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.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tiger Claws - Frank L. Packard

Reading an account of what inspirations Walter Gibson drew on in writing The Shadow magazine, he listed The Gray Seal stories by Frank L. Packard. For years I had only read one story of the Gray Seal and could see where he was clearly a precursor of the Johnston McCully rogue heroes, and there's quite a bit of the Green Lama in there as well. But, the Shadow? Not readily apparent.

A few years ago, browsing through an antique shop at the coast, I came across a set of hardbacks by Frank L. Packard. Yes, when I go to antique stores, I often look for comics, books and pulps, though very rarely finding anything of interest. In truth, even this time when I saw the name it rang a bell but I didn't immediately make the connection and assumed it was a name of a juvenile fiction author. But, then I noticed one of the books was titled "Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder" and it clicked. I eagerly picked up one of the books. On the front cover it was labeled "The Gray Seal Edition". At five dollars apiece, I grabbed them all: The Red Ledger, The Wire Devils, The White Moll, Doors of the Night, and lastly, Tiger Claws.

Sad to say, I'm really only half-way through the books. Frankly, sometimes I forget they are there waiting to be read. I read the Jimmie Dale book first. Then Wire Devils where I discovered despite these being "The Gray Seal Edition" books, apparently, only Jimmie Dale actually features that proto-pulp hero.  Wire Devils features a masked man called "the Hawk" who is horning in on the crimes of a syndicate out West involving the telegraph. Only in novels written over a hundred years ago will you find a story that's almost pure pulp presenting the telegraph as cutting edge technology!

Something drove me this past week to revisit the books and pick another off the shelf. I chose the interestingly titled Tiger Claws, and boy, am I glad I did. It starts off atypical of the other Packard novels I've read. Instead of crime in some city, the novel opens up in the seas of the Far East and spends some time sketching out the characters of brothers Allan and Keith Wharton. They are typical pulp hero men: tall, independent, gray-eyed and strong of mind, character and body. They run a small cargo shipping concern consisting of one wind-powered schooner, manned by them and several malays. They do well for themselves by being able to stop at smaller islands that the larger steam ships cannot go. But, they find a mystery when they stop at a previously deserted island to pick up castaways.

The action comes fast and furious and soon after a period of convalescence, Keith travels to New York on a mission of vengeance to pursue four murderers and the mystery of the mahogany box. In New York he renews the acquaintance of Secret Service Agent and deep under-cover operative Bob Clinton, and the two hide-out and seek clues as fugitives of justice Canary Jim (Bob) and Rookie Dykes (Keith). Adding to the mystery is that crimedom is also in an uproar by the return of the mysterious super-crook and assassin known only as Tiger Claws. During one escapade, Keith also encounters Doris Marsland, a woman with some connection to the mysterious goings on. As Keith tracks the whereabouts of each of the four crooks, he finds his present mystery involves more and more the concerns of Tiger Claws. The climactic resolution and revelations of the novel equal the best that I've read in any Shadow or Spider novel.

It is in this collection of novels where I see the influence on the Shadow. The squalor of criminal hideouts, the idea of a crime itself as its own society existing alongside a law-abiding society, with its own rules and boundaries. The people all have names like Canary Jim, Rookie Dykes, Whitie, Blackie, Weasel, Magpie, Bowery Sal and such. Physical attributes tend to mark them as grotesqueries, obviously of less than savory types. In this novel in particular, you have characters skulking and hiding in the shadows of streets and darkened corners of ill-lit rooms. Conversations overheard by the silently raising of a window. Even when colors are described, in my mind's eye, it's a world of black and white, filled with smoke and shadows. Unlike many of the hero pulp writers to come along later, Packard recognizes and includes the role of drugs, addiction, and poverty as going hand in hand with other crimes. The story itself seems to focus not on the super-detective, but what Gibson would call the proxy hero, Keith.

Although the initial description of Doris might make you think of another writer: Like bronze her hair was where it showed under her hat -- mingling gold and copper. It was an alluring face, piquant -- a little pale perhaps, a little wistful, but there was a self-reliance there and wholesomeness.

If the novel has a drawback, it's in the character of Bob Clinton. He's presented as being a bit of a super-detective and disguise artist, but the story is not about him. He's barely in it other than to help the plot along as need-be and serve as a handy deus-ex-machina. His other major function is to be a hurdle and not a help. He's deep under-cover as Canary Jim, an identity that took years to build. As such, Keith as Rookie Dykes operates under the hindrance of not being able to call the police or make his identity known to them. As he's vouched to crimedom through Canary Jim, he cannot run the risk of exposing Canary Jim as being anything other than a wanted crook. Once Clinton largely serves his purpose, he's sidelined for all of the climactic action and intrigue through a wounded arm. As he's the least developed character in the book, he's hardly missed. But, I found his mere presence in the book lessened the character of Keith somewhat. As the story isn't about him and he's hardly in it for reasons other than plot device, why make him this paragon of detection and disguise? Why wrap him in colorful superlatives that makes the lead character seem a bit second-rate? I found it difficult to not imagine what the novel would have been like if Packard had gone a little more Count of Monte Cristo (or Richard Henry Benson to keep in the purview of the blog) with the character of Keith Wharton. If the initial tragedies and deprivations at the beginning that put him on this mission had also helped turn him into more of a super-man, an inhuman instrument of vengeance, only to be brought back to humanity by the feelings of love for Doris. If Bob became less a super-detective to merely a competent one that serves as his confidante. Or written out altogether and expanding on the role of colorful and faithful Gur Singh who is sadly written out after the opening chapters.

Regardless, I found the writing style breezy and compelling. It's hard to imagine this being written decades earlier than the era of hero pulps. Some of the characteristics and attitudes towards race and sex may seem a bit dated, but the storytelling itself is not and is indeed better than much that came later. The story moves quickly, with many twists and turns and very little bloated purple over-wrought prose. The crook Tiger Claws who prowls on the periphery of almost the whole novel is all the stronger for it, coming across as a worthy adversary of any pulp hero.

The artwork here is not of the cover. None of the books came with dust-jackets, but somehow the title was evocative to my mind and this is what I came up with. If you can find this novel, I heartily recommend it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Arghh, do you know what today is? Doc sure does as these covers attest!

Doc ran across his fair share of modern day pirates as well as a couple of masquerading as ghosts. More so than most pulp heroes I suppose. And, in Murray's recent book, The Infernal Buddha, Doc gets to impersonate one as well. It's a testament to the versatility of stories that the concept of Doc and his crew can be plugged into. The Shadow and his ilk always seemed a bit out of place when taken away from their urban streets of skyscrapers, high society swells and back-alley thugs. But, Doc's stage was the world, from lost societies to farthest arctic reaches to dense jungles and hidden tribes to the mines and ranches of the American West. Interestingly, the one place he didn't seem to appear to much in was in that staple of pulp fiction, Chinatown. Why settle for Chinatown when could go to the Far East itself?

 Have to admit, I have a special fondness for the Bama cover of "The Pirate's Ghost". "Ghost Pirates from Beyond" from Marvel's b/w Doc Savage comic magazine is also one of his best outings in the comic book world.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Along Came A Spider

To hold you over to the next review I hope to have finished written soon... searching the web can find some interesting things. Some creative people out there have taken various Bama Doc Savage covers and done mock-ups of crossovers with other prominent characters: Frankenstein, Buffy, Edward Hyde, etc in the Bantam paperback style. But this one just looked too cool of a mock up. Especially since it's taking two covers to make one, both of which using the same model to portray the hero. It's Steve Holland and Steve Holland!

Part of me would like to read such a story, but another part recognizes the two characters exist in almost mutually exclusive relative realisms. To be completely faithful and be good would take one helluva writer because it would have to be more than just a synthesis of pulp and styles but a whole 'nother thing entirely. It would have to be a serious look at Doc's treatment of criminals. While I think of Wentworth as being a hero, I also think that his brand of justice and heroism could not be allowed to remain standing once Doc got involved. I could see Doc coming to an agreement of sorts with the Shadow as in the DC comic, but the Spider's methods are too extreme, too much bordering psychopathic behavior. The only way it would work would be as a "final" novel ending in either of the characters' deaths or the "curing" of Richard Wentworth.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Slaughter, Inc: The Last Spider Novel

In 1943, the publisher of The Spider commissioned from David Cormack to write a Spider novel. However, when the month came that the story would have been published, what hit the stands was a new novel by the series regular writer Norvell Page. There would be only a few more issues of the magazine, all with stories by Page. With the sudden death of his wife, Page would leave the magazine and character behind. The magazine folded and the story by Cormack sat in the drawers.

Several decades later, the story would somehow find itself published only with all the names changed, the Spider becoming Blue Steel, and the story edited to reflect early 1970s. The cover would be one that had been slated for the recently cancelled reprintings of Operator 5.

Moonstone has now published the original story with a new cover. Also included is a foreword by pulp historian that gives background and context to the circumstances that lead to Donald Cormack writing this story.

The production is the chief drawback to the book. The monotone cover is striking but it really doesn't hold a candle to the various pulp covers. Why is the Spider apparently firing his gun into a wall? The book itself is marred by bad line breaks, and typos such as "were" becoming "here" (which honestly may have been in the original text). Just when it looks like the bad line breaks were coming to an end, started seeing a couple of times where the first line of a paragraph has no spaces between the words making the line one long word.

The story is in many ways a good entry into the Spider mythos. The action is non-stop with Wentworth outnumbered and hampered by a wound while his compatriots are compromised. It's missing a little something, that real passion and fire, but for a first attempt at writing a Spider novel it's a fun read. It even works as being the "last" Spider novel.

It never pays to really think too much about Wentworth being suspected by Kirkpatrick but this otherwise capable cop can never get the needed evidence to prove he's the Spider. Here, there's a scene that really stretches that suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Wentworth is accompanying Kirk on a mission to rescue Nita, only on the way there they find the police have cornered a fighting mad Ran Singh on the roof of a nearby building. Somehow, Wentworth slips away, becomes the Spider (though he rode there with Kirkpatrick), rescues his faithful servant.

There seems to be discrepancies in the ages of Richard Wentworth and Nita van Sloan and how long the career of the Spider has been going on. Frequently they are described as being young and treated as if they are in their twenties, despite Wentworth's history includes having been a Major in the War. Near the end of the story, the text actually mentions Kirkpatrick being suspicious of his friend being the Spider for "months"! A bit reminiscent of how the Avenger seemed to get younger in his series, instilling a vast back story of education and experience while still in his twenties. But, as the foreword mentions that the editor at the time was heavily editing the stories by Page, it made me wonder if he likewise edited this story and that was where some of these seeming discrepancies crept in.

The identity of the villain also doesn't work. There's really only one suspect so it's not much of a mystery, until he convincingly disguises himself as Wentworth... because our one suspect is noted as being tall and thin, suggesting a build that would be hard to disguise.

On the other hand, one of the joys of the story is where Jackson actually gets to take center stage and playing a solo hand as he attempts a rescue attempt. He proves to be amazingly effective and capable even when not everything goes according to plan. In this story, Jackson clearly knows Wentworth is the Spider, but I'm not sure if that's always the case in the stories.

Overall, it really is a fun Spider adventure. The writing is crisp and fast paced. I found myself quickly turning the pages, curious as to what was going to happen next.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pulp heroes unite!

Dynamite has recently released information that they will be doing a team-up of the pulp heroes including the Shadow, Spider, Green Hornet & Kato, a Zorro-esque hero, Miss Fury and the Black Bat. The mini-series will be written by Chris Roberson and the artwork for the first issue will at least be done by Alex Ross. 

For once, there are few red flags raised in the interview with Roberson. The biggest one is the lack of commitment on who will be doing the artwork past the first issue. Dynamite has a bad track record art-wise. Many of the pencilers are sub-par and overpowering inking and coloring shore up short-comings. The various mini-series tying into their Kirby: Genesis mini seem to have different art from issue to issue. It's ridiculous that a mini-series cannot have the same creative team from beginning to end. And, come out on time (just don't solicit until it's ready).

When talking about the storyline, Roberson talks about his love for the pulps. In fact, this story is one that continuity buffs like Roy Thomas or Philip Jose Farmer would love. It will be taking a three-part Spider pulp story, where a fascist organization takes over, and the Spider becomes a freedom fighter and different sort of outlaw and then placing the other heroes into that story, what were they doing during this time.

Despite the fact their current series have the Spider in present day, Zorro and the Shadow in their proper though different time periods, and the Green Hornet is in present day, this series takes place in the original time period. When Dynamite launched the Green Hornet, they did so with several different books in different time periods. I don't know if the current series ever acknowledged the gangster era Green Hornet Year One series by Wagner, though Roberson refers that the Hornet seen here will be similar to that. Considering the costumes of the other characters, including Kato are from head to toe in black, the Hornet may stick out like a sore thumb.

The "Zorro" hero is not meant to be the original hero but someone like him. Considering Zorro's original milieu of being a rogue hero, fighting for the common man against an oppressive system, a hero along those lines works. There's actually a long-standing tradition of this in the films as Zorro's legacy would include Don Q, Son of Zorro, the Black Whip, and a Ghost of Zorro (played by pre-Lone Ranger Clayton Moore).

The big departure will be the Spider. himself. The current comic series takes place in modern day and takes so many liberties with the characters as to be a complete departure. The mini will have him in the serial inspired garb, but the interview makes no mention of whether any of the other changes that Liss has hoisted upon the characters will be evident.

This will be the first appearances of the Black Bat and Miss Fury at Dynamite and I'm curious as to how they will be treated. If you look closely, you can see the Bat overhead the other heroes but no Miss Fury.

It's almost a shame that Dynamite couldn't get the rights to the Whisperer as he'd fit right in in this crowd or the Avenger who would make an interesting juxtaposition to the others.

Pulp-wise, just got in Moonstone's Slaughter, Inc, the "last" Spider novel that went unpublished when the series ended in the early 1940s and was printed as a paperback with names changes and the Spider became Blue Steel (and the cover was of the publisher's version of Operator 5). Shaping up to be a fun novel, although could have used an editor to catch some of the typos and bad line breaks.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Thinking of Bradbury

Ray Bradbury passed away this week. I talked a little bit about him on my other blog but I find myself continually thinking of him through this week.

It's funny. I can remember the gateway to many of my favorite authors, but I don't remember Bradbury. With Tolkien it was The Hobbit cartoon. With Heinlein it was the comic serialization of one of his novels in Boys Life magazine that lead me to seeking out the novel it was based on. Clifford Simak it was because I was interested in monsters and one of his novels was The Werewolf Principle. Not what I was expecting, but I was hooked. With the Doc Savage novels someone gave me as a gift the hardback edition of The Sargasso Ogre, I guess because I liked superheroes. My first Shadow was a beat up paperback I found at an antique store.

Bradbury, like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, is a mystery though. I don't know where I first stumbled upon his stories or which one that made me a fan for life. I think my Dad's parents had a hardback edition of The Illustrated Man so maybe that was it. Or, it could have been an anthology of short-stories that would feature one of a dozen that seemed ubiquitous, that you never knew where it would pop up like "The Veldt", "The October Game", or "The Million Year Picnic".

Regardless, I sought out his books from used book stores, bought his new books when they came out. Didn't matter if they were his martian tales, his dark fantasy or terror stories, his stories about Ireland or even if it was non-fiction. Reading Bradbury and the way he put words together made you want to sit down and write too. It was like seeing into creation and wanting to be a part of it.

I remember an episode of the television series "Fame" where the students were going to put on a production of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but because it was deemed racist, it got pulled and banned. So, the assignment changed to Fahrenheit 451. I don't know if Bradbury's book ever was banned itself, but it's become almost the symbol of "Banned Book Month". Interestingly, Twain's classic was on banned lists twice for polar opposite reasons. The first time was because the fact that a white boy would actually be friends with and help an escaped slave and makes the conscientious decision that if helping his friend, an escaped slave, would send him to Hell, well, then he guessed he was going to Hell. But, he'd stand by his friend. Nowadays, it's because of the audacity of Twain to present a slave as someone who would be uneducated, superstitious, and talk in bad English. But, I digress. A television show about performing arts high school students seems like an odd place to find a reference to Bradbury, but there it is. Just as there's a shopping mall that was inspired by an essay. Or an earpiece that played music in Fahrenheit 451 would inspire a man to invent the Walkman, the precursor to today's mobile music devices.

The ending to Orson Scott Card's short story "The Eumenides of the Fourth Floor Lavatory" is extremely reminiscent of Bradbury's "The October Game" where what happens immediately next is up to the imagination. It's hard to imagine Stephen King's works without Bradbury paving the way, showing magic, horror, fantasy, and heroism lurking in picturesque small town America and what really drives the story, what's really important are the relationships of the people. Bradbury was better at writing endings though.

One of my favorite Bradbury short-stories takes place in the larger universe of his Martian stories, though it takes place on Earth. It's a future with imminently practical people with no imagination. Earth is overcrowded so a corporation has taken to buying up graveyards, exhuming the graves and cremating all the remains. However, this is something up with which one dead body will not put, so he gets up and wages a war of sabotage and destruction in revenge. He thinks it's  perfect, because in this world of no imagination, who would even consider that a dead person would be walking around. Yet, it's that very fact that gets him found out as insanity has been cured, and no one living would commit these crimes or even have a reason to. Ergo, it must be a dead man as reasons two workers. After all, as the great detective once said, "Once you eliminate the impossible, what remains, no matter how improbable..."

It's been a while since I've read any of his short-stories. While I'm at the old house this weekend, I think I'll pull down one of those old paperback anthologies from the bookshelf.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Doc Savage: The Desert Demons

I try to support my old comic shop haunts as much as possible. Mainly because he does order pulp stuff and I'd stand a good chance to never see many of the pulp reprints if not for him. However, some books like this one take some time to hit his solicitations and find it's way into my pull list. (Incidentally, the "it's" is not a typo. I think it's high time to call an end to this foolish spelling that trips people up. Use the apostrophe for both contraction and possessive form. Context is more than enough to show which it's for. So, I'll it's crusade here.)

This is Doc Savage scholar Will Murray writing as Kenneth Robeson. Sadly, the last Doc book written before this was an adaptation of a non-Doc work by Lester Dent and thus did not feature his aides. Here, Will rectifies that by including all five aides, Pat Savage and even the two pets. There's no explanation as to the source of the story this go round, so while it's acknowledged this too is based on something written down by Dent, the extent of what is Murray and what is Dent is not clear. The names and types of the various suspects and secondary characters sound like Dent, but that could be Murray at his Dent impersonating best.

The basic plot is Doc and crew end up in Hollywood exploring two mysteries. One, a mysterious red cloud that descends from the sky and reduces everything to crumbly powder. Two, a woman named Doris Duff has disappeared, possible victim of the cloud and is obviously really Doc's cousin Pat Savage. Involved is a would-be movie mogul who shoots Westerns, his partner who is trying to strike it rich via oil wells, a weatherman scientist, and two galoots named Happy and Harry.

It didn't help my reading of this that I was in the middle of an Avenger story, "The Glass Mountain" that likewise involves oil wells and a mysterious cloud (this one's green) that comes out of clear skies, and seemingly pursues and kills with intent, though by lightning. Both have Native American shamans that seem able to summon the killer clouds as well.

While pulp writers are notoriously known for their purple prose because they were being paid by word, Murray's Doc books are significantly longer than any of the Kenneth Robesons before him. This one feels it as it tries to include all of the aides plus Pat and give them meaningful tasks. There's the oil wells, the Hollywood location as well as a ghost-town in the Florida Everglades, the Native American shaman and a trap with alligators, as well as the mysterious menace, and strange actions from a scientist that ultimately goes nowhere. There's enough material and ideas to fill three separate Doc novels. This all bogs the novel down as it seems that it cannot decide in what direction it really wants to go.

The story is also hampered by the fact that while the strange death clouds are baffling and effective, the human crime element is sorely lacking in that regard. While there is a culprit behind the deaths, that at one point almost border the death rate in a Norvell Page Spider novel, there is no deadly efficient gang to pit physical challenges against Doc and his men. The ultimate plan of the bad guy when it stands revealed... well, when characters in your story even recognize the stupidity of the plan and just write the guy off as being crazy, it might be a sign that his motivation needs retooling. The climactic scene with the culprit behind it all, is anti-climactic as the larger threat is already explained and neutralized and he is more pathetic at this point.

This is not to say it's a bad book or a bad Doc Savage novel. It is better than some. Worse than others. It's crime seems to be one of trying to do and include too much as if it might be the last hurrah and as much as possible needed including. The various elements don't mesh together as well as intended. Simple refining such as leaving out a couple of the aides and the pets and even Pat Savage which would have allowed populating the book with more secondary characters to flesh out the world they were navigating and maybe bring the various elements together into a more cohesive whole. Thus, when the cloud starts killing wholesale, some of them are characters we already know and maybe even care about (or suspected as being behind it). But, it's good to have Doc back and, as always, I'm looking forward to the next one.