Saturday, November 29, 2008

National Novel Writing Month - a personal account

I was busy over the Thanksgiving holidays, which is why "C.E. Conversations" didn't have any new posts since Wednesday. If you noticed the little icon in the sidebar, you knew I was participating in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) competition. And yes, I completed the challenge. I started and finished a 50,000-word novel in thirty days.

Wednesday evening I had written a little over 40,000 words. We were visiting family over the holidays, so locking myself in a room until I finished my masterwork wasn't an option (family time is very important to me). So, I got up early Thanksgiving morning and cranked out about 6,000 words before 8:00 AM. And while other early risers were storming the mall Black Friday, I finished my novel and uploaded it to the NaNoWriMo for confirmation (they verify word count, not literary quality).

I have to admit, it was a blast. I wrote a pulp-style novel (in homage to the masters of the genre, such as Walter B. Gibson, Lester Dent, Norvell Page, Paul Ernst, Emile Tepperman, et al.) My particular piece of deathless prose is entitled "The Purple Doom," ostensively the lead novel from the August/September 1936 issue of "Raven Mystery Magazine" (as I explain in the introduction to the story).

It needs a little editing (and some serious spell-checking), but I promise to make the finished novel available with an appropriate Creative Commons license. To whet your appetite, here's how the actual story starts:
Fifteen minutes to midnight! Amos Kensington dabbed the nervous sweat on his forehead. Pacing the floor of the study, he quickly checked the latches on the room’s windows. The stout latches were securely locked, but the information didn’t seem to comfort the young millionaire. The grandfather clock in the hall ticked with stately resonance. To Kensington, each tick seemed like a stroke of doom, bringing him ever closer to his fate.

Kensington thrust his silk handkerchief back in his tuxedo’s breast pocket. Gathering his courage, he returned to the study’s oak desk and eased himself into the red leather chair behind it.

“Steady on, old fellow,” he murmered to himself. “It’s just a lot of nonsense. They’re trying to scare me into silence, but it won’t work!” He glanced at the small clock on the study’s marble mantle piece. Ten minutes to midnight!

“We’ll know soon enough,” Kensington whispered harshly. He took a deep breath and opened a desk drawer. On top of some papers lay a polished automatic. Kensington lifted the gun carefully out of the drawer. With a practiced hand he popped the magazine into his hand and inspected it briefly. Nodding with satisfaction, he replaced the full magazine and shoved it home. It seemed an incongruous sight, this young scion of wealth, impeccably clothed in evening attire holding such a sinister weapon. Yet Kensington was well acquainted with the firearm, having spent many hours on the firing range honing his skills until he could place every .45 slug fired from the automatic with deadly precision.

Kensington thumbed the safety off and drew back the action. With a bullet now in the chamber, he laid the gun carefully on the desktop, within easy reach. For the first time that evening, Kensington allowed himself a smile.
...and eventually builds to passages like this:
“It’s Raven!” someone shouted. The crowd of mobsters reached for their guns. Raven spun on one leg, his other extended straight out, toes pointed. Two gangsters were bowled over, knocking three others temporarily off balance. As the crowd pressed in on Raven, he suddenly dropped to the floor, then shot straight up again, his arms crossed over his head.

Crooks fell backward, interfering with those behind them angling for a shot at the blue-black clad intruder.

“Take care of this,” the hooded man barked to Marco. He jumped off the rack and quickly made his way to the office. Crow was already in motion towards the fight, and saw the hooded man make his escape. He reached the edge of the roiling mob, and skirted the edge of it. Occasionally his path was blocked by a gangster, but each one was quickly dispatched in a matter of moments.

A loud crash! echoed through the garage. The doors exploded inward, sending a shower of splintered wood flying towards the gangsters surrounding Raven. A large dump truck roared into the garage, shoving the rest of the ruined door aside. Stanley pulled the brake handle and the truck lurched to a stop. He slipped out from behind the wheel.

Some of the gangsters turned at the sound of the truck ramming the door and started shooting at the invader. Bullets splayed off the hood of the truck as Stanley took cover behind an old tool chest.

Crow was also distracted by the arrival of Stanley. He looked to the door just for a moment, but when he returned his attention to the hooded man, he was surprised. The man had almost been at the door of the office when the truck had burst into the garage. But now the hooded man was nowhere to be seen, and the office was empty!
Great art? No, but great fun.

We'll get back to regular posts on Monday.

- Ralph

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The transparent self-check

One of the sites I used as a reference source throughout the recent election was I appreciated their thoroughness in fully researching every political claim (from both sides), citing what was factual and what wasn't -- and provided the sources so I could check their work.

And their transparency didn't stop there. Shortly after the election was over, FactCheck published the results of their subscriber survey. The numbers were very instructive. 91.3% felt the site was free of bias, and 94.6% believed to be reliable and accurate.

But then it got interesting. Of the respondents who said they were journalists, 58.3% said the site was useful in their work, but only 44.1% cited -- no wonder they're not better known.

And of the campaign workers surveyed (both Republican and Democrat), while those agreeing that the site made their own candidates more careful about stating facts accurately, they felt that it had very little effect on getting the opposition candidate to do so!

Politics is perception -- which is why I'm thankful for It's a good way to keep my perceptions in perspective.

- Ralph

Day 159 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Norvell Page -- Master of Mystery

Recently I wrote about one of my literary heroes, Walter B. Gibson. Another prolific pulp author of the 1930's who's also worthy of attention is Norvell Page. Like Gibson, Page could produce vast quantities of fiction very quickly. At the height of his career, he was writing about 100,000 to 120,000 words a month. And like Gibson, most of what Page produced was top-rank stuff.

Page specialized in non-stop action, and plenty of it. He was brought in to save Popular Publication's lackluster mystery man, the Spider -Master of Men. The Spider was in reality wealthy playboy Richard Wentworth. He would don a fright wig, fake nose, and fight crime as a masked vigilante. The Spider had no compunction about killing, leaving a red spider seal as his calling card.

During Page's tenure (writing as Grant Stockbridge), the Spider fought villains who were just as casual with human life, which meant the body count often ran high in a Spider adventure. Even the titles promised action and mayhem on a grand scale: "Hordes of the Red Butcher," "Slaves of the Laughing Death," "Satan's Sightless Legions," and my favorite, "Death Reign of the Vampire King."

To give you an idea of Page's writing, here's a sample from "Death Reign of the Vampire King." The remarkable thing about this is that Page maintains this fever-pitch pace throughout the entire novel. And he did it again, and again, and again, issue after issue.

A master criminal holds New York hostage with vampire bats starved to make them aggressive and injected with a variant of the bubonic plague. Early in the book, the Vampire King unleashes a horde of bats into crowded Times Square just as the theaters are letting out.

Richard Wentworth is riding through the area in his limousine as the bats attack. Page puts a face to the mass slaughter in the following passage. Note how the breathless prose keeps the action moving forward to its (for the genre) unusual conclusion.
The car swung a corner and a woman's screams rang out. Wentworth could see her, a dark, dodging form, as she frantically ran toward him along the street. She held a child in her arms and was bent far over it, protecting it with arms and head and bowed body. Around her head one of those poisonous vampires of the Bat was flitting, seeking an inch of bare flesh in which to sink its deadly teeth.

The car was already sprinting toward where the woman stumbled in a heavy, hopeless run, her screams despairing as she shielded her child against the attack of the flying beasts. Wentworth whipped open the door, felt the wind snatch it from his hand and slam it back against the body of the car.

"This way!" he shouted. "This way! I'll save you!"

The woman cried out in joy and ran with increased spread towards the braking limousine. Once she was inside... Wentworth's revolvers were in his hands. The Spider's gun blasted, hammering a bat into extinction. The woman was running toward him eagerly. She lifted her face, held the child out from her body in an effort to get it first into the protection of the car.

It happened in a heartbeat of time. Before the woman's face, a black shadow flitted. Leathery wings covered the baby's head. Wentworth could not shoot. He sprang forward and another of the loathsome black things flicked out of the darkness. The woman's scream rose high, higher. She stopped and stood rigidly, arms lifting the baby high. Its cries had ceased now and abruptly her own scream strangled into nothingness. She crumpled to the pavement while Spider was still ten feet away.

The black cloud lifted and he saw that the body of the woman and the child was a moving black mass of leather-winged creatures.
During the Second World War, Page gave up fiction and produced government reports. After the war, he served on both Hoover Commissions and spent the rest of his career with the Atomic Energy Commission where he served with distinction.

But for a brief time, he was one of the most sought-after authors in the pulp magazine field. His fiction continues to be reprinted and enjoyed by another generation of readers. A tribute to the craftsmanship of Novell Page's fiction writing.

- Ralph

Day 158 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Gasoline Alley at 90

I've read the comic strip "Gasoline Alley" for most of my life. I started when Dick Moores was still the writer and artist (Jim Scancarelli succeeded him and continues on to this day).

When Frank King created the strip back in 1918, it primarily centered around a group of guys and their cars. The real storyline began, though, when Walt Wallet discovered an infant on the running board of his parked car in 1921. The relationship between Wallet, a bachelor, and the founding, Skeezix, was the backbone that supported all the other characters and storylines for the next 87 years.

(click on image to enlarge)

In many other comics, time is frozen. Marvin will always be a toddler; Dennis the Menace is always five; PJ will remain a baby in the Family Circus. But Frank King let his characters age, and in doing so made his stories more compelling. Early on, the young Walt Wallet and Skeezix established an autumn tradition of taking a walk in the woods to see the fall colors. Every year, each artist has continued that tradition, and it's become something of a bittersweet segment (especially for those of us who have been reading a while). Walt's now 109, and Skeezix is in his 80's -- and the reader knows the fall is coming soon when Skeezix will be making the walk alone.

And that's what gives this long-running strip it's appeal (at least to me). Just as families share stories of past times when they gather together, so too can readers fondly recall past friends and families of the strip. Walt's neighbor Avery, for example, was there at the strip's beginning, and all throughout the run he proudly drove his 1920's automobile (his obsession with his car was the subject of several sequences in the 1950's and 1960's). Avery's no longer around, but when Walt recalls the old gang, there he is on the panel -- and the reader remembers.

But perhaps its the blending of reality and fiction that's the charm. My father remembers reading of Skeezix's adventures as a G.I. in the Second World War. I remember reading about his daughter Clovia's courtship and marriage some twenty years later. We both enjoy the strip, and we've both spent a lifetime with these characters as they grow and age.

Congratulations to "Gasoline Alley" for hitting this important anniversary, and to its 90-year-long story of life's passing parade.

- Ralph

Day 157 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, November 21, 2008

HD Radio - Who's Listening?

H.R. 7157 is a senate bill that would require HD Radios be built into every satellite radio tuner as a requirement for the merger. It's currently Docket Number 08-172 on the FCC's agenda.

The bill has a lot of bafflegab about giving consumers choices, most of it virtually word-for-word what iBiquity and the NAB presented to Congress back when the XM/SIRIUS merger looked like it had legs.

The proposal is currently under consideration by the FCC, and open for public comment. And the commentary seems to break down into two camps. Employees of commercial radio (whether they admit the connection or not) are for it, citing consumer choice, and actual consumers who are against it, pointing out that the government would be requiring them to pay extra for technology that they don't want. From the consumers:

I prefer you do not switch the radio to digital. We already have to pay to change our TV- now you want us to pay for the 'upgrades' to our 3 cars? With this economy, give us a break!
I find it very telling that this docket has recieved a mere 52
comments. Nobody cares about HD radio. It is a failed technology.
And the radio industry:
Digital FM and soon to be digital AM signals will re-energize the existing radio world as we know it. More programming, more services should be accessible via this very simple and inexpensive addition to the SDAR's "radios" where at the push of the button, fee-less digital radio can be had. Such a positive decision of this type would promote and foster a stronger and more open-frame diverse radio climate for our country.
And the auto industry, which is what this is really all about. Terrestrial radio believes that if they can force HD Radio into cars (where satellite radio's already an option), then HD Radio will take off, and satellite radio will be killed forever. How do carmakers stand on this?

The Alliance’s members oppose any action by the Commission that would require the
incorporation of HD Radio technology into satellite radio receivers. First, the Alliance believes
that current market forces are sufficient to afford consumers the opportunity to purchase vehicles with HD Radio if they so desire.

If you're a satellite radio subscriber, you might want to make a public comment. So far, there's a little over 50, with a significant number posted from Clear Channel, iBiquity, Saga Communications, et al.

The radio industry is telling the FCC that mandated HD Radio is best for the consumer. Actual consumers are telling them differently.

What decision can we expect when the dust settles? Would it make a difference if there were twice as many consumer comments as radio industry ones? A hundred more? A thousand?

- Ralph

Day 154 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Dorktones -- Creatively Uncommon

Yesterday I held up Jonathan Coulton -- and the release of his new album -- as one of the prime examples of how artists are using social media to their advantage.

But Coulton certainly wasn't the first. A Dutch garage band trio called the Dorktones did it all back in 2005 (that's a long time in Internet years). The band had a very successful podcast that extended their reach far beyond their native Holland.

In 2005 they decided to enlist their fans to help them with their latest album. The Dorktones posted source tracks for a song and had an Open Source Song contest. The concept of Creative Commons was still in its infancy, but the contest rules pretty much outlined the same set of rights. Fans couldn't profit off of their remixes, but they could freely use their entries "for educational and personal use." And there was a winning entry, which was a win for everyone.

By sharing their track, the Dorktones expanded their fan base and connected more closely with those fans (I still follow them).

And the Dorktones continue on today, conquering new worlds. They have a MySpace account, and -- of course -- YouTube videos.

I suspect that they all have day jobs, but so what? The Dorktones are having fun, and they literally have a worldwide audience. So check out the track, explore the site, and discover one of the Internet's true pioneers -- the Dorktones!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Creative Commons Leads to Uncommon Opportunities

Jonathan Coulton continues to serve as the model for the 21st Century New Media artist. He launched his career by posting -- and giving away -- a new song every week for a year. Coulton's fully embraced the concept the Creative Commons license, which is to allow fans to use his music as they will. They can share it with friends, they can remix it, they can use it as the basis for something of their own. The only string attached is one of credit -- if you use Jonathan Coulton's music, make sure he's credited.

And so what's been the result of this craziness? After all, if an artist's music isn't locked down under copyright, if every single play and every single copy doesn't generate revenue, won't the artist starve? That's the stance of the RIAA.

Coulton shared some thoughts in a letter on the Creative Commons website.
"...there was something so compelling about the Creative Commons license, the idea that you could attach it to a piece of art you had made and declare your intentions - please, share my music, put it in a remix, make it into a music video. I was thrilled and emboldened by the idea that I could give my songs legs, so that they could walk around the world and find their way into places I would never dream of sending them. I immediately started licensing my songs with CC, and a year later I quit my job to create music full time."
[not sounding very hungry to me; much less starving]
" growing audience started to feed back to me things they had created based on my music: videos, artwork, remixes, card games, coloring books. I long ago lost track of this torrent of fan-made stuff, and of course I’ll never know how many people simply shared my music with friends, but there’s no question in my mind that Creative Commons is a big part of why I’m now able to make a living this way. Indeed, it’s where much of my audience comes from - there are some fan-made music videos on YouTube that have been viewed millions of times. That’s an enormous amount of exposure to new potential fans, and it costs me exactly zero dollars." [emphasis mine]
And now Jonathan Coulton's released a new album in a form that would give any member of the RIAA nightmares. As a fundraising premium for the Creative Commons organization (he considers it giving back to the community), "JoCo Looks Back" is being released as a limited edition USB thumb drive. In addition to 20 of Coulton's most popular songs, (and album artwork), the 1GB drive also has the source tracks for all the songs.

Which means you can remix, rearrange, and rework Coulton's material to your heart's content. And because it has a Creative Commons license, you're legally allowed to do so. Jonathan Coulton gives you permission.

I'll be sending in my contribution to get this drive -- how about you? I'll be doing it for several reasons:
  1. 1) I'm a fan of Jonathan Coulton, and I want the songs.
  2. 2) As a musician, I'm interested in seeing how he put his tracks together
  3. 3) Creative Commons is the sane answer to new media copyright and fair use.
If you're any kind of creative artist, you need to know about Creative Commons licensing. Don't try to protect your work in the 21st Century with 20th Century tools.

- Ralph

Day 152 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Transparency Restored

Recently I (and about everyone else on the Internet) wrote about the disappearing agenda from Barak Obama's website. It caused something of an uproar, and with good reason. The biggest mistake anyone can make online is to think that no one's paying attention. You might not get a lot of feedback when everything's going well, but cross over the line....

It's not clear if the detailed agenda was restored in response to the hue and cry, or if -- as has been maintained -- it was a revision of the older "placeholder" agenda from the campaign website.

What's really of interest to me is that while I had no problem finding plenty of stories talking about the disappearance of the agenda -- ranging from mainstream media to Internet news sites to blogs -- the return of the detailed agenda received the same level of attention. Hmmm.

Anyway, the detailed agenda's back, and once again available for public scrutiny. And believe me, I will.

- Ralph

Day 151 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"42nd Street" and Hard Times

The recent battering the economy’s taken has had one positive outcome –- it’s increased my appreciation of movies from the early 1930’s. The common conceit is that movies made during the Great Depression were designed as escapist fantasy. Perhaps, but the reality of what people were going through was always there under the surface.

Take the 1933 MGM musical “42nd Street.” It’s primarily known for its extravagant Busby Burkeley production numbers. I think for years the film was looked upon as a quaint relic from an earlier time. The story of a young ingénue who takes over when the star gets injured has become a cliché, as has its most famous line, “You’re going out a youngster. But Sawyer, you’ve got to come back a star!"

Watch the movie today, though, and you get a different impression. The story, first and foremost, is about Julian Marsh, Broadway’s leading director (played by Walter Baxter). His health is wrecked, but he forces himself to sign on for one more show, "Pretty Lady."

But not for art. As he tells the producers in the first scene, he’s in it for the money. The producers express surprise. Isn’t Marsh loaded from all his past hits? Listen to the edge in his voice as he delivers these lines:
"I ought to be but I’m not. Did you ever hear of Wall Street? This time I’m going to sock my money away so hard that they’ll have to blast to find enough to buy a newspaper."
Who can’t relate to that sentiment today?

As the story progresses, the sugar daddy for the production, kiddie car magnate Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) has a falling out with Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), the star of the show and the object of his affections. He threatens to pull his backing the night before the premier if Brock isn’t replaced.

Marsh tries to reason with Dillon, pointing out he’ll lose his investment. Dillon, drunk, sneers that it doesn’t matter. It’s his own funeral. Listen as Marsh pleads his case. As he points out, it’s not just Dillon’s funeral.
"Yes, the funeral of 200 other people besides. Chorus girls, boys, electricians... You wouldn’t be that mean, would you?"
If this show closes before it opens, then Marsh doesn’t know where his next meal will come from – and he knows that’s the situation of everyone in the “Pretty Lady” company.

Brock sprains her ankle in a brawl, and young Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) has to carry the show. With no options left, Marsh works with her the day of the performance – all day long – to get her as ready as possible for the lead. Listen to the urgency in Marsh’s voice as he talks to Peggy right before she goes on.
"200 people. 200 jobs. $200,000. Five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you. You can’t fall down, you can’t! Because your future’s in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you."
The desperation that gives Marsh’s speech it’s edge seemed to be more melodramatic in more complacent times. But in an age when anyone’s job could disappear at any time? I think it has a lot of real emotion – emotion that I'm more than familiar with these days.

So if you watch “42nd Street” be dazzled by the Busby Berkeley magic. But pay attention to the story. When the film premiered audiences knew just where Julian Marsh was coming from. I think current viewers will too.

- Ralph

Day 150 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Say, is anyone home?)

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Swimming Dirigible

I'm not sure where my fondness for the 1930's comes from (and no, I'm not that old, thank you very much). It partially explains my interest in the pulp literature of the era. And it's part of my fascination with zeppelins and other lighter-than-air craft.

So of course I was instantly distracted by this shiny object.

Air Art from flip on Vimeo.

This regatta was held at the 2008 Airship Convention in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Now that sounds like an event!

I'm fascinated by the way the Fin-Fish swims through the air. It vaguely reminded me of Roger Dean's Schindleria Praematurus, the flying fish/sailing ship that appeared on early Yes album covers. Except the Fin-Fish doesn't have wings. And it's shiny.

But still, what an elegant way to travel (if only).

And it's shiny.

- Ralph

Day 147 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Transparency clouded

Transparency on the Internet is a good thing. But you don't want to mess with it -- the web has a long memory. Take Obama's new transition team website, for example.

You may recall that I was very excited about the detailed agenda that had been posted on the website. Well, now it's gone. And if whoever changed it hoped no one would notice, well.

Obama's website scrubbed (

Lessons from (Tech Insider)

Obama Agenda Temporarily Off (Washington Post)

Barak Obama removes agenda from website (The Daily Telegraph, UK)

and much more, including:

Obama's vanishing agenda: Calm down, have some dip
(Ars Technica)

So is the change sinister? Probably not. But after establishing a site dedicated to transparency, to make a significant change without some kind of notification was a huge mistake. As you can see.

And that's the lesson to anyone who has an online presence. No matter what you do, someone will notice. And if they think you're out of line, you will get called on it.

It's why I own up to my mistakes on this blog instead of just deleting the entry. This is a higher level of scrutiny than we're used to offline, but that's fine with me. It helps keep us all honest.

- Ralph

Day 146 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Shadow's Agents

Yesterday I wrote about the character of the Shadow as Walter B. Gibson depicted him in the pulp magazines, and how very different it was from the radio version of the character. The genius of Gibson was how he set about telling the Shadow's story. Unlike other masked heroes of the same era, such as the Lone Ranger, or Zorro, the reader didn't find out everything there was to know about the hero at the start.

And unlike most other masked heroes, the Shadow didn't work alone -- he was at the center of an elaborate crime fighting network. For Gibson, it gave him the freedom to tell his stories in different ways. Gibson often described the action from an agent's viewpoint -- it kept the Shadow's appearance to a minimum, which helped maintain his air of mystery.

And it left the reader wanting more. Which is perhaps why the Shadow enjoyed such a long magazine run. The Shadow's magazine premiered in 1931, and was one of the first masked hero pulps. It lasted until 1949, outliving virtually all of its rivals.

And the Shadow's network was a vast one, indeed.

Burbank served as the Shadow's communications expert. Through radio and telephone he sent and received messages from the agents. Throughout the series, Burbank remained mostly a voice at the other end of the phone. His actual location was seldom specified. Even his first name remains a mystery.

Rutledge Mann was a stock broker ruined by the Crash and rescued by the Shadow. He serves as a clipping bureau for the Shadow, sending newspaper articles and other information to his boss. Mann also briefed agents on behalf of the Shadow and dispensed money to the agents as needed.

Harry Vincent was the Shadow's foremost field agent, and the very first character introduced int he series. An affable young man from the Midwest, he lands on hard times when he moves to New York. Broke and despondent, he's prevented from jumping off a bridge and committing suicide by the Shadow in the first chapter of "The Living Shadow." His rescuer offers him a choice:

"Your life, said the stranger's voice slowly, "is no longer your own. It belongs to me now.

"What good is my life, now? What will you do with it?"

"I shall improve it," replied the voice from the darkness, "I shall make it more useful. But I shall riske it, too. Perhaps I shall lose it, for I have lost lives, just as I have saved them. This is my promise: life, with enjoyment, with danger, with excitement, and -- with money. Life, above all, with honor. But if I give it, I demand obedience. Absolute obedience. You may accept my terms, or you may refuse."
Vincent accepted, of course, and did indeed lead a life of adventure.

Cliff Marsland also accepted the Shadow's offer. Marsland served time for a crime he didn't commit. Recruited by the Shadow, he circulated among the underworld, posing as a criminal. His prison time gave him "street cred" no one doubted.

Clive Burke was a crime reporter who also reported to the Shadow, and sometimes got involved along with Marsland and Vincent) in the rough-and-tumble action.

Moe Shrevnetz was the Shadow's personal cabbie. The Shadow could stash his signature slouch hat, cape and automatics in a secret panel in the cab's seat. Shrevnetz often chauffeured other agents as well.

Margo Lane originally appeared only in the radio series, but eventually found her way into the magazine. At no time was she any kind of romantic interest for the Shadow. She was just another agent, and often teamed with Harry Vincent, so the two could pose as a couple.

And there were other agents and associates as well. Detective Joe Cardona was one of the few policemen who knew the Shadow was real -- and often received help from him. Police Commissioner Ralph Weston knew he was a myth, as he often told his club member Lamont Cranston (who frequently was the Shadow in disguise). And there was Hawkeye, another member of the underworld who was an adept tracker. And Dr. Roy Tam, the Shadow's connection in Chinatown, and Inspector Delka of Scotland Yard, and much more besides.

The Shadow's world was populated by a rich and diverse cast of characters, which made it a place readers wanted to visit again and again. And that's really the genius of Walter B. Gibson. He wrote for hire, he wrote a lot, and he wrote quickly. But he also consistently wrote quality fiction that captured the imagination and lives on even today.

The Shadow knows.

- Ralph

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Shadow of the pulps

Yesterday I talked about the Shadow, as depicted in his weekly radio program (from 1937-1954). As popular as the Shadow's radio persona was, it represented only a small part of what Walter B. Gibson envisioned (although this prolific author also worked on the radio scripts).

Gibson was given the assignment in 1931 to create the lead novel in a new Street and Smith magazine based on their popular radio character. But at the time, no one knew anything about the Shadow. The character merely introduced detective stories on his radio program in a mysterious voice. Walter Gibson, writing as Maxwell Grant, virtually invented the character, and everything else found in the Shadow's fictional Manhattan.

Being a practicing magician, Gibson knew when -- and how much -- to reveal to the audience at any given time. In his initial appearance ("The Living Shadow"), the Shadow remains offstage for most of the time, relying on his organization of agents to do most of the work. And that trend continued throughout the first year or two of the magazine's run. Occasionally, the reader received some hints about the Shadow and his mysterious past. In "The Shadow's Shadow," the villain, Felix Zubian remarks,

"During the War, I learned of the existence of a most remarkable person... he became a secret agent within the enemy lines. His final coup came when he located and mapped out an enemy air base, escaping at the last moment in a plane of the German air squadron, flying safely back to the American lines."
It remained an untold story of the Shadow.

And in the story, "The Romanov Jewels," it's revealed that the Shadow's blood-red girasol ring was a present from Czar Nicholas II for services to the Russian monarchy.

So who was the Shadow (according to Gibson's writings)? First off, he was NOT Lamont Cranston. The Shadow's long, thin features let him impersonate the millionaire playboy with ease, but they were two different people. Cranston spent a lot of time traveling to remote areas, which is when the Shadow would take his identity. Initially, Cranston had no idea this impersonation was taking place, but in time he met the Shadow and they came to an understanding.

In "The Shadow Unmasks," Gibson summed up most of the clues he had scattered throughout the magazine's run and let the Shadow tell his own story. He reveals his identity to criminologist Slade Fallow. The Shadow is, in fact, famed aviator Kent Allard who was believed lost in the Yucatan for the past twelve years. During the First World War, Allard was an air ace and a master spy. He became known as the Dark Eagle for his preference for night flying. As Allard explained:

"The war ended. I found that aviation offered part of the life I found I needed; but it provided neither the action of battle, nor the keen work of the secret agent...

I saw such necessity in a field that others had neglected. Crime was becoming rampant in America and elsewhere. Underworlds were organized, with their own hidden battle lines. Only a lone foe could pierce that cordon; One inside, he would have to move by stealth, and strike with power and suddeness. I chose that mission."
Funded by gold provided him by the lost tribe of Xinca Indians he had discovered in the Yucatan, the Shadow built up an extensive network of operatives that did his bidding.

The Shadow's preferred weapons were "two automatics" (presumably Colt .45's -- that's what many artists drew), although he was an accomplished hand-to-hand fighter as well. He didn't "cloud men's minds," though -- the Shadow simply operated late at night in black clothes, a black cape, and large, black slouch hat. Poor lighting plus dark clothes let him blend into the background as he glided through the underworld.

But perhaps the Shadow's greatest appeal (which Gibson instinctively knew) was the air of mystery about him. The Shadow was never depicted "in civilian clothes." If he wasn't in disguise, then he was dressed in his black outfit.

We never see Kent Allard relaxing after a hard day's work. We never know where the Shadow lives -- although his sanctum was an oft-depicted location. But it's simply a single room where the Shadow goes to receive reports, issue orders, and then leaves.

And the Shadow, as any good spymaster should, is very seldom is front and center throughout the story. Most of the action is told from the point of view of his agents, which can through the reader off balance. Is that old man just a passerby, or the Shadow in disguise? What about the janitor mopping the floor at police headquarters as two detectives discuss a case? Did that dark blot in the corner of the room move, or was it just the crook's imagination? Gibson doesn't always give the same answer every time.

So who is the Shadow? Well, one has to read almost every adventure to get a truly accurate picture. And that cumulative discovery is, in my opinion, part of the fun.

Tomorrow: the rest of the story -- the Shadow's agents!

- Ralph

Day 144 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Shadow of the radio

Last week I wrote about Walter B. Gibson, the man who virtually created the Shadow back in 1931. But the character and the mythos he carefully built up over his 280+ novels in Street and Smith's "Shadow Detective Magazine" were largely ignored by the Shadow's radio program.

When most people are asked about the Shadow, they can usually remember the quote "The Shadow Knows," if nothing else. For the most part, it's the radio version of the Shadow that people remember. And that quote is part of the show's opening:

"The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. The Shadow knows!"

The origin and premise are kept pretty simple, as befitting a half hour program. The Shadow is the alter-ego of Lamont Cranston, a wealthy man-about-town, and his power is simply one of hypnosis. He can "cloud men's minds" so that he seems invisible. His only assistant is Margo Lane, who serves as a somewhat love interest/person to rescue.

While the Shadow of the pulps is presented as a serious, somber and mysterious character, the radio's version seems anything but. Listen to this scene where Lamont and Margo discuss the chess club that Lamont's a member of.

The Chess Club Murders, scene 1

The carefree manner of Cranston and the easy banter suggest a crimefighter closer to the Saint than to single-minded avenger of justice.

There's a significant change occurs when Cranston becomes the Shadow (and starts speaking through a tube to distort his voice). Here's a pivotal scene where he confronts one of the suspects in the chess club murders.

The change in tone give the radio drama an interesting dynamic, and overall the Shadow's radio program presented a solid half-hour of entertainment.

When the Shadow started out in 1930, he was the host of "The Detective Story Hour," an anthology radio program that dramatized stories published in Street and Smith pulps. In 1932, the Shadow had his own show (but still just as a narrator), and the Shadow Detective Magazine was gaining readership at a tremendous pace. Finally, in 1937, the Shadow became the hero of the radio program.

Walter B. Gibson co-wrote many of the scripts, and a young Orson Welles voiced the Shadow, along with Agnes Moorehead (later to play Endora on "Bewitched") as Margo Lane. Through cast changes and a World War, the Shadow radio show remained popular. Eventually, like many other radio programs, it fell victim to the new technology television, ending its 21-year run in late 1954.

And while I still prefer the Shadow of the pulps, there's something about the radio Shadow that I like very much. What exactly is that quality?

The Shadow knows.

- Ralph

Day 143 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Transparent Change

Although there were many factors that affected the recent election, to me a big part was the use of new media. Barak Obama seemed to have an instinctive understanding of how the Internet was used and played it like a fiddle. John McCain, as perhaps befitting members of his generation, seemed to discount the role of new media and preferred tried and true political strategies. I think when he talked about his computer ignorance, I think he was reassuring his base that he wasn't caught up in any of that Interwebtubbie nonsense.

I'm not saying he's perfect in every way, but to me, Obama seemed to "get" the increasingly important role the Internet -- and social networking -- is going to play in our 21st Century world. And it wasn't just for the campaign, either. Today a new website appeared --

It's the website for the Obama transition. There are news updates, a blog to subscribe to, and a ton of information. We can watch the transition team take shape, and monitor the entire process. And there's a social media aspect as well. You can share a story about what the campaign meant for you. And you can share your vision about the changes you'd like to see.

You can also dig into the details of Obama's agenda on a variety of topics. If nothing else, Obama seems to has kept his promise of government transparency. (We'll know more once all of those stories/visions the nation shares are made public.)

Personally, I'm very excited about the Technology agenda. For the most part, it's in line with the changes many of us on this side of the digital divide have been clamoring for. I am concerned about one thing, though.

Protect American Intellectual Property Abroad: The Motion Picture Association of America estimates that in 2005, more than nine of every 10 DVDs sold in China were illegal copies. The U.S. Trade Representative said 80 percent of all counterfeit products seized at U.S. borders still come from China. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will work to ensure intellectual property is protected in foreign markets, and promote greater cooperation on international standards that allow our technologies to compete everywhere.
Relying on the MPAA (and the RIAA) for guidance on copyright issues usually, ends badly for all concerned -- including the industries these organizations are trying to protect. Looks like it's time to share my own vision with the new administration...

- Ralph

Day 140 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

In the Shadow of Walter B. Gibson

So I'm participating in the National Novel Writing Month event. I have to start and complete a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. Part of the author's profile I had to fill out on the site asked for favorite authors. Leading off my list is Walter B. Gibson.

Many people won't recognize the name -- but they'll certainly recognize his creation. Walter Gibson, writing as Maxwell Grant, is the man who created the Shadow. The character actually existed before Gibson came on board. Street and Smith used the character as the host for their weekly radio mystery show (serving much the same function as the Crypt Keeper in "Tales of the Crypt"). The character proved so popular that in 1931 they decided to launch a Shadow Mystery Magazine. That's when Walter Gibson -- already an accomplished and prolific writer -- was hired.

At the time no one knew what the Shadow looked like, or what his back story was, or anything at all about him -- save his voice. In fact, the cover of the first issue didn't even have the Shadow on it -- Street and Smith used the only cover art they could find that had any kind of pronounced shadow. Gibson took it and created the first Shadow novel, "The Living Shadow" out of whole cloth (and set a substantial part of it in New York's Chinatown).
The Shadow became a mysterious figure wrapped in black sable, dispensing justice through his network of operatives, only intervening at key events. Over the course of Gibson's 283 novels published in the magazine, readers gradually learned more about the Shadow's mythos.

That's why Walter Gibson is such an inspiration to me -- especially during this month. In addition to writing a 60,000-75,000 novel a month (and initially the pace was two a month), he also continued to write novellas and short stories about other characters. He also maintained a column about codes, and -- being a practicing professional magician -- wrote a magic column and several books about magic as well. He also performed, wrote radio scripts, comic books, and newspaper comic strips, and devised new puzzles and magic tricks.

And the most impressive thing to me is not just the sheer volume of material Gibson turned out, but how consistently high he maintained the quality. The Shadow's adventures might not have been realistic, but they were wonderful studies of mood, pacing, and atmosphere. And they created a world with its own internal logic -- an inviting world of mystery and adventure.

In lesser hands (and there were plenty during the heyday of the pulps), it would have been so much hackwork, hardly worth reading, much less revisiting. But Gibson's work lives on. Shadow adventures have been reprinted at least four different times to my knowledge (including a current run from Nostalgia Ventures). And most folks who have never read a single word of Walter Gibson have at least a passing familiarity with the Shadow.

"The weeds of crime bear bitter fruit. The Shadow knows."

My Nanowrimo entry, "The Purple Doom," is an homage to Walter Gibson's work. I doubt it will bear up to comparison with the work of that master craftsman. But pounding away at my story as the deadline looms ever nearer, I've developed an even greater appreciation for Gibson's skill.

- Ralph

Day 139 of the WJMA Web Watch.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Classical Music -- Dead or Alive

I was listening to Ottorino Respighi's "The Pines of Rome" a little while ago, and it reminded me of a performance I attended a few years ago. I was seated behind a couple of elderly matrons at the concert, which, in my opinion, was very well-played, but kind of tame. As I recall, there was a Beethoven overture, the Respighi work, and then a Mozart piano concerto in the second half with a guest pianist.

As we all made our way to the exits for intermission, I overheard most of the discussion of these two die-hard music lovers (as they characterized themselves). In their opinion, the Beethoven was a little edgy, but Respighi was just over the top! It was too loud, it was too crazy, it was too... everything. It was just too modern. Why couldn't the symphony stick to nice music anyway?

Now at one time "The Pines of Rome" was indeed (moderately) wild and modern -- like when it premiered in 1924. The work was actually about the same age as my blue-haired music critics. But it was still far too outré for their tastes.

Beethoven and Mozart? Nice. Nothing like music that's almost two centuries old to make one feel relaxed.

I'm not necessarily faulting those ladies -- classical, like any other musical genre, means different things to different people. And for many, classical music equals pretty Muzak.

But really. Is it true that the only good classical music was written by composers all now long-dead and safely buried? Nope. There's plenty of new, relevant music being written, performed, and enjoyed -- but you'd be hard-pressed to find any of it on an orchestral subscription series. It's being done in chamber music series, festivals, museums, performance art spaces, and many other small venues. And it's reaching an audience that would never consider going to the Symphony.

So I'm not really worried about classical music. Like it's done throughout the ages, it's changing, growing, adapting. I do feel sorry for those matrons, though. They wanted to keep classical music frozen in time. And in the process, they shut themselves off from a wild, wonderful -- and vitally alive -- world of sound.

Classical music is only as boring as you want it to be.

- Ralph

Monday, November 03, 2008

Goodnight, Opus

Berkeley Breathed ended his comic strip, "Opus" yesterday, in a very unusual -- yet absolutely perfect -- fashion.

When Lynn Johnston finished telling her story of the Patterson family in "For Better or For Worse," she presented a final Sunday panel that closed out the current story lines and said goodbye to the characters. She then rebooted the strip, going back to the early history of the Pattersons and starting over.

Bill Watterson ended his strip "Calvin and Hobbes" with a simple fade-out. The final segment showed the pair going off into the world once again. The comic assured us that Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes would continue on forever just as they always had throughout the strip's run.

Breathed served notice that "Opus" would end, and the final storyline involved the characters in the strip finding the place they wanted to end up. Because once the strip ended (according to the storyline), that's where they'd remain.

The final two segments wonderfully wrap things up for the strip. In the first, we see Steve Dallas searching for Opus as the end nears (click on the image to enlarge).

In one panel there are ghostly figures -- characters from Breathed's previous strip "Bloom County," where Opus the penguin first appeared. But Opus isn't among the ghosts -- he didn't choose the past as his final resting place.

Dallas invades Opus' fantasy tropical island. This was the imaginary "happy place" Opus would go to when things got bad. But he wasn't there -- he'd given his happy place to Pudgepot, a dog he met at the Animal Shelter. So Opus didn't choose the present as his final resting place.

In the last strip, Dallas looks through the things Opus left behind at the shelter and discovers where he chose to go.

It's poignant, sweet, and utterly perfect. And to see the last panel, you have to go online to the Humane Society's website -- specifically,

There's Opus, fast asleep in bed in the final pages of the children's classic, "Goodnight, Moon." What better place for the child-like penguin.

And notice that the final panel isn't in the paper. It's online. In a sense, Opus chose the future as his final resting place -- a place in a timeless classic.

Breathed's said in interviews that he believes the day of the newspaper comic has passed -- the future of comics is online. And that's where "Opus" transitioned to for its final panel. It's the end and the beginning.

Goodnight, Opus.

- Ralph

Day 136 of the WJMA Web Watch.