Saturday, July 30, 2022

I'm an actor

Okay, I'm not an actor. I don't really claim to be one, but I do have an account on backstage.com. Nobody has ever used it to contact me for my services as a memory man (they find the strangest, most obscure ways to get in touch with me, as a rule), but it's worth it alone for the contact I got from a student film, back in February. They asked me if I'd like to audition for the part of Eugene, father of a young wizard who wants to break with family tradition and study agriculture instead.

I look like the kind of person they imagined Eugene to be, apparently. Also, I'm under five foot nine, which was a requirement for the production due to low ceilings. I suspect they contacted everybody on backstage.com who fitted the height and age range they were looking for.

I was quite delighted by the idea, and immediately got to work recording my performance of the script they sent me! Since the scene involved collecting washing from the line, I went out to Poundland and bought a washing line and pack of clothes pegs, roped in my brother (a rather better actor than me) to play the part of 16-year-old Duffy, strung the line between the bannister and bookcase at opposite ends of my living room, and got to work with some serious acting!

Firstly, here's the script, in case you think I'm interpreting it wrongly:



In the previous scene, Duffy told his parents that he wants to follow a career in agriculture instead of one in magic (which is the family tradition). Only the mother, Clementine, shows a reaction to these news (since she strongly disagrees with this decision). Eugene, on the other hand, does not like confrontation, leaving the serious talk for his wife.
Duffy eventually leaves this space, wanting to be alone. Clementine tells Eugene to go to their son and reason with him. He obeys to this order, goes to Duffy’s room to ask for his help to pick up the washing that is outside. The scene starts right after this.

EXT. COTTAGE - GARDEN - DAY 
Duffy and Eugene unpeg washing from the line outside. Robes. Bed Sheets. Stuffed and dead animals. Scrolls. Etc. Duffy picks a tattered old wizard hat off the washing line. 

 

EUGENE
I -- I hope you know what's coming your way. Oh, boy. 

 

DUFFY
Permanent groundings. Overloaded with chores. 

 

EUGENE
Permanent groundings. Overloaded with chor -- See, yes, exactly.

 

DUFFY
I thought we were only meant to hand wash all of the old clothing? 

 

EUGENE 
Early bedtimes. No pocket money.

 

DUFFY 
The stitching had already started to tear. Now, look at it. 

 

EUGENE 
I get it -- you -- how it doesn't seem a big deal right now...

 

DUFFY 
It's too delicate for our janky old machine. That's the problem. 

 

EUGENE 
But, being apart of a community like ours, your uncles, aunties, cousins. You're meant to be the one setting an example for, for -- forget about the washing!

 

DUFFY 
If you make sure to spot treat it, then maybe you can salvage another couple years -- in a clean-esque and hygienic-esque way. 

 

EUGENE 
How the ones with it in their blood are the only ones who can truly excel. Duffy, did you hear what I said?

Duffy wiggles his finger through a hole in the hat. 

 

DUFFY 
Colour faded. That smell! And all these holes, like a rat chewed right through – 

 

EUGENE 
Gimme that!

He snatches it from out of Duffy's hand. Tosses it in the laundry basket. 

 

EUGENE 
What you have is a birthright, passed down by generations. You have magic--

 

DUFFY 
Running through your veins. 

 

EUGENE 
Just, freeze! Please. To be a wizard it's like...

 

DUFFY 
Am I supposed to stay frozen while you search for a metaphor? 

 

EUGENE 
Duffy!

 

DUFFY 
Dad, no! I'm not -- I can't turn back now. Look, I'll always have my wand. To walk away from this. That isn't what this is. 

 

EUGENE 
If you don't go down a certain path... not something you can come back from... you won't... this family... old fashioned... without doing exactly what they want, they might turn their back on you.

 

DUFFY 
Would you?

Silence. Rain starts to fall. 

 

EUGENE
Quick!

Duffy grabs the laundry basket and dashes in. Eugene whips the bed sheet off the washing line and lifts it over his head as he runs in. Eugene trips as the bedsheet drops down over his eyes, blocking his vision.


And here's the video! This was my favourite take, mainly because of a minor mishap at the end...



I really thought the bookcase was solid enough that that couldn't happen, even if I got the sheet tangled up. Here's a take without all the damage...



The students picked someone else for the part. I thought the finished work would have been posted online by now, they must have finished for the summer and gone onto whatever film students do after they graduate, but it doesn't seem to be. I think we've given more than enough spoiler space to stop my audition tapes ruining the story for any potential viewers, so here you go! Admire my performance skills!

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The MSO is on!

 It's now possible to register for the Mind Sports Olympiad 2022! It'll take place 25 years after the first one, you know - this makes me feel old. But please click on this link to register for the events of your choice. If you're going for the whole week, the best thing to do is buy the all-you-can-play ticket for £130 (it was fifty quid in 1997; I feel even older now), but if you're just in it for the memory, then you need to look for Marathon Memory (£15, all day Sunday 21 August), Natural Memory (£10, morning of Monday 22 August) and Speed Memory (£10, afternoon of Monday 22 August). These three competitions can be entered separately, but if you take part in all three, it adds up to an overall MSO Memory Championship!

Here's how the whole thing works...



Please pay attention to that one. This year's MSO competition, for the first time, will be done digitally, using this software. Competitors should bring their own laptop - although it might be possible to provide one for people who arrive without.







That's the marathon memory - it's a long and mentally draining day! Only for serious professionals or masochists! Or weirdos who actually LIKE this kind of thing, such as me...





To pad out the Natural Memory competition, I'd also like to add these three quick bits too, from the Memory League competitions. I haven't yet agreed this with anyone, though. What do you think? It would be fun! We might have to save it for next year, though - it's a bit late to be changing the format now...











And as for the speed memory...





Speed cards will be done with REAL cards! Bring your own real cards, or alternatively we'll provide them for you!

Again, these two are something I would like to add in - maybe next year, when everything won't have been arranged in such a hurry...












I hope that all makes sense, but I will gladly answer any questions people might have. Hope to see you there!

Friday, July 22, 2022

Erdős

 A mathematical friend of mine said to me yesterday that he wants to publish a paper with his supervisor and thus get an Erdős number of 4. This is an entirely new concept to me, but cool enough that I immediately added it to my list of fascinating trivia to talk about at length. I also didn't know that Hungarian has long umlauts, so I'm learning so much all at once, I fear my brain won't be able to handle it all.

An Erdős number measures the distance in terms of collaborating on mathematical papers with noted mathematician Paul Erdős, or collaborating with people who collaborated with him, and so forth. As I said last night, it's like that thing with degrees of Kevin Bacon*, only much cooler in an intellectual geeky way.

*Actually, last night I said 'Kevin Spacey', because you know what I'm like with names. I do apologise to whichever one of those actors is offended by being mistaken for the other.

I'm going to Cambridge tonight for the British Othello Championship over the weekend - I notice that Imre's Erdős number is 2, so quite possibly this is the key to being really good at othello! Does anyone want to co-author a paper with me? Only people with Erdős number of 1 need apply.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Optimus Prime seizes up

It was harder to find good transforming-robot cartoons in 1985. Nowadays, you can find them all over the internet or on DVD in every household, but unfortunate children of the eighties were starved of that kind of entertainment beyond five-minute segments on the Wide Awake Club. But if you were patient, you could watch Optimus Prime transforming a little bit every week on the cover box of the Transformers comic!

The cover box is that little rectangle in the top left corner there --------->

The Transformers comic had a different cover format (and everything-else format too) for the first 26 issues, but when it went full-colour, weekly, and down to twenty-four pages, the cover box became an ever-present thing, all the way to the end in 1992.

The first two, numbers 27 and 28, both used the same picture in the cover box - a rather hard to decipher at such small size clip from the very first cartoon animation created for the first Transformers toy commercials. It's the planet Cybertron, a spaceship and some lasers. But after that, we launch into a series of cover box pictures from the Optimus Prime commercial footage - used in Britain for an Optimus and Soundwave advert, but originally intended for Optimus versus Megatron. The Megatron toy wasn't released over here at first, because of the way it transforms into a very realistic gun...



Here's the full series of cover boxes! Optimus drives along a cliff path, trailing carefully-drawn smoke from his stacks. You can put more effort into animation when you only have to do a couple of seconds' worth! All these pictures are flipped from the original - in the adverts, Optimus enters from stage right like all heroes should, but that looks a little funny on a cover box in the top left...
... he detaches his trailer and drives straight off the cliff edge...
... and flies through the air...
... his arms start to emerge from his sides...
... then he goes back to the picture from two weeks ago because presumably someone made a mistake...
... but now his arms are out, his gun has magically appeared and his head's starting to pop up...
... legs swinging down into position...
... body straightening up...
... spreads his legs (something the toy can't do) as he comes in for a landing...
... lands and fires his gun...
... pauses...
... pauses...











And I could go on. After that, Optimus never moves again. He remains in that pose all the way up to number 74! People started to write into the letters page to ask what happened to him, but that's the end of the animation, unfortunately, so that's where we're stuck. I tell you, this was riveting to follow in late 1985! 

The early adverts, both British and American, can be found aplenty on YouTube - this one is the most interesting:  

I'm pretty sure whoever posted it is right to say it's the first ever Transformers advert on UK TV (but wrong to say it was 1985 rather than 1984). I distinctly remember the advert briefly leaving me under the impression that there were characters called "Heroic Autobot" and "Mini Autobot", before I learned some more about these fascinating new toys and their accompanying comic - it launched in late September 1984, and I must have seen this advert very shortly before that, probably after school had already started. I have an idea that I talked about it on the playground using those inaccurate names.

From a historical point of view, it's fun to see that they made this advert using a red Bumblebee and a yellow Cliffjumper - they were meant to be the other way around, but opposite-colour ones were widely available when the toys first launched. It's no wonder people got confused about names and things!

Saturday, July 09, 2022

When life gives you lemons...

 I can only assume the football match between the Netherlands and Sweden at Bramall Lane this evening is absolutely thronged with fans, judging by how many groups in bright yellow or orange were swarming around Manchester Piccadilly station when I got there this morning. Do you have to go through Manchester to get to Sheffield? I suppose it was the most convenient airport, but it seems like a strange kind of route.

Anyway, I didn't go to Manchester to see a football match forty miles away, I went for a general day out exploring the murky depths of somewhere I haven't been for absolutely ages. And it was a very rewarding visit! The excellent collector's shop which attracted my attention by playing Beatles music at top volume provided a Sparky annual, a Bobby Bear book and a video tape I've sort of hoped to come across for the last ten years!


I'm not in any tearing hurry to actually watch the video, mind you - even judging by the glowing and positive review that first alerted me to its existence, it sounds like abominably bad 1970s soft porn - but this particular edition was released by Take 2 Plus (another name used by the good people of Krypton Force) and illustrated by the ever-wonderful Marc! Just see how he copies faces from still-frames like the one on the back cover, distorting them in his own unique way! I just had to own it, even if it sits a little oddly on my shelves among all the cartoons.

And I'm pleased to report that the Oxfam shop in Manchester is selling VHS tapes as well, just like a couple of the charity shops in Redditch. Videos disappeared entirely from the charity shops a while ago, but they seem to be making a real comeback now! This can only be a good thing - I'm sure there are more people out there with Krypton Force tapes they can give away, and inspire a whole new generation of watchers!

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Triskaidekaphobia

 Just a quick and fascinating follow-up to yesterday's post - the debut adventure of the Ghost-Breaker was reprinted in Showcase #80 in 1969, to reintroduce him in his capacity of the man who refuses to believe there's anything supernatural about the Phantom Stranger. As was normal for those days, the art was re-coloured (without reference to the way it was coloured in the original) and re-lettered, but it was otherwise identical to the original appearance in Star Spangled Comics #122 in 1951. With one interesting exception...

The uncredited letterer had a lot of work to do, writing that entire verbose story out again, but apart from correcting a couple of spelling mistakes and introducing a couple of new ones, the only differences were two pairs of panels:

1951 version:

1969 version:

Terry's name has been changed to Terrence. Multiple other uses of 'Terry' have been left unchanged, including the first one. But the same amendment happens later, and the line about his name being 13 letters is removed too:

1951:

1969:

So... why? Is it possible that the original script said 'Terrence', and the change to 'Terry' was a last minute alteration when the anonymous writer thought it would be nice for the character to have 13 letters in his name? It would be fun if that was true, but it doesn't seem at all likely that the original script still existed eighteen years later. Changes to early-fifties horror stories when they were reprinted were often made at the insistence of the Comics Code Authority, but I don't think a mention of thirteen-letter names was on their list of unacceptable subjects.

It seems a lot more probable that changing the name was a deliberate decision on the part of Mike Friedrich, who wrote the new material, presumably just because he thought it sounded better. But the one time our hero's name is given in the present-day story, it's obviously a correction - the 'Terrence' sticks out to the left of the speech bubble, and would have fitted perfectly if it said 'Terry':

I blame the Phantom Stranger. He's just done it to get on Terry's nerves.

Monday, July 04, 2022

The Ghost-Breaker (not to be confused with the Ghost Warrior)

Here's another lesser-known character from the unfashionable areas of American comic book history! The year is 1951, comics aren't selling as well as they were during the war, superheroes are definitely yesterday's news, and DC Comics are experimenting with different genres to see if anything's going to excite the readers. Maybe ghost stories will do it? That's probably how the assignment was presented to a 25-year-old artist named Leonard Starr.

As everyone should know (if only because I do talk about it quite a lot) Leonard Starr's crowning moment of glory came more than thirty years later, when he became the head writer of the Thundercats cartoon. Some people also like to praise his long-running newspaper comics "Mary Perkins, On Stage" and "Annie", but not many people go into detail about his few years drawing DC comics in the early fifties. His writing was so sensationally good in later years, it seems something of a waste to see him drawing stories written by others, in backup strips like "Pow-Wow Smith, Indian Lawman" (which isn't quite as racist as the title makes it sound). But he got something of a promotion in 1951, drawing the new lead series and covers for Star Spangled Comics!

Star Spangled has an interesting history. Launched in 1941 at the height of the Superman boom, it was a vehicle for "the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy", written by Superman's creator Jerry Siegel. The gimmick was that the kid (a millionaire genius) was the hero and the grown-up (his musclebound chauffeur) was the sidekick - and unlike the other anthology titles of the time, the comic was mostly filled with Star-Spangled Kid adventures, and just a couple of little backup strips. But the writing wasn't really all that great, and nor was the art (by Hal Sherman), and after just six issues of that format it was relaunched.


In #7, cover date April 1942,the Star-Spangled Kid was shunted to the back pages, and  the cover star and lead feature became "the Newsboy Legion and the Guardian". Produced by the more consistently successful creative team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (creators of Captain America), the Newsboy Legion were a gang of orphan street kids who sold papers in Suicide Slum and had adventures thwarting crooks and fifth-columists under the watchful eye of the local cop, who dressed as a costumed hero to keep tabs on the kids. So the theme of kid-heroes-with-adult-sidekicks continued, but in a form that was more appealing to actual kid readers!


The Newsboys carried on all through the war, but with #65, February 1947, they were dropped and replaced on the cover and front pages by Robin, sidekick of Batman, branching out into his own adventures with only a little occasional fatherly advice from the Caped Crusader! No big name creators behind it this time; Robin's solo debut was credited to Bob Kane, like all Batman adventures, but actually drawn by Win Mortimer. No writers were credited but it's generally agreed Bill Finger was mostly responsible for the stories, in which Robin usually helps kids in a way that a grown-up superhero wouldn't be able to do.



Although the Newsboy Legion disappeared as soon as Robin took over, the Star-Spangled Kid was still running in the back pages - he continued until #84, when his strip was usurped by his newly-introduced co-star Merry, the Girl of 1,000 Gimmicks. Merry lasted until #90 before finally disappearing. Back in #69, though, a new backup strip had been introduced which gradually grew in popularity, until finally in #96 (September 1949), Star Spangled Comics got its first adult cover star!

Tomahawk was a frontier hero having wild west adventures in the 1700s, involving a lot of Indians who for the time were even-handedly portrayed for the most part. He had the obligatory kid sidekick Dan, but when he took over the cover it was a definite shift away from the idea of Star Spangled being a comic about kid heroes. Robin continued as a supporting feature, but superheroes were almost extinct by 1949 and the readers' attention had drifted elsewhere. The uncredited Tomahawk stories, internet research agrees, were originally written by Joe Samachson and drawn by Edmond Good - not household names at all. By the time he became cover star, the regular artist was Fred Ray, and the writer could have been anyone.


Tomahawk was popular enough to get his own bi-monthly comic - it ran all through the fifties and sixties, although it's basically forgotten today - alongside his adventures in Star Spangled Comics. Robin, of course, continued to appear in Batman's various comics forever after. So maybe it was in hope of launching another new superstar that the two of them were shoved into the back pages behind the all-new hero who made his debut in #122, November 1951...


Introducing... the Ghost-Breaker! It's an interesting title, and makes me wonder if Leonard Starr was thinking of it all those years later when he wrote possibly the best ever episode of Thundercats, the Ghost Warrior. He almost certainly didn't write this one, though - just drew the pictures to illustrate someone else's story. Nobody ever seems to have owned up to writing this - some sources have tentatively identified Ed Herron (also known as France Herron) as possibly being the writer of a couple of the subsequent Ghost-Breaker adventures, but that seems to be the best we can do.

The Ghost-Breaker is Dr. Terry Thirteen. I think DC Comics missed a trick here - Tomahawk's real name is Tom Hawk, Robin's real name is Dick Grayson, so couldn't they have made Dr. Thirteen a Harry? Anyway, if we're wondering why Terry is called the Ghost-Breaker, well, he explains it at length in this first story!

And I DO mean at length. Even in an age when wordy narrative captions were more normal in comics, this story is absolutely packed with text. Without counting them, I'd estimate there's between three and four thousand words in these eight pages of comic - Leonard Starr's job here is basically to illustrate a short story. In fact, you might say you can read it without looking at the pictures and not miss anything, but that's not really being fair to the rather nice, atmospheric artwork. If you can find it among the florid, melodramatic text filling the pages...
As the story starts, Dr. Thirteen (who narrates the story in the first person) is entering spooky Doomsbury Hall, in fulfilment of an agreement to contact the ghost of his father at midnight five years after his death. The press are keen to get a statement, and Dr. Thirteen's fiancée Marie is wanting to make sure he definitely wants to do this, but our hero enters the deserted house anyway and sets the spooky grandfather clock to the right time so he'll get the appropriate signal to begin.

While he waits, he recalls his childhood in Doomsbury Hall - there was a forbidden door that his father kept locked at all times and wouldn't allow anyone to enter. As a young teenager, naturally young Terry did enter it, and discovered the family secret: every Thirteen family ancestor in history has died a horrific death, generally along the lines of being burned as a witch. Father discovers Terry and explains that (although he describes it as "the Curse of the Thirteen" and uses phrases like "the forbidden door") he is firmly opposed to superstition and has spent his life trying to prove that belief in the supernatural is groundless. Deliberately naming his son "Terry Thirteen" so that his name will have thirteen letters is another part of his strategy to make sure Terry must never believe his life is governed by other than natural causes. The Thirteens of history were all killed by superstitious locals because of their advanced scientific knowledge, you see.

Furthermore, on Terry's 21st birthday, Father gives him a list of questions that Terry is to ask of him, five years after his death. When Terry doesn't receive any answer, Father asserts, it will prove the non-existence of the supernatural. Three years later, Father is killed in a car crash. Marie (already engaged to Terry) is horrified, saying the Curse of the Thirteen has struck again, and everywhere Terry goes from then on, people are horrified, believing the curse of unpleasant death will strike him too. Terry responds to this by shutting up Doomsbury Hall, moving to the city and establishing himself as a famous Ghost-Breaker, debunking phony psychics, haunted houses and so on. After five years of this, he goes back home to fulfil his promise to his father.

Much to Terry's horror, his father does indeed answer the pre-agreed list of questions! It seems that ghosts do exist, after all! But then Terry deduces from the lack of cobwebs in the clock that someone else had recently touched it before he got there, investigates and finds a record player, timed to go off at midnight, leaving pauses for Terry to ask the questions. "It's my father's voice! Probably recorded before his death!" Terry exclaims. (I like the "probably"). Then Marie comes in and explains that this whole thing was arranged by Terry's father - Marie's job was to hide the record player and ensure Terry goes through this final trial to ensure his non-belief in the supernatural. Our heroes go back home, and Terry's final thought is "One thing still bothers me, Marie! The violent deaths which have haunted my family -- will I, too, one day fall victim to The Curse of the Thirteen?"

So, in summary, this new series isn't about ghosts, it's about the fact that ghosts don't exist. And the hero is someone who has been seriously screwed up on the subject by a very strange upbringing. His whole life is dedicated to debunking the supernatural, but at heart (thanks entirely to Father's unusual approach to preventing exactly this) he is horrified by every seemingly supernatural thing he encounters and instinctively believes it until he's able to prove there's a perfectly natural explanation!
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Our second story is all about voodoo dolls. Dr. Thirteen and Marie (whose surname is given here as Lamont) go to Hollywood, where Terry is going to make films about his work disproving the supernatural. But as soon as they get there, they find a famous actress dead in a swimming pool, shot through the heart - and among her possessions was a wax doll of her, pierced through the heart in the exact same place the bullet struck. Another doll is found belonging to a man who died in a parachuting accident, pierced in the neck at the exact place he was stabbed by a tree branch, and so on.

The dolls turn out to have been made by a creepy shop owner, who denies all connection with the deaths, which he couldn't possibly have caused, and even Terry is convinced the dolls must have some magic power when he finds he has a scratch on the shoulder at exactly the same place a doll of himself was scratched...

But the explanation turns out to be simple enough - the creepy sculptor has arranged the whole thing, placing his dolls among the effects of people who died in accidents, rigging the whole experience with Dr. Thirteen and causing word to spread. This allows him to sell dolls to wealthy Hollywood people at exorbitant prices, because they're terrified that something might happen to their doll and thus to themselves. Dr. Thirteen is able to expose the whole fraud and prove once more that the supernatural doesn't exist.

In the Robin story that follows the Ghost-Breaker, incidentally, Robin confronts Crazy-Quilt, old foe of the Boy Commandos (whose comic had been cancelled in 1949). This was long before all the DC characters were assumed to exist in the same shared universe, so it was a little surprising. Luckily, Dr. Thirteen at this point still exists in a world where the supernatural really doesn't exist, so he doesn't have to worry about meeting the Spectre, the Gay Ghost, or the many other supernatural beings whose adventures have been chronicled in DC titles before now!
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Despite the scene on the cover, it's not sexy female ghosts that are supposed to induce suicide in this one, it's the Curse of Oaxa. He was an elderly Aztec whose people were forced to build a tower by conquistadors, and who inflicted a curse that anyone who climbed to the top would fling themselves to their deaths. Dr. Thirteen and Marie arrive just in time to see a cheerful newspaper man climb the tower, smile down to them from the top, then suddenly look horrified and fling himself off just as his cameraman runs in to try to save him. The same thing then happens to a young man who went up there as a publicity stunt to be 'rescued' by an actress. Terry naturally now has to climb the tower of doom himself, to see what's going on. He does indeed find himself paralyzed, dizzy and unable to think straight, but snaps himself out of it just before the platform tilts to drop him off.

The explanation is simple, of course, but not entirely conveyed by the art...

The tilting ledge is activated by levers, pulleys and other ancient Aztec mechanisms, triggered whenever someone else enters the doorway. But the terrifying effect on the person at the top is caused by the view from the top. "From up there, you see a slow-moving river which seems to encircle the area! It's like sitting on a train in the station when the one next to you starts to move -- you think YOUR train is moving! Well, from up there, the moving stream makes the tower and the ground seem to move -- the effect is HYPNOTIC! " It's a difficult thing to convey in a picture, and the perspective in the scene above doesn't really work at all, I'm afraid. But this is another artefact of the way these stories have obviously been written in a non-visual way - the train analogy is a nice one that every reader will be familiar with, but applying it to the view from a tower only really works in the reader's imagination. Poor Leonard Starr was inevitably going to detract from the effect by trying to draw a picture of it!
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The ending of this one is a fascinating half-way house between Hound of the Baskervilles and Scooby-Doo. But it starts with Terry and Marie arriving in the woods on a visit to Marie's aunt and uncle. Terry is trying to take a break from his Ghost-Breaker activities, but as usual they arrive just in time to hear a scream of terror - "I knew my holiday from horror had ended!" as narrator-Terry puts it. They run to investigate, and find a dead man, apparently clawed to death by a huge animal, although there are no animal tracks to be found.

Hurrying to get help, our heroes encounter a mad old blind man, who chuckles that his ghost guide dog must have killed the victim - one of the three hunters who shot and killed the dog, mistaking it for a deer. Locals confirm that the old man, Harley, went blind years ago, trained his mastiff pup to be a surprisingly good guide dog, and after its death still takes it for a walk every night, somehow finding his way and insisting that the ghost dog guides him!

Terry tests this by secretly watching Harley and putting a bear trap in his path to see what happens. Okay, he does say he's 'detached the spring', but it still looks sharp enough to do a lot of damage if the blind man treads on the spikes!

But it seems to be true - although not right in the head, and verified by a doctor earlier in the day as definitely blind, Harley does have an uncanny ability to find his way around. But meanwhile, the two remaining hunters are still living in a lodge on top of a cliff, straddling a river with a nice trapdoor in the floor for fishing. One of them, Marlowe, is terrified that the ghost dog is going to get him too, while the other, Acker, scoffs at the idea. But when Dr. Thirteen goes to see them again, Acker comes running out in horror - they were attacked by a glowing ghost dog, which chased Marlowe off the cliff to his doom! Acker has decided to pack his bags and flee, but he lets Terry borrow some of his clothes and spend the next night in the lodge to see for himself.

Sure enough, a ghost dog does attack Terry! But he gets away, falls into the river and makes his escape. He finally realises what's happening when he notices his wet boots and the fish in the stream are glowing - there is a valuable radioactive material in the stream. The three hunters discovered it, Acker murdered the other two, using the local loony's story about his dog as inspiration for his cover story, then acquired a dog of his own, dressed it in a coat dotted with tiny electric lights, and set it on Terry hoping to either kill him or scare him off. He wanted the radioactive material all for himself, "and it would have been all mine except for you!" he snarls when he's exposed. As for Harley, when he's examined by a more competent doctor he turns out not to be totally blind but to suffer from hemeralopia - he can see better in the dark than in bright light, and in his madness he genuinely believes his ghost dog is helping him find his way. It was obvious, really.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

From the Hound of the Baskervilles, we move on to the Phantom of the Opera. Terry and Marie are in Paris (one line of dialogue refers to Marie as 'Miss Leeds' and explains that she's visiting the city with her mother, which feels like a late addition made when someone objected to a comic showing an unmarried couple visiting the city of romance together) watching the opera, when the leading actress dies on stage. A mysterious masked Phantom then appears and disappears out of the blue, and everyone believes it's the famous ghost who haunted the opera house a hundred years ago. As with the usual format of these stories, there is then another inexplicable real death during a death scene on the following night, and then Terry disguises himself as the star of the next night's opera to investigate what's happening.

It's really a straight re-telling of the classic Phantom story in many ways, but the villain eventually turns out to be the prompter, who falls to his death with the chandelier...

He was a frustrated writer, apparently - he'd deluged the actors with his terrible scripts, and hated them for refusing to give his works a chance. I can only assume all the opera singers were really good at their job, since he was able to substitute a dummy for himself in the prompter's box without anybody noticing.
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Doctor Thirteen (whose name is written as "Dr. 13" throughout this story) has just concluded a demonstration of the means by which unscrupulous mediums conjure ectoplasm when he's kidnapped by three wanted killers, terrified that someone is out to get them and wanting the doctor's help. Specifically, they've been threatened by the astral form of a former boss who they shot and left confined to an iron lung. His astral form appeared, killed one of the gang, proved to be immune to bullets, promised to come back and kill the others, and disappeared again.

The gang take Dr. 13 to their hideout in a cave, and tell him to investigate. Before he can get started, though, Salmon's white, glowing form appears, kills another of the gang and laughs as the remaining two ineffectually fire back at him. In the confusion, Terry escapes. He goes to where Salmon is lying in the iron lung, guarded by a policeman, and finds that he was in a deep sleep or trance at the time his astral form was out and about, but gloats about what he's done, showing full knowledge of the events. Terry seems to be disturbed by this experience even more than usual!

As is always the way with these stories, there's a repeat performance of the supernatural killing - while Terry is watching Salmon's unconscious head sticking out of the iron lung, another of the gang is killed by the ghost. But when Terry goes back to find the cave and witnesses the final murder, the gangster tells Salmon that he's got a weapon that will kill even his astral form - a crudely made voodoo doll. The astral form shoots the gangster anyway, but he survives long enough to mistake the arriving Terry for Salmon, and shoot his gun at him, with no effect. This allows Terry to unravel the mystery, and it has to be said that the rational explanation in this one defies credibility more than most.

Salmon seems to have somehow faked the need for an iron lung. He's able to sneak out through a hole in the floor beneath, faking sleep and then when nobody's looking sticking a fake head out of the machine to replace his own. He previously replaced the gang's bullets with blanks, and presumably found a way to paint himself white and remove it quickly when he scuttled back to the iron lung via a secret passage before anyone came to check on him. However, after this final killing, he abruptly dies of a heart attack, and Terry is left wondering whether the voodoo doll really worked. Marie teases him about it, but Terry is troubled. This is probably the least satisfying conclusion to any of his stories.
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"How often have you come across the hoax of suspended animation... persons who claim to have lived in deep slumber across limitless time?" Dr. Thirteen's narration starts with a strange question. That must have been a more common hoax in 1952, I can only assume, because it's not something I've ever come across in real life. Terry and Marie are going to check up on his friend Reed, who's been acting strangely lately. They arrive just in time to see Reed attempting suicide by crashing his car - he survives long enough to tell his story, at the usual great length; although in fact the narrative captions are toned down a bit in this one. In some places, there are three or four consecutive panels with minimal or no captions at all!

Reed and two other wealthy playboys were invited to meet a beautiful woman who, cursed by a Babylonian sorcerer, only wakes up for thirty days every hundred years. Charged a thousand dollars each for the privilege of spending a week in the company of Tateeka, they each in turn showered her with money and jewels and ultimately killed themselves rather than be separated from her.

Terry goes to Tateeka's sinister custodian Hendricks, introduces himself as a friend of Reed's and asks if he too can meet the immortal beauty. Hendricks agrees, takes Terry's money and allows him to take Tateeka out to a museum, where he tries to trick her by mistranslating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. But she proves to have a flawless knowledge of the time periods she claims to have lived in, and what's more, Terry finds himself falling hopelessly, obsessively in love with her too! In a final struggle with the overwhelming urge to give Tateeka everything, he manages to phone Marie and ask for her help, and between them they come up with a scheme to expose the plot. It's great to see Marie playing an active part in this one rather than just feeding Terry questions for his exposition! Obviously, it was all a scheme to get money from rich fools, but powered by mind-warping drugs concealed in Tateeka's gloves - and indeed, the artwork carefully and subtly shows her putting her gloved hands to Terry's face repeatedly at key moments. The more restrained narration also allows it to stay more subtle than in most stories.

But the interesting thing is that Tateeka is being coerced into the plan, with her father held hostage. I have to say, she really throws herself into it! Even knowing that she's dealing with the famous Ghost-Breaker, she still doesn't try to give him the slightest hint that she's faking! And all the research and preparation she did for the job must have been quite a strain under the circumstances. Still, nose-filters were her undoing, and everything works out fine in the end.
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From this story onwards, the lead character is referred to as "Mr. Thirteen" rather than "Dr. Thirteen". Has Terry been stripped of his PhD? Did he ever have one in the first place? His origin story just about has time for it, but never actually shows him studying. Marie, meanwhile, is referred to again as "Miss Leeds".

This is a very weird one. Terry's friend Mr. Drew takes him along to a very secretive and exclusive auction held by the 'super horticulturist' Senor Garitza. He's a man who has already created 'the octopus cactus', which can eat a large animal whole. This isn't part of the hoax, it's genuine horticulture in the world of Mr. Thirteen. But Garitza's new development, for which the bidders are vying, is a terrifying creation - half human, half orchid! Drew wins the auction, with a bid of fifty thousand dollars, and takes the seedling home, inviting Terry to come too.

Overnight, Drew's greenhouse is broken into, but the seedling isn't stolen. He plants it the next day in a sealed glass room fitted with 'ultra-violet lights and other devices for speed-up growth.' It grows very quickly, and a week later has budded into a man!

Marie, who impressed me in the last story by being uncharacteristically active and useful, this time is uncharacteristically girly, and faints. When our heroes come back from dealing with her, they find the glass is smashed and the orchid man is gone.

Terry goes to spy on Garitza, but is soon spotted and cordially invited in to see his collection of human orchids. One of them is clearly the distinctive-looking man who grew from Drew's seed, and Terry exposes him by the simple technique of pushing him over - the orchids are just people, standing in big plants. Garitza tries to kill Terry, but is then abruptly eaten by the man-eating cactus that was mentioned earlier. The orchid people explain they were just in it for the money, and the original orchid man explains that he hid in the glass house during the first break in, before the seedling was sealed away, and just climbed in when the plant had grown big enough.

Which doesn't work at all with the way the art is drawn, I'm afraid - the seedling is shown sealed in a glass container about the size of a phone box, with nothing in it except a smallish plant-pot and the seedling. Leonard Starr might have misunderstood the script, although the story is inconsistent about how big the container is meant to be, and what's supposed to be in it. Never mind, everyone's happy in the end, except for Senor Garitza of course.
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Although the cover stops mentioning Robin and Tomahawk at the top, they're both still there in the back pages of this final issue of Star Spangled Comics. Mr. Thirteen remains the star of the show, though. And it's a case tailor-made for him, as he and Marie (described as 'my assistant' rather than 'my fiancée') find themselves in a town where everybody is insanely superstitious about the number 13! Even an entire block of land, 13th Street, is shunned and abandoned.

It turns out that a condemned prisoner levied a curse on the town a hundred years ago, and even nowadays, tragic accidents tend to happen to anyone who does anything related to the number 13. Bizarrely, despite the scene on the cover, everybody seems not to notice that Terry's surname is Thirteen. They all address him by name and don't remark on it at all. Even he says "My own name contains 13 letters... and my luck has held up pretty well till now!" without mentioning that his NAME is also the number.


It's just the usual kind of thing - the town's banker murdered his partner, buried him on 13th Street, concocted the whole superstition thing to keep people away and has drifted into an ever-increasing series of contrived murders to cover for himself. But let's take a moment to admire all those books in the drawings of the library there! Nowadays, you can do that kind of thing in seconds on Photoshop - people have designed special brushes, you know. Artists today don't know they're born. In 1952, the best you could hope for was some clever use of photostats, but however you look at it, there's been a whole lot of work put into those panels!
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But that's the end of the Ghost-Breaker's nine months as the star turn in Star Spangled Comics. I guess sales of the comic weren't good enough, and the powers that be at DC decided it needed another drastic change. It's a little surprising, since rival publisher EC were having enormous success at this time with "Tales from the Crypt" and related titles. Horror was big business in 1952 comics! Maybe it was just that horror-lovers are more likely to buy a comic called "Tales from the Crypt" than a comic called "Star Spangled Comics", whatever the content was like.

Next month, #131 (August 1952) was re-named Star Spangled War Stories, and the content entirely changed to reflect the new title. Tomahawk and Robin just carried on in their own comics, but poor Mr. Thirteen was left out in the cold all of a sudden. It seems that one more story had been created for Star Spangled, which was slotted into DC's answer to EC's horror successes, "House of Mystery". It otherwise contained one-off spooky stories with no recurring characters, and there doesn't seem to have been any intention to give the Ghost-Breaker a try in it. This one comic, House of Mystery #7 (October 1952) features the tenth and last classic Ghost-Breaker story.

The cover doesn't mention that the Ghost-Breaker can be found inside - it obviously didn't occur to anyone to try to appeal to former Star Spangled readers for this one-off. His story is the third one listed at the bottom, "Riddle of the Split Siamese Twins".

Mr. Thirteen and "Marie Leroux, my fiancée and secretary" are at a circus, watching the amazing conjoined twin acrobats Peppi and Paul Belinda give their farewell performance. They're about to have an operation to separate them, and retire from acrobatics. Talking with them afterwards, Terry finds that Peppi is domineering and Paul weak-willed, and more interestingly that one feels pain suffered by the other. And a week later, after they return separated, one still feels the other's pain!

Subsequently, there's a series of robberies by a man who seems to move like a zombie. It soon turns out to be Paul, and it seems Peppi is going into a trance and controlling him. He seems to feel that this makes them both immune to prosecution - Peppi because he didn't commit any crime, Paul because he was not in control of his actions - although I'm not sure if that would hold up in court...

Terry is once again convinced at heart that the supernatural is happening, but still manages to debunk it in the end - fairly obviously, Peppi and Paul were never Siamese twins in the first place, and they're working together on this whole thing, enacting a pre-arranged series of robberies. Terry exposes them rather cleverly, by setting Peppi's watch fifteen minutes fast, so he 'controls' Paul before the next crime actually happens.

And that, sadly, is it for Mister Doctor Terry Thirteen and Marie Lamont/Leeds/Leroux. They did make a return eventually in 1969 (by which time they'd finally got married), but in the pages of the "Phantom Stranger" comic, a world where the supernatural definitely did exist and Terry ends up looking like a fool for trying to break an actual ghost. Still, there must be some fans out there, because he's one of those characters who keeps showing up in DC comics even today. His origin story being very specific about his age, he must be celebrating his hundredth birthday some time this year. They should write a celebration adventure for him! A proper old-fashioned mystery!

Sadly, Leonard Starr, after a long and very productive life, died in 2015. His Thundercats work was really amazingly great - have I mentioned that before?