Thursday, June 30, 2016

When Batman Really Sprang Into Action (Comics)

Dick Sprang, the best of the early Batman artists, once said something heretical: that what he liked drawing best were the World’s Finest stories involving Superman.
Why? Because the soaring, science fictional exuberance of Superman’s challenges expanded what he could play with in his art.
Sprang got more of what he wished as the 1950s wore on, because Superman — now a television star — was the dominant figure at DC Comics, the template for success. Even the most unlikely characters temporarily gained powers identical to the Man of Tomorrow’s — not just Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, but also Batwoman, Blackhawk and even the 18th century pioneer Tomahawk.
Batman acquired his pal’s powers several times, notably in Batman: The Superman of Planet X (Batman 113 Feb. 1958). Teaming with the Batman of the planet Zur-En-Arrh to repel a enemy invasion, the Caped Crusader luckily finds he has super powers there. What are the odds?
The issue also offered a parody Batman (“Fatman”) and the first appearance of a Batman villain who would appear on TV a decade later (False Face, played by Malachi Throne). That was a lot of value for your dime. 

Admire the Steadiness of the Light

Collage by Kelly Walker
I try not to hurry the beagle while he sniffs the ground. I know that he’s busy reading. Like me, he requires new data to stimulate his thinking. If impatient, I watch the steadiness of the bright, slanting sunlight that spills across the lawn, a picture scored by birdsong.
Back at home, George Hilton Beagle falls into a deep sleep, processing all he has learned.

Suspended Between the Depths and the Light

'The Swimming Hole' by Thomas Eakins (1884-85)
Poet Walt Whitman loved swimming with other young men, nude in the fashion of the 19th century, their bodies electric.

Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sun-burnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers, the breath, and breathing it in and out…

“The young men ran dancing and laughing along the sand, bathed in the surf, fished, dug clams, speared messes of fat, sweet-meated eel,” wrote biographer Justin Kaplan. “He loved swimming, of a passive sort — ‘I was a first rate aquatic loafer,’ he recalled. ‘I possessed almost unlimited capacity for floating on my back.’ Cradled, rocked and drowsing, his body rolling ‘silently to and fro in the heave of the water,’ he lay suspended between the depths and the light, between the unconscious and the world of necessity.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How Green Was My Lantern

The first time I saw the original Green Lantern was in the pages of Flash 129 (June 1962), and I was intrigued.
The gently graying Jay Garrick, the original Flash, was reminiscing with his wife Joan about his last adventure with the Justice Society of America 11 years before. He recalled Hawkman drenching the villain’s henchmen, Wonder Woman hoisting a submarine out of the water and Green Lantern deflecting bullets inside a power-ringed, armored shell.
The idea of having a second Justice League somewhere out there was thrilling to me — and this second Emerald Crusader, especially so.
I have since come to love Gil Kane’s elegant, clean-lined and streamlined black-and-green design for the Silver Age Green Lantern costume worn by Hal Jordan. But taste was not my strong suit as a child, and at 7 I preferred things garish. Alan Scott’s original costume certainly filled the bill, with its sweeping collared cape and dominant purples and reds (a “Green Lantern” dressed in red?).
Jon Morris wrote, “A red blouse dotted with yellow insignia, a purple collared cape with emerald green lining, forest green pants, red boots, yellow laces and a broad leather belt made up most of the outlandish costume, accented with his purple domino mask and, lest anyone mistake his color scheme or purpose, a detailed image of a green lantern smack in the middle of his chest.
“The costume served Alan Scott well enough through the end of his popularity, at which point he was effectively replaced in the pages of his own book by a crime-fighting dog.”
Martin Nodell’s concept for the character — a superheroic Aladdin complete with lamp and ring — was an excellent one. Beyond all the claptrap about “will power,” Green Lantern’s ability was one he would share with all his readers — the power to wish for things.
But when I finally read the original GL’s earliest adventures decades later, I was disappointed. Beginning with the hero’s origin in All-American Comics 16 (July 1940), the art was crude, the opponents pedestrian. His vast, fantastic powers seemed to be deliberately played down, as if dullness was actually supposed to be the point of the stories.
As with many DC Comics superheroes, the stories produced after World War II, in the twilight of the Golden Age, were much better. The whole tone of the comics improved considerably.

With talented writers like John Broome and the Hugo Award-winning Alfred Bester and accomplished artists like Carmine Infantino, Alex Toth and Irwin Hasen, Green Lantern now faced memorable menaces like the unstoppable swamp zombie Solomon Grundy and the cheeky rogue Harlequin, who diverted GL’s crusade against crime into a battle of the sexes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Let Crime Beware the Red Tomato, er, Tornado

Stephen Sondheim once said that melodrama and farce are merely two sides of the same coin, and the Red Tornado proves his point.
Almost as soon as the grim, caped avengers appeared in comic books, their inherent absurdity was also parodied there.
“The Red Tornado is … a superheroine in the DC Comics universe, debuting during the Golden Age of Comic Books,” Wikipedia noted. “Created by Sheldon Mayer, she first appeared in her civilian identity as Abigail Mathilda ‘Ma’ Hunkel in All-American Publications’ All-American Comics 3 (June 1939), and became the Red Tornado in All-American Comics 20 (Nov. 1940). As the Red Tornado, she was one of the first superhero parodies, as well as one of the first female superheroes.”
Like the later DC superhero Wildcat, Hunkel was inspired to adopt her costumed identity by Green Lantern, her young son’s hero. Decked out in red long johns, with a cooking pot serving her as both helmet and mask, she used her considerable strength to mop up the urban criminal element.
She was almost a founding member of the Justice Society of America, but had to depart early when her pants split. Her secret identity was rarely in jeopardy, given the fact that the public believed the Red Tornado to be a man.
“(C)riminals found themselves up against a big, brawny, ‘no-nonsense’ superhero — the Red Tornado — no, not, as she frequently found it necessary to point out, ‘tomato,’” comics historian Don Markstein noted. “The Red Tornado wasn’t quite the first female superhero in comics — depending on how you define them, it’s possible she was beaten into print by as many as six (Fantomah, The Woman in Red, Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, Miss X, Lady Luck and the Black Widow, all of whom languish in obscurity). But she was certainly the first to masquerade as male — the other characters in the series all thought she was a man, and she didn’t correct them. She wasn’t, however, the first cross-dressing superhero — that honor, such as it is, goes to Madam Fatal. But she was the first to use red flannel long johns as a prominent costume element, thus paving the way for Supersnipe, Captain Klutz, The Fat Fury and many others who made that fashion statement.”
The Red Tornado was essentially Marie Dressler, a popular film and stage comedic actress of the early 1930s, improbably recast as a superhero.
Like other Golden Age heroes, the Red Tornado was revived in the Silver Age, revamped as an artificial being. At the same time, in another of those parallels between Marvel and DC, the House of Ideas introduced a revived 1940s superhero as a red-faced, caped android — the Vision.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Shadow Returns, and Returns and Returns

By the time Superman arrived in 1938, the Shadow was already a well-established multi-media superhero who’d appeared in pulp magazines, feature films and dramatic radio, and would soon star in a movie serial, comic books and a newspaper comic strip.
Although the Shadow’s pulp magazine ended its 18-year run in 1949, and his radio drama finished in 1954, the character was too popular to stay invisible long.
Not one but two television pilots were made in the 1950s, and from 1963 to 1967 original paperback novels appeared, published by Belmont and flavored with the spy elements popularized by an exciting new character called James Bond. Something of the same approach was taken in a new Shadow comic book series published by Archie in 1964, and the old radio dramas were revived on stations around the country. Even a hardcover collection — The Weird Adventures of the Shadow — was published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1966.
Bantam Books had been successfully republishing the adventures of the Shadow’s pulp “brother,” Doc Savage, since 1964, and in 1969 began doing the same thing for the Shadow, with striking, sketchy covers by Sandy Kossin. More comic books and paperback reprints followed. What was old was new again, and had never really faded from sight.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Man Who Hated Wonder Woman

Early on, I realized that Robert Kanigher hated Wonder Woman, the character he wrote and edited for 22 years.
Many stories were written with a randomness that suggested contempt, the plots taking illogical left turns — people gliding on air currents, dinosaurs and giant birds showing up for no reason. That was nothing like the loving care Kanigher lavished on his DC war comics.
In fact, as author Jill Lepore noted, Kanigher sneeringly referred to her as “…the grotesque, inhuman original Wonder Woman.”
He may well have resented the assignment. Thanks to clever contract negotiation by William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, DC was forced to continually publish the character or lose the rights.
And Kanigher’s distaste for the Golden Age Wonder Woman, with its overripe art by H.G. Peter, wasn’t entirely unfounded. Marston’s admirable promotion of peace and equal rights was, after all, delivered with an admixture of S&M fetishism about the glories of “loving submission.”
“It’s a really big transition time for comics anyway because after the Second World War — this is sort of like what happens to the Cold War in spy films — superheroes have no one left to fight,” Lepore told National Public Radio. “Wonder Woman carries on, though. And Kanigher reimagines her in the 1950s as a kind of daffy, besotted, lovestruck girl, who — all she wants to do is marry Steve Trevor, who’s the guy she’s rescued, which … brings her to the United States in the first place.”
Nevertheless, every dozen issues or so, Kanigher managed to turn out a decent story, always enhanced by the strong art of Ross Andru. And one of them was The Proving of Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman 131 (July 1962). The tale had underworld ghosts, Jove hurling thunderbolts, a trident-wielding Neptune and a gigantic, green, three-headed dog. What more, really, could a kid ask?
Funny how often, from her origin on, Wonder Woman would be required to prove herself in some test or other. That was in part merely a story angle made possible by the fact that other Amazons were available to replace her, I suppose. But she’s one superhero who always had to keep resubmitting her application.