Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Guest Post | Chris KL99 - Space Adventurer

By GW Thomas

Edmond Hamilton has many claims to fame in a science fiction writing career that spanned fifty years. He began in the pages of Weird Tales, contributing the most SF of material in the largely horror magazine. He also explored his own brand of fantasy and even wrote a few legitimate horror tales. Hamilton's style of cosmic-sized adventure won him the nickname "World Wrecker" Hamilton, though he was also capable of writing deeply personal stories too, like "He That Hath Wings" (Weird Tales, July 1938). In 1940 he was chosen to write the Captain Future series created by Mort Weisinger. Hamilton's career peaked in 1949 when he wrote his most famous novel, The Star Kings.

In 1946, Ed made another choice that would affect his direction for the next twenty years. He began writing comics for DC's Superman and Legion of Super-Heroes. He would leave comics in 1966, returning to stories and novels full time. Before that day, Hamilton would write largely superhero fare, but occasionally he got to return to his SF roots in comics like Strange Adventures. In the inaugural issue he began his "Chris KL99" series, which would appear in seven issues. Loosely based on the Captain Future formula, Chris KL99 is a space explorer who flies around in his ship the Pioneer, with his three sidekicks: a Martian adventurer named Halk, the Venusian scientist Jero, and his chameolonic dog, Loopy. (Interestingly, Hamilton wrote six more Captain Future novellas for Startling Stories while penning this comic. There were enough space adventurers around in the comics to not make this a conflict of interest.) Chris got his name from Christopher Columbus, because he was the first baby born in space. The KL99 is his status from the Space Academy where he scored 99%. All seven adventures were drawn by Harold Sherman.

The first cover went to the adaptation of Destination Moon, but Chris KL99 opened the issue. His first adventure is "The Menace of the Green Nebula" (Strange Adventures #1, August-September 1950). Chris and his buddies are lured into the Green Nebula by a fake distress call. Unscrupulous types follow them to the planet of the nebula to steal its rich radium deposits. This turns out to be the food of the radioactive men who dwell there. It's up to Chris and his friends to make things right. Fortunately, Chris knows a little science about radium that saves the day.

"The Metal World" (Strange Adventures #3, December 1950) begins with mysterious raiders stealing metal treasures like the Eiffel Tower and Brooklyn Bridge. Chris KL99 and his team find the ion trail of the thieves and follow them to their planet-size spaceship. After being captured, Chris comes up with a scheme that will save earth's treasures and the inhabitants of the Metal World.

"The World Inside the Atom" (Strange Adventures #5, February 1951) has Chris answering a distress call from a miniature universe. Shrinking to microsize, he and his two comrades go to Ruun, a planet that is dying because its sun has gone out, allowing monsters to attack its citizens. The distress call came from Drimos, who turns out to be a tyrant, ruling the people with his artificial light. Chris discovers that Drimos is actually the king's twin, Karthis, and that the true king is imprisoned. He uses his size control to rescue Drimos, but Karthis vindictively destroys the light that holds back the monsters. Chris and his friends grow to immense size and restart the sun by throwing a dead planet into it. Obviously inspired by stories like Henry Hesse's "He Who Shrank" (Amazing Stories, August 1936), the atomic science of this story is quite dated even for 1951.

Up to this point, Chris KL99 had been the headliner of Strange Adventures. By #7 he started to appear later in the issue, and often last. This may indicate that other strips in the magazine were more popular, like the non-series stories by Gardner Fox or "Captain Comet" by Edgar Ray Merritt (John Broome). But more likely, Hamilton was busy with Superman and other, bigger titles.

"The Lost Earthmen" (Strange Adventures #7, April 1951) is Chris KL99's first origin story (this will be changed in future guises). In this episode, we learn why he jumps from planet to planet, exploring deeper and deeper into space. He is on the trail of the Starfarer, a ship his mother and father used to find a new Earth. When they did not return, Chris joined the Space Academy so he could go in search of them. He finds their ship on a remote planet where the survivors remain. His parents died as heroes, saving the doomed ship, hit by an ether-wave. But the survivors are once again in trouble. The ether-wave that made them crash will destroy the planet by drawing a storm of asteroids. Chris and his friends have to hurry, using parts from abandoned ships to repair the Starfarer. His quest now finished, Chris plans to quit space forever. He finds a recording from his father and mother that inspires him anew to carry on exploring the universe.

"The Exile of Space" (Strange Adventures #9, June 1951) is Halk's origin story. As chief scientist of Mars, he ruined the great crystal that pumps the planet's water. He has been searching space for a replacement. This he finds on a world that has sent a distress call. When the three arrive, after a couple of close calls with energy beings and an asteroid belt, they find the local tyrant has several power crystals and uses them to oppress the people. Chris and his friends, using gravity inhibitors (a la Buck Rogers), fly up to one of the crystals and take over. Using that crystal, they blow up the others. As a reward, the people ask Halk to take the last remaining crystal with them. Halk is able to make amends for his mistake, but doesn't give up his life in space.

"The Missing Moon" (Strange Adventures #11, August 1951) starts with a visit to a planet of astronomers who give Chris an interesting photograph of earth. In the picture, there are two moons. Chris begins a quest to find earth's missing moon. He follows a trail in space that leads him to the moon, where a civilization of technology haters arrest him and his friends for sacrilege. He learns that there was once a war between the two moons. Giant energy weapons destroyed the surface of our moon, while thrusting the second moon out of orbit and into the galaxy. Escaping the moon-men, a new problem threatens everyone. A dark star is drawing near and only the projection weapons can save them. Halk and Jero hold off the moon-men long enough for Chris to divert the moon away from the star. He even parks the moon around a warm sun, improving life for the moon people. Shades of Space: 1999!

"The Rival Columbus of Space" (Strange Adventures #15, December 1951) features Shan Kar, a fellow explorer from the planet Zor who is Chris KL99's only rival. Shan Kar decides he will enter a deadly, bell-shaped dark cloud because he thinks a planet lies inside. Chris warns Shan Kar off and everyone thinks he is jealous. Both explorers head out in their own ships. Monsters attack Shan Kar's ship, but Chris saves him, allowing them to arrive at the planet inside. Shan Kar lands, even though Chris warns him again. Shan Kar finds gigantic jewels, but the rays from these cause him to grow to a giant size and unable to return in his ship. Chris has been to the planet before and has devised a metal that can counter-act the rays. He joins Shan Kar on the planet and begins smelting ore to make a covering for the giant. Shan Kar is shrunk back to normal and they all go home. Once home, Shan Kar declares Chris the true "Columbus of Space."

The character of Chris KL99 would live on at DC after its original author was gone. In later comics, his origin was changed and he made several cameos in other titles. But the great days of Edmond Hamilton stand nicely separate from these later changes. Here is space adventure of the simplest, pulpy kind as only "World Wrecker" Hamilton could provide.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

The Birds (1963)

Who's In It: Rod Taylor (Long John Silver, The Time Machine, 101 Dalmatians), Jessica Tandy (Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes), Suzanne Pleshette (Blackbeard's Ghost, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The Bob Newhart Show), and Tippi Hedren (Marnie).

What It's About: A woman (Hedren) plays the world's dumbest practical joke and finds herself in a small town during the onset of the Bird War.

How It Is: There are some good, dramatic moments in it, but I can't get into the plot, the main characters, or especially the ending. I went into detail about it on Mystery Movie Night.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 recreating ravens

Monday, October 16, 2017

Planetary Union Network | "Krill"

On the latest episode of Planetary Union Network, we talk to David A Goodman, Executive Producer of The Orville and writer of last week's episode, "Krill." David's a great guy (he was on an episode of Starmaggedon, too, back in the day) and he offers some insight to the development of the show, the current writing process, and striking the right balance between drama and comedy. And of course there's also plenty of talk about "Krill" itself.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Who's In It: Bette Davis (Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Burnt Offerings, Return from Witch Mountain, The Watcher in the Woods), Joan Crawford (The Unknown, I Saw What You Did, Berserk, Trog), and Victor Buono (Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Wild Wild West, Batman, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Man from Atlantis).

What It's About: A former child star (Davis) attempts a comeback while also persecuting her housebound sister (Crawford).

How It Is: Wow. I was really disappointed in this classic. Davis gives a great, disturbing performance and there are some tense scenes, but there are also a dozen ways that Blanche (Crawford) could have gotten herself out of that situation.

It works as a character study of these two sisters. And the complicated, ambiguous relationship between Jane (Davis) and the man she hires as musical accompanist to her comeback (Buono) is fascinating. But it's an unconvincing thriller and not really a horror movie at all.

Rating: 2 out of 5 sadistic sisters

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The City of the Dead (1960)

Who's In It: Christopher Lee (pretty much every Hammer horror film, Lord of the Rings, Attack of the Clones), Betta St John (Tarzan and the Lost Safari, Tarzan the Magnificent), Valentine Dyall (The Haunting), and Venetia Stevenson (Island of Lost Women)

What It's About: A young woman (Stevenson) investigates the history of witchcraft by visiting a remote village with a long, dark history. But practice of the occult may not all be in the town's past.

How It Is: Hard to talk about this one without SPOILERS, so beware.

The City of the Dead is a nicely atmospheric Satanic thriller with some cool performances. The structure threw me though, because I expected to follow Stevenson's character through the whole thing, but it turns out that she's basically Janet Leigh in Psycho. That was disappointing, partly because I liked her a lot, but also because the actual Final Girl (St John) is nowhere near as charming. In fact, she's downright dull.

The mystery of what's going on in the little village is predictable, but at least I was having fun watching Stevenson put the pieces together. Once she was out of the picture, I got impatient to wrap up.

Rating: 3 out of 5 midnight masses

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Alligator People (1959)

Who's In It: Beverly Garland (My Three Sons, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), Bruce Bennett (The New Adventures of Tarzan), Lon Chaney Jr (The New Adventures of the Wolf Man; just kidding), George Macready (Tarzan's Peril), and Richard Crane (Rocky Jones: Space Ranger)

What It's About: A newlywed woman (Garland) searches for her husband (Crane) who disappeared on their honeymoon, tracking him to a gothic mansion in a remote swamp where terrible experiments are being performed.

How It Is: The Alligator People is a strong mystery in a cool setting. A lot of the acting and characters aren't especially memorable, but Garland is quite good as the tenacious woman relentlessly searching for her missing husband. And Lon Chaney Jr is effective as an unpredictable, gator-hating Cajun. The gator-people makeup is effective too and even sort of terrifying. I suspect that some will find the final transformation silly, but I like it a lot.

The only thing I don't care for in the film is the weird and unnecessary framing sequence in which Garland has repressed her memories of the swamp and even has a new name. That raises a lot of questions that the movie doesn't care to answer and also reduces the tension in the main story, because we know how her story ends. But I do like that the framing sequence features Bruce Bennett as one of the doctors examining Garland's character. As Herman Brix, he played one of my favorite film Tarzans.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 scaly spouses.

Friday, October 13, 2017

I'm in Athena Voltaire Pulp Tales

I think I've mentioned this all over social media, but keep forgetting to do it here, too. There's an Athena Voltaire prose anthology coming out soon and I wrote one of the stories in it.

If you're not familiar with Athena Voltaire, she's an awesome comics character created by Steve Bryant. She's a pilot in the days leading up to WWII and she has all sorts of pulpy adventures featuring lost treasures and Yeti and vampires and secret societies and of course Nazis. Her comics adventures are all worth checking out and I couldn't be happier that I got to write a story for her. Mine features a forbidden island and a cameo by Errol Flynn, because that's the kind of company Athena keeps.

Anyway, I hope you'll check it out. There's lot of other cool writers in it, too, like Tom King, Corinna Bechko, Gabriel Hardman, Genevieve Pearson, and Will Pfeifer.

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

Who's In It: Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn), Alix Talton (The Man Who Knew Too Much), and William Hopper (Perry Mason).

What It's About: After we learn way more than we want to know about the Cold War DEW line, random seismic activity frees a giant, prehistoric insect from its icy prison.

How It Is: I was really pleased that the effects team actually created a giant mantis instead of just superimposing insect footage over human actors like I expected. The only character I like though is Talton's Lois Lane-like reporter and she doesn't get enough to do to carry the movie for me. Stevens and Hopper passive-aggressively fight over her and no one's really being all that smart about tracking and stopping the monster. There are a couple of memorable set pieces, but also a lot of nobody doing nothing.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 murderous mantodea

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Hellbent for Letterbox | Unforgiven (1992)

On the latest Hellbent for Letterbox, Pax and I delve into the 1992 modern classic Unforgiven starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Gene Hackman.

Also: I recommend the 2016 Dakota Fanning/Guy Pearce Western, Brimstone.

From Hell It Came (1957)

Who's In It:  Tod Andrews (Hang 'Em High, Beneath the Planet of the Apes) and Tina Carver (she was on an episode of the Thin Man TV series; I didn't know there was a Thin Man TV series).

What It's About: A Pacific Island man (Gregg Palmer) is executed for a crime he didn't commit, so his vengeful spirit is resurrected as a tree monster that threatens the rest of his village as well as a group of US scientists (including Andrews and Carver) conducting research on the island.

How It Is: I was worried that From Hell It Came would follow in the footsteps of Robot Monster: a cheesy, low-budget horror movie that I'd always wanted to see, only to be disappointed to find unwatchable. Robot Monster has one of the coolest monster designs of all time, but an incomprehensible, mind-numbingly boring plot. From Hell It Came also has a so-awful-it's-awesome monster and it's set on a tropical island, so I desperately wanted it to be at least something that I could sit all the way through. It is that, and more.

The plot is simple, but it (mostly) makes sense and I do love the setting. The acting's not good and the monster is ridiculous, but From Hell It Came is laughably bad and that means that I'm having a good time watching it. A really good time, as it turns out.

Rating: 4 out of 5 injurious Ents

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Thundarr Road | Wizard Wars

David, Noel, and I visit Saint Louis with Thundarr and the gang. There's a head in a jar, killer elevators, and a fish-man to talk about in the second season episode, "Wizard Wars."

Them! (1954)

Who's In It: James Whitmore (Planet of the Apes, The Shawshank Redemption), Edmund Gwenn (Miracle of 34th Street), Joan Weldon (Them!), and James Arness (The Thing from Another World, Gunsmoke). With Daniel Boone and Mr Spock in bit roles.

What It's About: Nuclear testing creates giant ants that threaten to destroy the world.

How It Is: I love '50s scifi movies, especially when they involve alien invasions and giant, mutated animals. Maybe because they speak so deeply to my Cold War Kid's heart, since I grew up in a time when we were terrified of communist invasion and atomic weapons.

But even with a fairly high baseline to star from, Them! is a step or two above the others in the genre. To start with, the performances are strong, which wasn't always the case with the genre. But what I really like is the way the story unfolds through a serious, procedural style. Whitmore is especially great as Sgt Peterson, the main character for most of the movie. He's one of the police officers who discovers the first of the ants' victims and his obsession with learning the truth and then eliminating the threat is what drives the film for a good long while.

Unfortunately, as more and more people get involved, like the scientists played by Gwenn and Weldon or Arness' FBI agent, the less character work the movie is able to do. In fact, by the time Whitmore's character reaches the conclusion of his story arc, it's barely commented on because so much else is going on. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 enormous arthropods


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