Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Golden Derby - August 1965!

The march to create the "Action Heroes" continued apace fifty years ago this very month. Captain Atom gets his final reprint tryout and next up will be brand new stories by the same Gill-Dtiko team that first created him. Blue Beetle battles to save the Earth as always with bravado and vast magical might, but he too is due for an update. Charlton's genre work continues with a dandy installment of its durable car comic Hot Rods and Racing Cars, one of the very few companies which ever tried to mine this field. And the Li'l Genius, a reasonably successful Dennis the Menace knockoff neared the end of his run, making way for new comics to enter the schedule. And in the third issue of Special War Series we find a rock solid war comic, but the very next issue will offer something rather different and very very memorable. The "Scarlet Smasher" is about to enter the fray.

More next month. 

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Atomic Spotlight 1970's - Firestorm!

With little doubt Gerry Conway's most significant contribution to the DC Comics universe is Firestorm the Nuclear Man. The very "Marvelesque" hero was created by Conway and Al Milgrom when Conway drifted over to DC for a few months when Marvel office politics were not going his way. He was ushered into DC with great gusto with the announcement of "Conway's Corner", a subset of the larger DCU for books written and edited by Conway. We got such wonderful work as the Justice Society's return in a revived All-Star Comics (featuring the debut of Power Girl), a revived Swamp Thing, and Hercules "unbound" in the Great Disaster.

Firestorm was very much a hero of the 70's, from his colorful costume with its fluffy arms to his wild noggin of flickering flame. The Ronnie Raymond identity which had to share mental and spiritual space with the more sedate attitudes of Professor Martin Stein made for a raucous interplay unlike few other heroes on the stands. It was similar in some respects to the Captain Marvel and Rick Jones dynamic, but weirder since Stein had no true physical form of his own. To read his origin story go here.

Firestorm lasted a mere five issues with a sixth finding purchase in the famous low-distribution Cancelled Comic Cavalcade.

Then Ronnie Raymond took up residence as a back up in The Flash. Also Firestorm became one of the most memorable additions to the Justice League of America.

Firestorm simmered for many years, never quite disappearing and finding revival after revival through many editorial changes at DC over the decades. Other people have filled the role, but the name and general look have remained the same. Firestorm seems to have been the rarest of things, a lasting creation from the Bronze Age of Comics. A colorful and evocative character, there always seems to be a place for "The Nuclear Man" in the halls of DC.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Mission To Horatius!

I don't read Star Trek novels normally. I bought and read the James Blish adaptations years and years ago, including the "first" Star Trek novel Spock Must Die. But it turns out that what I believed then about that novel was not true. There was another one, the only novel published during the actual run of the show, a Whitman book directed at a younger audience by veteran science fiction writer Mack Reynolds titled Mission to Horatius. I learned of this true first novel only a few years ago and immediately wanted to read it, as I do rather have a passion for items keyed to the first series and which actually were available before the advent of Stark Trek culture. Now I finally have read it. I've written here about the photo-novels and other early items produced for the series for instance and have a real appreciation for the early Gold Key comics.The illustrations for this book were done by  Richard "Sparky" Moore, a talented artist with a long list of accomplishments.

The story as it turns out is a pretty rousing one full of different settings and reasonably recognizable characters. It begins when Bones erupts onto the bridge and announces they have to go home and get everyone a break from the deeps of space or something called "cafard" (French for "cockroach" or "depression") will break out, a space madness which is highly contagious and has resulted in the destruction of more than one space ship when its crew goes mad. But the Enterprise has just gotten a secret mission which will take them to the very edge of Federation space to a star system named Horatius. It seems Horatius has three Class M planets and all have been settled at different times by humans with very specific desires about how to conduct society. A distress signal has been detected and the crew of the Enterprise, despite a long tour, are the closest to the system.

The first of the three planets the Enterprise visits is named Neolithia and the people who settled there were luddite back-to-nature folks who eschewed all modern technology. What Kirk and crew find is a very primitive culture which still uses bows and arrows. One representative named Grang attacks the landing team but eventually they take him captive and find their way to a shaman who takes them deep into the caves to find the leadership council.

The shaman looks suspicious but the team have little choice if they are to find out if it was the people of Neolithia who sent the distress signal. They are eventually led to the leadership who have already decided to kill them, thinking they are part of the mysterious forces from the sky who have harassed the people in the past.

The Enterprise crew seems surrounded by a massive force of bowmen, but Spock is able to detect that the force is merely an illusion cast by the hypnotic powers of the shaman. Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Chekov, and the others do manage to escape unwittingly taking Grong with them, since he too has fallen into disfavor with is people for leading the landing team to the cave system.

Next the Enterprise travels to Mythra, a planet settle by folks with distinct religious beliefs. There they find a medieval culture in which the majority of the population are held in the devout sway of the ruling church leadership by the regular use of an "anodyne" which results in extreme passivity in the face of an abusive heirarchy.

The landing team escapes capture by the powerful leadership, who do have minimal communications technology and also indicate invaders in their skies. The Federation representatives later take steps to neutralize the anodyne which keeps the populace in a drugged stupor. The hope is that they will awaken, rise up against the church overlords and seek a more just society.

The third planet is called Bavarya and it proves to be the most recently settled, merely a century previous but the planet is mysteriously overpopulated. This society is a modern dictatorship with hints of ancient barbaric practice such as the gladiator arena. While the Enterprise is under attack from the planet, Kirk, Spock, and Grong (who has demonstrated significant fighting skills) are pitted against three other warriors who seem to refresh themselves endlessly.

They eventually learn their opponents are "dopplegangers" or zombie-like clones bereft of a soul and a noble woman reveals to them she sent the distress signal because the leader of Bavarya is himself one of these soulless creatures and seeks endless conquest. The endless dopplegangers who currently overrun the planet are considered ideal soldiers. Kirk and his comrades are eventually able to escape but not before learning the forces of Bavarya were indeed the ones harassing the other two planets with an eye to conquest.

On the way back to Earth the Enterprise comes under another threat when many of the crew develop symptoms of cafard and at the same time a pet mouse by the name of Mickey has escaped into the bowels of the ship and the nigh-forgotten disease of Bubonic Plague threatens to break out. Dr. McCoy marshals all the forces of the Enterprise to at first gas the mouse and later work diligently to find it. But then reveals all of that was a stung to give the weary space travelers a mission to forestall progression of cafard. On that note this briskly paced saga comes to an end.

This is a rousing little saga with lots of changes of setting. The use of three planets visited in such quick succession gives the tale a Gulliver-esque quality as we are clearly meant to compare and contrast these three extreme attempts to organize society, none of which the Enterprise crew finds ideal, hence their eagerness in spite of the Prime Directive to take steps to alter each one of the cultures in turn. Kirk mentions "Special Order Number One" a lot, but he and his crew don't seem at all limited by its mandate, which was much like the show itself to be honest.

The three cultures also suggest something about how the writer might feel about certain drop-out cultures and other aspects of the late 60's. The back-to-nature society in particular reminds me of a hippy commune on the extreme, an utter rejection of modern convenience in an effort to achieve some Thoreau-like ideal balance with the natural world, but here shown to yield a superstitious backward society. The religious planet feels very much like a cult in which the practitioners are blind to the abuse of the leaders who are merely using the devout belief as a means to gain power over a passive culture, the drug in question being LSD makes the comparison even more exact. And finally a totalitarian military society in which the majority of the population are reduced to soulless zombies merely designed to wage war might indeed be an indictment of the way wars are often fought.

Whatever the case, Mission to Horatius is a fun and quick read. Highly recommended to anyone who like me likes these artifacts dedicated to a series which has since become all-consuming.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Radiation Theater - Beneath The Planet Of The Apes!

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is terrific sci-fi flick, less epic than its predecessor but filled with some of the same great imagery with the added zest of now the viewer knows the planet is a demolished Earth of the future. BtPotA is the only one of the five Apes films which was adapted to comics at the time of its release, getting the treatment by Gold Key. Later of course Marvel would take the license and do some nice things, but the cogs moved slowly it seems at first for cross promotion for this series. It you'd like to read this adaptation featuring artwork by the Alberto Giolitti studio then check this out.

I pretty much assume most folks know the plot of this one -- a second astronaut lands on the planet of the Apes in search of the first and finds not only a hostile ape society but an even more hostile society of mutated humans who worship the atomic bomb which demolished civilization as we know it and irradiated the landscape. 

James Franciscus is a likeable leadng man, who served well in the mostly B-level pictures and television shows he appeared in. Lacking the gravitas of Charlton Heston, Franciscus as the astronaut Brent arrives and searches for the lost team which preceded him and eventually finding the demoralized Taylor ("Damned-dirty-Ape" Heston his own self) who had earlier disappeared in the "Forbidden Zone". Brent is helped by mute Nova (Linda Harrision) and Zira (Kim Hunter). (Zira's ape husband Cornelius is played is not played by star Ape alumnus Roddy McDowall who was committed to other projects, but by David Watson.) There is much action, much of it intended to echo what had already appeared in the dynamic first movie before Brent stumbles across the ruined subway systems of NYC and the mutants who can cast illusions with their minds. The signature scene is those mutants, well turned out for an apocalypse worshiping at the base of an unexploded nuclear rocket. The finale is a brutal one with little hope for the eventual salvation of man or ape.

So the continue to milk the cash cow the Apes movies had become we know of course that with the third one (Escape from the Planet of the Apes) that Zira and Cornelius escape into the past and we follow the inevitable history which will take us to the stark moments of decision we see here. The Ape films are surprisingly popular given the dour nature of their themes.

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Solar Reflections Four!

In the fourth and final Dark Horse Doctor Solar Man of the Atom volume we find a delightful blend of vintage superhero yarns from across many many years as the series winds down and then gets revived a time or two.

Doctor Solar battles King Cybernoid in all the remaining Gold Key issues of the series, the android with the brain of Solar's longtime implacable foe Nuro. The series loses much of its distinctive science fictional flavor in attempting to achieve a purely superhero tone.

Dick Wood is the writer of record as the series tumbles along and Al McWilliams does one issue before giving way to Ernie Colon who gives the series a lighter touch and a bit more zip in terms of action. Jose Delbo steps in to handle the last issue of the 60's run.

Then in 1980 Whitman (formerly Gold Key) attempt to revive the series and publish for the first time the second part of the Wood-Delbo story which had begun a decade before. After that scribe Roger McKenzie is brought in to craft new stories with veteran Dan Spiegle handling the artwork. The tone of the McKenzie-Spiegle issues is completely different, very much in keeping with the slightly darker tone of comics of the late Bronze Age as Solar battles King Cybernoid for a final fatal time and a dour villain called the Sentinel.

The volume closes out with a blast to the Gold Key past with a singular issue of The Occult Files of Dr.Spektor in which Doctor Solar appears as a guest star to help rescue Spektor from a charge of murder. The story by Don Glut and the artwork by Jesse Santos is quite yummy.

And that's a wrap. Doctor Solar Man of the Atom was a product of the Cold War, when the glamour and effects of the atomic bomb were an all-consuming fascination for much of the world. Starting in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis and wrapping up in the early 80's when the Cold War was nearing its final years, the character seems to embody that phenomenon in many ways.

But Solar was not done, not yet. More on the valiant efforts to revive Doctor Solar after Western Publishing's Gold Key and Whitman brands were long gone next time.

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