Sunday, June 30, 2013

B'wana Beast!

I have no earthly idea what prompted the creation of B'Wana Beast, one of the strangest characters ever to erupt onto the comics world. He appeared in two issues of DC's venerable Showcase and then was seen no more...almost. He appears to be a blend of classic jungle action and superhero craziness, cross of Tarzan and the Phantom. He's strange right down to the logo.

I never owned these two B'wana Beast comics, but I was transfixed by the ads for his debut. Like so many DC characters, which are peculiar and odd, there is a fundamental dynamic which is nonetheless fascinating. Created by Bob Haney and Mike Sekowsky, two of DC's most iconoclastic creators, B'wana Beast has a handsome pedigree   Apparently his "superpower" was the ability to communicate with animals and to blend two animals into one creature. It was an idea ideal for the visual feast of comics, but it was at best a limited notion.

B'wana disappears for years and years before surfacing during the Crisis on Infinite Earths alongside every other DC hero.

He did get a try-out of sorts in DC's offbeatChallenge comic, which featured scores of characters in a bonanza of weird stories by a gaggle of DC creators.

He shows up in Animal Man for a few issues, even making the cover once. This is a typically handsome Brian Bolland effort and makes the most of the design mess which was B'wana Beast.

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Coming Of Red Wolf!

Neal Adams
One of my single favorite comic book characters is Red Wolf. A rough and tumble Native American hero, Red Wolf is beset by many but not all the stereotypes which come with that pop culture territory. Johnny Wakely was an oddity when he debuted in the 1971 premiere issue of Marvel Spotlight. Not only was he an ethnic minority hero but his story was set in the West, the first new Western Marvel had launched in several years at that time.

Gardner Fox, recently departed from his long tenure at DC took on the writing reins of this venture ably assisted by Syd Shores, a longtime veteran of the Marvel Bullpen, most fondly remembered these days for his lush inking jobs. That first issue was inked by Wally Wood no less, giving this first story of the Western Red Wolf an excellent pedigree when it came to raw talent.

John Buscema & Tom Palmer
The character of Red Wolf was created by Roy Thomas in an outstanding issue of The Avengers drawn by John Buscema and Tom Palmer. The Red Wolf of this tale was Will Talltrees, a modern man drawn to his traditional roots by circumstances and the criminality of Cornelius Van Lundt, a villain who would prove to become an Avengers mainstay.

Partnered with is feral comrade Lobo, Red Wolf stalked the brick and mortar canyons of the Big Apple in search of justice. He is eventually assisted by the Avengers and after much derring and do established for future stories. They don't come for a very long time. Instead the idea is to take the character back to the Old West. After the success of the single try-out issue, Red Wolf is launched as new self-titled comic in the Marvel line-up.

Gil Kane & John Severin
Gil Kane
Syd Shores
Syd Shores
Gil Kane
Syd Shores
Featuring stories by Fox, and artwork by Shores under covers by Shores and Gil Kane, the series rambled along for six issues before abruptly the action switched off to the present day. Red Wolf went by the name of Thomas Thunderhead, but presumably this is an alias used by Will Talltrees, or so the ret-cons would have us believe.

Rich Buckler & Joe Sinnott
Ron Wilson, John Romita & Joe Sinnott
Ron Wilson, John Romita & Mike Esposito
Alas after just three more issues the comic book was cancelled and Red Wolf, both vintage and modern would disappear into the mists of Marvel mythology. He shows up now and again, bott in the modern era as a guest-star in Tigra's short-lived series and part of the short-lived team the Rangers, and in the Old West alongside other Marvel stars like Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and others.

Red Wolf  was a hero on his own, no Tonto looking for a kimosabe here.

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Enter Doctor Nikola!

Last summer when I was first beginning my reading of the misadventures of Doctor Fu-Manchu, my research turned up a name I'd never encountered before,  Doctor Nikola, master villain and the creation of popular and prolific Australian author Guy Boothby. Used to kick off  the publicaton of Windstor Magazine, a rival of the more famous and popular Strand Magazine, Nikola was a successful venture appearing ultimately in five novels. As pictured above, you can see he is a striking figure. A mysterious figure of odd olive skin, slick black hair, and magnetic eyes, the Doctor is rarely seen without his constant companion Apollyon, a massive cat which the Doctor often strokes as he plots and schemes.

We first meet Doctor Nikola in the prologue of the 1895 novel A Bid For Fortune (sometimes titled Enter Doctor Nikola). He is described in the prologue and he meets his trio of henchmen named Eastover, Baxter, and Pendergast. He then disappears into the background of his own debut, very much in the manner of Fu-Manchu, manipulating events and appearing mysteriously from time to time as his gang plot to pressure an English lord to turn over an enigmatic Chinese artifact. There is abundant kidnapping, sufficient fisticuffs, high-minded romance, and expansive travel across the globe as we learn Nikola's scheme, or seem to.

The hero and narrator of the novel is Richard Hatteras, an Anglo-Australian (like Boothby himself) of sharp mind and able body who has risen up by his own hard work  to become a reasonably successful sailor and businessman. A side plot of the story has him become an English lord in a somewhat Dickensian fashion. He meets the love of his life, the daughter of Lord Weatherly, and while he and Phyllis romance one another Nikola's scheme unfolds around them. The novel depends a great deal on coincidence to make the plot work, a bit too much really, but not unlike Edgar Rice Burroughs, Boothby keeps the action moving quickly enough that you don't linger on these weaknesses.

Here is my favorite passage from the novel which describes Nikola's lair:

     "To begin with, round the walls were arranged, at regular intervals, more than a dozen enormous bottles, each of which contained what looked, to me, only too much like human specimens pickled in some light-coloured fluid resembling spirits of wine. Between these gigantic but more than horrible receptacles were numberless smaller ones, holding other and even more dreadful remains; while on pedestals and stands, bolt upright and reclining, were skeletons of men, monkeys, and quite a hundred sorts of animals. The intervening spaces were filled with skulls, bones, and the apparatus for every kind of murder known to the fertile brain of man. There were European rifles, revolvers, bayonets, and swords; Italian stilettos, Turkish scimitars, Greek knives, Central African spears and poisoned arrows, Zulu knobkerries, Afghan yataghans, Malay krises, Sumatra blow-pipes, Chinese dirks, New Guinea head-catching implements, Australian spears and boomerangs, Polynesian stone hatchets, and numerous other weapons the names of which I cannot now remember. Mixed up with them were implements for every sort of wizardry known to the superstitious; from old-fashioned English love charms to African Obi sticks, from spiritualistic planchettes to the most horrible of Fijian death potions.

     In the centre of the wall, opposite to where we stood, was a large fireplace of the fashion usually met with in old English manor-houses, and on either side of it a figure that nearly turned me sick with horror. That on the right hand was apparently a native of Northern India, if one might judge by his dress and complexion. He sat on the floor in a constrained attitude, accounted for by the fact that his head, which was at least three times too big for his body, was so heavy as to require an iron tripod with a ring or collar in the top of it to keep it from overbalancing him and bringing him to the floor. To add to the horror of this awful head, it was quite bald; the skin was drawn tensely over the bones, and upon this veins stood out as large as macaroni stems.

     On the other side of the hearth was a creature half-ape and half-man—the like of which I remember once to have seen in a museum of monstrosities in Sydney, where, if my memory serves me, he was described upon the catalogue as a Burmese monkey-boy. He was chained to the wall in somewhat the same fashion as we had been, and was chattering and scratching for all the world like a monkey in a Zoo.

     But, horrible as these things were, the greatest surprise of all was yet to come. For, standing at the heavy oaken table in the centre of the room, was a man I should have known anywhere if I had been permitted half a glance at him. It was Dr. Nikola."

There is an oddly open ending to the novel which then moves rather neatly into the second Nikola story published a year later and titled simply Doctor Nikola Returns. In this story the narrator is one Wilfred Bruce, an Englishman who has traveled extensively in China and parts similar acquiring a reputation which brings him to the attention of Doctor Nikola. Nikola hires Bruce to go with him under cover disguised as natives into the heart of China to find, at the danger of their own lives, the location of a legendary monastery where the ultimate secrets of life and death and more are reputedly to be discovered. Nikola is much more front and center in this story, so much so that he and Bruce work together throughout. Nikola comes across as a ruthless, but oddly loyal and strangely honorable man who at times seems more  the hero of the narrative rather than a villain.

We see in this story more of Nikola's talents, especially his mesmerism, the ability to hypnotize his adversaries. It is suggested that Nikola has occult powers of other kinds, though these never come into play. Nikola is a truly grotesque character in a strangely weird world into which we get to travel for a time. Always you get the sense that you are only getting a glimpse of what is really going on and what is really at stake.

Both of these novels have been neatly collected by Wordworth Publications in the volume Dr Nikola Master Criminal. The two novels offer up a splendid yarn which moves along swiftly, especially the second one. In Nikola we meet a character who would've been a most worthy opponent for Sherlock Holmes, an extremely intelligent villain who treats his opponents according to his own peculiar code and who is possessed of no small amount of will and ambition.

Nikola would appear in three more novels, and presumably more would have been written had not Boothby died in 1905. As it stands, Doctor Nikola might well be one of the great literary creations few of us have heard about. 

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Friday, June 28, 2013

Shadow Of The Hound!

This fascinating cover by Bob Powell for this 1948 is of Street and Smith's Shadow Comics is a compelling image in its own right.

But it's been suggested and seems credible that it was also the inspiration for this iconic Jim Steranko cover for the third issue of the 1968 series Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.  Learn something new all the time.

And here's a close gander at Steranko's original for that fantastic cover. His work is even more impressive in black and white where the subtle line work is more apparent.

Above is the blood-drenched opening splash page from the story title "Dark Moon Rise, Hell Hound Kill!". To read the complete story (which I've featured here a few times), check out this fog-drenched link.

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Barbers Of Comicville!

Here is a gaggle of curious comic book covers showcasing sundry characters getting stylish haircuts or nice close shaves, or something like that. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lair Of The White Worm!

Bram Stoker's Lair of the White Worm is one of those stories I've been meaning to read for decades, but for whatever reason never got around to. I recently corrected that oversight. Having recently re-read Dracula and The Jewel of the Seven Stars, it's interesting to compare this last Stoker novel to its predecessors. To begin with, it's not as good. The immediate weakness is the narrative point of view which is not anyone of the characters, but rather the sturdy omniscient. This gives us ready access to the details, but undermines the tension of the unfolding events.

Briefly those events are these. A young man named Adam Salton inherits an old estate and finds that his neighbors include two beautiful young girls named Lilla and Mimi, cousins by complicated family back story, but essentially sisters. One of these he falls in love with of course. There is another new man in the community Edgar Caswell, the Lord of the surrounding territory who returns to his family's estates after generations of neglect and proves to be an odd, eccentric, and dangerous fellow. He is accompanied by a black African sorcerer named Oolonga to boot. The oddest neighbor though is Lady Arabella Marsh, who it turns out is the titular White Worm herself.

The biggest weakness in this peculiar and at times fascinating tale is the almost complete lack of suspense. The mystery of the White Worm is revealed almost immediately and as fantastic as the notion is that a mere woman can transform into a gigantic ancient monster, it is swallowed fairly readily by our hero thanks to the help of Nathaniel Adam, a family friend and a man of no limited experience. The two of them conspire to end the threat of the Worm which seems to be preying on the surrounding populace, though admittedly at an astonishingly low rate. They constantly see the slithering threat, but seem strangely unmoved by it.

Dealing with the threat of Lady Arabella is often delayed so that our heroes can tussle with Caswell, a man overcome with the notions of Mesmerism and who seems intent on bending Lilla to his will.  Arabella wants the rich Lord for herself, and so she too wants Lilla out of the way. The book tumbles along with these basic conflicts for several chapters before finally getting around to a conclusion which does satisfy eventually, though the details are pretty ramshackle in pure terms of plotting. A lot of illogical stuff has to happen for events to coincide as they do. 

I kept thinking as I read the story that it could've been so much better if certain details were not so openly revealed and largely confirmed. The heroes drink down the reality of Arabella in one chapter then seem reluctant to believe it the next. They twiddle their thumbs as danger mounts, though they identify the danger almost immediately. Holding off that identification would've given the story some suspense and made the heroes seem less indifferent to the suffering around them.

There's a lot that's been speculated about this story's ripe symbolism and how it reveals Stoker's fundamental hatred and possible dread of women. There might be something to that, so on that level it might be unsettling. A weird woman who becomes a giant white snake that slithers into a smelly dank well might raise some hackles indeed, but it's just a queasy image in the end and doesn't add up to much. 

This is a nicely lurid story with a proper monster, but sadly the presentation makes a bit of a hash of the ability to fully appreciate what is unfolding.

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