The Avenging Corpse

A macabre title for a slightly morbid story…

We all know now Captain America was the First Avenger: two-fisted District Attorney Grant Gardner who, with pistol and motorcycle, thwarts the schemes of the sinister Scarab, assisted by his plucky Girl Friday. Don’t we?

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What? Captain America is a  goldbrickin’ GI named Steve Rogers who sneaks out of camp with feisty army mascot Bucky to punch Hitler on the jaw? He even has dinky wings attached to his mask! Not in this chapter play, buddy!

Over the last couple of years, I’ve recreated the Seventies festive thrill of black and white Flash Gordon movie serials on BBC tv with dvds featuring the likes of Captain Marvel and the Shadow. For 2014, I tracked down Captain America, which I’d first read about circa 1974-75 in Foom Magazine. An article there told of its melodramatic chapter titles: “Blade of Wrath”! “Mechanical Executioner”! “Wholesale Destruction”! “Cremation in the Clouds”!

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I’ve subsequently read some commentary that suggests this serial was in fact originally a vehicle for Mr. Scarlet, a Fawcett crimebuster I first saw in ENB’s JLA/JSA/Shazam team-up of the mid-70s. I have to confess I’ve only read two-thirds of it- the second issue in the early 80s from the Exchange and Mart and the first ( when quite drunk) in the late 90s.

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Mr. Scarlet, very much in the Batman mould, was a DA in his civilian life with an alliterative name. Like Cap, he was also a creation of Jack Kirby and another writer- in this case, France Herron, who co-created the Red Skul ( and Clock King)l.  Further evidence to strengthen the case is surely the chapter title “The Scarlet Shroud?”

Mr. Scarlet wasn’t a very popular character but more significantly, he may have been tainted by associations with the legal battle over Superman and Capt. Marvel. Perhaps Republic quietly replaced the Crimson Crimefighter with the star-spangled Cap instead.

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Burly divorcee Dick Purcell looks older than 35 and seems an odd choice for the super-soldier, with his receding hairline and nasal voice. I think he would’ve made a better Alan Scott/ Green Lantern. Tragically, he died in the locker room of his country club, shortly before the serial was released- it’s suggested that the strain of filming on his heart had been fatal.

Unusually, the identity of the villain in this serial is no secret, unlike the Scorpion or the Black Tiger. Professor Maldor, the Scarab, is Lionel Atwill,  Rathbone’s second Moriarty and the one-armed inspector in Son of Frankenstein. Atwill, too, died  after the serial was completed- two years later, in fact.

His character is a condescending  sadist who lashes one senior captive and threatens to mummify Gail Richards ( Lorna Gray, nee Virginia Pound and later Adrian Booth-the woman had as many aliases as Bruce Wayne!) The Scarab’s name and arsenal suggest Egyptology but instead-oddly- he’s an expert on Mayans ( called Maye-ANNS here).

The serial is full of fist-fights, explosions and madcap inventions like the Dynamic Vibrator. For me, however, The Masked Marvel is the better serial.

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It pits a quartet of insurance investigators against fey Japoteur Sakima. Two of the young(-ish) heroes are killed off, surprisingly, in later episodes and the mystery of the secret identity of the Spirit-like hero is only revealed in the final chapter ( although it’s obviously never going to be the husky older one). I like MM’s hugely elaborate and  impratical calling card- a series of vinyl records with a domino mask label through which he communicates with his allies.

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Sakima is a lesser villain than the Scarab or the fiendish Prince Daka but there is something more plausible about the boyish and diminutive Japanese agent, hidden under the very feet of his enemies . At twelve chapters, this serial is shorter than Captain America; it feels both more inventive and less chaotic and sprawling.

Coming soon: Some Fantastic Posts on DC’s new Teen Titans Graphic Novel and The Highest Science.

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Sing a Song of Sonjas

Today’s post features sword-slinging 80s movie star Red Sonja. Freely adapted,as they used to say, from the belligerent heroine of a 1934 Robert E. Howard story, Red (in mailshirt and hot pants) first turned up in the final Barry Smith issues of the monthly Marvel Conan comic.

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I read the award-winning Song of Red Sonja in 1973, at the age of ten- I was vaguely aware that the Hyborian epithet “wank” was a Bad Word, which was more than writer Roy Thomas was.  The hoyden Sonja returned in the b/w Savage Sword of Conan magazine in a number of short stories playfully riffing on Little Red Riding Hood.

Less amusingly, we learn there that her fighting prowess is a gift from a goddess ( identifed much, much later as Sgathach, the Gaelic warrior queen of Skye). Sonja is a rape survivor, which is a very dark element for a fantasy comics character. Seventies mores are clearly in evidence when she is given a bizarre and sensationalist chain mail bikini by Spain’s Esteban Maroto for these subsequent appearances.

Spinning off from a couple of further team-ups with Conan (including a charming one in which the Cimmerian is gang-raped by female monsters), Sonja gained her own bi-monthly series in the mid-70s. As a huge fan of the Belit arc in contemporary Conan, I picked up a few issues of Marvel Feature. These have been collected by Dynamite Entertainment as The Adventures of Red Sonja. Here are the contents of volume one…

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Red Sonja: this was first printed in the premiere issue of Savage Sword of Conan. Drawn again by Maroto, its decadent European feel reminds me of Satana, of course. It’s the story of how Sonja killed her royal employer, who was clearly having a sexual relationship with his albino bodyguard. Thomas coyly names him Trolus, as in “troilism”.

The Temple of Abomination: a short drawn by Dick Giordano, it’s more action-packed than the previous story. It’s the last of the Darkwood stories, set in an analogue of the Black Forest and a vignette with some evil satyrs. Greek mythological figures in  German woods: the Hyborian Age was ever thus.

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Blood of the Hunter: this was my first issue from Craig’s newsagents in Strathaven in early 1976. It’s the first collaboration of artist Frank Thorne and writer Bruce Jones. It’s a lush Tolkinesque world- very different from the medieval world Conan inhabits, although his stories were currently in pirate mode, off the coast of ancient Africa.

This feels like a Spaghetti Western: a story of revenge and suffering, where Sonja has a brief and bittersweet romantic moment with a crippled, peg-legged youth. He is murdered by the hulking villain but Sonja avenges him and obtains a mysterious key.

Balek Lives: I didn’t get this one at the time- I suspect it may have been part of a Grab-Bag I got on holiday in Morecambe in ’78- or perhaps even later. It’s essentially a Frankensten story, I suppose, and the conclusion of the storyline begun last issue.

Balek is a murderous clockwork giant with an exotic visual, suggesting Siamese or Khmer culture. It’s another example of the unique look of the series and its departure from the Buscema or even Smith visions of the Hyborian Age. Anyway, Red stops his rampage by pulling his key out.

Eyes of the Gorgon: this was the second issue I bought in ’76 and it’s set in a Hyborian Spain, I reckon. It’s the cruel story of a deformed idiot- a Quaismodo figure -whose sister, Delores, is posing as a gorgon to revenge herself on the villagers who killed their parents.

One sequence reminded me of Witchfinder General and it’s quite dark and sadistic. Surprisingly, it was reprinted in Marvel’s 1977 pro-feminism (ahem) collection, The Superhero Women.

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The Bear God Walks: I missed this one due to those pesky mid- Seventies distribution problems but I did read the latter half in a UK reprint in the early 80s. In an atmospheric, rain-swept forest, the Bear God is a sham to scam bounty hunters-until, of course, the real god turns up.

Again,this has something of the tone of a Spaghetti Western, were it not for the weather. Red meets a bounty hunter named Tusan; an Ollie Queen type, his flirting adds an edge of humour and friction that benefits the series. Of course, he’s not in the next issue…

Beware the Sacred Sons of Set: this is the second part of a crossover with the monthly Conan comic and the first issue of the series I actually enjoyed at the time- probably because Thomas is scripting now.

On her way to Venice- er, Venezia, Red is ambushed by jackal-men then meets Karanthes, a Stygian priest of Ibis from a Barry Smith back issue. Thomas has to sneak in an in-joke about Fawcett’s Sargon lookalike, Ibis the Invincible.

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Karanthes sends Red on a mission to steal a page from a magic book and sloshing through sewers, she encounters a Hyborian take on a New York urban legend- albino crocodile-men!

At the story’s end, we see Red’s POV of a scene from the previous Conan episode, as she discovers the Cimmerian and his lover, Belit the pirate queen, are about to steal the book page. Barbarian face-off!

The Battle of the Barbarians: this is, I think, the fourth part of the crossover. Sadly, due to copyright issues ( I imagine) we don’t see the preceding Conan episode, especially because a) I have never read it and b) it features Tara, the gamine who accompanied Conan as his squire in the Black Shadow storyline.

Thomas smuggles in Lovecraft references as the minor villain- a Stygian priest- invokes Yuggoth and R’lyeh. I also spotted a Lin Carter/Thongor reference: the lizard-hawks of Lemuria. After a duel among some skeletal remains, Red and Conan are attacked by the Stygian, who’s now part-pterodactyl. And there the collection ends.

I now prefer the baroque fantasy world that Marvel Feature Sonja inhabits; the Jones issues have virtually none of the purple prose captions beloved by Thomas. However, I still feel the apeing of Howard’s feverish style was a strength during the Smith Era. Perhaps the sense of staleness in mid-70s Conan makes the Jones stories also feel less “monster-of-the-month” than their Cimmerian contemporaries- although the core concept is almost always revenge. A contrast to Sonja’s dourness, such as the Tusan character from “Bear God”, was sorely needed, if just to stop her talking to herself.

I would be interested in reading further Dynamite reprints although the “mature” adventures of Thorne’s Ghita character sound wearisomely smutty. Interestingly, I gather that more modern Sonja  stories don’t refer to the unfortunate rape victim origin- although she does still wear the scale-mail bikini. It’s a pity that Marvel doesn’t have control over the character since the writers and artists of the House of Ideas made her one of the biggest female icons of the Seventies.  Definitely no pun intended.

One day, I may get around to blogging about Starfire, DC’s futuristic, mixed -race answer to Sonja. However, coming soon: Republic’s Captain America and the Masked Marvel serials.

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A Warrior Fighting a Lonely War

Well, the news is that I worked out a way to beat the machines and have revived my other blog, Some Fantastic Place. My intention at present is to review new books, comics and audios on that site and concentrate on back issues  ( particularly the Bronze Age) here.

Today, with the stormy sky bruised purple,  I’m revisiting the 1975 Spider-Man Annual which of course was one third of the trio of Marvel UK annuals, published for the Xmas of 1974. I still have very vivid memories of finding all three in a pillowcase at the bottom of my bed, at the age of eleven and six months.

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The copy I have at present is not that original gift-it’s an ebay purchase, “To Clive, from Mr. and Mrs. Hill”. I wonder where Clive is now? Might he read this? Does he remember the contents of this gaudy book as well as I do? Does he think of the Hills?

The majority of stories in this annual reflect the paranoid, declamatory world of early 70s Spidey. After the film noir stylings of the iconoclastic Ditko and the lush romance of Romita, Ross Andru and Gerry Conway’s Peter Parker inhabits a neurotic, seedy New York, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

Appropriately, the first story is “The Punisher Strikes Twice”. This aquiline killer will become a major star in two decades time. Here, he is a stooge of the Jackal, a spindly blend of the Joker and the Green Goblin. ( I had forgotten his “electro-prod” claws).

The tone is bleak and disturbing. the Punisher fully intends to murder Spider-Man, like all his criminal targets, probably with a gunshot. The Jackal is also a killer, setting the Punisher up.  Mary Jane seems shallow and heartless; JJJ is on the edge of an embolism and Harry- twitchy, sweaty Harry- is days away from complete mental collapse. Only sweet Betty Brant Leeds and Robbie Robertson seem balanced and normal.

The two-partner that follows opens with some bilious “humour” as the Human Torch unveils The Spider-Mobile, a campy beach-buggy, which is described as a “fiasco”. Even the comic relief is sour. Elsewhere, in “Betrayed!”, Hammerhead’s jet-pack wearing henchmen die of “short circuited” brains. Curiously, Parker is au courant in 2014’s fashion trend, the Christmas jumper. MJ admires his Aretha Franklin blues lp. It seems odd to see Peter enjoying black music- he strikes me as a suburban Deep Purple/Led Zeppelin fan.

The second part of the story- “My Uncle…my Enemy?” revolves around a truly bizarre idea. Doc Ock is marrying Aunt May ( a development of a Lee/Ditko twist from the 60s) because she’s somehow inherited a private Canadian  atomic facility!

The turf war between Ock and the Dick Tracy-esque Hammerhead ends with a nuclear explosion- no surprise from the creator of Disco-Era atom-smasher Firestorm.  As Spidey-philes know, Hammerhead would return as a ghostly figure, shunted out of this reality by “atomic power” a few years later.

The final story is a jarring change of pace. It’s actually a 60s Tale To Astonish of Giant-man and the Wasp. Hank is miscoloured in a nauseating yellow and orange ensemble; Jan is a blonde in a blue/black costume. It’s an Ayers/Reinman collaboration and dull as ditchwater, colouring errors aside.

Stan or Dick tries to tzusj up the Wasp with a “sting”- a weapon that projects compressed air. Portly villain Egghead- sadly not the Vincent Price version- hijacks a payroll truck while setting Spidey on the Wasp, playing on what Stan describes as their “natural hatred”. By this, I  think  he alludes to  the gruesome Giger-style practice of some wasps laying eggs in living spiders. It seems too icky for Pete’n’Jan but I’m surprised Straczynski didn’t do it (maybe he did!)

The sinister world of the Jackal and the Punisher reminds me of the ghastly fate of Captain Omen’s crew in the Marvel Annual. That tone is also reflected in the rituals of the Lion God or the sadistic mind control of Magneto in the Avengers Annual. The heady,  devilish atmosphere of illicit and rare ’73 Marvel is perhaps what made those gaudy hardbacks so unforgettable.

Coming Soon: Don Heck, the First Avenger

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Nobody Likes Tangerines

During the holidays, like many people, I lose track of the days of the week and these somewhat bloated, alcohol-laced days of little daylight and festive films race past. Here we are in 2015 already- a comically futuristic date and also one that marks the tenth anniversary of the tv revival of Doctor Who.

The Xmas special has become a fixture in the festive schedule but the Sunday Herald, with typical Glesga schadenfreuede, describes it as perenially disappointing. So, was Last Christmas this year’s Must-Have or a mouldy fruit at the bottom of the stocking?

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For me, A Christmas Carol remains Moffat’s great success among the Xmas episodes certainly up there with RTD’s The Next Doctor, Voyage of the Damned and -first and best- The Christmas Invasion. This year’s offering- a mash-up of Inception and The Thing– seemed deprived entirely of plot and felt like a brandy butter -induced dream about TV Comic… with more than a whiff of sprouts.

Trapped in a polar base within a shared dreamscape created by repulsive parasites, the acerbic Glaswegian Magician and his bereaved school teacher pal are rescued by a blokey Santa. Moffat employed the very oldest schoolboy error- it was all a dream- to provide Yuletide sugar and spice. It wasn’t as manipulatively,  mawkishly sentimental as 2011’s The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe but it was as story-free as last year’s regeneration vehicle The Time of the Doctor. Time, perhaps, to rest the format? As if that would happen…

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On a positive note, while I would have been perfectly happy for the poignant glimpse of the elderly Clara to have been the reality- a final, very possible exit for the Impossible Girl- I have to admit that Coleman’s charm and vivacity makes me rather glad she’s continuing as The Magician’s Apprentice.

Back in the real world

WAKE UP

I had a very good time in Glasgow between Xmas and New Year, catching up with family, friends and former workmates. I romaed from the douce delis of Clarkston to the hipster enclave of Finnieston, via fogbound Braehead and a gallus Glesga panto at the King’s. The soundtrack to my journey down and back was the third installment of Big Finish’s award winning  Doctor Who- Dark Eyes series.

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Dark Eyes 3 continues to track the journey of Paul McGann’s Doctor towards his Time War incarnation, as glimpsed in 2013’s Night of the Doctor. Here, he’s pitted against Alex McQueen’s fruity, campy Master in the final days of BF’s Eminence War.

The boxset opens on a desolate human settlement, where Molly O’Sullivan (currently a pawn of the Master) encounters teenage survivors, the eponymous Hope and her brother Leo. The Doctor is an observer in this story; it belongs to McQueen’s cooing, self-satisfied Master, playing at being the High Plains Drifter in a Space Western, the ominous Death of Hope. He is of course, exploiting Molly and the colonists to find a way through experimentation to seize control of the Breath of Forever.

The second disc drops the Doctor’s other companion, Medtech Liv Chenka into an internment camp for humans run by brutal scorpion-people, The Ramossans. In The Reviled, Fitton tells a POW story that ends in tragedy for the aliens, doomed by their contact with humanity. We also see the Doctor comtemplating breaking the laws of Time to save his companions- the Time Lord Victorious?

In the third episode, Masterplan, the two Time Lords are trapped on a crashing spacecraft. The Master’s other pawn, corrupt scientist Sally Armstrong, falls foul of another experimenter, the insane genius Dr. Markus Schriver. This was the most tense and harrowing installment, with the horrible trap for Sally and Liv mirroring the plight of the Doctor and the Master. It also presents an origin for the Eminence.

The final episode, Rule of the Eminence, was the most hectic and features guest stars Beth (Raine Creevy) Chalmers and Georgia (Jenny Who) Moffett. An epic space opera set largely on a future Earth, it features the climax of the Master’s grand design and the final defeat of the Eminence, although it’s very fast-moving and quite hard to follow.

I thought this was an improvement on DE2 although Ruth Bradley’s filming commitments meant her presence in the serial was curtailed. This was a great pity since her no-nonsense Molly is a great foil to McGann. He sounded bored and lethargic here, for the most part, which has often happened before – prior to the debut of Sheridan Smith (OBE), for example- and he’s not good at hiding it. Nicola Walker’s fatalistic Liv Chenka just doesn’t “zing” with McGann. good as she is.

The strength of the series was in its world-building and the scope of the conflict. It was also refreshing to have an original “baddy” in the Eminence- the megalomaniac sentient gas and its zombie-like Infinite Warriors have appeared in stories for the Fourth and Sixth Doctors but are not products of the classic tv series. BF has an obsessive desire to provide sequels for the majority of TV Who and it’s pleasant, therefore, to see something new – even if that’s something inspired, rather blatantly, by Babylon 5. However, I feel the story has reached its natural conclusion so I’m not at all sure why we need a DE4, in a few weeks time.

Coming soon:  the 1975 Spider-Man Annual; Don Heck; Multiversity.

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