Saturday, September 24, 2011

E-Man Part Eight--In the Inner Sun

by Jack Seabrook

When two cops on the beat respond to a call reporting a disturbance at the old Boar Electronics Company building, they are surprised to discover an eight foot tall blond Amazon, who escapes by crashing through a window.  Meanwhile, Michael Mauser is teaching E-Man how to play poker when Nova arrives, followed closely behind by the Amazon, who collapses on the floor of Mauser's office.

On awakening, she murmurs something about needing to return to the North Pole and an evil man named Boar.  E-Man travels by short wave radio waves to the North Pole, where he meets an Australian named Alfie Alcott and his pet Koala, Teddy.  They are soon joined by Samuel Boar and The Battery.

In part two, Boar explains that he has made improvements to The Battery; E-Man's attempt to fight the machine ends quickly with our hero being absorbed into The Battery's glass cell.  Boar and the Battery journey across the frozen wasteland to a deep pit, which Boar says is the entrance the the center of the Earth. They travel down and come to Nuclia, a Lost World populated by dinosaurs and an Indian-like race of extra-large people.  The blond Amazon is their chief's daughter, and Boar plans to hold her hostage on the Earth's surface while he steals power from the small sun that lights their landscape.  E-Man takes advantage of a dinosaur attack to escape by turning into a small, orange dinosaur himself.

Part three opens with Nova, Mauser and the Amazon in Mauser's office.  On the street outside, Nova is chased by fake FBI agents straight into the waiting arms of Alfie, who transports her to Nuclia, where she is lashed between two pillars near the small sun.  Boar tells her that she will die unless E-Man agrees to help him steal the sun's power.  E-Man arrives to rescue Nova but the sun erupts---and Nova is killed.

E-Man grieves over her death and vows revenge on Boar, but Nova returns quickly--this time as pure energy, just like her partner!  She assumes her human form, but this time she wears a costume similar to that of E-Man.  Together, the two energy beings destroy the battery and defeat Boar once again. As the story ends they kiss, setting off an atomic blast.

E-Man #8 features another painted cover by Joe Staton, and it is the first time that an E-Man story has been full-length (23 pages).  The death and rebirth of Nova are surprising, since they occur without any warning.  Through the first seven issues of the series, we had grown used to E-Man saving the day, and it is a shock when he fails.  It is even more of a shock to see the character of Nova transformed into an energy being with the same powers as E-Man!

Staton's playfulness really goes wild in this issue.  On page one, Plastic Man is seen hitchhiking at the side of the road.  A newspaper headline reads, "Capt. Atom Promoted."  On page two, Michael Mauser's desk is strewn with telegrams from various private eyes requesting his aid--"Mike, can you help me, baby" writes Mike Hammer; "Mauser-request your aid" writes Philip Marlowe, etc.  A boy who operates a ham radio and helps transport E-Man to the North Pole has a poster on his door featuring The Blue Beetle, and so on.

The return of Boar and The Battery is welcome, as they make a particularly evil and dangerous team.  Cuti and Staton really go all out in this story, moving from the gritty, grimy streets of New York and the slovenly interior of Mauser's office, to the frozen landscape of the North Pole, to the lush, dinosaur-populated lost world of Nuclia.  The characters are so busy that Nova doesn't even have time to dance, though she does look stunning in the costume she creates for herself.

I remember this as a really cool booklet!
"In the Inner Sun" is the beginning of the end for the 1970s E-Man series.  No longer is Nova a college student working as an exotic dancer; now, she joins E-Man as a bonafide superhero.  The Teddy character is introduced, and Mauser becomes a more regular character.  Finally, the story is full-length, eliminating the need for a second story.  E-Man's last two appearances in his original run would continue to develop all of these new ideas.

This all seemed so innocent in those
days before Rocky Horror!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

E-Man Part Seven--TV Man

by Jack Seabrook

The seventh issue of E-Man features the first of Joe Staton's painted covers!

Inside, the story begins as Nova ends another night working as an exotic dancer.  "You are doomed to die, Ms. Kane--Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" reads a message scrawled on the back of a poster in her dressing room.  The words ring true minutes later, when E-Man transforms into Mr. Hyde as they walk through a dark alley, his hand a gleaming meat cleaver!

Not Jack the Ripper, but Mr. Hyde
E-Man changes back to his familiar form just in time to receive a sock to the jaw from his frightened and angry companion.  A hooded figure on a nearby rooftop changes channels on a strange gun and E-Man transforms into The Brain Eater From Planet X!  The hooded villain retires to a lonely basement apartment to make a telephone call that gives a clue to his identity.

Xanadu University!
Part two of the story is called "The Duel."  It begins with the return of Michael Mauser, the seedy private detective last seen in E-Man #3.  The hooded villain threatens Mauser at gunpoint, seeking information about the location of E-Man, who has not been seen for almost a week.  Nova is busy studying at her university (Xanadu!) when she is approached by Juno, the female member of the Entropy Twins, last seen in E-Man #2.  She explains that her lover Michael is behind E-Man's strange transformations; he has invented a microwave gun that uses TV signals to make E-Man change into whatever character is on TV at the time.

The next day, E-Man and Mauser appear at New York's Rockefeller Plaza for a showdown with the bitter twin.  E-Man is suddenly transformed into Konga and, with Nova as his Ann Darrow, he re-enacts the conclusion of King Kong.  All ends well, however, when Michael relents at Juno's urging, and the story ends with E-Man promising to reunite the separated lovers.

"TV Man" has something for everyone!  We get a glimpse of Nova's act, followed by a reference to a classic episode of Thriller that must have been airing on New York's WOR-TV as Nova and E-Man walked home.  It matters little that our hero is involuntarily transformed into Mr. Hyde rather than Jack the Ripper--the visuals are effective and the idea is the same.  "The Brain Eater From Planet X" is not a real movie, but it allows Joe Staton to draw another full-page monster, as he did in "City in the Sand" (E-Man #4).  Things never get too serious in E-Man, however: the monster has E-Man's "E=mc2" emblem displayed prominently on its forehead!

E-Man comics usually
include jokes like this
in one or more panels.
The return of Michael Mauser and the Entropy Twins is welcome, adding to the increasingly complex mythology that Cuti and Staton had begun to develop in the first six issues of the series.  Konga, from the movie of the same name, allows E-Man to play another classic scene, again with his emblem on his hairy chest.

Finally, E-Man's promise to cure the problem he had created previously for Juno and Michael resolves one of the few inconsistent actions taken by our hero in the series to date.

This month's letters column includes a letter by Bob Rodi of Oak Brook, Ill., who was featured regularly in 1970s letters columns of DC and Marvel titles.  He calls Alec Tronn and Nova Kane "the most wonderful comix couple in existence."

To boldly go . . .
The second story in E-Man #7 is also the second in a row to feature the wisecracking robot, Rog-2000.  He drives a purple Volkswagen Beetle with the license plate "NCC-1701," and in "Withering Heights" he runs out of gas and spends the night at a haunted hotel.  The young woman behind the reception desk looks remarkably like the robot in last issue's tale, but this time she is the daughter of a very hungry transparent monster that oozes out of a closet to devour its victims.

John Byrne's girls
all look the same--
at least so far!
E-Man #7 is a great comic, mixing horror, humor, science fiction, detective fiction, and satire into a very satisfying melange.

No post would be complete without Nova!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Revisiting the Wages of Fear

            The Wages of Fear by Georges Arnaud, is hard-boiled suspense at it’s best, a novel loaded with hard-luck characters and dripping with intense atmospheric suspense.

            It is 1952 and the white riff-raff living in a small Guatemalan port town -- all ex-patriot Europeans and Americans, lonely and lost after trials endured during World War II -- find themselves trapped by despair and poverty, just like most of the locals. Each man has his own sad story and each one is lost in a dead-end existence. These men are not of the local native Indians  -- they are despised foreigners unable to leave the country without the proper cash stake, unable even to afford a ticket home. Their story is as dark a tale of noir desperation as has ever been written, but that background merely sets the stage for an even more haunting story of tense pulse-pounding suspense that is to come.

            Georges Arnaud was a French writer whose books were originally published in his native France, but The Wages of Fear was his masterpiece and it has been translated into English and published in America and the UK. The first English-language edition was a British hardcover from the Bodley Head in 1952, translated from the original French edition. Both editions are scarce and pricey today. The first U.S. edition was the hardcover published by Farrar, Straus and Young in 1952.  The first U.S. paperback edition was published by Avon Books (# 531) in 1953; reprinted by Avon in 1958 (#804) under the new title, Flesh And Fire. The first UK paperback edition was published by Guild Books, (#469) in 1953. There are many later paperback reprints which can be found on internet book sites. This book is well worth seeking out.

            Many fans will remember the book because it was made into two fine films. It was the basis of the 1953 film The Wages of Fear with Yves Montand, made by Henri Georges Clouzot. This is a taut classic noir, a black & white film masterpiece, sadly not shown these days on TV as much as it used to. I still remember being riveted by the film when I first watched it on late night TV in the 1960s. Years later, Wages was the basis of the 1977 film,  Sorcerer, starring Roy Scheider, with a screenplay by Walon Green, produced and directed by William Friedkin. While the films capture much of the raw intensity and suspense of the story, reading the book offers so much more depth to the lives of these desperate men that is missing in the films. The book really fleshes out these men as men, starkly illustrating their dire situation, and the intense pressure each one is under.

            The story concerns this motley crew, hopelessly stranded in a foreign land. There’s Gerard the Frenchman, Liugi the Italian, Johnny the Romanian, and Juan Binba the Spaniard. These four men form the core group, who along with their fellows live a hap-hazard existence of whoring, gambling and drinking themselves into mindless oblivion. They dream of escaping the heat-infested swamps and claustrophobic jungles of these Central American villages, but are trapped from ever going home. Some are wanted men. Others are too wasted, too far gone to even care. There seems to be no way out, no salvation, for any of them. So they rot away, some slowly dying of syphilis from the wretched whores of the town, others drinking themselves to death on poison rot-gut rum, some murdered in the dark of night by the Guatemalan military or secret police whom they fear and who hate all foreigners with a passion. These are men without money, without position or power, and they are all fair game. Arnaud’s characters are hopeless and desperate, existing hand-to-mouth at the lowest level of this dirt-poor, bloody-violent alien society.

            On the top of this Dantesque world and controlling it all, is the all-powerful Crude Oil Corporation which owns the oil wells in the country and most of the people and wealth. And sitting atop the corporation is O’Brien, their man in Guatemala, who runs it all like some banana republic despot. Gerard and his fellows exist at the largesse of O’Brien, occasionally doing odd jobs for him. Some legal, some not so legal.  There’s is a story as dark as anything Jim Thompson or David Goodis ever wrote.

            At the time of publication in 1952, Time Magazine called this book, “Brutal, violent and good storytelling. The Wages of Fear makes a lot of hard-boiled writers look like children writing for their maiden aunts.”

            The Time reviewer hit it pretty close. However, this is no Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler clone, and certainly not a private eye novel. It’s hard-boiled, but more in the style of James M. Cain’s brutal, dark, noir. In fact, while there is a lot of crime committed, this is not a crime novel, per se. What it is, is a depiction of these men’s lives as they live them on those mean alien streets, a dark desperate story full of atmospheric doom that hits its stride when four men attempt to change their fortunes. They do this by agreeing to drive two trucks full of volatile nitroglycerin over rough mountain roads to be used to put out a raging oil well fire.


            The job is actually a death sentence.

            The corporation offers four men a wad of cash that is a princely sum for any man in their sorry situation. No man can pass it up. The money would be enough to pay for passage home, enough to start a new life. It’s escape money and they all want it.

            Every man seeks the job. Four men are chosen.

            O’Brien and the corporation men have a cynical plan. The nitro is necessary to blow out the oil well fire and end a serious emergency in the country. However, they dare not hire local Guatemalans because the natives and Army would come down hard on them for using local people in such an obvious suicide mission. Instead they use the riff-raff foreigners who are all expendable. So they make an offer to these men who have nothing to loose. They offer a thousand dollars per man for this dangerous job, which seals the deal as well as the fate of all four men.

            Things get tense even before the trucks leave the town on their mission. Gerard soon discovers that his partner, Johnny -- the man he relies on most and must trust with his life -- is an utter, abject coward. Johnny looses his nerve and is a wreck. Then when the first truck goes up in a ball of fire killing Luigi and his partner, Gerard realizes that they’re not only hauling explosive nitro but that the trucks have been sabotaged by one of their own fellows. It seems someone else wants to take their place on the next run should this one fail -- and get all that cash.

            Gerard drives with desperate care over the broken roads, fearing every pothole, each crevice and bump which could mean instant death -- catastrophic obliteration in a huge  explosive fireball. Arnaud’s writing puts the reader in the front seat right beside Gerard; hearing his toughs, seeing his growing tension, feeling his unbridled terror. Just when it looks as if things could not get any worse -- they do.

            Johnny’s fragile reasoning, which so far has held together by mere threads from the intense pressure and fear, is eating him up. He has become a useless wreck. Gerard knows he needs his partner to hold up his end, in frustration he beats Johnny mercilessly to force him to pull himself together. This works, for a while.

            When the two men encounter a field of quicksand, it is Johnny who notices that the dark mud is actually oil -- oil that is highly volatile, easily ignited -- possibly even ignited by the exhaust of their truck. Johnny, who has been injured tries to hang on as Gerard bulls his way forward -- lurching the truck dangerously through the oily quicksand before they finally end up getting stuck. Now, after all they have been through, the truck gets stuck in the quagmire and even Gerard finally admits defeat.

            At that point, at their darkest and most desperate moment, Johnny suddenly remembers that similar situations were dealt with when he worked in the oil fields back home in Romania. He tells Gerard he knows a way he can get them out of their mess. However, Johnny is severely injured, he is going into shock, losing his memory, so Gerard is frantic to get the information out of him before he dies. Johnny fights to stay conscious and at the last moment tells Gerard what to do. The suspense and tension never flags in these desperate scenes.

            Using the information Johnny has given him Gerard gets the truck safely through the quicksand field. He delivers the nitro and becomes a hero. Johnny doesn’t make it. Gerard is given a thousand dollars for his part in the nitro delivery as well as another thousand that was Johnny’s share. So Gerard is now up two grand and planning to make a new life. Things are looking good.

            This is always the most dangerous point in any noir story.

            The nitro delivered, Gerard is naturally more relaxed on the lonely drive back to town. He is finally free of the monumental stress experienced driving this very road a short time ago when making the nitro delivery. Now he is making plans for a new life. He has some money and is thinking about how to spend it. He’s going to buy that boat he’s always wanted, then get out of Guatemala leaving this life behind him forever. He sees himself living in Paris, enjoying the good life.

            The previous run on these roads had been a nightmare, done at an infuriatingly slow pace, only five miles per hour -- with the threat of a nitro explosion over his head every second. Now the winding mountain roads call out to Gerard. It’s a far different ride going back. It’s even pleasant. He’s relaxed and can drive faster now. Gerard opens up the engine of the truck, increasing his speed. He’s in a rush to get back to town with his cash so he can get out of Guatemala forever.

            The mountain roads loom ahead, steep and winding, narrow and always dangerous. On the way down Gerard knows he must slow his speed, but becomes frantic when the brakes do not answer his footfall. The brakes don’t work! In desperation he quickly tries to downshift the truck, to slow it any way he can. The transmission moans and groans and then suddenly locks at high speed. The truck is now speeding downward out of control towards a curve. It hurls through a fence -- then shoots over a cliff.

            “Gerard is still at the wheel, victim of his own obstinacy, his obstinate resolve to live”

            And so ends this classic and very dark noir novel. No one wins in this gloomy tale of dead-ender desperation -- no one, except readers and fans of tough, unadulterated noir suspense. This one is well-worth a revisit.

© 2011 by Gary Lovisi. All Rights Reserved.

GARY LOVISI is a Mystery Writer’s of America Edgar Nominated author for his crime fiction. His latest books are Ultra-Boiled (Ramble House) a collection of his most intense hard crime and noir fiction; Driving Hell’s Highway (Wildside), a surreal noir novel about a lone man driving the back roads of darkest America; and Bad Girls Need Love Too (Krause Books), a celebration of sexy paperback cover art and wild blurb teaser text that is great fun. Lovisi is the founder of Gryphon Books, editor of Paperback Parade and Hardboiled magazines, and sponsors an annual book collector show in New York City. To find out more about him, his work, or Gryphon Books, visit his web site at:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

E-Man Part Six--Wunderworld

by Jack Seabrook

E-Man and Nova visit Florida's Wunderworld, a thinly-disguised Disneyworld, where Nova wins a beauty contest, defeating a bevy of lovelies that includes her friend Rosie, last seen in E-Man #3.  Our heroes are given a tour of the park by its owner, William Wunder, who turns out to be a robot controlled by the Brain From Sirius (last seen in E-Man #2).

In part two, E-Man and Nova investigate a mysterious swamp shanty in Fearland, one of the sections of the park, only to find that it is the home of the Toyman and his young daughter, Annie.  E-Man deduces that the Brain must have created the William Wunder robot, and he sets out in search of his old nemesis.

Dexter Duck is scaring me . . .
E-Man battles a war machine sent by the Brain, followed by a group of frightening toys.  Meanwhile, the Brain sends a monster to capture Nova; the monster kills Annie, breaking the Toyman's heart (even though Annie is revealed to have been a robot herself).

The orange war machine is E-Man.
The Brain tells Nova of his plan to convert the entire United States into an amusement park, a plan that is foiled when the Toyman throws an orange wrench and shatters the Brain's protective dome.

The story is capped when Nova's friend Rosie is revealed to be the Toyman's long-lost daughter, and E-Man explains that the orange wrench was yet another of his unusual disguises.

"Wunderworld" is another outstanding story from Cuti and Staton.  E-Man is now so well known that a young woman at Wunderworld recognizes him out of costume and knows his history.  The usual humor is present, as E-Man mistakenly attends a beauty contest for children while looking for Nova.  Joe Staton's talent for drawing beautiful women is on display with the adult beauty contest and the dressing room scene that follows it.

Wunderworld is both funny and scary in its satire of Disneyworld, and the return of the Brain is welcome.  Staton moves seamlessly from science fiction, in the scene where E-Man battles the Brain's war machine, to classic horror, in the scene where the Brain sends monsters to attack our hero.  In the story, the monsters are variations on a vampire, a werewolf, and Donald Duck.  The duck on the cover, however, reminds me of Howard the Duck, who was not yet at the height of his popularity when E-Man #6 was published in late 1974.

For the first time, the second story in an E-Man comic is worth reading, as this issue features the premiere adventure of the wisecracking robot, Rog-2000!  "That Was No Lady" is written by Nicola Cuti and drawn by John Byrne.  It features in jokes for comic fans, as well as the same sort of satire found in Cuti's E-Man tales.

Rog-2000, a very modern robot, enters a bar with a beautiful young woman on his arm, and proceeds to tell Duffy the bartender about how he and the woman met.  Rog drives a taxi, and one night he picked up a mysterious man, who turned out to be a hero/villain named Magno.  Magno used a powerful ray gun to destroy slums in the Bowery.

Rog and Syntac
Rog travels to Canada and confronts Burns, his creator, who shows him Syntac, a robot in the form of a beautiful young woman.  Rog and Syntac return to New York, and she quickly uses a Cyclops-like eye beam to disarm Magno.  She and Rog walk off arm in arm, and Rog tells Duffy that they will just be good friends "so long as she can do that."

Rog visits Burns, his Canadian creator.
Among the in jokes for 1974 comic fans is bartender Duffy, based on the late fan-turned-Marvel-inker Duffy Vohland.  Rog's creator, the Canadian Burns, is artist John Byrne, another fan-turned-pro (and the artist of this story).  This was Byrne's first color comic story--he would take over Marvel's X-Men less than three years later.  And, in a nod to Joe Staton's little touches in the E-Man stories, one of Byrne's panels features an ominous newspaper with a headline that reads, "Staton Dies!  Famed cartoonist eaten by frogs."

Rog and Duffy
E-Man #6 has a cover date of January 1975, which means it followed the bi-monthly schedule for only the second time in the series' run to date.  The letters column in this issue features a well-written article reprinted from "The New York Review of Comics and Books," in which Steve Stern argues that E-Man is the comic of the year.

I would really like to know
more about this!

Monday, September 5, 2011

To The Batpoles!

The day has finally come, Bat-fans! We've launched To The Batpoles, and will be watching 120 episodes of Batman over the next several months.

If you enjoyed our blogs A Thriller A Day and We Are Controlling Transmission (The Outer Limits), we hope you'll give our latest effort a look.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

E-Man Part Five--The City Swallower

by Jack Seabrook
A day at the beach for E-Man and Nova gives Joe Staton the opportunity to place our favorite heroine in a skimpy green bikini!
But all is not well at Coney Island.  E-Man spots a mysterious blonde emerge from the ocean waves and he follows her under the sea, quickly passing into another dimension, where cities are menaced by a Norwol, depicted by Joe Staton in a full page of horror!
These shades are very 1974!
E-Man turns himself into a harpoon, but his attempt to spear the behemoth is thwarted by its thick hide.  Meeting up with Heidi (the blonde, in very 1970s sunglasses) and her boyfriend Peter, E-Man learns of Peter's plan to defeat the Norwol.  His idea involves joining cities together in order to succeed through cooperation, but this is quickly voted down by the oligarchs who tell him that they don't possess the necessary raw materials.  Meanwhile, Heidi is out air-skiing, unconcerned with the Norwol, which soon bears down on her with a lean and hungry look.

E-Man battles the beast without success, until he decides to imitate Jonah and attack the problem from the inside.  Battling off antibodies, he destroys the beast's heart with an energy beam and saves the city.

Returning to our world through the portal beneath the waves, he receives a parting kiss of thanks from Heidi, which leads to an angry confrontation with Nova, demonstrating a streak of jealousy that hints at her feelings for E-Man.

The fifth issue of E-Man shows Joe Staton's art continuing to improve, with ever more Gil Kane influence apparent.  In this series of articles, I have focused mostly on Staton's work, but the scripts by Nicola Cuti are excellent as well.  The series succeeds in mixing humor, science fiction, and suspense, and the characters are always engaging.  Cuti's importance would become even more clear in retrospect when he was replaced by Martin Pasko for the initial issues of E-Man's run in the 1980s with First Comics.

I have a hard time
accepting that anyone
in 1974 looked like this!
Once again, the eight-page backup story is a Steve Ditko disaster:  "Liberty Belle in Freedom's Star."  This story seems dated even for 1974 and Ditko's art strongly suggests that this story was pulled from the file cabinet of 1960s rejects, or that Ditko was unaware of what people in 1974 actually looked like.

On the splash page, Liberty Belle remarks, "You talk too much Commie... like most of your breed!"  Yet the story's heroine becomes the first woman launched into space, ready to work on "Skylab III."

What had looked so fresh and exciting ten years before now looks dated and awkward.  Compared to the rushed, early 1960s Marvel work of Kirby and Ayers, Ditko's art was exciting.  By 1974, comics had matured, and artists like Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Frank Brunner and Gene Colan had raised readers' expectations to a level where Ditko's work--at least in his three E-Man backup stories--seemed like a relic from comics' childhood.

Notes:  My copy of E-Man #5 does not include a British price on the cover, unlike the past two issues.  The "bi-monthly" publication schedule also continues to be haphazard; this issue has a cover date of November 1974, three months after that of the prior issue.