Monday, November 14, 2011

Doc Savage: Satan Black

The bronze man finally found a piece of rope. He had a worse time locating one than he had expected and toward the last he searched with a haste that was near frenzy.

The rope was three-quarter-inch stuff about fifteen feet long, and it smelled of the anti-rust off the tools and the pipe. He found it on the fourth pipe-truck which he searched, although he had supposed there would be rope on every truck. Rope and chain were necessities on the big multi-ton pipe-trucks, one would think.

He clutched the rope, and he ran for the loaded pipe-truck that had broken an axle that afternoon. He ran desperately.

Early summer darkness lay over Arkansas, warm and amiable, and there was enough breeze to bring a slight odor, but not an unpleasant one, of the slough to the south.

The river was farther east. One couldn't say the river was a sound, but it was distinctly a presence and a fierce power. It wasn't a fierce-looking river. It was referred to more often as a ribbon of mud. Yet it was no ribbon, because a ribbon is something soft, something for a lady. This river was something for garfish that tasted of carrion, mud-cats, water-dogs; it was a repelling river, unlovely to look at and heart-breaking to deal with. It was a nasty, muddy, sulking presence in the eastern darkness.

The bronze man with his rope reached the pipe-truck with the snapped axle. He crawled under it. He knew exactly the spot he wanted, not under the truck itself, but under the pipe-trailer, beneath the mighty lengths of twenty-four-inch oil pipeline river-casing.

The bronze man made himself a sling under the pipe. A hammock, a tight, smug little place to lie supported by the rope he'd been in such a wild haste to find. When he was done, and hauled up snug in the sling-hammock, one could look under the truck and not see him.

But if one happened to crawl under the truck, even partly under it, and poke around with a flashlight beam, he was sure to be seen. And once found, for a moment or two he would be helpless there. It was a good place to hide, but it wasn't a good place to be caught hiding. Not if one took into consideration the kind of a thing that was happening.

The bronze man lay very still. He coiled the end of the rope on his stomach. He wouldn't, he thought, care for more than half an hour of hanging like this. But it shouldn't take that long.

He listened to the night sounds, the crickets and the frogs and the owls, the rumbling of trucks in the distance, the heavy iron animal noises of bulldozers, the grinding of tripod-winches. The noises that go with the laying of a twenty-four-inch petroleum pipeline.

The noises sounded sharp and hearty enough. There was nothing sick-sounding about them, nothing at all.

There should have been.

This is the opening pages of the 1944 Doc Savage novel Satan Black. I think it encapsulates why of the many pulp heroes Doc Savage not only ran as long as it did, but until recently was really the only successful series to be reprinted. None of the Doc Savage imitators of the time were successful. The Shadow by dint of his radio show and catch phrases is more ingrained in pop culture, but Doc's stories survived and still thrived.

The secret ingredient is Lester Dent's writing. As noted, it's late 1944 when this was published. The Doc novels were less fantastic, less science-fiction. When people think of Doc Savage it's generally the earlier novels they look at with rose-colored glasses. However, by this point in time, Dent was not only a seasoned writer, his style had evolved and matured. The plots and characterizations may be a little dated and hokey by today's standards. But Dent's prose is slick and as thoroughly evocative of the American landscape and experience as any poet's. There's no reason for there to be the little excursion on the nature of the river and comparing/contrasting it to a ribbon for a woman's hair other to give the story a sense of place. His populating his opening paragraphs with little wry ironies of life draws you in, sets the story into a real location. Whatever fantastic thing that follows, the reader is hooked, convinced of the reality of the story.

When and whatever Dent wrote, there is that feeling of authenticity to it, that it's all drawn from real experiences and observations. It may be why that despite Doc living and head-quartered in New York City, many of his stories took place in smaller towns and wide-open expanses of nature that still resisted modern man's push. And while Doc and his men were larger than life with grandiose jobs and military ranks, the stories are peopled with individuals with smaller lives and every-day concerns. Just like the little ironies and contrasts that Dent peppered his stories with.

Despite the little details that seem extraneous, Dent's writing has moved past the purple prose of earlier pulps. His stories don't seem to be padded, action often seem filled with frantic activity and immediate urgency.  He knows when to be descriptive and when to deliver sentences in short quick frequency. The compression and decompression of the storytelling undulates fluidly, keeping you turning the pages.

Great stuff. Fun reading.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Staffel of Beasts

G-8 and his Battle Aces: v6n4, September 1935.
 Author: Robert Hogan

After looking at some of Robert Hogan's other pulp works (Secret 6, Wu Fang), it's a joy to return to his longest lasting and best series: G-8. G-8 was an otherwise anonymous flying spy during the days of World War One and his Battle Aces were Bull Martin and Nippy Weston. Rounding out the group was the make-up whiz and cook extraordinaire but otherwise slow on the uptake servant Battle.

I don't know which came first, Hogan's ingenious plots or the covers, but one of the joys of the books that reprint the original covers is seeing the outlandish cover with it's purplish prose title and wondering just how Hogan is going to work it into the story. For unlike many pulps, the covers were illustrative and not merely symbolic if they applied at all. I wish I had a better scan of this one to share, but my scanner is out of whack. It features a tiger with a snarling but human looking face jumping from an enemy's plane onto presumably one piloted by G-8.

The storyline is long into getting to that point though. It mainly features G-8 going behind enemy lines investigating a mysterious hospital and why the Germans are requiring all cripples to report there for duty. Like many stories, the common people and the effects of war that makes enemies of brothers and the dehumanizing aspects of it are never too far from the surface. Hogan treats the average German and the various cripples with sympathy without losing the action and sense of high adventure. In the end, the story does deliver on the cover, but the title is misleading. While a tiger does make its appearance, one does not a staffel make.

Hogan got a lot of mileage out of G-8. While the lead is never given another name, he is humanized. He is capable but not superhuman so. Unlike other heroes, he needs help for his really convincing disguises. Each story often features at least one scene of the main characters sharing a meal or about to and joking and teasing each other. Against the horrors of War, we see them as normal people as well. While he is ostensibly an aviation hero in WWI, G-8 spends much of his adventures on the ground. Along with dogfights in the skies, there are often harrowing crossings back and forth through No Man's Land on the ground in various disguises, him infiltrating camps, secret labs, etc.  More often than not, the plots themselves are pure pulp science fiction featuring lost races, super weapons and devices, seeming supernatural plots. This one is more prosaic than most but still one that almost could only happen within the pulp pages. Under Hogan's pen, one wouldn't have been surprised to see a whole staffel of beasts with human faces though.

All in all, a fun read from beginning to end.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lord of the Jungle

Should come as no surprise that Dynamite has announced that they are also adding Tarzan to their list of characters with multiple covers by the usual suspects Alex Ross, Ryan Sook and others. The surprise is that it took them this long after their start of chronicling the adventures of John Carter and family of Mars. Like the first Mars book, the first eight of the Tarzan novels are reportedly public domain. The estate owns the trademark rights to the Tarzan name thus the name of the comic not reflecting the jungle lord's name anywhere.

The release is a little confusing as it seems to indicate that like most of Dynamite's books, it's going to be an origin tale, heavily relying on the story written for a medium other than comics. At least in this case it's Edgar Rice Burroughs' original "Tarzan of the Apes" tale and not a Kevin Smith movie treatment. However, since it is a modern comic book adaptation of a longer prose work, we can expect quite a bit of decompression with large chunks also left out.

Yet, the writer/adapter Arvid Nelson says:"Tarzan's DNA is in everything from super heroes to space epic. But I was surprised at how little I knew about him, because the many adaptations wander very far from the original character. His true story is so much deeper and more interesting -- that's we're trying to bring to life in Lord of the Jungle."

I don't really recall much in the terms of "super hero" or "space epic" in that first story. And, if the covers are any indication, I don't really picture Tarzan as wearing golden arm bands, bracers and necklaces. As the ultimate nature boy jungle man, I see him wearing little that's so purely ornamental, that he'd sooner wear leather made from a beast he killed and skinned.  Maybe as a necklace a leather strap with the tooth of a fierce beast he found hard to kill. Still, I'd rather just see them to move beyond the books and the origin story. I've got those to read and the comic isn't going to top them.  The real challenge is to take the character into the realm of comics, competing against the superheroes and find ways to make him work and stand out. He needs foes and stories that are equally larger than life with art that gets across the dynamism of the character. Frankly speaking, as far as the original stories go, while Tarzan is a great character and has that name recognition, Ki-Gor actually operated more in the super hero mold facing the likes of a race of intelligent gorillas bent on conquest. Reminds me, I do have a used paperback of "Tarzan Triumphant" which I've not read yet. So much to read, so little time.

My view of Tarzan though will always be the Neal Adams paperback covers. No one else seemed to capture power, energy and savagery all at once. I love John Buscema and Russ Heath but there Tarzans always seemed a little too clean, Hogarth's looked a little too much like a flayed model.
Even so, it will hard to be resist the price of the first issue. They promise a full first issue for $1, that's roughly a third of the price of most comics. On that alone, I may have to give up a diet coke that day and buy myself a comic.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Flash Gordon Makes Three!

Dynamite followed up the announcements of procuring The Shadow and The Spider with the announcement that Flash Gordon will soon be published by them as well. For those keeping track, the list of pulp or pulp-ish characters that Dynamite has the license to include the above plus Buck Rogers, The Phantom, Green Hornet, Lone Ranger, John Carter of Mars and Zorro. I had to check this morning to see if possibly there were any new announcements of Dick Tracy, Prince Valiant, Tarzan or Mandrake the Magician.

The press releases keep touting Dynamite's Project Superpowers as an example of the company's success, but when did the last issue of that come out? And, the few spin-offs it had have been cancelled. Likewise, the strong outing of Green Hornet titles has greatly diminished. Lone Ranger is ending. Buck Rogers has been gone for awhile. And, at least half of the titles feature strongly re-imagined versions of the characters. Green Hornet and the Bionic Man are based on film treatments. Their Zorro was largely an adaptation of Isabel Allende's novel. Couple that with their decompressed storytelling that takes several issues to deliver an origin and put the hero in costume. It's difficult to get too excited.

Of course Alex Ross is involved. He's obviously been a fan of Flash as he uses a Flash Gordon logo as part of his own logo (no trademark infringement there?). This announcement creates some bad blood between Dynamite and Arden who currently also publishes a Flash Gordon comic. Remember Dynamite pulling something similar with the Phantom? Appears that King Features is a little loose, they don't date exclusively. Of course, Arden didn't really impress me with their first issue as it set out to tell Flash's origin all over again, only with cartoony artwork and has a parachute pack just to seem to magically appear on his back when it's obvious he wasn't wearing one in preceding panels.

Hey, Dynamite. We know most of the origin and backstory already of Flash, Phantom, Bionic Man, etc. Don't just simply retread the same storyline or retcon the stories written by the creators only spread out over six issues. Give a little recap and jump in and give us the stories featuring the characters we love. Bring in new stuff, but not at the expense of the old. We want to believe that this comic featuring the hero is featuring the same hero that was in the pulps, serials, comic strips etc, not that it's just another version.

The art released has been interesting. The Doc Savage homage is definite with one. Once I saw that, I couldn't help but feel a John Carter vibe off another and a Star Wars vibe off a third. Of course, the pose in that one has been used in everything from Conan painting, movie posters for National Lampoon's Vacation, Army of Darkness, etc. Let you be the judge of that.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Spider Too?

Dynamite released the news that they are also doing a comic featuring the pulp hero the Spider! What this means for Moonstone who publishes various illustrated Spider stories, one can only guess. Dynamite made news when they announced they were doing the Phantom which was still being published by Moonstone at the time. It took about a year, but eventually the Phantom did end up at Moonstone. However, DC doing comics with the Street & Smith characters didn't impact Moonstone's prose projects with the characters and Moonstone did a Green Hornet prose book at the same time Dynamite was doing the comic. As most of their work with the Spider could hardly be considered actual comics, it's possible that we'll see one publisher reprinting the original pulps, one doing new prose short-stories and another doing a comic.

Dynamite released a bit more news concerning the Spider comic which might give an inkling as to their approach with the Shadow. Starting with, the Spider is being redesigned by Alex Ross! It's not much of a redesign as it's basically tweaking his serial costume and it's not bad. And, it appears the Spider will be in the present day.

Neither of these is necessarily bad, but it does show yesterday's optimism to be a little misplaced.

I had hoped that maybe the company and creators might have learned something with Kirby Genesis where interviews are given to re-assure readers and fans that Kirby's designs would be left intact and effort would be made to keep to the spirit and characterization that he set forth with the characters. It seems strange to me that in today's market, that creators need to actually stress that when talking about a project, but it's the reality of the world we live in today. Where DC and other companies are trying so hard to get characters wrong and crowing about it as if that's a good thing, it's actually needs to be said that a book might be coming out with the characters looking and acting like they were envisioned by their creator.

Out of that content, these changes are not necessarily a bad thing though. In the comicbook mini-series Mystery Men written by David Liss, something that comes home is how much of today's world is like the world that the pulp heroes acted out of. I think much of what made the pulp crime-fighters like the Shadow and the Spider appealing, we have the same conditions today: racism and class inequality, the wealthy getting wealthier while the poor are getting poorer, wars and instability overseas, wealthy criminals getting off with slaps on the wrist. Handled correctly, I can easily see the likes of the Spider and the Shadow operating in the world of today. Doc Savage is the one that's harder to handle as so much of his world centered on super-science and unexplored places. Translated to today, a Doc Savage ongoing should be something akin to the television show Fringe coupled with Eureka and Warehouse 13 with clones, parallel worlds, insane experiments. But, the night avengers I can see as being just as relevant today as then (one of the things I liked about Nolan's Batman movies is that they would also be great Spider movies with hardly an adjustment, maybe even better).

The look as noted comes from the Spider's movie serials which is hardly how he looked in the pulps. The thing is, his look wasn't always consistent in the pulps either, sometimes he was just Wentworth for most of the story, with a few attempts at disguise as a crook or a simple mask. Sometimes he had a fright wig, fake fanged teeth and a hump! Sometimes he had the wig and teeth but no mention of a hump. The pulp covers were more consistent though a little more generic, but that's the way I often envisioned him, regardless of how he was described inside: black suit, cape, hat and mask and a gun in hand. However, this is a striking look that at least has precedent with the character and could serve the character well as a comicbook hero.

David Liss of Mystery Men (the Marvel comic, not the movie) has been slated as the writer. He is a good writer and captures the pulp era well in his few comic credits at Marvel. The Spider is even trickier to capture correctly by modern writers than the Shadow though. Both seem to have the problem that modern writers cannot get past the violence and the Spider is even moreso than the Shadow. But, Norvell Page wrote the character of Wentworth and the Spider as one of intense passion in everything he did. It was his passion of empathy for his fellow man, for the endangered innocents and the hatred of the crooks that cops could not touch through their cleverness, audacity or just ability at working the system that drove him to meet steel with steel at great personal risk. He operates in a world where the common gangsters are along the lines of Hitler and Stalin and can be opposed by one man if he's daring enough. There seems to be an inability of many to really grasp that, only seeing the extreme violence and portray the character as being one of questionable sanity. Once you start questioning his sanity, you really lose what the character is supposed to be about. The Spider takes great gambles with life on the line, but he's always a sane man in an insane situation. He's no more nuts than John McClane in the movie Die Hard.

I have to admit, I'm not enamored of the interior artwork presented. The computerized coloring is very evident and makes everything look a bit too pristine and artificial looking without communicating any sense of mood or atmosphere. I had forgotten to list that yesterday of among the things I tend to not like of Dynamite's books. The coloring often obliterates the line work. Which is fine if your colorist is actually a painter and painting the books, but the coloring is often obviously done on a computer by a colorist that doesn't seem to understand using coloring to communicate mood, story or even how to facilitate "reading" the illustrations and stories that are being printed over reading the comic via computer monitor. Colors are often too dark or too saturated, everything is lit as if it is being lit in a studio with harsh lights producing bright highlights and shadows on every object. Every surface has an obvious gradient to it. Backgrounds and moving objects all are blurred, every light produces lens flares. The end result is not making the art look more realistic than the old coloring methods but just unrealistic in different ways. If anything, the use of filters and gradients in efforts to make the artwork look more photo-realistic often has the opposite effect by highlighting the unrealistic nature of the artwork. It's like watching David Boreanaz acting opposite cartoon Stewie Griffin.

Meanwhile, there's no sense of movement in the panels presented. The characters all look like they are posing for photo stills from a movie set traced over in photoshop judging by the cold unvarying line widths. A comic doesn't have actual movement, a single panel often needs to communicate three bits of time simultaneously: suggest the movement a second before, the present, as well as the result of a second after. There's zero movement, mood or passion in the pages presented. It looks "realistic" but in a very staid, antiseptic way. The exact opposite of the effect you want to go for with characters like these. Again, look to Marvel's Mystery Men to see it being done right.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Shadow at Dynamite

Dynamite (the publisher of Zorro, Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, Black Terror) has announced that it has acquired the rights to Street & Smith's pulp hero the Shadow. Dynamite as a company has a history of announcing things before they are finalized (The Fighting American, the Phantom), so here's hoping this one doesn't come back and bite them in the next few days.

No announcement of a set creative team but here's hoping it doesn't include Alex Ross (Other than covers of course) or Kevin Smith. The good news is the announcement talks about the history of the character but nothing about re-designs or working to make the character more palatable to today's audiences that generally pop up in their announcements and talks about classic characters. Maybe they learned something from DC's crash and burn with the pulp and Red Circle heroes. It's telling that when they talked about the Kirby heroes of Kirby's Genesis they talked about how they were keeping faithful to the designs and looks of the characters. So there's hope that they have learned something.

The biggest fear should probably be decompressed storytelling, first issues that don't have the hero in action at all. This has been part of Dynamite's general storytelling, long drawn out origin stories, writing for the trade market and not the monthly comicbook market. There should be action and mystery in the first issue.

Dynamite does have a good pool of writers and artists to draw from, but are any up to writing the character. Wagner from Green Hornet: Year One seems to have a grasp of the time period, and Francovilla has a good feel of mood and style that the title should call for. Maybe they could lure Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barreto back to comics and a character they did so well years ago.

Some wonderful preview images though.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Doc Savage Returns!

Just got word that come July, Altus Press will release New Doc Savage novels written by pulp historian and writer Will Murray! The first book will be titled "Desert Demons" and include Doc's full crew as well as Pat Savage.

With DC's First Wave comics coming to an end and their mishandling of the various pulp characters, it's good news to hear that new books will be coming out. Murray has written several Doc novels under the old Kenneth Robeson byline. Making use of un-used Lester Dent outlines and plots, he penned novels that were longer than the old pulp novels but easily fitting in stylistically with the various ghosts Dent employed to toil under the Kenneth Robeson bylines. He achieved something almost impossible with the novels. He managed to tell stories that fit in stylistically and spiritually with the original stories and keep the characters in character and on model without actually coming off as parody or pastiche of another man's characters and style.

Murray's White Eyes stands out as a master crook organizes an underworld army and storms Doc's 86th Floor headquarters hoping to take out the hero and his crew. His Forgotten Realm is a wonderful lost race novel that has Doc investigating a mysterious man called X-Man. The story is a bit reminiscent of Kuttner's much shorter Thunder Jim Wade adventure "Waters of Death".

DeVito will be the cover artist making use of photos of the late Steve Holland, model for Bama's and Larkin's Doc Savage covers for Bantam. Holland was also used as model for the Spider, Avenger, and many other paperback covers. He also starred as Flash Gordon in a short-lived tv series in the 1950s.

Several of the older Murray Doc novels are being released as audio books for those that like to listen vs reading.

Also on the docket, least last I heard, is a reprint of Marvel's excellent b/w Doc Savage comic series. Now, if someone could do a comic series in the spirit of that magazine, that managed to meet the demands of comics and visual storytelling with the spirit and characterization of the original characters and making each immediately recognizable from the pulp descriptions (in fact, that series is how I usually picture the characters when reading the comics).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Spider copyrights?

So, I was bumming around the internet and found a reference that claimed that the first year of the Spider pulps were not renewed, but were starting with issue 13 by Argosy. This sounded a little fishy, so I checked some of my pulp reprints which happened to have a few from the first year. Now, those reprints do list a renewal of them being done in 1961.  Curious, I then checked one of my go-to resources for copyright research online. There, checking the renewal pages from the years 1960 and 1961 as well as their list of periodicals' first renewal dates, and they all bore out that the Spider was NOT renewed until the 1934 v4n1 issue (whereas the first Spider pulps were published in 1933). I wonder if the "v4n1" threw the reprinters into thinking those were the first issues? Or, is there a gap in the research? Someone's obviously making a mistake. Pity I don't have another trip to DC and the Library of Congress planned anytime soon.

Does have me interested in trying to read the Spiders reprinted so far in actual chronological order. I'm not even sure if I have read the first one or not.

However, my next review will either be the G-8 novel "The Beast Staffel" or the first two Avenger novels, all of which I've read in the last couple of weeks. Currently reading Secret Agent X adventure "The Curse of the Mandarin Fan" which has been highly enjoyable so far.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Spider: In Comics & Pulps

The Spider in Comics.

The Spider - Moonstone has recently released two different comics featuring the pulp hero, the Spider. I've not been enamored with their illustrated prose versions of the character. To be fair, the Spider is a difficult character to capture in comic form. He's violent in a similar way that the Shadow is violent. However, the worlds the two operate in are very different. The Shadow takes on gangs, his opponents are frequently the Al Capones of the world. In the Spider's world criminal empires are headed not merely by brutal and murderous men, but by socio-and psychopaths. They kill in fantastic and horrible ways, using terror and destruction of the social order in order to gain their goals of power and financial gain. Which is what trips most writers up, they see his over-the-top violent and insane world, his own passion and confuse the two. The violent insane style of the stories gets identified as part of the Spider's character. This shouldn't be the case. The Spider should be a passionate man and willing to kill, but he shouldn't seem to be any more insane than Willis' character in Die Hard or the Shadow in his stories.

The first issue of what I assume will be an ongoing comic with a cover by Dan Bereton and story by Martin Powell and Pablo Marcos really manages to deliver the goods. It pits the Spider against a mad surgeon and his Frankenstein-like monsters, showing an understanding of the secret of the Spider is he is normally pitted against extreme and monstrous foes, in this case quite literally. Several Spider stories deal with turning normal people into monstrous and mindless foes, so this seems a natural fit. Overall, the story seems almost a merging of classic DC horror/thriller stories from the 1970s with Batman, but not quite achieving the final polish to push it beyond being pretty good to truly memorable.

Part of it may be the length as the comic also features another pulp hero, Operator 5. A character I've not really gotten into in the pulps and the first chapter of the story here doesn't really grab me either.

Moonstone also is re-releasing Mark Wheatley's Spider comic story "Burning Lead for the Walking Dead" though with some slight tweaking. Like Powell's story, this one is a monster/horror story though more of the human variety, where a villain seeks to subvert and destroy the underpinning of human society and culture.

Wheatley's comic is longer and is especially strong. His artwork at times reminds of the stylish Tim Sale. Out of his Spider garb and in tattered shirt, Wentworth looks like he could hold his own against Doc Savage. Many elements of the pulps find their way into the comic and as a stand-alone, it works as a very good comic pastiche of the pulp hero. We have Kirkpatrick suspicious but unable to prove Wentworth is the Spider, yet the villains having no trouble with piercing that veil, a very common theme. And, while Wentworth wears the Spider garb, for much of story he is forced into action as himself yet somehow able to preserve the fact that he and the Spider are two different people.  As an added bonus, Wheatley talks in the back how the story came about and his love for the character and pulps (constrast that with how Azzarello talked about Doc Savage and the pulps).

Both comics feature the Spider as he's sometimes described in the pulps but seemingly at odds with how he appeared on the pulp covers. The pulps were never totally consistent with the Spider's guise which at times also included false fangs and hump. As I noted, many times he went into action in disguise or even as Wentworth, just leaving no survivors to tell the tale. Moonstone's version is a compromise between the descriptions in the story and the pulp covers by including a dark wig from the stories and the mask on the covers. Wheatley's original version of the comic was with gray/white hair and sans mask. In my own mind's eye, I tend to see him as the covers depict him, as those images were often powerful and iconic looking.

The Mayor of Hell: Girasol Collectibles does the "Pulp Doubles" reprints of the Spider and #15 delivers two powerful Spider tales with one of those wonderful covers I mentioned. What's especially great about this cover is that while it's actually to the second story and illustrates a scene from it, it also works thematically for the first story (and is a far more powerful cover than the actual cover for "The Mayor of Hell").

If I was giving a Spider pulp for someone to read as an introduction to the character, it wouldn't be "The Mayor of Hell" (#28, January, 1936). It takes many of the elements of the Spider character and cranks them all up several notches to the point that it's as comparable to many of the standard novels as the standard ones are to the Shadow novels. It is a rollercoaster of a read though and never is the character so hard-pressed against a criminal organization.

Girasol doesn't print these in order and my reading of them is not even in the order they print them so it is a surprise that Kirkpatrick here is not Commissioner, but Governor of the state! Although, this seems a status quo that the novel is setting out to rectify as he's impeached on trumped up charges and the current Commissioner seems a pawn of the villain.

The story starts off strong and never lets you go. Wentworth is at home relaxing and playing the violin when there is an assassination attempt on his life followed by cops come to take him for being the Spider, dead or alive.  Beset by two groups of foes, each eager to kill him and trapped in his burning home becoming an inferno, there are pages of him and his men battling to stay alive. That the cops themselves seem murderous and corrupt, he's forced to go against his long-standing policy to not fight the police. It's pages of violent action that ends with his aides captured and he is badly wounded and believed to be dead!

Often the stories have him badly wounded but bravely fighting on, but here he is taken out of the action early on. Cared for by an elderly man, his daughter and ex-cop fiance, it is six weeks before he is lucid again. They don't know his identity, but are bitter at the police and at first seem just common crooks, an irony not lost on Wentworth. Overall, it's two months of him out of the action, rebuilding his strength while the Mayor of Hell takes over the city government, the police and the newspapers. With the Spider and Wentworth believed to be dead, he takes on a new identity, that of Corporal Death and with his new allies, tackles the corruption and men of the Mayor, actively warring on the police. His face bears the scars of his ordeal, to the point he's not readily identifiable as Richard Wentworth or the Spider.

The battle is a long and arduous one. His new allies are soon taken from him as well, a disgraced Kirkpatrick is on the verge of suicide and Wentworth must seek allies in the form of one brave small newspaper to ferment a revolution of the general populace to re-instate Kirkpatrick as Commissioner.

Even after the story ends, it doesn't resolve the dilemma of the Spider's death, his new identity or his facial scars, the old status quo has not been completely re-instated. A pity that the second story in the reprint is not the next issue.

Fangs of the Dragon: By comparison, "Fangs of the Dragon" (#107, August, 1942) is almost forgettable. The mystery is one that might confront Doc Savage or the Shadow as Richard Wentworth aka the Spider goes to the relatively small town of Bethbury to investigate what seems to be an outbreak of murderous criminal insanity among normal people. This disease of crime seems to be transmitted by flying glowing dragons.

What helps set it apart is the language and storytelling is top-notch, from the impending horror on what seems a normal every-day evening in an average to the description of the Spider swinging through the night sky with his cape billowing out behind him. Also on hand is Nita Van Sloan, always one of the more capable and brave of pulp heroes' love interests, in this case insisting on fully sharing the dangers and missions of Wentworth and showing herself of capably mimicking his disguised features. I've read other stories where she dons the garb to distract the police and criminals, this is written as if it's the first time she does so.

There's a great series of scenes that's pure pulp/movie serial genre as the Spider is pursuing a foe through the villain's headquarters and must pit himself against all sorts of outlandish death-traps. Who would design a building like this, that would almost surely kill you or your henchmen someday not to mention would actually hinder any kind of quick getaway? But, it makes for exciting reading as the hero must pit both body and mind to just trying to stay alive in a situation that he cannot solve by simply blasting away with his guns.

The story is thematic similar to the first one in that in both the Spider has to contend with the possibilities of corrupted city governments, that he must not merely fear the system doing its proper duty, but the turning of it into a nigh unstoppable criminal machine devoted to his destruction. And, both feature prominent to their plots, the death of Richard Wentworth!

Wonderful reads!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lester Dent's Lee Nace, the Blond Adder

Altus Press has recently published a nice paperback "reprinting" five of Lester Dent's Lee Nace aka the Blond Adder short-stories. Certain creators become associated with certain archetype characters. Johnston McCully of Zorro fame created many outlaw or rogue heroes along the lines of Frank Packard's Grey Seal character and others. Golden age comic artist Fred Guardineer would be known for his many magician heroes patterned mostly after Lee Falk's Mandrake. Will Everett will forever be linked to the underwater characters. For Lester Dent, it's gadget heroes, the ultimate example being Doc Savage.

Nace has a lot in common with Doc. While he is a private detective, he holds various degrees including Law and Medicine. He's famous for recently having consulted with Scotland Yard. Doesn't carry a gun but is a crack shot. He carries on his person various hidden gadgets and devices but is quick to make do with whatever's at hand. He's Doc's crew rolled into one. He is unusually tall , somewhat shaggy hair (to disguise a notched ear), fair complexion, described as being physically fit but thin and bony or knobby, and extremely capable in a fight. And, he's quick to notice the ladies and pursue them. He is set apart by the fact that he has a scar on his forehead in the shape of a coiled snake about to strike, a souvenir given to him by a Chinaman who threw a knife at him with a handle shaped in that fashion which struck him thus.

The Lee Nace stories appeared in Ten Detective Aces in 1933, during Doc Savage's first year of adventures at Street & Smith. This is important because Dent did not create Doc Savage from scratch, the basic outlines of the characters presented to him. In Nace, one can see Dent exploring similar themes and storytelling tricks that he'd use on Doc, showing exactly how much of his style and ideas ended up in the Doc Savage characters. Nace had some darts concealed in buttons and a single shot gun built into the heel of one of his shoes that he had practiced with until he was a crack shot. More familiar is Nace's habit of wearing a bullet-proof skull cap outfitted with a copy of his own somewhat shaggy hair. Then, there's his not carrying a gun, for the psychological reason that a man who carries one will become dependent on it and be helpless when it's taken from him. Nace also meets his extremely capable and beautiful female cousin Julia. Unlike Doc in this case, he takes her on as an assistant and makes capable use of her abilities.

The Lee Nace stories are interesting in another regard. A few years later, Dent would write a few stories for Black Mask, where he would refine his writing style that had grown a bit purple writing the Doc novels. In his Oscar Sail stories, he wrote very deliberate and plain sentences handed out with a staccato delivery.
The fish shook its head as the knife cut off its head.  Red ran out of the two parts and the fluid spread enough to cover the wet red mark where two human hands had failed to hold to the dock edge.
Oscar Sail wet the palms of his own left hand in the puddle.
The small policeman kept coming out on the dock, tramping in the rear edge of glare from his flashlight.
Sail split the fish belly, shook it over the edge of the yacht dock, and there were some splashes below in the water.  The stuff from the fish made the red stain in the water a little larger.
When the small policeman reached Sail, he stopped and gave his cap a cock, he looked down at Sail’s feet and up at Sail’s head
The cop said, “Damned if you ain’t a long drink of water."
Sail said nothing.
The cop asked, “That you give that yell a minute ago?”
Sail showed plenty of teeth so that his grin would be seen in the moonlight. He picked up the fishhook and held it close to his red-wetted left palm.
“Little accident,” he said.
(by Lester Dent; published in Black Mask in 1936)

Compare that with: 
She was tall, blonde, streamlined. The roadster was long, cream-colored, and also streamlined.
She was making motions at powdering her nose, using a pancake compact with a mirror fully four inches across She held it braced against the steering wheel.
Utter concentration rode her long, beautiful face. The big, flat powder puff dabbed the compact with strangely erratic frequency. It slapped only the mirror - never the powder cake.
Oklahoma sunlight, white and hot, sprayed blonde and roadster. To the right, it cooked evergreen stucco buildings of the Tulsa Municipal Airport. To the left, it toasted flat classroom and barrack structures of a school of aeronautics.

In spasms, the sun leaped from the blonde's compact mirror. Her powder puff whipping systematically, was dividing the beam into dots and dashes.

On hands and knees beside the airport waiting room, Lee Nace crawled. He was very long, bony, blue-eyed. He was gathering together the wind-scattered sheets of a letter.
(The Tank of Terror - Ten Detective Aces 1933)

Nace is also more of a hard-boiled hero. He speaks in similar short, curt sentences, direct with everyone he meets. He's prone to anger and excitement, bringing out his scar in lurid detail. He carries and smokes a pipe and is constantly replacing the stems as he's prone to chewing or biting through them in quick succession. While the gadget-detective/adventurer seems a bit rooted in juvenile fiction, the style and humor here is more understated than the Doc novels, easily presaging his work at Black Mask and later suspense novels Lady Afraid and Dead at the Takeoff.

The stories are deemed of the "weird menace" variety of pulps. Meaning that there was a habit of corpses being found in strange positions or killed in bizarre but ultimately plausible ways. Only one story really veers into Doc Savage science-fiction territory and even then barely so. Of the lot, only one has a truly memorable villain though. In The Tank of Terror, we meet Robin Hood Lloyd, a bad guy with his own code of honor who is tied to the mystery in some way. Lloyd is based on gangster Pretty Boy Floyd (there's also a veiled reference to Al Capone). He comes across as an interesting character in his own right as he is quick on the draw and seems to have a favorite past-time in killing those he doesn't like. However, he has that code of honor that only allows him to shoot someone in a fair fight, if they have a gun. He desperately wants to kill Nace and makes many threats, if he could only catch him carrying a gun.

It's a nice looking paperback, and the first from Altus Press that I've received. As I was thinking about ordering another one of their books, it's good to get one to verify that it's slickly and professionally done. There's some cool added features such as Dent's notes describing the character of Lee Nace and a sample of the rough draft of one of the stories with notations of changes by Dent.

One thing that strikes me odd is that the five stories have passed into public domain, but all five have been re-copyrighted as of 2010 to the Estate of Norma Dent. While Altus is within their rights to copyright their book, the original stories themselves cannot be copyrighted again. Derivative works does allow for something that's been remastered or heavily re-edited to exist under a new copyright (hence Ted Turner is able to copyright colorized versions of public domain movies, companies cleaning up and re-presenting old b/w movies and old-time radio shows, and golden-age comic book reprints that have undergone re-coloring processes, all can be copyrighted under a new copyright). The foreword does state that four of the stories have been re-edited per notes left behind by Lester Dent, making these sort of a "Director's Cut" edition. By that standard, FOUR of the stories could be re-copyrighted, but according to the copyright notice, all FIVE of them have been. I find that strange if there's no other reasoning behind it.

It's just me, but I also want to know just in what form the re-editing took place. I like annotated books that explain some of the process. But, it's possible that difference between Dent's notes and the final published version could be nothing more than further changes he willingly and deliberately made when typing the final version, thus what we're getting here would be older drafts in places and not what he intended as the final story. Plus, I like comparing different versions, sometimes the writer's original vision is better, sometimes the editor's. Bladerunner is a better movie with the voice-over narration, it nails the film-noir atmosphere of the sci-fi story.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Calling, The Green Ghost

"The Green Ghost"
Author: Johnston McCulley
Original Source: THRILLING DETECTIVE 03/34, Standard Magazines.

The more famous of the Green Ghosts is probably Standard's George Chance, magician turned pulp hero/detective who starred in his own pulp first as the Ghost and later as the Green Ghost. However, Chance wasn't the first character to call himself the Ghost nor the Green Ghost. There were at least two Green Ghosts that preceded him, one even published by the same company.

McCulley's Green Ghost was the second of the pulp heroes to call himself by that name. Danny Blaney was once an honest and good cop. When he's framed by crooks, even though there's not enough evidence to send him to trial, he's still believed to be guilty by his peers and loses his badge. Hating both crooks and the police, he embarks on a career as the Green Ghost, who steals from the crooks while also solving crimes in order to show up the police. As the Green Ghost, Danny wears a light green hood and gloves along with a non-descript black suit and dark shirt. He has no special skills other than being a clever detective and a good shot. He is prone to using a blackjack in order to subdue crooks, not relying on any special fighting skills or strength. He covers his ill-gotten income by claiming an inheritance from a distant relative and opens an all-hours cigar stand where has at least one staff member, a night clerk.

In his first story, we are nearing the end of an investigation. A jewel robbery has recently been done and he waylays two flunkies, "Snoopy" Carns and Bill Sorsten. He relieves them of most of their loot and then allows them to get away, to report to their chief, Max Ganler. Ganler specializes in ironclad alibis, built around the maxim that one person cannot be in two places at once. Claney is convinced that Max helped them with the robbery but the crook has an alibi as throwing a party for his best girl, Lily Ratch, that has lasted all night. As the Green Ghost he confronts Ganler before his witnesses and police detective Tim O'Ryan to show how it was done.

McCulley specialized in the rogue heroes, masked men that operated outside the law in order to bring about justice. His characters and style is in keeping with the works of Frank Packard and his big creation, the Grey Seal. With the Green Ghost there are some interesting choices such as Blaney is not bothered by suplementing his income with stolen goods as long as he can manage to embarrass both the crooks and the police. There's no greater good or social justice underpinning his actions as in the Moon Man stories. His disguise and abilities aren't all that great and the debut story is fairly prosaic. It's lacking the oomph to elevate it to the next level of being truly memorable.