Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Spinner Rack Flashback: DC Comics Presents #59

DC Comics Presents #59

Cover Date: July 1983
On Sale Date: April 7 1983
Editor Julius Schwartz
Cover Artists Giffen/DeCarlo

Story Title:  "Ambush Bug II"
Plotter/Penciller: Keith Giffen
Scripter: Paul Levitz
Inker: Kurt Schaffenberger
Letterer: Ben Oda
Colorist: Carl Gafford

Trey: This post debuts a new feature here on the Flashback Universe blog. Jason and I thought we'd take a break of watching old TV shows and get into...reading old comics! Which, I have been doing a lot of anyway. In it, we're going to discuss some comic, probably from the Bronze Age.  First up, the second appearance of Ambush Bug.

Jason: Trey, as the only person I know who has undertaken a systematic reading of DC Comics' output in the years leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, you are uniquely positioned to speak to this issue in relation the slow transition from the late Bronze Age to whatever comes next.

While merely an okay, readable, perhaps entirely forgettable comic of its day, I think there are at least tonal elements that mark it as (slightly) ahead of its time. Am I all wet?

Trey: Having read every other comic DC put out that week (and the week after for that matter) I can say these Ambush Bug appearances are atypical. I think that's down to Giffen (Ambush Bug's creator) taking his first forays into writing.

Jason: It feels like Giffen stands on the precipice of nailing down a humorous approach to superhero comics that will see fruition several years later in his highly successful Justice League run (written in collaboration with J. M. Dematteis). The arch tone is in place, but this is an early attempt.

Trey: I think you are right, though first he's going to go to his more overtly comedic collaborations with Robert Loren Flemming in the Ambush Bug limited series.

Jason: Do you think Giffen's use of humor is, in part, a tribute to or revival of the light, sometimes wacky sensibilities of DCs Silver Age?

Trey: That's an interesting question. I'm tempted to say no to revival, but I do think there's is a bit of celebration in its goofiness at a time when comics were becoming more serious. Unlike later works which will try to rehabilitate it, though, I think here in the 80s the approach of doing that seems to be to (lovingly perhaps) make fun of it.

Jason: I thought the running gag involving the never resolved fate of Stoneboy was the most successful and most "modern" use of humor in the story. 

Trey: Well, you should read the Legion of Substitute Heroes oneshot from Giffen/Levitz in 1985, because there's more of that!

Jason: Giffen's art is in a transitional phase as well, somewhere between his Kirby-derivative Marvel period and his incorporation (some would say "appropriation") of the influence of Jose Munoz a few years later. I always enjoy an homage to Joe Shuster's slit-eyed style, and Giffen brings out this retro-Superman's old school charm.

Trey: Yeah, it's good stuff, I think, though he has quite perfected the look of Ambush Bug, I don't think. It gets better.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Have Gun – Will Travel (1957)

Have Gun – Will Travel
Debut: September 14, 1957
Created by Sam Rolfe, Herb Meadow
Starring: Craig Stevens, Lola Albright, Herschel Bernardi, Hope Emerson, Byron Kane
Synopsis: The man known as "Paladin," a gentleman gunfighter, makes his living as a troubleshooter-for-hire in the Old West. 

Trey: The television version of Have Gun – Will Travel aired on CBS from 1957 to 1953. Interestingly, there was a radio version starring John Dehner as Paladin which debuted on November 23, 1958, making Have Gun – Will Travel of the few shows in television history to spawn a successful radio version, instead of the other way around.

We watched Season 3 episode 1 "First, Catch a Tiger" on YouTube. In this episode, two of the three men responsible for hanging Jacob Mordain's son have been gunned down, shot in the back, by the assassin, Fred Horn. The third, Paladin, is invited to Wyoming to face him, and finds himself staying in a hotel with three other men, unsure which is the killer.

I have heard a few episodes of the radio show on radio classics. I must admit having Richard Boone in the lead had kept me away from the TV version a bit. The urbane air of John Dehner seems to fit the character for me. Boone is familiar to me as the heavy in Westerns like Big Jake and The Shootist or more rough-hewn characters like in Rio Conchos. I guess there's always his role in The Last Dinosaur, but anyway nothing makes me think "gentleman gunfighter."

Jason: Bonus points awarded for Boone's ability to pull off that mustache. 

I'm also a fan of his rugged not-so-good looks as a breather from today's relentless beauty.

The well-established relationship between the Western and Chanbara genres really jumped out at me in this episode.  Paladin, Mordain, and the three possible assassins are all bound by rigid (if idiosyncratic) codes of honor without which, we would have no plot. Paladin voluntarily checks into a hotel full of hostile parties, not least among them the proprietor, and hangs out awaiting an inevitable attempt on his life with all the grim dispassion of Mifune's Sanjuro munching on rice balls in a town full of cutthroats. 

Trey: All of the additional cast here are classic TV stalwarts. No particularly other roles jump out at me, but I know I've seen them all before.

Jason: Hollywood legend Ida Lupino directed this episode, and it feels richly cinematic despite the economies of tv production. It looks damn good (and I was grateful for the image quality of the scan we watched) and Lupino's visual storytelling choices shine.  When violence breaks out, while kept relatively bloodless for television, it hits hard. The fistfight sequence was pretty epic! 

Trey: Indeed! Despite my prejudices against Boone, I liked him in this, and I enjoyed the episode overall. In fact, I wish there was more of it! It's really too short to build much tension, and tension is what it's plot needs.

Jason: We agree on Boone and the episode, though in regard to your previous criticism, I may have felt the tension more keenly. Or maybe after reviewing shows like M Squad and Peter GunnI've become some kind of 30-minute drama format knee-jerk partisan! 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Movin' On (1974)

Movin' On
Debut: May 8, 1974
Created by: Philip D'Antoni and Barry J. Weitz
Starring: Claude Akins, Frank Converse
Synopsis: A crusty, veteran trucker teams up with a younger, college-educated co-driver to haul cargo across the country and get into adventures.

Trey: This concept debuted as a made for TV movie In Tandem that aired on NBC in 1974. It was in the style of shows like Route 66 that featured the main characters traveling around and getting involved in the drama of the lives of people they met, and road the growing wave of trucker interest and mystique. Despite a theme long by Merle Haggard and reportedly being President Ford's favorite TV series, Movin' On last only two seasons.

We watched the first episode of the regular series, "The Time of His Life," in which Will and Sonny stop to help a young truck driver (played by Michael Pollard) after he almost runs them off of the road. When they find that he is terminally ill, they determine to show him a good time before he dies on a trip to Portland.

While this could easily have been a setup for an action show, based on this episode, this show seems to be more drama. In this case, lightly humorous drama.

Jason: There was a bit of rough and tumble trucker fisticuffs here and there, but it was not the focus, rather a natural consequence of the mores on display here. The 1970's trucker mystique phenomena puzzled me as a child, but its appeal makes sense in retrospect. America needed an iconic stand-in for the increasingly problematic cowboy and the rambling trucker fit the bill, with a touch of the outlaw thrown in especially due to the cop-thwarting capabilities of citizen's band radio. Speaking of outlaws, Merle Haggard's theme song only helps here, with explicatory lyrics and some tasty finger-picking guitar. 

Trey: Akins and Converse are a good pair in the lead roles, but Pollard's Joe Shannon is the character this episode spends the most time on. Due to his baby face, Pollard played a lot of "kid" rolls in the 60s, including in the Star Trek episode "Miri." He's also good in Bonnie & Clyde.

Jason: Pollard is a talented actor especially suited to misanthropic/outsider roles.  His career reminds me a bit of Jackie Earle Haley (previously noted in our survey of the Planet of the Apes tv show here), often projecting a more than a bit creepy vibe in his portrayals. 

Trey: One thing I found interesting here was the story leaving Shannon's presumed death completely off stage. The way these stories typically go is to make the light-hearted moments bittersweet, by showing their end. Not only does Shannon not die before the credits roll, he isn't even notably sick by the time the episode ends. It's an unusual choice for this sort of plot.

Jason: I too was surprised when the episode came down to its final minutes at the lack of a hospital room sequence (and I may never know if Claude would have conjured up a single, manly tear for the occasion). My biggest surprise was the overall watchability of the gentle, slice of life drama.

Trey: Yeah, it feels very 70s in that way. The stridency of the 60s was past, so no one is getting hassled by the man, and the brashness of the 80s has yet to arrive, so there are no goons working for trucking syndicates to contend with. It's people just living life and getting by.

Jason: Moving on, if you will!

Past as a Foreign Country Dept., exhibit A: While demonstrating dating techniques to Pollard, middle-aged Akins approaches a young woman at the arcade shooting range and wraps her in an unsolicited embrace to ostensibly provide shooting tips. This actually goes quite well. 

Trey: Don't try this at home, guys! For those of you wishing to learn more about this series, here's an interview with one of the creators about it.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Inhumanoids (1986)


Debut: June 29, 1986
Starring: Michael Bell, William Callaway, Ed Gilbert, Chris Latta, Neil Ross,
Richard Sanders Susan Silo
Synopsis: Earth Corps, a team of scientists/explorers and their nonhuman allies are the surface's only defense against ancient, evil monsters from beneath the Earth.

Trey: Inhumanoids was a Hasbro toy concept developed initially by Marvel's Tom DeFalco, then further refined by Flint Dille. As was common in the 80s, there was an associated animated series to sell the toys by Sunbow. The cartoon began as a series of seven-minute segments on the Super Sunday anthology series, running to 15 installments that were later combined into a movie, which was then in turn split back into five half-hours and coupled with eight brand-new shows to form a complete season of thirteen half-hour episodes. 

The toys sold well, but not as well as Hasbro wanted using the success of G.I. Joe and Transformers as a metric, so it was cancelled. This had the effect of giving the writers of the cartoon a relatively freehand to go in a more horrific direction and more serial rather than episodic in its storytelling. According to Wikipedia: "Visually, the show was distinctive for its application of heavy shadow, use of split screens, and sometimes brow-raising for its graphic content, such as monstrous amputations or writhing deaths by toxic waste, which would be hard-pressed to sneak their way into contemporary 'children's hour' programming."

We watched the first two half-hour episodes.

Jason: I was a teenager when Inhumanoids hit the then-smaller screen, but I still cared about animation (and SF&F subject matter) enough to peek at new things here and there, if only to end up sneering. I peeked at Inhumanoids and sneered contemptuously.  

The monster designs appalled me, and their voice-acted shrieks repelled me before I could even begin to perceive the distinctive qualities that set it apart from other adventure-oriented animated series of its day. Which isn't to say what I witnessed in watching the first two episodes was necessarily good! 

The animation itself was limited, as TV animation almost always was, but the speed of the editing mitigated this a bit. The images were well executed, matters of taste and design aside. I will however never get over the ludicrous design of D'Compose, and his name isn't helping a tiny bit either. Those Barn Doors of Forlorn Encystment on D's chest and his Godzilla skull with glowing fangs and teeth are all toyetic as anything, but the whole exquisite corpse-style of design was in this case the magic bullet that assassinated my suspension of disbelief. 

Trey: I will grant the silliness of D'Compose as name. As to the design, I'm going to disagree--a bit. The simplicities of the animation does it no favors, for sure, and I can't deny its fundamental tokusatsu "monster of the episode" character, but I think there is a mythological undercurrent to D that the other two (being pure pulp monster riffs) lack. In his skull I see echoes of Mari Lwyd and in his snapping rib cage, Tezcatlipoca.

I think it's fair to say a mythological monster in such a pulp/kaiju world is a dissonant choice, certainly.

Jason: Point taken! As you mentioned, Inhumanoids had no qualms about (making an attempt at) scaring little kids to death! In general, tv cartoons of the era, when they tried to be scary, swiftly reassured audiences that there are no such things as monsters and order is always restored by the end of the episode. Not so in the world of Inhumanoids, a series designed to sell a line of toys to small children.

The storytelling in this show was unusual in its speedy pace, due at least in part to the original short format used for the Super Sunday compilations. As a result, the cuts were quick from shot to shot and scene to scene, somewhat jarringly so I thought. This condensed format had the effect of creating a firehose of narrative that advanced the plot visually and kept the dialogue minimal, to the point of confusion at times. If the story was to be understood by kids, their full attention would be required, which is actually a plus in my book. 

Trey: Yeah, there's very much a movie serial style rush from one peril to the next.

Jason: By the end of episode two, though, an impressive amount of world building has unfolded. It's unlikely but not impossible that if I sat still long enough to take this material in as a teenager, I might have found myself at least somewhat intrigued. Alas!

Trey: If there was ever a property that could benefit from an adult, film or TV series reboot, I think this one could bear the conceptual load.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: The Champions (1968)

The Champions
Debut: September 25, 1968
Created by Dennis Spooner and Monty Berman
Starring: Stuart Damon, Alexandra Bastedo, William Gaunt, Anthony Nicholls
Synopsis: Three agents for the UN law enforcement division Nemesis get superhuman abilities after being rescued from a plane crash by a secret civilization in the Himalayas, and then use their abilities to take on threats to world peace.

Trey: The Champions is a British series broadcast in the UK on ITV during 1968–1969 and in the U.S. on NBC, starting in the summer of 1968. Dennis Spooner created the series, working with producer Monty Berman. The two would also be responsible for the later series Department S and Jason King. They would use writers on this series that had previously worked on The Avengers and Danger Man.

We watched the first episode, "The Beginning," on YouTube. It introduces the three Nemesis agents, Sharron MacReady, Craig Stirling and Richard Barrett, who crash in the Himalayas after an escape from a bioweapon facility in China. They awaken to find their injuries mysteriously healed. Soon, they learn they have had new abilities bestowed on them by their rescuers, the people from a hidden, ancient civilization. The evade capture by the Chinese military and return to Europe having completed their mission.

First thing, I was struck by a few parallels with the Challengers of the Unknown who debuted in 1957. A plane crash is the pivotal event that changes the course of their lives, and the Challengers' refrain that they are "living on borrowed time" is voiced by one of the Champions just after the crash. Then there's then names they are just similar but seem to fit together: the challenger takes on the champion, after all.

Jason: I noticed those similarities and perhaps a wee bit of the original Doom Patrol, if only in the manicured beard of their agency commander. Speaking of the names, I thought the three starring actors had better names for the genre than the characters!

For a spy-fi show with a touch of plain-clothes superheroes thrown in, I found it quite effective, despite budgetary limitations. 

The plane crash sequence was suspenseful despite the use of miniatures and a foregone conclusion. The fight scenes worked well despite the small soundstage and put me in mind of a less expensive Star Trek. 

Trey: I enjoyed the show quite a bit, too. It had the standard sort of groovy Brit style of the era and an intriguing concept. I'd be interested to see what more episodes are like. 

Jason: I especially like its successful threading the needle of earnest adventure story with its tongue positioned in precisely the right part of the cheek. 

Trey: My only quibbles might be there didn't seem to be enough of it! I think it would have been better served by a two-hour pilot, and maybe a central villain of the episode.

Jason: The production staff may have shared your concerns and sought to correct in future episodes. Perusing an online episode guide alerted me to the fact that episode 2's special guest antagonist was none other than Peter Wyngarde!

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Columbo (1971)

Debut: September 15, 1971
Created by: Richard Levinson and William Link
Starring: Peter Falk
Synopsis: Rumpled and unassuming Los Angeles homicide detective, Lieutenant Columbo, doggedly reveals even the most well-concealed of crimes.

Trey: Columbo had two movie "pilot episodes" in 1968 and 1971, then series aired on NBC from 1971 to 1978 as one of the rotating programs of The NBC Mystery Movie. It was brought back in the 80s on ABC on a sporadic basis from 1989 to 2003. That's when I became acquainted with it.

Columbo was partially inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment character Porfiry Petrovich as well as (according to Wikipedia) G. K. Chesterton's cleric-detective Father Brown.

The first episode of the 1971 series follows the (at the time) innovative formula of showing the audience the crime from the beginning, thus removing the mystery ask, except in regard to just how Columbo will eventually catch them. It was written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg. In the episode, a member of a mystery writing duo resorts to murder to break from his less talented partner.

Jason: I remember the presence of Columbo in the pop culture of my childhood but don't recall ever having seen the show in its day, possibly due to the draconian bedtime I strove against in my single-digit years. For decades, references to the series and impersonations of Falk were ubiquitous. I've previously mentioned my general lack of interest in the crime drama genre which, like many things, was once strident but has softened over time. I enjoyed this chance to better acquaint myself with the series and character that became, for all intents and purposes, iconic.  

The young Spielberg wastes no time distinguishing himself with a cinematic approach and clever visual storytelling even as the credits roll. While perhaps trying a bit too hard at times, the episode amounts to a very effective portfolio piece. Somebody give this kid a feature!

Trey: Yeah, I think he's got something and is going to go places. Wonder whatever happened to him? I'd also call out writer Steven Bochco as the creator of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue among other credits. 

Jason: The titular character doesn't show up until nearly the 20 minute mark, as goes the show's formula, and he doesn't disappoint. As everyone already knows, Falk is uniquely charming in the role. 
His opponent, as expertly portrayed by Jack Cassidy, couldn't be more arrogant, slimy and unlikeable, despite his sophistication and impeccable manners. The rest of the cast give naturalistic performances, leaving it to the leads to provide the understated climactic fireworks.

Trey: In latter series, they did a lot of celebrity casting of the "murderers of the episode" and that and the focus on their viewpoint sometimes gives you (or at least gave me) a bit of sympathy for them: "Alright, alright, Columbo. They're guilty! Quit playing with them and arrest them, already!" Not here, though.

Jason: As an unsophisticated newcomer to the genre, I give this show high marks. I'm tempted to watch more. 

Unlike many of the shows featured here in the Flashback Universe, this one is anything but obscure and much ink has been spilled on its behalf. I found this article to be an effective expression of the warm regard Columbo still enjoys. Exhibit A: BBC Why the World Still Loves the 1970s Detective Show Columbo. Oh, and here's a Columbo statue in Budapest, Hungary. My only regret is that his dog doesn't appear in this episode!

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Captain Midnight (1954)

Captain Midnight
Debut: September 9, 1954
Starring:  Richard Webb, Sid Melton, Olan Soule
Synopsis: Captain Midnight of the Secret Squadron flies around the globe in his jet the Silver Dart, fighting various criminals and spies with his sidekick Ichabod Mudd and aided by a scientist, Dr. Aristotle Jones.

TreyCaptain Midnight (later renamed Jet Jackson, Flying Commando on TV) is a franchise that debuted as a radio serial in 1938. The character's popularity throughout the 1940s and into the mid-1950s saw him appear in movie serials (1942), a syndicated newspaper strip (1942), a comic book (1942–1948) and of course a television series (1954-1856).

The series aired on CBS and was sponsored by Ovaltine and Kix/General Mills.

Jason: 'll just go ahead and admit this was a pretty fun watch for me, the heavy handed in-world pitches for chocolaty, vitamin-laden Ovaltine only adding to the goofy charm. 

However, it swiftly becomes clear why legislation was enacted in the 1960s to regulate children's television, especially as regards advertising content. But thank your lucky stars that hero of supply side economics, former president Ronald Reagan, rolled back these restrictions, or else we may never have gotten to know He-Man, GI Joe, and Optimus Prime quite as intimately.  

Trey: The Gipper made Tv safe for product placement again! This really is a whole number level of undisguised shilling, though. It reminds me of The Shadow radio show and its Blue Coal pitches, except with more kid appeal.

I should mention before we get too far along that we watched Season 2, Episode 3, "The Frozen Men." Noted scientist Dr. Hartley is kidnapped by foreign agents. Captain Midnight, Ikky, and Tut figure out he has been working with extreme cold to make a super-durable metal. There's an atomic bomb dropped in this episode, though not directly on our heroes.

Jason: Spoilers! Anyway, Richard Webb, whose portrayal of a Starfleet officer deranged by the rigors of their duty is forever burned into my memory banks...

Trey: That would be Ben Finney in the Star Trek episode "Court Martial."

Jason: Yes. Here he does an admirably straightforward job of embodying the Cold War American Hero. His jaw is square enough and he delivers lines with the precise diction every Cold War school child should strive to perfect.   

His sidekick Ikky, who in this episode at least is in near-constant need of a hot shower, provides the kind of comic relief that might have generated some laughs for children of the 1950s. For us moderns, the humor is barely detectable. I did laugh out loud when, certain his Captain was incinerated in a nuclear blast, Ikky frowns slightly and delivers a somber, momentary salute before immediately moving on with his life. 

Trey, the science in this science fiction is worth mentioning I think. You've forgotten more about science than I'll ever know. Can you give us a breakdown on the speculative elements in this episode? I hold no degrees in the sciences, but I'm pretty sure some liberties may have been taken.

Trey: Well, I think the whole idea of super-metal Protonium that is created from nothing by intense is utterly fanciful. Then there's the medication profrigidium that is evidently super-endotherm in its reactions. None of this is science but rather "Science!" as found in pulp media. Of course, that's not even mentioning the 50ss naiveté about the horrors of nuclear bombs.

Jason: I'll regretfully cancel my profrigidium order at the pharmacy.

Trey: You wouldn't like the co-pay, anyway.


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