Random Musings: This election year, the choice is clear:

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Gracie Allen for President!

Whaddya mean, “She’s dead!”? What does that have to do with anything? According to the U.S. Constitution, a presidential candidate must be a natural born citizen, at least 35 years old and a resident within the U.S. for 14 years. Nowhere in that venerable document does it say a candidate has to be alive.

Seriously, though, between Feb. 28 and May 29, 1940, Gracie Allen launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign for the presidency on the Burns and Allen Program (technically, the Hinds Honey and Almond Cream Program, since radio shows of the time were actually named for their sponsors). She declared herself the candidate of the Surprise Party Ticket.

gracie-for-president

Gracie’s campaign, like her 1933 “search” for her “missing” brother, crossed over to other radio programs of the time, including Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly. Surviving campaign episodes are collected in the Radio Spirits collection: Burns and Allen: Gracie Allen for President.

The Gracie Allen character was a bit scatter-brained (though the real life Gracie was very smart; according to the Burns and Allen entry in John Dunning’s On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, she held her own as a guest on the quiz show Information Please); and at one point in the Feb. 28, 1940 broadcast, she said she’d make a sign with nothing on it. “For the nudist vote.”

Asked if she’s in favor of monopolies, Gracie said she doesn’t play Monopoly. She likes Mahjong better.

She also said we should be proud of our national debt. “It’s the biggest in the world.”

The Surprise Party was represented by a mother kangaroo with a baby protruding from her pouch. Gracie said her election slogan was, “It’s in the bag.”

Another Surprise Party slogan was, “Down with common sense.”

When dictating a letter, Gracie started out with, “To all other presidential candidates, semicolon, United States of America, period. Gentlemen, question mark.”

George Burns interjected, “Gentlemen, question mark?” as Gracie continued with, “Well, boys. The jig is up.”

In that same letter, she also asked the other candidates to vote for her. As she explained to Burns, “There are so many presidential candidates that if I only get half of them to vote for me, I’m bound to be elected.”

Burns tried to dissuade her from running and he wasn’t the only one to question Gracie’s candidacy. However, Gracie didn’t always recognize others’ statements of doubt. In describing a recent appearance on the Jack Benny show on the March 6, 1940 Burns and Allen show, Gracie said, “Mary Livingtone’s going to be queen of England.”

“Mary Livingtone’s going to be Queen of England?” Burns repeated.

“That’s what she said,” Gracie replied. “She said, ‘Gracie, when you’re president of the United States, I’ll be the Queen of England.’”

To put these broadcasts into historical perspective, Roosevelt was finishing his second term in 1940. Up to that point, no president had run for a third consecutive term; and, in point of fact, FDR isn’t even mentioned as a candidate in any of the various episodes in the Radio Spirits collection (ironically, neither is eventual Republican nominee Wendell Willkie). In fact, at one point in the Feb. 28, 1940 Burns and Allen episode, Gracie said that if she were the current president, she’d have to move out soon. And in the March 6, 1940 episode, she gets a call from someone asking if she can recommend a good trucking company to move some items. When Burns asks who called, Gracie replies, “President Roosevelt.”

As to the other candidates, both parties had a slew of them. Democratic candidates included Vice President John Nance Gardner and former postmaster general James Farley. Republicans included former president Herbert Hoover, Manhattan District Attorney (and later New York governor) Thomas Dewey and Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg.

Gracie’s campaign also included a whistle-stop tour to the Surprise Party’s national convention in Omaha (the May 5, 1940 Burns and Allen episode was broadcast live from that city).

She even had a campaign song, “Vote for Gracie”, which debuted on the March 6, 1940 episode of Burns and Allen. One lyric from the song: “Even big politicians don’t know what to do. Gracie doesn’t either, but neither do you.”

The song’s music and lyrics were available by mail not long after.

According to a program booklet by radio historian Elizabeth McLeod, Gracie addressed a crowd of more than 80,000 in Omaha and her “candidacy” got a write-up in the March 18, 1940 edition of Time Magazine. McLeod wrote that not even Dewey, the presumptive front runner, got coverage that favorable in Time publisher Henry Luce’s publications that spring.

She also writes that Harvard students, “voted Gracie their endorsement”, even over alumnus FDR.

According to McLeod, no records survive to say for sure whether Gracie got any actual votes in November 1940 (she did get 63 votes in Wisconsin during the primary). But she adds, “Given the American habit of seeing the humor in just about any absurd situation, and given the unmistakable appeal of the Surprise Party’s nutty-pine platform, we wouldn’t be surprised.”

These radio episodes might not be for everyone, but if you enjoy comedy and/or politics (which can sometimes be comedic in and of itself), you’ll probably like them.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: A review of Star Trek Continues’ “Embracing the Winds.”

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star-trek-continues-titles

Fifty years ago today, Star Trek debuted on NBC. While it was revolutionary at the time for being the first serious (rather than kid-vid) American science fiction television series with continuing characters, no one could have imagined it’d become a pop culture phenomenon that’d spawn several additional TV and movie series; a plethora of books, games, puzzles, models, blueprints and toys and high-quality fan-made original productions.

Last Saturday, the fan-produced series Star Trek Continues, which films on sets uncannily like those of the original series (and which are arranged in the same configuration as the original sound stages), released its seventh full episode, “Embracing the Winds.”

Captain Kirk (Vic Mignogna) and Mr. Spock (Todd Haberkorn) are summoned to the starbase at Corinth IV by Commodore Laura Gray (Erin Gray), where they learn that crew of the U.S.S. Hood was lost in a life support systems failure. With only seven Constitution-class starships still in service, Gray needs an experienced officer to take command of the Hood. She selects Spock.

A complication arises when Commander Diana Garrett (Clare Kramer) from Earth spacedock files an appeal with Starfleet Command, arguing that she is being passed over for that command because of her gender. Kirk’s initial reaction, on hearing this news, is to argue that Garrett should become the new captain of the Hood. He genuinely believes it’s time a woman commanded a starship (and if Garrett were to take command of the Hood, he wouldn’t lose Spock).

However, after reviewing Garrett’s record and interviewing her, Kirk becomes convinced that while a woman should captain a Constitution-class starship, Garrett is not the right woman for that job.

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Kirk greets Garrett.

The misogynistic Tellarites, a key founding member of the Federation a century earlier (and in a much stronger position than Earth at that time), have played a large part in why a woman has never captained a starship before. Commodore Gray (who points out to Kirk that her command of a starbase is viewed differently than command of a starship) believes it would be unwise to further antagonize the Tellarites, who have threatened to pull their seat on the Federation Council in light of the recent controversy over the admission of Coridan to the Federation (as seen in the original series episode “Journey to Babel”).

Spock, who initially also supported Garrett’s promotion to captain if she were the better choice, second-guesses that decision as well, arguing that now might not be the best time to challenge the Tellarites’ cultural beliefs.

He seeks input from Dr. Elise McKennah (Michele Specht), the ship’s counselor. She points out that when bias is present, it’s often deep and subconscious.

Spock concurs, acknowledging the biases he’s faced over the years, but argues that Commander Garrett’s record has numerous issues which necessitate further scrutiny.

When McKennah asks if Garrett’s record would be under the same degree of scrutiny if she were a man, Spock says he believes it would, but adds that one can never be certain of another’s motives.

“No, we can’t,” McKennah says. “But we can certainly strive to be clear about our own.”

At a formal hearing, it’s up to Kirk to cast the deciding vote regarding the Hood’s new captain.

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Garrett and Spock.

Meanwhile, with Scotty (Chris Doohan) in command, the Enterprise sets out to tow the Hood back to the starbase. Lt. Uhura (Kim Stinger) reports there had been no unusual transmissions and that the Hood had been investigating a subspace anomaly when life support failed. Something seems wrong to Scotty and he doesn’t want to try towing the other ship without knowing more.

Chekov (Wyatt Lenhart) is able to remotely restore life support to the Hood’s engineering section and Scotty leads a landing party to the stricken ship.

A containment failure develops, putting the Hood in danger and preventing the landing party from being beamed back. But Chekov contrives a risky solution from the Enterprise.

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The Hood and the Enterprise

At the hearing, Garrett argues the underlying issue is that Starfleet has overlooked (intentionally or not) capable officers for certain positions because they’re women.

While the episode, with teleplay by James Kerwin and Mignogna and story by Kerwin (who also directed), is good, the ending is a copout. There’s no satisfactory resolution to either what killed the crew of the Hood (a fact that worries Scotty) or to the issue of women as starship captains. There was also no indication that this was a two-part story, with answers to either or both plot threads coming in the next episode.

It’s also somewhat odd that Star Trek Continues would establish that women haven’t been starship captains.

Yes, in the final original series episode, “Turnabout Intruder”, there’s a scene where Dr. Janice Lester, a former lover of Kirk’s, complains, “Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women. It’s not fair.” Kirk agrees, but Lester is mentally unbalanced. It’s reasonable to assume that she had been rejected for command for that reason, not her gender and Kirk had given up arguing with her. In fact, that view was put forth decades ago in the Best of Trek books of articles and essays. Star Trek Continues could have taken a page from those books.

But since that series established that women hadn’t yet captained starships, why leave the issue unresolved in this episode? At one point, Garrett argues that this may not be her time, but that’s not true for other women in Starfleet. The story might have been better served if one of those other women Garrett referenced had also been a contender for the job.

Imagine this scenario: Spock isn’t under consideration. Instead, two women (call them “Smith” and “Jones.”) are. Both are well qualified for the job, but both also have shortcomings. As in the produced episode, it’s up to Kirk to cast the deciding vote. However, he’s had a past adversarial relationship with Jones and selects Smith. He tells himself Smith was the right candidate, but later wonders if his animosity toward Jones, who might have actually had the better qualifications, played a role in that decision. It would also have provided a nice parallel to Spock’s discussion with McKennah.

The winds of the title are the winds of change. When the Tellarite ambassador admits to Kirk that he’s part of a faction that sees his people’s attitudes as outmoded and acknowledges that change is coming, Kirk advises him to embrace the winds.

As to Garrett, her comment to Kirk that a Garrett may one day command the Enterprise implies that one of her descendants will be Captain Rachel Garrett, commander of the Enterprise C in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise.”

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Kirk and Garrett discuss the future.

Regarding the original Star Trek series, according to These are the Voyages: TOS Season One (page 386), NBC informed Desilu, the studio that made Star Trek, on March 6, 1966 that the series was given an initial order of 16 episodes. What if the series hadn’t been picked up for a full season? How would Star Trek have been different?

Well, for one thing, it might have become a little-remembered curiosity, possibly resurrected only with the advent of DVDs.

For another, most of what we now associate with Star Trek, such as the Klingons, the Federation, Starfleet Command and the Prime Directive, would never have come about. Those elements, some of which were introduced by producer Gene Coon, didn’t come into play until the latter part of the first season. In fact the Enterprise’s operating authority is somewhat nebulous in the early episodes, with “United Earth Space Probe Agency” and “Space Central” being among the terms used.

While Star Trek was, on the one hand, “just” a TV series, its impact on both popular culture and technology can’t be denied. The large Enterprise model isn’t in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum “just because.” It’s there because it’s a cultural artifact.

That same cultural impact is why fans continue to produce series like Star Trek Continues.

“Embracing the Winds” (and all Star Trek Continues episodes) can be viewed on YouTube or at startrekcontinues.com

Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating.

 

Random Musings: Reviewing The Mill Creek Irregulars: Special Detectives

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Mill Creek Irregulars

In August 1922, two adventurous boys spending two weeks in the country find themselves embroiled in a mystery involving an unpleasant neighbor, his stepdaughter and a pair of mysterious strangers.

The Mill Creek Irregulars: Special Detectives by August Derleth is a 1959 book that follows the adventures of Steve Grendon and Simoleon “Sim” Jones in Sac Prairie, Wisconsin and the outlying countryside (a fictionalized version of Derleth’s home town of Sauk City). Steve is invited to stay with his Great Uncle Joe and Great Aunt Lou about six or seven miles out in the country and invites Sim along.

They don’t set out to investigate anything; they just plan to relax and have fun (primarily by fishing as far as Sim is concerned). However, during a visit to Steve’s aunt and uncle, Gus Elker, the justice of the peace, says he believes something’s going on at the nearby farm of Jake Riley; and Lou observes that she hasn’t seen Riley’s stepdaughter, Molly Burns, for quite a spell.

What’s more, Molly will come into an inheritance on her upcoming 18th birthday.

The adults realize that Steve and Sim, being relatively unknown to Jake Riley, would be the best people to keep an eye on his place without making him unduly suspicious (Gus isn’t quite sure what steps he can take in his official capacity). Steve— a fan of Sherlock Holmes and detective stories in general— and Sim agree to look into the matter (Sim more reluctantly than Steve). In honor of the Baker Street Irregulars, they name themselves the Mill Creek Irregulars.

On their own and in conjunction with Steve’s various relatives (Steve’s grandfather becomes an honorary Irregular), they discover that Jake Riley is keeping very close tabs on Molly, who is definitely afraid of something and seems unwilling to take independent action, even when Jake goes into the general store without her.

But that’s not the only mystery. Steve and Sim also observe two strangers in blue serge suits keeping an eye on the Riley farm and asking questions about other residents of the community. Yet they don’t seem particularly interested in either Jake or Molly.

The boys decide they need to know more about Jake Riley, so Sim, who owns a fingerprint kit, purchases a package Jake had handled at the store in order to obtain his fingerprint.

Once they have it, however, they’re reluctant to bring it to Mike Kurth, the village marshal, because kids have generally played practical jokes on him.

He’s also particularly hard to convince about anything, according to Steve.

They realize their friend Pete Bandheim is the perfect person to approach Mike because Pete appears to be guileless. Pete spins a yarn about his father’s barber shop having been robbed, adding that he got fingerprints from the “robbery” (of hair tonic).

The report Mike gets back (and which Pete managed to glimpse) reveals that Jake Riley has a past criminal record, but Pete’s yarn leads to more complications. Mike decides to keep a weather eye on the barber shop in case the “criminal” returns and the boys are also worried that he’ll connect the Jacob Riley of the fingerprint report with the Jake Riley out in the country, go after him and ruin their plans.

On top of that, the men in the blue serge suits know Steve and Sim have been spying on the Riley farm with their telescope and Steve makes the mistake of getting Jake Riley’s attention at the general store.

With Molly’s birthday fast approaching, Sim and Steve realize they need to act soon to determine whether she really is a prisoner in her own home and how to get her away from Jake without him being able to come after her. But the wild cards in their plan include the two mysterious strangers, the excessively vigilant Mike Kurth and Jake Riley’s own unpredictability.

I first read The Mill Creek Irregulars: Special Detectives in the summer of 2009, while relaxing on a lounge chair with a large lake in front of me. That’s the perfect environment in which to read this story. The setting is very bucolic and though the story takes place two decades into the 20th century, it has one foot in the 19th (Joe and Lou’s house has no electricity on the second floor and people are as likely to drive horse-drawn wagons as they are cars).

Derleth also makes Sac Prairie and environs come alive, describing, through Steve’s first-person narration, the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside. Here’s a passage from pages 72-73:

We went on along the ridge… High overhead a pair of redtail hawks wheeled and soared, moving up, up with the currents of air, sometimes screaming. In the south, a long, disorderly file of crows was heading in toward the river bottoms, cawing to one another in that kind of talk crows always make. Ovenbirds sang in the deep woods, and veeries, and a wood thrush was beginning to spill his lyric songs in the shadowed places deep in the wooded valleys. A south wind kept the insects away, and the smell of the woods… filled all the air with the wild sweetness and pungence of places where men seldom walked and the trees were left to grow undisturbed for scores of years.

Derleth also populates the book with a memorable cast of characters (with the exception of a few “walk-ons” like Steve’s unnamed sister).

Steve appears to be a bit overweight, but describes it as muscle. He’s also somewhat impulsive, sometimes blurting out things he shouldn’t or drawing unnecessary attention to himself (like he did with Jake Riley).

Sim looks on the dark side of everything. He also doesn’t like having his plans changed. He’s upset when Steve shows up early for their planned fishing trip; more upset when Steve says he’s come to invite him to the country (and has to be convinced there’s good fishing at the millpond); annoyed when Joe shows up hours late to take them to the country and convinced they’ll never get a chance to fish at the millpond when they lose the opportunity to do so their first day.

Pete, according to Steve, is “sharp as a needle”, though he kept that trait hidden. As Steve says of Pete, “He liked to pretend he was so dumb he didn’t know enough to come in out of the rain. He would let his mouth hang open and little, and get a sort of glazed look in his eyes, when he was busing talking somebody out on a limb so he could saw it off.”

Both Steve and Pete have elements of their characters that remind me of Jupiter Jones of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators mystery series (1964-1987). Jupe is the stocky leader (like Steve) and often “plays dumb”, like Pete, using the skills he acquired as a child actor.

That’s not to say that Three Investigators creator Robert Arthur modeled Jupe after a combination of Steve and Pete. After all, the rotund Nero Wolfe had been solving crimes since the 30s and any number of boys (real and fictional) have “played dumb” to outfox an adversary. Off the top of my head, I recall Alexander Bumstead doing it in one of the Blondie movies of the 1940s.

For the record, Pete Crenshaw of The Three Investigators is, like Sim, sometimes reluctant to do any investigating. However, he’s less pessimistic, overall.

And none of the boys remind me of the studious third investigator, Bob Andrews.

For their part, Steve and Sim have been compared to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

The Mill Creek Irregulars: Special Detectives is the second adventure involving Steve and Sim, but unlike the case with The Three Investigators (or Brains Benton or Rick Brant or Ken Holt or The Hardy Boys or Jerry Todd or other such titles), the 10 books featuring Steve and Sim (and sometimes Pete) don’t have an “umbrella title” on the front cover. Still, even though the word “Irregulars” is only part of the titles of two of the books, the books are referred to as the Mill Creek Irregulars series.

I’ve never read (or even seen) any of the other nine books in the series (except images of the covers online), but as I said before, this one is the type to be read while looking out at a lake (or any other bucolic setting) during the summer.

Copyright 2016, Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: A look at Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby

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Rip Kirby

Artist Alex Raymond (1909-1956) is probably best known for his work on Flash Gordon, but after his discharge from the Marine Corps in World War II, he was unable to pick up where he left off on that strip.

Instead, he was offered the opportunity to do create a new strip for King Features when he threatened to go to a competitor. According to Brian Walker in his essay “The War Made a Realist Out of Me”, in Rip Kirby Volume One: 1946- 1948 by the Library of American Comics, the syndicate offered Raymond ownership rights and a 60/40 split of the profits. They also offered to rehire him on Flash Gordon in 1948 if the new strip didn’t succeed.

That concern proved groundless. In the essay “Crime Does Pay”, in the same volume, Tom Roberts writes that according to published reports, Rip Kirby was King Features’ fastest-selling strip.

Co written with Ward Greene, Rip Kirby follows the adventures of an urbane, New York-based sleuth who solves crimes with brains as much a with brawn.

To date, the Library of American Comics has published eight volumes of Rip Kirby’s newspaper adventures, with a ninth on the way. In his essay, Walker writes that Greene, King Features’ general manager, suggested the idea of a modern detective strip. The character, originally named Rip O’Rourke, emulated Raymond in that he was a Marine Corps veteran.

Remington “Rip” Kirby is also a former all-American athlete, holds a doctoral degree, plays the piano, plays golf, wears glasses, smokes a pipe and drives sports cars.

“This was a departure from the typical detective found in most comic strips and crime fiction at the time,” Walker writes.

Walker also writes that Rip Kirby was more akin to Sherlock Holmes than contemporaneous characters of pulp fiction and comic strips. They were often in the mold of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

“His intellectual approach to solving crimes can be traced back to the ‘ratiocination techniques employed by Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin,” Walker writes, referring to the protagonist of the 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” “He also had many similarities to the altruistic lawyer Perry Mason in Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels.”

Walker specifically cites The Case of the Velvet Claws from 1933.

In his first case, called “The Chip Faraday Murder” in the Library of American Comics collection (March 4- April 20, 1946), Rip hears his doorbell, followed by a pistol shot. He and his butler, Desmond, open the door to find a freshly dead model at their feet. With help from his girlfriend, Judith Lynne “Honey” Dorian, Rip sets out to find out why the woman had come to see him.

Rip's debut

Rip’s investigation puts both himself and Honey— who’s gone to work at the modeling agency in an attempt to learn more— in danger (she narrowly escapes a close call). He’s also advised by Police Detective Sullivan to, “Stick to your books an’ your writin’. This ain’t no game for amateurs.”

The janitor in Rip’s building told him he heard the shot that killed Chip Faraday, followed by what sounded like the clacking of a woman’s heels, but over the course of the adventure, a man with a scarred wrist is shown leaving threatening notes or shooting people. Several characters, both male and female, could have had a motive to kill Chip Faraday and/or try to stop Rip.

In the second adventure, “The Hicks Formula”, Rip is invited by Dean Thatcher of Norchester University (Honey’s alma mater) to give a series of lectures on “chemistry and the future.” Rip finds that intriguing because, as he tells Honey, Thatcher disagrees “most violently” with his views. He concludes that Thatcher is more interested in him as a detective than a scientist.

He’s right. A bacteriologist at the university named Hicks has accidentally discovered a formula that renders its victims lethargic, making them “incapable of sustained thought or action.” The formula has been stolen and Dean Thatcher fears its effects on an entire nation if used in warfare.

Meanwhile, Honey’s been invited to be the maid of honor at the wedding of Thatcher’s daughter, Jill. Rip comes to suspect that Jill may have a connection with the missing formula.

(Other characters talking about Jill refer to her as Thatcher’s ward, not his daughter. But she calls him “Dad.” She probably knows what the relationship is better than they do.)

In the end, having solved the case and recovered the formula, Rip decides it should go to Washington instead of being destroyed. In this post-Watergate world, trusting government officials with something that dangerous is incredibly stupid and naïve. But attitudes toward the government were considerably different in 1946.

The third adventure, “Enter the Mangler”, which ran June 27-Nov. 2, 1946, introduces the femme fatale character of Pagan Lee.

Pagan Lee

Pagan Lee.

In “The Mangler”, the eponymous felon, recently escaped from Alcatraz, is after the Hicks formula, the story of which somehow got into the papers. Guess Rip didn’t rush to D.C.

Apparently, the papers also know that Rip was planning to turn the formula over to the government, because the Mangler knows about it, too.

He sends Pagan by plane to New York. She then gets reservations on Rip’s train to D.C., contrives to meet him and knocks him out when they’re alone. A doctor accomplice arranges to have the Rip removed from the train at the next stop so the Mangler’s men can go to work on him and make him tell them where the formula is.

When their beatings fail to break Rip, the bad guys kidnap Honey to use as leverage.

Thanks to Desmond, Rip and Honey escape death, but the Mangler’s men have succeeded in getting the formula. The rest of the adventure concerns Rip’s efforts to get it back. Pagan Lee ends up providing occasional help, leaving subtle clues here and there as to the Mangler’s plans and/or where he’s going.

If Rip Kirby is Holmes, than Desmond, a reformed safe cracker, is his Watson. Desmond accompanies him to investigate a photographer’s studio in “The Chip Faraday Murder” and also does various bits of legwork. In “Enter the Mangler”, he sets out to find Rip and Honey, knowing only that Rip was removed from the train between Philadelphia and D.C..

Some of his underworld contacts come in handy in his search.

Honey Dorian is also a capable ally, who reminds Rip early on that she may be blonde, but she’s not dumb.

Honey Dorian and Desmond

After Raymond died in a car accident, artist John Prentice took over until his own death in May 1999. He also wrote the strip in its later years.

Rip Kirby concluded on June 26, 1999, with Rip’s retirement.

I’ve only read a portion of the first Rip Kirby collection and can’t comment on the quality of the post-Raymond years. I liked what I have read, however. If you’re a fan of newspaper comic strips and/or the work of Alex Raymond, Rip Kirby is worth checking out.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: A look at Fantagraphics’ Prince Valiant reprints

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Prince Valiant

Comic strips have been part of newspapers for so long that people probably never give them a second thought. Those of us who read the comics have favorites we never miss, while skimming or skipping over others.

I’ve always tended to skim or skip over Prince Valiant. As long as I can remember, it was presented in the Sunday comics as just a few panels, but if it still appeared in its original full-page form, I might have read it on a regular basis.

Yes, at one point many— if not all— comic strips each took up an entire page. Prince Valiant was one of those; and thanks to Fantagraphics Books, you can read the early years of Prince Valiant as it originally appeared.

To date, Fantagraphics Books has released 13 oversize (14” x 10”) volumes (with a 14th due in November) of Hal Foster’s celebrated comic strip. Each volume covers two years and according to the cover blurb in Vol. 1, these editions are shot, for the first time, from Foster’s own pristine engraver’s proof.

Harold Rudolf Foster (1892-1982), debuted Prince Valiant on Feb. 13, 1937. According to an essay by Brian M. Kane in Vol. 1, he’d previously worked on a Tarzan strip. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst was, “So impressed with Foster’s work on Tarzan that he promised Foster complete ownership of any comic strip he developed.”

Kane also writes that the saga of Prince Valiant was described by the Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII, before his abdication in 1936) as “the greatest contribution to English literature in the past 100 years.”

Prince Valiant, or Val, is the son of the deposed king of Thule. He eventually became a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table and acquired a sword— Flamberge— forged by the same mage who created Excalibur.

Foster continued to do all the writing and illustrating on the strip until May 16, 1971, when he handed the reins to John Cullen Murphy. Foster would still do layouts and write and color Prince Valiant until Feb. 10, 1980, according to Kane.

Vol. 1 also includes a 1969 interview with Foster by Fred Schreiber in which Foster called Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, a great influence. “He was such a wonderful delineator of character,” Foster said. “I admired his work very much.”

Vol. 1 opens with the King of Thule fleeing from his enemies in a fisherman’s lugger and attempting to find harbor along Britain’s chalk cliffs. “The half-savage Britons opposed their landing”, the narration from the debut strip tells us. Eventually, the storm-tossed ship is “pounded on the treacherous sands” at the mouth of the Thames.

The Feb. 20, 1937 strip tells us that after some fighting, and a retreat up the coast toward the north, the king and his people are given the choice of fighting a losing battle or settling on an island far out in the fens.

The king chooses the latter.

For young Prince Valiant, in the Feb. 27, 1937 installment, it’s a “new world that promises mystery and great adventure.”

Val grows up quickly. By the March 20, 1937 strip, he’s depicted as a young adult; and by April 24, he’s ready to set out beyond the fens and see what awaits him. That one strip— which covers events of more than a year— also concerns the death of his mother. The narration tells us, “The fens that had caused his mother’s death have lost their fascination.”

Val encounters both a former childhood friend and Sir Launcelot (Foster’s spelling). Sir Launcelot’s squire soon learns that people who make Prince Valiant angry shouldn’t. Val’s an impetuous lad.

Which gets him into a lot of trouble.

Some time later, having captured and tamed a wild horse (and made his own saddle and other accoutrements), Val befriends Sir Gawain and comes to Camelot.

Soon after he arrives, he gets into a fight and is forced to stay behind while almost everyone else goes off into battle. That’s right. He’s essentially grounded for fighting and can’t go off to fight.

Not only is Val impetuous, he’s also clever and resourceful. When Gawain falls victim to a trap in which he’s to be held for ransom, Val single-handedly rescues him.

In a later adventure, Val uses a fearsome disguise, darkness and the overactive imaginations of the outlaws who have seized a castle belonging to a pretty girl’s parents to rout the villains.

Seems even Arthurian-era criminals are what Batman would later famously call a superstitious, cowardly lot.

In another adventure, Val distracts pirates.

By singing.

In Volume 2, Val’s father reclaims his throne after being in exile for 12 years and Val himself is knighted by King Arthur. While Val returns to Thule for a time, he soon leaves to have adventures as a knight errant. These include several confrontations with the Hun. And, it seems that in driving some of the Hun from the Venetian plains, Val, Tristram and Sir Gawain unknowingly helped in the building of Venice. (July 28, 1940).

The final installment of volume 2 (Dec. 29, 1940), finds Val on a storm-tossed ship. The captain had intended to rob and murder him. Didn’t work out too well for the captain.

So far, I’ve only read the first two volumes, but I’ll read subsequent volumes at some point. While the knights in armor genre isn’t a personal favorite of mine, I still enjoyed reading those early installments of Prince Valiant.

I’m still not sold on the small-scale modern version, even though I did notice— and was amused by— the appearance in one installment in recent years of two characters who looked suspiciously like Laurel and Hardy.

The odds that we’ll ever return to the days of full-page comic strips are infinitesimal. Thanks to Fantagraphics Books, however, we can enjoy early Prince Valiant in all its full-page glory.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating

Random Musings: Revisiting the Village with the Prisoner

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Prisoner title card
“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!”— the Prisoner (Patrick McGoohan)

One of the best television series ever made was The Prisoner, which addressed such issues as the rights of the individual, the electoral process, education, identity and the nature of freedom. It also didn’t provide easy answers or “pat you on the head” moralizing sermons. This 17-episode 1967 series co-created by and starring the late Patrick McGoohan forced viewers to not only consider such issues, but also to think for themselves. Something most people weren’t used to doing, especially when seated in front of a TV set.

On the surface, the series concerned an unnamed man (presumably a government agent) who is abducted to a place called the Village following his resignation. He seeks both to escape and to find out which side of the Iron Curtain runs the place. Everyone in the Village is identified by a number, with the public face of the Village’s power represented by “Number Two.” A new Number Two appeared in each episode (though two actors, Leo McKern and Colin Gordon, made repeat appearances in the role). The Village seeks to break the Prisoner’s spirit so he’ll accept that he’s “Number Six.” Those in charge also want to know why he resigned, information Number Six refuses to divulge.

The Prisoner was filmed in the Italianate resort of Portmeirion in Wales (which I visited on July 17, 1988), though the location wasn’t identified until the final episode. The Village’s pleasant and appealing exterior hid a sinister undercurrent.

Portmeirion

Portmeirion, site of the Village. Copyright 1988, Patrick Keating.

The mix of architectural styles also would make it difficult for the characters to determine exactly where they were.

The series establishes three contradictory locations for the Village, leaving viewers to wonder if those contradictions were mistakes owing to the speed of TV productions or if, in-universe, there was more than one Village, with its “guests” occasionally moved from one to another while unconscious in order to frustrate any attempts at determining where they were.

The series was also a metaphor, so the actual location of the Village isn’t that important when you think of it from that point of view.

As I said, The Prisoner explored a number of issues. In the episode “Free For All”, McGoohan, who wrote (as “Paddy Fitz”) and directed, addressed political campaigns and how they’re covered in the media. Number Six is maneuvered into running for the office of Number Two. He finds the idea of elections in the Village amusing.

“Elections? In this place?” he asks Number Two (Eric Portman), who replies that the Villagers make their choice every 12 months.

“Are you going to run?”

“Like blazes, the first chance I get.”

“I meant run for office.”

Free For All

“Free For All.”– Number Two (Eric Portman) encourages Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) to begin campaigning.

In that episode, we’re treated to banal campaign promises (Number Six literally promises winter, spring, summer or fall); and in a meeting of the outgoing council, the council members just stand there as Number Six demands to know who elected them and to what place or country they owe allegiance. And all “proposals” of the council are “carried unanimously” by Number Two as the council stands mute.

That episode also finds Number Six “interviewed” by Number 113 (Harold Berens), a “reporter” for the local “newspaper” who supplies his own answers to his questions.

To give just one example:

Number 113: “How are you going to handle your campaign?”

Number Six: “No comment.”

Number 113: “Intends to fight for freedom at all costs.”

Seconds after the “interview” is over, Number Six discovers that the edition of the paper just then coming off the press contains the story, “No. 6 Speaks His Mind.”

By the way, in the fall of 1988, I took a class on the presidency and suggested to the teacher that we screen and discuss “Free For All” in class because of its commentary about the election process and how candidates are sometimes covered in the media. He nixed the idea, arguing it might somehow have a negative effect related to the then-current election.

I’ve always found that argument ludicrous. A fictional election on a 1960s British TV show was going to somehow adversely affect American college students voting in a presidential election two decades after the show aired? Let’s stay real, shall we?

Education was another issue addressed in The Prisoner. In “The General”, the Speedlearn “educational” process imparts information directly to the cerebral cortex, but those who take the three-year course “Europe since Napoleon” in three minutes— and have the information “indelibly impressed upon the mind”— can only parrot back the exact information beamed into their head. People who take the “course” learn when the Treaty of Adrianople took place (September 1829), but when Number 12 (John Castle) asks Number Six what it was, Number Six can only give the date.

“Wrong,” Number 12 says. “I said what, not when.”

To number Six, those who are “educated” through Speedlearn are “a row of cabbages.”

“Indeed,” Number Two (Colin Gordon) replies. “Knowledgeable cabbages.”

But how knowledgeable is someone when that “knowledge” is so limited?

In 2009, the cable channel AMC broadcast a six hour mini series reinterpretation of The Prisoner in cooperation with ITV. It starred Jim Caviezel as “Six” and Sir Ian McKellen as “Two.” I may discuss the remake in a subsequent entry. One thing I liked about it is that it told its own story and went in its own direction, rather than trying to retread the same ground McGoohan explored.

If you enjoy thought-provoking TV shows, The Prisoner is well worth checking out.

Be seeing you.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating

Random Musings: Star Trek’s ongoing adventures

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Star Trek Continues

An old bumper sticker read “Star Trek lives.” In this 50th anniversary year, with a new movie set to come out next week and a new TV series next year, that would certainly seem to be true.

But Star Trek’s new adventures aren’t only in those media (or even in books and comics). There have also been a number of fan-made productions. I’m going to talk about two of them today.

The fan productions have gotten some attention lately because CBS/Paramount issued new rules regarding what they can and cannot do. Both Peter David (PAD) and Jerry Chandler have addressed that issue. I’ll also touch on it, briefly, but my main focus will be on those productions themselves and on how Star Trek has become analogous to Shakespeare.

As to Paramount’s new guidelines, as PAD says, fans are “damned lucky.” When I first heard about fan films, several years ago, I was surprised Paramount was okay with their being made. And in his blog, PAD pointed out that the studio wasn’t always so agreeable. He said that at a convention he attended in the 1970s, “Paramount lawyers actually came into the dealer’s room and confiscated peoples’ fanzines from right off their tables.”

The fan productions I want to discuss are Star Trek: New Voyages (formerly Star Trek Phase II) and Star Trek Continues. I think the latter is better, overall, but both productions have produced good stories.

The title Phase II is a reference to the proposed 1970s Star Trek TV series that was scrapped when Paramount decided to make Star Trek The Motion Picture instead.

Both series have attracted Trek alumni as well as actors from other science fiction franchises.

In New Voyages, Captain Kirk was initially played by James Cawley. He’s now played by Brian Gross, whom I prefer of the two.

Star Trek New Voyages

Star Trek: New Voyages, with Brian Gross as Captain Kirk.

Gross has appeared in a nine-minute vignette called “Going Boldly” and the episodes “Mind-Sifter” (based on a fan fiction short story published in the 70s) and “The Holiest Thing”, in which Kirk meets Dr. Carol Marcus. I thought “Mind-Sifter” was the better of the two.

While I prefer Gross over Cawley as Kirk, the Cawley-led episode “World Enough and Time”, which guest-starred George Takei, was quite excellent.

Star Trek Continues, which stars Vic Mignogna as Kirk and features Chris Doohan— son of James— as Scotty, literally picks up where “Turnabout Intruder” ended and is airing “fourth season” episodes. The first, “Pilgrim of Eternity”, features Michael Forest reprising his role of Apollo from “Who Mourns for Adonis.” Another, “Fairest of them all”, is a sequel to “Mirror, Mirror”, set in the mirror universe.

There are other Star Trek fan productions as well, some set on the Enterprise and some set on other ships. One, which I won’t name, leaves room for improvement. But the people involved seemed like they were having fun.

Which is kind of the point. The various fan productions are all being made by people who love Star Trek.

But they don’t own the rights to Star Trek. And, as Jerry points out:

The filmmaking tools that are available to just about anyone these days means that anyone who wants to can make a film… Computer programs on the market allow you to edit easily enough, and making FX on your laptop these days can result in rendered scenes that would have amazed even some pros 20 years ago.

Is it any wonder CBS and Paramount are imposing some restrictions?

Both PAD and Jerry point out that people can create their own characters and universes, leaving them free from any restrictions. Some people may do that. Some will produce new Star Trek fan productions within the guidelines, perhaps hoping they’ll eventually be loosened.

Others have expressed their belief that Star Trek should be in the public domain.

What that last group doesn’t understand (or doesn’t care about) is that under current copyright law, a creative work remains under copyright for the life of the author, plus 70 years (with a “pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.”)

If Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991, had written Star Trek as a series of novels, they’d still be in copyright.

In 1790, copyright was for a mere 14 years, with a 14-year renewal. Personally, I think the current system (for individuals) is better. The length shouldn’t be extended, however.

But such lengthy copyright protection should only apply to people, not corporations. After some reasonable period, Star Trek (in all its TV and film incarnations) should go into the public domain. Certainly by 2066.

Until Star Trek becomes public domain, fan productions will just have to accept the restrictions of playing in someone else’s sandbox.

Now what’s this Shakespeare connection I mentioned?

It’s very simple. I suspect that Star Trek will be like Shakespeare’s plays, with performances and adaptations going on for years and centuries to come. The current fan productions and the new films are just some examples. They were hardly the first.

Back in the mid-90s, I read about a Star Trek stage play I’d intended to see, but never did. What I remember from the review at the time was that— in a knowing nod to how things were on the original series— fight scenes were performed by stunt performers who looked nothing like the actors.

I doubt that was the first Star Trek-inspired play, either.

And while Shakespeare is rightly acknowledged for the quality of his work, he did write for the masses. Had the technology existed at the time, he’d have been a TV writer. So the analogy isn’t coming from out of left field.

Had Shakespeare been brought through time to the 1960s, I wonder what sort of Star Trek episode he’d have written.

Probably a Tribbles episodes set in the mirror universe.

And speaking of Shakespeare, for those who feel any adaptation of Star Trek has gotten it wrong, I remind you of a scene from Sandman #13, “Men of Good Fortune”, in which Morpheus has one of his once-a-century meetings with the immortal Hob Gadling in 1789.

“I saw King Lear yesterday,” Hob says. “Mrs. Siddons as Goneril. The idiots had given it a happy ending.”

“That will not last,” Morpheus replies. “The great stories will always return to their original forms.”

Whatever adaptations lay ahead, Star Trek, at its core, will always be about exploring, seeking out and boldly going.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating.