Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Don't Panic!

This month at the Dojo it's all about outer space. But outer space with sarcastic bent. I'm currently reading The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which includes all five novels by Douglas Adams along with a solo short story, detailing the misadventures of Arthur Dent, the last human being left after out dear planet Earth is demolished to make way for an intergalactic bypass. He is saved from destruction by an alien named Ford Prefect who just happens to work for The Hitchhiker's Guide the Galaxy, and uses its copious information to explain (or confuse) the proceedings.  

This snarky bit of weirdness struck a nerve in the 1980's and resulted in several radio plays, novels. albums, a television show, and a big-screen film. I'm tuning up my "Babel Fish" and planning to imbibe as much raw Hitchhiker's Guide as I can in the merry month February. I will issue frequent reports.

While I'm in orbit with that project I also want to read some vintage Adam Strange stories from the pages of DC's Showcase and Mysteries in Space. Adam Strange was written Gardner Fox and drawn by Mike Sekowsky and later by Carmine Infantino. The folks on the planet Rann can always count on Adam to appear regularly thanks to the Zeta Beam and save them the barrage of menaces which seem always poised to attack. 

On the Marvel side of things, we have classic Starlord. Peter Quinn, now famous in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, began as delightful shout out to the classic space opera heroes of decades past. Art by the likes of John Byrne and (ironically) Carmine Infantino make these some savory Bronze Age classics. 

And a book I have had for quite a spell, but have never gotten around to is Don Simpson's space epic Border Worlds. This saga originally appeared in comic books from Kitchen Sink and give us Don Simpson fans a look into the Megaton Man creator's more serious side. 

And in between those all-new posts I'll be reaching back into the most remote corners of the Dojo to dust off and revise some other space related items. Space Eagle from Whitman books was a childhood favorite in particular. 

On my TV screen this month will be a lot of episodes of Space:1999. I had to replace my original set of DVD's when they started acting up. This new set looks cleaner overall. Likely I will not have time to revisit the comic books from Charlton. 

So "Don't Panic!" The Dojo will be celebrating one of the most delicious entertainments of the 80's this month, and a bit more. 

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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun!

It's just barely possible I saw Journey to the Far Side of the Sun in the theater in 1969. I have some nagging memory of that, but no certainty. I've long wanted to get another look at, especially in light of rediscovering so many great Gerry Anderson productions such as UFO, Space:1999 and Captain Scarlet and the MysteronsThunderbirds among others to my collection.

This movie was called Doppleganger in Europe, a name which has a proper mystery to it and of course points quickly the theme of the flick which features many of the classic Anderson touches. After years of puppets on television the Andersons wanted to break into live action and especially into film. They certainly the technical chops for it, but as this movie demonstrates, there's a lack of thematic depth which holds the work back.

The story is a simple enough affair. A new planet is discovered on the far side of the Sun in 2069 and Eurosec director Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark) wants to send men there, but it costs a lot of money. To fool the U.S. into being the sugar daddy for the operation, Webb allows the secret discovery to fall into the hands of the Soviets. This triggers a team up between Europe (Britain really) and the U.S. with Roy Thinnes showing up as ace astronaut Colonel Glenn Ross. Along with Ian Hendry in the role of Dr.John Kane, the two train then eventually head to the new planet. Crashing upon a arrival they discover that the world they have arrived at seems almost like the one they left.

This movie is a wonderfully quiet and technically sound presentation of space flight. The characters are by and large restrained with just enough personal intrigue to tell them apart. The movie seems to want to tap into the 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe with some psychedelic sequences and an ending which really does evoke the classic Kubrick space opera. The biggest problem with this movie is that the payoff doesn't really measure up to the build-up. The discovery is curious, but doesn't seem to sufficiently challenge the protagonists enough to make me really care about their fates. It's all a bit too low key all the time.

This is a beautifully fabricated movie, but it sadly lacks enough of a point to make it elevate to a really rich viewing experience. If I actually did see this movie when it came out, I'm realizing why it left such a vague memory.

NOTE: This is a Dojo Revised Classic Post.  

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Monday, January 30, 2023

Night Raven - From The Marvel UK Vaults!

Where Brooding Darkness 
Spreads Its Evil Wings 
The Night Raven Stings!

That is the mysterious and ominous message left by Night Raven after he's put an end to some injustice he comes across in his nightly patrols in the big city. It's the olden times of crime run wild in the streets as honest men and women must pay protection to keep the wolves from their throats. Extortionists, robbers and murderers prowl the night, but they are not alone. The Night Raven is an avenger in the style of the classic pulp heroes who hidden behind his mask stalks the villainy that makes civilized life so difficult. His adventures are gathered together in Night Raven - From the UK Vaults. 

Created by Dez Skinn, the character's adventures were written by Steve Parkhouse and drawn by David Lloyd. Lloyd had yet to create his masterpiece V for Vendetta when this strip started in the back pages of Hulk Comic in 1979. The stories are short punchy events told in three-page snapshots. In the earliest yarns the Night Raven, who is given no origin nor any secret identity, puts stop to gangsters seeking them out in their haunts as they play cards or hide. He hunts them down when they try to run protection scams on innocent shopkeepers and murder to enforce their terror. In later tales he is hunted down by a paid assassin but is able to win the day barely in the end. Lloyd drew all these tales, but artist John Bolton takes over when Night Raven goes up against a "Dragon Lady" and her deadly Tong. As masterful as Bolton is, Lloyd's version of the character is definitive to my eye. Borrowing shtick from the pulp hero The Spider (slapping deadly brands on the foreheads of criminals), this comic book character is in the grand tradition of The Shadow. 

I first read the adventures of Night Raven in the 1990 Marvel Graphic Novel which gathered his first adventures from the pages of Hulk Comic numbers one through twenty. It's a slim read, coming in at a mere sixty pages. Since that time a new graphic novel has been created as well as other appearances of Night Raven as a guest star. But this is clearly a character who works best in his original milieu, the savage streets of a city writhing with crime. 

I didn't really have much of an idea what had happened to the Night Raven in the prose pages of many British publications. The idea of a comic was abandoned and driving right the roots of the character, his nightly adventures were presented in prose form with spot illustrations. These are grity stories, deep in character. Stories are told form multiple viewpoints, almost never Night Raven's. We see his deadly struggle against crime as things get more brutal. We learn that he is poisoned by his arch-enemy but that the poison also gives him immortality but at the cost of immense pain. We follow Night Raven through the decades, as he struggles to keep his sanity and fulfill his mission. There are stories by the likes of Alan Moore and Jamie Delano, among others. These were of surprising quality as I'm used to dismissing text in comics, but here are solid noir tales that would've been welcomed in many a pulp magazine back in the day. 

I came to this collection because of the great comics, but I recommend it mostly now because of the outstanding short stories. 

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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Joe 90 - The Complete Collection!

As far as I can tell I've wrapped up my most recent exploration of the Gerry Anderson TV shows. It's been a weird and wonderful trip for the most part, as I've moved beyond my boyhood fascination with Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Stingray to examine not only Space:1999 and UFO (two shows I also watched on the tube) but also Thunderbirds, Fireball XL-5, and Supecar. There was one pure "Supermarionation" show left and despite it looking decidedly sleepy I rolled the dice and picked up Joe 90. Overall I'm glad I did.

(Joe 90 in BIG RAT)

This is show which has some significant flaws but there's enough of the Anderson studio magic to make it worthwhile. Joe 90 is in fact a nine-year old boy named Joe McClaine who becomes the subject of his scientist Dad's experiments in brain manipulation. Sounds pretty gruesome put that way, but in some significant ways this is a gruesome show. The setting is the early 21st Century and the world is united under a single sprawling government and policed to some extent by W.I.N. (World Intelligence Network) who are represented in the series by Agent Sam Loover and Commander Shane Weston. Using a trippy device dubbed BIG RAT (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer) to transfer the brain patterns of one human into the brain of another Doctor Ian McClaine attempts to move science ahead. Instead his son gets fixed for the affair and after that becomes a double agent, often called a "Most Special Agent" because who would believe a nine year old was a deadly secret agent. Lots of high tech hijinks ensue and we have a show.

(Sam Loover, Dr. McClaine and Joe)

But it's a pretty sleepy show and after the first several episodes the special nature of Joe gets lost a lot. Why he's called "Joe 90" is open to debate but it's a name Gerry Anderson cottoned to. Joe saves people from deadly scenarios (Thunderbirds) fights deadly foreign agents (Captain Scarlet) and jets around in a nifty futuristic car of his Dad's design which looks like nothing else on the road and flies to boot (Supercar). In fact of all the shows this late 60's show resembles to me was Supercar, though seeming to add more sophisticated characterization with more human-like puppets. Sadly they end up having less character than the zany cartoonish Supercar characters and prove in the end to be less compelling.

(The Jet-Air Car)

Captain Scarlet looked similar but was driven by a heavy dark atmosphere and a high-tech continued threat which gave it an epic quality. Joe 90 is more episodic and the danger while often lethal feels less robust. Joe does in fact shoot and kill a few folks along the way, something I imagine would raise some hackles these days. Some have suggested this is a boy's fantasy and I'm good with that as a general premise, but it doesn't make the show any better for being correctly identified. This one falls into the near-miss category for me, full of some interesting spectacle from time to time, but laboring under some rather dull lead characters.

Still and all it was diverting and even a weaker Anderson show is still a cut above many others.

NOTE: This is a Dojo Revised Classic Post. 

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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Miracleman Book Four: The Golden Age!

I confess that when I first began my journey to revisit the Miracleman stories, it was not my intent to read the Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham stories which comprised Book Four. Given the title The  Golden Age, these stories are wildly different from the stories concocted by Moore and his artists. These are short stories, one-off tales about normal humans among others who are trying find a life in this "Golden Age" brought on by the advent of superpowered beings who have eliminated war and poverty among other things. This is a utopian world but as you might suspect not everyone is filled with joy. 

We meet a man who lost his family to Johnny Bates known as Kid Miracleman wreaked havoc in the center of London. He is on a quest to ask for a miracle. We listen to another young man who escaped that same destruction through sheer luck and is trying to make sense of that. We meet another fellow who has a romantic affair with the ideal woman -- Miraclewoman. He learns that perfection is not all it's cracked up to be. We sneak a peek at some youngsters who have weirdly made a hero of Bates, a perverse attitude all too common in our world. We visit the underworld run by the Qys where an undead Andy Warhol makes friends with the resurrected Emil Gargunza. We spy on a woman who is losing her family but trying to still makes some sense of this perfect world. We read a fable of Miracleman's daughter Winter and how she went into deep space to have adventures. We follow a young woman who thinks she's a spy in a dark grim world where the sun never shines, and rain is perpetual. She too must see a new truth. And finally, these characters, those that can, assemble in a celebration which ends in them being given the gift of flight. 

Deep stuff. Not to be approached lightly, but while I won't pretend I understood it all, I found I was indeed fascinated by much of it. Glad I took the plunge. Below are the original coves for the Eclipse Comics run from the early 90's and after that the covers for the more recent reprints from Marvel.

Gaiman and Buckingham weren't done with Miracleman though. They started a saga dubbed "The Silver Age" which was to tell the story of Miracleman seeking his lost ally Young Miracleman. Two installments were done in the early 90's and then it stopped when Eclipse itself ceased to exist. 

(I actually bought the original two issues on the strength of the Barry Windsor-Smith covers. Those lurk in my long boxes somewhere or other.) The characters then fell into the clutches of Todd McFarlane and thus began the lawsuits which froze the character for years until Marvel was able to gather them up. Gaiman and Buckingham have been finishing this tale in recent times and when it's collected. I hope to grab hold and read it also. 

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Friday, January 27, 2023

Captain Scarlet - The Complete Collection!

Just spent a few wonderful days in the early part of this new year enjoying the classic Gerry Anderson "Supermarionation" adventure show Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. This is one from my childhood, a classic TV entertainment which seared a spot in my noggin and never left. The classic opening has reverberated in my imagination for decades. 
The show followed quickly upon the success of Thunderbirds, but offered up puppets with more lifelike proportions and a storyline with a darker, sometimes even adult tone. It's this latter aspect which I think made this show stick with me. This was grim stuff at times. The premise is that in 2068 an Earth expedition led by Captain Black of the Spectrum organization happens across the alien Mysteron base on Mars and wrongfully attacks it. The Mysterons though have technology which can recuperate from destruction and death itself and do so, pledging at the same time to wage an unending "war of nerves" on the Earth in general and Spectrum in specific.

What makes their attacks so grim is that they use revived humans and equipment to wage their war. The invisible Mysterons first kill you (usually with vehicular homicide), then revive you and have you serve them slavishly. That's rough stuff. I was reminded this time of the ludicrous movie Plan 9 From Outer Space which sought to revive the dead to wage war on the Earth, and thought to myself how Captain Scarlet sort of actually follows through with this plan.

The first Mysteron agent is Captain Black himself, who looks zombie enough most of the time, a pale grim figure shown weekly lurking in a graveyard. He plots, then Spectrum blocks or not. The good guys don't always win on this show, and that's rugged territory for what is supposed to be a kid's show.

Captain Scarlet himself is something of a rogue Mysteron agent. In the first episode he is killed and revived, but circumstances cause him to revert to his heroic pose but armored with an indestructible nature. He dies more than a few times during the series, but always returns to fight another day. He is assisted by Captain Blue and the other agents of Spectrum, all led by Colonel White. Beautiful women called Angels are a constant flying circus protecting Cloud Base, a giant airborne aircraft carrier. From this high-tech location the unending Mysteron war is waged.

It's a tight premise, and the half-hour episodes are told with skill and supreme craftsmanship. The editing on a show like this is crucial and the story is rarely muddled and a great deal is jammed into a small space. This makes for brisk and enjoyable entertainment. I will admit that in certain moments the show does resemble Ken and Barbie playing spy, but most of the time, the creators are able to avoid that pitfall. This is a smart snappy show with more than a gram of wit.

It's a precursor of sorts to the later Anderson live-action show UFO which also has Earth engaged in a battle with mysterious aliens, this time led by the secret SHADO organization. There are more than a few similarities between these shows, almost making you think UFO is Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons done in the live-action format.

If you haven't seen Captain Scarlet, I heartily recommend it. It's pure entertainment.

NOTE: This is a Dojo Revised Classic Post. 

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Thursday, January 26, 2023

Space Trilogy - That Hideous Strength!

In contrast to the two previous installments of the "Space Trilogy" the story of That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups is set on Earth (or Thulcandra as it's also known in the trilogy). The action concerns a group of college academics who are lured into becoming part of a dangerous conflict between two philosophies. Out the Silent Planet evoked First Men to the Moon by H.G. Wells. and Perelandra brought to mind Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsey, while That Hideous Strength seems to evoke the kind of sci-fi and fantasy menace which was a staple of the Quatermass yarns a decade later.  The story begins in the most mundane way at a college filled with the abstracted minds which populate such establishments plodding through their lives and workdays filled with small dramas and noisome struggles. 

We follow a married couple who are headed in different directions. Mark is the husband, an up-and-coming member of a small rustic college who is playing the game of politics which seem to be a part of all aspects of human life. He is a man who celebrates modern ideas and notions and imagines that human beings can be made better with the proper guidance and environment. His wife Jane, also an intellectual is left behind somewhat in the wake of Mark's ambitions but begins to have dreams which turn out to be both prophetic and true. She is taken in by a group who stand in opposition to NICE, an atheistic organization with a disdain for individual suffering in the cause of making mankind something else. Mark has been scooped up by NICE and promised power. How these two people react to the problems and threats they encounter is the core of the story. 

This much longer story is connected to his prequels when the protagoniist of those novels shows up at last in this story, playing a rather different role. That Hideous Strength is a novel which seems longer than it needs to be. Much of what happens in the first one hundred pages is not unimportant, but could've been collapsed into a shorter span. Certainly, Lewis had some reason for treating us to intentionally bland meetings of college professionals, a dreary crowd of graspers who celebrate intellect as much as they seem to have disdain for their fellow man. The notions of Christianity are celebrated (no surprise there of course) but combined with a strange acceptance of pagan worship (the resurrection of Merlin being one instance). The battle here is not between Christian and pagan, but between a world view in which there is more than man and one in which there is not. I'll let you read the book if you choose to see who prevails. 

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