Saturday, October 22, 2016

And Who Will Get the Blame?

And when the electoral dust settles, who’ll be blamed for the Republican Party’s enthusiastic selection and embrace of the most xenophobic, greedy, racist, demagogic, sexist, duplicitous and ignorance-cheerleading GOP candidate in history? Why, “Both Sides,” of course.
This will happen so fast our proverbial heads will spin. Then Trump will be made to vanish as if he’d never existed, just as George W. Bush did.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Jimmy Olsen as Elastic Lad? That's a Stretch

After the great superhero extinction of the early-to-mid 1950s, any number of perfectly serviceable character concepts were going begging, and ended up recycled into non-superhero titles.
So it was that Jimmy Olsen ended up with Flash-like speed in September 1956, Hawkman-like wings in February 1958 and finally the flexible form of Plastic Man (Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen 31, Sept. 1958).
While other superheroes were vanishing, Superman — thanks to his popularity on radio and movies and then on television — actually gained titles. By Sept.-Oct 1954, when the Jimmy Olsen comic was added, Clark Kent’s alter ego was already headlining Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman, Superboy and World’s Finest.
Plastic Man had only been out of business four years when exposure to an alien chemical gave Jimmy his stretchy powers. Later, Prof. Phineas Potter’s stretching formula would enable Jimmy to become Elastic Lad for short periods.
Elastic Lad’s adventures became almost a backup feature for Jimmy, appearing repeatedly and even earning him an honorary membership in the Legion of Super Heroes.
Even Lois Lane got in on the act as Elastic Lass (Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane 23, Feb. 1961). The unstoppable Composite Superman used Jimmy’s Elastic Lad powers to defeat both Superman and Batman.
The quirky, oddball nature of the Plastic Man powers made them perfect for Jimmy’s adventures. They enabled him to maintain an occasional superhero persona while never threatening to steal the spotlight from the real hero, Superman.
Ironically, while in the semi-comedic form of Elastic Lad, Jimmy had his most tragic and finest moment. In Alan Moore’s 1986 swan song to the Silver Age Superman, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Elastic Lad, Krypto and a super-powered Lana Lang willingly gave up their lives to defend Superman.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Flash: The Four-Color Hermes of the 1940s

The comparative religion scholar Joseph Campbell famously said, “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”
That being the case, I suppose no one should have been surprised to find the latest incarnation of Hermes zipping around a comic book in January 1940, complete with winged petasos.
Created by writer Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert, the Flash was among the first of the shtick superheroes.
In just two years, Superman, Captain Marvel and their various copycats had already covered the ground of the all-purpose superhero who wielded an array of powers. By 1940, to get ahead, a super being had to have a gimmick. So The Human Torch burned and the Submariner swam, Hawkman could fly, Doll Man could shrink, Wonder Woman could be female and the Flash could run really, really fast.
College student Jay Garrick was one of only three characters who became a superhero by smoking, by the way. In a chem lab, while breaking football training with a cigarette, Jay accidentally knocked over some beakers and further polluted his lungs by breathing in the fumes that turned him into the Flash.
As wish fulfillment, speed rated high with kids. Speed, fueled by their boundless energy, was after all the one area where children could outdistance the somewhat worn-out adults who talked down to them, punished them and generally looked after them. But just think what you might do with some real speed…
Artistic restriction can often be the parent of creativity, and the decade of the Flash’s initial run gave the writers plenty of time to come up with satisfying variations on the theme of speed. The Flash could run up the sides of buildings and across water. He could catch bullets, vibrate through walls, create multiple images of himself and become invisible. His one power turned out to make him nearly as omnipotent as Superman’s many. The popular character raced around in Flash Comics, All-Flash (a title devoted to his adventures), Comic Cavalcade and All-Star Comics with his fellow members of the Justice Society of America.
The feature was initially marred by crude art, and the early adventures of this seminal superhero are difficult to enjoy for that reason. But by All-Flash 31 (Oct.-Nov. 1947), an artist named Carmine Infantino had arrived to make the Scarlet Speedster’s adventures a pure pleasure. Infantino would carry the character, in his second and even more successful incarnation, right through the 1950s and 1960s.
I’m sure, dear reader, that you already recall the other two characters who got their super powers from smoking. But at the risk of appearing pedantic, I will remind you of them. In 1963, the Japanese robot superhero 8 Man restored his powers with “energy cigarettes” carried in a cigarette case on his belt. And in June 1974, Daily Planet editor Perry White acquired Superman-like powers from some cigars given to him by grateful alien mutants.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Always Look on the Bright Side of Armageddon

The Hydrogen War of 1986 almost completely destroyed life on the planet Earth.
But DC Comics wasn’t going to let a little thing like that spoil the fun.
Hence the Atomic Knights, a post-apocalyptic saga of adventure introduced in Strange Adventures 117 (June 1960).
I can remember, as a 6-year-old, being slightly unsettled by the idea of a nuclear war in the DC universe. That would mean that all the superheroes had finally failed, wouldn’t it? That was a notion that also occurred to Alan Moore in Watchmen.
In DC’s sunny science fiction titles, alien invasions were routinely thwarted by pet dogs and mail carriers, and plesiosaurs were tamed and put on display at SeaWorld. So the idea of worldwide nuclear disaster seemed jarringly out-of-place. But if anybody could make World War III seem like a walk in Central City Park, it was the gang at 575 Lexington Avenue, New York City.
Meanwhile, 1.3 miles away at 245 W. 44th St., a new musical called Camelot spotlighted the Knights of the Round Table’s defense of right against might. The optimistic Kennedy “Camelot era” had dawned, and that same theme — reason against barbarism, the rule of law over tyranny — would be reworked by writer John Broome into the Atomic Knights, a plucky band fighting to reestablish human civilization. Their ancient armor was practical as well as symbolically idealistic. They found it shielded them from radiation guns.
Editor Julius “Julie” Schwartz’s science fiction comics always emphasized a reliance on learning and reason. The Knights included a schoolteacher and a scientist — two professions frequently derided in 21st century America’s celebration of ignorance, but well respected during the Silver Age of Comics.
Murphy Anderson’s clean-lined, optimistic art also had a lot to do with the series’ reassuring nature. I suspect it was just the kind of Buck Rogers story Anderson had always wanted to do.
“Years later, as I sat at my drawing board, my phone rang and a familiar voice greeted me,” Anderson recalled in his introduction to a hardcover edition of The Atomic Knights. “It took only seconds for me to realize who the caller was (and the reason for his call). Mike Barr, well-known comics writer, did not waste time or money!!! I caught on immediately, and replied, ‘Of course, Mike! Today is October 29, 1986 … the day the terrible Atomic War of World War III began and lasted only twenty days!!’ Mike’s infectious laugh boomed in my ear and triggered my own laughter in return.”
Energy creatures, crystal monsters, yellow-skinned alien invaders, blue-shirted Nazis, knights in armor, ray guns, riding Dalmatians and giant ambulatory plants that serve you dinner in restaurants — this was the kind of Armageddon a kid could love!

A Mission to Make the Worse Appear the Better

Republican propagandists like Luntz and Rove have successfully demonized the terms “liberal,” “entitlement,” “social justice warrior” and “politically correct.” Their intent was to discredit the very concepts of compassionate politics, earned government benefits, people who fight for the rights of others and politeness.
The GOP is on a constant propaganda mission to redefine language and make the better appear the worse. As Jeffrey Martini observed, science and education are now described as “liberal scams.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

'Darkroom:' Mary Maddox's Best Thriller Yet

By Dan Hagen
Mary Maddox writes in the margins of 21st century America.
The central Illinois novelist’s thrillers often feature females economically and emotionally on the fraying edges of society, marginal people whose meager access to resources heightens their peril when something wicked their way goes. They haven’t got much with which to fight back, except wits.
In Darkroom, Kelly Durrell’s friend, Day, is benighted, a fact we can hear and smell even before we see her. Maddox’s deft description clues us in even as Kelly returns to her home with groceries. “Manic whoops and a whiff of cannabis seeped into the garage. Daffy Duck was getting high… A teenaged girl lived inside the body of a thirty-eight-year-old woman.”
Maddox sketches character in clear, economical lines: “He raised the empty mug and wiggled it; ‘Hannah.’ The server gave Alan a brisk nod and went on taking the order of a couple nearby. ‘Hannah likes girls.’ His tone insinuated that straight women fetched him beers at once.”
With one friend drugged-up and bipolar, and another who is cheating on her powerful and vengeful husband, Kelly is dropped into tension on page one of the novel, and Maddox weaves those threads around her swiftly. With several novels’ worth of experience, her sense of suspense is sure-footed.
Day is trouble, but she also has potential — specifically, the discernment of the professional photographer. “She studied (the photos), so caught up in Day’s experiments with contrast and nuance that she forgot she was looking at herself. It came as a shock when she remembered. The faces weren’t the familiar one in her bathroom mirror, the woman who dabbed her smudged mascara with a tissue and dreaded going to work. The photographs showed a woman with amazement shadowing her eye, a woman caught in the world’s strangeness.”
Caught indeed.
Tracing her vanished friend Day, Kelly finds evidence of another disappearance, and knows she’s getting too close to somebody who makes people go away for good.
But Kelly, who is credibly heroic without bravado, keeps searching as the shadows around her grow longer, until she finds herself on the radar of a Blackwater-like corporate police force that doesn’t mind murdering people for a client’s convenience.
Maddox sets aside the supernatural elements featured in her earlier suspense novels, and they are not missed here. She’s written a page-turner with realistic perils and motivations and palpable tension, one that builds momentum like a rockslide. It’s her best suspense novel to date.
Maddox’s novels are available at and Barnes & Noble Booksellers on line.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

How to Fog Up a Smoke Monster

An unintended consequence of overreliance on your physical strength can be intellectual weakness. In other words, bullies aren’t too bright.
Homer knew it. Who survived the Trojan War — the vainglorious tough guy Achilles or the canny Odysseus? And Stan Lee and Jack Kirby knew it, too, in their seemingly endless series of giant monster stories in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
These planet-shaking wonders could typically be conned by a clever human who cut some pictures out of a comic book, or threatened them with a cigarette lighter.
That’s what happened to poor Diablo, the lead monster in Tales of Suspense 9 (Dec. 1959). Despite his gigantic size, telepathic powers and Dr. Doom-like habit of shouting “Silence!,” the alien smoke monster was chased back off into interstellar space by some guy who terrified him by puffing out the smoke from a lighter.
The story, a favorite of mine, illustrates one of the tricks Kirby used to jazz up his monster invasion and early Marvel superhero stories. As the alien invader or supernatural threat indulges himself by describing the horrors to which he plans to subject we poor human weaklings, Kirby goes to town illustrating his thoughts, thereby bringing in more spectacular action scenes and making the tale less static.
Diablo reappeared in Marvel’s first 25-cent giant comic, the excellent Strange Tales Annual 1 from 1962, and later returned to make the mistake of threatening the Incredible Hulk. The Hulk is unimpressed by smoke monsters.