Wednesday, August 20, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #26



The 1967 BATMAN episode "A Piece of the Action / Batman's Satisfaction" won't go down in history as one of the series' best episodes, though it's also far from being the worst.

Obviously no one who wanted a crossover between Batman of the comics and Green Hornet of the radio show would have found "satisfaction" here: these are producer William Dozier's versions of the respective mythoi. To be sure, though, this story doesn't try to duplicate the relatively "realistic" tone of the GREEN HORNET series, but forces the Hornet and Kato to participate fully in Dozier-Batman's candy-colored effervescence.

Nothing speaks of the difference in tone better than the nature of the villain faced by Batman, the Hornet and their respective sidekicks: the "mad stamp man" Colonel Gumm. Roger C. Carmel has fun chewing the scenery with this character, particularly when he's forced to kowtow to his female boss Pinky Pinkston (Diane McBain). But his master plan is forgettable and his lame death-trap-- planning to convert the Hornet and Kato into life-sized stamps-- looks forward to a lot of the even lamer traps of the BATMAN show's final season.

Clearly the script wants to emphasize the crossover-elements above all else. Naturally, staunch crimefighters Batman and Robin don't know that the Hornet and Kato are merely posing as criminals in order to fight crime in their own way, though at episode's end Batman nurtures some suspicions in that direction.  The first encounter of the two groups is curiously low-key, with Batman refusing to arrest the Hornet for lack of evidence. This may have been done in order to set up the big fight-scene in the second half, which has an added charm in that while the Dynamic Duo are trying to beat down the Hornet, Kato, and Colonel Gumm and his men, the other duo are trying not to injure their goodguy counterparts. It's a better than average fight for the BATMAN show, even if one doesn't know about all the alleged backstage conflicts-- one of which makes Bruce Lee sound like a bit of a jerk.

The continued one-upmanship between Bruce Wayne and his college-buddy Britt Reid is consistently amusing, and for once the female guest lead in the show isn't either a villainess or a henchwoman, but an admittedly eccentric businesswoman.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #25



TARZAN AT THE EARTH'S CORE was, as I mentioned before, a rare attempt by Edgar Rice Burroughs to combine two of his popular concepts; that of his famous ape-man and of his "inner earth" series. However, though it's a significant crossover, it does diverge from the parameters of the latter mythos.

In my essays on the two major film adaptations of Conan Doyle's THE LOST WORLD-- reviewed here and here-- I remarked that "in Doyle's novel the environment of the Lost World is secondary to the lively characters. In both films, the prehistoric plateau is the 'star' of the show."  There's a similar shift in the dynamic between hero and hostile land involved here. Most of the Pellucidar novels focus on some heroic figure struggling against assorted prehistoric perils, so the environment is secondary, as it is in the Doyle novel. But Burroughs wasn't interested in having his ape-man hero interact with any of the heroes of Pellucidar-novels, even though a couple, David Innes and Tanar, are referenced.  Here it is the world of Pellucidar that becomes a palpable opponent to Tarzan, his "greatest challenge" as the paperback-hype above has it.

That's not quite to say that Tarzan alone faces the perils of the hostile land. The Lord of the Jungle joins the quest of a team of dirigible-pilots as they descend into the Earth's Core to rescue David Innes, the legendary emperor who more or less unified Pellucidar. Innes gets left in prison until the very end of the book, because Burroughs' main concern is to play up a subsidiary hero, Jason Gridley. This young American, while secondary to Tarzan, does one thing the married ape-man could not: he meets and romances the "savage girl" typical of most Burroughs fantasies.

In many respects TARZAN AT THE EARTH'S CORE revisits the same basic structure of Burroughs' Caspak novels, in which assorted modern-day explorers have adventures in a primitive world. Jason Gridley's romance with savage Jana is strongly reminiscent of the 1918 tale of Tom Billings as he finds savage love in THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT. Gridley even refuses his savage lover out of social snobbishness just as Billings does, though the earlier novel expresses the dichotomy between savagery and civilization more adeptly.

TARZAN AT THE EARTH'S CORE is a good read, but it really isn't much more than a lot of captures and escapes, punctuating by Tarzan or Jason killing prehistoric beasties. It could have used either a strong villain for readers to dislike, or some "ticking clock" to give the adventures more immediacy. To my knowledge Tarzan doesn't encounter Pellucidar's best villains, the Mahars, until comics artist Russ Manning pitted them against one another in a 1979 comic strip continuity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #24



I'm writing this on the day after Robin Williams' death, so it seems entirely appropriate to cite here the 1978 HAPPY DAYS episode "My Favorite Orkan," which served as a de facto pilot for the 1978-82 MORK AND MINDY series.

In the episode, the naive alien Mork descends to 1950s Earth with the intent of finding a typically dull specimen of humanity. He first encounters Fonzie, telling the leather-jacketed lothario that he's famous for his lovemaking prowess throughout the galaxy.  Fonzie, though he's far from comfortable with this close encounter, is relatively friendly toward Mork until the alien gets the idea of abducting Fonzie's buddy Richie Cunningham for his specimen. This leads to an epic conflict in which Mork's magical finger is pitted against Fonzie's prodigous ('Eyyyy...) thumbs.

I can't say I was a big fan of HAPPY DAYS or of most Garry Marshall productions, but when I liked DAYS at all, it was largely when it put aside conventional sitcom humor in favor of goofball absurdity-- and even the famed "jumping the shark" episode can't compete with the first Mork episode. According to Wikipedia, the episode originally ended with the claim that Richie dreamed the whole thing; when Mork proved popular with audiences and got fast-tracked into his own series, the episode was edited to reveal that Mork himself had edited Richie's memories of the event. Mork also met Laverne of LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, probably with the intent of further boosting the Orkan's TVQ, even though his own series would be set in the 1970s.

I did like MORK AND MINDY, principally for its strong first season.  But even the show's better episodes are less significant than its role in promoting Robin Williams as one of the premiere comic talents of the latter 20th century.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #23



I mentioned here that there were only two Stan Lee-Steve Ditko crossovers that I deemed among the best, and this is the other one: the crossover of the most noteworthy heroes regularly being drawn by Ditko, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.

This was a Big Deal when I first read it, and I still appreciate the ways Ditko successfully melds the very different art-styles he used on the two features. However, on recently re-reading it, it doesn't work nearly as well as a story. It works better as a Spider-Man story in which Doc Strange happens to appear, rather than as a tale designed to communicate all the special joys of the magician's mythos.  The main deficit of the story is that the villain Xandu is an uninteresting throwaway type.

The above scene in which Spidey encounters a mind-blowing cosmoscape from the good doctor's world remains the tale's high point.

Monday, July 28, 2014

SUMMATION: THE DOOR THROUGH SPACE (1961)

I recently reread the obscure Marion Zimmer Bradley book, THE DOOR THROUGH SPACE, which originally appeared as one of the famous "Ace Doubles," paired with an A. Bertram Chandler novel.

This is not a review as such, but rather a summation of the unusual incest-themes in the book, which I have not noted in the majority of the Bradley books I've read-- and I've probably read a little over twenty of them. I've capitalized most of the names just because I felt like it.

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RACE CARGILL is a Terran Intelligence agent on Wolf, a planet of aliens who look human but are not genetically related to earthpeople. Prior to the novel’s beginning RACE has suffered facial injuries from a duel he fought against his best friend RAKHA, said to have suffered even worse injuries of the same kind. Both men are described as nearly identical in many ways—though the similarity of their names is not mentioned--, but RAKHAL can do one thing RACE can’t:  marry RACE’s sister JULI. 

The quarrel is later explained as one between RACE’s loyalty to the Terran Empire and RAKHAL’s advocacy of the rights of Wolf against Terran influence. However, in the opening chapters it seems more like RACE being possessive of JULI. In the present day JULI comes to him, asking him to play “rescuer,” because RAKHAL has run away with their little daughter RINDY. RACE consents to investigate, partly because RAKHAL is rumored to be allied to a weapons-smuggler, “the Toymaker,” who may be an ally to Earth’s enemies. However, in the final scene between RACE and JULI, she embraces him and accidentally hurts him, and he reacts by snapping the ritual chains she wears; the symbol of JULI’s marriage to RAKHAL. In so doing he accidentally wounds her slightly, a “mutual wounding” that mirrors the duel of RACE and RAKHAL. 

RACE begins his investigation by journeying to a town off-limits to Earth-people, and he tries to gain information from KYRAL, one of Wolf’s nonhumans and an enemy to Terran interests. KYRAL mistakes RACE for RAKHAL but refuses to help the Earthman once he knows the truth. KYRAL is, however, married to his two half-sisters, DALISSA and MIELLYN, both desirable women RACE meets during his investigations. There’s no clarity about whether or not KYRAL has had intercourse with either sibling, as RACE remembers that most if not all “brother-sister marriages” on Wolf are “loveless.” Aggressive DALISSA gives RACE the opportunity to win information if he endures ritual torture; he does so and DALISSA ends up not only giving RACE intel but also making love to him.  She asks him to take her away from KYRAL but RACE senses that she’s too bound to Wolifan customs and never sees her again.

 This clears the path for RACE’s union with MIELLYN, a sort of child-woman who can look like an underaged “pixie” without her makeup, but can metamorphose into a more mature figure when she chooses. Through the complicated web of connections between MIELLYN, the Toymaker, and RAKHAL, RACE eventually encounters his rival, but ends up saving his rival’s life rather than taking it. The novel ends with the implication that RAKHAL will be able to return to a normal family life with JULI and RINDY, while RACE’s incest-demons have been exorcised by his alliance to the child-woman MIELYNN, implicitly “stolen” from KYRAL as RAKHAL “stole” JULI. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #22




"He's good-- perhaps the deadliest I've ever fought! But he makes raw, insane courage replace true flying skill!"-- Enemy Ace's comment on his foe, the Balloon Buster.

DC Comics' war books from the 1950s onward might be deemed the first time the rather monolithic company invested in a genre with a reputation for maturity, as opposed to the company's better-known superheroes.

At their best, the DC war books flirted with a combination of "blood and thunder" and notes of existential despair, as seen to good effect in the fan-favorite series "Enemy Ace," created in 1965 by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, which focused on the exploits of Hans Von Hammer, a WWI German pilot continually haunted by the carnage he had to wreak upon his less skilled opponents. At the worst, the DC war books were sometimes indistinguishable from the superhero books, so that even a mature-seeming protagonist like the aforementioned ace might encounter (say) pilots garbed in skeleton costumes.  This was perhaps inevitable, since writer/editor Kanigher was working on books like BATMAN and WONDER WOMAN at the same he wrote the ENEMY ACE features.

The character's most notable crossover was also written by Kanigher, and co-featured a character created to be something of an antithesis to the moody German pilot: Lt. Steve Savage, aka "the Balloon Buster," an American pilot who specialized in shooting down German observation balloons. Over the years fan-favor has not looked quite as kindly on Savage's exploits as on those of Hans Von Hammer. It's possible that even in 1974, when Kanigher hurled the two opponents against one another in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #181-183, he may have "thrown the fight" somewhat toward the more popular Von Hammer.

Suffice to say, that though the American pilot is praised for his courage, the script gives slightly greater plaudits to Von Hammer for his sophistication and his "grace under pressure." In the initial encounter between the two pilots, Von Hammer forces Savage to land in German-held territory, so that the American is taken prisoner and doomed to sit out the war in a prison camp. Naturally, the spunky Wyoming-bred "cowboy American" won't sit still for this, and he makes a break for it, killing one of Von Hammer's subordinates in the process.  The inevitable final clash between the cool Von Hammer and the hot-headed, somewhat class-conscious Savage eventuates in one of the few times an American comic book concluded with an American character losing a fight with a German.



The characters met again in 1982, in a two-part tale extending across UNKNOWN SOLDIER #266-267, but aside from graceful John Severin art, it was a wholly inferior story. The three-part tale is blessed by exceptional Frank Thorne artwork, though, to be sure, no one ever did a better "Enemy Ace" than his artist-creator Joe Kubert.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #21





"The Indian" was one of two "back-door pilots" that appeared on the successful Old West teleseries THE RIFLEMAN. This Feb 1959 episode introduced the titular hero Lucas McCain to Sam Buckheart (Michael Ansara), a federal marshal who was also a full-blood Apache Indian. This episode, and a follow-up story that aired in June 1959, pilot led to a new series from THE RIFLEMAN's production company, entitled LAW OF THE PLAINSMAN. The new series debuted in October 1959 but enjoyed only a year before cancellation.

The follow-up story is all right but the first pilot, "The Indian," excels in its dramatic presentation of the travails of the guest hero, trying to make it in the white man's world of the 1880s without losing his identity as an Indian. The episode has the distinction of being directed by Arnold Laven, one of the collaborators responsible for creating THE RIFLEMAN, and being written by Cyril Hume, scripter for both 1932's TARZAN THE APE MAN and 1956's FORBIDDEN PLANET.

Lucas McCain is initially put off by the incongruity of seeing an Indian as a federal marshal-- as is his son Mark, who remarks, "What's this world coming to?" But given that he's a pretty liberal fellow despite the general prejudice of the nearby town of North Fork, Lucas does what he can to help the marshal. He's not too happy with Buckheart's arrogance; in the scene shown above, Buckheart enters the "whites only" saloon in North Fork and allows the locals to think he's one of them. This is a dangerous version of "passing," especially since Buckheart's got his telltale "long Indian hair" bunched up under his hat.

Though this is a tale with a liberal agenda, it's not uncritical of Buckheart. He has a complex history with the white man, in that he was adopted by an older cavalry officer after Sam spared the man's life in battle. He spares the officer upon realizing that "his white flesh was weaker than my Indian flesh;" however, the Apache apparently becomes acculturated very easily, and accepts the officer's largesse in order to attend Harvard, resulting in a "savage" who can quote from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. (One guess which famous line he quotes from it.) Lucas recognizes that Sam is baiting the white folks when he passes amongst them, and he criticizes Buckheart for his stubborness about going it alone against a town that won't stand for an Indian taking custody of a white prisoner.

Overall, it's a good drama, with a less violent conclusion than most episodes of the early RIFLEMAN show. I don't remember LAW OF THE PLAINSMAN very well, though I saw it in reruns years ago, but
Ansara and Chuck Connors play off one another very well as two western tough guys with essentially noble hearts.