Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Sometimes a fight you cannot win is still worth fighting." The Shadow Hero review

In recent years, comic book publishers came to the realization that many Golden Age super hero characters had lapsed into the public domain. Eagerly, they sought to rebuild those lapsed properties into new franchises, but the characters had become so forgotten over the decades that they might as well have been new characters - and the comics market, already overburdened with super hero material, has never been welcoming to new faces.

However, at least one fine book has come to us thanks to these developments: The Shadow Hero by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Sonny Liew (with letterer Janice Chiang making it an all-Asian extravaganza!) through publisher First Second. It concerns a long-forgotten super hero called the Green Turtle, whose untold origin Yang & Liew proceed to tell.

Lore surrounding the Green Turtle asserts his creator Chu Hing intended him to be an Asian hero but his publisher wouldn't permit him to. According to this lore, Hing deliberately withheld the Green Turtle's origin and frequently concealed his face so that the creator would - if nowhere else - remain Asian in his mind.

The story Yang & Liew cook up doesn't completely mesh with Hing's work (they note themselves how they altered his cape), but it still goes to a lot of effort to line up with the 1940s stories (including an explanation for why an Asian man would have pink skin - seriously!). More importantly, the story they've chosen to tell is fun and clever on its own, an absolutely charming tale of super heroes quite unlike most of the marketplace (which is why it hasn't been marketed to super hero fans, I would assume).

The hero is Asian-American Hank Chu; after a super hero saves the life of Hank's mother, she becomes obsessed with the idea of turning her son into a super hero, with mostly comedic results (she even chauffeurs him on his first patrol like a parent whose child has a paper route). Super hero comics frequently work on father-son relationships, but this one has a fun take on a hero whose mother is the driving influence behind his donning a cape and cowl.

Hank even winds up with super powers in the end (albeit, not due to his mother); the spirit of the Tortoise comes to dwell within Hank's shadow and grants him immunity to all guns. Thus, while Hank is mortal in most respects, bullets have a way of missing him, no matter how close the gun is held. This ability is, likewise, a frequent source of comedy. He can also consult the Tortoise in his shadow which grants him someone to both monologue with and to play games of tic-tac-toe against.

The entire story is set around San Incendio (San Francisco?) in the late 1930s and it does a convincing job of making the environment seem authentic and lived-in. As the Green Turtle, Hank becomes a champion of Chinatown - although most of his enemies live in Chinatown too. Despite Hank's powers, it's ultimately his wits which serve him best, particularly when he meets a similarly-enhanced crime lord whose magic power is to win every fight - Hank actually beats the no-win scenario!

In all, the Shadow Hero is an atypical super hero romp, somewhat irreverent and quite funny. If you are interested in the original 1940s stories, the first one is included in the back of the book as a bonus feature. The Shadow Hero came out earlier this year and should still be available at superior bookstores, comic shops & online stores everywhere.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Somehow I knew you would be here—when my star rose." Black Ace by George Bruce

Earlier, I blogged about the three issues of the Weird Tales pulp magazines I'd acquired. Although I enjoyed some of the stories a great deal, for the most part I felt dispirited to discover Weird Tales wasn't a treasure-trove of great supernatural stories - they had their hits & misses, the same as everyone else.

When I found a couple of issues of Argosy from 1935 & 1936 selling for low prices I decide to gamble again; the issues didn't contain any authors I was familiar with, but knowing the reputation of Argosy as a great adventure pulp which delved into every possible genre for material, I thought at the very least the issues would be worth sticking on a shelf next to my Weird Tales. I bought them with low expectations.

Now, let me tell you what I found in the 1935, Vol. 259 No. 6 issue of Argosy: "Black Ace" by George Bruce. I hadn't heard of the author before; I checked up on him and found he'd published a lot during the pulp era, but his stories hadn't seen much republication. And now I'm convinced that's a pity.

"Black Ace" is the story of Jefferson Rolfe, an African-American pilot; it is told through the eyes of Caucasian pilot Ken Morey. It begins in the days of the air circuses when Morey discovers Rolfe is offering an exhibition in Birmingham on the same day as Morey's circus. Thinking Rolfe might drum up extra business, Rolfe invites him into the circus. However, it quickly becomes apparent Rolfe has never actually flown a plane before. Impressed by Rolfe's courage, Morey offers to train him, but after months of work Rolfe still can't land a plane - he's "ground-shy." The men drift apart for years.

Eventually, the story shifts to Ethiopia; Morey is now selling combat aircraft around the globe and has offered his vehicles to Ras Tafari himself for use against the impending Italian invasion (the Italians aren't identified by name, but Ras Tafari is so there's little hope of readers missing which conflict this is). Rolfe winds up in Ethiopia as well, still trying to make something of himself - feeling that as a pilot, he could be an inspiration to other African-Americans. When the Italian bombers begin their assault, Rolfe finally has his chance.

I'm glad I had my expectations set so low because this story - WOW! - my summary doesn't do it justice. It's a great drama, very different from anything I've found in other popular entertainments of the time, primarily in how it depicts Rolfe; Rolfe is courageous, noble, well-spoken (described as having an "Oxford accent") and, in the closing pages, heroic. If it had been a film in '35, it would have likely starred Paul Robeson and it's the kind of part Robeson would have excelled at.

If this is the only great story George Bruce ever wrote, then I'm glad I found it. If he wrote anything else worth reading, I hope I'll soon find it!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Various Venerable Vampires of Variable Value in Vintage Radio

Earlier I composed a list of appearances by werewolves in old-time radio programs. Although I collected those shows because I have a particular interest in werewolf fiction, I began to wonder - what about some of the other familiar monster types who appeared on the radio?

It seems natural, then, to continue this series with the vampire, probably the most popular monster in fiction (unless you count ghosts). However, old-time radio was slow to gain interest in horror stories and even then, many early broadcasts have been lost to time and wear. It is perhaps notable that while film studios began to lose interest in horror movies as the 1930s wore on, the 1930s were a golden age of horror radio programs. I haven't found many shows which utilized genuine vampires, but here's my complete findings.

Note: I'm also aware there's a 1941 episode of Front Page Drama entitled "House of the Dead" which supposedly deals with vampires, but I couldn't locate a copy of the audio to verify it.

VAMPIRES IN NAME ONLY

The early program Police Reporter dramatized real-life crimes and one 1935 entry told the story of the "Vampire of Dusseldorf," an oft-recounted tale of a mad serial killer in Germany so named because he actually drank the blood from some of his victims! This isn't the kind of subject which would pass muster on radio in the 1940s.

Right-click here to download Police Reporter's "The Case of the Vampire of Dusseldorf" from archive.org

One of the 1935 episodes of Alex Raymond's adventure comic strip Jungle Jim concerned Jim battling a "Bat Woman" of the jungle who wore a bat costume while commanding her subjects. The same story was adapted to radio and the entire story has, luckily, been preserved. It's not vampires, but it's a pretty good adventure yarn. Get out your comic strips and follow along!

Right-click here to download the Adventures of Jungle Jim's Bat Woman story, part 1 from archive.org part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6 part 7 part 8 part 9 part 10 part 11 part 12 part 13 part 14 part 15 part 16 part 17 part 18 part 19 part 20 part 21

Remaining with comic strips, Mark Trail himself once tangled with "Vampires of the Deep" in a 1950 episode, but these "vampires" were merely fish thieves, not blood suckers.

Right-click here to download Mark Trail's "Vampire of the Deep" from archive.org

VAMPIRE HOAXES

1944 saw a great episode of Nick Carter, Master Detective where he faces off against weird, unseen creatures which have been preying on the blood of young people ambushed in the park by night. Even though you can be assured they won't turn out to be real vampires it's a pretty great mystery-thriller - though it gets a little racist when the creatures are finally revealed.

Right-click here to download Nick Carter, Master Detective's "Death After Dark" from archive.org

For all the jokes about vampires on Inner Sanctum Mysteries, they don't seem to have thrived in the surviving episodes. The 1945 episode "the Undead" has a neat story about a woman who gradually begins to believe her husband is a vampire. Unfortunately, like so many Inner Sanctum stories the supernatural doesn't truly exist and the explanation at the end is dumb, dumb, dumb, to the extent that you feel dumb for even listening. Interestingly, when Ernie Colon adapted this story for his Inner Sanctum graphic novel, he chucked out the limp ending and went with real vampires (I reviewed Colon's book on the blog here).

Right-click here to download Inner Sanctum Mysteries' "The Undead" from archive.org

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes famously dealt with a supposed vampire in his story of "the Sussex Vampire," which the radio program adapted in 1947. However, earlier in the year the series tackled a similar case in "the Adventure of the Carpathian Horror," concerning a nobleman who's being gaslighted into thinking he's a vampire.

Right-click here to download the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' "The Adventure of the Carpathian Horror" from archive.org

Right-click here to download the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' "The Sussex Vampire" from archive.org

Our friends Jack, Doc & Reggie tangled with vampires a few times in I Love a Mystery, most notably in the serial "Temple of Vampires," an absolutely terrific serial adventure whose 1950 adaptation still exists. You can listen to the episodes in a marathon, but I find I enjoy them the most when I hear them one chapter per day, as originally intended. There's also one existing chapter of the serial "My Beloved is a Vampire" from 1952, which is otherwise apparently lost to the ages. Neither of these serials deal with real vampires, but there's enough tension and excitement that it doesn't really bother me.

Right-click here to download I Love a Mystery's "Temple of Vampires" part 1 from archive.org part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6 part 7 part 8 part 9 part 10 part 11 part 12 part 13 part 14 part 15 part 16 part 17 part 18 part 19 part 20

Right-click here to download I Love a Mystery's "My Beloved is a Vampire" Part 25 from archive.org

VAMPIRES, FANGS AND ALL

Our friend Old Nancy of Salem hosts the earliest vampire story I've found: a 1933 episode of the Witch's Tale entitled the Graveyard Mansion in which the new inhabitants of an estate discover a beautiful lady vampire lurks on the grounds! It's early, primitive radio drama, but not bad.

Click here to listen to the Witch's Tale's "The Graveyard Mansion" at Youtube.

Undoubtedly the most famous radio vampire story is the Mercury Theatre on the Air's adaptation of "Dracula," the premiere episode of that series! Orson Welles himself plays Dracula (and Dr. Seward) with the other Mercury players in very fine form. It's an excellent performance and many of the lines stay with you; certainly, I find myself occasionally imitating Martin Gabel's Van Helsing ("Strike, Harker!") while watching Dracula films.

Right-click here to download the Mercury Theatre on the Air's "Dracula" from archive.org

The following year, 1939, found Bela Lugosi vamping his way onto radio to satirize himself on Texaco Star Theatre for a skit called "Dracula of Sunnybrook Farm." In 1939, Bela would have been both struggling with cash (as he usually was) and without many horror roles, so I can't fault him for this - but boy, he got a lot of mileage out of making fun of himself over the decades. Also, Texaco really wanted to be the Jack Benny Program, but despite having secured Kenny Baker from that program, their writing simply isn't up to snuff.

Click here to listen to Texaco Star Theatre's "Dracula of Sunnybrook Farm" at myoldradio.com

Weirdly, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire story "Carmilla" - while appreciated amongst aficionados - has not only failed to attain the widespread acclaim of Dracula, but the 1940 radio adaptation is also largely forgotten, even though it was presented on the prestigious Columbia Workshop by no less than adaptor Lucille Fletcher (best-known for the Suspense episode "Sorry, Wrong Number") and starring Bill Johnstone. Those people who do talk about "Carmilla," primarily talk about the lesbian subtext. Personally, I think calling it a "lesbian vampire story" is kind of dismissive - it's a great vampire story - isn't that enough?

Right-click here to download the Columbia Workshop's "Carmilla" from archive.org

You know, a lot of people give Inner Sanctum grief for not delivering on the supernatural elements they'd tease, but as a counterpoint I offer you the Hermit's Cave, a show which ran contemporaneously and featured real supernatural terrors, but, unlike Inner Sanctum, possessed no understanding of subtlety. Yes, you read that correctly - I'm stating for the record that even Inner Sanctum has more subtlety than the Hermit's Cave. The episode "The Vampire's Desire" concerns a vampire attempting to trap new victims in his home. Unfortunately, from the host's cackles to the strained performances, there's no room left for the listener's imagination to inhabit this story.

Right-click here to download the Hermit's Cave's "The Vampire's Desire" from archive.org

Bela Lugosi made light of himself again in a 1946 Halloween episode of the Rudy Vallee Show. Let me warn you right now, this broadcast is painful; the studio audience's lack of reaction to most of the jokes should tell you something. Bela is supposed to be in-character as a vampire called "the Bat," but he cracks up at co-star Billie Burke's performance in the skit, somewhat wrecking his role as the straight man. There aren't many vampire jokes either - "the Bat" quickly turns to Frankenstein Monster jokes, so the vampire material was probably there to justify casting Lugosi.

Click here to listen to the Rudy Vallee Show's 1946 Halloween episode at Youtube.

The simply triumphant program Quiet, Please told one of my favourite vampire stories in "My Son John," wherein a man raises his son from the dead, only to find his son is now a vampire (serving Dracula himself, no less!). These vampires don't behave according to the usual rules (notably, they seem able to shapeshift into anything), but don't let that throw you.

Right-click here to download Quiet, Please's "My Son John" from archive.org

Finally, we have the Hall of Fantasy, a seldom-praised but frequently-effective horror program which never shied away from the supernatural - or downer endings. This time, the 1953 episode "The Marquise of Death" features a hunt for a lady vampire but the protagonist is about the most thick-headed man to ever feature in a vampire story; he should have held out for a part in the Fearless Vampire Killers.

Click here to listen to the Hall of Fantasy's "The Marquise of Death" at oldtimeradiodownloads.com

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Unearthed: Secret Origins#28

I've indicated before that John Ostrander's Suicide Squad is one of my all-time favourite comic book series. Going through the early years of Ostrander's run, one character I had trouble with was Nightshade, one of the few true-blue super heroes on a team comprised mostly of villains. Nightshade's origins were a major part of her character arc in the series, but I'd only ever read one of her old Charlton adventures (and it had nothing to do with her origin).

My confusion reached its zenith around Suicide Squad #14, when the Squad began a multi-part story delving into Nightshade's home dimension and her brother; all through, I felt pretty lost. Now, I finally have the "missing" issue of Suicide Squad which explains everything; for some reason, the missing issue was published as Secret Origins #28.

I'm sure DC thought it a grand idea at the time - encourage their readers to pick up Secret Origins #28 for the full story on Nightshade's past! It's like a bonus issue of the Squad and keeps the exposition from bogging down the series proper. Of course, as a collector who came to the series years later, I didn't imagine I'd be buying up issues of Secret Origins for the sake of the series at hand (I also had to buy #14).

The tale, "A Princess Story" was written by Robert Greenberger, at the time Suicide Squad's editor. The artist is one... Rob Liefeld?! Yet, you'd hardly recognize him circa 1988. Back then he drew feet and more than three expressions, y'know. In this story, Eve Eden (Nightshade) narrates her origin story to Father Craemer, Suicide Squad's ever-popular prison chaplain (certainly one of my favourites from the series). Eve explains how her mother came to Earth from another dimension. When Eve and her brother Larry were still children, their mother brought them to her home dimension to reveal everything about her origins to them, but the creature who originally drove her to Earth - the Incubus - hadn't been driven away as the mother had been led to believe. Monsters working for the Incubus kidnapped Larry and killed Eve's mother; gaining her mother's power to becoming a "living shadow," Eve escaped back to Earth.

Eve describes how she learned to master her powers over the years and tried to explore the other dimension, but nearly died in a close encounter with the Incubus. She finally decided to become a super hero and went to work for King Faraday, battling people like the Black Spider and Punch & Jewelee. Eventually she came to Amanda Waller and made a deal - she'd join Task Force X in exchange for the Squad's help in rescuing her brother from the Incubus. She's brought all of this to Father Craemer because the mission against the Incubus is only now finally going forward. Craemer offers his best encouragement to her, reminding her to keep her faith in Jesus Christ (Nightshade was one of the few Squad characters who shared Craemer's Christian faith).

The story fills in blanks I had about Eve, her brother and the Incubus; I wish I had it in hand when I first read through Suicide Squad, but it's fine - I'm simply glad the details were to be found somewhere. Pretty good art by Liefeld too - definitely the work of a young artist with a few things to learn, but based on these pages he looks like an Art Adams-in-waiting, rather than the entity he soon became.

In our second feature we have "The Secret Origin of Midnight" as told by Roy Thomas & Gil Kane, based on the story by Jack Cole. Wow! What a great creative team! And Midnight is definitely one of the better Golden Age heroes, thanks to Cole's wild storytelling. The story sees one Dave Clark, radio announcer for an adventure radio program featuring a hero called "Midnight." After seeing a building collapse due to deliberately-slipshod construction, Clark dons a mask and calls himself Midnight so he can bring the crooks to justice.

I wish I could say more about the Midnight story, but it's all pretty rout. Kane illustrates everything prettily and with tremendous energy, but the story has no sense of fun. Cole's later Midnight adventures were, like his Plastic Man tales, absolutely off the chain, practically a satire of the super hero genre. It's because of those later tales that Midnight is remembered (if, indeed, anyone remembers him at all). This tale marks only the 2nd time Midnight appeared in comics following the 1940s - both penned by Thomas and both bereft of fun. Midnight is treated seriously as a two-fisted masked hero, and thus is utterly unremarkable. The most interesting thing Thomas comes up with here is the idea that Midnight took his identity from a radio program - otherwise, it follows the character's 1941 origin story pretty much faithfully (as expected from the Rascally One).

Still, Gil Kane throws in one last image of Midnight with his later sidekicks Doc Wackey & Gabby, presented by the editor as a bonus. This is the Midnight who I'd like to read more stories about, though Thomas probably wouldn't have been the one to write them, even in 1988 (Sergio Aragones, though - I bet he'd be a great Midnight author).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"If you want to be good at this, you need to do your homework." DKW review

In his comic DKW: Ditko Kirby Wood, writer/artist Sergio Ponchione argues Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby & Wally Wood were (and are) the "trinity" of comic books. In this comic, a veteran comic book creator describes Ditko, Kirby & Wood to a novice artist and his descriptions of each man's work are told through pages illustrated in a style similar to the artist at hand. Ponchione's ability to mimic them is quite a feat - it's not indistinguishable from the real thing, but it is something to see an artist of this time who can draw upon the skills of a true comic book master (much less three of them!).

I grew up on comics in the shadow of Wood's death and a time when Kirby & Ditko had been relegated to less-visible, less-prestigious books. In due time, as a huge Marvel Comics fan (and eventual freelancer for them), I came to explore and love their Marvel work. It took longer for me to step into their non-Marvel work or take an interest in their personal lives (which, I tend to prefer creators keep personal, so I don't begrudge Ditko's quiet withdrawl from the comics scene at all).

Ponchione's Kirby pages seem to be drawn almost exclusively from the pages of the Eternals (note the structure above which is based on the Celestials' Mothership) which suits me fine, it being my favourite Kirby series. Both the Kirby and Ditko pages celebrate the imaginative work produced by those men without any real gray clouds.

However, Wally Wood seems to provoke melancholy wherever his name is mentioned due to how his final years played out. For a long time I didn't know his name - and even when I did see people discussing it, I didn't understand why. In that regard, I could have used a copy of DKW about 15 years ago to educate me on why he's considered a legend. Ponchione seems to have recognized this as he spent quite a bit of text on Wood's style and innovation.

DKW is perhaps something you could hand to a friend who doesn't know too much about Ditko, Kirby or Wood. I already knew those names - but now Sergio Ponchione is another name I'll have to revisit.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Where the werewolves were in old-time radio

I was recently reading Guy Endore's 1933 novel the Werewolf of Paris and I began to reflect on how werewolves were portrayed in popular culture of the time, as I spent a lot of time enjoying literature, films and radio programs of the past. Although Universal's the Wolfman is one of the giants of classic monster movies, there really weren't very many werewolves on screen in those days. Similarly, while Dracula and Frankenstein are two of the great classic horror novels, there's no werewolf book whose reputation permits it to stand alongside them.

And what of radio? What I find interesting about werewolves on radio is that while they were frequently spoken of (say, in Raymond the host's jokes on Inner Sanctum Mysteries), they only infrequently figured in plots on the radio and even less often appeared in the fur & flesh - most radio werewolves involve a hoax of some sort. I can only go by what episodes still exist today, but going from that I've composed a list of werewolves on the radio, grouped together for your convenience into "name only," "hoaxes," and "the real deal."

PART 1: WEREWOLVES IN-NAME-ONLY

There are two 1949 radio police drama shows featuring criminals who terrorize women and are referred to as a "werewolf," but only in allusion to the supernatural beast, not because anyone believes they are such. The two are so similar, I wonder if they were both inspired by the same real life event? First, an audition show for a series called Prowl Car presented "the Wilshire Werewolf," then a very early episode of Dragnet delved into its own werewolf.

Click here to listen to Prowl Car's "the Wilshire Werewolf" at myoldradio.com

Right-click here to download Dragnet's "the Werewolf" from archive.org

PART 2: THE GREAT WEREWOLF HOAXES

The earliest "hoax" program I've found is 1935's Front Page Drama, which presented an episode entitled "the Werewolf" which seems to be based on true events where people's superstitions about werewolves nearly leads to an innocent girl's death. The ending is a bit muddled but the most interesting thing about it is that this show uses the standard rules about vampires for werewolves! At one point the term "werewolf vampire" is uttered as though they were the same thing! Yes, vampires often change shape too, but since the supposed werewolves in this story are said to be corpses by day who can only be destroyed with a stake through the heart, it sure sounds like vampires, huh?

Right-click here to download Front Page Drama's "the Werewolf" from Radio Echoes.

I've found two episodes of the Shadow where he tangles with suspected werewolves. The first one, 1941's "Death Prowls at Night" is actually very good, involving a madman who can hypnotize people into thinking they're werewolves; but maybe he really is a werewolf? It ends on an ambiguous note. The second, 1947's "the Werewolf of Hamilton Mansion" involves a wealthy man who thinks his son is a werewolf and has kept him locked up, but it's all a trick.

Right-click here to download the Shadow's "Death Prowls at Night" from archive.org

Click here to listen to the Shadow's "the Werewolf of Hamilton Mansion" at youtube.com

I Love a Mystery has (barely) two surviving storylines involving werewolves: "Bride of the Werewolf" and "Bury Your Dead, Arizona." The former exists in only two parts out of fifteen, one produced in 1944, the other from 1952! The latter's 1949 version is complete and involves a supposed mystic whose assistant can become a wolf, but as I Love a Mystery is the program which inspired Scooby-Doo, you may not be surprised to hear it's all a fake.

Right-click here to download I Love a Mystery's "Bride of the Werewolf" part 3 from archive.org; part 12

Right-click here to download I Love a Mystery's "Bury Your Dead, Arizona" part 1 from archive.org; part two; part 3; part 4; part 5; part 6; part 7; part 8; part 9; part 10; part 11; part 12; part 13; part 14; part 15

A 1946 episode of the Adventures of Dick Cole entitled "The Werewolf of Farr" has a plot so slight it should have been an episode of Five-Minute Mysteries, yet drags itself out to a half-hour. People are convinced there's a werewolf loose, yet since the episode mentions early on that a real wolf has escaped you really shouldn't expect to be surprised by the climax.

Right-click here to download the Adventures of Dick Cole's "the Werewolf of Farr" from archive.org

Sherlok Holmes occasionally tangles with the supernatural, but by the very nature of his character - a man who make sense of the seeming insensible - the supernatural is thoroughly debunked each time. Such an instance is found in the 1946 episode of the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes entitled "the Adventure of the Black Angus," in which a Scotsman believes he's inherited the family curse of lycanthropy. Weirdly, when Sherlock first says "werewolf," Watson responds "A vampire!" which is either exposing the cursory research of the creators or represents yet another "dumb Watson" moment.

Right-click here to download the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' "The Adventure of the Black Angus."

Easily the best werewolf hoax on this list, Escape presented an adaptation of Geoffrey Household's "Taboo" in 1947. Never mind that the suspected werewolf is only a man - it's a suitably terrifying story about hunting a monster at night - or being hunted by a monster! It also hints at some very dark, grisly affairs.

Right-click here to download Ecape's "Taboo" from archive.org

The New Adventures of Michael Shayne being set in New Orleans seemed contractually obliged to tell a "loup-garou" story and they got it over with early in 1948. It has lively performances by Jeff Chandler & Jack Webb, but the plot is nuts.

Right-click here to download the New Adventures of Michael Shayne's "the Case of the Bayou Monster" from archive.org

There are two western programs involving werewolf hoaxes: the Challenge of the Yukon's "Trail of the Werewolf" from 1949 and Wild Bill Hickok's "The Wolf of Ghost Mountain" from 1952. Both are juvenile westerns with simple hoax plots.

Right-click here to download the Challenge of the Yukon's "Trail of the Werewolf" from archive.org

Right-click here to download Wild Bill Hickok's "the Wolf of Ghost Mountain" from archive.org

Finally, Escape ventured into the bayou with their 1952 episode "Loup-Garou," wherein a man is accused of being a werewolf by a hateful mob; the play was performed again as a 1956 episode of Romance which is in much better condition than the earlier version.

Right-click here to download Escape's "Loup-Garou" from archive.org

Right-click here to download Romance's "the Loup-Garou" from archive.org

PART 3: THE REAL DEAL - WEREWOLVES IN THE FUR, FLESH & FANG

Appropriately, we begin with the Witch's Tale; unlike many of the later horror programs (such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries or the Mysterious Traveler), the Witch's Tale never shied from the supernatural. Unfortunately, surviving episodes tend to be of very poor sound quality, sound effects are minimal, performances are flat and there's very little tension. Placing only that aside, we have the 1935 rendition of "the Werewolf" (earlier versions are lost) in which the course of true love never did run smoothly; two young lovers are torn apart by the fact that the young man tears people apart at night when he becomes a wolf.

Click here to listen to the Witch's Tale's "the Werewolf" at youtube.com

Much later we have 1942's Dark Fantasy and "W is for Werewolf." Dark Fantasy is not a very distinguished program but it told its rather pulpy stories well. Like the Shadow episode I described above, this involves a man locking up his supposed-werewolf son - only this time, it's the real thing!

Right-click here to download Dark Fantasy's "W is for Werewolf" from archive.org

Sadly, very few episodes of Creeps by Night have survived and their audio quality tends to be very poor; considering the show used both Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff it's quite a loss to classic horror fans! However, we still have 1944's "the Hunt," a story where people toss around the "w" word at each other - but who is the werewolf who's been terrorizing the area?

Right-click here to download Creeps by Night's "the Hunt" from archive.org

The Weird Circle didn't have the best actors in radio, but they adapted their material from some of the best classic horror fiction so it's a show of interest to all fans of radio horror. Their 1944 episode "the Werewolf" is adapted from a passage in Frederick Marryat novel the Phantom Ship, involving a woodsman who takes a new wife whose hobbies include hunting at night in the form of a wolf. Should've had a pre-nup.

Right-click here to download the Weird Circle's "the Werewolf" from archive.org

Special thanks to Ian Griev for pointing out this quick story from 1945's Strange Adventure; in "Werewolf Island," a wolf has been devouring sheep and the beast appears so intelligent that people suspect it's a werewolf!

Right-click here to download Strange Adventure's "Werewolf Island" from archive.org

Werewolf fans frequently cite the 1946 Suspense episode "The House in Cypress Canyon" as a werewolf program, even though the term never appears. It's actually to the show's benefit to not explain too much about what exactly the horror is - but if you like werewolf stories, this one delivers big time!

Right-click here to download Suspense's "the House in Cypress Canyon" from archive.org

Finally, in 1957 comedian Stan Freberg threw the films I Was a Teenage Werewolf and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit into a blender and came up with an episode of the Stan Freberg Show with the hilarious skit "A Gray Flannel Hat Full of Teenage Werewolves." It concerns a werewolf who is cursed to become an advertising executive by day!

Right-click here to download the Stan Freberg Show's "A Gray Flannel Hat Full of Teenage Werewolves" from archive.org

Thank you for checking out this list!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Quiet, Please: the list of recommendations

Part of what makes the Old-Time Radio hobby so easy to slip into is that so many of the surviving broadcasts which circulate are in terrific condition and quite pleasant on the ears. However, because those who address the largest audiences prefer the clean audio, there are all kinds of less-than-clean programs whose entire catalogs don't seem to receive air time; if you're a fanatic about Old-Time Radio, then you have to track those shows down on your own time.

I had been a fan of OTR for years (beginning with an interest in the horror & science fiction shows) when I had the pleasant surprise of discovering Quiet, Please, a program which ran from 1947-1949 and whose body of work is near-complete - albeit often in poor audio condition. Quiet, Please is not the type of program today's jockeys like to use - it's a challenging show with (naturally) a very quiet tone. There are few actors, with most of the work being done by star Ernest Chappell. There are few instruments, mainly an organ and a piano. There are even fewer sound effects (frequently the piano or organ take their place). The stories are often melancholic and demand a listener's full attention - unlike, say, a horror program such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries which has a "shocking development" every 3 minutes or so, when Quiet, Please is telling a horror story it usually builds to a single moment of horror (and many episodes aren't horror stories at all).

Quiet, Please might be better termed a "dark fantasy" series rather than horror. Wyllis Cooper's stories often feel like poetry, brought to life through Ernest Chappell's performances. Chappell, as some have observed, serves as a fantastic everyman performer, being able to disappear into his roles, sometimes by adopting accents, different pitches or verbal tics. Taken as a whole, Quiet, Please is a combination of horror, humour, fantasy, poetry and melancholy - so, basically, it's great for Edgar Allan Poe fans.

For all these reasons of audio quality and story content, I think it might be helpful to offer my suggestion of 10 great Quiet, Please episodes. It's my belief that if you are an OTR fan and you enjoy any of these shows, you will enjoy them a lot and probably seek out the rest of the series. This list is simply a handy means of getting started. All links lead to the mp3 files at archive.org

  1. "Beezer's Cellar" is a horror story about a gang of robbers who learn of an unfinished cellar and decide it would be a good place to stash their loot. However, this cellar turns out to be literally incomplete - it's not entirely part of this world.
  2. "Let the Lilies Consider" is a strange tale of weird fantasy in the vein of Algernon Blackwood. A man adores his flowers but his wife grows increasingly outraged by them, feeling truly jealous over his plants. Much as in a Blackwood story, nature proves stronger than humanity.
  3. "My Son John" is a vampire story, albiet one with a few unusual rules about vampires and told in a way that's half-horrifying, half-amusing. A man desperate to see his dead son again raises him from the dead - but now his son is a vampire who intends to feast upon the living.
  4. "Northern Lights" is a weird science fiction tale about two men whose experiments in time start bringing frozen caterpillars into their lab. Caterpillars who sing.
  5. "Presto Change-o, I'm Sure" is pretty representative of the series' take on fantasy. A young man obtains a real magic wand; although he doesn't entirely understand how to use it, he learns enough to get himself into trouble - particularly with the wand's original owner, Cagliostro.
  6. "Shadow of the Wings" is an Easter story about the angel of death seeking the life of a dying child and the child's mother attempting to fend off death, himself.
  7. "The Thing on the Fourble Board" is easily the best-known episode of the series. It's isn't to everyone's tastes, but if you like radio horror you really do owe it to yourself to hear this one. It's a freaky tale about a drilling crew who unearth something from deep beneath the surface - something like an invisible spider. And it has a voice.
  8. "Wear the Dead Man's Coat" involves two men's discovery that if you wear a dead person's clothes you can become invisible, which seems like a condition with no drawbacks - but oh, there definitely is one!
  9. "Whence Came You" is another very well-thought-of horror episode concerning an archaeologist who opens up an old tomb there's something still alive in there - possibly an irate Egyptian god!
  10. "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?" is almost a parody of Quiet, Please in which a drunk pesters Wyllis Cooper in a bar, attempting to tell him stories about the weird things on the moon and how he keeps killing the same woman over and over again.

If you dig Quiet, Please then be sure to let me know which episodes are your favorites!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Unearthed: "Revelations" by Christopher Priest & Eric Battle

Completing my three-day appreciation of Christopher Priest, I'm turning the clock back to 1998 and JLA 80-Page Special#1, featuring the story "Revelations" by Priest and artist Eric Battle. Earlier, I featured another of Priest's stories from the 80-Page Giants: "The Game"; I only learned of this tale thanks to J. Caleb Mozzocco.

At merely 10 pages it's a quick story, so it says something that people remember this tale so many years later.

We open with Wonder Woman responding to a distress call sent by Aquaman. Wearing a rebreather, she dives underwater to rendezvous with him. This tale is during Aquaman's hooked, bearded, frowny days and he's definitely crabby with his teammate from the outset. "I just-- expected J'onn -- or Superman--" he complains. The problem is a fairly simple one to solve, it merely requires an extra set of hands: a band of underwater treasure hunters submerged into an Atlantean labyrinth and now their craft is stuck; to add insult to injury, the underwater "gold" is fool's gold. Aquaman can't free the vessel alone, but with Wonder Woman's help he might succeed.

As they begin to work on the problem, using Wonder Woman's lasso to tow the vehicle, Wonder Woman wonders why Aquaman seems more grouchy than usual.

"Sometimes it's just easier to fence off the world. And, the truth of it is-- I spend a lot of time wondering what I'm doing in the JLA to begin with, Princess--"

"--Diana, Arthur. Unless you prefer I call you 'my lord.'"

"Actually-- I would."

Aquaman continues to grouch along, calling her "a little vapid and boring" and hates how people assume they "have anything at all in common simply because we're both royalty." Then his secret comes out: "I can't find any rational reason-- why I want you so badly." Wonder Woman deduces he's become tangled in her Lasso of Truth, hence his session of truth-telling. Unfortunately, this is carried entirely by the dialogue because the artist doesn't bother to show it all. Hey, it's only the incident the entire story depends on, no big deal.

Their conversation is interrupted by a second team of treasure hunters - these, figures wearing diving suits and carrying weaponry. Wonder Woman's communicator is knocked out so Aquaman monologues the rest of the underwater scenes solo, continuing to remark "wish they'd sent J'onn." However, now that she can't hear him and he's not wrapped in the lasso, he also remarks she's "part of the reason I remain with the JLA" and "I don't like to be alone with you."

They successfully fend off their attackers and save the submerged craft, but Aquaman is somewhat sheepish over what he admitted to her before. When he wonders if he can trust her to "keep this incident between us," she responds by swimming close to him and pressing her hand against his cheek. "Arthur -- my lord king --" and then she dives underwater, leaving him rattled and confused.

"Yes... well... glad we got that settled... wish they'd sent J'onn..."

Thoughts: While not wishing to psychoanalyze Priest, I do recall one of his essays described a relationship he'd wanted to pursue which didn't pan out - he wound up in "the friend zone," to use current parlance. He seems to put Aquaman through something similar here through the hero lusting after Wonder Woman while realizing such a relationship probably wouldn't work and his feelings probably wouldn't be reciprocated.

I don't know DC Comics continuity particularly well so I can't say whether this characterization of Aquaman & Wonder Woman holds (ahem) water. I do find it interesting to note that when people try to pair Wonder Woman off with one of her peers in the League (because that's what strong, independent women want, right? to be someone's "and..."), they pair her with Superman because they have similar power levels (and he's popular!) or Batman because they're children of royalty (and he's popular!). Poor unpopular Aquaman actually seems like a decent choice for her, given they originated in warrior-culture hidden lands with deep mystical/mythological connections. Then again, perhaps that's why they couldn't ever work out, they'd be all like, "Oh my gods, you follow Neptune? What's wrong with Artemis?" "I can't stand listening to the Greek pantheon, give me the Romans any time." "They're the same gods starfish-brain!"

Eric Battle's art is an unfortunate demerit; as noted above, he doesn't capture the Aquman-tangled-in-lasso moment at all and in general his panels don't tell the story; you could redialogue this tale into almost anything. The load is left upon Priest to carry the tale with his scripting and, fortunately, Priest was (and is) a fantastic scripter. The art isn't up to the same standard as Cary Nord in "the Game," but this is a minor triumph in Priest's bibliography. This one was definitely worth unearthing!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"There's all kinds of ghosts. I'm not one who particularly likes to show off." The Phantom#1 review

At the same time I was in the shop to pick up Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody#1, I saw something else on the stands which seemed to be the perfect companion: The Phantom#1 from Hermes Press.

I had thought the Phantom's rights were currently tied up with Dynamite Entertainment, but somehow Hermes - who have been reprinting the character's earlier comic strip & comic book adventures - have landed this limited series. And its connection to Quantum & Woody? It's drawn by Sal Velluto, Priest's longest (and greatest) collaborator on Marvel's Black Panther. Also, I suppose, the author is Peter David, whom Priest helped get started in comics. There, I've played my "six degrees of Priest" game.

Being a Peter David-scripted comic book, you can expect the characters will mouth glib dialogue; they do. Being a Sal Velluto-drawn comic book, you can also expect lushly-rendered scenery and believeable people; they are. It appears to be set during the same timeframe as the original comic strips (not having read the early strips, I wouldn't know for sure). The Phantom's wife Diana is a major character, giving David the kind of strong female lead he enjoys writing. All the trappings of the Phantom are here: the jungles, the pirates, the unapologetically garish purple bodysuit (compare to how ashamed the 2009 TV movie was of his visual), the horse Hero and wolf Devil - and there's someone lurking in the periphery of the story who might be Tarzan (or a Tarzan analog).

Velluto remains a gorgeous artist, here providing his own inks; the two-page recount of the Phantom's origin is, on its own, a triumph. I'm very pleased to see both Priest & Velluto on the stands again (even if they aren't together) and I'll be interested to see where this Phantom mini series goes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

"Buffer zone! Buffer!!" Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody #1 review

When the revived Valiant Comics announced they would be bringing back the series Quantum & Woody, but without creators Christopher Priest & Mark Bright, my reaction wavered somewhere between "what's the point?" and "this is disgrace." Creators and their interpretations of characters come and go; sometimes in comics, the character's creator is not the person who develops the definitive version of that character. And yet, Quantum & Woody is a Priest/Bright comic book. You could plug in any talented creators and tell decent stories, but you would be stripping away the particularly unique vision Priest had in the original 1990s series.

It would be easy to see Quantum & Woody as a super hero comedy series, or as a satire of the genre. In part, that's true, but there's a particular style Priest used to tell his stories; his Quantum & Woody seemed to be super heroes in a world which didn't really have a use for them; Quantum in particular was earnest and intelligent about his goal to fight crime, yet the tropes which normally make crime-fighting for super heroes easy, never quite clicked (consider how infrequently the duo actually/successfully fought criminals in the series). Eric & Woody's deep, lengthy bond of mutual loathing made it a perfect companion to Priest & Bright's Power Man & Iron Fist.

Fortunately, Valiant seems willing to do right by Priest & Bright, hence the recent release of Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody#1, reuniting the creators with their creations in a project which seems to exist in the original Valiant universe, rather than the one where "I can't believe it's not Priest & Bright's Quantum & Woody!" reside. Predictably, Priest has chosen to pick up where he left off - resuming the character's lives in the present, that is (just as an earlier semi-cancellation caused Priest to skip months ahead into the story).

In this future, Eric & Woody have drifted apart somehow and neither one is an active super hero. And yet, there's still a Quantum & Woody out there (in what seems to be a metatextual reference to "Store Brand Quantum & Woody"). Woody goes investigating and winds up waging a war of insults with the new Woody. As before, the story also breaks to visit Eric & Woody's childhood and there's a quick recap of their origin for latecomers. That said, anyone who hasn't read Priest & Bright's Quantum & Woody before would do better to begin with the original stories (collected into trades & digital copies by Valiant) rather than start here; you can follow the story, but you might not get it.

Considering Priest & Bright have been away from comics for awhile, it's astounding to see how easily they slip right back into their roles. I've enjoyed the smooth, round lines in Bright's art for ages, yet he seems better than ever here (perhaps some of the credit belongs to inker Dexter Vines?). And while some authors simply become parodies of themselves with age, Priest seems content to satirize everything (himself included).

Although I would be happy to see Priest & Bright continue to tell Quantum & Woody stories beyond this limited series, frankly I'd be content simply to see Priest & Bright at work somewhere in this medium. These jokers are as good as they've ever been, yet they've created barely any comics in the last decade! Comics industry: go stand in the corner and think about what you've done, then offer them all the money in the bank before they drift away again!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Remembering "Hills Are For Heroes"

One way in my mother and I learned to bond during my sullen teenage years was through her favourite television program - a 1960s action series set in World War II called Combat. You can't make up this sort of thing.

It took a long time for me to come around to Combat's charms, but since my mother seemed to be videotaping and/or watching the show every other evening, I had plenty of opportunities for exposure. One of the first episodes I recall truly enjoying was "Duel," in which leading character Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow) battled a tank with nothing more than his gun and a large dose of ingenuity. It's a great action program - roughly 45 minutes of thrills and tension as Saunders makes various attempts to overcome the tank. It's also very sparse on dialogue.

I would hesitate to call "Duel" representative of Combat. Although almost every episode contains action of some kind or another - occasionally very fanciful win-the-war-single-handed type of stories - the bulk of the series seemed to concern clashes of personalities: the G.I. who's cracking up, the coward who needs to come to terms, the enemy who has to be trusted, the grunt who has to perform tasks outside of his skill set, the loner with a terrible secret. Yes, there were bullets, grenades, shells and (budget permitting) tanks, but the series was as much a character drama as an action programmer. That character drama I found so distasteful as a youngster? That became the reason to check it out as a teen.

I recall one night I was alone while the rest of the family were out and I was supervising the nightly recording of Combat. The episode in the docket was called "Hills Are For Heroes, Part 1." I began the night working on a crossword puzzle (strange that I recall that detail so clearly 20 years later) but the episode itself drew me in.

When I think of the war movies I've enjoyed I'm quick to name many of the usual suspects: All Quiet on the Western Front, Glory, Gettysburg, Letters From Iwo Jima, the Great Escape and so forth; but I often append my list with "and the Combat two-parter 'Hills Are For Heroes.'"

It isn't simply the double-length of this story which places it amongst the feature films in my mind; there's an artistry in these episodes (directed by Vic Morrow himself) which you didn't normally see on the series. The setting: a wide open valley with two German pillboxes set atop hills which have a perfect view of the road below. The soldiers' mission: to eradicate the Germans in the pillboxes so the road can be captured. The commanding officers - represented for most of the two-parter by series star Lt. Hanley (Rick Jason) repeat themselves again and again: take that hill.

Unfortunately, the Germans' vantage is far superior to the meager troops; in the opening minutes of the two-parter, the squad suffers terrible casualties in their first attempt, with Sgt. Saunders among the wounded. They receive help from artillery, but it isn't heavy enough to actually damage the pillboxes; they have a heavy machine gun, but it's near-suicidal to try and get close enough to use it. At one point a tank aids them; even this isn't enough. Even after the first failed attempt, the squad's spirits are broken; the repeated efforts only add to their frustration as some of them are on the verge of mutiny.

Saunders being sidelined with an injury is, in part, done to limit the amount of time Morrow had to spend in front of the camera; being an on-location shoot, there would have been a lot of demands on him as the director. However, it's used as a strength in the story - Saunders' injury doesn't only relieve the squad of one of their most important men, but of the one who is most likely to ameliorate the problems between Hanley and his subordinates; ordinarily, Saunders would be present in episodes to make Hanley's orders more palatable to the men, to lead them personally into battle and, generally, to win the day; Saunders' absence for most of the two-parter warns Combat fans immediately this will not be business as usual.

With Saunders out of the way, the other cast members (not credited as stars yet appearing in virtually every episode) are given a lot of opportunities to shine, especially the squad's B.A.R. man, Kirby (Jack Hogan). Frequently used in the series as a brash loudmouth (you could institute a drinking game based on the repeated line "Shut up, Kirby!"), Kirby goes up the hill more times than any of the other characters in this story; he's also forced to assume some command responsibilities as Hanley orders him to pick the men who will accompany him, knowing some of them will die (and so they do). Sometimes in the series, Kirby's tirades can be viewed as back-talking from someone outside of the command structure - the freedom of the lower ranks to complain. Here, Kirby seems to feel the weight of his position, not only to be asked to give his life in what seems to be an impossible mission, but to choose which other lives will be spent. At one point, Kirby's friend Littlejohn suggests taking his place and Kirby refuses, noting he has the right skills for the job and Littlejohn doesn't. It points to how Kirby is able to rationalize risking his life, but not those of his squad mates.

Throughout the two-parter, Kirby unleashes a steady stream of angry complaints about the assignment, yet keeps trying to accommodate Hanley. In the climax, the hill is finally won, yet - in a very cruel turn - they're ordered to fall back because the Germans had counterattacked their forces at another position. Kirby's exhausted, furious response sums up the entire story:

"No! We took this hill! This man here, I-I don't even know his name! He can't come down! Einstein can't come down! And Morgan, he can't either! We ain't comin' down, lieutenant, we took this hill!"

There are certain tricks in this episode which point to Morrow's ability as a director - the sort of tricks you tend to see young filmmakers trying out when they're eager to impress people. The most obvious comes near the end of part 1, when one of the soldiers is shot: the sound of battle fades and dulls out as he falls backwards down the hills in slow motion; the camera switches perspective to depict his viewpoint as he rolls; when his friend comes up, his words are heard in a deep slur; at the moment the camera resumes its normal view and normal audio, we realize the fallen man has died.

However, there's much more to Morrow as a director than simply that one bit of showiness. There's a terrific shot of Kirby, Caje & Littlejohn lying with their backs to a bunker wall with their feet in the focus of the foreground. The close-up of mud on Littlejohn's boots suggests how grimy and dirty this particular story is for the characters.

There's also something very interesting about the shooting location - simply a wide, grassy valley. This locale and the threat of merely two pillboxes is enough to sustain two episodes worth of tension! When you consider the many episodes of Combat involving elaborate sets over multiple stages, it's a testament to Morrow that this lifeless terrain is never bland. The characters and the situation hold the audience's interest throughout.

Is "Hills Are For Heroes" an anti-war story? Some Combat fans maintain that it is; I'm not completely convinced. It is definitely unusual fare for this series as, ordinarily, there is an expectation for the cast to triumph over their obstacles. Although episodes frequently required sacrifice, the characters' goals would be achieved, resolution would be found; that's flatly denied here. The characters are told over and over again to capture a hill; after more than a dozen deaths they succeed, then are told to turn back. There's a suggestion that the real obstacle facing our heroes was never the Germans at all - rather, it was the C.O. who was issuing them (including Hanley) orders. If you consider the C.O. to be the true antagonist of "Hills Are For Heroes," then you're right, this is an anti-war story.

But, recall, this two-parter aired in 1966! This is unusually bleak fare for a prime-time series surrounded by toothpaste and deodorant ads, but to a world which had actually lived through the war in recent memory and to which All Quiet on the Western Front, Johnny Got His Gun, A Farewell to Arms, Paths of Glory and Catch-22 had already been written, this isn't exactly a blistering indictment of war by comparison. Here, Hanley must emphasize duty in the face of futility; Kirby rages at the seemingly heartless bureaucracy which wastes men's lives in the name of expediency. Still, there are enough small, heroic triumphs to make the bitter ending feel just cruel enough without asking the audience to question whether they would want to revisit the show the following week. Those books I listed state, "War is Hell." "Hills Are For Heroes" states "War is Messy."

And yet, when I saw "Hills Are For Heroes" I hadn't been exposed to any entertainment media which was the slightest bit critical of World War II. Twenty years ago, this two-parter broadened my mind juuust a little bit - pried it apart far enough that I could later understand Remarque, Trumbo, et al. I sat down again with "Hills Are For Heroes" last night to mark Remembrance Day. It still holds up.

"All right, remember that hill: every ditch and every dip in the ground. It may come in handy the next time."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"...The old tricks still work just fine." Blacksad: Amarillo review

Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guarnido's Blacksad has been published in Spain since 2000; by the time Dark Horse Books brought an English-language version to these shores in 2010, only three stories had been produced. Perhaps encouraged by the growing interest in the character, 2010 saw the fourth story, A Silent Hell published and the English version arrived in 2012. Now we have Blacksad: Amarillo, the fifth entry, having been published last year in Spain and now in English - the speed at which the stories are being both created and translated is clearly increasing!

Strangely, this volume features two translators - Katie LaBarbera (translator of A Silent Hell) and Neal Adams! I say "strange" because Blacksad seems to have enough interest behind it that it shouldn't require a familiar North American such as Adams to promote it (and Adams is renowned for his art, not his scripts). Fortuitously, Adams explains in the book's introduction how Guarnido made a personal request for Adams to collaborate with him by translating this newest volume. I skipped the introduction and credits on my first read and didn't realize Adams had been part of the finished story; that Amarillo reads like the other Blacksad tales is a testament to Adams' fidelity to the source material, I think (perhaps if I learn Spanish one day I'll have a better idea of what precisely he contributed).

For those who are joining us late, John Blacksad lives in a world of anthropormorphic animal-people; Blacksad is a black cat. Blacksad usually makes his living as a detective and the timeframe is that of the 1950s; despite the cast being a bunch of animals, Blacksad's 1950s face very much the same social/political issues as our own 1950s.

In this tome, Blacksad accepts a very simple job - drive a sweet Cadillac Eldorado to Tulsa, Oklahoma on behalf of a wealthy bull. Unfortunately, the car is stolen and winds up in the hands of Chad Lowell, a young (lion) author who's living out his "difficult second novel" anxiety. Also in pursuit of Chad is his literary agent, Neal Beato, who becomes Blacksad's ally. Further complicating matters are a few murders, circus performers, a drunken bird and two dogged FBI agents.

Surprisingly, we gain some character insight into Blacksad here; we meet his sister Donna and they speak cryptically about their father, whom evidently neither gets along well with. We also hear Blacksad lecture his young nephew about guns, stating "Good guys don't carry guns," despite we readers being well-aware of Blacksad's use of firearms in earlier stories - so he's not proud of those escapades.

Part of what I enjoy about this book are the swerves away from predictable characters. Blacksad stories delve deep into noirish tropes, but while this may be a world of femme fatales, corrupt officials and dark secrets, it's also a world where a tough gang of bikers turn out to be reasonable and helpful; a world where a greasy lawyer can be a good friend and decent guitarist; a world where a tough FBI agent enjoys reading Mad magazine.

Diaz Canales and Guarnido not only love noir, but love the world they've built and the characters they created to inhabit it; that love is infectious! The next Blacksad won't be along for at least a couple of years - but I remain quite pleased to have it at all!

Monday, November 3, 2014

"I'm quite certain the wine's been poisoned." Rasputin #1 review

Rasputin is a new Image comic book series from creators Alex Grecian (writer) & Riley Rossmo (artist), collaborators best-known for their series Proof. In the interests of disclosure, I should mention I contributed a series of character profiles for their series Proof: Endangered; Riley is a long-held acquaintence and both are facebook friends of mine. With that out of the way, what's their current project like?

Rasputin launched only last week, barely before Halloween. As the title suggests, the lead figure is the historical Grigori Rasputin who was associated with the family of Tsar Nicholas and most infamous for the unusual way he died (drowning after surviving poison, stabbing, shooting and beating). The various "mysteries of the unexplained" books made a lot of hay out of Rasputin's death and books such as those would be where I first learned of him. Beyond those books and a grade 11 curriculum which included viewing the 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandria, that's the extent of my knowledge.

However, the back cover references another film - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - when it quotes, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Thus, although the historical Rasputin was likely not a master of mystic arts, we're in the realm of fiction here - the historical record is merely a jumping-off point.

Because Grecian & Rossmo are dealing with a well-known historical story, it's interesting to see how they chose to approach the subject of Rasputin's death; the issue opens with Rasputin poisoned to drink the poisoned wine which will (at least in the historical version) soon lead to his demise. Rather than a slow burn to this moment, Grecian & Rossmo put out there in the first issue. While it's not quite clear where the story is going to carry on from here, there's a sense that they're not holding back from the audience, rather putting their strongest foot forward. It actually takes a little chutzpah to open their first story by tackling the lead character's last story. It suggests they're not only free from fidelity to the historical account, but free to subvert the audience's expectations.

The bulk of the issue is devoted to a flashback to Rasputin's youth in Siberia. These events serve to affirm his mystic powers and demonstrate something of his conscience. The flashback portion is very light on dialogue - so much so that if you told your local comic dealer to tie his shoelace, you might have the entire script read by the time he looked up again. However, you'd be cheating yourself out of some very fine storytelling if you did.

The emphasis on telling the flashback story of young Rasputin and his father with very few words is an interesting show of 1) Grecian's humility, 2) Rossmo's confidence & 3) the ease of the duo's collaboration. It's at this point that I noticed Rasputin is a property owned jointly by Grecian & Rossmo. I think it's worth pointing this out since we still live in a time of "auteur theory comics" where writers (like Image's own Robert Kirkman) take all the ownership of their properties, sharing none with their artists. It's something Steve Ditko once noted when reacting to Stan Lee being called Spider-Man's sole creator - that the final creation was incomplete until Ditko's visuals brought it to life. If these writers are so hot, why aren't they selling their stories as prose? This is a story told by Grecian and Rossmo, not "a Grecian story adapted by Rossmo." Telling the death of Rasputin's father almost completely through visuals points to that.

I made a passing reference to Rasputin's conscience above. The flashback explores his character not through the lengthy monologues most writers adore, but through action and (intriguingly) inaction. Rasputin uses his powers to heal his mother; he uses his powers to save the life of a bear; he pointedly does not use his powers to save his father. All of this in virtual silence.

I don't know where Grecian & Rossmo will take this, but having followed them from start to finish on Proof, I have confidence the journey will be engaging!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Presenting: the greatest snakes of Escape!

Over at Escape-Suspense.com, webmaster Christine A. Miller has occasionally had a little fun with the beloved Old-Time Radio program Escape and its propensity for using snakes; from her review of the missing episode "Pagosa":
"Still, we know that Escape's version would probably have had Ben Wright in the cast, it probably wasn't as focused on the romantic feelings of the characters, and that they probably tossed in a deadly snake somewhere, just to call it their own. (That's just a guess.)"

She says this because snakes would frequently cameo in programs such as "This Side of Nowhere," "The Red Forest," "Pollock and the Pooroh Man" and "Earth Abides." Moreover, snakes frequently held crucial roles in certain memorable episodes.

The years when Escape aired over CBS (1947-1954) were a veritable golden age for snakes, thanks largely to their powerful collective bargaining. Families planted victory snake gardens! Motorists carpooled with snakes! Snakes for president! Until the powerful lobbyist group controlled by Indiana Jones brought it all crumbling down...

Let's revisit our favourite scaly friends from the Escape series, shall we?

This dear fellow is the bushmaster, the world's longest viper, called by some "the mute rattlesnake" - but better to known to us as "mute fate!" In Escape's "A Shipment of Mute Fate," a ship at sea transporting a caged bushmaster must face the terror caused by the creature's accidental escape - and it climaxes with a terrible battle for life! You may download the episode from archive.org here!

Next we have the cottonmouth, the snake rendered famous by Rednex's song "Cotton Mouth Joe" (I'm sure I have that right). The cottonmouth is a semi-aquatic viper, which is part of the terror exploited by Escape when they employed the mere suggestion of a cottonmouth to horrify in "Snake Doctor." This is the story of a none-too-clever rural man who decides to murder the local "hoodoo" man, suspecting he's made a vast fortune from harvesting snake oil. You may download the episode from archive.org here.

Nobody likes the krait; being one of the Earth's most venomous serpents, he doesn't get invited to parties. Nor is the driving figure of Escape "Poison" quite fond of kraits when he awakens to find one has nestled up under his blanket! However, the title of the story refers not to the creature's venom, but poison of another kind (at least, so my grade 10 English teacher claimed). You may download "Poison" from archive.org here!

The infamous cobra got the V.I.P. treatment from Escape, earning his name in the title of "Serenade for a Cobra." This concerns an unscrupulous pilot who doesn't like the radio operator's penchant for snake charming. However, the snake charmer quickly finds a way to force the pilot listen to his music by leaving his pet in the cockpit; boy, what some artists won't do for an audience... You may download the episode from archive.org here!

The deadly python has retreated from public life over the stigma of being associated with both Jennifer Lopez and Nicki Minaj. Seemingly an almost perpetually-shy snake, the muscular python appears only briefly in the Escape episode "Bloodbath," but it's quite memorable; and heck, if there isn't enough python for you then you should enjoy the electric eels, piranhas and vampire bats! You may download the episode from archive.org here!

Finally we have the... uh... gray snake? This fellow may not be identified but he's easily the most persistent snake in all of Escape as in the episode "The Footprint" he trails his victims through the desert with a single-mindedness the shark from Jaws would envy. Check it out at archive.org here!

Have a hissing good time!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Unearthed: All-Star Comics#63

Three years ago I initiated the "Unearthed" feature on this blog with a look back at All-Star Comics#62, a comic from my childhood. I noted then that I had never read the subsequent issues to find out how the story ended; happily, in the intervening years I've obtained a copy of All-Star Comics#63 and it pleases me now to crack it open.

The story left off last issue with Superman & Supergirl encased in lava by the creature Zanadu, who had kidnapped Hawkgirl. Meanwhile, someone had brainwashed Wildcat to attack Hawkman. The other members of the Justice Society were likewise engaged in subplots, centered around Doctor Fate's recent near-death.

The cover (by Rich Buckler & Wally Wood) feels a little off with its ridiculously immense Solomon Grundy; at least the presence of the Fiddler here lets us know he was the one playing the music which brainwashed Wildcat.

The story is titled "The Death of Doctor Fate" and the creators are Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen & Wally Wood. Notably, this confirms that series author Gerry Conway was indeed on his way out in the previous issue. Therefore, this issue ought to be fashioning something a little more stable, direction-wise.

Under the Fiddler's instructions, Wildcat easily beats Hawkman unconscious; Solomon Grundy simply stands and watches. They helpfully note they're representing the Injustice Society, the JSA's foes, but why are they attacking now? They have nothing to do with the Zanadu threat. That said, heck, it makes a lot of sense - why should villains respect the queue? If someone ever told Doctor Doom to attack the Fantastic Four while they battling Galactus we'd probably see no more Fantastic Four stories.

Of course, the Fiddler ain't exactly Doctor Doom; he stops playing his fiddle which releases Wildcat from his control, giving Wildcat an opportunity to beat him up. Let's face it, Wildcat may be little more than a cranky old boxing freak, but without his instrument the Fiddler's just an old freak. Grundy steps in at this point and Wildcat has no hope of beating him, but Power Girl & Superman arrive to save him. This moment feels like quite a misfire - the threat of Zanadu has (somehow) been pushed to the rear for the fight with Grundy & the Fiddler. Although Superman describes how they escaped the trap, it isn't depicted. The duo quickly finish the fight with Grundy by throwing him into a volcano (overkill much?).

Although Power Girl & Superman escaped their own prisons off-panel, they explain they didn't do the same for Hawkgirl - thus, truly nothing has changed since last issue; the (unclear) menace of Zanadu was simply deferred. We do, however, get a simply terrific close-up of Superman's face - very Woody, a rendition quite evocative of Joe Shuster. The likeness is a visual reminder that the Superman appearing in this comic is supposed to be the Golden Age Superman; that term really had some play in the early 70s nostalgia craze - the Golden Age of Film, the Golden Age of Radio, the Golden Age of Comic Strips and the Golden Age of Comic Books all experienced a boost in reputation. This image is so good, even Wildcat's presence doesn't ruin the panel.

The scene shifts to Egypt as the Flash & Green Lantern are searching for some means to help save Doctor Fate's life on the flimsy reasoning that because Fate's origin happened there, there must be a cure. Egypt seems a little too big for them to stumble across a cure, but they do stumble across a man upon a winged horse, thus furthering the man and his unusual horse from the previous issue. However, that's as far as this subplot moves for now. The man on horseback remains unidentified (yet obviously the Shining Knight to those with long memories).

Returning to the Justice Society of America's headquarters, Doctor Fate is still hooked up to a machine which the Star Spangled Kid is using to channel cosmic energy to save his life (for some reason they put Fate back into his costume between issues). Doctor Mid-Nite (also back in his costume) and Hourman both watch helplessly and, man, Wood makes these two look great! Their darker colours really seem to suit Wood's lines. As they're my two favourite JSAers, I couldn't be more pleased. However, the heroes themselves have little to be happy with - Fate's brain activity ceases and the machines are shut off. Doctor Mid-Nite is so distraught by Fate's death that he rips off his mask and decides to give up being a hero, even as Hourman and the Star Spangled Kid are heading out to face Zanadu, who has mysteriously reappeared in New York.

At this point, Zanadu is pretty much a lost cause so far as a villain goes; he's been kept off-panel for most of the story while both his power level and goals are unclear. In this fight, Hourman gets to fly and shoot energy blasts thanks to the Star Spangled Kid, who surrounds him with an energy field to do so (but why? why not simply attack Zanadu himself?). The fight leads them back inside the JSA's base and Zanadu's presence causes Dr. Fate to wake up, as Zanadu is an agent of chaos while Fate represents order. Fate strikes Zanadu down while Hawkman saves Hawkgirl (off-panel). This causes Zanadu to lose focus on his power, having needed Hawkgirl to channel his energies to conquer the world. Fate then encases Zanadu within a block of amber, leaving him precisely where he had been at the start of the previous issue. Frankly, the best part of this fight is how Kirby-esque it becomes at times, likely because of Giffen's presence on pencils. Not only does his Zanadu look like a Fourth World character, but he gives Fate some impressive "Kirby crackle."

With the crisis past, we move into a one-page epilogue, wherein Superman announces his retirement from the Justice Society (a group he barely ever interacted with anyway) and insists his cousin Power Girl be promoted in his stead; Wildcat thinks this is an upset, but it settles the friction which Superman & Power Girl dealt with in the previous issue. The scene shifts again to the Injustice Society as the Icicle informs his (unseen) teammates they'll strike at the Justice Society through their weak link: Hourman! Wait, Hourman? The fellow who only rejoined the team last issue? Ah, whatever.

Thoughts: Considering that in the previous issue Conway was on his way out and Levitz in, it held together much better than this issue. This is a decent but unremarkable super hero story redeemed mainly by the artwork. The problems of the previous issue are dealt with too easily; how will Wildcat escape the Fiddler's control. Uh, the Fiddler stupidly lets him go. How will they save Dr. Fate's life? Zanadu steps near him and he instantly gets better. What about the Flash & Green Lantern's quest? Nothing to do with Fate's revival, as it turns out. And what of Power Girl & Superman being imprisoned by Zanadu? They get out of it off-panel. And what of Zanadu himself? He can't hold his own against the Star Spangled Kid, much less Dr. Fate. Fights are treated as curbstomps (Wildcat vs. Fiddler, Superman/Power Girl vs. Solomon Grundy, Dr. Fate vs. Zanadu), rather than aiming for high tension or serious peril for the heroes.

Perhaps Levitz was still clearing the deck of Conway's plots so he could get his own started, in which case the series might improve in the following issue. Even then, there's not much of a hook; more of the Injustice Society, when one of their most powerful members couldn't give the Society a decent fight? The very idea of Hourman as the weak link doesn't hold water; surely the Wildcat, the team's resident sourpuss and irritant is the weak link; heck, you could argue Power Girl is a weak link because of her short temper; Hourman's demonstrated nothing since his return except for a general sense of competance which only Hawkman & Superman have matched.

Still, man... that Giffen/Wood art... beautiful! Also, Wildcat was tolerable, which I consider a minor victory.