Fates Worse Than Death: Atom Man vs. Superman

As Atom Man vs. Superman begins, a crime wave has overtaken Metropolis, the kind of multi-pronged gang assault on property and lives that frequently opens the first chapter of serials, even though the Depression-era violence that inspired it was long-gone by 1950. Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent* suspects that a single criminal mastermind is behind it, secretly organizing and coordinating the atrocities. But who? A bulbous, oversized helmet is superimposed over the montage of stock footage and spinning newspaper headlines, the “Atom Man” of the title, but Clark believes that to be merely a cover for Superman’s arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. In this very first chapter (“Superman Flies Again”), Superman uses his X-ray vision to locate Luthor’s hideout and capture him. Yet over the next year, the crimes continue! Was Clark Kent wrong about Luthor (who claims to have gone straight and is applying for parole)? Is the Atom Man an entirely different villain?

What’s notable here is the degree to which the characters and their relationship are already established at the outset: not only is it taken for granted that audiences will know Lex Luthor, but he is caught and imprisoned within the first episode in the manner of a modern action film’s “cold open.” (Of course, Luthor is up to something, but that’s beside the point.) The assumption that audiences wouldn’t need to have things explained to them was a safe one for the filmmakers, of course: Superman was widely read in comic book form and heard on his own radio show (from which the plot of this serial was adapted); as I mentioned in my review of the previous Superman serial, that familiarity kept the producers from making too many changes to the source material in adapting it, and the faithfulness to the original says as much about the popularity of Superman as it does about the fickleness of filmmakers. It’s worth noting, in fact, that serial adaptations from comic strips were generally more faithful than those from comic books, a reflection of the newspaper strips’ higher status in those days. (It’s possible that the subtle touches in Atom Man vs. Superman also reflect an awareness of the audience’s greater sophistication by 1950, as well.)

In any case, Atom Man vs. Superman is one of the few serials I’ve seen that takes its audience’s awareness of the characters and setup for granted, going so far as to subvert their expectations for suspense or comic relief. For example, more than once when Clark Kent ducks into a doorway to transform into his alter ego, fellow reporter Lois Lane follows him under the impression that Clark is trying to scoop her or keep himself out of danger. If he can’t turn into Superman, how will he save the day? Or will Lois learn his secret identity? Something always comes along to protect Clark’s secret and allow him to make the switch, but Lois’s growing suspicions are a major subplot: not only does she ask out loud, “Is Clark Superman?”, she has Daily Planet editor Perry White so convinced that he almost publishes a front page story saying so. Ultimately, the status quo is preserved, but rarely short of Superman II have I seen a Superman film in which the truth floats so close to the surface.

It makes a difference, as well, that Atom Man vs. Superman is the sequel to an earlier serial that does begin with the hero’s origin, and this particular story was adapted from a storyline from the radio show The Adventures of Superman. (And how odd is it that the title follows the familiar “______ vs. ______” format, but unusually puts the antagonist’s name first?) All of the major players from the first serial return (including leading man Kirk Alyn, credited as only “Superman,” maintaining the fiction that the man himself showed up to film his own adventures), with the addition of Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor. Talbot’s Luthor is just like we remember him: brilliant, egotistical, and bald; he is both the “mad scientist” of his earliest comic book incarnations and the smooth-talking public figure of later stories. Luthor has always been a complex and captivating foil for Superman, but his human strengths and failings are especially clear in comparison to the masked villains typical of the serials. (The serial hardly makes a secret of the fact that Atom Man is a convenient front for Luthor: while he “goes straight,” he receives threats from the Atom Man on behalf of the criminal underworld Luthor has supposedly turned his back on. But everyone knows that Atom Man’s plans and Luthor’s are one and the same.)

The main plot involves criminals, including one already in custody of the police, who mysteriously disappear whenever they flash a particular silver coin, making for some miraculous escapes and frustrating Superman’s attempts to connect their crimes to the Atom Man. As it turns out, these “activated coins” are signal beacons for a “space transporter,” a teleportation beam developed by Lex Luthor (and the solution to his continued leadership even while in solitary confinement: he just uses his own coin and has his henchmen beam him to his hideout for an hour or two, and then he goes back before the prison guards are any wiser). The coins and the transporter are significant devices throughout the serial, with Luthor using them to slip from one hiding place to another; help his underlings stay out of the grasp of Superman or the police; bait traps for Superman and the Daily Planet reporters; and even kidnap Lois Lane (Noel Neill) by sending her one of these medallions. The coins also further the plot when one of the coins is recovered and Luthor schemes to get it back before it can be analyzed.

But the technology underlying the space transporter is also capable of sending its target’s atoms into space, “where they will circle endlessly” without solidity, a fate Luthor refers to as “the Empty Doom.” At one point he uses it briefly on one of his underlings as punishment for failure, demonstrating its effectiveness but also revealing that the effects can be undone. Luthor’s ultimate plan is to consign Superman to the Empty Doom, ridding himself of his archenemy forever; he succeeds, but only for a chapter. While in this state, Superman is insubstantial and invisible (except to the audience, through the miracle of double exposure), as if on the astral plane, or like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. The scenes in which Superman, in double exposure against a background of planets and stars, struggles with a henchman sent to check on him (and here the Empty Doom functions more like the comics’ Phantom Zone), are great fun, and in some ways closer to the loopier sci-fi elements of the comics than we usually get when the character is adapted to film. Through great effort, he is able to communicate with Lois through her electric typewriter, and eventually his instructions to her help him break free.

The space transporter isn’t the only high-tech invention Luthor brings to bear in his war against Superman, but it does get the most screen time. Luthor also has an “atomic projectile” (a high-powered mortar shell that Superman simply catches and returns against its operator, exactly the same as when the Spider Lady tried the same thing in the last Superman serial); a remote control flying saucer; a robot (spoiler!); an earthquake machine; an atom bomb (there’s a lot of nuclear anxiety in this serial, from the title on down); and even a spaceship! At one point, Luthor synthesizes his own Kryptonite, a step up from the “synthetic radium” that so many serials feature; however, to make it work correctly, Luthor’s Kryptonite requires just one ingredient he must steal: radium! Oh, well. There is a clever sequence in which Luthor manipulates Superman into using his X-ray vision on a box of nails: Luthor has prepared an alloy that turns into plutonium when bombarded with X-rays, tricking Superman into generating the fuel that will be used against him.

And of course there’s television; at first, Luthor earns his parole by offering a new invention to the government, a “combination of radar and television.” Regular readers of this series will be aware of my interest in how television was presented in the serials, as an almost-magical scrying device that allowed remote viewing even of places inaccessible to cameras. By 1950, television was less a futuristic pipe-dream than a definite reality with a growing audience, and viewers and filmmakers alike were now aware of the medium’s limitations, so super-science was invoked to make it exciting (and useful to the plot) again. The only difference between the fantastical view of television common in the 1930s and its use in Atom Man is the gloss that presents Luthor’s device as a new spin on the now-familiar medium. At the same time, television is an everyday occurrence, with Luthor setting up a mundane television studio as a cover for his more esoteric spying. (Hilariously, the cover blurb on the DVD claims that Luthor “says he’s just a simple repairman for those new devices called televisions!”, a synopsis that is garbled at best.) At one point, Lois Lane goes to work for Luthor as an on-camera personality, mostly for tepid “man-on-the-street” interviews. Although regular broadcast television is shown in a decidedly unthrilling light, it wouldn’t be long before the new medium killed theatrical serials for good, or rather absorbed them, as low-budget storytelling-by-installment became the default mode of TV entertainment, even including the Man of Steel himself.

What I Watched: Atom Man vs. Superman (Columbia, 1950)

Where I Watched It: Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection DVD set

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Superman Saves the Universe” (Chapter Fifteen) Well, what else would we expect Superman to do?

Best Cliffhanger: Although there are more than a few classic perils here, Atom Man vs. Superman finds the filmmakers chafing at the formal restriction of the end-of-chapter cliffhanger. Some of the chapters end with one or more characters in a state of uncertainty rather than immediate peril: at the end of Chapter Seven (“At the Mercy of Atom Man!”), Superman, weakened by Luthor’s synthetic Kryptonite, is loaded unconscious onto an ambulance which the audience knows is being driven by Luthor’s henchmen. Not only does Superman not get out of trouble immediately in the next chapter by escaping or undoing the peril as in so many serials, he is forced to step into Luthor’s matter transporter and face the “empty doom,” from which he doesn’t escape until the next chapter after that!

In other cases, the cliffhangers are perfunctory: rather than being set up with the heavy-handed foreshadowing so common to the Republic formula, dangers are thrown up at the last minute, as when Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond), chasing an escaping henchman, gets his foot stuck in a railroad bed and can’t escape an oncoming train. The train has nothing to do with the events that have come before, but it’s the end of the chapter, so something has to happen. Both examples are probably extensions of the playful formula-tweaking mentioned above: by 1950, even kid audiences were ready for twists on familiar material. Fortunately, the awareness that cliffhangers alone weren’t enough to satisfy audiences pushed the filmmakers to create interest in other ways, through character and novel special effects. (As in the previous serial, animation is used to depict Superman’s flight as well as other effects too expensive to create otherwise.)

Having said that, there is at least one truly great cliffhanger in this serial: in Chapter Fourteen, “Rocket of Vengeance,” Lex Luthor sends a missile loaded with an atomic bomb to destroy Metropolis, his final act of defiance before taking off into space, leaving the Earth behind forever. Superman intercepts the missile, climbing on top and riding it, Dr. Strangelove-style, as it heads straight for the Daily Planet building and the office of Perry White (Pierre Watkin). The sequence, which cuts between close-ups of Superman riding the missile, shots of the city from the missile’s point of view, and White, Lois, and Jimmy watching its approach, is among the most exciting in this serial.

Sample Dialogue:

Lois: Let’s head back to the office.
Jimmy: What for, to be hit by that rocket?
Lois: We’ll write the story, even if it’s our last one.
Jimmy: I’d rather read about it.
–Chapter Fourteen, “Rocket of Vengeance”

What Others Have Said:Atom Man vs. Superman was far more gimmicky and gadget-prone than the first serial, Superman, but was flawed by the same [producer Sam] Katzman cheapness in production values, despite the cast and crew.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

Well, I liked it.

What’s Next: Summer isn’t over yet! Join me next time as I explore Dick Tracy’s G-Men!

* (who is secretly Superman)

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Kamandi Challenge no. 7

Cover by Bill Sienkiewicz

“Salvage”
Writer: Marguerite Bennett
Pencils: Dan Jurgens
Inks: Klaus Janson
Colorist: Hi-Fi
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

Note: This issue came out last week, but I was travelling, and it’s taken me a few days to get caught up. My apologies for the delay.

Kamandi, thrown from the towering heights of Mishkingrad by its former “Alpha” Grosnovo, and about to fall into the bear city’s atomic furnace, remembers that he is still holding the “cortex crown” that controls the city. Putting it on, Kamandi commands the metal around him (all parts of the great living city) to form a protective shell around him (similar to the vegetable shell Vila wove around him in no. 5) and take him to Renzi. There, he is astonished to see Renzi already surrounded by a band of female dog warriors, scavengers who periodically raid the bear city for technology and scrap metal. The dogs decide to take Kamandi along with them and throw him into a bag for transport. (They rescue Renzi as well, leaving the city of bears to collapse without Renzi’s atomic heart to power it.)

Later, Kamandi emerges from the bag to find himself on a huge dirigible, the floating headquarters of the “Bulldog Britanneks,” as the dogs call themselves. Beatrice, the leader of the Britanneks, recalls knowing Kamandi’s mother, a veteran of the “Android Wars” who designed their ship, and points Kamandi toward the last place she had seen her.

In the mean time, the dirigible floats over the forbidden wastelands of the North Pole, home to the “ice wizards.” The ice wizards (the only one we see is a polar bear) control hordes of “polar parasites,” metallic centipedes that latch onto unwilling hosts and control their minds, steering them to recruit more hosts. The ice wizards have been exiled to the wasteland and sense an opportunity to escape; for their part, the parasites are in constant search for new hosts and new territory. Directed by the ice wizard, a flying iceberg pierces the dirigible, bringing it down. One of the dog women, Sadie, rescues Kamandi from falling to his death; earlier she had flirted with him, but in this moment we sense that perhaps the attraction goes both ways.

On the ground, several of the Britanneks are overtaken by parasites, and with their minds controlled by them they begin attacking their fellows or attempting to lure them to be attacked by parasites. With their ship crashed and at the mercy of the parasites, the group retreats, but not before Kamandi finds the cortex crown among the wreckage. Since the dirigible was built from scrap looted from the bear city over the years, he reasons that the metal may still respond to the crown’s power, just as it had saved him earlier. A plan is hatched: the Britanneks lure the polar parasites and their hosts into the open, and then Kamandi, wearing the crown and driving a power-lifter-like exoskeleton made from the scrap, surprises the parasites, crushing them under the vehicle’s enormous “feet” and freeing the mind-controlled Britanneks as well. With the ice wizard captured (and disposed of off-panel?), the operation is a success.

The Britanneks, reunited, rebuild the remains of their dirigible into a hot-air balloon, while Kamandi, with a new lead on his missing parents, takes off separately in a hang-glider (after receiving a “first kiss” from Sadie). Gliding alone above the wasteland, Kamandi doesn’t notice one last polar parasite crawl out of his satchel, and the chapter ends with the creature biting him on the neck. Is this the end of Kamandi, or is he doomed to spend his remaining days as the host of the polar parasite?

As in other Kamandi stories, “Salvage” gets a lot of mileage out of comparing and contrasting human and animal behaviors and personality type. There are plenty of canine puns and references on hand (Kamandi “deworms” the parasite-infected Britanneks; the flying headquarters is referred to as a “doghouse” and later a “kennel,” and so on; it must have taken a lot of self-control to avoid the phrase “puppy love”). Most notably, while only Commander Beatrice is an actual bulldog, the group suggests the kind of plucky, diverse, but oh-so British commando troop one sees in movies about World War II, and Beatrice represents the typical funny animal English bulldog as a Winston Churchill stand-in: gruff, cigar-smoking, and (in this case) maternal. (“A Canterbury Tail/Calamity from the Clyde,” a two-part “Tale of the Great Disaster” printed in Weird War Tales nos. 51 and 52, makes a similar association between nationality, animal type, and character, but as we have seen that is almost de rigueur in funny animal stories, even ones like this that are darker than your average Carl Barks strip.) Naturally, the canine commandos are introduced playing poker when Kamandi is welcomed onto the dirigible.

Also striking in this story is that all the Britanneks are female, a conceit lampshaded by the engineer Mae who says of Kamandi when they meet, “You smell like you’ve met two, hm, three supporting female characters, tops–both of whom died, I’m guessing.” That sounds about right. I mostly know Marguerite Bennett, who wrote this chapter, from her work on DC Comics Bombshells, a series focused on the publisher’s female characters fighting an alternate World War II in a world without male superheroes. Although this chapter’s art (by Dan Jurgens and Klaus Janson, both of whom have been working in comics since I was reading them as a kid in the ’80s) is more old-school and less attuned to the feminine nuances of Bennett’s script than that of Bennett’s Bombshells collaborator Marguerite Sauvage, “Salvage” shows some of the same inventive remixing of wartime iconography and bantering sisterhood as her flagship series. Also, in addition to improving Kamandi’s representation stats the Britanneks have a more functional family dynamic than any group Kamandi has encountered since his abrupt expulsion from the Truman Show-esque small town in which he grew up, back in issue no. 1. Kamandi has made friends and allies, but the tough warrior women of the Britanneks are a family: they not only fight together, they care about each other, and their scenes are reminiscent of the Vuvalini in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Finally, Kamandi has traditionally been a series in which romance took a back seat to action and adventure; not exactly “no girls allowed,” but like many comics, the emphasis is on Kamandi’s status as “The Last Boy on Earth” (emphasis added). Mae commenting on the meager (and deceased) female supporting cast could easily be referring not only to this series but to Jack Kirby’s original book as well. The love of Kamandi’s life, Flower, a girl his age who could speak (in contrast to the mostly mute humans of Earth A.D.), was no sooner introduced than she was killed tragically; later Kirby, sensing a missed opportunity, introduced Flower’s twin, Spirit, but if Kamandi noticed Spirit’s hula-girl near-nakedness, he was too polite to say anything. That was for the pubescent audience. In this case, the flirtatious Sadie and her interest in Kamandi would be unexceptional were it not for the prospect of cross-species love in their relationship. Ultimately, their mutual attraction is turned into a cute joke, with Sadie slurping Kamandi’s face like any family pet. Whether a furry fantasy* or a riff on dogs’ age-old affection for man, the message is clear: even in the wastes of this post-apocalyptic world, it is love, and the possibility of finding it, that makes survival into living.

from Kamandi no. 12

*Not to downplay the degree to which Kamandi can already be seen as a furry fantasy, but as I suggested, its generally chaste approach takes the focus off questions of romance or sexuality.

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy Returns

Dick Tracy, still a plainclothes G-Man with the Western Division of the FBI, is lecturing a new class of incoming agents: “Remember,” he tells them, “there are no rules in the game of justice versus crime,” giving a bracing wake-up call to the new agents while reminding viewers that this serial will involve the nuts and bolts of serious police work. Tracy and his colleagues are trained and careful policemen, vulnerable to bullets, not costumed superheroes. Afterward, Tracy greets one of the new agents, Ron Merton (David Sharpe), a promising symbol of the Bureau’s bright future. (Gosh, I hope something bad doesn’t happen to him!)

Special Agent Merton’s first big assignment is to ride along with a bank shipment of half a million dollars in cash. At the same time, Tracy is concerned about a criminal recently released by a “soft-hearted parole board”: Pa Stark, who, along with his gang of five sons, is thought to be operating out West. Could it be that Tracy is about to cross paths with the Starks, and that the bank shipment Merton is guarding is their next target?

Dick Tracy Returns is the second serial based on Chester Gould’s long-running newspaper comic strip (begun in 1931), and it is, in the words of mystery writer (and sometime Dick Tracy writer) Max Allan Collins, “the serial most like the strip.” This is true not just in the emphasis on solid police work over fantastic special effects or melodrama–unlike the previous serial, there are no “flying wings” or “sound disintegrators,” no mad scientists, and even the main villain, Pa Stark, is known and unmasked from the beginning (catching him is another matter)–but in the assortment of colorful side characters, the devious ways the criminals attempt to worm their way out of the various jams they find themselves in, and even the tendency of characters (heroes and villains alike) to hide in unlikely places that turn out to be potential deathtraps.

The few high-tech wonders that are included in the story are much more modest–no synthetic radium here–and serve to move the story forward rather than thrilling in themselves: a super cutting torch is stolen from the Navy so that the Starks can use it to cut into a jewelry store’s vault; a “torpedo speedboat” is stolen to sell it to a foreign power; likewise a scheme to steal the motor of an experimental airplane. (One exception is a remote television viewer that allows Tracy to witness the hijacking of the torpedo boat out at sea while he is on the shore, but even then it’s presented matter-of-factly.) As Collins points out (in his introduction on the DVD copy I watched), “Of all the Dick Tracy serials, this is the Dick Traciest!”

Having said all that, Dick Tracy Returns clearly follows Dick Tracy (1937) in continuity, however loosely: Ralph Byrd returns in the starring role; Tracy is still a G-Man in the West rather than a Chicago police detective; and the supporting characters surrounding him are the same, although recast: Steve Lockwood (Michael Kent, replacing Fred Hamilton) is Tracy’s partner, Gwen Andrews (Lynn Roberts, replacing Kay Hughes) his assistant, Mike McGurk (Lee Ford, replacing Smiley Burnette) is the bumbling comic relief, and Junior (Jerry Tucker, replacing Lee van Atta) is still present, now officially Tracy’s ward and attending military school.

A subvillain from the first serial, foreign agent Baron Kroner (Harrison Greene), makes an appearance (or does he?), commissioning the Starks to steal a remote-control tank for his government. (Greene’s character was listed under a different name in the 1937 serial, but come on–in an era of interchangeable gangsters in fedoras and pinstripe suits, there are two monocle-wearing German spies, played by the same actor?) Tracy’s brother Gordon, turned evil and then killed in the previous serial, is never mentioned, of course: the demands of continuity only extend so far.

Despite the somewhat lower stakes in this serial (the Starks are extortionists and racketeers with their hands in many criminal enterprises, but they’re mostly in it for the money), the action and cliffhangers are just as exciting; in this case, the (relative) plausibility helps sell the danger and increase the stakes. The colorful staging areas for fight scenes and cliffhangers include a powerhouse, railroad yards, a fertilizer plant, a multilevel parking garage, and a mine tunnel under an observatory (just in case you thought Gotham City had a corner on abandoned facilities used as criminal hideouts!).

As the title character, Ralph Byrd is good-natured, sociable, but deadly serious when it comes down to it. And true to the comic strip, many of the clues the G-Men track down are of the mundane, forensic variety: dusting for fingerprints, tracing tire impressions, recovering serial numbers ground off of metal, and interviewing suspects. True, many of the leads Tracy and company follow up are arrived at by coincidence, and the serial doesn’t show the huge number of dead ends that usually crop up in investigation, and it’s awfully convenient that pretty much everything that happens in the serial is related to the Stark case, but by the standards of many other serials, it’s gritty realism.

Lee Ford, who replaces Smiley Burnette as Mike McGurk, doesn’t really hit the comic relief notes as effectively as Burnette did. As clichĂ© as the “funny fat man” role could be, and as stupid as Burnette’s clowning often was, Burnette played the role (like most of his comic roles) as essentially a grown-up kid, a well-meaning but innocent blowhard: in Dick Tracy (’37) the character is introduced trying to impress a group of children with his (imagined) football prowess, and the pranks Junior pulls on him are in part justified by McGurk’s attempts to pull rank on Junior. The fact that Junior is more capable than him, and they are essentially equals, is part of the joke. In Dick Tracy Returns, Ford’s McGurk is more pathetic than funny, the pratfalls even more pandering.

Where Dick Tracy Returns really soars is in its focus on the villain: Pa Stark, the patriarch of the criminal family (partially based on Ma Barker), is played by Charles Middleton, Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials and frequent serial heavy. Free of the ornate costume of Mongo and the aristocratic pretensions of some of his other roles, what is most striking is Middleton’s craggy face, and the directness of his character, free of fussy high-toned verbiage, stripped down to the essence: Pa Stark is mean and ruthless, and he doesn’t accept excuses or pussyfoot around. It’s the kind of characterization we might get today from James Cromwell or Liam Neeson, and like them Middleton’s Stark has a particular set of skills and woe to any who underestimate him.

Of special interest is this spin on the typical criminal mastermind: like many serial villains, Pa Stark works through underlings, but since they are his sons, there is a poignant sting when they are caught or killed, and since he works alongside them, he faces off against the G-Men and is nearly caught himself several times (distinctly unusual for a serial, but true to the comic strip). As the noose tightens around Stark, and his sons fall one by one, his motivation becomes focused on revenge against Dick Tracy. Stark may die, but he’ll take Tracy with him if it’s the last thing he does.

What I Watched: Dick Tracy’s Return (Republic, 1938)

Where I Watched It: Dick Tracy Complete Serial Collection from VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Four Seconds to Live” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Nine, “The Clock of Doom,” is an unexceptional “economy chapter” (i.e. a recap using footage from earlier chapters), but the cliffhanger that ends it is so simple, and so satisfying, that it is easily my favorite. In the chapter, Dick Tracy meets with a group of civic leaders to allay their concerns that the Bureau isn’t doing everything it can to halt the Stark-led crime wave. Attracted by the publicity for the get-together, Pa Stark hires a killer whose face is unknown to Tracy or the Bureau, a smug prick dapper, meticulous fellow known only as “The Duke.” The Duke (Larry Steers) comes to the meeting as “Mr. Reeves” from the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, just one of several interested parties. While Tracy describes the case and its challenges (the perfect opportunity for copious flashbacks to chapters two and three), the Duke activates the timer on a bomb hidden in his briefcase.

Soon, at Gwen’s summons, Tracy excuses himself to hear what she has to say: there is no Mr. Reeves on the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce! Tracy returns to his office to find that “Mr. Reeves” has been called away suddenly and has “accidentally” left his briefcase there, and that Junior, unaware of the danger, has picked it up and is attempting to return to its owner, even chasing the hit-man’s car down the street yelling “HEY, MISTER! WAIT!”

The last shot of the chapter shows Dick Tracy on the sidewalk, recoiling in horror as an explosion is heard from offscreen. Well, of course it’s obvious what happens, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying: sure enough, as the next chapter begins, Junior flings the briefcase into the Duke’s car, seconds before it explodes, destroying the car and taking the Duke with him. It’s a well-deserved end to a somewhat less than foolproof plot, and the fact that Junior was just trying to help out that nice Mr. Reeves makes it all the more deliciously ironic.

Best Stark Son: Like any good gang, Pa Stark’s five adult sons come furnished with nicknames (Kid, Trigger, Dude, Slasher, and Champ) that telegraph their personalities (and to a lesser extent their criminal specialties). But which one steals the spotlight?

Although he is the first one eliminated, Kid Stark (Ned Glass) has the most clearly defined personality, combining swagger and snottiness (and a near-Bugs Bunny Brooklyn accent none of the other brothers share) like a serial-budget Jimmy Cagney. After the Starks plug Ron Merton during the armored car holdup, the Kid goes back to the scene of the crime to make sure the job is finished, holding an innocent cab driver at gunpoint. Chased by Dick Tracy, the cab crashes, and when Tracy pulls up to the accident scene, Kid has the balls to pretend that he was merely an onlooker. “Worst one I ever seen. . . . Poor fellas, they never had a chance,” he says, holding his arm in hopes that Tracy won’t notice how battered he is. But with a broken ankle the Kid is in no shape to run away, and he is promptly arrested. The Starks gamely make an attempt to secure the Kid’s release, but (in a montage of newspaper headlines) he’s tried and sentenced to die before the second chapter is even over. R.I.P. Kid Stark

Sample Dialogue: “Your real teachers are the criminals you’re going to run into from now on. They’ll chalk up a lesson every time you meet them. If you don’t pass . . . curtains.” –Dick Tracy to Ron Merton, Chapter One (“The Sky Wreckers”)

What Others Have Said:Dick Tracy Returns was a more polished serial than its predecessor, because it was made a crucial year after Dick Tracy, and primarily due to the directing team of William Witney and John English. It provided much action that could be later reused in the further serial adventures of Dick Tracy. Its main drawback was in the use of economy chapters.” (see above) –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury

What’s Next: I return to the city of Metropolis with the 1950 superhero epic Atom Man vs. Superman!

Fates Worse Than Death: Superman (1948)

Unlike many of the costumed heroes who made the leap to serials, not only does Superman not need an introduction, but the 1948 Columbia serial bearing his name is remarkably faithful to the comic books in which he regularly appeared. Any modern reader or viewer should recognize the character’s origin, set forth in the first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth”: on the faraway planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El attempts to convince the ruling council that the planet is doomed, a victim of gravitational forces that will soon lead to its complete destruction. Unable to convince them, Jor-El places his infant son Kal-El in a test rocket and launches him to Earth, just before the planet explodes. After landing in a rural part of America (not yet “Smallville”) on Earth, baby Kal-El is adopted and raised by the Kents, a childless couple who instill in their adopted son “Clark” a sense of justice and fair play, even as he develops superhuman strength and incredible abilities. Chapter One ends with Clark Kent on his way to Metropolis to use his powers for the good of mankind.

Also unlike some other serial heroes, Superman wasn’t the character’s first representation outside of comics. Since the first publication of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation in Action Comics no. 1 in 1938, Superman had been a best-selling comic book and newspaper strip character; headlined a radio show (since 1940); and appeared in animated shorts (seventeen cartoons from Fleischer and Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943). It would have been hard to find even a casual follower of popular fiction who didn’t know who Superman was, and that above all may have encouraged producer Sam Katzman to stick to the established mythology. That meant not only keeping Superman’s origin the same, but keeping him at the Daily Planet with Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen (who first appeared as a named character on the radio show in 1940), rather than creating a new cast of characters. It also meant including Kryptonite (introduced on the radio in 1943 and the comics only in 1947), the fragments of Superman’s exploded home planet, the radiation of which was the one force on Earth that could weaken him.

There were still some differences, however, most notably the serial’s choice of villain: the Spider Lady, a blonde woman in a black evening gown and domino mask, is very much within the serial tradition: she has no origin or backstory, no powers of her own, and her persona is “criminal mastermind, but slightly vampier.” (Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor would appear in the following serial, 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman.) More importantly, she holds off on direct confrontations with Superman, prolonging the story by working through her agents, fedora-wearing henchmen with names like Driller and Brock. They may be caught, but she continues her evil work until the last chapter and her inevitable comeuppance. Like her namesake, she sits at the center of a web (literally–the web is an important backdrop of her scenes, and it proves to be electrified, a fitting method of punishing underlings who fail her), plotting and scheming.

Also true to the serial style is the macguffin, a sort of death ray called the Relativity Reducer Ray, developed for the government by Professor Graham, guarded by Superman (so it doesn’t “fall into the wrong hands”), and coveted by the Spider Lady. Described as more powerful than the atomic bomb, the Reducer Ray deals death by remote control: in Chapter Three, which introduces both the Ray and the Spider Lady, a test demonstrates its ability to destroy buildings at a distance by feeding coordinates into its internal computing mechanism. The Ray provides plenty of plot possibilities, whether it’s the Spider Lady’s attempts to stop the test; her attempts to steal, and later copy, the Ray; her kidnapping and later mind-control of the Ray’s inventor, Professor Graham; and her use of it to threaten the Daily Planet itself once she has a functioning copy.

Lois Lane: Poet of the Apocalypse

Finally, the Spider Lady has her own scientist, Dr. Hackett (Charles Quigley), described as “brilliant” but “with a warped mind,” whom she breaks out of jail to aid her; what his previous crimes were is never stated, but he proves to be an ambitious, treacherous character, and his alliance with his patroness an uneasy one. All of these elements serve to provide exciting, varied episodes of action and suspense, many of them based on classic serial premises (e.g., there are mine cave-ins and car chases, and Lois and Jimmy get tied up more than once), but each connected to the central threat of the Spider Lady and enlivened by clever plotting and witty dialogue.

Superman is played by Kirk Alyn (although not according to the title credits: Columbia’s marketers claimed that no actor could be found to convincingly portray the Man of Steel, so they simply got the real thing), who would go on to headline several more serials. Alyn mostly strikes a note of hearty good cheer and optimism as the hero (even when banging two gangsters’ heads together to knock them out he jokes “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength!”), and his Clark Kent is amusingly sketchy. In Chapter Two, Clark essentially gets his position on the Planet (with no prior experience or references) by scooping Lois, and throughout the serial she snipes at him for what she perceives as underhanded maneuvering (she gets her own back a few times as well). She rightly suspects that Clark is simply playing dumb when conversation turns to Superman and his tendency to show up when he’s gone, but she never suspects the truth.

Although Clark’s coworkers chide him for his tendency to duck out when trouble is brewing, Alyn makes this foible seem like the product of bumbling rather than cowardice (and of course, we in the audience know what he’s really up to). Through a variety of special effects, including undercranking (to depict Superman’s super-speed), double exposure (for X-ray vision), and hand-drawn animation for flying sequences, just about all of Superman’s established powers come into play during the story. And of course, the serial format guarantees that he’ll appear in costume at least once in every chapter, whether it’s to laugh off a gangster’s bullets (depicted bouncing off Superman’s chest, again with animation), stop a fire by blowing it out with his super breath, or to catch a flying shell and boomerang it back toward the gun that fired it. Superman even uses his X-ray vision to see through a disguise while looking at a photograph–quite a feat, even for him. Alyn distinguishes Clark from Superman with his voice as well, using a light, wishy-washy tone for Clark and a deeper chest voice for Superman, a transformation made audible (in imitation of the radio serial) every time Clark Kent in voice over says, “This looks like a job for [sudden drop to chest voice] SUPERMAN!”

Noel Neill (who passed away just last year) imbues Lois Lane with the brassy, no-nonsense quality the character had absorbed during the war years, inspired by His Girl Friday and the like (and which would largely be domesticated in the coming 1950s). The frequently-depicted romantic triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman is absent in the serial, but is replaced by a professional rivalry; as mentioned, Lois takes potshots at Clark mercilessly (“What now, little man?” is a typical gibe), but it’s an understandable attitude when she is frequently consigned to writing “women’s stories” about recipes or fashion while Clark gets the headlines.

In addition to driving the plot, the tension between the pair is a natural source of comedy, with Perry White (Pierre Watkin)and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond, formerly Butch in the Our Gang shorts) also contributing to the quippy, fast-paced scenes. (As an aside, it’s nice to have a humorous tone carried by dialogue and situation, rather than a single “comic relief” character, as in the Republic formula.)

As the Spider Lady, Carol Forman is a haughty, imperious villainess in the classic style. She doesn’t do much, but preening and pontificating are enough for this type of character: other than her electrified web, it appears to be the power of her will and ruthless pursuit of her goals alone that keep her underlings in line. There is one scene, however, probably meant as a throwaway, that deepens the character’s mystery: in Chapter Nine (“Irresistible Force!”), the only time in the serial that the Spider Lady leaves her lair, she goes to the airport disguised as Lois Lane to trick Professor Graham, the Reducer Ray’s inventor, into accompanying her. Throughout the serial, the Spider Lady has been a blonde, but in preparing to disguise herself, she removes a blonde wig to reveal a head of dark hair.

At no other time is it even suggested that she is wearing a disguise, and she’s a blonde for the rest of the serial. Visually, the Spider Lady (whom Harmon and Glut in The Great Movie Serials describe as “faintly foreign” in appearance) changes from a Veronica Lake type to a more fitting Myrna Loy type, perhaps revealing her true colors. (Or perhaps it’s nothing more than an inside joke: Forman was naturally a brunette, and had played another spider-themed villainess for Superman director Spencer Bennet the year before in The Black Widow. Forman didn’t want to be typecast as a villain, but she played several in the serials.) Serials didn’t generally go in for the duality of hero and villain, but when you have a blank slate of a character like the Spider Lady, any suggestion of depth, however subtle, makes an impression. As Clark Kent would be the first to acknowledge, sometimes it’s the appearance you wear every day that is the real disguise.

What I Watched: Superman (Columbia, 1948)

Where I Watched It: Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection, a 4-DVD set from DC/Warner Home Video

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Superman to the Rescue” (Chapter Eight)

Best Cliffhanger: Superman features many good cliffhangers, including some classics, such as the car speeding off a cliff, and an unconscious victim placed on a conveyor belt, headed toward doom, among others. Wisely, once Superman’s invulnerability is established in the first few chapters, the filmmakers don’t try to convince us that the Man of Steel is going to be killed by something as pedestrian as a gunshot or an explosion, and the only cliffhangers that leave his fate in doubt involve Kryptonite. Rather, it’s Superman’s friends who face peril at the end of each chapter, the question being whether Superman will get there in time to rescue them (a few chapters end with Superman entangled in some other problem that will presumably leave him unavailable) or if they will find their own way out of the danger. (In the examples I mentioned above, it’s Lois Lane in the speeding car and Jimmy Olsen on the conveyor belt; at the end of another chapter, Perry White is thrown out the window of his office, hanging onto the ledge by his fingertips.)

At the end of Chapter Fourteen (“Superman at Bay”), the Spider Lady has finally gotten Professor Graham’s Reducer Ray working, and to test it she has the Professor aim its destructive force at the corner of the jail in which her henchman Anton and Dr. Hackett are being held (she will demonstrate the ray’s power and eliminate some “useless people” at one stroke). Unbeknownst to her (not that it would make any difference), Lois Lane is visiting the two inmates at the jail in hopes of persuading them to talk, and she is present when the power of the ray manifests in the form of an intense glow. An explosion ends the chapter. (At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, Superman, having overheard the Spider Lady’s instructions, flies to the jail to swoop in and carry Lois to safety, leaving Hackett and the other inmates to suck eggs, I guess. A newspaper headline following the incident notes “Many Prisoners Killed.” They don’t get top billing, though.)

The Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: The resolution to the cliffhanger I described above involves a bit of a cheat, but the winner is the cliffhanger that ends Chapter Eleven (“Superman’s Dilemma”) and its resolution. Chapter Eleven focuses on “mono-chromite,” a secret ingredient needed for the Reducer Ray, and the lengths to which the Spider Lady’s henchmen go to obtain it. Two of the Spider Lady’s operatives show up at a chemical engineer’s office demanding mono-chromite. Since it’s a restricted material, the engineer puts the men off and contacts Perry White. Lois gets the jump on Clark by telling him to take her car and then reporting it stolen, so that Clark is picked up by the police and taken to jail: there may not be a jail built that can hold Superman, but he can’t afford to jeopardize his secret identity by breaking out or overpowering a policeman! In the mean time, Lois and Jimmy get to the engineer’s office and conceive a plan: Jimmy hides in a packing crate marked “mono-chromite” so that when the Spider Lady’s men pick it up, he’ll be taken straight to her lair! Unfortunately, when the crate comes open during the drive back, the drivers get suspicious and stop to check on it. One of the thugs sees Jimmy’s fingers closing the crate, so he and the other henchman open fire and shoot the crate full of holes.

But wait! As the next chapter begins, we see Clark Kent in his jail cell change into Superman. He bundles up Clark Kent’s clothing under the blanket on his bunk to hide his disappearance and, bending the bars on the window easily, flies off to rescue Jimmy. Not only does he know exactly where to find his pal (Jimmy doesn’t yet have his famous signal watch in this serial, but Superman finds him anyway), he has time to take his place in the crate, so that when the driver begins shooting (and it’s only one henchman shooting in this chapter, not both as in the previous cliffhanger), the bullets bounce harmlessly off him. After knocking out the gangsters and tying them up at super-speed, Superman flies back to the jail and resumes Clark Kent’s identity, just in time for the jailer to let him out, having confirmed his identity from Perry White. Whew! It’s all in a day’s work for (sudden basso profundo) Superman!

NOT a dream! NOT an imaginary story! “Clark Kent: Super-JAILBIRD!”

Sample Dialogue:

Lois (regaining consciousness): How did we get here?
Clark: Superman got us out through a hole he made in the side of that hill.
Lois: He’s wonderful isn’t he, Clark?
Clark: I guess so.
Lois: You guess so? . . . Say, weren’t these handcuffs on our other hands before?

–Chapter Thirteen, “Hurled to Destruction”

What Others Have Said: “As Superman, Kirk Alyn looks the part. He was a former Broadway chorus boy who’d worked his way up to become a Columbia day player, and his athletic form required little in the way of muscle padding. (If he doesn’t quite live up to the illustration on the serial’s movie poster–Superman as a downright steroidal mountain of muscle–few men of the day could.)”
–Glen Weldon, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography

What’s Next: Join me as I explore the second Dick Tracy serial, 1938’s Dick Tracy Returns!

Kamandi Challenge no. 6

Main cover by Andy Kubert and Brad Anderson

“The Insides-Out Adventure”
Writer:
Steve Orlando
Penciller: Philip Tan
Inker: Norm Rapmund
Colorist: Dean White
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

At the conclusion of last month’s Kamandi Challenge, Kamandi had fallen into the clutches of Dr. Vokolo, a lemur physician in possession of a 3-D “bio-printer.” Vokolo was willing to sacrifice Kamandi for the sake of saving potential lives in the future, a process that entailed removing the still-living Kamandi’s internal organs to be scanned. Alas, there was no plan to put them back when Vokolo was done with them, so things looked bleak for our hero. The tiger man Raja Maccao (“Mack”), whom Kamandi had earlier been traveling with (and who was already searching for Vokolo in hopes of finding a cure for a plague of “weeping pox” elsewhere), burst into Vokolo’s lab and was greeted by a sight out of an EC horror comic.

“What have you done to Kamandi?!” Mack demands as Kamandi Challenge number 6 gets underway. The good doctor explains what is happening, finishing with the ominous promise that “The only thing keeping your friend alive . . . is me.” So to motivate Vokolo, Mack shoots him in the gut, forcing him to use the “bio-printer” to save himself and Kamandi. Well, actually, it takes seven hours to print the regenerative “gene therapy” that they eventually find in the computer’s records, but Vokolo estimates that he has only three hours to live after being gut-shot, so in the end he gets what was coming to him, and only Kamandi lasts long enough to benefit from the gene therapy.

After Kamandi awakens, good as new, Mack chooses to stay behind and look for a cure for weeping pox among the late doctor’s resources. To help Kamandi continue his search for his people, he directs him to an old friend, a superhuman scientist named Renzi. Renzi is a character from Jack Kirby’s original Kamandi series, but his appearance here is largely a cameo. The pair are shown traveling by high-tech hot-air balloon just long enough to establish that Renzi possesses a “cyclo-heart,” an atomic energy source that allows him to change his body to a metallic substance for short durations, before they are shot down over an unknown source of intense heat. Renzi assumes his steel form to protect Kamandi, but both black out in the crash; they awaken in chains, the prisoner of intelligent bears. Renzi is separated from Kamandi: the bears have use of his cyclo-heart.

Kamandi is brought face-to-face with Groznovo, the “Alpha of Alphas”; Mishkingrad, the “God-Commune of the Bears” is a high-tech Soviet collective (because bears, get it?), and Groznovo wears a crown that receives and tallies the collective decisions of the commune’s inhabitants, which he interprets and executes. His status as a channel for the will of the people is quite literal. Kamandi challenges Groznovo’s position, telling him that by being subject to the constantly shifting demands of the people he has merely chosen a different form of slavery, and is free of the burden of ever making his own decisions. Groznovo accepts this idea surprisingly quickly, and in fact lets Kamandi know that he has been tiring of the demands of duty for some time. If ever there was an opportunity for him to break free from the commune’s collective rule, Kamandi has presented Groznovo with it; the bear promises to lead Kamandi to where Renzi is being held.

Throughout their flight through the city, Kamandi notices strangely anatomical references that go beyond the usual discussion of a city’s “bones”: the transit system is referred to as “vascular,” and so on. Near the end of this chapter we see just what Renzi’s atomic-powered heart is being used for: the “God-Commune” is a giant, self-contained city, but it is in the form an enormous, autonomous bear, and with Renzi’s heart as its reactor, it can generate enough power to get up and move about freely. Ultimately, Groznovo has been playing Kamandi: the bear truly wants to be free, but he will not betray the commune’s ideals. He has led Kamandi away from the furnace in which Renzi is being held captive. Kamandi accuses Groznovo of using him, and the pair fight as the bear-shaped city plods along, leaving flames in its wake. Groznovo makes it clear that in a choice between loyalty to Kamandi and his own people, he will always choose his people, and he reluctantly throws Kamandi overboard.

“The Insides-Out Adventure” moves at a quick pace, first resolving the cliffhanger of Kamandi’s vivisection, then getting him into the balloon with Renzi, and finally dropping both of them into the city of the bears. Without the colorful dialogue that tempered the pace of Bill Willingham’s contribution last month, and with four full-page splashes (including an impressive two-page spread of the city coming to life), the effect is an adventure that feels a bit rushed. In particular, Kamandi’s debate with Groznovo on the nature of free will, which seems to be the central theme writer Steve Orlando wants to convey, doesn’t have much tension; Groznovo’s abdication of his crown is a nearly foregone conclusion. (The real twist comes at the end, when he refuses to help rescue Renzi and dispenses with Kamandi.)

Communism (or a high-tech iteration of it) comes off as something of a straw man here, but that is hardly surprising: like most American comic book heroes, and particularly characters who inhabit lands as savage as Earth A. D. (After Disaster), Kamandi’s ideals of freedom and self-determination are particularly American in form: the freedom to go where he pleases, and to bow to no man (or bear) are central. Furthermore, Kamandi has occasional traveling companions, but no tribe: the idea of submitting his own will to a greater good is quite out of place in the lawless kill-or-be-killed wilds of the future. (As in previous installments, comparisons are drawn between the mute, sheep-like humans the bears have penned in captivity and the boy who will not be silenced; as in Planet of the Apes, “This is what happens when a human thinks for himself!”)

Recalling the first chapter, Kamandi was brought up in a sheltered simulation of a typical small town, so one imagines that his schooling included American Government or Civics: like any student who has left school to strike out on his own, part of Kamandi’s story has been his disillusionment upon discovering that the world isn’t what he thought it was, and his subsequent discovery of his own power. His encounter with the communist bears is a test of his beliefs, but one too brief to really challenge them, and in effect the God-Commune is just another cruel domain ruled by an Other, an animal race that has taken one trait of human civilizations (collectivism) to an extreme.

Fates Worse Than Death: Dick Tracy (1937)

DT37.title

DT37.LameOne1

Late at night, a band of disparate, seemingly unrelated men board a train and gather together in a private compartment, summoned by the one man they all fear–all but one! Korvitch swears that he bows to no man, and doubts that their master is even onboard the train. But then they hear it: shuffling, uneven footsteps, the steps of the criminal mastermind known only as the Lame One, whose mark is the Spider. The Lame One appears at the compartment’s door in shadows; Korvitch fires his gun, but the Lame One only laughs. Later, Korvitch wanders the empty streets, a haunted man, as behind him those uneven, shuffling footsteps pursue him relentlessly. When Korvitch’s body is found the next morning, a look of terror is frozen on his face, and branded on his skin is the mark of the Spider. Only one man can unravel this mystery and stand in the way of the Spider ring’s other crimes, and that man is Dick Tracy!

DT37.Korvitch

We quickly join Tracy and his team at the Federal Office Building with Tracy answering phone calls and giving terse answers. “I think you’d better take that up with Anderson’s office. Yes, he has my report on it. . . . Well, I know all about that.” Et cetera. “You’re about the busiest man I ever saw,” Tracy’s visiting brother Gordon observes. The “Spider mark” cases are occupying the bureau’s attention, and Tracy remarks on the curious fact that each victim found with the mark has turned out to be a well-known criminal. On this day, Tracy’s birthday, Gordon and Tracy’s assistant Gwen try to drag Tracy to the estate of Ellery Brewster, who has set up a carnival, complete with circus performers, to entertain the children from the orphanage. Brewster was one of the men summoned to report to the Lame One on the train before, and when he too is murdered and left with the Spider’s mark, a day of pleasure turns into business for Dick Tracy. The murder is solved, but it was committed by an expendable underling, of course: the Spider ring remains as mysterious as ever.

DT37.Gordonbefore

Gordon recalls receiving a sealed envelope from Brewster before his murder, which may have information about the Spider ring, but when he drives to his office to retrieve it, he is run off the road by more of the Spider’s men. Injured and taken to Moloch, the Lame One’s hunchbacked scientist, Gordon is operated on, with dramatic results: by “a simple altering of certain glands,” Moloch changes Gordon’s personality so that he does not know right from wrong and enlists him as a criminal associate. (In fact, it changes him so much that Gordon before and after the operation is played by two different actors!)

DT37.Gordonafter

All of this, and more, takes place in just the first (extra-long) chapter of the 1937 Republic serial Dick Tracy. With a drastically changed appearance and a dead-eyed stare, Gordon effectively becomes the “spearhead villain” of the serial, conceiving and executing plots in each chapter on behalf of the Lame One (whose identity of course remains secret until the end). The other men seen in the train compartment at the beginning each take a turn, and the range of crimes is broad, whether it’s destroying a bridge, hijacking a gold shipment, or stealing an experimental aircraft for a foreign power. This “case of the week” format with a long-term arc that connects them all is not unusual for a serial, and it makes the middle chapters feel particularly episodic: with this format, the serial could be ten chapters or a hundred, and it’s not hard to see how later television series picked up this formula and ran with it.

DT37.poster

Written and drawn by cartoonist Chester Gould, Dick Tracy had been a smash success since its first appearance in newspapers in 1931, and began a radio series in 1934. It was only a matter of time before the famous detective made an appearance on film. 1937’s Dick Tracy was the first of four Republic serials, all starring Ralph Byrd in the title role, and there would later be four RKO feature films starring Morgan Conway and Byrd again, not to mention the 1990 film starring and directed by Warren Beatty. Although later famous for its grotesque villains and gimmicky gadgets, the newspaper strip was at first notable for its realism, both in the level of violence portrayed and in Tracy’s reliance on cutting-edge police techniques. While strongly influenced by the “hard-boiled” writers of the 1920s, Dick Tracy was one of the first police “procedurals,” influencing not only comics but television and prose detective fiction to come.

DickTracy1931

A panel from Dick Tracy’s first adventure in 1931

DT37.clues

In fact, Max Allan Collins (Dick Tracy‘s writer after Gould retired, and a commentator on the disc I watched) makes the point that much of the grotesquerie and spy-fi for which Dick Tracy was later known is strongly present in the serials of the ’30s, and may have influenced Gould. While the famous two-way wrist radio wouldn’t appear in the comics until 1946, the 1937 film is full of the scientific wonders that serial viewers had come to expect, such as a disintegrator that used high-frequency sound vibrations to destroy buildings; a stratospheric “flying wing” airplane and a different high-speed plane; and even a special radio-equipped belt that allowed Tracy to communicate with his team while undercover. Contemporary technology, while now appearing quaint, also plays a part: a few chapters hinge on recordings made with phonographs, for example. There is also a strong element of the grotesque: while the Lame One’s infirmity and hideous appearance is a disguise, Moloch’s hunch back is the real thing. And once he has been turned to evil, Gordon Tracy (Carleton Young) makes for a striking, creepy villain: scarred, dead-eyed, and skunk-striped.

DT37.disintegrator

Of course, some changes came with the adaptation to the serial format, as was almost always the case, but readers of Dick Tracy at least found a hero in the serial that they would have been able to recognize. Rather than a plainclothes detective, Republic’s Dick Tracy was a G-man, working for the FBI’s Western Division, and instead of Chicago he operated out of San Francisco. Gone was Tracy’s perennial love interest Tess Trueheart (there is, in fact, no romantic angle at all; the only woman in the serial is Tracy’s lab assistant Gwen, a purely professional relation). Tracy’s supporting cast is made up of typical serial character types: Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton) is a reliable tough guy and pilot; Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) is the comic relief; Junior (Lee Van Atta, seen in Republic’s Undersea Kingdom the previous year), as in the comics, is an orphan allowed to tag along and help Tracy (and occasionally get himself into trouble).

DT37.DickTracy1

Ralph Byrd is more baby-faced than the hawk-nosed Tracy of the comics, but that’s typical of leading men in general in the 1930s, who often seem a little soft in comparison to today’s standard; most lean or craggy character actors got typed as villains in the serials. Byrd fits the role in most other respects, though: he’s energetic, projecting a can-do magnetism but with enough warmth that it’s easy to see why his friends remain so devoted to him. And the serial itself gives him plenty of opportunities for heroism and detection, with most chapters combining furious action with slower-paced scenes of discovering and analyzing clues. Dick Tracy adheres to a common formula, but it executes it with such energy and flair that it could be taken as a model for producer Nat Levine’s ambitions for Republic; along with its able cast and well-paced story, it boasts impressive effects, exciting music, and a smattering of comic relief (in addition to Burnette, stuttering hillbilly comics Oscar and Elmer show up for a couple of scenes). The result is a very enjoyable serial and it is easy to see why it generated so many sequels.

DT37.flyingwing

What I Watched: Dick Tracy (Republic, 1937)

Where I Watched It: Dick Tracy Complete Serial Collection from VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Rides the Sky” (Chapter Four)

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Best Cliffhanger: Dick Tracy includes several classic cliffhangers, including plane crashes (and the crash of a burning zeppelin!) and boat crashes (the ending of Chapter Three, “The Fur Pirates,” finds Tracy trapped between two giant steamers, threatening to crush his boat as they move closer; another chapter finds Tracy pulled into the water by a rope attached to a departing submarine). However, my favorite cliffhanger comes at the end of Chapter Twelve, “The Trail of the Spider,” an otherwise unremarkable recap episode. Tracy and his team have brought together witnesses to some of the events from earlier in the serial, prompting flashbacks to those scenes. (The only remarkable development in this chapter is that Tracy finally learns of Moloch’s operation on his brother Gordon.) After the flashbacks, the Lame One himself enters their headquarters and, after removing a fuse to black out the lights, shines the “spider signal” on Tracy and shoots him! At least, he appears to; viewers in 1937 had to wait a whole week to find out if Tracy got out alive.

DT37.Tracy.spider

Sample Dialogue:
Moloch (stroking black cat): “Brother against brother. One good, one evil. Ah, I wonder which will win?”
The Lame One: “We shall eliminate the G-Man!”

DT37.Moloch

What Others Have Said: “Chester Gould produced a contemporary knight in shining armor who was ready, willing, and able to fight the criminal with, if necessary, the criminal’s own weapons, to fight the toughs with equal or even greater toughness. Chester Gould created Dick Tracy to meet the desperate need of the times. Dick Tracy’s job was to regain the almost vanished respect for the law and to be the instrument of his enforcement. As Gould once said in an interview, ‘I decided that if the police couldn’t catch the gangsters, I’d create a fellow who would.'” –Ellery Queen, “The Importance of Being Earnest; or, The Survival of the Finest”

DT37.Dick.and.Steve

What’s Next: There are three more Dick Tracy serials, but I intend to space them out rather than plow straight through the series. So my next update will be on the 1948 Superman serial, starring Kirk Alyn!

Kamandi Challenge no. 5

KC5.cover

Variant cover by Ivan Reis and Marcelo Maiolo

“Sub Tropical Thunder”
Writer: Bill Willingham
Penciller: Ivan Reis
Inker: Oclair Albert
Colorist: Marcelo Maiolo
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

As Kamandi Challenge no. 5 begins, Kamandi and Vila are being chased by the Kanga Rat Murder Society, by whom they were captured at the end of the last issue. Self-proclaimed guardians of the “Wondrous Western Wall,” the Kanga Rats have given our heroes their choice of vehicle and weapons to defend themselves–they’re sportsmen, not monsters. Kamandi, in the driver’s seat, switches places with Vila so that he can shoot back at the hunters while she drives, and Vila makes the calculation that she can save them by driving off a convenient cliff and landing in open water (sure, last issue they were in “the heart of the scorched Outback,” and now they’re on the shore of the ocean, but whatever). Despite Kamandi’s protests, Vila does just that, growing and extending her plant body to create a protective shell around Kamandi, Groot-like, and then transforming herself into a raft (previous stories showed Vila regenerating herself, but this is the first indicator that she has this much control over her form; still, it’s inventive and exciting, so I’m willing to roll with it). After days adrift at sea, Vila enters a dormant state, assuring Kamandi that she will awaken and regenerate anew once she is in contact with soil and fresh water.

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Alas, Kamandi is picked up by a passing boat while asleep, and his rescuers (a literal “sea dog” and his crew) leave Vila behind, taking her for a bundle of twigs. Perhaps Vila, Kamandi’s longest-lasting companion in this series (and an original character, at that), will turn up again, but for now the Last Boy on Earth has a new ally. After working aboard the ship in exchange for passage, Kamandi is introduced to the tiger man Raja Maccao, professional wrestler-turned-detective and fount of stories (mostly about himself and his many successful cases). Kamandi tags along (for weeks, elapsed in montage) in hopes of finding his own people and for lack of anywhere better to go.

Kamandi and Raja are taken by surprise by the airborne “Bintur horde,” a band of rodent people riding giant owls and hawks. After yet another running battle that ends with Kamandi leaping off a cliff into a river, the two are separated and Kamandi is captured by the horde. He blacks out and awakens a captive of a lemur scientist, who explains that his “3-D bio-printer,” which can fabricate replacement organs for 97 species, will soon be able to replicate human organs as well, at the small price of sacrificing Kamandi’s life, since the printer cannot create without first analyzing samples from living specimens. (While this mad doctor differs from the others encountered so far in that his intentions are noble, the end result is the same for Kamandi.)

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The doctor has begun prepping Kamandi for exploratory surgery (vivisection, really) by his automated operating table when Raja Maccao bursts in to the secluded laboratory (having tracked the aerial raiders by their mounts’ extensive droppings), but it appears that he is too late: the last page, with the doctor holding Kamandi’s heart in his hand and the boy’s chest cavity opened and empty, a look of terror frozen on Kamandi’s face, is the grisliest sight we’ve seen yet. In addition to being far more graphic than usual for this character or his world, it leaves a real challenge for Steve Orlando and Philip Tan when they pick up the story next month!

As the bare plot description suggests, five months into the Kamandi Challenge we’re seeing some recurring plot elements: sudden raids from above; Kamandi escaping by jumping off of or into something; Kamandi losing consciousness and waking up in a strange, new place; and captivity by scientists for whom a talking human is a challenge or opportunity that cannot be denied. But Kamandi can also count on making friends wherever he goes, and proving himself worthy of their faith in him. If I had to name a single quality that defines Kamandi, in his various incarnations, beyond his bravery, intelligence, or strength, I would say it is his resilience.

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Written by Fables‘ Bill Willingham, “Sub Tropical Thunder” provides a real sense of texture through its characters’ dialogue, from the rustic “sea dog” Babal Crow (“Plucked you out of the sea, we did, as you were good as dead. That’s all I ken.”) to the name-dropping, self-mythologizing Raja (“I was a frisky kitty, hungry for game and fame.”), who in a few pages mentors Kamandi in a way we haven’t really seen since Doctor Canus’ departure from the story. Even Vila’s dialogue gives a sense of her as slightly alien, with an unusual perspective. The attention to detail goes a long way toward making familiar character types and situation feel fresh.

I also enjoyed the illustrations by Reis, Albert, and Maiolo, which combine dynamic compositions and panel design with fine (but unfussy) detail. Each artist in this series has brought something of their own personality and style to the ongoing book, and like Dale Eaglesham’s work in issue no. 1, this month’s art resembles the classic comic strips of Hal Foster or Alex Raymond, including some great-looking full-page splashes. The various creatures, including a range of humanoid and giant animals, are nicely realized, with a sense of weight and movement matching their particular anatomies, and subtly-rendered textures like the woody grain of Vila’s skin or the fur on Raja’s muzzle look so real you can almost touch them. The art also emphasizes Kamandi’s boyishness as well, mostly by giving him more childish features (particularly a small nose and full lips), but also by placing him against larger figures or in the corners of panels, highlighting how small and vulnerable he is in this world.

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Finally, there aren’t too many clues dropped in this issue about either the source of the Great Disaster or Kamandi’s importance, but at the same time it’s mercifully free of psychedelic dream sequences, which I’ve mostly begun to think of as red herrings, since the round-robin nature of the series means we won’t really be able to assign meaning to anything until a later writer contributes something that either confirms or denies a particular clue’s significance. That’s okay with me: Jack Kirby was never too concerned himself with seeding mysteries to be resolved in grand arcs, instead concentrating on the pleasures of episodic storytelling, and Kamandi in particular has always been an especially pure example of that impulse: the rhythms of Kamandi are as old as serial narrative–captivity, escape, flight, and rescue–and are represented in spades by “Sub Tropical Thunder.”