Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Where the werewolves were in old-time radio

I was recently reading Guy Endore's 1933 novel the Werewolf of Paris and I began to reflect on how werewolves were portrayed in popular culture of the time, as I spent a lot of time enjoying literature, films and radio programs of the past. Although Universal's the Wolfman is one of the giants of classic monster movies, there really weren't very many werewolves on screen in those days. Similarly, while Dracula and Frankenstein are two of the great classic horror novels, there's no werewolf book whose reputation permits it to stand alongside them.

And what of radio? What I find interesting about werewolves on radio is that while they were frequently spoken of (say, in Raymond the host's jokes on Inner Sanctum Mysteries), they only infrequently figured in plots on the radio and even less often appeared in the fur & flesh - most radio werewolves involve a hoax of some sort. I can only go by what episodes still exist today, but going from that I've composed a list of werewolves on the radio, grouped together for your convenience into "name only," "hoaxes," and "the real deal."

PART 1: WEREWOLVES IN-NAME-ONLY

There are two 1949 radio police drama shows featuring criminals who terrorize women and are referred to as a "werewolf," but only in allusion to the supernatural beast, not because anyone believes they are such. The two are so similar, I wonder if they were both inspired by the same real life event? First, an audition show for a series called Prowl Car presented "the Wilshire Werewolf," then a very early episode of Dragnet delved into its own werewolf.

Click here to listen to Prowl Car's "the Wilshire Werewolf" at myoldradio.com

Right-click here to download Dragnet's "the Werewolf" from archive.org

PART 2: THE GREAT WEREWOLF HOAXES

The earliest "hoax" program I've found is 1935's Front Page Drama, which presented an episode entitled "the Werewolf" which seems to be based on true events where people's superstitions about werewolves nearly leads to an innocent girl's death. The ending is a bit muddled but the most interesting thing about it is that this show uses the standard rules about vampires for werewolves! At one point the term "werewolf vampire" is uttered as though they were the same thing! Yes, vampires often change shape too, but since the supposed werewolves in this story are said to be corpses by day who can only be destroyed with a stake through the heart, it sure sounds like vampires, huh?

Right-click here to download Front Page Drama's "the Werewolf" from Radio Echoes.

I've found two episodes of the Shadow where he tangles with suspected werewolves. The first one, 1941's "Death Prowls at Night" is actually very good, involving a madman who can hypnotize people into thinking they're werewolves; but maybe he really is a werewolf? It ends on an ambiguous note. The second, 1947's "the Werewolf of Hamilton Mansion" involves a wealthy man who thinks his son is a werewolf and has kept him locked up, but it's all a trick.

Right-click here to download the Shadow's "Death Prowls at Night" from archive.org

Click here to listen to the Shadow's "the Werewolf of Hamilton Mansion" at youtube.com

I Love a Mystery has (barely) two surviving storylines involving werewolves: "Bride of the Werewolf" and "Bury Your Dead, Arizona." The former exists in only two parts out of fifteen, one produced in 1944, the other from 1952! The latter's 1949 version is complete and involves a supposed mystic whose assistant can become a wolf, but as I Love a Mystery is the program which inspired Scooby-Doo, you may not be surprised to hear it's all a fake.

Right-click here to download I Love a Mystery's "Bride of the Werewolf" part 3 from archive.org; part 12

Right-click here to download I Love a Mystery's "Bury Your Dead, Arizona" part 1 from archive.org; part two; part 3; part 4; part 5; part 6; part 7; part 8; part 9; part 10; part 11; part 12; part 13; part 14; part 15

A 1946 episode of the Adventures of Dick Cole entitled "The Werewolf of Farr" has a plot so slight it should have been an episode of Five-Minute Mysteries, yet drags itself out to a half-hour. People are convinced there's a werewolf loose, yet since the episode mentions early on that a real wolf has escaped you really shouldn't expect to be surprised by the climax.

Right-click here to download the Adventures of Dick Cole's "the Werewolf of Farr" from archive.org

Easily the best werewolf hoax on this list, Escape presented an adaptation of Geoffrey Household's "Taboo" in 1947. Never mind that the suspected werewolf is only a man - it's a suitably terrifying story about hunting a monster at night - or being hunted by a monster! It also hints at some very dark, grisly affairs.

Right-click here to download Ecape's "Taboo" from archive.org

The New Adventures of Michael Shayne being set in New Orleans seemed contractually obliged to tell a "loup-garou" story and they got it over with early in 1948. It has lively performances by Jeff Chandler & Jack Webb, but the plot is nuts.

Right-click here to download the New Adventures of Michael Shayne's "the Case of the Bayou Monster" from archive.org

There are two western programs involving werewolf hoaxes: the Challenge of the Yukon's "Trail of the Werewolf" from 1949 and Wild Bill Hickok's "The Wolf of Ghost Mountain" from 1952. Both are juvenile westerns with simple hoax plots.

Right-click here to download the Challenge of the Yukon's "Trail of the Werewolf" from archive.org

Right-click here to download Wild Bill Hickok's "the Wolf of Ghost Mountain" from archive.org

Finally, Escape ventured into the bayou with their 1952 episode "Loup-Garou," wherein a man is accused of being a werewolf by a hateful mob; the play was performed again as a 1956 episode of Romance which is in much better condition than the earlier version.

Right-click here to download Escape's "Loup-Garou" from archive.org

Right-click here to download Romance's "the Loup-Garou" from archive.org

PART 3: THE REAL DEAL - WEREWOLVES IN THE FUR, FLESH & FANG

Appropriately, we begin with the Witch's Tale; unlike many of the later horror programs (such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries or the Mysterious Traveler), the Witch's Tale never shied from the supernatural. Unfortunately, surviving episodes tend to be of very poor sound quality, sound effects are minimal, performances are flat and there's very little tension. Placing only that aside, we have the 1935 rendition of "the Werewolf" (earlier versions are lost) in which the course of true love never did run smoothly; two young lovers are torn apart by the fact that the young man tears people apart at night when he becomes a wolf.

Click here to listen to the Witch's Tale's "the Werewolf" at youtube.com

Much later we have 1942's Dark Fantasy and "W is for Werewolf." Dark Fantasy is not a very distinguished program but it told its rather pulpy stories well. Like the Shadow episode I described above, this involves a man locking up his supposed-werewolf son - only this time, it's the real thing!

Right-click here to download Dark Fantasy's "W is for Werewolf" from archive.org

Sadly, very few episodes of Creeps by Night have survived and their audio quality tends to be very poor; considering the show used both Bela Lugosi & Boris Karloff it's quite a loss to classic horror fans! However, we still have 1944's "the Hunt," a story where people toss around the "w" word at each other - but who is the werewolf who's been terrorizing the area?

Right-click here to download Creeps by Night's "the Hunt" from archive.org

The Weird Circle didn't have the best actors in radio, but they adapted their material from some of the best classic horror fiction so it's a show of interest to all fans of radio horror. Their 1944 episode "the Werewolf" is adapted from a passage in Frederick Marryat novel the Phantom Ship, involving a woodsman who takes a new wife whose hobbies include hunting at night in the form of a wolf. Should've had a pre-nup.

Right-click here to download the Weird Circle's "the Werewolf" from archive.org

Special thanks to Ian Griev for pointing out this quick story from 1945's Strange Adventure; in "Werewolf Island," a wolf has been devouring sheep and the beast appears so intelligent that people suspect it's a werewolf!

Right-click here to download Strange Adventure's "Werewolf Island" from archive.org

Werewolf fans frequently cite the 1946 Suspense episode "The House in Cypress Canyon" as a werewolf program, even though the term never appears. It's actually to the show's benefit to not explain too much about what exactly the horror is - but if you like werewolf stories, this one delivers big time!

Right-click here to download Suspense's "the House in Cypress Canyon" from archive.org

Finally, in 1957 comedian Stan Freberg threw the films I Was a Teenage Werewolf and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit into a blender and came up with an episode of the Stan Freberg Show with the hilarious skit "A Gray Flannel Hat Full of Teenage Werewolves." It concerns a werewolf who is cursed to become an advertising executive by day!

Right-click here to download the Stan Freberg Show's "A Gray Flannel Hat Full of Teenage Werewolves" from archive.org

Thank you for checking out this list!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Quiet, Please: the list of recommendations

Part of what makes the Old-Time Radio hobby so easy to slip into is that so many of the surviving broadcasts which circulate are in terrific condition and quite pleasant on the ears. However, because those who address the largest audiences prefer the clean audio, there are all kinds of less-than-clean programs whose entire catalogs don't seem to receive air time; if you're a fanatic about Old-Time Radio, then you have to track those shows down on your own time.

I had been a fan of OTR for years (beginning with an interest in the horror & science fiction shows) when I had the pleasant surprise of discovering Quiet, Please, a program which ran from 1947-1949 and whose body of work is near-complete - albeit often in poor audio condition. Quiet, Please is not the type of program today's jockeys like to use - it's a challenging show with (naturally) a very quiet tone. There are few actors, with most of the work being done by star Ernest Chappell. There are few instruments, mainly an organ and a piano. There are even fewer sound effects (frequently the piano or organ take their place). The stories are often melancholic and demand a listener's full attention - unlike, say, a horror program such as Inner Sanctum Mysteries which has a "shocking development" every 3 minutes or so, when Quiet, Please is telling a horror story it usually builds to a single moment of horror (and many episodes aren't horror stories at all).

Quiet, Please might be better termed a "dark fantasy" series rather than horror. Wyllis Cooper's stories often feel like poetry, brought to life through Ernest Chappell's performances. Chappell, as some have observed, serves as a fantastic everyman performer, being able to disappear into his roles, sometimes by adopting accents, different pitches or verbal tics. Taken as a whole, Quiet, Please is a combination of horror, humour, fantasy, poetry and melancholy - so, basically, it's great for Edgar Allan Poe fans.

For all these reasons of audio quality and story content, I think it might be helpful to offer my suggestion of 10 great Quiet, Please episodes. It's my belief that if you are an OTR fan and you enjoy any of these shows, you will enjoy them a lot and probably seek out the rest of the series. This list is simply a handy means of getting started. All links lead to the mp3 files at archive.org

  1. "Beezer's Cellar" is a horror story about a gang of robbers who learn of an unfinished cellar and decide it would be a good place to stash their loot. However, this cellar turns out to be literally incomplete - it's not entirely part of this world.
  2. "Let the Lilies Consider" is a strange tale of weird fantasy in the vein of Algernon Blackwood. A man adores his flowers but his wife grows increasingly outraged by them, feeling truly jealous over his plants. Much as in a Blackwood story, nature proves stronger than humanity.
  3. "My Son John" is a vampire story, albiet one with a few unusual rules about vampires and told in a way that's half-horrifying, half-amusing. A man desperate to see his dead son again raises him from the dead - but now his son is a vampire who intends to feast upon the living.
  4. "Northern Lights" is a weird science fiction tale about two men whose experiments in time start bringing frozen caterpillars into their lab. Caterpillars who sing.
  5. "Presto Change-o, I'm Sure" is pretty representative of the series' take on fantasy. A young man obtains a real magic wand; although he doesn't entirely understand how to use it, he learns enough to get himself into trouble - particularly with the wand's original owner, Cagliostro.
  6. "Shadow of the Wings" is an Easter story about the angel of death seeking the life of a dying child and the child's mother attempting to fend off death, himself.
  7. "The Thing on the Fourble Board" is easily the best-known episode of the series. It's isn't to everyone's tastes, but if you like radio horror you really do owe it to yourself to hear this one. It's a freaky tale about a drilling crew who unearth something from deep beneath the surface - something like an invisible spider. And it has a voice.
  8. "Wear the Dead Man's Coat" involves two men's discovery that if you wear a dead person's clothes you can become invisible, which seems like a condition with no drawbacks - but oh, there definitely is one!
  9. "Whence Came You" is another very well-thought-of horror episode concerning an archaeologist who opens up an old tomb there's something still alive in there - possibly an irate Egyptian god!
  10. "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?" is almost a parody of Quiet, Please in which a drunk pesters Wyllis Cooper in a bar, attempting to tell him stories about the weird things on the moon and how he keeps killing the same woman over and over again.

If you dig Quiet, Please then be sure to let me know which episodes are your favorites!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Unearthed: "Revelations" by Christopher Priest & Eric Battle

Completing my three-day appreciation of Christopher Priest, I'm turning the clock back to 1998 and JLA 80-Page Special#1, featuring the story "Revelations" by Priest and artist Eric Battle. Earlier, I featured another of Priest's stories from the 80-Page Giants: "The Game"; I only learned of this tale thanks to J. Caleb Mozzocco.

At merely 10 pages it's a quick story, so it says something that people remember this tale so many years later.

We open with Wonder Woman responding to a distress call sent by Aquaman. Wearing a rebreather, she dives underwater to rendezvous with him. This tale is during Aquaman's hooked, bearded, frowny days and he's definitely crabby with his teammate from the outset. "I just-- expected J'onn -- or Superman--" he complains. The problem is a fairly simple one to solve, it merely requires an extra set of hands: a band of underwater treasure hunters submerged into an Atlantean labyrinth and now their craft is stuck; to add insult to injury, the underwater "gold" is fool's gold. Aquaman can't free the vessel alone, but with Wonder Woman's help he might succeed.

As they begin to work on the problem, using Wonder Woman's lasso to tow the vehicle, Wonder Woman wonders why Aquaman seems more grouchy than usual.

"Sometimes it's just easier to fence off the world. And, the truth of it is-- I spend a lot of time wondering what I'm doing in the JLA to begin with, Princess--"

"--Diana, Arthur. Unless you prefer I call you 'my lord.'"

"Actually-- I would."

Aquaman continues to grouch along, calling her "a little vapid and boring" and hates how people assume they "have anything at all in common simply because we're both royalty." Then his secret comes out: "I can't find any rational reason-- why I want you so badly." Wonder Woman deduces he's become tangled in her Lasso of Truth, hence his session of truth-telling. Unfortunately, this is carried entirely by the dialogue because the artist doesn't bother to show it all. Hey, it's only the incident the entire story depends on, no big deal.

Their conversation is interrupted by a second team of treasure hunters - these, figures wearing diving suits and carrying weaponry. Wonder Woman's communicator is knocked out so Aquaman monologues the rest of the underwater scenes solo, continuing to remark "wish they'd sent J'onn." However, now that she can't hear him and he's not wrapped in the lasso, he also remarks she's "part of the reason I remain with the JLA" and "I don't like to be alone with you."

They successfully fend off their attackers and save the submerged craft, but Aquaman is somewhat sheepish over what he admitted to her before. When he wonders if he can trust her to "keep this incident between us," she responds by swimming close to him and pressing her hand against his cheek. "Arthur -- my lord king --" and then she dives underwater, leaving him rattled and confused.

"Yes... well... glad we got that settled... wish they'd sent J'onn..."

Thoughts: While not wishing to psychoanalyze Priest, I do recall one of his essays described a relationship he'd wanted to pursue which didn't pan out - he wound up in "the friend zone," to use current parlance. He seems to put Aquaman through something similar here through the hero lusting after Wonder Woman while realizing such a relationship probably wouldn't work and his feelings probably wouldn't be reciprocated.

I don't know DC Comics continuity particularly well so I can't say whether this characterization of Aquaman & Wonder Woman holds (ahem) water. I do find it interesting to note that when people try to pair Wonder Woman off with one of her peers in the League (because that's what strong, independent women want, right? to be someone's "and..."), they pair her with Superman because they have similar power levels (and he's popular!) or Batman because they're children of royalty (and he's popular!). Poor unpopular Aquaman actually seems like a decent choice for her, given they originated in warrior-culture hidden lands with deep mystical/mythological connections. Then again, perhaps that's why they couldn't ever work out, they'd be all like, "Oh my gods, you follow Neptune? What's wrong with Artemis?" "I can't stand listening to the Greek pantheon, give me the Romans any time." "They're the same gods starfish-brain!"

Eric Battle's art is an unfortunate demerit; as noted above, he doesn't capture the Aquman-tangled-in-lasso moment at all and in general his panels don't tell the story; you could redialogue this tale into almost anything. The load is left upon Priest to carry the tale with his scripting and, fortunately, Priest was (and is) a fantastic scripter. The art isn't up to the same standard as Cary Nord in "the Game," but this is a minor triumph in Priest's bibliography. This one was definitely worth unearthing!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"There's all kinds of ghosts. I'm not one who particularly likes to show off." The Phantom#1 review

At the same time I was in the shop to pick up Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody#1, I saw something else on the stands which seemed to be the perfect companion: The Phantom#1 from Hermes Press.

I had thought the Phantom's rights were currently tied up with Dynamite Entertainment, but somehow Hermes - who have been reprinting the character's earlier comic strip & comic book adventures - have landed this limited series. And its connection to Quantum & Woody? It's drawn by Sal Velluto, Priest's longest (and greatest) collaborator on Marvel's Black Panther. Also, I suppose, the author is Peter David, whom Priest helped get started in comics. There, I've played my "six degrees of Priest" game.

Being a Peter David-scripted comic book, you can expect the characters will mouth glib dialogue; they do. Being a Sal Velluto-drawn comic book, you can also expect lushly-rendered scenery and believeable people; they are. It appears to be set during the same timeframe as the original comic strips (not having read the early strips, I wouldn't know for sure). The Phantom's wife Diana is a major character, giving David the kind of strong female lead he enjoys writing. All the trappings of the Phantom are here: the jungles, the pirates, the unapologetically garish purple bodysuit (compare to how ashamed the 2009 TV movie was of his visual), the horse Hero and wolf Devil - and there's someone lurking in the periphery of the story who might be Tarzan (or a Tarzan analog).

Velluto remains a gorgeous artist, here providing his own inks; the two-page recount of the Phantom's origin is, on its own, a triumph. I'm very pleased to see both Priest & Velluto on the stands again (even if they aren't together) and I'll be interested to see where this Phantom mini series goes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

"Buffer zone! Buffer!!" Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody #1 review

When the revived Valiant Comics announced they would be bringing back the series Quantum & Woody, but without creators Christopher Priest & Mark Bright, my reaction wavered somewhere between "what's the point?" and "this is disgrace." Creators and their interpretations of characters come and go; sometimes in comics, the character's creator is not the person who develops the definitive version of that character. And yet, Quantum & Woody is a Priest/Bright comic book. You could plug in any talented creators and tell decent stories, but you would be stripping away the particularly unique vision Priest had in the original 1990s series.

It would be easy to see Quantum & Woody as a super hero comedy series, or as a satire of the genre. In part, that's true, but there's a particular style Priest used to tell his stories; his Quantum & Woody seemed to be super heroes in a world which didn't really have a use for them; Quantum in particular was earnest and intelligent about his goal to fight crime, yet the tropes which normally make crime-fighting for super heroes easy, never quite clicked (consider how infrequently the duo actually/successfully fought criminals in the series). Eric & Woody's deep, lengthy bond of mutual loathing made it a perfect companion to Priest & Bright's Power Man & Iron Fist.

Fortunately, Valiant seems willing to do right by Priest & Bright, hence the recent release of Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody#1, reuniting the creators with their creations in a project which seems to exist in the original Valiant universe, rather than the one where "I can't believe it's not Priest & Bright's Quantum & Woody!" reside. Predictably, Priest has chosen to pick up where he left off - resuming the character's lives in the present, that is (just as an earlier semi-cancellation caused Priest to skip months ahead into the story).

In this future, Eric & Woody have drifted apart somehow and neither one is an active super hero. And yet, there's still a Quantum & Woody out there (in what seems to be a metatextual reference to "Store Brand Quantum & Woody"). Woody goes investigating and winds up waging a war of insults with the new Woody. As before, the story also breaks to visit Eric & Woody's childhood and there's a quick recap of their origin for latecomers. That said, anyone who hasn't read Priest & Bright's Quantum & Woody before would do better to begin with the original stories (collected into trades & digital copies by Valiant) rather than start here; you can follow the story, but you might not get it.

Considering Priest & Bright have been away from comics for awhile, it's astounding to see how easily they slip right back into their roles. I've enjoyed the smooth, round lines in Bright's art for ages, yet he seems better than ever here (perhaps some of the credit belongs to inker Dexter Vines?). And while some authors simply become parodies of themselves with age, Priest seems content to satirize everything (himself included).

Although I would be happy to see Priest & Bright continue to tell Quantum & Woody stories beyond this limited series, frankly I'd be content simply to see Priest & Bright at work somewhere in this medium. These jokers are as good as they've ever been, yet they've created barely any comics in the last decade! Comics industry: go stand in the corner and think about what you've done, then offer them all the money in the bank before they drift away again!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Remembering "Hills Are For Heroes"

One way in my mother and I learned to bond during my sullen teenage years was through her favourite television program - a 1960s action series set in World War II called Combat. You can't make up this sort of thing.

It took a long time for me to come around to Combat's charms, but since my mother seemed to be videotaping and/or watching the show every other evening, I had plenty of opportunities for exposure. One of the first episodes I recall truly enjoying was "Duel," in which leading character Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow) battled a tank with nothing more than his gun and a large dose of ingenuity. It's a great action program - roughly 45 minutes of thrills and tension as Saunders makes various attempts to overcome the tank. It's also very sparse on dialogue.

I would hesitate to call "Duel" representative of Combat. Although almost every episode contains action of some kind or another - occasionally very fanciful win-the-war-single-handed type of stories - the bulk of the series seemed to concern clashes of personalities: the G.I. who's cracking up, the coward who needs to come to terms, the enemy who has to be trusted, the grunt who has to perform tasks outside of his skill set, the loner with a terrible secret. Yes, there were bullets, grenades, shells and (budget permitting) tanks, but the series was as much a character drama as an action programmer. That character drama I found so distasteful as a youngster? That became the reason to check it out as a teen.

I recall one night I was alone while the rest of the family were out and I was supervising the nightly recording of Combat. The episode in the docket was called "Hills Are For Heroes, Part 1." I began the night working on a crossword puzzle (strange that I recall that detail so clearly 20 years later) but the episode itself drew me in.

When I think of the war movies I've enjoyed I'm quick to name many of the usual suspects: All Quiet on the Western Front, Glory, Gettysburg, Letters From Iwo Jima, the Great Escape and so forth; but I often append my list with "and the Combat two-parter 'Hills Are For Heroes.'"

It isn't simply the double-length of this story which places it amongst the feature films in my mind; there's an artistry in these episodes (directed by Vic Morrow himself) which you didn't normally see on the series. The setting: a wide open valley with two German pillboxes set atop hills which have a perfect view of the road below. The soldiers' mission: to eradicate the Germans in the pillboxes so the road can be captured. The commanding officers - represented for most of the two-parter by series star Lt. Hanley (Rick Jason) repeat themselves again and again: take that hill.

Unfortunately, the Germans' vantage is far superior to the meager troops; in the opening minutes of the two-parter, the squad suffers terrible casualties in their first attempt, with Sgt. Saunders among the wounded. They receive help from artillery, but it isn't heavy enough to actually damage the pillboxes; they have a heavy machine gun, but it's near-suicidal to try and get close enough to use it. At one point a tank aids them; even this isn't enough. Even after the first failed attempt, the squad's spirits are broken; the repeated efforts only add to their frustration as some of them are on the verge of mutiny.

Saunders being sidelined with an injury is, in part, done to limit the amount of time Morrow had to spend in front of the camera; being an on-location shoot, there would have been a lot of demands on him as the director. However, it's used as a strength in the story - Saunders' injury doesn't only relieve the squad of one of their most important men, but of the one who is most likely to ameliorate the problems between Hanley and his subordinates; ordinarily, Saunders would be present in episodes to make Hanley's orders more palatable to the men, to lead them personally into battle and, generally, to win the day; Saunders' absence for most of the two-parter warns Combat fans immediately this will not be business as usual.

With Saunders out of the way, the other cast members (not credited as stars yet appearing in virtually every episode) are given a lot of opportunities to shine, especially the squad's B.A.R. man, Kirby (Jack Hogan). Frequently used in the series as a brash loudmouth (you could institute a drinking game based on the repeated line "Shut up, Kirby!"), Kirby goes up the hill more times than any of the other characters in this story; he's also forced to assume some command responsibilities as Hanley orders him to pick the men who will accompany him, knowing some of them will die (and so they do). Sometimes in the series, Kirby's tirades can be viewed as back-talking from someone outside of the command structure - the freedom of the lower ranks to complain. Here, Kirby seems to feel the weight of his position, not only to be asked to give his life in what seems to be an impossible mission, but to choose which other lives will be spent. At one point, Kirby's friend Littlejohn suggests taking his place and Kirby refuses, noting he has the right skills for the job and Littlejohn doesn't. It points to how Kirby is able to rationalize risking his life, but not those of his squad mates.

Throughout the two-parter, Kirby unleashes a steady stream of angry complaints about the assignment, yet keeps trying to accommodate Hanley. In the climax, the hill is finally won, yet - in a very cruel turn - they're ordered to fall back because the Germans had counterattacked their forces at another position. Kirby's exhausted, furious response sums up the entire story:

"No! We took this hill! This man here, I-I don't even know his name! He can't come down! Einstein can't come down! And Morgan, he can't either! We ain't comin' down, lieutenant, we took this hill!"

There are certain tricks in this episode which point to Morrow's ability as a director - the sort of tricks you tend to see young filmmakers trying out when they're eager to impress people. The most obvious comes near the end of part 1, when one of the soldiers is shot: the sound of battle fades and dulls out as he falls backwards down the hills in slow motion; the camera switches perspective to depict his viewpoint as he rolls; when his friend comes up, his words are heard in a deep slur; at the moment the camera resumes its normal view and normal audio, we realize the fallen man has died.

However, there's much more to Morrow as a director than simply that one bit of showiness. There's a terrific shot of Kirby, Caje & Littlejohn lying with their backs to a bunker wall with their feet in the focus of the foreground. The close-up of mud on Littlejohn's boots suggests how grimy and dirty this particular story is for the characters.

There's also something very interesting about the shooting location - simply a wide, grassy valley. This locale and the threat of merely two pillboxes is enough to sustain two episodes worth of tension! When you consider the many episodes of Combat involving elaborate sets over multiple stages, it's a testament to Morrow that this lifeless terrain is never bland. The characters and the situation hold the audience's interest throughout.

Is "Hills Are For Heroes" an anti-war story? Some Combat fans maintain that it is; I'm not completely convinced. It is definitely unusual fare for this series as, ordinarily, there is an expectation for the cast to triumph over their obstacles. Although episodes frequently required sacrifice, the characters' goals would be achieved, resolution would be found; that's flatly denied here. The characters are told over and over again to capture a hill; after more than a dozen deaths they succeed, then are told to turn back. There's a suggestion that the real obstacle facing our heroes was never the Germans at all - rather, it was the C.O. who was issuing them (including Hanley) orders. If you consider the C.O. to be the true antagonist of "Hills Are For Heroes," then you're right, this is an anti-war story.

But, recall, this two-parter aired in 1966! This is unusually bleak fare for a prime-time series surrounded by toothpaste and deodorant ads, but to a world which had actually lived through the war in recent memory and to which All Quiet on the Western Front, Johnny Got His Gun, A Farewell to Arms, Paths of Glory and Catch-22 had already been written, this isn't exactly a blistering indictment of war by comparison. Here, Hanley must emphasize duty in the face of futility; Kirby rages at the seemingly heartless bureaucracy which wastes men's lives in the name of expediency. Still, there are enough small, heroic triumphs to make the bitter ending feel just cruel enough without asking the audience to question whether they would want to revisit the show the following week. Those books I listed state, "War is Hell." "Hills Are For Heroes" states "War is Messy."

And yet, when I saw "Hills Are For Heroes" I hadn't been exposed to any entertainment media which was the slightest bit critical of World War II. Twenty years ago, this two-parter broadened my mind juuust a little bit - pried it apart far enough that I could later understand Remarque, Trumbo, et al. I sat down again with "Hills Are For Heroes" last night to mark Remembrance Day. It still holds up.

"All right, remember that hill: every ditch and every dip in the ground. It may come in handy the next time."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"...The old tricks still work just fine." Blacksad: Amarillo review

Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guarnido's Blacksad has been published in Spain since 2000; by the time Dark Horse Books brought an English-language version to these shores in 2010, only three stories had been produced. Perhaps encouraged by the growing interest in the character, 2010 saw the fourth story, A Silent Hell published and the English version arrived in 2012. Now we have Blacksad: Amarillo, the fifth entry, having been published last year in Spain and now in English - the speed at which the stories are being both created and translated is clearly increasing!

Strangely, this volume features two translators - Katie LaBarbera (translator of A Silent Hell) and Neal Adams! I say "strange" because Blacksad seems to have enough interest behind it that it shouldn't require a familiar North American such as Adams to promote it (and Adams is renowned for his art, not his scripts). Fortuitously, Adams explains in the book's introduction how Guarnido made a personal request for Adams to collaborate with him by translating this newest volume. I skipped the introduction and credits on my first read and didn't realize Adams had been part of the finished story; that Amarillo reads like the other Blacksad tales is a testament to Adams' fidelity to the source material, I think (perhaps if I learn Spanish one day I'll have a better idea of what precisely he contributed).

For those who are joining us late, John Blacksad lives in a world of anthropormorphic animal-people; Blacksad is a black cat. Blacksad usually makes his living as a detective and the timeframe is that of the 1950s; despite the cast being a bunch of animals, Blacksad's 1950s face very much the same social/political issues as our own 1950s.

In this tome, Blacksad accepts a very simple job - drive a sweet Cadillac Eldorado to Tulsa, Oklahoma on behalf of a wealthy bull. Unfortunately, the car is stolen and winds up in the hands of Chad Lowell, a young (lion) author who's living out his "difficult second novel" anxiety. Also in pursuit of Chad is his literary agent, Neal Beato, who becomes Blacksad's ally. Further complicating matters are a few murders, circus performers, a drunken bird and two dogged FBI agents.

Surprisingly, we gain some character insight into Blacksad here; we meet his sister Donna and they speak cryptically about their father, whom evidently neither gets along well with. We also hear Blacksad lecture his young nephew about guns, stating "Good guys don't carry guns," despite we readers being well-aware of Blacksad's use of firearms in earlier stories - so he's not proud of those escapades.

Part of what I enjoy about this book are the swerves away from predictable characters. Blacksad stories delve deep into noirish tropes, but while this may be a world of femme fatales, corrupt officials and dark secrets, it's also a world where a tough gang of bikers turn out to be reasonable and helpful; a world where a greasy lawyer can be a good friend and decent guitarist; a world where a tough FBI agent enjoys reading Mad magazine.

Diaz Canales and Guarnido not only love noir, but love the world they've built and the characters they created to inhabit it; that love is infectious! The next Blacksad won't be along for at least a couple of years - but I remain quite pleased to have it at all!