S J Perelman’s another of the great voices of 20th century humor. It’s easiest to find his writing as the scripts for the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, and for the 1956 Around the world In Eighty Days. My selection today is his review of the debut issue of Captain Future, Wizard of Science,. That magazine was created in 1940 by Mort Weisinger, who would go on to edit those Silver Age comic books that all seem to involve purple-caped gorillas claiming they’re Lois Lane and asking Superman why he has to kill them, and largely written by Edmond Hamilton, one of the greatest early science fiction writers. Perelman’s essay also reminds us that carefully reviewing, half in awe, the goings-on of pop culture’s lowest rungs would inspire hilarious writing long before the Internet made it so easy.
I guess I’m just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation’s laws. You’ll have to leave my meals on a tray outside the door because I’ll be working pretty late on the secret of making myself invisible, which may take me almost until eleven o’clock. Oh, yes, and don’t let’s forget one more thing. I’ll need a life subscription to a new quarterly journal called Captain Future, Wizard of Science, a bright diadem on the forehead of Better Publications, 22 West Forty-eighth Street, New York City.
As one who triggered a disintegrator with Buck Rogers and could dash off a topographical map of Mongo or Dale Arden with equal facility, I thought in my pride and arrogance I knew all there was to know about astronomical adventure. It was something of a shock, therefore, to find out several days back that I was little more than a slippered pantaloon. Beside Captain Future, Wizard of Science, Flash Gordon and the Emperor Ming pale to a couple of nursery tots chewing on Holland rusk.
The novelette in which this spectacular caballero makes his bow to “scientification” fans opens with no fumbling preamble or prosy exposition. Into the office of James Carthew, President of the Earth Government, staggers a giant ape, barely recognizable by the President as John Sperling, his most trusted secret agent. The luckless investigator had been ordered to Jupiter to look into a complaint that some merry-andrew was causing atavism among the Jovians, but apparently had got badly jobbed. Before Carthew can intervene, a frightened guard drills the ape man with a flare-pistol, and in his dying breath the latter lays the blame for his predicament squarely at the door of a mysterious being he calls the Space Emperor. As you may well imagine, Carthew is all of a tizzy. He immediately instructs his secretary to send for Captain Future in the ringing phrase, “Televise the meteorological rocket-patrol base at Spitzbergen. Order them to flash the magnesium flare signal from the North Pole.” Personally, I think Carthew might have softened this whiplike command with “And just for the hell of it, why don’t you try the Princeton Club?” but perhaps I delve too deeply. In any event, the perpetual uranium clock has hardly ticked off two hours before Captain Future (or Curt Newton, to call him by his given name) appears on the escarpment with one of the most endearing speeches in my experience:
“You know my assistants,” Curt Newton said shortly, “Crag the robot, Otho the android, and Simon Wright, the Living Brain. We came from the moon full speed when I saw your signal. What’s wrong?”
Fiction teems with sinister escorts and everybody has his favorite, but Captain Future’s three-man mob leaves the worst of them kissed off and frozen against ths cushion:
A weird shape had just leaped onto the balcony. It was a manlike figure, but one whose body was rubbery, boneless-looking, blank-white in color. He wore a metal harness, and his long, slitted green unhuman eyes peered brightly out of an alien white face. Following this rubbery android, or synthetic man, came another figure, equally as strange— a giant metal robot who strode across the balcony on padded feet. He towered seven feet high. In his bulbous metal head gleamed a pair of photoelectric eyes. The robot’s left hand carried the handle of a square transparent box. Inside it a living brain was housed. In the front of the case were the Brain’s two glittering glass lens-eyes. Even now they were moving oh their flexible metal stalks to look at the President.
At this juncture I took time out to moisten my lips with the tip of my tongue, retrieved my own eyeballs, and plunged on. Captain Future himself was somewhat more tailored than his comrades, in fact quite swagger. “His unruly shock of red hair towered six feet four above the floor, and his wide lithe shoulders threatened to burst the jacket of his gray synthesilk zipper-suit.” In pulp fiction it is a rigid convention that the hero’s shoulders and the heroine’s balcon constantly threatens to burst their bonds, a possibility which keeps the audience in a state of tense expectancy. Unfortunately for the fans, however, recent tests reveal that the wisp of chiffon which stands between the publisher and the postal laws has the tensile strength of drop-forged steel.
To acquaint the reader more fully with “that tall, cheerful, red-haired young adventurer of the ready laugh and flying fists, the implacable Nemesis of all oppressors and exploiters of the System’s human and planetary races,” the author interrupts his smoking narrative with a brief dossier. In the year 1990, the brilliant young Earth biologist Roger Newton, aided by the living brain of Simon Wright (“the greatest brain in scientific history”), had unravelled the secret of artificial life. Now, certain dark forces headed by one Victor Corvo were determined to appropriate Newton’s secret. To confound him, Roger Newton proposed to Elaine, his wife, and the Living Brain that they conceal themselves on the moon.
“But the moon!” Elaine exclaimed, deep repulsion shadowing her eyes. “That barren, airless globe that no one ever visits!” Elaine’s dainty disgust is pardonable; Far Rockaway out of season could not have been more painfully vieux jeu. A few weeks, nevertheless, see the little company snugly housed under the surface of Tycho crater upon the moon, where its number is swelled by the addition of the infant Curt and Grag the robot, whom Roger and the Living Brain construct in their spare time of neurons and nails and puppy dogs’ tails. Eventually, still another fruit of this intellectual union — Otho, the synthetic android –— is capering about the laboratory. Just as Newton is on the verge of returning to earth, up turns Public Bad Penny No. 1, Victor Corvo, and slays him and his wife. When the Brain assures him vengeance will be swift, Corvo hurls the taunt supreme at the preserved scientist: “Don’t try to threaten me, you miserable bodiless brain! I’ll soon silence you–—” He stops throwing his weight around soon enough when Grag and Otho burst in, and, directed by the Brain, rub him out effectively if none too tidily.
Dying, Elaine Newton entrusts Curt to the care of the trio in a scene which must affect the sensibilities of the most callous:
“Tell him to war always against those who would pervert science to sinister ambition,” whispered Elaine. “I will tell him,” promised the Brain, and in its toneless metallic voice was a queer catch.
The guardians justify Elaine’s faith in them to a degree; by the time Curt has attained his majority, he is one lovely hunk of boy, a hybrid of Leonardo da Vinci and Dink Stover. From then on, as Captain Future, Curt ranges the solar system with his pals in an asteroidal supership, the Comet 7 avenging his folks and relentlessly waging war on what the author is pleased to call “interplanetary crime.”
But to return to our muttons, if so prosaic a term can be applied to the streamlined quartet. Speeding outward into space toward Jovopolis, chief Earthman colony on Jupiter, Captain Future plucks haunting music from his twenty-string Venusian guitar while Grag and Otho tend the controls and the Living Brain burrows into textbooks for a clue to the atavism. Their snug Kaffeeklatsch is blasted when a piratical black space-cruiser suddenly looms across the Comet’s bows and attempts to ambush the party, but Curt’s proton beams force the attacker down on Callisto, outermost of Jupiter’s four biggest moons. The boys warp in alongside and Grag prepares to rip open the jammed door of the pirate craft so his master may question the miscreants:
Grag’s big metal fingers were removable. The robot rapidly unscrewed two of them and replaced them with small drills which he took from a kit of scalpels, chisels, and similar tools carried in a little locker in his metal side. Then Grag touched a switch on his wrist. The two drills which had replaced two of his fingers whirled hummingly. He quickly used them to drill six holes in the edge of the ship’s door. Then he replaced the drills with his fingers, hooked six fingers inside the holes he had made.
The rest is brute strength, a department in which Grag is preeminent. Inside are Jon Orris and Martin Skeel, whose names instantly tip them off as wrong guys. Yet it is impossible not to be moved by Orris’s pathetic confession: “Skeel and I have criminal records. We fled out here after we got into a murder scrape on Mars.” They admit under pressure that they are creatures of the Space Emperor, though actually they have never seen him. “He’s always concealed in a big, queer black suit, and he speaks out of it in a voice that don’t sound human to me,” Skeel says.
Time, even on Callisto, is a-wastin’, and nimbly dodging a plague of creeping crystals which bids fair to annihilate them, the space-farers resume their course. On their arrival at Jovopolis, Otho the android disguises himself as Orris and repairs to that worthy’s hut to await the Space Emperor and overpower him so that Captain Future can steal up and clap the darbies on him. Arriving at the rendezvous, the Emperor promptly makes himself invisible and Curt leaps through him, only to sprawl on his finely chiseled beezer.
Recovering from this contretemps with his usual sunny equanimity, Curt hastens to the mansion of the governor, Sylvanus Quale, to reconnoitre. Here he encounters the heart interest, a plump little cabbage named Joan Randall, who is head nurse to the chief planetary physician. Lucas Brewer, a shifty radium magnate, Mark Cannig, his mine superintendent, and Eldred Kells, the vice-governor, are also at the mansion. It is apparent at once to the cognoscenti that any one of these worthies is the Space Emperor, and with no personal bias other than that his name had a particularly sneaky sound, I put my money on Eldred Kells. Fifty pages later I was proved right, but not before I had been locked in an atavism ward with Curt and Joan, flung into a pit by the green flipper-men, and nibbled by giant six-foot rats called “diggers” (a surprisingly mild name for a giant six-foot rat, by the way). But even such hazards, for all their jewelled prose, cannot compare with the description of the main street of Jungletown:
Here were husky prospectors in stained zipper-suits, furtive, unshaven space-bums begging, cool-eyed interplanetary gamblers, gaunt engineers in high boots with flare-pistols at their belts, bronzed space-sailors up from Jovopolis for a carousal in the wildest new frontier-town in the System.
And so, all too soon for both Joan Randall and myself, comes the hour of parting with “the big red-head,” as the author shakily describes Curt in a final burst of emotion. In the next issue, Captain Future and his creepy constabulary will doubtless be summoned forth again to combat some horror as yet to be devised. Meanwhile I like to think of his lighthearted rebuke to Otho the android, already chafing against inactivity:
“Sooner or later, there’ll be another call from Earth, and
then I hope there’s action enough for you, you crazy coot!”
There may be another call, Curt, but it won’t come from Baby. Right now all he wants is a cup of hot milk and fourteen hours of shut-eye. And if it’s all the same to you, he’ll do his sleeping with the lights on.