Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Doc Savage: The Miracle Menace

Just finished the trade paperback of Will Murray's Doc Savage novel, "The Miracle Menace". The story definitely lives up to the blurb of "the weird adventures of Doc Savage". Most of the science fiction oriented Doc stories have one fantastic or inexplicable element outside of Doc's gadgets: invisibility, dinosaurs, a lost race of unique humans. This one has several, to the point that the book has footnotes explaining that Doc has come across something similar before. That alone is something the original books did not make much use of, referencing previous adventures when Doc and crew encountered something similar such as invisible crooks.

The structure of the novel is that of what could easily be two novels, but made to overlap and told in a parallel structure. Doc and his crew come to Missouri to investigate the reports of a Victorian era house in the middle of nowhere that disappears when approached, just leaving a concrete foundation behind.

Meanwhile, down-on-his-luck magician Gulliver Greene is working in a gas station in town nearby, waiting for news of a comeback gig. Instead, he finds himself embroiled in a mystery, framed for murder over a telegram that says Christopher Columbus is alive and well in the 20th Century and which seems to involve a group of tent evangelists of a sorts who claim to read minds, one of whom is a beautiful woman named Saint Pete. Luckily he has the inveterate liar Spook Davis, his assistant in better days, to help him out. When he's not panicking when he sees the sign of a gun.

The dual nature helps the story move quickly from event to event and mysteries getting more mysterious and the danger and efficiency of the villains growing as the story progresses. Gulliver Greene and Spook Davis feel like some of Dent's early non-Doc heroes, though the magic tricks echo some other pulp heroes and writers.

The Monsters/The Whisker of Hercules: From there I moved on to two recent reprints of the original pulps. I picked up this double in part because of the interview with James Bama talking about the bantam covers as well as a look at the 1940s comicbook Doc Savage. Because of them being still under copyright, information on characters from Street & Smith's comics can be a little difficult to come by. As these "reprints" include chapters that were edited out of the original stories, I decided to read them again.

I've read "The Monsters" paperback a couple of times. It was also adapted by Marvel Comics back in the 1970s. The menace of the monsters, the deadly efficiency of the bad guys, it all makes an exciting story. The female character is woefully under-utilized. She is interestingly described as having steel colored hair and eyes, serving as a counterpoint to Doc's own unique metallic looks. She is also a lion tamer and speaks an obscure language. As a character, I always thought she'd be an interesting one to have as a recurring character.

"The Whisker of Hercules" does a better job with the female character of Lee Mayland. She's characterized as nervy and a genius growing up in the town the action takes place and the bad guys seem to have a certain respect for her as well. At some point she made the acquaintance of Monk Mayfair, so when her brother is involved in some kind of criminal plot involving the myth of Hercules, she thinks of calling in Doc Savage. This has Doc and crew coming across villains who seem to have the ability to toss Renny fifteen feet into the air, pull a Superman, wreck their car by hand, and out maneuver Doc and steal a corpse out from under his nose. In this case, the person under-utilized is the probable bad guy Marvin Western. Designed along the lines of Charles Atlas, he keeps an estate built to glorify his physical perfection with sculptures and keeps hanger ons devoted to his ideas of physical culture. His cultish organization sounds like something that would pop up in the pages of The Shadow. Like Lee, there are some comparisons to Doc.Much is made of the power of his voice and his hair is described as silver. It ends there, as the man is full of his self importance contrasted with Doc's humility and he proves to be an abject coward. We never see how he would fare against Doc or even Renny or Monk. It is interesting to note that the surviving bad guys go to jail, not Doc's crime college. It is an enjoyable read, I enjoyed it more than when I first read it years ago.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Doc vs Kong and other stories

One of the problems waiting for the Altus volumes of new Doc Savage novels to arrive at my local comic store is that it takes a while. Usually, I'm almost at the point of possibly just ordering it direct when it finally shows up. My joy was increased at a recent stop as not only did the latest Will Murray penned novel show up but the latest Sanctum volume, I had neither stories! I tackled the reprints first.

The Invisible Box Murders (November, 1941) is one of those Doc stories that concerns a mysterious, impossible murder. In this, deaths from an unknown source with a mysterious transparent box that later disappears from police custody. What's enjoyable in this story is Doc finds himself arrested and jailed, thus this becomes one of the few stories that we see Ham actually utilized for his legal knowledge. However, Dent's shortcoming in this area is also evident in that Ham doesn't really do anything that proves his reputation. One of the things often annoying in the Doc novels is how the other aides are often assigned tasks that one would expect to be assigned to Ham such as contacting foreign legal/diplomatic agencies. With Doc jailed, the aides get to show some individual action and initiative. The inclusion of a police officer to shadow them is not only a nice twist, but an interesting character in his own right and would be worthy to become a supporting character or another aide himself... if he's not the bad guy in his own right. Because, in a Doc story the bad guy is usually one of the people accompanying the crew. In this case, it's often difficult to really decide where the cop's allegiances truly align. An exciting story, though the resolution is not of the "box" and murders is a bit difficult to swallow in that even for that time, one would expect scientists/doctors examining the body would have quickly figured out a large part of how the people died.

Target for Death (January, 1947) is a post-War Doc by William Bogart and not Dent. Bogart actually wrote the second Doc Savage adventure I read, the first that I bought for myself: The Flying Goblin. As much as I enjoy Dent's writing, I credit with Bogart as being the writer that actually cemented my enjoyment of the Doc Savage novels. As a post-War Doc, the story is more mundane and realistic than fantastic. It concerns a young woman who is in Hawaii and on her way back to the States. She's given a letter from an Uncle to deliver and finds herself and her family embroiled in a mystery as people are after the letter. When opened, the letter is largely innocuous and certainly nothing obvious to kill over. Interesting that Bogart wrote this while Dent was off writing his novels, and there's a certain similarity in story styles between this and Dent's non-Doc novels of this time.Of particular interest that the first part of the novel focuses heavily on Pat and Renny and both get largely written out for the second half to focus on Doc, Monk and Ham. The solution is one that probably seemed a bit novel in the mid to late 1940s and young readers as opposed to readers today that will have it figured out early on. The fun part is watching the characters and story reach to the same conclusion.

Skull Island by Will Murray. I confess, I was not really looking forward to Skull Island. To be brutally honest, these new Doc novels are ok, but lacking on several fronts. As shown above, one of the strengths of the Doc novels is the sheer variety they allow. With his aides, the stories can be military thrillers, crime novels, mysterious but normal crimes, and science fiction adventures. Murray's focus on unused plots and fragments of Lester Dent makes the novels feel like pastiche, focusing largely on a certain type and style of story as opposed to the wider possibilities. Unfortunately, the lengths of the new format are also too long for the stories, they feel more bloated than epic. I realized with The Infernal Buddha which felt like two novels made into one, that the larger books allowed extra possibilities. Instead of one long story, two or three shorter ones, short stories featuring solo adventures by the aides are possible or even preferable.  That's the problem with doing pastiche, it's about style and subject already explored. Instead of treating Doc as pastiche, treat him as a real character, do stories that Dent couldn't have done, such as short stories focusing on just one aide, or novels with different aide combinations, without Monk and Ham taking center stage. Or stories focusing on different types of villains that wouldn't have been thought of such as a slightly more realistic serial killer stalking New York or working to prove the innocence of a victim (or one of the aides framed for a murder, imagine a running subplot through the story being Ham defending Monk in a Court of Law). However, because Murray is trying to ape Lester Dent/Kenneth Robeson, the stories ultimately come across as somewhat bloated, luke-warm wannabes. They are ok, but at best equal to the mediocre stories of the past. This announcement comes across as moving from pastiche to the realm of fan-fiction, the type of story that fans love to speculate on, but is rarely successfully pulled off.

And, I was surprised. Because Skull Island proved to be what I was really looking for from Murray. Writing a story that Dent never could have written and freed from that constraint, Murray delivers a fun, hard to put down story that treats Doc and characters as characters and not character types. The danger to fall into fan-fiction is always there, especially as it is a continuity/archaeological story in that it explores in depth the untold history and background of Doc. Murray manages to pull it off, to go in directions not expected but fit what we know without ever feeling like it's just name-dropping or showing off his knowledge (such as every writer that delivers a Green Hornet story feels obligated to show that he knows that the Lone Ranger is related).

The plot concerns Doc and his crew coming home, early in their career, and finding the body of King Kong on their door-step. Doc reveals he has seen the creature before, that he has been on his island. The rest of the story is Doc relating the story, of how after WWI, he meets up with his father to go on a mission to follow up on clues to the location of Doc's grandfather. What follows is a great adventure story along the lines of Burroughs as they dodge and confront dinosaurs, head hunters and ultimately King Kong himself.

Murray uses the novel to explore various themes and father-son relationships and how they shape who the characters are. He gets mileage out of showing how they repeat themselves, that much of the conflict between Doc and his father are like that between his father and grandfather and just how much alike they really are.

Murray also takes delight in exploring the literary forebears of Doc and to the dismay Wold Newtonians, he establishes them as being just that, literary: Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Nick Carter. Instead of coming across as simply name dropping, it's in the context of the relationships and history of the characters: the reading material the father would like his son to read vs the type of stuff he really liked to read and how that shaped him. And, then the father showing his own awareness of the material. I know I was surprised when I discovered as an adult my parents read the Phantom when young or had read part of "The Lord of the Rings" to make sure it was suitable. So, the scenes came across as being authentic.

Readers accustomed to the default "high adventure" Doc Savage might find the novel a little shocking. The first few Doc Savage novels are before Doc developed his non-killing rule and this story would pre-date even that. This is Doc right after World War I and before he finished medical school. Doc kills here. A lot. And, there's his trying to improve the machine gun. He is a young man, prone to brash actions, seeking to prove himself to his father, and possibly over confident in his own abilities and point of view.

And, despite being a continuity story, Murray doesn't get so caught up that he tries to explain or reconcile the discrepancies between the dinosaurs here that follow modern theory vs those he'd discover later. One would think that he might at least try to later lead Johnny to figuring out that some dinosaurs had feathers!

Other writers could take a few pointers from how Murray handles the team-up aspect. While the story reveals hidden or unknown information and speculates on what kind of creature Kong is, he delivers a story that doesn't outright contradict the characters or the stories this is taken from. What makes it work is the sense of fidelity to the source material. The changes are additive, not subtractive; not saying that the movie or the pulps got things wrong, but rejoices what they got right.

It'd be nice to see Murray follow this up with more stories of this type. Not team-ups and crossovers, but treating the characters as believable characters, fleshing them out and taking them into new types of stories, relationships and territory. And, to move away from the "sad" endings. More and more, the stories seem unable to give Doc clear cut victories, but end on serious and depressing notes.

Other stuff
When not reading pulps, I tend to gravitate to fantasy novels and period mysteries. Recently discovered the books of Imogen Robertson, mystery novels set in England in the time of the American Revolution. As the "Forgotten Realms" novels have slowed to a trickle, I saw a "Pathfinder" novel by Richard Lee Byers, author of a series I enjoyed for FR.

Called To Darkness is a much more linear story than his Brotherhood of the Griffin series and with a smaller cast. It concerns Kagur, a woman in the tundra regions. Eovath is a frost giant that had been captured as a young boy years earlier by her father and the two were raised much as brother and sister. However, she discovers at a night of celebration that he seems to have gone insane and poisoned and hacked to death the members of her tribe and almost kill her. She embarks on a quest of vengeance along with a near blind shaman.

The story becomes a bit more on topic when they find an entrance to caverns that he took and start a trek under the earth that echoes a bit of Verne as they encounter various dangers and hostile environment with stone and tunnels pressing around. Then, into true Edgar Rice Burroughs when they come into an interior world that not only has orcs, but also tribes of stone-age men and familiar dinosaurs. And, in true David Innes, John Carter, Flash Gordon mode, Kagur finds she must unite disparate tribes and people to confront the villain that menaces them all.

It is somewhat disappointing that Byers doesn't do as Murray and modernize the concept of the dinosaurs any. However, Byers does a fine job in the action scenes and acknowledging the hypocrisies of the characters' points of view. Kagur has trouble in seeing how her wanting to take vengeance on Eovath is not that different than Eovath taking vengeance on the people that killed his family and took him into slavery. Instead of focusing on romance of a handsome adventurous man needing to rescue a beautiful princess, the princess is the hero of the story but one that has some growing to do, to come to terms how her life and world has changed and how to deal with that.

The parallels to Burroughs is intentional to boot. I recognized the vibe as reading the novel, and then at the end on the "About the Author" page, he acknowledges this was him trying to do just that. Interesting to read two action stories of people fighting dinosaurs, and both do them exceedingly well.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Doc Savage Movie!

Hot off the success of Iron Man 3, Shane Black has been linked to the movie version of Doc Savage, moving this project ever so closely forward. Given Hollywood's excesses and arbitrary questionable decisions, part of me hopes this movie doesn't get made.  Galactus as a giant cloud. Doctor Doom with magnetic superpowers gained in the same accident as the FF. Barely getting anything right with the X-Men movies including having about the tallest male actor of the main characters playing the shortest X-man. Racial blind casting ie casting African-American actors as caucasian characters: Alicia Masters, Electro, Heimdell, Perry White, Jasper Sitwell, Pete Ross, Kingpin. With Doc and his crew, I just see the potential to go off the rails multiplied several times over.

Thing is, I'm probably more willing than most to give some leaveway. Such as I don't believe it has to be a period piece. BBC's Sherlock shows that you can modernize and keep the spirit of the original alive. Very little of who the the characters are in the books are changed for that show (the same cannot be said for Elementary). I think part of the reason pulps are experiencing renewed interest is because history has come around to where they are relevant again. Wars in the recent past (how many of the pulp heroes were veterans), war and unrest overseas, distrust and gulf between the wealthy and the poor, fear and unease of crime and violence on our doorsteps... when you see the news of the latest mass shooting or terror attempt, it seems as if something ripped out of the pages of a Spider or Operator 5 novel. And, I think the need for heroes to believe in. To see pulp adventure played out on the screen in the modern age, one just needs to watch tv. Doc and the rest are in there almost every day of the week: NCIS LA, Bones, CSI, Person of Interest, Arrow, Hawaii 5-0. The Mission Impossible and James Bond movies all have the necessary elements of a good Doc Savage movie and even some of the right attitude.

And, I'm willing to concede that actor-wise, to allow the pulps their hyperbole in the character descriptions. You're not going to get someone that is going to look like most of the cast, they are of such unique and disproportionate attributes. And, everyone has their own unique version in their head. Such as Renny's huge hands. One thing I liked about the George Pal version was how in the first scene we see of Renny, he's wearing work gloves. I thought it was a clever bit, drawing attention to his hands even though they aren't noticeably large. However, I do think the cast of the five, as a whole they should be a unique looking group, easily able to tell one from the other and striking as a whole.

As much as the 1970s Doc Savage movie is panned, there is one scene where it got it right: the fight on the boat. From Long Tom having on his person a cigarette holder that's really a laser to Renny punching straight through a chair to the crook using it as a shield, that part really had me cheering. It would be kind of neat if we see some attention paid to the fact that each of the five has their own fighting style and not just a mindless choreographed scene where everyone fights the same. Another movie that I think got the right sensibility down at least in one scene is Iron Man 2. What almost stole this movie was Happy Hogan in that we see him as a capable character and hero in his own right. But, he's not a super hero. When we see him and the Black Widow go against some guards, he chivalrously leads the charge and ably fights the one guy, punching him out as a capable boxer would. However, while he's punching that one guy, we see the Black Widow moving quickly and  taking out multiple guards as smooth as silk without breaking a sweat. Difficult to do, but that should be the difference between how Doc moves and fights and the rest of his crew.

From current Hollywood, my cast choices (I'll leave Doc for last):

Renny: Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother). I don't think you can really capture the large fists and I don't want to see cgi'ed or fake fists. Show him punching through a door and that's enough. However, he should be the Big Guy of the Five. If you're going to pick a fight with one of the Aides, he and Monk should have the physical presence that they are your last picks. By the same token, while tall, he shouldn't subtract from the classic looks and athleticism of Doc. While best known for comedy, he has shown remarkable range on How I Met Your Mother and is often the least caricatured over-the-top character. I think he could drop his voice an octave and get the necessary deep rumbling quality. Maybe a little make-up to get the mournful look but again, don't want to make him look cartoony. Over the years I've seen the faces that I thought would be perfect Renny, often attached to actors too old (Tommy Lee Jones) and/or too short (William H. Macy). But, I also think that quality can be achieved by being just a good actor.

Johnny: Matthey Gray Grubler (Criminal Minds). You're not going to get the quite walking skeleton as described in the pulps, but you can get tall and thin which Grubler is. He also does smart very well as the genius Dr. Spencer Reed on Criminal Minds. He can rattle off those big words and make it seem like he knows what he's talking about. Maybe a beard to hide his somewhat boyish looks and to give him a professor quality (as well as someone who spends a lot of time in remote places where shaving daily would be a luxury).

Long Tom: Jonathon Young (Sanctuary). When I saw Young playing Nikola Tesla on Sactuary, I thought what a good Long Tom he'd make. Then to discover he has also played Thomas Edison, and it's almost a required casting. He plays smart and arrogant well but not physically imposing. The problem with Long Tom is in reality, he's physically a bit similar to Johnny. Thin people tend to look frail as well as taller. And two remarkably thin actors are going to almost seem interchangeable. A little make-up can get across the pallor aspect and I think the basic different acting styles of Young and Grubler can carry the rest. Johnny will be more introspective, excitable only when something intrigues him or reminds him of history. Long Tom is more mercurial and temperous and excitable whenever he can show off his latest gadgets. Of the group, Long Tom is the one that's always looking to build something new, to apply technology and science to new uses and improve upon the things we already have.

Ham: Simon Baker (The Mentalist): As Patrick Jane on The Mentalist, Simon Baker shows that he can be clever, cuttingly witty, smarmy arrogant and a bit pretentious/metrosexual, all attributes that Ham has. He has that lean waisted and pretty boy looks. Of the Five, he's the only one that should be conventionally called handsome. And, he shows that he wears nice clothes well and looks completely comfortable and at ease in them despite no one else dressing as nicely as he does. Teach him to box some and fence and you've got a perfect Ham.

Monk: Scott Caan (Hawaii 5-0). As with Renny, I think you have go for a baseline with Monk. Now, I happened to work with a guy that in his late 50s/early 60s, he was almost note-perfect for how you'd think Monk would look at that age: gristled and homely face, constantly smiling, barrell chested and large biceps showing that he obviously worked on upper body/arms more than anything else. He was the right age to have been perfect at the time Pal was filming his version. Barring that there's an unknown out there that's the right physical size and age and has a face ala Ron Perlman or Gary Busey, I think Scott is a good choice. A good actor and in good physical shape, he's only 5'6". A few prosthetics, to accentuate the brow and flatten the nose, to bulge out his chest and make his arms hang a bit to the sides and maybe some dentures to give him a rather toothy grin and then raise his voice a bit, but not so much he's talking in falsetto. The idea is to get the spirit of the character but not to veer into caricature. Oh, and dye his hair to a more reddish color.

 Doc: Jason Momoa (Stargate: Atlantis, Game of Thrones). A lot of talk is given to the Rock and since I saw him in The Rundown, he can play an intelligent action hero quite well and he has a bit of range. Not a bad choice. Now, I've not see Momoa in a lot of stuff, but I think he is a better physical fit. He's tall and in good shape and as Conan shows, can push himself to even fit the more physically imposing role. He also has the certain chiseled looks that look like a compromise between pulp and Bama covers. The real question is can he believably pull off the charisma that seems to come naturally to the Rock and convincingly play smart or is akin to Denise Richards trying to make us believe she's a nuclear physicist? Plus he has the height and proportions. Where Segal looks like a tall, big guy, Momoa is the same height but more of the physical ideal.

Yes, I've left off Pat. Part of that is because Pat's casting really depends on who you get as Doc. I think she would probably be a relative unknown. Also, I'm not sure she's needed for the first movie. One of the problems the movies often make is they want to include everyone at once. If you're doing Sherlock Holmes, then Moriarty has to appear. The Fantastic Four, then Dr. Doom. Give the movies a little room to grow organically and find their voice. Maybe make a reference to Pat, but otherwise leave her out. Ditto for the pets. Johnny Sunlight, I'd leave completely out until the third movie if even then. And, don't try to redo the pulp novels. If you bring Sunlight in, make it a "third" appearance, that they'd faced off in the past. The pulp novels were their thing, the movies something else. Don't try adapting specific pulp novels, create new stories and new villains. The first movie doesn't have to be "Man of Bronze", just because the novels started there. Go back and read it, it's not an origin story. It details where his wealth came from and the death of his father, but Doc and his crew have been around before that novel. They have untold adventures behind them. They are a group of friends who work together. A montage of Doc's upbringing vs the others' in their civilian jobs during the opening credits is really as much an origin as you need.

Anyway those are my thoughts and choices. What's yours?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Story Papers & Six Gun Gorilla

I don't profess to be an expert on the British Story Papers. Existing around the same time as the pulp novels in America and with similar fiction, they were thinner than the pulps. Young fans of Harry Potter might find it interesting that their great grand-parents were also excited about reading about adventurous kids and cads in school, the boys of the Greyfriars school or the girls that formed their own masked group "The Secret Three". It's also interesting just how much of the pages were devoted to the American West or American detectives and gangs. Comic and pulp fans might find it interesting just how many masked men and villains populated these pages as well such as the Green Mask vs the Black Bat!

Under their pulp fiction banner, Comicbook Plus has lately been adding of these books, including Wizard, Magnet and others.

One of the stranger characters and strangest Wild West vigilantes to emerge from this site is the Six-Gun Gorilla. A serial telling the story of a gorilla trained in the use of pistols who goes on a mission of vengeance against the gang that killed its master, an old prospector. To give the writer credit, he manages to tell this story while maintaining a certain level of credibility to it. Intelligent and capable, SGG remains thoroughly an animal in its actions, motivations, and point of view. The whole story is collected here.

Meanwhile, Si Spurrier is revamping Six Gun Gorilla for comics, the interview and details can be found here.

What is Pulp?

Which leads into a whole 'nother discussion. The interview calls Six Gun Gorilla a "pulp" character. CBR interviewers and interviewees use this term indiscriminately. Three different interviews concerning Dynamite's upcoming Miss Fury comic and all three refer to her as being a pulp character. Talking about Captain Midnight, he's referred to as a "pulp" character. Because he fights Nazis, Captain America from the movie is referred to as being "pulp". I feel like I'm constantly repeating myself over there, "Not a Pulp!" Can you imagine the next hot writer of Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman calling the character a pulp character? It is akin to me calling Harry Potter a television character, which at least would have the validity of that being where I first encountered him, in a television airing of the first movie.

None of these characters ever appeared in the pulps. Captain Midnight in particular appeared almost everywhere but: Big Little Books, Radio, Movie Serial, Comicbooks. Miss Fury appeared in comicstrips and was reprinted in the comicbooks. Not to mention, most of your hero pulps... they rarely fought the Nazis. Out of the thousand and more adventures that make up the stories of Doc Savage, the Shadow, Avenger, Secret Agent "X", The Spider, Phantom Detective, Black Bat, Green Ghosts, Operator 5, less than 1% fought Nazis. G-8 fought the Germans, but that was WWI. It's narrowly pigeon-holing pulps while using it to describe things that don't fit.

Of course the interviews then frequently go from talking about the "pulp" character to how this character is NOT that character, and it's more about the changes they are making to the character, keeping just the name and sometimes look but little else.

Pulps were not just hard-boiled detectives as some fans are wont to refer to them nor campy masked Nazi-fighters. Sure, there's the likes of Dan Turner and Doc Savage. But, it's also John Carter, Tarzan, Conan, Solomon Kane. It's H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Dashiell Hammett.

And, I think we are still surrounded by the pulp mind-set today. Not in pastiches and period fiction though and not through their first successors, the comicbook superheroes. Stephen King if he was writing in the 30s and 40s would be in the pulps. And with King, there's Lee Child's Jack Reacher, the works of Preston and Lincoln Child, Clive Cussler and associates, the prolific Dean Koontz, Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, books of the Forgotten Realms by writers like Mel Odom, R. A. Salvatore. There's television's Monk, Psych, Eureka, NCIS, Person of Interest, White Collar, Arrow (yes, based on the comicbook character, but owing quite a bit more to the likes of pulp era characters Green Hornet, the Green Archer and even older Count of Monte Cristo). It's genre fiction rooted in the realms of possibility and wonder as well as a look at the world around us. Escapist fiction simultaneously acknowledging what we are seeking to escape from or strive against. It speaks to our fears and righteous indignation while providing a light in the darkness. It's where modern comic books and their superheroes have lost their way, they have forgotten that relationship and instead have reversed them. Their backdrops and concerns are less real world and instead canabalistic. Superheroes instead of operating in the real world, operate primarily in worlds of other superheroes. Their supporting casts and love interests are increasingly other superheroes. And, heroes are regularly killed or made into killers or other questionable choices. The heroes themselves are given some kind of "realism", saddled with feet of clay and inadequacies and failures.

Which is why I think we're seeing a resurgence in pulp today. After all, even I who grew up reading Doc Savage, it was all second hand. I didn't read my first Spider, G-8 or Phantom Detective until my twenties. Only a few out there that discovered these characters when new. Part of it is the internet, making the stories and communication between fans easier, quicker, cheaper and more widespread. At no other time would I be able to easily come across a story as wild as the Six-Gun Gorilla. Or in the space of minutes, be able to call up and read Edgar Wallace's "The Green Archer" (an excellent story by the way). I also think that the stories themselves have renewed resonance. Events such as 9/11 make the stories of The Spider and Operator 5 speak to us in ways they wouldn't have before. Wars overseas, job scarcity, government corruption, casual bigotry... the events and characters that flit across those yellowed pages seem more relevant and familiar to us than ever before. It's why the Harry Potter books were such a huge success and Steam Punk is taking off (though having been around quite for some time, all the way back to the time periods these books are set in).

Oh well, that's my rant for today.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The White Moll

Of the Frank Packard books I have, The White Moll is unique in that the lead character and focus is that of a woman. Otherwise, it follows a similar formula of the other novels. It has about the most convoluted of all set-ups and backdrops of any of them though, which is saying something.

Miss Rhoda Gray was raised by her father, a mining engineer, down in South America. He gets ill and comes to New York to see a specialist. He's wealthy enough for the trip and treatment, but it doesn't leave alot left over for niceties and they settle in the poorest and crime-ridden section of town. Through an act of charity towards a crook she earns her nickname the "White Moll". "White" as being slang for being honest, trustworthy, and above board. "Moll" as that for a young woman (this is the first I've heard it used as being generic for a young woman and not one specifically a girl-friend to a crook or crook herself). When her father dies, she is left with just enough of a stipend to live on, but not to move or better her situation. She uses her money then to engage in acts of charity amongst crookdom. By these acts of kindness and known not to be be a stool pigeon or preacher, she earns the goodwill and protection of both crooks and cops.

Her life significantly changes when she comes across the old beggar woman Gypsy Nan close to death. Gypsy Nan refuses to be taken to a cop or hospital, at least not until taken first to her room at the flop house. In the candle-lit room, she reveals to Rhoda a small hiding place with clothes and loot, it turns out that Gypsy Nan is in reality a much younger woman! Shorn of her disguise as an old woman that would've exposed her at the hospital, they leave the flop house so that no link between her and Nan can be made. Then Rhoda is able to summon a cop and ambulance to take her to the hospital.

However, for Gypsy Nan it's too late and knowing she is dying, she manages to get a promise from Rhoda. She knows of an impending crime but she won't squeal on her mates. Instead she implores from Rhoda that she commit the robbery beforehand and then return the loot afterwards. Thus, forestalling the crime but not getting anyone arrested. Rhoda agrees and Gypsy Nan passes from this world.

Rhoda commits the act of robbery but is seen and pursued by the police. Only through the seeming innocent intervention of a good looking young man is she able to make her escape. With only a little lead, she finds herself near Nan's apartment. She enters and quickly dashes her clothes and loot in the hideaway and disguises herself as Gypsy Nan! Thus, Miss Rhoda Gray aka the White Moll becomes wanted by the police!

The next day, still in the Gypsy Nan disguise, she is visited by the good looking young man. He identifies himself as The Adventurer, a gentleman thief and he's looking for the White Moll in order to team up with her. However, their conversation is cut short as with his phenomenally good hearing he hears other feet on the stairs, Gypsy Nan gets a second visitor. The second is Parson Dangler, crook and gang-leader. More than that, he knows that Nan is a false identity as he's the husband to the dead woman that wore it earlier! However, through low lighting and subterfuge, Rhoda is able to keep secret that she's not the original woman. Through him, she learns that the gang's carefully laid plans had been forestalled often of late. Until last night, they had no clue as to whom, but now Dangler is sure it's the White Moll that's been the source of all their troubles! Thus, the White Moll is also wanted by the crooks!

That is the set-up. Rhoda Gray aka the White Moll is wanted by police and the crooks for a bunch of crimes she didn't commit and the one she technically did. She maintains the Gypsy Nan identity as both a safe haven and to gain information on future crimes that she then stymies in her compromised identity of the White Moll, all the while trying to find evidence that will clear her name. She also fights the growing attraction she feels for that self-professed crook The Adventurer whose path she continually crosses and matches wits against. And, with the deceased woman who was Gypsy Nan being secretly married to the crook who heads the gang that Gypsy Nan runs with, it's not that safe an identity.

The book is only disappointing in that despite the colorful name, the White Moll moniker is simply a nickname based on slang. It's not a separate identity, she doesn't wear all white and a mask. Also, despite her tomboy upbringings in the wilds of South America, Rhoda is not capable of being able to out-run, out-fight, or out-shoot a reasonably fit man. She only has her daring and wits. She's a colorful and sympathetic heroine, but she doesn't take those extra steps to make her fully a mystery-woman. With a female protagonist, Packard saddles her with more conflicts with her emotions, fears and doubts than he does his male heroes. However, it ultimately works in her favor. She suffers from much of the same emotions that most of us, man or woman, would feel in such situations, as unmanly as it would seem to acknowledge that in heroic fiction. Yet, it doesn't paralyze Rhoda to inaction. She feels those feelings, acknowledges them, then gets up and does what needs doing.

There's a thrilling car chase near the climax of the book, the only such scene in any of these books. Again, it takes a little reminding, that a car going 35-45 mph was really booking in those days (1919) and almost all cars were convertibles!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Black Bat at Dynamite

With the announcement of Masks, Dynamite hinted at some new characters in the works. Masks is to feature all their pulp heroes as well as a couple of pulp-ish comic heroes that they have published. But, also in the mix was the Black Bat and Miss Fury. So, it's no surprise really to see an announcement that Dynamite actually plans on publishing a Black Bat comic. Miss Fury is surely not too far behind.

This is yet another instance of Dynamite raiding another company for a character, and it's Moonstone again. The character's original stories are public domain so no problem there. But, as Moonstone featured the character and name in the titles and on the covers of several comics, there would be the trademark issue. Not like The Phantom that was a licensed property. We'll see how Moonstone responds to this.

Comicbookresources talked with the writer of the proposed series here. No artwork, the writer of the series is Brian Buccellato whose work has been well received on The Flash. I don't really have a problem with updating the character to the present day. Unlike many of his contemporaries, and despite what Buccellato seems to imply here, the Black Bat's world isn't really as defined by the times as that of the Shadow or Doc Savage.  Because he was written as more of a superhero to begin with, his milieu evolved and is just as accepted today as before. Because of the virtue that several of his elements were picked up by other characters and still presented today, the character should be able to be picked up completely whole and dropped into today's world with nary a blip. Part of the reason I think there's a resurgence in interest in the pulp characters today is that the shape of the world is very recognizable when we read those old stories: War overseas, veterans at home, gulf between the rich and the poor, corrupt business and civil leaders, racism and sexism. Some things have changed for the better, but some of those evils just resurface with new twists. Reading the pulps is seeing an allegory not only for Time Past but Time Now.

However, Buccatello talks about all the changes he's going to make. Because of the change in times and because so much of the character has been done by other characters since then. Can you imagine if he took this tact with the Flash? Let's see, there are quite a few guys now that have super-speed so let's get rid of that. Tights? Dime a dozen, so that's out. Powers from a freak scientific accident? Gee, that's almost every character at that other company. Blonde hair? How cliche.

It's funny that he sees the character being an attorney (and a blind one, at that) as being a bit too much on the money of another hero and he makes him a DEFENSE ATTORNEY? That's exactly what the other guy was. If you read the pulps, he didn't really practice Law after the accident anyways and was played as retired and being a bit of a consultant on crime.

There's an irony that DC and Thrilling reached an agreement over Batman and the Black Bat, and then DC pretty much ripped the character off any chance they got. The fins on Batman's gloves. The accident (being the origin of both Two-Face and Dr. Mid-Nite), the night-vision. I say, take the opposite tact. Embrace the similarities and recognize it's the aggregate of the character that makes him stand out. His willingness (not eagerness) to kill those that beyond the reach of the Law, his aides that help him, the loyal love interest, the cop out to expose him. The tv show ARROW works as a template of what the Black Bat should be like. At least there's no talk about making actual psychological changes to the character, to making him hearing voices and execute every crook in sight. Kill in self-defense or defense of others, yes. But, his primary goal should be to get them jailed if possible. I think it's a difference that many modern writers don't quite get when approaching the pulp characters like the Shadow and the Spider. They killed when necessary. If the cops could apprehend the crooks, that was fine. Don't mistaken the fact that the intent of the writer was to build the story so that the hero was justified in gunning down the villain with it being the intent of the hero. It's a criticism I see leveled at so many heroes of the time.

It's interesting that as Batman has evolved over the last several years, first in films and now even in the comics to more of an all-black look, he looks less like Batman and how I would've envisioned a comic version of Black Bat to look in order to differentiate him from Batman. I don't know what they are going to come up with to make him look different from Batman AND Moonstone's Black Bat. Although I imagine something like Arrow or the movie Daredevil, only in black and with a cape.

Since the article made mention of the other Black Bat, wonder if they'll bring him in as well. He struck me as an interesting if enigmatic character. Then there's the Bat, whose inspiration for becoming a masked hero is used almost verbatim for Batman's. Then there's the Mask, Thrilling's adaption of the character in comic form, or the idea for an opposite number villain, the Tiger (what was to be his name originally).

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Red Ledger - Frank Packard

At 2 1/2 Dominic Court you will find one of the more eccentric detectives. Of course, finding Dominic Court itself presents a challenge. The local beat cop could probably give you directions, but even citizens and tourists that pride themselves on their knowledge of little known nooks and crannies of New York's canyoned streets walk past it without knowing. Yet, if you do find the alley passageway that leads between tall buildings, you will come out upon a small oasis from the bustle of the city. Four small old fashioned two-story houses built of wood in Dutch style, lawns neatly kept, fences and ivy wrapped fences: numbers 1, 1 1/2, 2 and 2 1/2. And, at 2 1/2 resides the older gentleman and scholar  Henri Raoul Charlebois. Charlebois, a man of unusual intelligence and vast wealth. A man who is liable to size one up by first asking their favorite color. His own is red, neither hot nor cold as he puts it. He, in his red jacket and skull-cap with a tassel,  sits at his study that is all done in red: red books, red desk, red shelves a red safe. And in that red safe is The Red Ledger, a book in which that he has kept account of the credits and debits of all who crossed his path some decades earlier when he was downtrodden, homeless, hungry and sickly. And, he has now built up a vast organization to balance the books.

This is the situation that young Ewan Stranway finds that fate has thrust him into. Ewan is a young man whose family is well off, so everyone thought. Until his parents are killed suddenly in a car crash and he finds that his father's business was in deep trouble. He uses the inheritance to pay off the debts and with just a couple hundred left, he starts searching for work. It is then he runs across an advertisement in the paper of someone looking for him and through mysterious directions finds himself in the study of Charlebois. Turns out his father is in that red ledger as one of the men who showed charity to Charlebois and gave him ten cents (a dime could buy you a meal in those days). At first Ewan just laughs as a dime will hardly help him in his current straits but it turns out Charlebois is actually offering him a job if he doesn't mind a little danger. It's a strange interview, first asking him his favorite color, then allowing him to be privy to a private argument between Charlebois and a beautiful young woman whom Charlebois "murders" before his eyes and then frantically trying to buy Stranway's silence. When Stranway refuses, it's revealed to be a ruse to test his honesty and character.

Stranway agrees and spends a month in training. From Pierre Verot he learns locks, skeleton keys and disguise make-up, Miss Priscilla Bates teaches him Morse code while Charlebois teaches him the secret codes of the organization. Amongst others of the organization are Flint the mechanic and driver and the beautiful and mysterious young woman known only as the Orchid. The four houses are all part of the organization: Mrs. Morrison, a middle-aged widow supposedly kept lodgers at #1, at 1 1/2 resided Verot and his wife and at #2 was the elderly Miss Bates. Stranway himself is given a nice apartment nearby on 6th Avenue. He is given access to Charlebois' safe and the vast sums of money and the ledger it contains. Indeed, his own position becomes that as Second in Command. After a month, he becomes an active agent.

Packard oversells the eccentricity of Charlebois at the beginning, to the point that he really comes off as a madman. It stretches credibility that a man would agree to work for him after that interview process. Ultimately, it works though. Charlebois is portrayed as charming, generous as well ruthless depending on which side of the book you fall. To those he helps, he quickly leaves as acts of gratitude seem to embarrass and discomfort him. Packard uses the limited 3rd Person Point of View to excellent effect, in a way that most nowadays are not able to pull off. The basic structure is not unusual for Victorian and Edwardian literature: the everyday man as the point of view reference, though many use 1st person narrative. Here, it allows Charlebois to stay in the background but still an active character. He's a master planner, manipulating the situation and persons as chess pieces while Stranway is often his main agent in the more dangerous cases. Stranway himself is quick-witted, capable and able to blend in most situations, even able to save the day through his own initiative. It wouldn't be a Packard novel without the one mystery-character, a woman with enigmatic name and character who is the object of the lead's infatuation. The novel never loses its point-of-view though. This allows characters like Charlebois and the Orchid to figure prominently but remain mysterious throughout. You're privy to Stranway's thoughts, hopes, opinions and surmises but not anyone else.

Charlebois is more of a driving force in the book than the super-detective of "Tiger Claws". Like a spider at the center of a web, everything centers around him and his ledger. This book focuses on Stranway, the cases he's involved in and his romance. They are the big story. But, the set-up suggests other stories. There are other active agents that have been with Charlebois for awhile. Other accounts are settled that Stranway has no part in, or laying the ground work for the big payoff.

The novel is otherwise a collection of short-stories that carry a narrative all the way through, reading almost like the climactic chapters of a half-dozen mystery novels. There are ruthless businessmen and stock manipulators, poisoners, suave con-men, a deadly smuggler and his gang. And, ultimately, the Versel-Thega, a secret society of crooks and assassins from a small principality in Europe called Karnavia and in the employ of Prince Stolbek. Through it all, are hints and reveals of Charlebois' mysterious past, how various characters came to be in his book; and the fruitless attempts of Stranway to get a few moments alone with the Orchid that aren't limited by the urgency of the missions.

One can see quite a bit of the structure to the Shadow novels, especially the first one focusing mainly on Harry Vincent's recruitment into the Shadow's service. The all red study vs Shadow's sanctum. The master planner behind the scenes, the vast organization with agents tracking down various leads around the globe. The chief difference is the structure of the novel focuses on Stranway and never deviates from that. There are no scenes of Charlebois when he's not in Stranway's presence. There's even a reference to one of a dozen unpublished cases as "Chen Yang and the Golden Joss".... doesn't that just leap off the page as a Shadow title?
A little research revealed that the opening in "Tiger Claws" is not as unusual as it seemed to me. As noted, it was the first I've read with the exotic South Seas locale, at least in the beginning. But, it seems that Packard wrote several other novels with that setting, one even filmed.
Next up, "The White Moll". In this story, Packard reverses his formula a bit as the lead character is a woman, Miss Rhoda Gray aka the White Moll. Through an act of charity, she finds herself wanted by the police, taking over a dead woman's identity (which in itself is a false identity), and fighting the plans of a ruthless gang of crooks in hopes to get the evidence and testimony to clear her name. On hand is a enigmatic mystery man this time.