Sunday, January 22, 2017

How the Mighty Heroes Are Fallen

In January 1966, the overnight success of the Batman TV program led to a miscalculation in the entertainment industry.
The archly comical ABC show was created to be “camp,” a term defined by Merriam-Webster as “…something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.”
The early TV stories, lifted right from the comic books, didn’t sit so well on actual human beings in tights — even though it was fun to see Adam West address each crazy scheme involving puzzles, umbrellas, Rube Goldberg death traps and brightly colored knockout gas as if it were the imminent detonation of a hydrogen bomb.
A 12-year-old then, I understood that the show was laughing at Batman, not with him. And I didn’t appreciate it one little bit when that same attitude backwashed into superhero comics — not just the Batman comics, but many other bandwagon riders.
Take the revived Archie Comics MLJ superheroes, for example. Subjected to the faux-Stan Lee writing of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and the indifferent art of Paul Reinman, 1940s stalwarts like the Web, the Shield, the Fox, Steel Sterling and the Black Hood became goofballs as the Fly-Man title turned into Mighty Heroes in 1966-67.
Only the Web — now a henpecked, middle-aged superhero making a comeback attempt — had the seeds of a real story, touching on themes that would be developed in superhero stories 20 or more years later.
But finally, once all the publicity dust settles, things that are said to be “…so bad they’re good” are usually, after all, just bad.
The Batman show, and the comic book superheroes that copied it, all quickly fell victim to the problem that afflicts every camp melodrama. You can’t generate concern about the fate of characters after you’ve encouraged the audience to laugh at them by making them appear ridiculous. The ticking time bomb can’t be suspenseful when we know it’s really a jack-in-the-box.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

This Looks Like a Job for Tiny Supermen!

It’s a swarm of bees! It’s a cloud of wasps! No, it’s a hundred tiny Supermen!
The Mort Weisinger-edited Silver Age Superman mythos reached its zenith when the Superman Emergency Squad was introduced in 1960.
We’d already seen the arrival of Brainiac, whose shrinking ray gave us the Kryptonian bottled city of Kandor, to be stored in another recent innovation, Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude (shamelessly lifted from Doc Savage).
Krypto the Superdog had arrived even earlier, and Supergirl more recently. Her own expanding mythos would give us Streaky the Supercat and Comet the Superhorse. Lori Lemaris, Superman’s lost collegiate love, was on hand if we happened to need telepathic assistance from a mermaid.
Kandor would in turn be source of further mythic evolution for the Man of Tomorrow. Superman’s increasingly complex and useful robots were also stored there, as was another new element, the Phantom Zone projector.
The tiny city would become the urban bottlescape for Superman and Jimmy’s Batman-and-Robin adventures as Nightwing and Flamebird. And, in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen 48 (Oct.-Nov. 1960), it would give us the Superman Emergency Squad, a silly team I loved.
In this Otto Binder story with art by Curt Swan, we met Superman’s tiny flying army from the Kandor. After shoving their way out of the corked bottled, they swarmed to the rescue dressed in Superman costumes (which would actually make them uniforms, I suppose). Initially someone insisted that they should all look like Superman too, which seems a bit fetishistic even for Silver Age comic books.
They returned in The War Between Supergirl and the Superman Emergency Squad (Action Comics 276, May 1961), a tale penned by Robert Bernstein and drawn by Wayne Boring. The “war” was staged so Superman could gaslight a criminal into thinking himself delusional as a means of shielding Superman’s exposed secret identity.
In the Kennedy era, already having been popularized on TV, radio, movie serials and cartoons and a newspaper comic strip, Superman was featured in seven comic book titles, or eight if you count The Justice League of America, where he was initially downplayed.
But the Man of Tomorrow was central to the titles Action Comics, Superman, Adventure Comics, Superboy, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and World’s Finest. Important additions to the Superman mythos might appear in any one of them — the tiny Supermen in Jimmy Olsen, the Phantom Zone in Adventure, Bizarro in Superboy and Luthor’s sister Lena Thorul in Lois Lane.

The Quest Began on a Coffee Shop Place Mat...

“(A)s we would come to understand much later, our crises each contained the seed of a magnificent gift. We were both forced, by pain, to look under the surface of things. To investigate deeper into the nature of our human-beingness — its impermanence, its lack of continuity, its disappointment…”
“Paula and I sat one evening after class in the coffee shop beneath the yoga studio, discussing our lives. We discovered we both secretly felt our breakdowns were a kind of spiritual crisis. … As we identified, together, the aspects of this search that we shared, I scribbled them down on the paper place mat in front of me with a big red crayon:
“ — A search for ‘the quiet’ in which the small inner voice could be heard.
“ — A longing for the authentic and the real.
“ — A visceral need for self-expression.
“ — A sense of rebellion against the ‘captivity’ of our old lives.
“ — An inchoate sense of something unimaginable about to be born out of the disorganization of our lives.”

—  Stephen Cope, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self

Saturday, January 14, 2017

At the End of the Jungle Trail with B'wana Beast

Within the boom-and-bust cycles of the comic book industry, you can in retrospect spot those moments when the superhero idea has exhausted itself and been played out.
One such milestone was marked by B’wana Beast (Showcase 66-67, Jan.-Feb. 1967).
The superhero fever accelerated by the surprise success of the Batman TV show in January 1966 was already starting to break, but delirium had apparently set in. Ads in the Showcase issues featuring the “Jungle Master” promoted the new feature Dial H for Hero (featuring a superhero who becomes everybody) and Mattel’s Captain Action doll (featuring a superhero who becomes everybody).
And then there was B’wana Beast, a new character concept created by Bob Haney and Mike Sekowsky that had late-night coffee stains and cigarette ashes all over it.
Take Tarzan, slap a gaudy superhero helmet on him and give him the power to telepathically command animals and — to make it all just a little weirder — to COMBINE animals into OTHER, LARGER animals.
Give him a secret hideout on top of Mount Kilimanjaro and a purple gorilla pal, Djuba. Shrug off any uncomfortable feelings you may have about yet another white jungle god, and ignore the fact that “B’wana” is an East African term meaning “master, or boss.”
For good measure, wrap things up with a James Bond clinch in which a beautiful girl moans, “Beast … you beast!”
“B’wana Beast started out as game warden Mike Maxwell, who got stuck in a cave on Mount Kilimanjaro,” comics historian Don Markstein noted. “First, he drank water that had reached the cave by being filtered through rock, which made him suddenly bulk up like Bruce Banner turning into The Hulk, ruining the clothes he’d been wearing. Then his pal Djuba, a gorilla, gave him a helmet that enabled him to order beasts around like The Jaguar, or like The Fly could command insects. He's frequently been compared to Aquaman, who did that with underwater fauna.”
“B’wana Beast was apparently scheduled for the usual three (tryout issues). But reportedly Sekowsky quit after two, citing racism in the concept as his reason for wanting no more to do with it. He suggested another artist be found to continue it, but DC failed to do so.”
But let’s not be too quick to label B’wana Beast as a failure. Sure, he may have vanished from embarrassment, and it took him 20 years to get the nerve to reemerge. But he’s since acquired a more palatable successor, Freedom Beast, and been featured in toys and three animated series.
There’s a comic book Valhalla for even the spectacularly, stylishly bad characters, though not for the forgettable ones. No one’s going to rescue The Maniaks, Binky or Top Gun, the features that debuted in Showcase right after B’wana Beast.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Grade Yourself on This Ethical Test

This is a variation on the theme of a basic ethical test. It’s how you treat the stranger that matters, not how you treat your friends or family or members of your tribe. It’s the Good Samaritan test.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

American Press: How Whores Become Virgins

Remember, the American corporate news media had no problem trumpeting Judith Miller’s Iraq war intelligence lies in the New York Times, or the nonexistent “intelligence chatter” that conveniently raised terrorism alarms whenever Bush and Cheney required some fresh political distraction, or the FBI director’s last-minute email intelligence nonsense about Clinton. But now watch them become gravely circumspect and sagely concerned about the veracity of the intelligence reports in Pissgate.
It is to laugh, my friends.
For the record, if the whorish corporate news media intend to pose as blushing ethical virgins again, I'd just as soon they wait until AFTER Pissgate.

What If Cary Grant Were a Private Eye?

Names like Superman, Batman, Iron Man and Spider-Man may sound silly, but there’s something sillier still.
At least those heroes chose their melodramatic noms de guerre. How much sillier is it when a hero just coincidentally happens to have a melodramatic name that advertises his profession? You know, like Doc Savage, Mike Hammer and Peter Gunn. The name of a later TV private eye, Remington Steele, was conceived as a parody of the name “Peter Gunn.”
Freudian implications aside, Gunn was the polished and poised protagonist in a stylish private eye TV series created by Blake Edwards that aired from 1958 to 1961. He was played by Craig Stevens, an actor who might be better remembered today if his looks, sartorial splendor and savoir faire had not so closely resembled Cary Grant’s.
One cool cat, Pete operated out of a jazz club called Mother’s in some waterfront city. His girl — the equally obviously named Edie Hart — was the lead singer at the club. Her smooth elegance mirrored Gunn’s, only slightly smudged at moments by hints of her frustration at Gunn’s matrimonial elusiveness.
Gunn was cool enough to make it into a comic book, Dell’s Four Color 1087 (April-June 1960), giving artist Mike Sekowsky a rest from the superhero-packed panels of DC’s Justice League of America. Sekowsky got a chance to show what he might have done with a realistically illustrated Rip Kirby-style newspaper strip.
The television series is remembered today largely for the permanent link it forged between action-adventure and jazz, thanks to composer Henry Mancini, who filled the episodes with original music. His Peter Gunn Theme remains iconic, and was the direct ancestor of The James Bond Theme. David Anthony Kraft and I had the privilege of seeing Mancini’s orchestra perform the piece at a university concert in 1973.
Few people know, however, that the famous theme has lyrics. Here they are, in part (and they sound like Edie Hart being heartfelt):

Every night your line is busy
All that buzzin’ makes me dizzy
Couldn’t count on all my fingers
All the dates you had with swingers
Bye bye
Bye, baby
I'm gonna kiss you goodbye
And walk right through that doorway
So long
I'm leaving
This is the last time we’ll meet
On the street going your way…