Saturday, September 27, 2014
I can't exactly claim that the crossover in PRIZE COMICS #24 is any great shakes as a story. However, it enjoys a particular place in American comic-book history, being the first tale in which characters from disparate features team up against a single foe-- one who, in this case, also sported his own feature from that publisher. Possibly this short tale intended to imitate Timely Comics' historical "book-length" story in which the Human Torch battled the Sub-Mariner, amid guest-shots from other Timely heroes, published in the fall of 1941, or the July 1941 story entitled DAREDEVIL VS. HITLER, aka DAREDEVIL #1. However, in both earlier stories, the individual heroes separately grappled with whatever menace was at hand. They did not truly "team up," as the Prize heroes do in this 8-page tale. The only Golden Age tale comparable would be published five years later, when Solomon Grundy took on the Justice Society-- and even then, only for a few panels does that man-monster fight the whole team, as the Frankenstein Monster does against the Prize superheroes.
Again, it's not a great tale. For one thing, the Monster-- whose series was one of the few Prize-serials that's still celebrated today, thanks to Dick Briefer art-- is a bit too much of a punching-bag for all of the heroes, including two goofy non-superheroes, "the General and the Corporal."
But as far as being the first time a villain found himself beseiged by the stars of several ongoing features, this story seems to take the, uh, "prize."
The 1920 novel SHE AND ALLAN, as I've mentioned in earlier posts, was one of the earliest examples of a tale in which an author chose to cross over two popular characters, both of whom were the "stars" of their respective shows -- in contrast, say, to Jules Verne providing crossovers between both major and minor characters in THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND.
Rider Haggard created his two seminal characters, Allan Quatermain and She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, within about a year of one another. Not surprisingly, there are a number of similarities of plot and theme between KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1885) and SHE (1886). However, the biggest dissimilarity between the universes of the characters is that Quatermain dwelled in an Africa that some would call "quasi-realistic"-- though I prefer my own term, "uncanny." SHE, however, takes place in an Africa that allows for causality-defying marvels, such as a woman who lives for hundreds of years thanks to a magical flame, and who can wield a sort of preternatural force-- even though Haggard suggests that this may also belong to some form of "science" that men no longer recognize.
Haggard clearly realized the conceptual gulf between the two characters. As a result, the author begins the novel by having the practical-minded Quatermain haunted by the spectres of lost loves. He conceives the desire to know something about the world after death, and a crafty witch-doctor named Zikali chooses to help him do so. Zikali gives Quatermain a magical totem-- albeit one whose power the hero never believes in-- and sends him to find a certain mysterious white queen, who may be able to answer the great white hunter's questions. On the way Haggard picks up Umslopogaas, the huge axe-wielding Zulu warrior who teams up with Quatermain in the 1887 novel ALLAN QUATERMAIN. Since Quatermain perishes in that novel, SHE AND ALLAN is one of many prequels Haggard wrote of his hero's early adventures, as well as the novel that depicts the first meeting of Quatermain and Umslopogaas.
SHE AND ALLAN is a great read. Haggard doesn't stint on the thrills, for when Quatermain's party arrives in the domain of She, the hunter finds himself and his friends drafted in a war with Rezu, a man who has undergone an immortality-transformation parallel to She's own. A final battle between Umslopogaas and Rezu, both gigantic warriors, reads just as well as it did in 1920. At the same time, Haggard gets some dramatic mileage out of the mental outlooks of She and Quatermain, since the latter cannot place any faith in the marvels he beholds, and must constantly rationalize them out of existence. The queen does deliver on her side of the bargain, granting Quatermain a look at the World Beyond, with bittersweet results.
The novel can't very well surpass the seminal books that introduced these characters, so much-imitated over the years. But it deserves to be better known among readers of great fantasy.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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
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.
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.