Wednesday, November 25, 2015

When Dinosaurs Fly Through a Hole in the Sky

When I was a boy in the early 1960s, my heart belonged to the superheroes. But my favorite title outside that genre was probably editor Julius Schwartz’s Strange Adventures, then its heyday at DC.
The menaces were outsized and outré, but the attitude was a sunlit can-do American optimism, brotherhood of man stuff. The clean lines and lyrical stylization of the art by Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Sid Greene and Murphy Anderson reinforced that unshadowed atmosphere. Even a post-nuclear war dystopia like the Atomic Knights series seemed to have its cheery aspects, such as friendly giant riding Dalmatians. And for a small child, that was reassuring.
The title really hit its stride from about 1957 through 1963. Perhaps coincidentally, its optimism seemed to end at about the same time America’s did — on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.
My favorite issue, No. 121, had arrived on the newsstand earlier, cover-dated October 1960. The stories by Gardner Fox — The Wand That Could Work Miracles, a “Space Museum” tale called The Billion-Year Old Spaceship and Invasion of the Flying Reptiles — all offered science fictional wish fulfillment.
A hole opens in time and releases invulnerable pteranodans from a hundred million years ago over Washington, DC. Yikes. But luckily, a plucky husband-and-wife team of scuba-diving scientists, Jim and Rhoda Trent, have found a plesiosaur frozen in ice (Schwartz’s titles were always resolutely feminist, their female characters smart, stylish, cool-headed and brave). Befriending the revived dinosaur, whom they nickname Ol’ Pleasure, the Trents — by offering themselves as bait on water skis — are able to use the plesiosaur to defeat the pteranondans. My favorite part was the last panel, with the Trents happily tossing fish to their plesiosaur pal at a seaquarium.
The story was probably popular, because the Trents returned to help giant undersea frog people in Strange Adventures 130. And the cover idea — flying dinosaurs coming through a hole in a sky — was recycled for Green Lantern 30, cover-dated July 1964. 

Fairly Unbalanced: Here's a News Quiz for You

Obama is inviting in “the barbarians at the gate.”
“Everything that the president is doing seems to benefit what ISIS is doing.”
Obama’s “hatred of America” may be “because he’s part black … He does not wish America well.”
Obama’s willing to expose the U.S. military to “the Ebola virus to carry out this redistribution of the privileged’s wealth.” Can you guess what “news channel” aired those “journalistic” remarks? Oddly, I’ll bet you can.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Those Embarrassing Capes and Masks

Dr. Solar tried superheroics without a costume in 1963...
In the comics, particularly those with relatively crude art, the costumes served to easily identify and dramatically focus attention on the protagonists. But that function is served, in movies and television, by the looks, manners and stage presence of the stars, so garish costumes are superfluous.
Superhero costumes were probably not quite as odd-looking in the 1930s as they are today.
After all, American audiences were accustomed to seeing bold colors, capes and tights that emphasized the breathtaking bodies of men and women who could perform astonishing physical feats that even defied gravity. They were circus performers, acrobats and trapeze artists, and their garments must have seemed a natural fit for fast-moving four-color individuals like Flash Gordon and Superman.
But circuses have faded even as superheroes have flourished, and nobody dresses like that anymore. And that makes costumes problematic when popular characters are transferred to the screen.
In the 1930s, the superhero costume wasn’t quite the fetish it became. Superman, for example, would go into action without it when he had to in his early comic book exploits. Oddly, he did wear the costume in his radio adventures, even though he took care that no one could see him acting as Superman for the first few years of his show.
But the costume convention took a firm hold of the popular imagination during the 1940s and 1950s. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tried to defy it in the fresh approach they took to their 1961 title The Fantastic Four, only to find that the readers demanded costumes. And by the third issue, they got them. Gold Key tried the same thing in 1963 with their Dr. Solar, the Man of the Atom, holding out until the fifth issue before giving their nuclear-powered hero a costume, mask and dual identity.
...But found that he finally had to surrender to comic book convention
In the comics, particularly those with relatively crude art, the costumes served to easily identify and dramatically focus attention on the protagonists. But that function is served, in movies and television, by the looks, manners and stage presence of the stars, so garish costumes are superfluous. And also, talented comic book artists can cast costumes in the light of thrilling, flowing romanticism, but on TV and in movies, real people have to wear the things.
TV, in particular, is a medium comfortable with the mundane, and not so comfortable with the outlandish. TV’s Superman had a costume in the 1950s, but that was clearly a children’s show. The costumes in 1966’s hit Batman TV show only helped to emphasize how campy and absurd the whole idea of superheroes was, and that parody element was echoed in the superhero sitcoms Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific in 1967. The one show that tried to take costumed heroes seriously, 1967’s Green Hornet, only lasted one season.
And it wasn’t that TV audiences of the era didn’t care for superheroes — they proved that by making hits of the non-costumed Six Million Dollar Man in 1974 and its spinoff The Bionic Woman in 1976.
Lynda Carter was successful as the flag-costumed Wonder Woman in 1975 in part because her show initially had a nostalgia angle, pitting her against Nazis in World War II. And The Incredible Hulk was well received in 1978, but didn’t have a costume, just green skin. The companion series Spider-Man featured a costumed hero and failed in 1977, in part because it was so poorly executed.
Producer Stephen Cannell had a hit with a costumed superhero in The Greatest American Hero in 1981, and he managed it by being clever in his approach. Cannell required from the beginning that the hero’s super powers would be contained in his caped alien costume. So he’d have to wear it, and could still play against it.
Then came 1990’s The Flash, a costumed superhero who lasted only a season. Then 1993’s successful Lois & Clark, which deemphasized the costumed hero even in its title. Then 1997’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who needed no costume. Then 2001’s Smallville, which gave us Superman without a costume (and became the longest-running Superman TV series). And then 2014’s Gotham, which gave us Batman’s world without Batman, kind of the ultimate cheeky TV move, I’d say.
The costumed superhero has been successfully revived on TV with Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl. In 2015, Marvel’s Daredevil redeemed the costumed superhero on TV, even though the character’s full costume is seen only at the end of the first season. And now we have Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which astutely uses the costume as a metaphor. The super-powered heroine — alliteratively named as a wink at all the Bruce Banners, Clark Kents, Billy Batsons, Peter Parkers and Sue Storms out there — is presented as once having tried to be a costumed hero, or its equivalent. But Jessica, whom I like to call Supergoth, learned the hard way that her world is too dark and cheerless for fancy dress.

The Name Is Olsen. James Olsen

The comic book industry was always alert to popular trends, including the 1960s superspy craze inspired by the success of James Bond 007.
Marvel Comics offered us Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, with his nemesis Hydra. Charlton turned Sarge Steel from a private eye into a special agent. Tower Comics crossed superheroes with spies in THUNDER Agents. Even Archie Andrews pitched in as the Man from RIVERDALE.
And DC gave us a guy named Olsen.
James Olsen.
“Now, you can probably see the problem here already,” the Silver Age blog observed. “James Bond was suave, cultured, handsome and the epitome of cool. Whereas Jimmy was naive, unsophisticated, homely and as square as the Bizarro World.
“The story (from Jimmy Olsen 89, Dec. 1965) starts with Jimmy and Lucy on a date to see a movie featuring ‘Jamison Baird, Agent .003.’ As was common in the DC universe, things were changed just enough to avoid lawsuits, although it seems a bit odd in this case. DC had published a story featuring James Bond only a few years earlier (Showcase 43).” Agent Double-Five (the number of letters in his name) returned in Jimmy Olsen 92, along with his seemingly superfluous gadgets. After all, Jimmy had long possessed the one special device that would be the envy of any secret agent — his Superman signal watch.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Meet Bob Phantom, Just a Regular Guy and the Scourge of the Underworld

I always suspected that Bob Phantom, an early MLJ superhero, added the friendly, aw-shucks “Bob” just so he wouldn't seem too fancy.
 “However silly his name might be, Bob Phantom debuted in Blue Ribbon Comics 2 (Dec. 1939), only a year and a half after Superman had founded the superhero genre in comic books, and just a few months after others had started populating the newsstands,” Don Markstein observed.
“In fact, he was the very first long underwear guy published by MLJ Comics. (The Wizard would have tied Bob, but the Wiz's original superhero suit consisted of a tuxedo. Other very early ones, such as The Shield, The Comet and Steel Sterling, didn’t reach the public until the first couple of months of 1940.)
“The publisher demonstrated its lack of practice at crafting super-powered crime fighters by not explaining how Bob managed to do what he did. In his first 6-page story, which was probably written by Harry Shorten (Tippy Teen, There Oughta Be a Law) and definitely drawn by Irv Novick (Captain Storm, Batman), he demonstrated an ability to appear out of (or disappear into) nowhere, survive a gunfire attack unharmed, and know things he had no way of learning.”
“Bob” was secretly Broadway columnist Walt Whitney, who goaded the police to arrest criminals. So he was Walter Winchell as a superhero? I must say, the mind reels.
Actually, it seems likely that Bob got his silly name simply because people had run out of variations on the evocative mysterioso term “Phantom.” By the late 1930s, you had Lee Falk’s comic strip superhero the Phantom, the pulp magazine superhero Phantom Detective, Gene Autry’s Phantom Empire movie serial and so forth. Even in the current Mickey Mouse newspaper comic strip story (running from May 20 to Sept. 9, 1939), the redoubtable rodent was busy battling the Phantom Blot.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

William Manchester: A Fanfare for Failure

The wreckage of a Kawanishi H8K2 Seaplane in Butaritari Lagoon during the Battle of Tarawa
One perverse irony of war, William Manchester found, is how it sanctifies bloody disasters while underrating undramatic military victories.
“Time (magazine) trumpeted the defense of the American tactics: ‘Last week some 2,000 or 3,000 United States Marines, most of them now dead or wounded, gave the nation a name to stand beside those of … the Alamo, Little Big Horn and Belleau Wood. The name was Tarawa,’” Manchester wrote in his 1979 memoir Goodbye, Darkness. As a sergeant, he’d been in the middle of that 76-hour battle in which roughly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans and Americans died, mostly on and around the small coral island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.
“That made everyone on Betio stand tall, but it deserves second thoughts. The Alamo and Little Big Horn were massacres for Americans, and the Fifth and Sixth Marines had been cut to pieces in Belleau Wood. Time’s comment may be attributed to a curious principle which seems to guide those who write of titanic battles. The longer the casualty lists — the vaster the investment in blood — the greater the need to justify the slain. Thus the fallen are honored by hallowing the names of the places were they fell, thus writers enshrine in memory the Verduns, the Passchendaeles, the Dunkirks and the Iwo Jimas, while neglecting decisive struggles in which the loss of life was small.
“At the turn of the 18th century, the Duke of Marlborough led 10 successful, relatively bloodless campaigns on the Continent, after which he was hounded into exile by his political enemies. In World War I, Douglas Haig butchered the flower of England’s youth on the Somme and in Flanders without winning a single victory. He was raised to the peerage and awarded 100,000 pounds by a grateful Parliament...”
“Similarly, in World War II, Anzio and Peleliu are apotheosized, though neither contributed to the defeat of Germany and Japan, while the capture of Ulithi, one of the Pacific’s finest anchorages, is unsung since the enemy had evacuated it, and Hollandia, (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur’s greatest triumph in that war, is forgotten because the general’s genius outfoxed the Japanese and limited his losses to a handful of GIs.
“In the Pacific, we received ‘pony’ editions — reduced in size, with no ads — of Time and the New Yorker. The comparison of Tarawa with great battles of the past didn’t impress most of us; we saw it for what it was: wartime propaganda designed to boost the morale of subscribers, a sophisticated version of the rhapsodies about the Glorious Dead who had Given Their All, making the Supreme Sacrifice. Our sympathies were with those who protested the high casualties.”
From his vantage point on the battlefield, Manchester immediately saw through military myth-making, but years would pass before he could bring himself to cast a cold eye on other hypocrisies of war. “At the time it was impolitic to pay the slightest tribute to the enemy, and Nip determination, their refusal to say die, was commonly attributed to ‘fanaticism,’” he recalled. “In retrospect, it is indistinguishable from heroism. To call it anything less cheapens the victory, for American valor was necessary to defeat it.” 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Message from Mercury

I have a fondness for obscure superheroes, finding something charmingly incongruous in the very idea. And you’d be hard-pressed to find one more obscure than Mercury Man, an alien scientist superhero who appeared in only two issues of Charlton’s Space Adventures (44 and 45, early in 1962).
I’ve always suspected he was intended as a replacement for Steve Ditko’s Captain Atom, whose adventures had ended in Space Adventures 42.
Drawn by Rocco “Rocke” Mastroserio, sporting the fashionable pointed ears of a Namor or a Spock, Mercury Man was a combination of Superman and Klaatu, hoping to help Earth avoid the nuclear war that had wiped out his civilization on the planet Mercury. He had survived by transforming himself into a living metal, and displayed superhuman strength, telepathy, indestructibility and the ability to project disintegration rays as well as fly at 50,000 miles per hour.
He arrived on Earth in time to save the United States from a nuclear attack. In another adventure, he transported world leaders to his home planet to let them see the effects of nuclear war firsthand. Perhaps they should have appeared to be more impressed, because the frustrated hero left them stranded there.
Made of the metal mercury, from the planet Mercury, and bearing wings on his ankles just like the Roman god Mercury’s talaria or flying sandals, this superhero was created by somebody who really knew how to underline a theme.