Friday, March 21, 2014

Recommended Reading & Listening for 3/21: The Thrilling Adventure Hour

Recently, writers Ben Acker and Ben Blacker were announced as the new writers on Marvel's Thunderbolts. If you're a comic fan not familiar with Acker & Blacker, it's understandable; their Marvel credits include a couple annuals and the Wolverine: Season One graphic novel. But for some of us, Acker & Blacker are huge names. They are the creators of the live show/podcast The Thrilling Adventure Hour, "America's favorite new time podcast in the style of old time radio." This doesn't sound like something I'd talk about on my blog that is dedicated to comics, but there is  The Thrilling Adventure Hour graphic novel, released from Archaia last year, so there is an actual comic to work with, along with themes that tie in to a lot of what I like to talk about here.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour has been playing in Los Angeles for about nine years, doing a night of different recurring serials. It's a wonderful mish-mash of genres, taking a couple of the story types that would have appeared on classic radio and mixing them together to come up with something wholly new and hilarious. The show presents stories with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but still finds a way to make you really care about many of the characters.

The regular cast of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, called the Workjuice Players, includes many actors that you might recognize, including Paul F. TompkinsPaget BrewsterMarc Evan JacksonMark GagliardiBusy PhilippsJames UrbaniakJohn DiMaggio, and others. Guest stars include such Hollywood luminaries as Nathan FillionMolly Quinn, Joshua MalinaGillian Jacobs, Linda CardelliniNatalie Morales, and a whole bunch more. Each monthly show in LA is usually bookended by two recurring segments, Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars (starring Marc Evan Jackson and Mark Gagliardi as Sparks Nevada and Croach the Tracker) and  Beyond Belief (starring Paul F. Tompkins and Paget Brewster as those married mediums, Frank and Sadie Doyle), with other segments in between, as well as ads for the show's "sponsors," Workjuice Coffee and Patriot Brand Cigarettes.

Last year, through Kickstarter, a graphic novel was created based on The Thrilling Adventure Hour (abbreviated TAH from here on out for brevity's sake), with a short story for each of the recurring segments and a couple of the occasional ones. I'll give you a rundown of each of those segments, along with a quick discussion of the short in the graphic novel. It's a lot of information, but once you dig into the series, it'll all come to you pretty quickly, trust me. The graphic novel, by the way, had introductions from Patton Oswalt (who has guest starred) and Ed Brubaker (who has guest written), so if you don't entirely trust me, that's a pretty dang fine pedigree.

Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars
Illustrated by Randy Bishop

Sparks Nevada is a mash-up of western and sci-fi, about a swaggering square jawed hero, the titular Sparks Nevada, and his loyal Martian companion, Croach the Tracker. Sparks is the stereotypical western hero, at least on the surface, who has blasters and a pair of robot fists that he uses to stop rogue robots on Mars. Croach is under "onus," as he puts it, to Sparks for having saved his tribe, and thus must work off the onus by aiding Sparks. The onus never seems to run out, or if it does it comes back pretty quickly, so the two are always stuck together. Sparks doesn't really get Martian culture, and so pretty much brushes off much of what Croach says and does. Their dynamic is hilarious, and is one of the bedrocks of the series. This is by far the most serialized on the segments on Thrilling Adventure Hour, with recurring characters like The Red Plains Rider, a human raised by Martians who now defends her adopted home, The Barkeep, Felton, the typical western townsperson who runs in begging the Marshall for help, Rebecca Rose Rushmore, space Western novelist, Pemily Stallwark, champion of the punishment soccer, and Cactoid Jim, King of the Martian Frontier, who I'll discuss more in his own spin-off segment later. The short in the graphic novel is not continuity dependent, and does a great job of giving the reader, who might be unfamiliar with the series, a good introduction by giving a tale of Sparks and Croach fighting robot outlaws. Once you've finished the story, I would suggest starting the podcast archives at the first Sparks Nevada and working your way forward.

Phillip Fathom
Illustrated by Jeff Stokely

Phillip Fathom, the Deep Sea Detective, is a supporting character in another segment we'll get to shortly, Captain Laserbeam, but was given his own short in the graphic novel. I feel this works because he is a character who is firmly rooted in the comic book tradition. A merman of some sort, his origin remains unclear, whose parents died at sea, he now defends the harbor of Apex City with his San Andreas Trenchcoat, that seems to have an endless supply of gadgets. He has been voiced by a couple of different actors on the show, but that voice always resembles the growl of a recent actor who played a certain Caped Crusader on the big screen. The story in the graphic novel clearly draws those parallels even tighter with a villain who resembles that hero's arch foe. I would suggest podcast #79, "Tinker Taylor and Tyler Too!"

The Cross-Time Adventures of Colonel Tick-Tock
Illustrated by Chris Moreno

Colonel Tick-Tock is the chief agent of her majesty Queen Victoria's Royal Chrono Patrol, who keep time working on schedule. This is possibly the strangest of all the segments on TAH, with Colonel Tick-Tock and his Trick Clock often stop dinosaurs, vikings, and the like who have wandered into time anomalies and arrive in the wrong time period from hurting important historical figures. The fun of Colonel Tick-Tock is often how ridiculous these historical figures are, very much in a Mel Brooks History of the World Part 1 way, and include Saccho and Vanzeti as The Odd Couple and a recurring roll for none other than Nicola Tesla, a Matt Signal favorite. The story in the graphic novel deals with Colonel Tick-Tock going back to the dawn of man to stop a brilliant caveman from using his time machine to accidentally destroy history. So, yes, weird and silly. I would suggest podcast #31, "Electric Rivalries"

Captain Laserbeam
Illustrated by Lar deSouza

Captain Laserbeam is a classic, do-gooding superhero. With the aid of his Adventurekateers, he protects Apex City from supervillains who would feel very much at home on the classic Batman TV series, to which the segment owes a lot of inspiration. The running gags are familiar to comic fans, with a hero who is too good to be true, and kind of goofy; there is also a serious Tick vibe here. The motifs that run through each episode are the same, with the details shifting, feeling a lot like comics in the 50s. Particularly fun is the use of "team-up" between heroes to mean something very different and specific. The story in the graphic novel shows Captain Laserbeam's numerous number themed villains, especially Sudoku. Yes, a Sudoku themed villain with accompanying traps. I would suggest podcast #89, "Uncanny Exes!" or #49, "Poetic Injustice!"

Cactoid Jim, King of the Martian Frontier
Illustrated by Evan "Doc" Shaner

Cactoid Jim is part of the Sparks Nevada universe, a time displaced astronaut who now serves as one of Mars' defenders. Jim is good at pretty much anything, and is handsome and good natured to boot. His persona is drawn somewhat from the public persona of the actor who voices him, geek culture darling Nathan Fillion. The graphic story has Jim doing battle with Murdermen, creatures who, well, their name pretty well sums it up. Jim outfoxes them, like he usually does, and winds off riding off into the sunset after doing good. The difference between him and Sparks Nevada is that Jim has more of a "Golly gee, twas nothing, ma'am," attitude, versus the more jaded Sparks. I would suggest podcast #83, "Mayor's Retreat"

Jefferson Reid, Ace American
Illustrated by Evan Larson

Jefferson Reid is a segment that appeared early in TAH's history and then seemed to fade away, I want to believe partially because Nathan Fillion also voiced Reid, and frankly Cactoid Jim is a more fun character and the writers would rather write for Fillion as Jim. Reid is a World War II era Nazi smasher, with kid sidekicks and a can-do American attitude. With his best girl, Agent Abby Adams, and his boss, General Rex Flagwell, he is the star agent of the AVC, the American Victory Commission. In the graphic novel, he fights dead American soldiers reanimated by Nazis, a Nazi impostor, and his own reanimated dead sidekick. I would suggest podcast #21, "Ace and Mr. President"

Tales of the USSA,United Solar System Alliance
Illustrated by Natalie Nourigat

The final short in the Sparks Nevada universe, Tales of the USSA is a Star Trek like travel through the galaxy, with a touch more soap opera mixed in. Captain Gene Peeples captains a ship with his wife as XO, his daughter as an officer, and his least favorite ensign dating his daughter. The graphic novel has Peeples and his crew arrive at the planet of the Spiderpeople, where they have to make a treaty. Well, you can imagine since this is a comedy, that things go about as well as you might expect. I would suggest #58, "T-Minus"

Down in Moonshine Holler
Illustrated by Joanna Estep

Down in Moonshine Holler is the story of Banjo Bindlestuff, the hobo name of millionaire Jasper Manorlodge, who gave up his riches and rides the rails to find his true love, the Hobo Princess, alongside his hobo mentor, Gummy. Banjo and Gummy get into different wacky adventures, usually involving finding a woman who might be the Hobo Princess who turns out not to be, and Banjo must think of a way to get them out of a predicament by using, "The Hobo Way." The story in the graphic novel is, as far as I can tell, the only straight adaptation from an episode of the show (I'm still working my way through the entire archive of episodes, so I might have missed one), adapting episode #23, "The Lottery." This will be appreciated by you literature buffs, as Banjo and Gummy wind up in the town from Shirley Jackson's classic short story, The Lottery, and have to stop the stoning from happening so it doesn't poison the stone soup stone of the Hobo Duchess, Lulu Pepper. I would suggest #84, "Nativity Ploy."

Amelia Earhart, Fearless Flier
Illustrated by Joel Priddy

So, when Amelia Earhart disappeared, she didn't die. Instead, she became part of the AVC (from Jefferson Reid), and is now their secret time travelling air force, stopping Nazis from altering the timeline. Amelia Earhart has a similar vibe to Colonel Tick-Tock, since they both involve time travel and ludicrous versions of historical figures, but Amelia is much less passive and has the goal of stopping any number of classic Nazi-type villains, including a scientist brain in a jar, Otto Drangt, who appears in the graphic novel, along with Der Schneemann, a Nazi Yeti pilot. Amelia must rally a crew of pirates to help her stop the Nazis from altering the 1700s to take over America before it was America. I would suggest #44, "Vive Le Reich?"

Beyond Belief
Illustrated by Tom Fowler

And saving the best for last. Beyond Belief is the story of Frank and Sadie Doyle, boozy high society couple who just happen to be mediums and unwilling supernatural detectives. This is far and away my favorite segment, and I think many fans agree with me on that (Not to say the rest are bad, mind. I just love this). The relationship between Frank and Sadie is priceless, with the two of them deeply loving each other, and wanting nothing more than to enjoy their lives together with their other great love: booze. Alas, things keep coming to them asking for help, including ghosts, vampire, werewolves, mummies, witches, and chupacabras. The dynamic is based on Nick and Nora Charles, Dashiell Hammett's society detectives from The Thin Man, only with even more booze and some monsters thrown in for good measure. A lot of the episodes toss classic genre tropes on their heads, as well as classic horror stories. While there is some continuity here, more than most of the other segments, it is more episodic than Sparks Nevada, and can really be picked up anywhere. The story in the graphic novel involves a war between Irish vampires and mummies, a Japanese ghost girl, and forbidden love. As well as booze. Lots of booze. I found it hard to pick one or two episodes to recommend, so I wound up picking six, which I had to cull down from a longer list:

 #5 "Wishing Hell" (the origin of Frank)
#25 "Rosemary's Baby Shower" (The introduction of Sadie's best friend, vampire Donna Henderson)
#76 "Djinn and Tonic" (the Doyles find a lamp with a genie, and there's a great play on David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross between JK Simmons and Joe Mantegna)
#80 "Sarcophagus Now (The Doyles in an Egyptian pyramid meet Bast, the cat goddess, who is more catlike than usually presented)
#147 "The Complete Christmas on Mars Show 2012 (the Beyond Belief segment is guest written by Ed Brubaker, and called "Claus and Effect")
#153 "When Cthulu Cthalls (Acolytes of Cthulu come knocking. What more can you ask for?)

This is just scratching the surface of all the fun that can be found in The Thrilling Adventure Hour. There are other segments, recurring characters, and guests that can be found by looking up the show's web-site, which I'll link to below. I love old time radio, and The Thrilling Adventure Hour takes it, dusts it off, slaps on a new coat of paint, and creates something magical in its own right.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour graphic novel is available at any comic shop or bookstore. To learn more, you can go to the show's website, or download podcasts from the store of your smart phone or mobile device.


Mike Olson said...

(Nine years.)

Has anyone played Philip Fathom other than Hal Lublin? I mean, there've been multiple Captains Laserbeam, Sparks Nevadas, Red Plains Riders, Barkeeps, and others, but I'm pretty sure Hal's always been Fathom.

Anyway, sorry for the nitpick. Great breakdown!

Hank Shiffman said...

Mike, I believe Christopher Meloni of L&O: SVU played Philip Fathom before Hal Lublin took over the role.

Also, The Thin Man belongs to Dashiell Hammett, not Raymond Chandler. Nick and Nora were Hammett's version of Lillian Hellman and hisownself, down to their very alcoholic pursuits.

The Matt Signal said...

Yup, Meloni voiced Philip Fathom in his first appearance, but it has been Lublin since then.

And I don't know where my putting Chandler instead of Hammond in there came from. One of those little slips of the brain. Thanks for that, it has been corrected.