Monday, July 13, 2015

The Time Travelers [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Science fiction comics usually run in anthologies of similar material. Forbidden Worlds, Mystery in Space, even Space Westerns. All their stories are clearly marked as fantastic in nature. This is why "The Time Travelers" (#1 October-November 1950 - #12 August-September 1952) in American Comic Group's Operation Peril was so unusual. The rest of the strips that accompanied the time-slipping tales of Dr. Tom Redfield and his companion Peggy Foster were the sea adventures of Typhoon Tyler and the detective cases of red-headed Danny Danger. All three strips got cover space and none of the three could be said to overshadow the others.

"The Time Travelers" was written by Richard E Hughes, ACG editor and writing mainstay. Hughes was the creator of such characters as The Black Terror, The Fighting Yank, Super Mouse, and Herbie Popnecker in Forbidden Worlds. The artwork for "The Time Travelers" was provided by Ken Bald, best known for his later work on the Dr. Kildare comic strip that ran from 1962 to 1984.

The first installment (October-November 1950) introduces Dr. Tom Redfield, a nuclear physicist who is working on a new type of cyclotron. His girlfriend, the wealthy Peggy Foster, drags him to an auction where she out-bids the Russian Vanov for newly discovered papers by Nostradamus. The papers contains Nostradamus' prediction of a nuclear war in 1956, but also speaks of an antidote to the radiation. Tom uses the ancient priest's design for a "tempus machina" to finish the cyclotron. The Russians capture Tom and Peggy and put the couple in the cyclotron chamber to kill them, but actually send them back in time to 16th century France. Tom and Peggy are arrested as English spies. Speaking with Nostradamus, they learn that the counteragent to radiation can only be found on Venus. The duo flee back to the spot where the time machine dropped them, waiting for the time beam to take them back. They are surrounded by angry pursuers when they return to 1950.

Several time travel clichés are evident already in Hughes' script. The time machine does not take them to 16th century America, but to France, making it a time and space machine. Second, the travelers have no problem understanding the locals, who speak archaic French. These problems have plagued SF adventure writers who have found ways around them like Dr. Who's TARDIS and Star Trek's universal translator. Certainly Hughes is no worse than the writers behind George Pal's The Time Machine (1960) or Irwin Allen's Time Tunnel in 1966. These are annoying difficulties that most writers don't care to deal with.

Issue #2 (December 1950-January 1951) has Tom and Peggy build a rocket that uses the time machine as an engine and go to Venus. A Russian spy sabotages the ship (for the Russians have a ship of their own), sending Tom and Peggy back to the cavemen of the Stone Age. Tom shoots a sabertooth, uses cavemen as laborers to fix the ship and even encounters a Tyrannosaurus Rex (yup, dinosaurs!). The duo fly to Venus only to be captured by Venusian Amazons. Tom is thrown into an arena and must fight first the brutish Skang, then the many-armed Beast of Tarv. Defeating both, he wins the love of the Amazon queen (to Peggy's chagrin) and helps her take out the Russians who have holed up in a temple where the anti-radioactivity metal is kept. Vanov and the other Russians end up being eaten by killer plants and Tom and Peggy return to Earth with the antidote. (The nuclear war of 1956 is never mentioned again.)

Issue#3 (February-March 1951) has Tom and Peggy going back to the time of King Arthur (the 6th century) to get the sword Excalibur for a wealthy college patron named JP Frisbee. When they arrive at Camelot they are captured (always!) and taken before the King. Tom wins Arthur's favor by shooting a torch out of Merlin's hand. The duplicitous Merlin, along with Mordred and Morgan Le Fay, trap Arthur and Tom but they escape. The baddies bring in Teutonic knights to depose Arthur. Tom heads back to the future, takes on a carload of armored motorcycles, and the good guys have a jousting battle with the horse-riding Teutons, killing Mordred. Merlin and Morgan die when Tom tips their cauldron of boiling oil on them. There are enough inaccuracies in this story to spin Malory in his grave. First off, the knights and their armor are from the 12th or later century and secondly, most of the King Arthur story is not historically or even fictionally correct.

Issue #4 (April-May 1951) has Tom building a special rocket to take nuclear waste to the Moon. A Dr. Volka tries to dissuade him from the project, sabotaging the rocket and sending Tom and Peggy past the Moon and on to Saturn. There they discover that the rings of Saturn are made of flying saucers. Landing on Saturn they encounter the Cronians, the slave race of the Saturnians. Tom is placed in an arena (again!) and has to fight a big Saturnian on a platform. The loser falls off to be eaten by the dread Hydrid. Tom wins, but the overlord makes him fight the Hydrid anyway, with its impenetrable skin. The Cronians help Tom and Peggy escape and they take the slaves in the rocket. Going after Volka, Tom is waylaid by the beautiful Sirads, women so beautiful that men can't stop thinking about them. The only cure is a woman even more beautiful, so it's up to Peggy to get dolled up and break the spell. This episode contains the most interesting science Fictional ideas since the first episode, though some of it is just Edgar Rice Burroughs retread.

Issue #5 (June-July 1951) has a best selling historical author named Blake force Tom to take him to the age of pirates. The writer wants to give Anne Bonny, the famous woman pirate, modern guns so that she can acquire even more treasure, which Blake will get in the future. (I guess best selling authors don't make as much as they do now.) Tom and Peggy are stuck in the past because Blake has the key to the time machine. Blake and Anne begin a campaign of robbery that ends when a British warship attacks the pirates. Tom slows the pirates down by dropping a sail on them. The British arrest Anne, and Tom kills Blake with a sword. Tom reveals to Peggy that he had a duplicate key all along. Peggy suspects Tom has fallen for Anne Bonny but Tom explains that he knew Anne would be captured in 1720 and he wanted to make sure history was not changed. This is the last issue that hinges on Peggy's jealousy over other beautiful female characters, but she'd turn the tables in a few issues. It is also the only storyline that worries about preserving the timeline.

In Issue #6 (August-September 1951), the villain Emperor Ego has stolen the plans for Tom's spaceship/time machine and plans to recruit armies from the past to attack major cities. Tom uses the time machine to go back and hear Ego's plan, but it is a trap. Ego claims to be headed for Atlantis and Tom and Peggy go back in time. Once in Atlantis, Tom knocks down Kothos, Captain of the Guard, and uses him as a hostage to see the ruler, the beautiful Queen Thera. Kothos challenges Tom to a duel in the arena with chariots. Tom wins, but Kothos is a sore loser. Tom grabs Peggy and they flee. They are surrounded by archers and it looks bad when a great earthquake shakes Atlantis, sinking it beneath the waves. Tom and Peggy make it back to the ship and return to 1951. The spaceship picks up the signals of Ego's new vessel and Tom follows them to Ego's base. Tom kills Ego and his henchmen by burning them to death with the exhaust of the ship. Tom's violence against the villains increases as the comic goes on, but this is 1951 and the Comics Code has yet to be created.

Issue #7 (October-November 1951) has the Time Travelers off to Easter Island in the year 750 AD to discover the secret of the giant stone heads. Disguised as local Rotuma, Tom and Peggy join a war party getting ready for an invasion. Tarako, the war chief, discovers Peggy is a woman and uses a hypnotism drug on her. Peggy betrays Tom and he is strung up between two heads with a fire beneath. Tom saves himself by using his new remote control device. Taking the ship, he follows the invaders to Chile where they plan to capture Cuzco. Tom joins Princess Lanura, the Chilean ruler, and defeats Tarako in battle. Tom gets the antidote and Peggy is returned to her normal self. This time it was Tom's turn to be jealous. This episode introduces the remote control device that allows Tom to start and fly the ship from afar. Tom also supplies the information that the ship allows them to understand any language.

Issue #8 (December 1951-January 1952) tackles another fabled city. Tom leaves the time machine on and a beautiful princess named Amura comes out. She is taken back by some evil soldiers. This leads Tom and Peggy to go back in time to find the fabled city of Mu. When they arrive, they find they are gigantic in size. Tom explains: "It is just an illusion of time! Our bodies are still in the present... and since the relationship of time and space is a matter of distance -- the further back we go into history, the smaller things will seem..." (Of course, it's never happened before this. Hm.) The giant Tom knocks a boulder over and destroys a temple. Makarta, the soldier who took Amura, uses this as an excuse to sacrifice virgins on the altar of fire. What he really wants is to force Amura to marry him. Tom and Peggy shrink down to Mu size and spy around. Some guards catch them and take Tom's remote/size controller . By twisting it, they accidentally start the engines of the time machine and destroy the city. Tom and Peggy grow to normal size and see Mu buried by the sands of the desert. Peggy does almost nothing in this story and those that follow except act as a sounding board to Tom's conversation. This is too bad because she had real energy at the beginning.

Issue #9 (February-March 1952) has Tom and Peggy go back six thousand years in the Arctic. There they find an Aztec-like race in a country called Nawata. They are captured by warriors and their mammoth and taken to see Princess Colima and the War Chief, Kormac. Kormac would depose the princess but he can only do this if death comes from the sky. This happens when two thugs named Mack and Harpoon use the remote control to take the ship. It crushes several warriors in the process. Kormac attacks, but Tom slips Colima away on a mammoth. Harpoon and Mack come to Nawata and strike a deal with Kormac. The ship will help Kormac in his conquests for half the gold in the kingdom. Tom attacks the city on mammoth-back and kills Harpoon by crushing him under the mammoth's huge feet. Mack tries to take over but Tom uses the remote control he took from Harpoon to crush Kormac's army with his ship.

In Issue #10 (April-May 1952) Tom and Peggy are off on a routine flight when two Russians, Zarian and Klubov, hijack the ship. They want to go to Phyrgia, the land of King Midas. Tom manages to turn the tables on the communists when the Phyrgians show up and capture Tom and Peggy. They get to see the city, which is covered in gold. They are taken to King Midas who thinks they are spies. The duo escape when Kyra, a woman archer, saves them. Meanwhile, the Russians have taken the spaceship. Tom has the remote control, but he wants to see what they are up to. The Russians have struck a deal with Midas. They plan to get modern mining equipment and help Midas produce more gold. Midas no longer needs the slaves who currently do the job and plans to kill them all. Tom saves them by destroying the dam above the mine with the remote control. He drowns the Russians and Midas's soldiers. Kyra is free to lead the rebellion against Midas.

Issue #11 (June-July 1952) has a mysterious green planet approaching earth. Professor Romulus asks Tom and Peggy to go to the time of the Romans, when last the green planet came, and find out how the world was saved then. Tom takes the ship to the green planet of the past. There he and Peggy are captured by a dinoraff, a sentinel that looks like a cross between a duck-billed dinosaur and a tree. The same plot again but this time with Kumrack and the real king Roylan. The king does not propose to fight Kumrack's army, but to stop the green planet from destroying the earth. He plans to flood the city by breaking a dam and destroying the machinery that pulls the two planets together. The dinoraff hears the plan and sacrifices itself to accomplish it. Tom and Peggy fly to the green planet of the future and find that Roylan's heirs are not noble, but warmongers. They plan to imprison or destroy the earth. Tom and Peggy escape and use the ship to destroy another dam, flooding the city and its planet-pulling machines again.

In issue #12 (August-September 1952), Tom and Peggy are flying to Italy to see a Professor Bentini about a new mystery. Communists shoot Bentini down but are killed in turn by Tom, crushing them with his ship. The dying Bentini speaks a single clue on his death-bed, "Boadicea!" Tom and Peggy figure out that the Sixth Legion died mysteriously of radiation while fighting the British Queen. They fly to the past and are quickly captured by Boadicea's army and framed for the murder of the priest Iceno. Tom assumes Iceno's identity, luring the Romans to a cliff along the coast. He warns the Britons, so the Romans are routed. The uranium deposit is in the cliff which falls into the sea. Tom and Peggy return home to find and punish the communists who killed Bentini.

With issue #13, Operation Peril became a straight war comic, dropping "The Time Travelers" along with Typhoon Tyler and Danny Danger. The format change couldn't save it, ending with issue #16 (April-May 1953). Though the plots were recycled endlessly, Richard Hughes did show some inventiveness as well as an interest in topics as unusual as Nostradamus, Atlantis, Mu, and Easter Island. These same outré concepts would be big decades later in the 1970s. "The Time Travelers" suffers from many Cold War phobias and biases, but did explore territory made famous later, beginning in 1963 with the Doctor Who TV show in England, especially the early episodes starring William Hartnell. It would be easy to forget "The Time Travelers" since the strip did not appear in an all science fiction comic, but fortunately the run was reprinted by Boardman Books in 2014, using Ogden Whitney's best "Time Travelers" cover from issue #5.

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.
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