Monday, October 17, 2016

Feature Comics #24

Today, I lap myself, sort of. Back in the Winter of 2012, I did a lengthy review of this very issue in the sixth issue of my ezine, The Trophy Case -- and that article was in many ways the prototype for what I've been doing here on this blog for almost two years now. So, rather than re-read this issue and try to glean new insights from it, I'm going to share what I wrote then in my "Comic Book World" column.

Over 68 pages, Feature Comics #24 gave you a whopping 22 features between 1 and 9 pages long. And, reading it, it gives me a bunch of ideas about how I could use this stuff in an H&H game.

The first feature, the longest of the bunch, is a Charlie Chan, complete-in-9-pages mystery.  Charlie Chan is drawn to resemble Warner Oland, the original actor to portray Charlie Chan in the movies. It seems a little creepy, actually, since this issue came out 13 months after Oland died, but given  Quality’s reputation of reprinting never- or obscurely-published comic strips, it is likely that this strip was done before Oland’s death.

The page layout and story pacing suggests this might once have been intended as a three-panel comic strip – perhaps a blessing in disguise for the short story, as it forces a slight advancement in the plot to happen every three panels. It is also fortunate that the plot is fairly simple and straightforward, as Chan has to decide which of the passengers around him on a ship is actually a master jewel thief named Grissac (which is not also the name of a Captain Marvel villain, but so should be).

The plot is straightforward in that there are few complications (Number One Son is conveniently
indisposed with sea-sickness for the whole story so we are never treated to a comic sub-plot) and
simple in that Chan makes several assumptions that just luckily turn out to be true (like how the
friends that he last met two years ago are beyond suspicion). It’s still a true mystery story, though,
with a satisfying resolution. The main clue did escape my attention as it whizzed past at the
rapid pace of the story. And, better still, it charmingly evokes the feel of the Charlie Chan films.

If I was running this scenario as an H&H adventure (I’ve seldom, in 28 years of gaming,
been lucky enough to have players who enjoy a mystery scenario, but hypothetically), I would
make a list of assumptions the players could make that are true and roll for one assumption for
each Hero -- like a rumor table, but with all true ones. Nothing bogs down a mystery scenario
more than players who are afraid of spending too much time on a dead end and, I suspect, this
approach would help narrow their options without making the scenario feel railroaded. I would also
take from this story the effect of its pacing and be prepared to have a character around the Heroes
voice a clue or helpful suggestion – or just have something happen around the Heroes, like a
knife thrown from the dark – at frequent intervals.

For a longer scenario, I might also take an old time movie, like a Charlie Chan film that my
players are unlikely to have seen or recall accurately, and steal from it like crazy.

Following the longest story in the issue is a one-page feature called “Off Side” that consists of
four, one-panel jokes. The jokes aren’t funny, but I suspect they aren’t meant to be. Instead of an
abrupt transition between features, these one-pagers serve as a sort of pallet cleanser, getting
you ready for the next story. Perhaps one reason there are no successful anthology comic books
anymore is that this technique has been forgotten. The abrupt transition forces the reader
to either ‘switch gears’ quickly or put down the comic book for a while and come back to it later,
while a successful comic book is devoured in one sitting.

That said, the next feature was not worth the pallet cleansing, being instead another three pages
of pallet cleansers bearing the name and character of Lala Palooza. Lala is an upper class society girl plagued by her comic relief, good-for-nothing, Wimpy-like, live-in brother Vincent.  Indeed, if Lala was ever actually the star of these one-pagers, she has long-since been eclipsed by Vincent’s shenanigans. Vincent fights and gambles when he’s not being idle and avoiding work, making it impossible to understand why Lala would put up with him – but I suppose that’s more thought than you’re supposed to invest in this. The past page of the three is the last, with the semi-clever notion of contrasting Vincent’s classy-sounding diary entries with how he really spends his day.

Rance Keane is Feature Comics’ resident cowboy. The plot is nothing original – a conman is pretending to be the inheritor of a ranch so he can sell it, but Rance can tell he’s a phony because the conman is dumb enough to use the wrong hand. What makes this story worth studying is that every character -- the sheriff, the old Indian, the cowhand -- has a history with Rance and we even learn who long he has known them. Every H&H Editor needs to put at least this much effort into planning how Supporting Cast Members know each other and how they figure into the Heroes’ back stories.
Rance would enjoy some better than average artwork in future issues, but none of it is on display yet in issue #24.

The following two pages are more pallet-cleaning comic strip reprints. ‘Toddy’ is about a Dennis the Menace-like young scrapper who clearly makes his mother miserable. ‘Mortimer Mum’ is less clear. In one half-page installment, Mortimer becomes a ‘mum’ when he finds a baby in a basket on his doorstep, but the following installment is a short joke at Mortimer’s expense with no baby in sight.

Two pages of comic strip reprints of ‘Jane Arden’ follow, spread out over four pages. It’s hard to say what Jane is. Each page of her strip ends in a paper doll of Jane or one her friends with some outfits to dress them up in (go on, kids, cut up your comic books!) so it would seem she’s a model, but the police are asking her to go undercover for them at the beginning of this adventure. The plot is similar to the Charlie Chan story, but this time Jane needs to find a jewel thief by locating his fence, rather than picking him out from a crowd of suspects. There’s not much to recommend about Jane Arden for H&H, though perhaps one could make an argument for using paper dolls as miniatures. The artwork on Jane Arden is quite good and usually the best work in Feature Comics since Will Eisner’s Black X
moved to Smash Comics.

At the bottom of each page of Jane Arden is a shorter strip called Lena Pry, a very poor quality Li’l Abner clone. The less said about it the better.  The two-page ‘Big Top’ is a straightforward soap opera, but with all the visual appeal of the circus. It anticipates the movie The Greatest Show on Earth by 14 years, but is otherwise of little use to gamers.

Another page of ‘Off Side’ follows with one good visual joke out of five attempts. This time the pallet cleanser is there to get you ready for ‘The Clock Strikes’. This was Feature Comics’ big draw until Doll Man debuted. Bought from his previous publisher, Centaur, The Clock is not only widely credited for being the first original masked character in comic books and for being the “missing link” between the pulp heroes and the superhero genre, but also must hold a record for the sheer number of titles he jumped around between two companies. That said, it is also easy to see how The Clock would up languishing in obscurity, with the fault almost entirely being in the hands of his creator, George Brenner. A subpar artist, Brenner would seldom draw any kind of action scene, would trace old panels as often as he could, and one time committed the unpardonable sin of reusing the entire art from an earlier issue with only the word balloons changing.

In this installment, Brian O’Brian (usually spelled O’Brien) drops in on his friend, Police Captain Kane (hint for H&H players: police contacts are great for picking up plot hooks!), and learns of a swindler who is about to get away scott free because the witness against him has been murdered. The police have nothing other than circumstantial evidence linking the swindler to the crime, who has an alibi to boot. Still, that doesn’t keep Brian from suspecting him and he mails him one of The Clock’s business cards with the threat that he will show up at midnight. The swindler, frightened, summons all his accomplices to help protect him. This is all the proof The Clock was waiting for, as he needed to catch the swindler and the real killer in the same room to prove their collusion. He then paralyzes
all three mobsters present with nerve pinches so the police will find them together. How a good
lawyer wouldn’t manage to get them off on evidence like that is never explained, but in a five-page story you can’t expect an episode of Law & Order.

The best lesson the H&H Editor can take from this is not to get too hung-up on the reality of how the law works. Flimsy evidence and the admissibility of evidence gathered by vigilantes are staples of the genre. And in most cases, that’s all it takes. Except for a few popular supervillains, most bad guys who get arrested are never heard from again.

The following pallet cleanser is a half-page of ‘Rude Goldberg’s Side Show’, a quarter-page of
‘Candid Cartoons’ and a quarter-page of rhyming ‘Twisted Tales’. Rude Goldberg’s witty inventions
are rightfully famous and this issue’s mosquito killer is no exception (the mosquito, having dulled
the tip of its proboscis on a false leg, will surely head to the nearest emery wheel to re-sharpen it…).

The next four pages are dedicated to the ‘Joe Palooka’ syndicated comic strip. Joe is a boxer from Brooklyn(though we never see him boxing in this issue) who isn’t well-educated, but his innocence highlights the hypocrisy of everyone smarter around him. It’s a charming strip.

‘They’re Still Talking’ is a one-page pallet cleanser drawn in the ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’
style, but with a sports theme.

The next four-page feature is ‘Gallant Knight’, a Prince Valiant-lite story of the paladins of
Charlemagne. Sir Raymond of Navaria has just won a duel with a Tartar spy, but is still lost in the
Enchanted Forest until he comes across a lone maiden at a bridge who offers him water. The maiden is an “enchantress”, but only in the magic-lite sense that the water is drugged. Easily subdued by soldiers who were hiding nearby, Raymond is dragged off to the court of the unimaginatively named Land of Shadows where he is made a slave.

Meanwhile, Sir Neville goes in search of Raymond only to encounter the same maiden, but luckily thinks he’s too busy to drink the water and has to be dragged down by greater numbers by the soldiers in hiding. Later, Raymond passes Neville’s cell and warns him that all the food and drink is drugged to keep the slaves weak. By not eating, Neville is able to stay strong enough to overcome the guards until he finds someone with a whole pot-full of “potion” that will serve as an antidote to the drug.

With the rest of the slaves freed, the King of the Land of Shadows is quickly overthrown. Raymond stays behind and Neville rides away as this serial draws to its not-too satisfying conclusion, with a note at the bottom that next month will feature the new adventures of Captain Fortune.   No explanation is given as to why these Frenchmen have such English names.

The following pallet cleanser is another page of ‘Rude Goldberg’s Side Show’, ‘Candid Cartoons’, and ‘Twisted Tales’, with the first of the three being the only reason to pause on this page.

The next three pages come from another syndicated comic strip called ‘Dixie Dugan’.  ‘Dixie Dugan’ seems to be a soap opera with a strong vein of comedy thanks to her Pa, a sort of domesticated Captain Haddock. The art is on par with ‘Jane Arden’. At the top of each page is a short strip staring “Good Deed” Dotty, done in an entirely different style. Sort of a homely Little Audrey, Dotty is about as whimsical as you can get in three panels.

‘Slim and Tubby’ is an unusual two-page feature. It’s set on a dude ranch and you’d think
it’s a Western, but it’s really a soap opera. Slim and Tubby are ranch hands, but they’re more like
spectators to the drama going on between the guests on the ranch. The theme of this issue’s installment is boxing, with two guests at the ranch being boxers; one is a bully and the other wants
to teach the first one a lesson by training one of the cowhands (not Slim or Tubby, but a tougher
hand named Benton) to box him.

“Wind screamed through the taut rigging like angry ghouls,” begins the two-page text story “Devil’s Head”. All comic books had a couple of pages of text story back then so they could be sold at cheaper magazine rates. This is a simple, but heartwarming tale about two brothers, one tough and one timid, and the inner strength the former learns of too late from the latter. However, what really makes this story stand out is the overblown prose which, if taken literally, would make for an exciting H&H adventure about a ship beset by ghouls and demons during a storm.

The next syndicated feature is four pages of ‘Ned Brant’ comic strips. Ned is a high school/college football coach who takes some of his players along with him adventures. Because the art is pretty sketchy, it is hard to say what exact age the players are supposed to be. One of them has a rich father who believes mobsters are looting one of his gold mines. He is right, but the coach and players find the secret tunnel to where the gold is being kept and ambush the mobsters.

What makes this H&H-relevant is the temporary Supporting Cast Members – for this adventure only, the regular cast is accompanied by two unnamed government agents. The author uses them exactly right, keeping them around to eliminate false leads while keeping them away from the action until the heroes have had a chance to shine. In this case, had the government agents not been there to check out the tire tracks, the heroes might have followed them and wound up being miles away when the
mobsters doubled back for their gold.

Two pages of ‘The Bungle Family’ follows, a syndicated comic strip about George Bungle and
his domestic adventures of getting so into a radio program that he literally sticks his head inside the
radio, or catching so many fish he sinks his boat and then no one will believe him. It’s light-weight
comedy done in a cartoony style, but the imaginary radio show, “Daggers of Doom” actually sounds more interesting. The artist has a gift for drawing clothing patterns. Each page of ‘The Bungle Family’ is accompanied by a cute two-panel strip called ‘Little Brother’ and a one-panel strip called ‘Another Day Shot’ that misses two chances to be funny.

The next feature is the four-page ‘Reynolds of the Mounted’. This installment is unusual for starting in medias res, jumping into the action without even an explanatory caption. A killer is out for revenge against a village of fur traders.  The effort to bring the killer to justice requires an ensemble cast, with Reynolds assisted by fellow Mounties Bob and Tom and pilot Bert. 

Reynolds is a low-level Fighter; the only time he goes solo, he is knocked out right away. The story has a randomness to it that makes it seem like it was a RPG transcript as well; you would expect Reynolds to deliver the final blow to the bad guy since it is his strip, but Bob is the one who hits the bad guy – with a crashing plane. It’s like Bob blew a saving throw, but the Editor took pity on him and turned his fail into a win. Also worth pointing out to H&H Editors is the role weather plays in the story. Reynolds wants to play it safe and wait for Tom and Bob to come back to him with dynamite, but no Editor would want the low-level Heroes having over-kill like that. So the weather just happens to turn dangerously cold, forcing Reynolds to act rashly or take cold damage.

A one-page pallet cleanser of six panels of mildly amusing ‘Off the Record’ follows.

The last feature is four pages of the syndicated humor strip ‘Mickey Finn’. Mickey is a cop, but this is as much a police procedural as Car 54, Where Are You? half the time, he is just watching his dim-witted Uncle Phil getting into trouble. At the top of each page is a three-panel strip called ‘Nippie’. Nippie is a boy who always does things wrong, but not in a particularly funny way.

One thing the old anthology books apparently did not always do was leave off with something
exciting. I can appreciate the difficulty of balancing humor and adventure, as well as the more important need of hooking the reader with a strong first story. Indeed, this too would be a lesson for the H&H Editor. Each scene in his scenario should be like a Golden Age anthology title, with a strong opening scene to hook them, a good balance of adventure and humor, and scenes that move through the scenario briskly.

(You can read the issue yourself here!)

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