Saturday, December 10, 2016

Superman: That Thing You Doom

Oddly, despite his science fictional origins, Superman went for a long stretch of his early career having few science fictional adventures. Mundane criminals and crusades against social injustice and political corruption occupied much of his day.
By the time Superman 87 arrived in February 1954, things had started to change.
In this classic tale by writer Bill Finger and artist Wayne Boring, a shape-shifting blob monster from Earth’s bleak far future invades Metropolis, generally wreaking havoc and finally duplicating even Superman, complete with powers.
Their super-battle remains a thunderous standoff until the Man of Tomorrow maneuvers the Thing to a nuclear test site. In 1938, Superman could be knocked for a loop by a “bursting shell,” but by the 1950s he could shrug off H-bomb blasts. The Thing, however, could not.
Science fiction menaces had begun challenging Superman with more frequency during that era — among them The Three Supermen from Krypton in Superman 65 (July-Aug. 1950), It from Action Comics 162 (Nov. 1951), The Machines of Crime from Action Comics 167 (April 1952), the dragon-like Beast from Krypton in Superman 78 (Sept-Oct. 1952), the Return of Planet Krypton in Action Comics 182 (July 1953), the asteroid Menace from the Stars in World’s Finest 65 (Jan.-Feb. 1954, a story also featured on TV as Panic in the Sky).
I suspect it was Hollywood that put the science fiction back into Superman’s stories. Once relegated to movie serials for kids, the genre had reemerged in popular, critically acclaimed films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The War of the Worlds (1953).
Superman’s Thing, specifically, owed a lot to the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing from Another World. The menace there was an extraterrestrial vegetable monster played by James Arness, but in the 1938 story on which the film was based, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?, the Thing is a alien shape-shifter from 20 million years ago.
The blog Confessions of a Superman Fan noted that The Thing from 40,000 A.D. is, “…a fast-paced story with solid art by Wayne Boring and a rare physical match for Superman. It’s also very much a product of 1954, what with the flying saucer angle and story elements prefiguring two sci-fi cinema classics: The Blob (1958) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). And of course there’s the chilling cameo by the dreaded H-Bomb, very much on everyone’s mind at the time.
“Someone must have liked the story, because it was reprinted in Superman 196 (May 1967), and while reprints were not such a rare thing back in the day, they usually didn’t get a second go-round as the lead story, earning the cover spotlight twice.”
The story was also republished in the second Superman Annual (Jan. 1961). As thrilled as I was by the first annual in 1960, I was even more excited to see this “All-Menace” issue — finally, foes worthy of Superman’s stature and some real super-powered action! For the bargain of a mere quarter, you got Metallo, the Invulnerable Enemy, Titano the Super-Ape, Bizarro, Brainiac and my favorite, the Thing from 40,000 A.D. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Those Ugly Things Inside Trump's Cabinet

We just need to rename the positions to suit Trump's nominees — you know, the Secretary of Anti-Labor, the Secretary of Anti-Education, the Criminal General, the Secretary of Illness and Inhuman Services, the Secretary of Looting the Treasury, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of State of Collapse...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Sensible Approach to Sense Experience

“Normally, although our experience is dominated by what we are taking in through our senses, we give ourselves little time for all this sense experience to settle within us; sense experience is piled upon sense experience,” Paramananda wrote in A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation. “Often this feels unsatisfactory, but instead of trying to simplify our experience we continue to seek out new sensations that we hope will do the trick.
“We want to believe that the world, in the sense of what is outside of us, can supply us with all the essential components for our contentment and happiness and assemble them, too. We want to believe it is a matter of finding just the right job or the right sexual relationship for everything to fall into place.
“Of course these things are important — we need to be nourished by friendship and satisfying external experiences, we need to feel that we are doing something of worth with our lives. Yet our ability to be nourished by the external world, to find enjoyment and fulfillment in the things we do, is largely dependent on our inner mental states.
“Our addiction to external experience is based in a sense of internal impoverishment, a kind of hunger and restlessness. If we don’t see this, our experience becomes increasingly shallow, and the only way forward seems to be to seek out bigger experiences. Either that, or we give up.” 

When We Can't Even Agree on Factual Reality

Here’s my NPR Illinois essay on the Great American Political Divide caused by our inability to agree even on what the facts are. A radio interview is included. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Flying High with the Donald

The Crimefighter Who Posed as a Criminal

Knowing what a little superhero nut I was, even at age 5, my grandmother and aunt would tell me about superheroes they recalled. One of them was the Green Hornet.
And because superheroes were thin on the ground in 1959, I listened eagerly to what they remembered from dramatic radio, where the Green Hornet had debuted in 1936. I pictured some guy in green tights who drove a green car that made a buzzing sound. At least I got the buzzing sound right.
I learned later that the Green Hornet was nearly as popular as his relative, the Lone Ranger, who premiered on radio in 1933. Both characters also starred in comic books and movie serials, and I’m a little surprised that the Hornet never followed his ancestor’s footsteps into pulp magazines and newspaper comic strips.
Fran Striker and George W. Trendel’s Detroit-based Green Hornet radio adventures originally aired for 16 years, and listening to them made me realize that the character’s crime-fighting strategy is much better worked out than most. It’s really almost plausible in comparison to, say, Batman’s or Spider-Man’s.
Posing as a mysterious master criminal, Britt Reid is able to infiltrate and intimidate criminal operations that are often marginally within the law. When he exposes and destroys them, it’s dismissed as the action of a rival gangster, and no one figures out what he’s really up to. He also has the resources of a major newspaper to back up his operations and provide him with intelligence.
The approach was pretty well thought out, and retained the flashy super hero elements that made the Lone Ranger so successful — the mask and costume, the symbolic weapon, the daring and faithful friend, the spectacular and speedy transportation.
Trendle said he sought to “…show that a political system could be riddled with corruption and that one man could successfully combat this white-collar lawlessness.” Britt Reid initially hunted “…the biggest of all game! Public enemies that even the G-Men cannot reach!” But that perennial national busybody J. Edgar Hoover didn’t like the implication, so the announcer’s line was changed to “…public enemies who try to destroy our America!”
The Green Hornet’s licensed comic book adventures began in 1940 with Holyoke, but in 1942 switched to the more substantial Harvey Comics for a lengthy run under various titles, including Green Hornet Comics, Green Hornet Fights Crime and Green Hornet, Racket Buster.
The Hornet had a McCarthy era one-shot in Dell Four Color 496 (Sept. 1953), combating a mayoral candidate who was of course secretly a commie spy. In 1967, the Green Hornet returned in a Gold Key title based on the ABC TV series starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee.
Though a shadow of what he once was, the Green Hornet remains famous, and was still popular enough to inspire a pretty dreadful feature film in 2011. The movie was an interesting failure, however. Seth Rogen portrayed the character as the world’s first slacker superhero, interested in justice only as an extension of play. I have a feeling there’s an essay about differences in generational ethics somewhere in there.
Britt Reid also loaned the name of his valet, Kato, to the Pink Panther films.
The character pops up perennially in comics, most recently in a 2016 Dynamite Entertainment series that focused — finally — on the hero’s relationship to the Lone Ranger.
I once interviewed Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger on television and in movies during the 1950s. Thinking I’d trip him up, I asked the actor what his character’s relationship was to the Green Hornet.
“The Green Hornet was the Lone Ranger’s great-nephew,” he replied, in that deep, resonant, super heroic voice of his.
Apparently you can’t fool the Lone Ranger. I found that reassuring.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Super Foe in the Mirror

What’s strange is that with one mirror-image antagonist Superman — Bizarro — already an established character, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Curt Swan would introduce another one in Superman 137 (May 1960).
And what’s even stranger than that is how well the story would work.
As with his The Death of Superman and Superman’s Return to Krypton storylines, Superman’s creator would prove he could still supply plenty of angst and depth in stories about his brainchild two decades after the Man of Tomorrow’s debut.
Here, a mysterious alien spacecraft created a duplicate of Kal-El’s space rocket on its journey to Earth. We readers forgave Siegel the implausibility of the notion that a second Superman could have been raised secretly on Earth because of the intriguing idea this unlikely event permitted him to explore: what if someone other than the kindly Kents had raised Superman?
And in the age-old nature versus nurture debate, Siegel comes down firmly on the side of nurture.
The child raised by the criminals Wolf and Bonnie Derek becomes Super-Brat, inundating a town with giant snowmen, and then Super-Bully, a juvenile delinquent who releases the big cats from Smallville Zoo just so he can bat them around.
Finally, as the adult Super-Menace, he defeats and nearly destroys Superman with kryptonite. The Man of Steel’s life is spared only because Super-Menace’s super hearing reveals that his foster parents had always loathed him and were only manipulating him to satisfy their powerlust and greed. The unloved, heartbroken energy being buries the kryptonite with his super-breath and then — as they scream and plead for their lives — explodes himself at his foster parents, destroying them as well as himself.
Ineffectual as Superman was here, I was always happy that at least one member of the Superman family immediately smelled a rat whenever Super Menace was around.
You can’t fool Krypto, folks.