Friday, September 19, 2014
Apparently the Director of External Atomic Threat Headquarters was supposed to by Nick Fury himself. The draft version of the the S.H.I.E.L.D. series was first called "The Man Called D.E.A.T.H." and two pages were produced as a tryout. Later these two Kirby-drawn pages were used as a test for "Jaunty" Jim Steranko to see how he'd do on the series which he'd soon take over and transform with his sleek singular style.
I learn something new everyday.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
I was a mere youth when I got my mitts on a copy of Strange Tales #177. The iconic cover by Jim Steranko featuring Nick Fury flanked by the Contessa Valenti9na Allegra de Fontaine and Clay Quartermain with Dum Dum Dugan and the Gaffer along with a SHIELD agent to be named later in the back ground blew my ten-year-old mind. I traced this image of Nick over and over and over again, often giving it to friends who envied my tracing skills, and even to girls who I wanted the attention of. It worked a little bit even.
When I recently saw this Marvel Masterwork Pin-Up version of the classic Steranko images I was blown away all over again. I'm not sure in my adult mind if the anatomy works as it ought, but I know that cast in front of the stars and stripes this one is a keeper for the ages, one of the best covers Mighty Marvel ever published.
And here's a typically clever Bongo cover homage to this Steranko classic.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
It would be more than a decade before the Yellow Claw would return to menace the world, and it happened in the pages of Strange Tales. Fresh from defeating HYDRA, the agents of SHIELD are seeking some well-deserved downtime but it doesn't really develop as a new menace rises to threaten NYC.
As it turns out the menace had already made itself known over a year before during the notorious NYC blackout of 1965 which caused havoc up and down the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. It turns out the culprit was Yellow Claw and his henchmen and thanks to the combined efforts of Nick Fury, Captain America and the Fantastic Four the menace was put down, though it caused a lot of hair-raising rumors of aliens and whatnot.
Now over a year later Nick Fury finds evidence that the Yellow Claw might be back, especially when FBI agent Jimmy Woo shows up at SHIELD to tell him so. What begins is a ferocious back and forth between Nick and the Claw as each seeks to outwit the other with an ever-increasing escalation of high-tech gimmicks. During this yarn we meet such SHIELD mainstays as Sidney "The Gaffer" Levine, Contessa Valentina Allegra De Fontaine and Clay Quartermain. While we know them now as loyal agents, in this story each would've been suspect with a new menace lurking. Also back on the Claw's side are the pernicious Fritz Von Voltzmann and the lovely and alluring Suwan.
Jim Steranko was at the top of his game during this meless which sprawled across over many issues and ended with a spectacular and unprecedented four-page spread in the final chapter. For the benefit of those who haven't enjoyed these great stories, I'll say little of the secrets and the tragedies which befall, but I highly recommend this one to all.
The Yellow Claw in these stories is recognizably the 50's Atlas menace, but properly modernized for the time. With these issues Steranko seems to have accomplished most of what he wanted to do with the series and while he'd go on to write and draw some magnificent issues of the SHIELD comic after its debut, those while full of imagination lack the frenetic energy of the Strange Tales epics.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
The earliest stories introduce Yellow Claw himself, a supremely confident and thoroughly reprehensible genius who sells is talents to the Communist Chinese, or at least they suppose he has. He is opposed by noble FBI agent Jimmy Woo and torn between these two powerful men is Suwan, Yellow Claw's niece and Woo's true love. We also meet former Nazi and regular henchman Fritz Von Voltzmann. The formula developed by Sax Rohmer in his Fu Manchu novels is in place here with the Yellow Claw perpetrating some villainy and Suwan working both sides while Jimmy Woo seeks to find a way to end the menace.
Yellow Claw uses mutants to alter reality, and later tries to escape Woo aboard a ship with wild disguises, and uses a gigantic robot to fool some local natives into rampaging against the civilized world. It's all very rockem' sockem' with a frenetic pace.
The Claw makes use of a squadron of "microscopic" soldiers to infiltrate U.S. secrets, he works in league with an actual alien who is dubbed "U.F.O. the Lightning Man", and makes use of a noxious sleeping potion to subdue whole cities.
Yellow Claw enlists the aid of shadow people from another dimension, mutant birds who are creepily human, and a powerful psychic who puts people to sleep by means of television.
The stories are short little exotic masterpieces full of vigor and a bristling pace. Sometimes Jimmy Woo is effective, but often he is just lucky. The series ends with Suwan and Jimmy wondering where Yellow Claw will strike next.
It will be a while indeed. More next time.
Monday, September 15, 2014
The Island of Fu-Manchu is another installment in Sax Rohmer's prodigious series presenting the Devil Doctor's schemes to seize control of the planet.
This one picks up some time after the previous volume and completes some of the threads developed there. We are told the story once again by Bart Kerrigan and we again encounter his true love, the gorgeous Ardatha who happens to work for the Fu-Manchu himself. Sir Nayland Smith is right here too, this time a bit more in the background, but no less intent on bringing the Asian menace to ground.
The story was, like its predecessors, serialized in magazine form. This shows up in the storytelling which divides into recognizable parts, which seemed much less obvious from some of the most recent previous books.
The actual island referenced is in the Caribbean and that brings our heroes to the Americas again, after some proper locked room mystery in good old England. Actually this particular novel begins a bit slowly, but by the end the action is properly heated and the adventure ends literally with an epic bang. Although the the raging world conflict is referenced in the novel, this adventure by and large happens parallel to world events and is not involved in the happenings directly of World War II.
What I found most striking about this one was that it felt for all the world like Rohmer meant to end the series here. We get a nice detailed look behind the scenes at Fu-Manchu's operation inside a sleeping volcano, an operation which combines the Devil Doctor's avaricious interest in biology, especially the lethal aspects, and high-tech gadgetry. The nature of Fu-Manchu's slavish servants is explored and tied into the macabre concepts of voodoo which is fully on display in this sometimes weird adventure. We have anti-gravity gimmicks and death rays all over the joint. Fu-Manchu's secret lair is so high-tech and so riddled with radioactive agents that his workers must wear uniforms to protect them from the effects.
I was very much reminded of Dr.No's lair in the debut James Bond movie and other Bond secret bases in Thunderball and elsewhere. There's no doubt that Dr.No was inspired by Fu-Manchu, but having read The Island of Fu-Manchu, I'm a little shocked that Ian Fleming didn't catch more heat for having ripped off Rohmer's yarn.
Taken together with its predecessor The Drums of Fu-Manchu, this novel forms a right action-filled story. The previous novel had a great beginning and this one has a great ending. Take out some of the middle sections and you'd have a Fu-Manchu novel bristling from beginning to end indeed.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
When I read Robert E. Howard's raucous adventure Skull-Face in the past it was without any particular knowledge of the Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer. Since then I've read many of the Rohmer novels and so picking up Skull-Face again armed with that insight really enriches the experience.
Skull-Face appears to be at one level a simple knock-off of the Fu Manchu model. An exotic mastermind in charge of a vast criminal network comprised of various races and creeds seeks to undermine Western society and spark a race war which will result in his seizing ultimate control of mankind. That more or less is the plot of every Fu Manchu novel and its the plot of Skull-Face too.
If anthing, the titular villain is arguably even a more robust and heinous character. In actuality named Kathulos, a wizard from ancient Atlantis, it turns out our grim-faced uber-villain is countless centuries old and seeks to turn back the clock on modern civilization by creating a race war between the white races and the black and brown and yellow races. In a slight departure from the "Yellow Peril" norm, it is in fact the black man who will achieve dominance since that particular race of man once served Kathulos as slaves in the distant past.
The racism evident in this short novel is pungent and despite being the cultural norm of the time, still pretty repulsive on its face. The negro is regarded with almost universal disdain and quaint and spurious notions of race seem to motivate the themes of the story.
That said, it's still a wild ride. The hero named Steve Costigan begins his story in an opium den. He's an addict and soon is serving the villain as a primary henchman. Weirdly, the early parts of the story are almost a Fu Manchu novel in reverse in that we see the machinations of the villains more clearly than we do the hero, a stalwart English detective named Francis Gordon. Eventually Gordon and Costigan do join forces, but it takes a while. Meantime Costigan becomes a virtual superman thanks to potent drugs given to him by his benefactor Skull-Face.
As in the Fu Manchu novels, there is an exotic beauty who captures the hero's heart and in this novel she's named Zuleika. Zuleika, more than any other character, seems clipped right out of a Rohmer novel.
I hate to say too much, I already have actually, but Skull-Face is a thoroughly entertaining yarn, full of vintage pulp shocks and thanks to Howard's compelling storytelling a relentless pace which drags the reader along by the scruff of the neck.
I read Skull-Face in the second volume of Wildside's The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard. You can read it here.
Saturday, September 13, 2014
"The Valley of the Worm" by Robert E. Howard is an odd one. It's a story of vigor and punch, but for some reason lacks the atmosphere I often associate with Howard's most effective stories. There's no doubt I read the story first in its Marvel Comics adapted form in Supernatural Thrillers #3 by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway with lush Gil Kane and Ernie Chan artwork. Flush with success in Conan, Thomas was quick to try and turn the pulps into a primary source. This story is rock solid throughout and offers a barbarian properly in the Conan mode.
John Jakes and Richard Corben a few years later did their own version of this story titled "Bloodstar" which was serialized in Heavy Metal after being published as a complete tale.
This story first appeared in Weird Tales.
The story begins in the "now" as a man named James Allison ponders past lives. These lives stretch back into dim and forgotten times and Allison once upon a time was a hero named Niord who was a mighty warrior among the Aesir, the white-skinned blond-haired dominant race of the era who were inveterate nomads and find themselves entering into an unknown land inhabited by some of Howard's ubiquitous Picts. One Pict named Grom finds alliance with Niord, who is famed for single-handedly having slain a sabre-tooth tiger.
Niord eventually learns of the the Valley of the Broken Bones, a place where antique ruins mark the passing of an even more ancient people. The Picts steer clear of this dangerous place because of the hideous monster, an enormous white worm which is called forth by sinister music played by a shaggy manlike creature. Some of Niord's people try to settle there and meet their grisly demise. Seeking vengeance Niord first slays a giant serpent in order to get venom to kill the even more dangerous monster of the valley. He kills the monster but dies himself, ending one of many lives he will have over the centuries.
The story is unfortunately marred by some of the more overt racism Howard was capable of. There are some demeaning comments made toward black races, suggestions of a degenerate nature which while sometimes hinted at in his better stories is a little bit too on the nose in this one.
Nonetheless it is a pretty good adventure yarn, though the hero is a bit of a lout.
To read Howard's original story go here.
To read Marvel's excellent adaptation go here.