Tuesday, September 16, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #29



I debated about whether or not to give individual entries to Universal's four "monster mashes," which are pretty much sui generis.  I finally decided that although the films just barely keep continuity with one another, they do all use the same basic template, in which a mad scientist-- or, in one case, a vampire controlling a mad scientist-- interacts with at least two monsters, shows preferential treatment for one over the other, and gets undone by the neglected-child monster.

I won't go into great detail here, since I've reviewed all four monster mashes in depth on my film-blog. Links follow:

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)



Sunday, September 7, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #28




I just re-watched, thanks to YouTube, "Who Killed the Jackpot?," the April 1965 episode of BURKE'S LAW in which ABC's version of Honey West premiered. Though it's only been a few days, I found the episode so unmemorable that I've already forgotten the whole plot, aside from the scenes in which the show's titular star, Gene Barry's Amos Burke, encountered Anne Francis' svelte lady sleuth.  The following September, HONEY WEST received her own show, which lasted for one season of 30 episodes.

I never saw BURKE'S LAW back in The Day, but upon watching reruns on a local station, I found it meretricious, even for an escapist cop show about a millionaire police captain. In every episode Amos Burke, who usually juggled two or three girls per episode, sauntered his way through crime-scenes, interviewing assorted suspects who were usually kooks or eccentrics of some sort. Whereas a private-eye show like PETER GUNN had a way of making eccentricity charming, BURKE'S LAW treated oddballs with an air of smarmy condescension.

One good thing about Honey West's guest-shot here is that because her character was being hyped, the show spent less time ridiculing weirdos. As I'm not a big Gene Barry fan, I'm doubtlessly prejudiced in saying that Anne Francis steals every scene she's in, particularly in showing off her mastery of judo-skills.

The HONEY WEST TV series-- which had little in common with the 1950s series of paperback novels-- may well be the best thing that ever resulted from the BURKE'S LAW show.


THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #27



I promise that this will be the last time I spotlight Silver Age Spider-Man.  If I had to choose just one Spidey from this period for my survey, though, I'd drop both of the Ditko choices and stick with this early collaboration between editor-writer Stan Lee and artist John Romita Sr.

Spider-Man had met and battled the Hulk in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #14 (July 1964), over a year after Ditko had contributed the last issue of the INCREDIBLE HULK magazine. However, it's likely that Lee had some plans for launching the second Hulk series in TALES TO ASTONISH, dated October 1964, and that the Hulk appearance's in ASM was meant to keep the character in play. As for the SPIDER-MAN feature, Lee and Ditko remained on the series-- as well as the first two annuals-- until mid-1966, when Ditko took his leave of Marvel.  This forced Stan Lee to find and train John Romita as Ditko's replacement for the monthly book, as well as the next three annuals of the 1960s.

Stan Lee has often been criticized for relegating to his artists a lot of the "heavy lifting" of comic-book storytelling. Even Romita asserted that at times Lee would give him minimal input on future stories, leaving the artist to muddle through as best he could. Many of these accusations may well be true. However, SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #3 is one of the best illustrations of the greatest strength that Lee brought to the table-- the consistency of voice.

The story  is simple. Spider-Man is nominated for membership in the Avengers. The young hero, upon being apprised of this signal honor, debates the matter for a bit, and then decides to accept-- only to find that he has to pass an initiation test: to find and lure the Hulk into the custody of the super-team. Somehow the heroes fail to express their intention to help the confused green giant, and Spidey thinks they simply intend to imprison the Hulk. Thus, in the course of finding and battling the Hulk, Spidey sees the monster transform back into Bruce Banner. Feeling pity for the tormented scientist, the hero simply lets the Hulk go and brushes off the possibility of Avengers membership.

What isn't simple is that each of the characters-- Spidey, the Hulk, and each of the Avengers-- has his own distinctive voice. Hawkeye is a hot-tempered rebel, Iron Man a cautious businessman, Captain America a wise diplomat. Goliath is staid, Thor is portentous and the Wasp is a bit of a shrew. On a side-note, I think it likely that since Romita had only been on the title for a few months, it's almost certainly Lee who remembered a bit of minutiae from a previous encounter between Spider-Man and Wasp: that the heroine nursed an irrational dislike of Spidey because "wasps hate spiders" or some such silliness.

But the issue's high point is Lee's handling of the Hulk. The earliest versions of the character by Lee, Kirby and Ditko focused on the Hulk as perpetually aggressive. However, in the second Hulk series in TALES OF SUSPENSE, Lee and Ditko changed the focus to a more mentally challenged man-monster, and Lee carried that treatment over to other Marvel features. Romita's rendering of the brutish Hulk is one of the better artistic renderings of the character, while Lee's characterization is the linchpin of the story. If the reader doesn't buy that the Hulk is pitiable, then Spider-Man's sacrifice carries no weight.

I might not deem this one of the best Spider-Man stories of the period. But as far as conveying the unique excitement of seeing superheroic characters crossing paths, it's one of the best.

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.