Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Day Marvel Comics Stood Still

In guided imagery, asked to picture a wise being, I always think of Michael Rennie as Klaatu.
He starred in my favorite science fiction film, 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, as an alien ambassador who lands on the Washington mall and is attacked. Captured, Klaatu escapes easily to disguise himself as human and explore our planet. Befriending a boy, Klaatu turns not to political leaders but to a thinly disguised Albert Einstein to get across his message of universal peace and civilization.
When he’s shot and (temporarily) killed, Klaatu sends his friend Patricia Neal to speak the words “Klaatu barada nikto” to his giant robot Gort, who will otherwise incinerate humanity for its violence against him.
The film, brilliantly directed by Robert Wise, was based on the Harry Bates story Farewell to the Master (published in the October, 1940, issue of Astounding magazine).
Twenty-two years later, Marvel Comics’ Roy Thomas secured the short story rights for a comic book adaptation by penciller Ross Andru and inker Wayne Howard in Worlds Unknown 3 (June, 1973).  Thomas had been a fan of the film since childhood, but Andru had never seen it — a fact that insured a fresh visual interpretation for the comic.
This 65-year-old film, with its stern warning about the human capacity for panic, prejudice and mass violence, remains both entertaining and meaningful. Patricia Neal, who expected the film would be B-movie crap, was delighted to be wrong.
“My first film of the new Fox contract was going to be a science fiction thriller called The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the Oscar-winning actress wrote in her autobiography. “I was not encouraged in the least, but I did not want to begin my career at Fox by going on suspension. The director was Robert Wise, who had been good to me in the past. He believed in the project and wanted me to do it. I am very glad I said yes. I worked with an old friend, Hugh Marlowe, and a new one, Michael Rennie.
“I do think it’s the best science fiction film ever made, although I admit I sometimes had a difficult time keeping a straight face. Michael would patiently watch me bite my lips to avoid giggling and ask, with true British reserve, ‘Is that the way you intend to play it?’”
Neal needed whatever laughs she could get in 1951. The press was busy hounding her about her ongoing affair with actor Gary Cooper.
“I was no longer the young darling of Hollywood,” she recalled. “I was the unsympathetic side of a triangle. Gary sensed my increasing anxiety and grew more tender toward me.”
“The press was relentless now. They followed me everywhere, even onto the set, but I would not speak to them. The publicity department made up responses for me to their questions about Gary. So in print, I could be vague (‘We’re just good friends’) or cute (‘If I were in love with him, I’d be silly to advertise it. After all, he is a married man.’) or even haughty (‘I do wish people would find something else to talk about’).
“Dear Michael, who was as exasperated as I was, thought I should honor their questions with my favorite line from the film.
“ ‘Miss Neal, did you break up Gary Cooper’s marriage?’ “ ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’
In novels like Slan, The World of Null-A and The Silkie, A.E. Van Vogt explored the superman concept. The strange left turns of his stories are sometimes criticized, but he wrote his fiction through a hypnagogic technique, taking brief naps to come up with new plot angles. I find the dream logic of his stories intriguing.
Some dreams are, of course, nightmares. Van Vogt often explored the theme of monsters as well as supermen. He offered unique takes on the science fiction monster genre in novels such as Voyage of the Space Beagle, a clear precursor to Star Trek.
The story here, Black Destroyer, was published in the July 1939 issue of Astounding and adapted for Marvel Comics by Roy Thomas, Dan Adkins and Jim Mooney in Worlds Unknown 5 (Feb. 1974). The tentacled, cunning super-panther Coeurl is not the kind of kitty you want to bring home, but he ends up on board the exploratory starship Space Beagle anyway. The events that follow were echoed in the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien.


  1. I got a comment from Roy Thomas on this one:

    Hi Dan--
    Thanks. I certainly agree that "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is at least one of the very best SF movies ever made. I loved it when I first saw it as a kid of ten... and I've never failed to enjoy it in the dozen or probably more times I've seen it since then. I was truly honored that Harry Bates let us adapt it, since there wasn't much money involved. Hell, for all I know or knew, 20th had bought those rights, but Harry said they were his and I decided to take his word for it.


  2. Roy also said:

    Hi Dan --

    Thanks. It was a bit weird to deal with an alien, tentacled cat... but I liked the fact that it anticipated "Star Trek." As, later, did the film "Forbidden Planet."