Category Archives: audio drama

Batman: The Stone King

From his appearances on The Adventures of Superman radio show to the numerous “record/tape and comic” releases, Batman has always had a rich history in the world of audio dramas. The latest company to contribute to this legacy is Graphic Audio, with their series of adaptations of novels starring DC comics characters. Some of his appearances are as part of major crossovers, some are solo adventures and the Justice League of America dramas have him as a supporting cast member. Said dramas tend to focus on a single League member, although others argue that these are just JLA stories with a single member promoted on the cover. In this case, I’ll be looking Batman: The Stone King, based on the novel of the same name by Alan Grant.

Why is a horror website reviewing a comic book themed audio drama? Well, let’s look at the plot: a mysterious pyramid is unearthed in Gotham City in the aftermath of a dam burst. Said pyramid is filled with symbols associated with black magic. Needless to say, an ancient evil is unleashed and Batman is the only Justice League member left uncaptured as the entire world is in peril. Horror fans might also appreciate the interesting insights on the nature of fear that are sprinkled throughout the plot. Be warned, as there are minor spoilers ahead…

Batman: The Stone King, is definitely not something you can play for kids (like the above-mentioned record sets). People die (often in gruesome ways) and the gory events are described in graphic detail. Parents probably wouldn’t want the little ones to hear the flashback to two characters having sex, either. It’s nothing explicit (and only lasts seconds since the characters get interrupted), but still.

Although the idea of a non-powered superhero taking on a supernatural foe that managed to defeat the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman might seem outlandish at first, the story actually handles it in a believable manner. I won’t spoil Batman’s plan, but I will note that it takes advantage of the fact that the disembodied shaman needs a human host.

I enjoyed the way the Stone King is handled. Rather than immediately springing into action the second the pyramid is unearthed, Grant wisely chose to have the villain remain inactive until his chamber is disturbed. Similarly, the Stone King uses his powers to test each League member’s abilities before making his move. Even after he’s captured everyone but Batman, he doesn’t rush into his plan to “cleanse” the planet and instead makes sure everything he needs is in place.

Although the JLA does play a good-sized role and each member gets a “chapter” dealing with the Stone King’s test of their strengths and weaknesses, this is still Batman’s show. Most of the plot is about him and it’s his plan that ends up saving the day. Not having read any comics since the mid 90’s (and I was pretty much a “Marvel Zombie” then anyway), I can’t offer much insight as to the characterization of the heroes other than what I’ve gleaned from their TV and film appearances. Everything seems fine to me in that department. There are a few minor plot holes, but they’re nothing too major. For example, the old sewer Batman travels through at one point should have been destroyed in the major earthquake that struck Gotham (which is even mentioned in the drama).

However, there were other occasions when the seeming errors actually weren’t. There were times I thought “I don’t care if the Flash was caught by surprise, he shouldn’t almost get punched by a normal person” or “There’s no way Wonder Woman would have trouble handling a group of zombies,” only to find out later in the story that the Stone King grants superpowers to those he controls.

But let’s get to the question on everyone’s mind: how well does this work as an audio drama? After all, comics are a visual medium and a novel is already one step away from that. Some parts worked better than others and some aspects took awhile for me to get used to, but all in all I’d say it was a good ride. Graphic Audio’s “Movie in Your Mind” format is a hybrid of an audio book and an audio drama: A narrator describes the action while actors perform characters’ dialogue, combined with music and sound effects. Having first been exposed to the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth audio drama, it took me quite some time to get used to this. I suspect this won’t be as much of an issue for you if you have either only heard audio books or have never listened to audio books or dramas. I found that doing something else while this played in the background or listening while feeling a little tired made it easier to visualize the story. The music and effects were all top notch; I’d gladly pay for a soundtrack CD. Judging the voice acting is hard in the sense that the “right” or “wrong” voice for a character depends upon the listener. In my opinion, the only truly wrong voice was the one used for Commissioner Gordon, as it would seem more appropriate for a comic relief character. This is in terms of the voice only, each one of 27 cast members were great actors/actresses. I thought the voices used for Wonder Woman, the Flash and Martian Manhunter were great. I was unsure about the ones used for Batman and Superman, but I got used to them after awhile. However, if Superman is supposed to be an older, world-weary version of the character, then the portrayal here is dead-on perfect. The titular Stone King sounded very creepy and menacing, although the effect is occasionally spoiled in the (rare) instances when he briefly lapses into a vaguely Russian accent. But otherwise, he’s very scary. “Terrify your friends by suddenly turning off the lights and playing one of his rituals” scary. Do not let my attempts at being thorough fool you into thinking that I disliked Batman: The Stone King. On the contrary, I had a great time listening to it and I have far more problems with the sleeves used to store the discs than I do with any aspect of the drama itself. If anything, this release has increased my enthusiasm for audio dramas! Getting back to the sleeves, I wish they had included a hole of some kind on the top side in order to make it easier to remove the disc inside.

Speaking of discs, the story is spread out over six discs, with a running time of about an hour per disc. The long running time is due to both the drama being unabridged and because the company’s target audience is largely made up of people on long road trips. Speaking on someone who has been on many a long, boring vacation drive, this makes perfect sense to me. Come to think of it, I could have easily polished off a disc per day during my old commute. If the thought of swapping discs doesn’t sound appealing, Graphic Audio also offers both a single disc “.mp3 CD” version and an .mp3 download. I should also note that the multiple disc editions use CD-Rs, presumably to keep the cost of a multiple disc release under twenty dollars. They are not unauthorized bootlegs, as they’re licensed by DC Comics. These are professionally done CD-Rs with metallic tops and the title printed on them, so don’t expect some homemade job with stuff written on in marker.

I definitely recommend checking this (and other audio dramas) out and hope you’ll at least listen to the preview for it. Horror fans might also be interested in Justice League of America: The Exterminators, The Flash: Stop Motion and the upcoming DC Universe: Trail of Time (wherein Superman teams up with a variety of supernatural and western-themed characters, including Etrigan the Demon and Jonah Hex). Or for those who prefer non-comic book horror, there are titles like The Destroyer: Deadly Genes and The Demon Wars Saga.

Special thanks to Graphic Audio for the review copy!

The Shadow Over Innsmouth

You might remember the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society from my “Printable Halloween Decor” article or for their 2005 silent film, The Call of Cthulhu. Just as that “Mythoscope” film was designed to look like a 1920’s silent film (as the original story was written/published then), their Dark Adventure Radio Theatre CD series seeks to adapt Lovecraft tales in the style of old-time radio shows. To date, the series has adapted At the Mountains of Madness, The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Out of Time, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a tale of one man’s harrowing visit to a strange seaside (and mostly fictional) town in Massachusetts. The odd-looking inhabitants are very suspicious of outsiders and fiercely secretive about the practices of their religion, the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Rumors of the townspeople making sacrifices to and interbreeding with sea demons turn out to be more than the ramblings of the town drunk…

The HPLHS has put together a simply amazing audio adaptation in the grand tradition of horror-themed radio shows like Lights Out, Quiet, Please and Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Thanks to the acting and authentic-sounding opening sequence, one could easily pass this off as an episode of an obscure radio series to an unassuming listener. That is, until they get to the humorous “1931…plus 77” copyright notice. The tongue-in-cheek ads for the nonexistent Fleurs De Lys brand of cigarettes (a staple of the Dark Adventure Radio Theatre dramas) are an amusing callback to the days when cigarettes were supposedly good for you.

In order to make the story more suitable for the radio play style (and too add more dramatic impact than the lead simply reading the story), some changes had to be made. Whereas the original story frequently has the protagonist recap events and conversations he has, the audio drama opts to dramatize them. Similarly, the start of the play now features a fake clip of a radio news story on and interviews with the FBI agents raiding Innsmouth rather than the original’s narration about the events, which may remind listeners of Mercury Theatre on the Air’s infamous broadcast of The War of the Worlds. A framing story featuring an FBI agent interviewing the protagonist has been added to make the story end with “more of a bang,” as noted by the production blog. Occasionally, extraneous lines that didn’t add anything important from the story have been left out. This was most likely done to allow the audio to fit onto a single CD and only the most anal-retentive purist would be bothered by this. Truth be told, I only noticed their absence after the CD inspired me to read the original. As for the running time, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. clocks in at a little under 80 minutes, comparable to the length of the average feature-length film.

The acting and music are both top notch. The conversations all sound natural (or as natural as you can get with Lovecraft’s purple prose) and the rural Massachusetts accents are dead-on accurate. The actor playing Robert Olmstead will amaze you by how easily he can transition between the world-weary man tortured by what he has experienced at Innsmouth and the cheery, chuckling student he used to be. I was also impressed by the use of old-fashioned pronunciations for words like “roof,” which led to one person who overheard the audio play into thinking it was Canadian! Composer Troy Sterling Nies has put together a terrific score, which effectively enhances the both mood and sound effects. Their well-timed, minimal nature of the effects provide a sense suggestion that Lovecraft himself would have approved of. Given Lovecraft’s low opinion of this particular story, he might have even approved of the alterations made for this particular adaptation.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth comes with informative liner notes about the genesis of the story. As it turns out, the name “Robert Olmstead” was never used in the story and the name was found in H.P. Lovecraft’s old notes on the story. On top of that, the CD comes with an assortment of props similar to the “feelies” that came with old Infocom text adventure games.

The props include a “Newburyport Historical Society” postcard depicting some Innsmouth jewelery, a book of matches from the Gilman House Hotel (with a single unused match), a page torn from an old newspaper about the FBI raid, and a fish-scented scratch and sniff map drawn on First National Grocery paper. Like the liner notes, a lot of hard work and research was put into these. The actual logo and slogan from the now-defunct First National chain are used for the map and the fake newspaper clipping draws its design from the New York Evening Graphic, an out-of-print tabloid from the era. And if you carefully removed the custom security sticker, you also get an Esoteric Order of Dagon seal!

All in all, the props are very cool and do help the listener get a better connection to the story. Home haunters probably won’t have much use for them and would probably prefer the occult tome pages from the The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Out of Time installments of the series. The props could also be used in a Lovecraft-themed RPG (be it tabletop or live action) or left where a Lovecraft neophyte could stumble upon them as a gag. Like the Infocom feelies, they can be thought of a a kind of copy protection (after all, you can’t torrent a scratch and sniff map). I also suspect they are the result of the HPLHS’ origins as a LARP group. Speaking of which the Fate of the Ancients episode mentioned at the end of the play is a reference to one of their old gaming sessions. Only time will tell if that adaptation will really happen.

Special thanks to the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society for the review copy!