Saturday, November 01, 2014

Marvels: Tales of Suspense #52

"The Crimson Dynamo Strikes Again!" by Stan Lee, Don Rico & Don Heck
(April 1964)

Back in Tales of Suspense #46, Iron Man convinced his Soviet counterpart, the Crimson Dynamo (Professor Anton Vanko) to defect to the United States and work at Stark Industries. In this issue, we see what Vanko's been working on this whole time: a laser ray. He's been working on it at night, when everyone is gone, so as not to put everyone else in danger--he's even been wearing the Crimson Dynamo armor to protect himself. As our story begins, however, Tony Stark just happens to be at the plant--and just narrowly saves Vanko's life before the laser overheats.

Meanwhile, back in the US, back in the US, back in the USSR, "a short, pudgy figure" (Nikita Khrushchev, unnamed) had decided it's time to pay Vanko back for his treason, and he has just the agent to do it with: the Black Widow.

This is indeed the Black Widow, the same on Scarlett Johansson plays in the movies. She began as a Soviet agent. And here, in her first appearance, she and her musclebound partner Boris are being sent to New York to capture Vanko and Tony Stark and, if necessary, eliminate Iron Man. They travel to America in a submarine and, of course, it's quite easy for Black Widow to turn Tony's head. Introducing herself as "Madame Natasha" and Boris as her brother, a Ukrainian science teacher, she goes out to dinner with Tony while Boris is allowed to tour the Stark plant.

Boris captures Vanko with a "jet-paralyzer" gun and takes him to the sub, then puts on the Crimson Dynamo armor and starts sabotaging things. Tony returns to the plant in full armor and, seeing Dynamo, assumes Vanko has had an accident and is trying to stop the destruction. His guard down, Boris uses an electrical charge to drain the power out of Iron Man's suit and capture him. Iron Man wakes up on the sub, but Tony just plugs himself into the power and recharges, rescuing Vanko and returning to his plant... where Boris does the exact same electrical charge trick.

Tony fights through it this time, but Black Widow distracts him at a crucial moment. His back turned, Boris short-circuits the Iron Man armor with a jet of water.

Now... this is a rather serious design flaw that should probably be addressed, right? Maybe when it's time to upgrade to the Mark IV, address this issue, because someday, somewhere, it's going to rain and Iron Man will be completely useless. Jeez, just last issue Iron Man was fighting the Scarecrow on a Cuban gunboat in the middle of the ocean! Apparently, all it would have taken to put Iron Man out of action was a well-timed shove.

Anyway, it's Professor Vanko who saves the day, aiming his laser at Boris and the Crimson Dynamo armor. The thing is, Vanko knows full well that the laser is still unstable and firing it will destroy both Boris and himself. It's a charged moment, and one that works surprisingly well. After avowing that he's not afraid to die for an ideal--freedom--Vanko fires the weapon, sacrificing his life to stop Boris in service to his adopted country. It's nowhere near as jingoistic as you might expect, and it's a credit to the writers that the death of a character who is really only making his second appearance stings as much as it does.

Black Widow escapes in the confusion, but cannot return to the Soviet Union, knowing the price for her failure. But apparently she's coming back next issue...

Stray observations:

:: This is the first issue in some time that was scripted by a different writer, as Stan Lee is credited here with the plot, but the script is credited to "N. Korok"--actually Don Rico, another veteran of the Atlas Comics Silver Age, where he created a number of "jungle girl" characters like Jann of the Jungle and Lorna the Jungle Girl. Rico started in comics during the Golden Age, working at Fox Publications and Lev Gleason before moving over to Timely, where he created the Secret Stamp as a backup in Captain America Comics. After that, he became one of the Captain America pencilers and one of the regular Human Torch writer/pencilers. He worked on nearly every one of Timely's Golden Age heroes: the Whizzer, the Destroyer, Blonde Phantom, Venus and the Young Allies.

Apparently, Rico was sort of a de facto ringleader in the Timely bullpen, even when 19 year-old Stan Lee was an editor, and did most of the hiring and firing. Publisher Martin Goodman considered him a troublemaker and called him "Rat Rico."

At this point in his career, Rico had worked in film and television and was making a living as a paperback novelist under several names. This is one of three Marvel stories he wrote under a pseudonym. In the 1970s, he would do storyboards for Hanna-Barbera before co-founding (with Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones) CAPS, the Comic Art Professional Society. He also drew an Invaders story for Marvel. Then he taught at UCLA and Cal State, and passed away in 1985 at the age of 72.

Of all the non-Stan scripters we've seen so far, he's the one who's most been able to replicate Stan's voice.

:: Don Heck's art is great as always. I'm glad he's the one who got to introduce the Black Widow, because he's the one Marvel artist right now who really draws women with a lot of personality.

I have no idea if there were big plans in store for Madame Natasha at this point, or if she was just another in an endless series of villains, but this art is just gorgeous.

:: "Editor's note: the 'laser light' appears in parallel photon rays of equal force, not diffused like ordinary light! If a way could be found to handle such a dangerous light safely, it would be the perfect weapon... as it could burn through anything!" The first working laser had only been constructed four years before.

Next: Giant-Man continues to prove that being 12 feet tall is more or less useless.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

Well, it's another Halloween season. This one didn't quite rival the glories of past Halloween seasons on this blog, but it was a step up from last year's rather halfhearted effort. I think the 70 to 80 degree weather up until a couple of days ago didn't really help it feel like Halloween... in fact, it feels more like it's almost Christmas today, it's so darn cold. We were apparently thisclose to snow last night. Got some just up in Wisconsin. (Also, I started seeing Christmas commercials last night, so I guess the stores have moved on.)

Still, I had a fun time. I carved a pumpkin and sampled a lot of Halloween foods. I had some Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkins this week, a perennial favorite. (I know Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are available all year, but the Pumpkins beat them hands down in thickness and concentration. They're like peanut antimatter.) I watched It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown last night, and last Saturday night I watched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein on Son of Svengoolie. We made a Mood Table for the first time and finally got to the second season of Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated, and it was wonderful (right down to the Cthulhu references, the Twin Peaks homage, and the twist ending featuring Harlan Ellison). It didn't feature the wonderful return of Fruit Brute and Fruity Yummy Mummy, like last year's big coup, but it's a win all around.

Here are my links for this year, then.

:: It Feels Like Autumn Today
:: Halloween 2014: Everything Pumpkin Spiced
:: Halloween Kit Kat Commercial
:: Becca's TV Shout-Out
:: It's October 1st!
:: Bill Cosby and the Muppets
:: Peanuts, 1970
:: Tumblr Finds
:: The 2014 Mood Table
:: "El Dia De Los Muertos"
:: 31 Creepy Gifs
:: Peanuts, 1971-1974
:: Skittles Web
:: Tumblr Finds II
:: Yotsuba & Candy
:: Peanuts, 1975
:: The Great Pumpkin Waltz
:: "A Nightmare on My Street"
:: Tumblr Finds III
:: Peanuts, 1976
:: Tuck Me In
:: Tumblr Finds IV
:: Throwback Thursday
:: Jack O'Lantern 2014
:: Peanuts, 1977

And, of course, the posts of previous years.

And a link I've just come across: The 17 Most Unintentionally Funny Moments in Scary Movies.

Have a fun and safe night, and if you get too scared, just whistle a happy tune.

This marks 10 Halloween seasons on this blog! Wow!

Happy Halloween, everybody!

UPDATE 9:06 PM: A last minute share: vinyl toys that Becca made and painted to adorn our Mood Table.

She made Franken Berry last year, and made the Bride tonight. Fantastic!

HALLOWEEN: Peanuts, 1977

One last time this year. After this, neither the Great Pumpkin nor Halloween rated a mention until 1980!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jack O'Lantern 2014

I do seem to be on an every-other-year schedule with pumpkin carving. Well, some years just don't work out, so you have to make the ones that do really count. This year I got a little more special effects-y.

I've known for weeks that I wanted to do something with a single eye. I came up with a couple of ideas. One was to do an eye stalk, but I didn't know what to make them from, so I compromised and did a bulging eye.

I didn't want to just have a hole and say it was an eye, so I repurposed the top of a plastic water bottle. I painted the inside of the bottle white and gave it some red vein accents. You can't see them in the picture, but they'll pay off as soon as it gets dark. So this is his bulging eye.

The pumpkin selection wasn't that great this year; I picked this one because I thought his head stalk was pretty magnificent and because he had that great lean. That way, I could give him a wide-but-thin and despairing mouth. You know I like my long, Muppet-style mouths on pumpkins.

I didn't want to just leave a blank hole, so I painted the clear bottle cap blue. I think it turned out to be a good color choice. It was chilly cold last night, so we put him over on the Halloween Mood Table.

And now here he is in the dark.

One without flash, one with. See, those red veins really pay off, eh? I love the effect of it.

This guy doesn't have a lot of opening, so he doesn't get a lot of oxygen and his candle burns out quickly. I wasn't thrilled with the light effect, so Becca had the great idea to put two candles inside of him, so he really pops and makes the most of that light while he's on.

I'm glad I decided to repurpose the bottle; it elevates this guy from just a carving and makes me feel like a creature creator. Since we spent all day finishing the second season of Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated, I decided to name him Nabiru.

Nabiru's going to sit up on the mood table for a little while longer, and then he'll go out on the porch. If light him up tomorrow night, I might cut some air holes in the back so he'll breathe a little while longer. And then I'll take the bottle out and let him feed the squirrels for a while.

I'm glad I got to make him this year.

Becca's pumpkin was, as always, almost effortlessly amazing.

She entered hers into our building's pumpkin contest, so maybe we'll win a rent credit. I think it's gorgeous. This is the first year she's painted it instead of carving it, and it's fantastic.

To another year of pumpkin creation!

HALLOWEEN: Throwback Thursday

I've been sharing these on Facebook, but here are four early Halloween pictures from my past.

1976. I was three and a half months old.

1978. My first time trick-or-treating, dressed as a baseball player and carrying a beach pail. Apparently my parents didn't intend to take me out, but I was just too fascinated by all of the costumed people coming to the door. (I still have that hat. No, it doesn't fit.)

1979. My sister Jayne was nine months old, so I assume she only wore the witch mask for the picture. Funnily enough, she dressed as a witch most years for Halloween. Love my Scooby Doo mask.

And 1980, at the age of four. Jayne didn't like wearing the mask, so I didn't wear mine, either. You can still see the Toys 'R Us price tag on my plastic pumpkin. I had that pumpkin for years, and it was tall, so it could hold a lot of candy. Jayne looks so cute.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

P Is for Prairie Dawn

I hadn't planned on talking about any of the major Muppet characters, but I'd like to make an exception for Prairie Dawn for a couple of reasons. The first is, it genuinely bugs me how much Prairie Dawn isn't really seen as a main character on Sesame Street. Despite major appearances for decades and leading roles in many, many sketches--and an incredible presence in the Sesame Street books--she never really gets any big roles (if she even appears) in any of the bigger productions, like Christmas Eve on Sesame Street or Follow That Bird or A Muppet Family Christmas. You'll never see a Sesame Street On Ice show without Elmo, but has Prairie ever appeared in one? This really, really bothers me.

Prairie is a great character. She's that levelheaded seven year-old who is mature for her age, always sensible and efficient. She's very detail-oriented and often appears in an organizational capacity. A lot of my favorite sketches with her were the ones where she directed the school pageants. Here's the first one, "A Flower Grows," from a 1974 episode:

And here's "Let's Make a Face," from 1975:

(Both of these sketches feature another favorite of mine, Herry Monster, who is also not counted often enough as a major Sesame Street character.)

Prairie also appeared on a lot of game show sketches, where she would play the frustrated straight character who was exasperated by the bizarre premises. Here are a couple of links: "Squeal of Fortune" and "The Triangle Is Right," where the answer to every clue is "triangle." (And hosted by another great character, Guy Smiley.)

In later years, Prairie hosted the news reports in the "Fairy Tales Today" segments (list here) and she often appeared in the "Letter of the Day" segments with Cookie Monster from seasons 33 through 37. But she stopped making so many appearances after season 39 in 2008, I'm not sure why that is; she'd been on the show so long.

I think it was partly because Abby Cadabby had become a main character starting in 2006. Performed by Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, Abby became a very popular character. Prairie was sort of pushed into the background both by Abby and by Zoe, who was introduced in 1993 as something of a female counterpart to Elmo, in answer to criticism that the show didn't feature very many female Muppet characters. Fran Brill performed both Prairie and Zoe, and I think Prairie was more or less replaced by Abby.

The second reason I wanted to talk about Prairie Dawn was to say a little farewell to Fran Brill. She was the first female Muppet performer hired by Jim Henson, in 1970, and has been with Sesame Street ever since. But just a couple of months ago, Fran announced that she had officially retired from show business. I have no idea what that means for Prairie or Zoe, and as wistful as it makes me to see another longtime Muppet performer retire, she's more than earned a break.

Thanks for all of those amazing years, Fran!

One last sketch, since it's Halloween this week. Here are Prairie Dawn and her friend Walter in a haunted house...

Have a nice week!

ABC Wednesday

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Lifetime movie that seems more or less based on the Stuebenville rape case. It starts with a high school cheerleader walking out on the football field in the middle of a game, pouring gasoline on herself, and setting herself on fire. Where do you go from there? The kind of Lifetime movie that starts out batshit and then gets more and more serious until you just feel bad. Surprised to see Amy Bruckner, my beloved Pim Diffy from Phil of the Future. **1/2

LEAP YEAR (2010)
Amy Adams as a woman who travels through Ireland to get to her fiance (Adam Scott) so she can propose to him on Leap Day, an Irish folk tradition. She's guided by a scruffy, sullen local (Matthew Goode), and, let's face it, unless you've never seen a movie before, you know how this all ends. What's surprising is that, even after reading all of the bad reviews when this came out four years ago, I somehow still was unprepared for just how truly, excruciatingly unlikable this movie really is. Not only is it terrible, but it's an unacknowledged ripoff of a far superior movie from 1945, I Know Where I'm Going!, directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger and starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey. A considerable waste of the charms and talent of Amy Adams. *

Epic and beautifully filmed Bangladeshi movie about Bengali fisher-folk. It stars Rosy Samad as a woman who marries a man she barely knows from a nearby village, gets kidnapped on her wedding night, and gets amnesia. Her husband, meanwhile, has gone mad with grief. Events follow this family in a film about castes, politics, greed, family dynamics, and civilization itself, all symbolized by the river and complicated by expectations. It's also an interesting comment on the partitioning of India and how poverty is created, in some cases as an act of revenge. Beautiful film. ****

Surprising and engrossing Lifetime film written by Richard Christian Matheson and based on a story by Stephen King. Maria Bello stars as a mystery novelist who is assaulted on a wooded road, how she pieces together what happened, and the path of her revenge. I can't remember the last time I saw Olympia Dukakis in anything; she's hilariously dry here. It plays like an episode of Masters of Horror that was expanded, and it does not shy away from the visceral horror of the whole thing. ***1/2

Mickey Mouse faces a monstrous boiler for the sake of Minnie Mouse. I guess this is this year's Halloween offering, and while it isn't quite as Halloween-themed as "Ghoul Friend" was last year, it's actually more enjoyable. ****

Mickey Mouse as a Mumbai cab driver trying to get a tourist to the top of an Indian mountain. This is one of the Mickey Mouse shorts where no English is spoken--here it's Punjabi and Hindi. I always enjoy the shorts in this series that focus on a world culture. ****

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Marvels: Strange Tales #119

"The Torch Goes Wild!" by Stan Lee & Dick Ayers
(April 1964)

That title is an oversell. The whole issue is oversold. Both the cover and the title page tout the Rabble Rouser--played by Nicolas Cage up there--as a truly different kind of villain, but he's just the Hate-Monger without the menace and with a more predictable twist. He even has the same kind of underground rocket, something the story acknowledges. It's like flat-out stating that this story is just a thinly-veiled, anemic retread of the far superior Fantastic Four #21. But where that story had something to say about the nature of hate, this is just filler.

The Rabble Rouser is whipping up everyone against the Human Torch with the aid of some kind of wand that increases everyone's anger. It turns out he's actually a Soviet agent sent to create dissent during a foreign prince's visit to, erm, Glenville, Long Island. So the city passes all of these ordinances that say the Human Torch can't use his power inside city limits.

Finally, the Rabble Rouser kidnaps the visiting prince, Prince Nagamo, and the Torch rescues him by hypnotizing the Rabble Rouser into being a good American and destroying his wand. And this story is immediately forgotten.

Stray notes:

:: The people of Glenville are really well-versed in the Torch's personal life, noting right away that he's in a foul mood because (a) Doris Evans went out on a date with another boy; (b) he didn't make the high school football team because he kept using his powers; (c) the rest of the Fantastic Four went on vacation without him; and (d) he's always feuding with Spider-Man. In the end, Doris reveals she only went out on the date to make Torch jealous, so all is forgiven, I guess?

:: Spider-Man makes a brief appearance, and I think this is the first time anyone refers to Spidey as "ol' web-head."

:: This is the mayor of Glenville:

Is it still 1911 in Glenville? Or is Glenville inside an Archie comic? Or is Glenville inside an Archie comic in 1911? Because that would explain a lot about these stories.

At any rate, this was terrible.

"Beyond the Purple Veil!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

I love the fantasy weirdness of the Doctor Strange stories, and this one reminds me of an Edgar Rice Burroughs story. Here, Strange is trying to uncover the mystic secrets of a strange gem when two burglars break into his home and try to steal it. The gem pulls them into itself; it turns out to be a gateway into the Purple Dimension. Strange follows them in to rescue them.

The Purple Dimension reminds me of a Frazetta drawing of an ERB story; aliens, people in chains, and open, rocky spaces. Any being pulled into the Purple Dimension becomes a slave of its ruler, Agammon the All-Powerful. Sensing Doctor Strange's power, Agammon agrees to free his slaves if Strange will take their place. Strange agrees, but then bursts his chains and matches the power of his amulet to the power of Agammon's jewel-demolisher beam.

Of course, Agammon surrenders and Strange is free to go, keeping the gem. The two burglars even turn themselves in.

I was a little disappointed in the previous story, "The Possessed!," which tried to spin a Gothic possession tale into an thriller with interdimensional aliens. That story didn't really work, but this one, which also begins as a creepy horror tale and takes us into another dimension with aliens, somehow gets all of the elements right. Boy, we've been to a number of dimensions already, haven't we?

This story was great and makes up for the dull Human Torch tale.

Stray note:

:: This is the first time Strange's valet, Wong, is called by name.

:: This is one of a number of occasions where Stan spells it both "Dormammu" and "Mormammu." It'll get codified eventually.

Next: the Black Widow!

Monday, October 27, 2014

HALLOWEEN: Tumblr Finds IV

Not really a Halloween food update, but I've got some small cans of a soda called "Grapenstein" from Cott Beverages. There's nothing particularly Halloween-y about it, except that it comes in a dark can with Frankenstein's Monster on it. Nothing will ever top my beloved Gruesome Grape Jones Soda, but it's not bad.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Song of the Week: "Because I Got High (Positive Remix)"

Songs for Becca #26. 13 years later, Becca still gets Afroman's "Because I Got High" going through her head. She has a surprising affection for the song. I always thought the song was fun. This month, Afroman--in collaboration with NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and Weedmaps--released a new version of the song, extolling the virtues of legalized weed. Dig that couch in space.