Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Can-Do Camelot Era in DC Comics

The scientific and social optimism of the Kennedy era was perfectly reflected, for children, in DC Comics’ Strange Adventures. I’d argue that the title’s best and sunniest issues appeared during those “New Frontier” years.
And one of them was Strange Adventures 137 (Feb. 1962), with Parade of the Space-Toys! cover-featured. The Murphy Anderson cover is almost hypnotic in its balance and appeal, with colorful, fascinating super-scientific military toys marching, rolling and flying down the street to save the Earth.
Space troops, rocket soldiers, futuristic tanks, missiles and robots — just the stuff to superheat the imagination of a little boy.
The cover story by Anderson and writer Gardner Fox tells us how an alien neuro-ray eliminates human aggression, ending the war in Southeast Asia, juvenile gang rumbles and even prize fights. Unfortunately, it also eliminates the human will to resist the aliens’ invasion.
Luckily, bespectacled scientist and toy soldier hobbyist Dave Gibson will be able to save the day with the help of a friendly alien, Zard Yat, whose “panacure beam” restores Gibson’s will to resist. Zard Yat telekinetically animates Gibson’s toy soldiers, outfitting them with microelectronic bombs to be used against the alien fleet.
As JFK himself appears in silhouette to rally the world, the tiny toys defeat the invasion force, and human aggression returns as the neuro-ray wears off.
But the encounter with alien attack has taught our species its lesson about uniting against a common threat. The juvenile rivalries are now settled on the playing field, and the war in Southeast Asia is ended.
If only.
The optimistic themes that characterized Julius Schwartz’ DC science fiction titles are continued in the next story, Meteor-Rider of the Universe!, drawn by Carmine Infantino from a script by Fox.
Another heroic scientist, astronomer and professor Bill Horne, finds a glowing meteor that sends him a telepathic cry for help. Inside is Ptandol, a green insectoid alien scientist from the planet Fralimar who has been in suspended animation for millions of years.
Ptandol’s planet was destroyed by a space vortex that now threatens Earth, a menace he could tell us how to thwart — and yet he can’t, because he has fallen into a life-sustaining sleep.
However, knowing there is a solution is enough to enable Horne to reason it out without awakening and killing Ptandol.
Again, human ingenuity, pluck and compassion prove equal to any threat, and the last panel of the story implies that Horne will have more adventures with his newly awakened new pal Ptandol.
A super-intelligent green alien insect friend/pet who sits on your shoulder like a space-age Jiminy Cricket? Sign me up!
Note the DC writers’ and editors’ adroitness at working childish wish fulfillment into each story — an alien genie who can bring your toy soldiers to life, a colorful insect friend and, finally, a friendly robot.
Writer John Broome and artist Mike Sekowsky provided the third tale, The Case of the Robot Brother. Star Hawkins, a humorously cynical, down-at-heel 1940s-style private eye operating in the late 21st century, had been appearing in Strange Adventures since issue 114 (March 1960).
What made the series work was his loyal, often-worried and always endearing secretary, a robot named Ilda (a wink at Mike Hammer’s secretary Velda, who was frequently winked at). In this adventure, Ilda’s robot brother has gone criminal, literally because he has a screw loose.
“If the series had been done completely straight, it would have come off as hackneyed,” comics historian Don Markstein noted. “But Ilda’s dual role as both friend and companion, and pawnable asset in times of stress, set the tone for a wonky take on the genre. The detective did serious work in solving his cases, but always got chuckles out of the readers along the way.”
That adds up to three perfectly satisfying stories in a single issue of this anthology title, at the then-current rate of four cents a story. Not bad.

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