rosamund continues to despise Oliver despite his story of woe and betrayal. If the family appeared on a daytime talk show, you could sum them up thusly:

  • Peter: Killed by Lionel.
  • Oliver: Solid into slavery by Lionel.
  • Lionel: Framed Oliver for his deeds.
  • Rosamund: Feels she is the victim here.

Rosamund is a terribly infuriating love interest who keeps finding excuses to hate Oliver (even when she's convinced of Lionel's misdeeds she doesn't appear that annoyed with him) but she does eventually come around and helps Sakr-el-Bahr evade the hangman's rope. Interestingly, although Oliver is ultimately cleared of his supposed crimes and his return to England enabled, he doesn't convert back to Christianity by story's end - in fact, he refuses to convert back when it's suggested. By the end of the book he's persona non grata in Algiers, but one imagines he wouldn't be too welcome in 16th century England either.

The Sea Hawk is much like Captain Blood (both were adapted into films in the year of 1924) as its hero is a falsely-condemned man who becomes a slave, then a captain who must engage in a constant war of wits against his own supposed allies and eventually overcome empires to win his one true love. If you've already read Captain Blood and you hunger for more, you could do worse than try the Sea Hawk. The novel is currently in the public domain.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"There are times, I confess, when the reader will shudder over the style rather than the content of these stories." - The Opener of the Way

During my recent review of Weird Tales issues, the stories of Robert Bloch I found reminded me how much I'd enjoyed his work in the past and had been meaning to find a copy of his first collection of short stories, the Opener of the Way. So I did.

This book first saw publication in 1945 by Arkham House and many of the stories came from Weird Tales; the copy I obtained is a (much more affordable) 1976 paperback reprint by Panther. I feel sorry for anyone who chased the 1945 original - they're missing out on this fantastic back cover blurb:

Although Bloch kept writing horror to the end of his career, the latter-day stories I've read veered away from the supernatural; here, near the start of his career, we have quite a bit of supernatural terror. Let's delve in!

  • "The Opener of the Way" The titular story (which inspired the cover above) involves a father and son unearthing one of those (uh-oh) lost Egyptian tombs; the dad has been acting strangely and when he starts talking about projecting his consciousness into a statue you just know it won't end well...
  • "The Cloak" This was (loosely) adapted into the Amicus film the House That Dripped Blood - in fact, this is so different that if you've seen the film, you might still be surprised by the original version. This involves a man seeking out a Halloween costume, asking the costumer to give him "the real thing." The vampire cape the costumer provides seems to be precisely that - it turns the wearer into a vampire!
  • "Beetles" More fiddling around with Egyptian tombs (uh-oh). A man who unearths a mummy fears flesh-eating scarab beetles are after him for vengeance; he's right, but he didn't foresee how the beetles would get into his home...
  • "The Fiddler's Fee" What is it with the Devil and violins, anyway? Here we have a violinist who sells his soul to become a virtuoso, but being the world's greatest violinist doesn't guarantee people will find you likeable - or loveable.
  • "The Mannikin" A man deformed by a tumor so that he appears to be a hunchback seems to hold an unhealthy interest in the occult; wait, did I say tumor? To quote the great philosopher, "It's not a tumor!"
  • "The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton" An interesting science fiction/horror blend; a lone pilot sets off to Mars on a ship which will take 10 years to find Mars, then 10 years to return. Within the ship, the throbbing of the vessel begins to wear upon the lone occupant and he begins to lose his mind. How can he possibly survive 20 years in such an environment?
  • "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" This is one of Bloch's better-known tales and I'd seen it dramatized (faithfully, as it happens) on Boris Karloff's Thriller (it was also adapted into comics format by Gil Kane). If you aren't familiar with it, it's the story of one man's dogged pursuit of Jack the Ripper, believing the killer still walks the Earth by having made occult sacrifices for eternal youth. Despite the subject, it's fairly lighthearted - until the climax.
  • "The Seal of the Satyr" A tourist in Greece hears legends about how mortals could be transformed into beings such as centaurs and satyrs through human sacrifice; naturally, it's all true, but he's a little slow to discern just how true.
  • "The Dark Demon" A very Lovecraftian piece (where Lovecraft himself and several related creatures are name dropped) about a horror author whose ideas come to him in his dreams; unfortunately, his most recent dreams involve him bringing about the incarnation of Asmodeus; that doesn't sound good.
  • "The Faceless God" Yet more gamboling around in Egyptian tombs (uh-oh). This one is pretty sedate and way too-familiar but it involves the Lovecraftian being Nyarlathotep, so I'm sure someone likes it.

Bloch is my favourite of the Weird Tales-type authors because he not only has fiendish ideas of terrible things to inflict on his characters, but also a gift for dialogue and descriptive imagery and a twisted (yet often pleasing) sense of humour. I've said before that I don't have much time for Lovecraft - but Bloch? Oh my, yes.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Captain America: the Winter Soldier creator credits

Today I used my last free movie pass; Captain America: the Winter Soldier is possibly the last super hero film I'll watch in the theatres.

As with previous lists, your additions and corrections are greatly appreciated!

Captain America, alias Steve Rogers, a World War 2 super hero wearing a red/white/blue costume with star on chest and "A" on mask; Captain America's original triangular shield; Captain America's wartime sidekick and best friend Bucky Barnes; Captain America's nemesis the Red Skull; Camp Lehigh, the locale where Rogers underwent training; General Chester Phillips, the officer who oversaw the Super-Soldier program: Derived from Captain America Comics#1 (1941) by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

The S.H.I.E.L.D. insignia, an eagle within a circle: Derived from Strange Tales#154 (1967) by Roy Thomas & Jim Steranko.

Sam Wilson, alias the Falcon, close friend and ally of Captain America: Derived from Captain America#117 (1969) by Stan Lee & Gene Colan.

Captain America frozen in ice during World War 2, revived in contemporary times, has difficulty adjusting; Bucky's seeming death during the War: Derived from the Avengers#4 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

The Black Widow, alias Natasha Romanoff, a Russian spy, originally a KGB agent: Derived from Tales of Suspense#52 (1964) by Stan Lee, Don Rico, Don Heck & Jack Kirby.

The Black Widow as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Derived from the Avengers#38 (1967) by Roy Thomas & Don Heck.

The Black Widow's all-black costume with Widow's Bite wrist weapon; the Black Widow's red hair: Derived from the Amazing Spider-Man#86 (1970) by Stan Lee & John Romita.

S.H.I.E.L.D., an international espionage agency, headed by a council and directed by Nick Fury; Nick Fury wearing an eye-patch; the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, their mobile headquarters designed like a flying battleship; the enemy group Hydra; the "Hail Hydra" salute and gesture; S.H.I.E.L.D. flying cars; Tony Stark allied with S.H.I.E.L.D.: Derived from Strange Tales#135 (1965) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Captain America's sometimes-strained relationship with Nick Fury and good standing within S.H.I.E.L.D.: Derived from Tales of Suspense#78 (1966) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

A S.H.I.E.L.D.-related task force called S.T.R.I.K.E.: Derived from Captain Britain#15 (1977) by Gary Friedrich & Herb Trimpe.

The Black Widow wielding handguns: Derived from Bizarre Adventures#25 (1981) by Ralph Macchio & Paul Gulacy.

The red widow icon on Black Widow's belt: Derived from Journey into Mystery#517 (1998) by Scott Lobdell & Randall Green.

The Black Widow's Widow's Line device: Derived from Tales of Suspense#64 (1965) by Stan Lee & Don Heck.

Captain America's round shield; Captain America's mask fastened to his costume: Derived from Captain America Comics#2 (1941) by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

Captain America's modified blue/white costume with brown gloves: Derived from Secret Avengers#1 (2010) by Ed Brubaker & Mike Deodato Jr.

Captain America throwing his shield so that it ricochets and returns to his hand: Derived from the Avengers#5 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell: Derived from Strange Tales#144 (1966) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Howard Purcell.

Batroc, a French mercenary and kickboxer who wants to test his mettle against Captain America; Agent 13, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and love interest to Captain America: Derived from Tales of Suspense#75 (1966) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers.

Batroc's first name Georges: Derived from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe#3 (1983) by Mark Gruenwald.

Brock Rumlow, a vicious thug: Derived from Captain America#359 & 360 (1989) by Mark Gruenwald & Kieron Dwyer.

Brock Rumlow's name: Derived from Captain America#400 (1992) by Mark Gruenwald and Rik Levins.

The Lemurian Star: Derived from Lemuria in Sub-Mariner#9 (1969) by Roy Thomas & Marie Severin.

S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jack Rollins; Hydra taking over S.H.I.E.L.D. from within, including control over its council; Jasper Sitwell allying with the conspiracy: Derived from Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.#1 (1988) by Bob Harras & Paul Neary.

Captain America skydiving without a parachute; the Triskelion, S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters: Derived from the Ultimates#1 (2002) by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch.

Nick Fury, an experienced soldier; the wartime Howling Commandos, which included Dum-Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones: Derived from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos#1 (1963) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Nick Fury as an African-American man: Derived from Ultimate Marvel Team-Up#5 (2001) by Brian Michael Bendis & Mike Allred.

Nick Fury depicted as Samuel L. Jackson with visible scars around his left eye: Derived from the Ultimates#2 (2002) by Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch.

S.H.I.E.L.D. developing a fleet of Helicarriers: Derived from Ms. Marvel#13 (2007) by Brian Reed & Aaron Lopresti.

Iron Man's chief weapon, repulsor rays: Derived from Tales of Suspense#57 (1964) by Stan Lee & Don Heck.

Iron Man, alias Tony Stark, a playboy philanthropist and former weapons designer who wears a high-tech suit of armour: Derived from Tales of Suspense#39 (1963) by Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Captain America's motorcycle: Derived from Captain America Comics#27 (1943) by Alex Schomburg.

Alexander Pierce, close associate of Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. operative: Derived from Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.#3 (1988) by Bob Harras & Paul Neary.

Captain America honoured with an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute: Derived from Captain America#3 (1998) by Mark Waid & Ron Garney.

Captain America and Bucky's association with the Howling Commandos: Derived from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos#13 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Montgomery, Lord Falsworth, a wartime ally of Captain America: Derived from the Invaders#7 (1976) by Roy Thomas & Frank Robbins.

Jacques Dernier, a wartime ally of the Howling Commandos: Derived from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos#21 (1965) by Stan Lee & Dick Ayers.

Jim Morita, a wartime ally of the Howling Commandos: Derived from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos#38 (1967) by Roy Thomas & Dick Ayers.

Hydra's origins dating back to World War 2: Derived from Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders#2 (1968) by Gary Friedrich & Dick Ayers.

Peggy Carter, Captain America's wartime love interest: Derived from Tales of Suspense#75 (1966) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Captain America reunited with a now-aged Peggy Carter; Peggy's name: Derived from Captain America#162 (1973) by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema.

Maria Hill, next in line to command S.H.I.E.L.D.; Nick Fury leaving S.H.I.E.L.D. to operate under deep cover: Derived from Secret War#5 (2005) by Brian Michael Bendis & Gabriele Dell'Otto.

The Winter Soldier, a legendary Soviet assassin now on the open market: Derived from Captain America#1 (2005) by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting.

Agent 13's real name Sharon: Derived from Tales of Suspense#95 (1967) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

S.H.I.E.L.D. agents dressed in blue jumpsuits: Derived from Strange Tales#139 (1965) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott.

Romantic chemistry between Captain America and the Black Widow: Derived from Avengers#380 (1994) by Bob Harras & Mike Deodato Jr.

Howard Stark, father to Tony Stark: Derived from Iron Man#28 (1970) by Archie Goodwin & Don Heck.

Howard Stark's past connection to Captain America: Derived from Captain America Annual#9 (1990) by Randall Frenz & Mark Bagley.

Arnim Zola, Swiss scientist and Nazi whose mind survives the death of his body: Derived from Captain America#208 (1977) by Jack Kirby.

Maria Stark, wife of Howard, mother of Anthony Stark: Derived from Iron Man#104 (1977) by Bill Mantlo & George Tuska.

The deaths of Howard and Maria Stark in an auto accident: Derived from Iron Man#288 (1993) by Len Kaminski & Barry Kiston.

Howard and Maria Stark's "accidental" death caused by a conspiracy: Derived from Iron Man: the Iron Age#1 (1998) by Kurt Busiek & Patrick Zircher.

Stephen Strange: Derived from Strange Tales#110 (1963) by Steve Ditko.

The Falcon's winged flight harness: Derived from Captain America#170 (1974) by Steve Englehart, Mike Friedrich & Sal Buscema.

The Winter Soldier and Captain America's fight climaxing with the reactions, "Bucky?" and "Who the Hell is Bucky?"; the Winter Soldier undergoing a memory wipe between assignments: Derived from Captain America#8 (2005) by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting.

Nick Fury faking his death by assassination: Derived from Avengers#72 (1970) by Roy Thomas & Sal Buscema.

The Hulk, alias Bruce Banner: Derived from the Incredible Hulk#1 (1962) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes being almost the same age: Derived from Captain America#5 (2005) by Ed Brubaker & Michael Lark.

The Falcon garbed in black/grey with sunglasses and firearms: Derived from Ultimate Nightmare#1 (2004) by Warren Ellis & Trevor Hairsine.

Stark Tower, Tony Stark's New York skyscraper: Derived from New Avengers#3 (2005) by Brian Michael Bendis & David Finch.

The Winter Soldier regaining his memory and going into hiding: Derived from Captain America#14 (2006) by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting.

S.H.I.E.L.D. exposed as rife with internal corruption and dismantled: Derived from Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.#6 (1988) by Bob Harras & Paul Neary.

Stark Industries, Tony Stark's technology company: Derived from Tales of Suspense#45 (1963) by Stan Lee, Robert Bernstein, Don Heck & Jack Kirby.

Maria Hill leaving S.H.I.E.L.D. to work for Tony Stark: Derived from Invincible Iron Man#8 (2009) by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca.

Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, nemesis of Nick Fury: Derived from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos#5 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Baron Strucker as the leader of Hydra: Derived from Strange Tales#155 (1967) by Jim Steranko.

Quicksilver, a superhumanly fast mutant: Derived from X-Men#4 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

The Scarlet Witch, a chaotic mutant: Derived from X-Men#4 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Friday, April 4, 2014

"Walsh lost in the landscape of his own adventures" Looking at Raoul Walsh

"A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author." - G.K. Chesterton

I came to Marilyn Ann Moss' Raoul Walsh: the True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director (2011) not out of a particular fascination with Walsh, but simply as an interested student of classic film. Having recently enjoyed books such as Kevin Brownlow's the Parade's Gone By and Eric Lax's Bogart, I hoped that perhaps as those books gave me a (respectively) increased interest in silent films and Bogart pictures, this might do the same for director Walsh.

Moss' biography of Walsh seems to be very intent at making some sort of point - but I'm not clear what it might be. Rather than an authoritative biography, this is instead a highly critical biography of Walsh, perhaps even a revisionist biography. The book opens by acknowledging the only real source on Walsh's upbringing is Walsh's own accounts, yet identifies Walsh as an unreliable narrator. Thus, the first chapter is a back-and-forth between this book and Walsh's autobiography where Moss' texts argues against and holds suspicions against Walsh's text. To the reader who has not read Walsh's autobiography (ie, myself), the will to keep reading plummets. I did soldier on and was glad of it, but some of my issues from the first chapter continued throughout.

Moss seems intent on shaping a particular narrative out of Walsh's life, some need to cast his life's story through the lens of the unreliable narrator and thus discard much of what doesn't support this thesis. In fact, discussion of Walsh's films often takes a backseat to armchair psychology such as this:

"As it often is, the love of telling stories emerges from a psyche that is chipped in some fundamental way, having experienced a deep sadness, a great loss, that finds expression in fiction - in the alternate world that fiction provides."

Storytellers, please forward your therapy bills c/o Marilyn Ann Moss.

Walsh is compared to Mark Twain no less than four times and there is another of the book's problems - repetition. A quote where Walsh was described as "Shakespearean" appears twice; Walter Pidgeon's martial life is described in the same manner twice; Walsh's interest in horse racing, reading racing forms and how he would look away from the set during many of the scenes he was supposed to direct are brought up again and again - important details in describing who the man was, but repeated ad nauseam.

Then there the points where the text stutters: the phrase "changed the course of his life" appears in passages set two pages apart! Or this passage about Jack Warner:

"...all of whom found themselves at one time or another in a career-defining moment involving either a contract or a script dispute with 'the Colonel,' as he liked to call himself once World War II came along. In actuality, Warner would not begin to refer to himself as 'Colonel' until the United States entered World War II a few years later."

There is such a thing as a backspace key on most keyboards - I certainly use mine often enough! Rather than screw up the explanation of Warner's nickname 'the Colonel' and offer an immediate retraction, why not tell it correctly the first time?

The book delves into many of the memos which came to or from Walsh in his Warner Bros. days, but the text aims for quantity of material rather than quality. There's a fine 300-page biography under the bloat of this (almost) 500-page tome.

All that said, this biography does at least get into Walsh's prowess as a director - there are discussions of recurring themes, his manner when directing actors, his development of stories - material some biographies just plain forget about when discussing film people. I suspect this book will be best enjoyed by people who have already done some reading on Walsh and want to learn something new or challenging about him; the highest compliment I can pay this work is that it did send me looking for some of Walsh's films I hadn't seen before.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Things like pwidgeting and rikking trilks" Mr. Mergenthwirker's Lobblies and Other Fantastic Tales

Some time ago I happened upon a 1950s radio series titled Sleep No More; performed on an extremely low budget, it consisted of Nelson Omstead reading short fiction. Although some of the tales he visited were familiar to me, others proved delightfully unfamiliar. Amongst these were three tales by Nelson S. Bond: "Mr. Mergenthwirker's Lobblies," "the Bookshop," and "Conqueror's Isle" (I had only heard of the last title before). I became interested in reading more of Bond's short fiction and it transpired that all three stories were part of a collection from 1946: Mr. Mergenthwirker's Lobblies and Other Fantastic Tales.

It took me some time to acquire a copy of the book on the second-hand market; due to an inexplicable mishap, the book which the first dealer provided photographic evidence to me of having mailed, never materialized. Overcoming that early discouragement, I finally obtained my copy last year. I doubt Bond is too widely known these days, so would you mind it too terribly if I indulged in discussing the contents of the book? You don't mind? Let us begin:

  • "Mr. Mergenthwirker's Lobblies" This uniquely-titled story involves a curious man who can see into the future - or, rather, his invisible companions the Lobblies can see the future and occasionally share information. It's a gentle fantasy with a touch of darkness, like most of the stories in this tome. Also, it concerns things from another reality intruding upon Earth's affairs, which was clearly one of Bond's favourite concepts, although it plays out differently amongst his stories.
  • "The Magic Staircase" This is the first tale in the collection where Bond's characters verbalize his ideas about parallel worlds and interdimensional mathematics; this time, it concerns a newly-fashioned staircase which (on occasions) leads its owner into the forest of an alternate Earth where Nazi Germany bested Europe and began a land invasion of North America; neatly enough, this meek, reality-displaced traveler wants nothing more than to stay in this world and help save it!
  • "The Remarkable Talent of Egbert Haw" A broadly comedic tale reminiscent of Stephen Vincent Benet, this concerns a talent agent who discovers a horse which can talk and is absolutely certain said creature will be his ticket to fortune. Of course, speech doesn't equal talent...
  • "Johnny Cartwright's Camera" Returning to the subject of unseen worlds, this concerns a damaged newsman's camera which begins displaying images from 24 hours into the future; it's a brief and humourous tale.
  • "The Master of Cotswold" Written as a series of letters, this one is a true horror story; the new owner of a cottage hears strange noises in the woods, uncovers an unused well and discovers curious bloodstains on the floor. It takes some time to get rolling, but delivers a fine sense of paranoia.
  • "The Einstein Inshoot" Getting back to Bond's particular fancy, we have a baseball pitcher whose fastballs break into the fourth dimension; he creates a sensation by striking out batters who are unable to perceive his pitches, but what happens when the balls leave the fourth dimension?
  • "The Fountain" One of those Fountain of Youth tales; an aged businessman thinks aging backwards will solve his problems, but he doesn't reckon what effect this has on his mind, nor how to stop the process once it's begun. It runs perhaps a little too long, but this story does a great job of getting inside the protagonist's head as he constantly struggles to retain his fading memories.
  • "Dr. Fuddle's Fingers" A scientist has the odd ability to reach inside the fourth dimension, from which he can procure seemingly any item. It should be a great scientific breakthrough, but people view him as little more than a sleight-of-hand artist!
  • "Conquerors' Isle" An oft-repeated and imitated tale (mainly because of the power of the final line of text) in which an air crew are taken prisoner by advanced beings, mutants with phenomenal psychic powers who intend to quietly assert their dominance over the rest of humanity; one of the pilots escapes their island prison, but sounds like a madman when he recounts the story.
  • "Socrates of the South Forty" A rural hick proves to be the most intelligent man on Earth, possessing undreamed-of abilities of sorting out scientific quandries through "horse sense" - but having no actual scientific background, he explains these problems in his own vernacular with copious amounts of "thingamajig" and "whatchamaycallit."
  • "The Bacular Clock" One Pat Pending attempts to patent his new invention: the bacular clock, which has the power to cause time to flow in reverse, "most certainaceously." But as in "the Fountain," when time begins to reverse, how do you make it move forward again?
  • "Union in Gehenna" A union organizer is sent to Hell; seeing how terrible the conditions are on both the tormented and the demons who torment them, he suggests they unionize against the Devil. Highly comedic with a bright finish.
  • "The Bookshop" A sad tale for anyone who aspires to writing; an author finds a bookshop which carries all the great works which were never written - and his own rest among them.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Never Too Busy to say goodbye

Last week Colin Smith's blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics shuttered its doors and windows, seemingly for good. Colin had been preparing for the end of this blog for quite some time, but now it appears the true end has arrived.

I came to Colin's site through a link to his Superman: Earth One essays and they quickly ensured I would keep an eye on his blog; Colin is that rare breed of internet critic with a surgeon's gift for carving up the diseased meat passing itself off as entertainment in today's comics while also possessing a painter's gift for exposing the beautiful things which had always been there in the comics, just a little out of focus.

Colin's ability to reevaluate the Silver Age and pinpoint how those works were effective in their own times and how their meanings have been forgotten is revelatory; his Pop Manifesto expounded on the idea of how the pop art of the Silver Age came to be. Yet this same eloquent passion could also be used to tear down Frank Miller's Holy Terror or Before Watchmen. Colin approaches comics as a scholar - and we don't have nearly enough of those.

I would have likely shuttered up Section 244 years ago but for Colin's influence; Colin inspired my own writing - I'm a better blogger for having wandered under his shadow.

Colin knows how I feel about his blog - my only goal at this time is to mark the occasion of Too Busy Thinking About My Comics' passing and to encourage those who haven't toured his blog to perhaps take some time there; his archives are vast and worth the effort of revisiting.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Now you know the truth and the truth is that the world is a terrible hateful place and everyone suffers alone" Looking at Housepets!

I really enjoy Housepets!

This isn't an April Fool's Day post - it seems I ought to get that out of the way.

Having begun in 2008, Rick Griffin's Housepets! is a mostly-comedic webcomic about the various pets (primarily cats & dogs) who populate the town of Babylon Gardens. Like many series born from comic strip ideas about pets, the animals in this comic speak English, stand on two feet, manipulate objects as though they possessed fingers & thumbs and are generally treated as members of their owners' families, rather than mere possessions.

Unlike most strips, Housepets! attempts to follow through on some of the implications behind a world where pets possess all the intelligence of humans, but enjoy few of their privileges. Er, that is, the series explores these ideas when there's a joke to be mined - it's really not a dramatic saga. Usually.

If Housepets! were only a gag-a-day strip, I wouldn't be posting about it now (or any other time). Heck, I didn't get very far into the series run on my first attempt - but eventually I reached the introduction of King. First introduced as a human named Joel who works with PETA (albeit under some misgivings), Joel is punished by a cosmic being by taking on the form of King; the next few years of the comic essentially revolve around King's arc. While the animals of Housepets! enjoy liberties we in the real world would never permit our own pets to enjoy (I doubt many dogs could manage an allowance), it's still horribly demeaning for a human to live as an animal in this world.

And yet, King has evolved over time, gradually developing friendships with his fellow pets. Although he remains a pessimist at heart (a difficult habit to break, considering the cosmic embodiments of the universe have basically affirmed that yes, he's a pawn), his humility and overall vulnerability render him an easy character to relate to. At the point I'm writing this, King has reached a point where he's probably much happier as a dog - so naturally there's a looming threat on the horizon that he'll become human again, which should make for good drama (also, comedy).

Of course, there are dozens of characters beyond King (King receives a major focus about once a year) and I've come to enjoy their tales as well - but starting with King's introduction as Joel (found here), I've been truly enamored with the series. Three times a week I have Housepets! to soothe my nerves; good deal.