Thursday, March 30, 2017

H.G. Wells: The Long Reach of the Unseen Hand

The inventive British novelist H.G. Wells contributed several conventions that have become mainstays in superhero comics — among them time travel, interplanetary warfare and, oh joy of joys, invisibility.
The concept of human invisibility is a wish fulfillment fantasy that probably predates recorded history. We can trace it as far back as the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic (which was undoubtedly the model for Tolkien’s One Ring). Plato used the magic ring as a metaphor to explore the question of whether an intelligent person would remain moral if he did not have to fear capture and punishment.
Wells’ answer was a firm “no.” In the novella, originally serialized in Pearson's Weekly in 1897, Wells’ optical scientist Griffin decides to use his power of invisibility to become a national terrorist. Felled by an angry mob, the dying Griffin slowly turns visible again.
In 1977, writer Doug Moench and artists Dino Castrillo and Rudy Messina adapted the story for Marvel Classics Comics. My late friend Roger Slifer was editor.
For an entertaining parlor game, ask your friends which super power they would prefer: invisibility or personal flight? The results will be telling, and generally spark an interesting discussion about expediency, ethics and life goals.
In the This American Life radio program, writer John Hodgman asked a number of people that question. “He finds that how you answer tells a lot about what kind of person you are,” host Ira Glass noted. “And also, no matter which power people choose, they never use it to fight crime.”

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Welcome to Blackwhite America

Under Trump and the Republicans, this nation is sinking into madness.

1964: The Return of Marvel's Missing Monster

From March 1963 to October 1964, the Incredible Hulk wandered in the wilderness, both literally and metaphorically.
After his comic book ended with its 6th issue, he was a monster without a title.
But Stan Lee made skillful use of this tortured former protagonist as an antagonist against the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor and Giant-Man, and that move accomplished two purposes. It kept the Hulk alive in the minds of young readers, and it nurtured their growing sense of a vast, interconnected fictional universe, a Marvel universe.
Namor served the same function at the same time.
Rarely out of sight or mind, the Hulk returned in a new feature in Tales to Astonish 60. Drawn again by Steve Ditko, the Hulk was finally established in the form in which most people now know him — as a scientist turned into a monster by stress, anger, the fight-or-flight response.
Shared titles were necessary in Marvel’s expanding universe, and each of them had its own theme. Tales of Suspense featured the out-and-out superheroes, Captain America and Iron Man. Strange Tales featured two characters on the fringes of the superhero world, Nick Fury and Dr. Strange. And once Giant-Man departed, Tales to Astonish featured the Hulk and the Submariner, two super-antiheroes.

Monday, March 27, 2017

How Stan Lee Rescued a Werewolf

Werewolf by Night was born because Stan Lee stood up to the Comics Code Authority.
Created in 1954 to curb the excesses of horror comics, the code banned sadism, lust, excessive bloodshed, disrespect for authority, sympathy for criminals, physically exaggerated females, werewolves, vampires, zombies and drugs.
Lee challenged the latter prohibition because he was determined to do an anti-drug story in Amazing Spider-Man (May 1971). His widely praised effort led to a loosening of the code’s restrictions that permitted Marvel to introduce Spidey’s foe Morbius the Living Vampire and to publish titles like Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night.
Written by Roy and Jean Thomas and Gerry Conway, the cheekily named Jack Russell was introduced in Marvel Spotlight 2 (Feb. 1972). The basic Jekyll and Hyde/Wolf Man plot structure is one Marvel had been using since its second title, The Incredible Hulk, in 1962.
“The Marvel formula of creating a troubled life to make the character more interesting applied here to Jack; his mother had married an overbearing, manipulative man and neither Jack nor his younger sister Lissa cared much about him,” noted the Marvel Monsters blog. “Jack had never known his true father but didn’t learn of the curse over him until his mother explained it to him on her deathbed after the family’s driver tried to bump her off in a rigged car wreck.”
The Werewolf was a more vicious but less powerful protagonist than the Hulk, caught in a tragic situation familiar to viewers of the old Universal horror movies on TV. What was special was Mike Ploog’s beautifully fluid, cartoony-but-unsilly artwork.
Some artists are a perpetual pleasure to the eye, and Ploog is one of them.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Blue Beetle '67: Who Needs Super Powers?

Having walked away from Spider-Man with issue 38 (July 1966), Steve Ditko, at the height of his powers, was in a perfect position to provide us with a pinnacle in the career of a surprisingly long-lived superhero, the Blue Beetle.
“Surprisingly” because the character began as Fox Comics’ rather cheap rip-off of the popular radio hero Green Hornet in Mystery Men Comics 1 (Aug. 1939).
I could understand criminals being afraid of a hornet. But a beetle?
In his debut, the Blue Beetle posed as a criminal mastermind and felled gangsters with gas, just like the Green Hornet. Quickly re-imagined as beat cop Dan Garret (one T), and empowered by an armored costume and Vitamin 2X, the character gained his own title and even had brief exposure in a Jack Kirby newspaper strip and on radio.
Charlton Comics revived the superhero in the 1950s, and revamped him in 1964. This time, the Beetle was archaeologist Dan Garrett (two Ts) who acquired an array of powers — flight, telepathy, strength, the ability to project lightning and who knows what else — from an Egyptian scarab amulet when he pronounces the magic words “Kaji Dha.”
That’s the character Ditko used as a springboard for his own version, an imaginative one that reflected some of his Objectivist philosophical principles.
Introduced in Captain Atom 83 (Nov. 1966), genius millionaire industrialist Ted Kord inherited the identity but not the powers of the Blue Beetle from the dying Garrett. Ditko seemed concerned to demonstrate that a person wouldn’t need super powers to handle whatever menaces appeared, but could rely on his own rationality, ingenuity and training.
Ditko’s story in Captain Atom 85 (March 1967) illustrates that theme. Disabling an enemy sub with his underwater bazooka, Kord fights off frogmen in hand-to-hand combat. And with the help of his versatile “Bug” air-sea craft, the Beetle rescues a falling jet and even fights off a giant octopus. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Iron Fist: Legacy and the Living Weapon

Iron Fist, a superhero created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane for Marvel Premiere 15 (May 1974), was the result of pop cultural cross-pollination.
The Marvel Age of Comics was already more than a decade old, and to freshen it up the Bullpen tried superhero titles reflecting popular trends.
Thanks to a relaxed Comics Code, more vivid horror stories could then be published, so Ghost Rider was born in Marvel Spotlight 5 (Aug. 1972).
Martial arts had been popularized by the David Carradine TV series Kung Fu in 1972 and the Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon in 1973. Add the superhero trappings of a lost-child Tarzan origin, a secret identity, a colorful costume and the ability to focus chi into a punch of overwhelming power, and you have Iron Fist.
The character is presented in his Netflix series as a kind of billionaire super-Buddhist. And that may well ring a bell.
Comics readers might remark on the similarity of Danny Rand to Adrian Veidt, the superhero Ozymandias created by by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for their 1986 Watchmen graphic novel.
Well, yes, and there’s a reason for that.
Iron Fist was in part an homage to Amazing-Man, Bill Everett’s original variation on the Superman theme introduced in Amazing-Man Comics 5 (Sept. 1939). That Tibetan-trained super-being also inspired Pete Morisi to create Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt for Charlton Comics in 1966. And Moore and Gibbons used Thunderbolt as the template for Ozymandias.
The history of superhero comics is a wonderfully multi-faceted and multivariate thing.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Homosexuality and Enlightenment

Eckhart Tolle has put his finger on something here that I’ve wondered about for a long time.
“As you approach adulthood, uncertainty about your sexuality followed by the realization that you are ‘different’ from others may force you to disidentify from socially conditioned patterns of thought and behavior,” Tolle wrote in his book The Power of Now. “This will automatically raise your level of consciousness above that of the unconscious majority, whose members unquestioningly take on board all inherited patterns. In that respect, being gay can be a help. Being an outsider to some extent, someone who does not ‘fit in’ with others or is rejected by them for whatever reason, makes life difficult, but it also places you at an advantage as far as enlightenment is concerned. It takes you out of your consciousness by force.”
I presume this is also one reason so many gay people turn to the arts, where an outsider’s perspective can be a source of inspiration and insight.