Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jenny vs. The Crime Empire

As mentioned in a previous post, Futura - Chapter 12, there are some recurring creative cliches that irk the heck out of me and ruin my reading or viewing enjoyment. Author Lewis Shiner addresses many of them in his work and I have referenced it previously myself. This entry in My First Book of Noir shtick Jenny vs. The Crime Empire pokes fun at two of the most common and irksome cliches in any action fiction; that of the "Lucky Break" and "The Hostage With Access To Weapons (Who Doesn't Use Them)".

Breaking those tropes is why I found page five of Chapter 12's Futura story so pleasing. Brought into the command center before the tyrant of space, Futura proceeds to beat him near to death with her bare hands. The scene in the fictional Chapter 5 of Jenny vs. The Crime Empire was directly inspired by how I envisioned the initial conference room meeting between captive Rachel Weisz and the evil corporate executive in the film Chain Reaction should have really gone down.

A few pages from the story Jenny vs. The Crime Empire. Originally published in My First Book of Noir (1953).

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Even if it was free, I would feel ripped off

Yeah. I have no idea what I was thinking when I paid money for this cassette tape way back in 1983. I don't even remember what continent I was on the month this was released since I traveled a lot during that period and I was usually drunk most of the time (the benefit and hazard of being young, amoral and with a disposable income coupled with unlimited opportunities for world-wide travel for $10 a ride). I think I was in Italy and there is a vague recollection that the purchase involved a party and trying to get into some girl's favor. Guys do a lot of stupid things when it comes to women. That I still have this in my music collection is bizarre.

I clearly recall a customs agent shaking his head when he saw this cassette in my carry-on bag, but I don't know if I was entering or leaving the US at the time. I'd like to think I was arriving in the States and the disapproval reflected American good taste, but Prince and his various projects were crazy popular back then.

Here's a link to the title track to listen to, if you dare.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Futura - Chapter 12

The overall science fiction themes of Planet Comics typically followed whatever trend was the most popular at the time. Early in the series the stories were verging on the silly, reflecting the Hugo Gernsback-style of science fiction, or "Scientifiction" that was prevalent in the pulps. Space ships were simple reaction rockets that flew through the cloudy, ether-filled space between the stars that arrived at their distant destination in hours. Mysterious rays that performed miraculous feats of destruction were fired with precision from hand-held weapons. Atomic steam powered the giant cities while prop planes soared between monolithic buildings. All very charming and a product of the times. But grumblings among fandom existed even then as readers often complained about the nigh-magical feats of machines and the impossible actions derived from simplified and fanciful physics. These type of complaints from readers would go virtually unanswered for decades until the secrets of how fictional and impossible science worked by a different comic book company that published their Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

As the elements of science fiction evolved so did the various stories in the Planet Comics title as a part of that evolution. The earnest naivete of the pulps gave way to a relative realism as technology prompted greater speculation as to what the future may be like. As the public was increasingly educated as to the true nature of the universe the more wild fictional elements were reigned in and fictional space travel was made ever more local and confined to the greater solar system. The settings of science fiction became more "plausible" even as it remained just as fantastic and impossible.

As the universe became more complex the story elements became inversely simplified. No longer did ships zoom to other galaxies and visit Cymradia or Mongo. Adventurers typically remained within the solar system as there were suddenly plenty of stories to be told featuring the wild, heavily populated planets of Mars, Venus and Saturn. Eventually these ideas would also fall to the wayside as readers recognized that Pellucidar and the feudal Mars of John Carter were unlikely in the "real fictional universes". Currently these problems of unlikelihood are solved by the concept of alternate realities and other dimensions such as DC Comics' Skartaris. The next entry in the Futura Saga from Planet Stories #54 (May 1948) is an example of the evolution towards "unlikely realism" in science fiction. The ideas of far-flung, magical planets like Cymradia are left behind in favor of Space Pirates plying the star lanes of Venus and oppressing the fish-like people of that planet.

Chapter 12 of the Futura Saga finds our heroine continuing her journey into space, fleeing the world she inadvertently helped destroy in Chapter 11. Not having learned anything from her previous efforts to free oppressed people, Futura pledges to aid the Venusians in their struggles against a piratical tyrant. The art is a pleasing step up from the previous chapters and is a return to the style of the early Futura chapters and reminiscent of the Buck Rogers and Prince Valiant strips, though there are more than the usual number of gratuitous Good Girl Art poses than in previous entries.

Happily, Futura does some serious butt-kicking in this chapter. Her fight scene is made made all the more interesting in that it was way back in 1948 that the creators chose to break the tiresome cliche of the "Helpless Captive" that still permeates most action fiction to this day. The cliche of the prisoner who nonetheless has access to weapons but doesn't use them is a sore point for me when watching a movie or reading the scene in a novel or comic book (I'll expound on that after Thanksgiving in a My First Book of Noir post, Jenny vs. The Crime Empire). It is so darn silly and is a sign of lazy scripting and false drama. I rank it right up there with the "Lucky Break" (When the weapon held by the bad guy jams right when he has the drop on the hero).

Page five is an utter delight. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pop Futura

In my browsing for all things Futura I came across an early 1960s jazz album by Bernie Green bearing the same name as the Planet Comics heroine from the Golden Age of comic books. While Bernie Green had a prolific career in television as a musical director and spent decades at rather generic task work he was also a surprising musical innovator. Comic book fans may be familiar with his work if not his name for Mad Magazine as the force behind Musically Mad from 1959.

But it was with Futura as part of the RCA Action series that Bernie Green was breaking ground as he helped introduce Space Age Pop to the listening world and gave me what I am going to call the unofficial theme song for the Planet Comics serial.

Often in these kinds of searches for related items the results have little to do with each other and are unconnected. Yet in this incidence there is a nice crossover between the comic book character from the 1940s and a jazz album from 1960s. Futura the musical arrangement is early Space Age Pop and Futura the comic book character is a space lost science heroine. Both entries in their respective genres have the trappings of, yet do not really embody, a science fiction theme and are experiments in what it was imagined the future might be like but would never evolve to exist.

For your listening pleasure here is a link to the title track of Futura, by Bernie Green and his Orchestra (1961).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Mystery of the Time Chamber!

Before I continue with the Futura Saga I am going to take a break to present a special request appearance of Mysta of the Moon.

Mysta of the Moon
was long-running science fiction adventure serial that ran in Planet Comics from 1945 to 1949. Mysta is perhaps the most consistent serial in regards to art and story quality to have been published by Fiction House. Mysta originally appeared as a young girl in issue #35 of Planet Comics as a victim of the machinations of Mars, the God of War, the star of an early and very popular Planet Comics serial. In those stories, the evil Mars would travel the galaxy and possess different people, forcing them to commit horrific acts and spread terror and strife all in the name of conflict.

Having survived an attempt to destroy her at the end of issue #35 an adult Mysta began her own feature with issue #36, effectively replacing the Mars series with her own. Like many superheroes Mysta, who was now the repository of all knowledge, maintained a secret identity so the public at large would not know she was acting as their savior and defender. In her guise as an older and unappealing librarian, Mysta fought criminals, mutant zombies and solved mysteries with the aid of a deadly, unstoppable robot with which she shared a telepathic link. Mysta eventually abandoned the pretense of a civilian disguise.

Out of all the female characters featured in Planet Comics it is Mysta of the Moon that was the strongest in terms of characterization. Unlike many other contemporary characters Mysta largely stood on her own in her adventures. Typically in almost any comic book tale, while a female would often act as the lead in a story it was not unusual to have a man show up near the end of the tale and take charge, wrapping things up as the female character shed angst-filled thought balloons expressing gratitude and unrequited love. Among the Planet Comics entries this was most common among the Gale Allen serial. Mysta, being the most intelligent person in the Universe, would have none of that. Anyone interested in researching a good example of early female empowerment in comic books could do worse than reading the Mysta of the Moon series.

Planet Comics #52 (January 1948) features Mysta using time travel to defeat the menace of brain-sucking plants. The story also gives a nice recap of her origin with only an oblique reference to the original Mars story.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

Futura - Chapter 11

Superficially, Science Fiction is about life in the future. But the idea behind the genre is more complex. In spite of the trappings of things to come science fiction is almost always about the present and it is often, even unintentionally, used to enlighten or warn the present day reader. The alien threats to a society from without typically represent the greater fear of a threat from within. There are exceptions of course. Sometimes there is no deeper meaning and the story is about nothing more than cowboys in outer space.

One of the many ideas that the science fiction creator attempts to relate to an audience is that often messiahs are hazardous to your health. It is a recurring theme in all types of fiction and as human history has so repeatedly proven, it has more than a bit of truth to it. This is painfully evident to the slaves of Pan-Cosmos in the eleventh chapter of the Futura Saga from Planet Comics #53 (March 1948) as they learn the road to Cymradia is paved with good intentions. This story not only marks the finale to the mediocre "Magic Sword" story arc but also some elements of the original settings as well. The teaser on the final page of this installment promises a new direction for Futura though it really is more of a return to the original idea to be found at the beginning of the series.

Note: If you want to be all Wold-Newton about it, the next time the Cymradians show up is in Marvel Spotlight #7 (July 1980). An encyclopedic knowledge of comic books is not only a great power but a curse as well.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Born with nothing and raised on lots more of the same

One of my favorite used book stores closed down a few weeks ago. There are two other good used book outlets remaining in San Diego but the one that closed had the greatest selection and the highest turnover in stock. The remaining store closest to me is kind of stuffy and the one downtown is run by a couple of sharp operators who know the real value of books and have an internet presence to exploit sales, something the one that closed and the other remaining store did not take advantage of. I blame all of you for not reading enough books in print to support it. Shame on you.

The upside to the store closing was being able to snag lots of books that I otherwise thought were too pricey on previous visits at substantial discounts. The W. B. Huie paperbook below, in spite of the visible wear, was still out of my sane price range until the day of the closing sale. Unaware the store was shutting down I had made my usual pilgrimage there and had gathered up a bunch of books and pulp magazines. I was fully prepared to pay full price for them. Instead the proprietor quoted me a cost of seven dollars for the pile. I felt like I was ripping him off and protested, offering more but he declined. I suspect he wanted to avoid the cost of shipping and storing leftover stock and knew the collectibles were going to a good home.

Yay for me!
So represented here are the front and back covers featuring the classic and perhaps most famous cover art by Robert A. Maguire for the novel The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956 re-issue). The book was re-released in conjunction with the movie of the same name featuring Jane Russell. The book is a good read and far more honest about Mamie than the rather sanitized film. The Maguire image on the cover is one of the inspirations for the pulp noir character of Diamond Bomb.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Futura - Chapter 10

This installment of the Futura Saga from Planet Comics #52 (January 1948) continues the "Magic Sword" story. The cover is another fine example of the Good Girl Art school of marketing so common to the pulps and other popular printed media of the time. The inclusion of the penis-dentata monster and the coloring detail highlighting the "fun zones" of the distressed damsel make the cover noteworthy above and beyond the usual Fiction House covers.

While the Futura story delves however superficially into the complex aspect of the character as being the Resurrection and Savior of the Pan-Cosmos slaves the art is reduced to simple and uninspired 6 panel layouts. The demon-like Cymridians and their leader, Mentor are more comical than dangerous, appearing as troublesome gremlins underfoot that no one knows how to eradicate. The "Magic Sword" story arc effectively ruined the Brain-Men of Pan-Cosmos as villains and the threat and plot impetus they once posed is left behind soon enough. After this arc concludes the early fantastical "Scientifiction" aspects of the serial changes to become reminiscent of a more mature mix of Robert A. Heinlein and Alex Raymond. Out of all the features in this issue of Planet Comics it is Futura that is the most disappointing and this is due mainly to the comparisons to the far more intricate story and line work of the previous and later chapters.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Risque Business

Note the bit of leg showing above the stockings. This was considered mature reading material back in the 1930s.
Follies Magazine (Winter 1933).

Monday, November 09, 2009

Futura - Chapter 9

Chapter 9 is where I go on record stating that the Futura Saga goes off the rails for a a few chapters before finding its way again. The art becomes far more simplistic and more in line with a standard comic book style of the era. Readers of Futura can readily observe a gradual decrease in the complexity of the line art over the length of the series up to this point and it is in this chapter starting in Planet Comics #51 (November 1947) where it adopts the most obvious economical style.

The story also veers into a more magical, dream-like episode that continues for several more chapters. There are still elements of the original space opera to be found but they give way to more fantastic ideas as Futura becomes the central figure in a magical prophecy. I am not a fan of the prophecy driven story as it has long since become a predictable and lazy part of any hero's journey on the part of the creator. The idea of destiny replacing motivation is something of a tired trope and easy plot device.

The ensuing couple of chapters are also what may be perceived as a serious creative misstep, something that would prove disappointing if included in any hardbound collection. The Futura Saga would not be complete without it but would the most jarring part of the overall story. It is these chapters that make Futura more of a comic book curiosity than a true classic.

Interestingly, the creative team may have not thought much of this particular story arc, either. The first installment after the "Magic Sword" story ends finds Futura in a spaceship hurtling through space and in much the same circumstances as the end of Chapter 8. The prophecy story line only lasts a few chapters and this allows readers to effectively ignore it and continue with the original and far more interesting space opera theme of the Futura Saga if they so choose.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Look out! A Redhead!

While Redheads don't always carry guns, they are always dangerous. And much like guns, should always be treated as if they are fully loaded and have a hair-trigger.

Inside Detective (July 1946).

Friday, November 06, 2009

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Card #42

Show your work.

Kodansha Lace Knitting Cards #42 (v2, 1963).

Your dog saved my baby

It is the heart-warming story that sells it for me.

Western Life Romances (December 1949).

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Futura is Now!

It has been quite a while since I posted a chapter of the late-1940s Planet Comics serial, Futura. The reasons for not continuing her saga are partly exhaustion, partly the odd change of direction in the story and partly due to the fact that the original resources for the images were of such poor quality that posting the images would be a disappointment if not to a reader than to myself. The work involved in cleaning up the images would be an exercise in diminishing returns.

But I really like the story and when revisiting it recently I decided to continue posting the series. For those of you not familiar with Futura here is a quick summary:

Futura is the story of a secretary kidnapped by aliens in order to provide superior genetic material for their dying race. Futura, however, rebels and escapes her captors, vowing to make her way in the cosmos while fighting to bring down the evil masters of the galaxy.

The story of Futura is part John Carter of Mars and part Buck Rogers all framed within what may or may not be an elaborate dream. For the most part the Futura Saga does not use the typical cliches of the dream scenario to cheat a reader out of the story experience. The creators also forego the usual attempts to exploit cheesecake imagery common to popular culture of the time though there are plenty of examples of "Good Girl Art" in the series. Futura joins such creations as Mysta and Gale Allen as strong leading women characters of the era not dependent upon a male to move the story along. Various Fiction House creators worked on the series during the decade long run in Planet Comics.
Here are the first eight chapters of the Futura Saga so you can get all caught up:

Futura - Chapter 1

Futura - Chapter 2

Futura - Chapter 3

Futura - Chapter 4

Futura - Chapter 5

Futura - Chapter 6

Futura - Chapter 7

Futura - Chapter 8

And for background here is everything else Futura-related, including the exploitative and short-lived 1980s revival of the character: Everything Futura on Lady, That's My Skull.

Chapter 9 coming soon!