Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Marvel Tale You Won't Believe

Just before the dawn of the Marvel superheroes, Stan Lee often provided variations on this theme: the monster or alien or ghost or Abominable Snowman turns out to be the protagonist or the victim or the investigator or, for all I know, the reader himself. EC Comics and the Twilight Zone TV show also used the trick. The predictability of the twist did little to detract from the enjoyment of the tale in the hands of artists like Jack Kirby or, here, Steve Ditko. This one’s from Amazing Adult Fantasy 7 (1961).

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Sting of the Sandman

When we later Baby Boomers first met the Justice Society of America in Flash 123 (Sept. 1961), Flash 129 (June 1962) and Flash 137 (June 1963), and then again in Justice League of America 21 and 22 (Aug.-Sept 1963), we undoubtedly thought we’d hit the jackpot. Our roster of superheroes had doubled instantly!
We swiftly sorted these intriguing “older newcomers” into the variations-on-a-theme heroes (Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom, Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman) and the unique heroes (Hourman, Dr. Fate, the Spectre, Dr. Mid-Nite, the Sandman, and others).
Created by writer Gardner Fox and artist Bert Christman for Adventure Comics 40 (July 1939), the Sandman drew on inspirations that predated the smash-hit heroes Superman and Batman. Wealthy Wesley Dodds wore a gas mask, fedora and stylized, caped business suit, wielded a gas gun to kayo criminals and was pursued by police as a criminal. One ancestor was obvious: the dramatic radio hero Green Hornet, who had premiered in 1936 (who was himself inspired by his great-uncle, the Lone Ranger, a radio hero who’d bowed in 1933).
The Sandman was “Batmaned-up” with yellow-and-purple tights and a boy sidekick in Adventure Comics 69 (Dec. 1941). But his distinctive pulp hero look was restored, thankfully, during his 1960s JLA revival.

Where to Take Refuge

The Persistent Problem of Fate

I found DC’s 1940s’ superhero Dr. Fate fascinating when I met him crossing from a parallel world in Justice League of America 21 and 22 (1963) and then teaming with his Justice Society comrade Hourman in Showcase 55 and 56 (1965). The beautiful blue and yellow costume, that mysterious helmet masking his features, those vast magical powers — evocative stuff that dreams are made of.
But that last point suggests a problem that Dr. Fate shares with Dr. Strange and other superhero magicians going back at least to Chandu on radio in 1931. Ill-defined powers can seem to be unlimited, and your story has no suspense if the hero can always pull some deus ex machina spell out of his ass to save the day.
Lee Falk’s superhero magician Mandrake had that problem when the newspaper comic strip began in 1934 — he could, with a gesture, teleport himself anywhere or halt a man plunging to his death. But Falk spotted the problem, and limited Mandrake’s powers to super-hypnotism. His gestures could now instantly control what people believed they saw, but not physical reality.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Dining with Charles Laughton on the Train

Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton’s widow, actress Elsa Lanchester, recalled that he had a couple of telling experiences on cross-country trains.
“Once, when Charles was traveling across the United States on the Super Chief in the late thirties, he sat in the dining car opposite a couple,” she wrote. “They were a nice, middle-aged, middle-class husband and wife, and Charles got into a conversation with them. The husband explained that he was in the wholesale dolls-underwear business.
“‘And you’re a famous actor, aren’t you?’ he asked.
His wife piped up, ‘But what do you do in real life, Mr. Laughton?’”
Lanchester wrote, “Charles was a moral man who was shocked by himself, so that he suffered the painful guilts of a highly moral individual. He could laugh at moral contradictions in others, but he couldn’t laugh at the paradoxes in himself. But he could roar with laughter when he told this story:
“On another of his trips across the country, talking to a couple in the dining car, Charles asked if they went to the theatre much in New York.
“ ‘No, we don’t go to plays nowadays,’ the husband answered. ‘We don’t approve of the immoral language.’
“Charles inquired, ‘May I ask, what is your work, your profession?’
“ ‘Oh,’ answered his wife, ‘my husband is in atomic research.’”

Friday, May 27, 2016

Steve Ditko's Titans: Destructive and Lovable

I think children are attracted to giant monsters for the same reason they are attracted to superheroes — because small people find it easy to imagine how nice it would be to be much bigger, more colorful and more powerful than all those bossy grown-ups who surround them, eternally barking their strange orders.
But although superheroes essentially founded and sustained the comic book industry, ongoing giant monster characters are pretty much a movie genre. Two of the exceptions were created for Charlton Comics by the great Steve Ditko  — the giant ape Konga (1960-1965) and the amphibious dinosaur Gorgo (1961-1965).
Each ran 23 issues, plus specials — a relatively long run, considering. Loving them both as a child, I didn’t consider how difficult it must have been to write stories for characters who cannot talk and, because of their Brobdingnagian stature, virtually cannot even interact with human beings. Writing tales for Rex the Wonder Dog or the Lone Ranger’s horse Silver must have been a breeze by comparison.
Konga was based on a relatively bad film of the same name, notable for starring Batman butler Michael Gough (it wasn’t his fault). The murderous Konga of the movies was killed off in the first issue, replaced in the rest of the run by a namesake sweet monkey amplified into a sweet but nevertheless formidable giant ape.
Gorgo was based on a relatively good film of the same name, with a plot that lent itself to a sustained comic book series. Gorgo was a giant aquatic reptile captured, like King Kong, for exhibition. What his captors didn’t know was that he was only a child, and that his truly titanic mommy — as big as Big Ben, and therefore 300 feet high — would let nothing stop her in her attempt to rescue him. This was one of those rare giant monsters movies with a happy ending in which the monsters won.
Gorgo was a touching tale of mother love, like Stella Dallas, and Konga was the poignant saga of a lost boy, like Pinocchio. No wonder they worked so well.

When the Right Hated Lucy: The Red Hair Scare

At 24, Lucille Ball had signed a Communist Party membership card to please her socialist grandfather, Fred Hunt. Unknowingly, she had also signed on for a nightmare.
The I Love Lucy show aired during the McCarthy era, and in 1953 ruthless right wingers were determined to use the “scandal” to destroy the show and its star. It took all of Desi Arnaz’s PR wiles to quell the storm. He joked that “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that isn’t legitimate.”
In Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball, Stefan Kanfer wrote, “Lucy and Desi made no more public statements, going about their business as if nothing had happened, resentful of fair-weather friends and acquaintances who made themselves scarce, and grateful to the handful who went out of their way to express their support. First to pay a call was comedian Lou Costello. Lucy thought of him as an acquaintance more than a pal; she had only been on his radio show a few times. But there he was sitting in the garden, and when Lucy asked him why he was in evidence, Costello replied: ‘You just go about your business. I’m just hanging out here for the day. I thought you might need a friend about now.’ Jack Oakie, Lucy’s costar in the old days, showed up; so did Lionel Barrymore, crippled by arthritis, who visited in a wheelchair.”
A force more powerful than even the House Un-American Activities Committee finally vaporized the storm clouds entirely, and that was the Nielsen and Trendex overnight ratings. I Love Lucy was still the number one show, and a Los Angeles Times headline cheered: “Everybody Still Loves Lucy.” President Eisenhower invited the couple to the White House, and all was well.
But not with Lucy, not entirely. “She could never quite relax after her experience with the congressmen and the fallout that came from their investigation,” Kanfer wrote. “A signature on an old piece of paper had been enough to justify her most pathological fears: one’s livelihood and social position could indeed vanish overnight, and in the end (not) money nor love nor public relations would be powerful enough to keep the jackals away.” 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

What Captain America Is All About

When I think of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee at the peak of their storytelling powers, I turn to 1968 and the Tales of Suspense storyline that culminated in Captain America 100, the first title devoted to the Star-Spangled Avenger’s adventures in 14 years.
His lady love in peril unknown to him while disguised as a Nazi secret agent, Cap tackled a redoubt of the Nazi super villain Baron Zemo, the man who had seemingly killed his partner Bucky and who now wielded a space death ray that threatened the planet.
Odds against him, Cap was teamed with an African prince who was the world’s first black superhero — an irony given the fact that Steve Rogers’ archenemy was dedicated to subjugation of “inferior races,” whether black or Jewish.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

From the Pages of 'Ahem' Comics

If you ever run into anyone who wants to know the meaning of “subliminal,” you can just show them this. “Oh, whatever will we do? If only Master Man were here to save us with his giant hose!”

The Challenge of 'I Love Lucy'

Behind the cameras at the filming of the classic sitcom 'I Love Lucy'
When I Love Lucy began, the wealthiest person on the set was the cameraman.
Well, the director of photography, really. German native Karl Freund had filmed Dracula and Murders in the Rue Morgue, and won an Oscar for The Good Earth. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz knew him from the film Du Barry Was a Lady, and knew he’d invented a popular light meter, and that he certainly didn’t need to do a sitcom. Yet that’s what Desi wanted him to do.
In Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball, Stefan Kanfer noted that Desi wanted to stage the show as a play, filmed in front of a live audience of 300 with three cameras that were to be synchronized on one sound track. The film could therefore be easily edited from master shot to medium shot to close-up.
That couldn’t be done, Freund told him. Those shots would all have to be lit differently for decent quality.
“Well, I know that nobody has done it up to now, but I figured that if there was anybody in the world who could do it, it would be Karl Freund,” Desi replied.
Intrigued by the project, “Papa” Freund ultimately  signed on for union scale. “Papa was loaded anyway,” Desi said. “He could buy and sell Lucy and me three or four times. The money he had made out of the light meter alone, plus a lot of acreage in orange trees he owned in the San Fernando Valley, made him a man of considerable means. The challenge was what got him, and that’s what I was counting on.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Trump's Triumph Is the Shame of the Press

I remember how the U.S. corporate news media hacks sneered at the truth-seeking journalistic idealism of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom," as if all we sophisticated observers agree that a virtue is really, of course, a flaw. Trump's triumph is the result of their amoral philosophy in practice.

A Flighty Super Heroine Takes Flight

One of the founding members of the Avengers was a woman, even though she was too small to see.
That was an inadvertent ironic comment on the status of women in the early 1960s (note that over in Marvel’s original team superhero title, The Fantastic Four, the founding female member was invisible).
But women were gaining ground, little by little, even in comic books aimed primarily at boys. In the 1940s, Superman had been followed by Wonder Woman and Batman by Black Cat. Captain Marvel and Hawkman gained distaff heroic companions in Mary Marvel and Hawkgirl. The trend continued into the 1950s and 1960s with Batwoman, Supergirl, a new Hawkgirl, Fly Girl and the Wasp.
She was Janet van Dyne, a seemingly flighty, flirtatious heiress who became the crime-fighting partner and romantic companion of Henry Pym, Ant-Man, beginning in Tales to Astonish 44 (1963). The feature was then only a half-dozen issues old, and the story gave us our first real background on Pym as well. It turned out he’d been married to a woman who’d murdered by communist agents, and was nursing a lonely, broken heart. Not a story Janet van Dyne could resist, as it turned out.
Permitting Pym to alter her genetic structure so she could grow wings when she shrank, the Wasp joined Ant-Man’s fight to destroy an extraterrestrial giant gas monster that had been unleashed on New York City after killing her scientist father.
Although the Wasp’s ongoing portrayal as slightly ditsy and man-hungry might be seen as sexist, it actually made the character more vivid than other rather bland females in comics at the time. In any case, it was all later revealed as a pose when she became an effective leader of the Avengers.
Janet had an appealing and distinctive joie de vivre, and was almost impossible to dislike. There was at least one male with whom she wasn’t about to flirt, however — Spider-Man. Their instantaneous mutual antipathy was attributed to the natural enmity between spiders and wasps.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Where No Actor Had Gone Before

Researching his book Star Trek Memories, William Shatner asked Leonard Nimoy how playing Mr. Spock had affected him.
“I was, in a way, in deep isolation, and having a tough time,” Nimoy replied. “The character isolated me, and I think that during the course of a day on the set, I probably projected a certain kind of indifference, intolerance, frigidity, whatever.
Leonard Nimoy
“I remember one day we were all sitting around waiting for a set to be lit, and I was sitting there totally stone-faced and out of it. One of our actresses said, ‘Oh-oh, Leonard’s in his Spock bag.’ I was even told one time that one of our producers said, ‘Watch out for Nimoy, he’s a cold, calculating fucker.’
“But this was almost to be expected in that nature abhors a vacuum. When a person shows a personality that seems to be devoid of any clear signal of what he or she is thinking, people project into that whatever they perceive. To some people, I was probably threatening, remote and distant, all of that, I’m sure.
“I actually took great pride in being the only one who was not laughing when a great joke was being told. It just served to confirm that I was successfully staying in character. You know, to make me laugh would have been to suggest that I’m like everybody else. I’m not like everybody else.
“So I prepared to go on stage by getting into character long before it was time to make my entrance. I didn’t believe it was possible to be ‘Person A’ offstage and ‘Person B’ as soon as you got within the sightlines of the camera. I just didn’t believe it was possible. What I did believe in was thorough preparation and maintaining the condition of the character during the lighting, during the scene shifting, during the makeup touch-ups and so forth.
“So I probably was sending off signals of hostility and of being unfeeling, perhaps superior, but that was my intention. And I did all of that because I thought there was a wonderful springboard here, a great opportunity because Bill, as Kirk, was always so energetic in the work, so forthcoming, so definite, even defiant. ‘I’m going to DO THIS! I’ve made up my mind!’ That energy allowed me tremendous opportunities to play reflective. Y’know, McCoy could play the angry quibbling argumentative hand-wringer, ‘Jim, are you CRAZY?!’ and that was great for him. With all that in place, I could play, ‘Hmmm, isn’t that interesting?’ and the relationships worked together wonderfully.’”
Spock didn’t work as well at home, however. Nimoy said he had trouble shedding his Vulcan detachment even on weekends, and probably seemed distant to his wife and kids.

The Good News Is, You've Won the Lottery...

Illustration by Anita Stevens Rundles
Americans all seem to want to win the lottery, even though the idea is a ludicrous waste of time and a distraction from anything that might improve their actual lives. What they don’t realize is that they’re already living inside a “lottery” — Shirley Jackson’s.
At Joseph Bryan Judd’s book store yesterday, I bought a book of Jackson’s stories, including The Lottery, because I realized that it’s Trump’s America summed up — happy small-town families selecting innocent people to torture to death in a ritual that satisfies their smug tribal traditions and vanities. Then they go shopping.
The now-classic tale inspired surprisingly violent denunciations from New Yorker readers when it was published in 1948.
“It had simply never occurred to me that these millions and millions of people might be so far from being uplifted that they would sit down and write me letters I was downright scared to open,” Jackson said. “Of the 300-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only 13 that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don't you write something to cheer people up?”
Those stones struck too close to home, didn’t they?

Saturday, May 21, 2016

"Oh, So You Want to Play Rough, Eh?"

The founding members of the Justice Society of America ranged from a crime-crushing ghost who was virtually omnipotent and a man who wielded a wish-fulfilling Aladdin’s ring to a stout, tough-talking matron whose mask was a pot with eye holes.
Also on the lower end of that power scale was a short college kid whose power was lifting weights — Al Pratt, the Atom. But with something to prove, he was a scrapper, here beating the hell out of a gang of crooked lumberjacks.
Introduced as a backup feature in All-American Comics 19 (Oct. 1940), the Atom appeared until 1951, outlasting many more powerful Golden Age characters.
In the summer of 1945, the world learned just how powerful the real atom was, and by the end of his run the presciently named Atom had acquired a new costume and “atomic” super strength.
“The art in this story, from All-American Comics #71 (1945), is by Jon Chester Kozlak, and is written by Joe Greene,” notes Pappy’s Golden Age Comics Blogzine. “In addition the Grand Comics Database tells us the editors are Sheldon Mayer and Julius Schwartz.”
“Anyone who knows the Atom in his 1961 incarnation knows the two characters have nothing in common. The second Atom can make himself small and retain his mighty wallop. I have said that DC used the old name, but appropriated the powers of Doll Man. Doll Man had been moribund since 1953, and then the publisher, Quality Comics, was sold to DC in '56. Doll Man was a direct influence on the modern Atom, but at least they owned the rights to the character they were swiping from.”

The Way Marvel Was

Aware of the newly emerging, nostalgia-driven comic book collector’s market, Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee was quick to capitalize on it with 25-giant giant reprint titles like Marvel Tales (1964), Marvel Collector’s Item Classics (1965), Fantasy Masterpieces (1966) and Marvel Super Heroes (1966).
Because the whole “Marvel universe” had begun in 1961 with The Fantastic Four, Lee was reprinting “classics” that were then only about three years old. But the ever-expanding popularity of Marvel meant there were already plenty of fans who’d never read those earliest issues.
DC Comics had discovered the popularity of superhero reprints with the first Superman Annual (1960), the first Batman Annual (1961) and Secret Origins (1961). But despite the new collectors’ market, DC was reluctant to reprint material from the 1930s and 1940s, fearing it would appear artistically “crude.”
Lee, on the other hand, embraced the Timely Comics roots of his universe, quickly reprinting the earliest Captain America stories — including his own first story for comics, written when he was still a teenager (the two-page text piece Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge from Captain America Comics 3, May 1941) — and the famed first clash of the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch from Marvel Mystery Comics in 1940.
Reading that tale, Marvel fans discovered that the company’s trigger-happy heroes had been introducing themselves to each other with slugfests from the very beginning. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Et Tu, American News Media?

You know, the American news media wasn't given the constitutional protection of the First Amendment so they could roll over for a fascist dictatorship in the United States without even putting up a fight for the truth. Just thought I'd point that out.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Elmer Gantry: The Pope of the Tea Party

“Too unreflective ever to know himself, too incapable of thought ever to be really a hypocrite, Elmer is honored and beloved of most of those with whom he comes in contact because he is made of the same coarse clay as they, because no learning, no integrity and no spirituality sets him apart from those to whom he is paid to minister,” wrote Joseph Wood Krutch, describing Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.
“He is the type most fit to occupy the pulpit supported by materialists like himself to whom the church is half the defender of petty privileges against subversive forces and half the instrument through which a nominal respect may be paid to virtues inconvenient to practice.”
In 1927, Krutch couldn’t know he was also describing the “Christianity” of 21st century Tea Baggers to a T. 
Fundamentalist Christianity pays lip service to love, but smacks its lips at delicious, mouth-watering hatred, which rhymes with “sacred.”

Trump Don't Need No Stinkin' Principles

Donald Trump’s supporters are unprincipled, and I mean that literally. They have no principles. They have only appetites and fears that they pretend are principles.
They’re scared of black people so they pretend black people are criminals. They want their Social Security and Medicare, so they pretend those programs aren’t socialistic. They claim to worship the Bible and the Constitution, know next to nothing about those documents and ignore any parts of them that might inhibit their lusts. 
Presuming belief implies conviction, they can’t be said to “believe” anything. They forage vacantly on tainted fodder from Fox News until something spooks them. Then they stampede like a herd of rabid cattle.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Vulpine Victories of the Ever-Vanishing Fox

Quick. Name a newspaper photographer who takes crime scene pictures while in his superheroic secret identity, and whose initials are PP.
You said “the Fox,” right? Because he was the original.
Combine the occupation of Spider-Man, the costume of the Black Panther and Wildcat, the girlfriend of Superman, the vehicle of Batman and the name of Zorro, and what do you get?  The Fox, an MLJ superhero who debuted in June 1940 and was created to battle the KKK, of all things.
Newly hired at the Daily Globe, photographer and former Penn State athlete Paul Patten is assigned to cover the Night Riders, a gang of hooded terrorists obviously meant to represent the Ku Klux Klan.
As a means of getting photos, he invents his crimefighting identity of the Fox, complete with belt camera. Accompanying him on his adventures is a feisty girl reporter with an alliterative name, Ruth Ransom.
The character’s feature ended March 1942 with the last issue of MLJ’s Golden Age Blue Ribbon Comics. But ironically, two months before artist Irwin Hasen — who’d created the Fox — had teamed up with Bill Finger to create DC’s Wildcat for the first issue of Sensation Comics. The costumes were strikingly similar.
For an obscure superhero, the Fox has had a fair number of revivals — in the Silver Age, in the 1980s and again in the 21st century in a miniseries created by artist Dean Haspiel and the talented comics writer Mark Waid. He’s had a Foxmobile, a superhero team and even a She-Fox with whom to share his adventures.
In his Mighty Comics iteration in the mid-1960s, where I first saw him, the Fox was said to be Paul Patten Jr., son of the original. The superhero pines for disco dancer Delilah Monaco, but she’s interested only in his alter ego. Appearing in Mighty Crusaders 4 and 5 in 1966, the Fox joined a super group called the Ultra-Men which also featured the Golden Age stalwarts the Web and Captain Flag.
The Fox deserves at least a footnote in history for having the weirdest-ass victory yell in comics: “Yah yah yah yah yaaahh!”

Monday, May 9, 2016

Batman: An Echo of 'The Bat Whispers'

The 1930 film even has a Bat Signal
Watching the expressionistically filmed, Art Deco-ish opening to The Bat Whispers (1930), it’s easy to see how this could have inspired the Batman. Here we have a mysterious. masked, black-cloaked, roof-stalking, rope-swinging “Bat Man” who, like the Joker, taunts the police before pulling off his daring crimes.
Oddly enough that would be the same year that young Philip Wylie published his science fiction novel Gladiator, the direct inspiration for Superman.

Mighty Mouse: The Mouse That Soared

The Terrytoons movie cartoon character Mighty Mouse, who debuted in 1942, was an attempt to combine the appeal of two characters who were massively popular then — Disney’s Mickey Mouse, who’d debuted in 1928, and DC’s Superman, who’d appeared a decade later.
The idea was even more obvious at the start, when Mighty Mouse was called “Super Mouse” (in his origin cartoon, The Mouse of Tomorrow, where he acquired super powers by eating super cheese in that amazing new kind of store, a supermarket). He sported a red-and-blue costume identical to Superman’s, and fought inventive menaces like Frankenstein’s Cat, a lion and bat cats from Pandora’s Box.
The other "Super Mouse"
In 1944, seven cartoons into the series, Paul Terry learned that another Super Mouse had appeared in 1942, published by Ned Pines. Terry retroactively changed his character’s name to Mighty Mouse, and costumed him in his familiar yellow and red.
The character hit the peak of his considerable popularity in 1955, when CBS purchased the Terrytoons studio from Paul Terry. Mighty Mouse Playhouse aired Saturday mornings Dec. 10, 1955, until Sept. 2, 1967, mostly using Terry’s existing film library. The first superhero familiar to many American children in the 1950s and 1960s was therefore Mighty Mouse.
Mighty Mouse comic books were published from 1946 on, first by Timely (Marvel), then by St. John Publications (1947–1955), Pines Comics (1956–1959), Dell Comics (1959–1961), Gold Key Comics and Dell Comics again (1964–1968).
The Mouse of Tomorrow’s earthbound Dell comic book adventures — slightly more sophisticated than the animated cartoons, but still meant for small children — tended to be mundane cats-and-robbers affairs. But all that changed in 1961 when Dell published a one-shot, square-bound 25-cent giant issue called Mighty Mouse in Outer Space.
When Mighty Mouse’s friends are abducted by a flying saucer, he’s off on an 80-page space chase, fighting gas giants on Jupiter (get it?), dinosaurs and other nifty menaces. He even teamed up with bat-winged cats on Mars until he realized that their enemies were flying albino mice.
And Mighty Mouse finally thwarted the evil space cats’ invasion plans by the tried-and-true ploy employed by superheroes from Thor to Iron Man to the Jaguar to Superman. He convinced the invaders that all earth beings were as mighty as he was.
If the adventures of Mighty Mouse were generally a bit cheesy, Mighty Mouse in Outer Space was the finest cheddar.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Don't Get Into the Lifeboat

New Yorker cartoon by Edward Steed
Beware of “lifeboat ethics.” You’ll hear the argument made that the authorities ought to be able to torture people because someday someone may know the location of a ticking H-bomb. But comic-book scenarios aren’t useful guides to public policy, and some practices — such as torture, child labor and slavery — are so inherently evil that they destroy the very societies that attempt to “benefit” from them.
We’re not in the Donner Party, so put away your recipe book, the fava beans and the Chianti.

The Wrenching Misadventures of Capt. Sprocket

Precisely because melodrama and farce are merely two sides of the same coin — like opera and musical comedy — superheroes have been prime targets for parody from the start.
The concept was parodied even before Superman arrived with characters like Popeye, and immediately afterward with characters like the Red Tornado (Ma Hunkle) and Supersnipe, “the boy with the most comic books in the world.”
The 1940s saw funny animal parodies like Mighty Mouse, Super Rabbit and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, and, in 1952, the superheroes were among the first targets of Mad Magazine.
Captain Sprocket bowed in Archie's Madhouse 25 (April, 1963). That title offered mostly lighthearted science fiction and monster parodies, Sabrina the Teenage Witch being the most famous example. The Universal film monsters of the 1930s and 1940s were immensely popular then, having been introduced to a vast new audience of youngsters through the late shows on local television.
At 9, I enjoyed the misadventures of the mildly inept but ultimately effective captain, who began as a red-suited super-spaceman. The name “Sprocket” suggested the space-age term “rocket” while remaining suitably silly. He swiftly evolved into an orange-suited, caped superhero of a deliberately generic brand.
In fact, I subscribed to Archie’s Madhouse because of Captain Sprocket, even though his appearances were irregular. By age 9, you can still be awestruck by superheroes while also recognizing their inherent absurdity, and I believe I found Captain Sprocket to be a means of splitting the difference.
“Captain Sprocket may be the superhero who had the longest continual run at MLJ/Archie Comics, though it’s possible The Shield, who had a surprisingly long career in the back pages of Pep Comics, edges him out,” observed comics historian Don Markstein. “But most of the company's ‘40s stars, who came and went in a couple of years, aren’t in the running. Nor is their biggest ‘60s star, The Fly, who ran longer than most of the company's super guys but had a gap between incarnations. And yet, Sprocket has never had his own title, never been a member of The Mighty Crusaders, and isn’t taken very seriously by either readers or creators.”
Captain Sprocket did, however, inspire at least one more superhero parody. When Archie Andrews became Pureheart the Powerful in the superhero boom of 1965, his costume turned out to be almost identical to the good captain’s.
Captain Sprocket finally found himself on a super team in Archie 655 (May 2014). In this parody of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Sprocket joined with other notably obscure Archie Comics characters like Cat Girl, Super Duck, the vegetarian vampire Captain Pumpernik and Cosmo the Merry Martian (as well as Archie and Jughead) in the Good Guys of the Galaxy.

Friday, May 6, 2016

High Noon for Captain America

Let me put it this way: at the end of Captain America: Civil War last evening, the packed house burst into spontaneous, sustained applause.
With the world audience now thoroughly familiar with these two dozen Marvel superheroes through a dozen successful films, truly talented filmmakers can play those characters like instruments in a symphony. And this is Marvel’s Mozart.
We’re given a morally complex story about collateral damage, emotionally nuanced characters, suspense, tragic ironies, “hooray” moments, the most charming iteration of Spider-Man yet seen (in Tom Holland) and the single best superhero melee battle ever filmed.
I think the best of the many fine performances may be Robert Downey Jr.’s. Matt Mattingly and I were talking about how perfect Downey’s acting is in this. His Tony Stark is a completely recognizable and believable human being, and we’re talking about a damn comic book superhero here, people who do not and cannot exist.
Chris Evans' acting is dead on, too, even though the realistic portrayal of steadfast, compassionate heroism doesn’t give him a wide range to play. Downey's Iron Man is also heroic, but erratic around the edges, driven and slightly depressive.
As the Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson plays a specifically sane, female counterpoint to the male violence, cool and compassionate. Even the minor roles are well cast — for example, Alfre Woodard, an actress who can convey moral force with PERFECT conviction. They need to do more with her, and apparently will in Marvels' Luke Cage TV series.
I love the way the theme of the moral weight of “collateral damage” and vengeance is woven and rewoven into the plot, a golden story thread to follow.
This is High Noon for Captain America, in more ways than one. And I can’t imagine a more satisfying showdown. This is one of those rare movies where you keep catching yourself thinking, “Just LOOK at how much I’m enjoying this!”

Thursday, May 5, 2016

How the News Media Will Play the Trump Card

The U.S. corporate news media spent months convincing America that George W. Bush was not the authoritarian, entitled, warmongering alcoholic cretin he appeared to be, then it declared him the winner in Florida when he wasn't, creating the presumption he should be appointed president. And he was.
And now, the American corporate news media will spend months convincing America that Trump is not the narcissistic, mentally ill Nazi he appears to be, and the Republican politicians who now allegedly repudiate him will be bought off — because they are all greedy, power-sucking whores — and we'll hear an AWFUL lot more about the pearl-clutching scandal of the emails and the shocking betrayal in Benghazi. 
In this nation, what was “unthinkable” yesterday is merely accepted, with an indifferent shrug, tomorrow. That's what propaganda can do for — and perhaps to — you.