Friday, July 29, 2016

Buck Rogers: Optimism and Armageddon

The art may seem a little crude, but the sense of wonder is palpable in the early Buck Rogers newspaper strips.
Jumping belts, ray guns, rocket ships, robots, domed cities, tiger women — fresh fantasy delights daily that began for America’s children before the Great Depression and helped sustain them right through it. Whatever their privations, they always had the Future.
“Anticipating the Wall Street Crash by nine months, the escapist action doubtlessly benefited from the worsening economic straits of the Depression Years, by providing escapism,” noted Andrew Darlington. “Eventually the strip was reaching a massive readership, syndicated through nearly 400 newspapers.”
A bored financial writer for the Philadelphia Retail Ledger named Philip Francis Nowlan had penned a tale for Hugo Gernsback’s new science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories, calling it Armageddon 2419. The head of the syndicated National Newspaper Service, John Flint Dille, spotted its potential as something new, a newspaper adventure strip. The first episode by Nowlan and artist Dick Calkins appeared on Jan. 7, 1929 – oddly enough, the same day that the Tarzan comic strip was launched
In another synchronicity, the cover of the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, where that first story appeared, perfectly depicted a smiling Buck Rogers soaring through the air in a flying harness. But that wasn’t Buck Rogers at all. The cover illustrates E. E. “Doc” Smith's serial The Skylark of Space, which began in the same issue.
A precursor to Flash Gordon, Superman and Star Trek, Buck Rogers quickly crossed over into dramatic radio, movie serials and toys. It also gave us Ray Bradbury.
“I learned that I was right and everyone else was wrong when I was 9,” the famed fantasy writer recalled. “Buck Rogers arrived on the scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips.
“For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living.
“The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; those are my enemies.
“I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space-travel, sideshows or gorillas. When such occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Suicide Has Rarely Been This Much Fun

As instantly recognizable as its superhero titles or its science fiction anthologies, Silver Age DC Comics offered another genre that became familiar to its readers — the “uncanny team” comic book.
Actually, the heroes were canny while the menaces they fought were uncanny — alien invaders, giant monsters, mad scientists, what have you. Without super powers to support them against these fantastic foes, the heroes had to rely on their wits, their uniformly dauntless courage, some mid-century high tech and each other. Being miniaturized or propelled into other times or dimensions were not uncommon experiences for them, certainly no cause for panic. In the idiom of the day, they were cool cats.
Such uncanny teams included the Challengers of the Unknown, the Sea Devils, Cave Carson’s intrepid band of spelunkers, Rip Hunter’s temporal explorers and — borrowed from Quality Comics — the World War II military fliers the Blackhawks, re-enlisted into the fight against extraterrestrial enemies and super villains.
Often, the team consisted of the main hero, his strong pal, a young guy and the girl — a configuration borrowed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for what was arguably the most significant team of the 1960s, the Fantastic Four.
And in Brave and the Bold 25 (Aug.-Sept. 1959), writer Robert Kanigher and artist Ross Andru introduced us to the Suicide Squad, a/k/a Task Force X, a team headed by pilot and military intelligence officer Col. Rick Flag (clearly a hero from the “Mike Hammer,” “John Shaft” and “Peter Gunn” School of Coincidental Naming).
The team included physicist Jess Bright, astronomer Hugh Evans and military nurse Karin Grace, “all the last living members of their respective crews, all willing to die to save the world and uplift their lost friends’ legacies,” as C. David noted. “They’re basically a crew powered by pure survivor’s guilt.”
They proved to be just the kind of plucky people you might hear say, “Never thought we’d be trying to save a whale from a flying dinosaur!”

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

First, Fascism Wants You To Remain Ignorant

The fact that you remain unaware of the nature of fascism doesn’t mean that fascism is not a grave national threat, right here, right now. In fact, it is. Think Benito Trump. 
Americans somehow prefer to think that their smugly defensive “common sense” ignorance protects them, when in fact it bares their throats to the knife.

The Mindfulness in the Moon

By Hung Su Steve Sampson and Jim Hampton
The night of 9-11, I slept fitfully, dreaming of pursuit, awakening after midnight to switch on CNN and watch the hypnotic orange flames dancing at ground zero.
That was the worst. Your fears are always magnified after midnight, and jitterbug on the walls like giant shadows cast by those hellish flames. Civilization seemed to be burning in that fire, and, for all I knew, maybe it was.
Better, then, that next afternoon, sitting on the steps of the deck, but still feeling as if an asteroid had knocked the planet off its axis.
I'd have been chain-smoking if I hadn’t stopped three years before.
Instead I just sat and looked at the yard, and was quietly surprised.
The birds weren’t migrating in panic, they were just singing. The sky was an untroubled clarion blue. The trees nodded and murmured regally, as usual. The dark green of their late­summer leaves shifted and swayed to form patterns of dappled sunlight, as rhythmically soothing as waves on the ocean.
The world was as it always was. Nothing had changed it. Nothing could. And I thought it was trying to tell me something, if I had the wit to understand.
This juxtaposition — the calm, measured solidity of the natural world standing in contrast to the mad panic of human events — tugged at something in my memory. What was it?
I recalled my long-ago ethics class with Frank Taylor at Eastern Illinois University. Young and eager to know what the greatest human minds had discovered, I'd been particularly impressed by Taylor's discussion of the practical philosophy of the Stoics, people like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
The Stoics were keenly aware that it isn’t events themselves that ordinarily affect us — it’s our emotional reaction to events that rules us.
Emotional reactions, grounded in past traumatic associations, are automatic and often inappropriate responses to new and changing circumstances. If we could govern our reflexive emotional reactions to situations we regard as adverse, we could be calmer, happier. Our psychological and philosophical standard of living would rise.
The lesson was there before me in birdsong, patiently waiting for me to listen.

What Fox News Really Has in Mind for You

Fox News propaganda routinely endorses both torture and slavery. That should give you some idea of what the Republicans really have in mind for you.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Subdividing the Superheroes

There’s a tendency now to subdivide the most popular superheroes like valuable beachfront property — multiple Supermen, several Spider-Men, various Iron Men, Batman Inc., a half-dozen Avengers teams, male and female Thors, One Hulk, Two Hulk, Red Hulk, Blue Hulk.
It’s predictable that rent-seeking corporations would think of franchises. And it’s also a reflection of the corporate capitalist tendency to choke the consumer with product and the illusion of choice, like the half-mile-long cereal aisle in the supermarket, rather than relying on superior storytelling from people like Mark Waid to carry the day.
This trend will inevitably prove to be as tedious as the previous corporate comics scheme of killing off major characters and then bringing them back to life.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Submitted for your Approval: The Phantom Zone

A number of enduring concepts in the Superman mythos were introduced not in titles featuring Superman, but Superboy. And that’s kind of a shame, because we almost never see those key stories reprinted.
Among those concepts were the Legion of Super-Heroes; red, white and gold kryptonite; Krypto the super dog; General Zod; Bizarro and the spooky, evocative Phantom Zone, a realm which provided an intelligent answer to the question of how an advanced alien civilization might avoid capital punishment.
Banishment to an eternal incorporeal existence seems almost worst than execution, in a way.
In a neat reversal, the Phantom Zone even saved the life of Superman’s “brother,” Mon-El, by removing him from exposure to lead, a substance fatal to him that is widespread on our planet. Mon-El’s fate had that offhandedly haunting angle that periodically appeared in these early Silver Age comics. To survive, Mon-El would have to endure hundreds of years of immaterial existence with only psychotics as companions.
And in a gift to the comics’ plotters, the Zone provided a means to periodically unleash super-powered villainous hell on Earth. That had first been done in Superman 65 (July/August 1950) when, in the story The Three Supermen from Space, the Kryptonian criminals Mala, Kizo and U-Ban were accidentally freed from suspended animation in a prison rocket ship. The evil trio returned in Action Comics 194 (Jul 1954), when their prison ship was whanged by yet another piece of space debris. Clearly this was a cumbersome means of retrieving menaces from Krypton.
The Phantom Zone was also a way of making Superman vulnerable, and those are always welcomed by writers (Supergirl too, in her 1984 movie).
The more efficient, elegant solution of the Phantom Zone was introduced in the comics in Adventure Comics 283 (April 1961) by Robert Bernstein and George Papp. But that wasn’t really its first appearance.
An identical concept had been introduced in the movie serial Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) as an invention of Luthor’s (Lyle Talbot) called the Empty Doom. The tell is that both the serial Superman and the comic book Superboy escaped from the ghostly trap the same way — by telekinetically manipulating the keys of a typewriter to send a message back to Earth.