Thursday, April 27, 2017

Man of Tomorrow, Hero of Yesterday

Superman 107 (Aug. 1956) dissects the term “superhero” in a surprisingly thoughtful way.
In Rip Van Superman, the hero is left comatose while saving Metropolis from an out-of-control nuclear reactor. As Lois Lane sobs nearby, Superman is publicly sealed in a glass display in hopes that he’ll awaken soon. But he doesn’t…
The Man of Tomorrow revives in 2956 to discover a world full of supermen who’ve been granted his powers by “amazing vitamins and hormones.”
However, like Gold Key’s later Magnus Robot Fighter, Superman discovers that the inhabitants of the 30th century have been rendered uncertain and helpless by centuries of robot servitude.
When the evil scientist Drago threatens to send the moon, now a prison, crashing into Earth, humanity panics. Superman springs to the rescue —this time not with his powers, which are commonplace, but with his heroic example, which isn’t.
“Listen to me!” Superman tells them. “Your robots can’t help you now! YOU — YOU’RE the masters of your destiny! You’ve been ‘asleep’ longer than I have! It’s time you awakened!”
Organizing the supermen into a force that can push the moon back into orbit, Superman confronts three of Drago’s thugs.  Outnumbered by enemies as strong as he is, Superman now needs inspiration, and finds it in the example of his friend Batman. Using judo and other combat techniques Batman has taught him, Superman subdues his foes.
Crisis averted, Superman is returned to 1956 in an experimental time machine.
The classic Superman artist Wayne Boring drew this tale, which emphasizes the value of character over strength. And it’s no surprise to learn that the writer was Batman’s co-creator, Bill Finger.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Inhuman Torch: Before Marvel was Marvel

Just before Marvel was Marvel, the comic book company was a nameless but distinctive and seemingly endless parade of giant monsters.
Stan Lee was weary of it, but the talents of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko enlivened the standard twist-ending plots and kept those dimes coming in.
Substances and species were switched every month to supply new rampaging creatures. A water monster in April, a smoke monster in May. A giant ant in June’s issue, and a giant lizard in July’s.
Disposable, all. Yet one of them — a tree monster named Groot — has become an immensely popular movie character for Disney-Marvel. How ironic, as they say in the comics.
Marvel’s past was recalled and its future foreshadowed n Strange Tales 76 (August 1960). This time, the substance was fire. A giant flaming alien named Dragoom terrorizes Earth until he’s conned by movie special effects in a wrapup that’s implausible even by comic book standards.
But who cared? The fun was in Kirby’s art. He had a trick of having his giant alien invaders describe the horrific world-destroying plans they had for humanity, giving him the opportunity to draw several big, entertaining disaster scenes that really had nothing to do with the plot.
In 1960, most readers were too young to recognize Dragoom as a monstrous variation on the theme of one of Marvel’s most popular Golden Age superheroes, the Human Torch. He hadn’t been seen since Human Torch 38 (August 1954). And they couldn’t know he would be seen again, soon, in his fresh, edgy teenage incarnation in Fantastic Four 1 (November 1961). 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Panthers, Widows and Wolves: Marvel Widens the Spectrum

Superheroes represent an ideal of human perfectibility, and Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and the artists at Marvel Comics clearly thought that ideal ought to embrace a wider spectrum of humanity.
So they introduced the world’s first black superhero,  (the Black Panther in Fantastic Four 52, July 1966), then launched a female superhero into her own solo feature (the Black Widow in Amazing Adventures 1, Aug. 1970) then unveiled an Asian superhero (Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu in Special Marvel Edition 15, Dec. 1973). And in between, they introduced a Native American superhero (Red Wolf in Avengers 80, Sept. 1970).
Created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema, Red Wolf was William Talltrees, a young man whose Cheyenne family was extorted and murdered by corrupt businessman Cornelius van Lunt. To avenge them, he adopted the legendary persona of Red Wolf, gaining vaguely defined powers from the Native American god Owayodata and a partner, an actual wolf named Lobo.
A 19th century incarnation of Red Wolf was presented when the superhero was featured in his own short-lived title.
I always suspected that had Red Wolf’s power set been a little more unique and sharply defined, he might have proven more durable.
“Red Wolf marked the first time that an America Indian had assumed the role (of mysterious avenger), and it certainly should be remembered at least for breaking ground in a new direction, even if it proved temporarily unsuccessful,” Maurice Horn wrote in Comics of the American West.
In the movies at roughly the same time, actor and writer Tom Laughlin introduced his half-Indian ex-Green Beret avenger, Billy Jack.
“We must applaud Red Wolf for many reasons,” wrote Michael A. Sheyahshe in Native Americans in Comic Books. “The comic contains a character who is the first major Native superhero, one who is a complex character, more human than many other Indigenous characters, and one that even has his own sidekick.”
Of course, DC Comics had already introduced a Native American superhero — wincingly called Super Chief — almost a decade before. But that, as they say, is another story…

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Weird Science: He Walked Among Us

A strange visitor from another planet who uses his superior powers to aid ordinary people — the very premise that kicked off superhero comics in 1938.
But in the darker and more sophisticated storytelling pioneered by EC Comics a little more than a decade later, a different variation would be played on that theme.
In He Walked Among Us (Weird Science 13, May-June 1952), writers Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein and artist Wally Wood tell us the tale of Jerome Kraft, a 2963 space explorer whose mission is to study an alien planet inhabited by primitive humanoids.
Using his advanced technology, Kraft is able to feed the hungry with dehydrated food pills and heal the sick with wonder drugs. But the high priests don’t like the idea of Kraft helping the “rabble” of the lower caste, and demand that he only aid the rich…
Two thousand years later, when terran space explorers finally return to the planet, they find it inhabited by “Kraftians” who decorate their cities with, and wear, an image of the rack — the torture device upon which the ancient rulers put their savior to death.
The benefactor of humanity and civilization who is repaid by being murdered. It is, as the explorers muse, “…rather a familiar story.”

Friday, April 7, 2017

Who That Masked Man Really Was

When I think of my late father, I often imagine him huddled with some of his 11 brothers and sisters, listening with rapt attention to exciting exploits that wafted to him in his parents’ lonely farmhouse on the prairie.
The wind moans outside but inside, through the static-y crackle, he can hear the distant call.
“In the early days of the western United States, a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when from out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!”
The first of 2,956 radio episodes of The Lone Ranger premiered on the Detroit radio station WXYZ on Jan. 30, 1933, the creation of station owner George W. Trendle and writer Fran Striker.
The immensely popular character eventually branched out to movie serials, feature films, television, novels, a pulp magazine, a comic strip and, of course, comic books.
Dell Comics published 145 issues of a Lone Ranger comic book beginning in 1948. At first, the comic book was just newspaper strip reprints, but original material began in issue 38 (Aug. 1951). It’s testimony to the character’s popularity that his partner Tonto got his own comic book title in 1951, and even his horse Silver landed his own title in 1952. More than 30 issues of each spinoff title were published.
The action in the comic books was muted, too restrained to generate much excitement. But the painted covers were beautiful. Sometimes photo covers featured Clayton Moore from the 1949-57 TV show, which was the highest-rated television program on ABC in the early 1950s.
Thirty years later, my father could recall details of radio episodes he’d heard, remembering how his champion would shoot the guns out of outlaws’ hands, then snap, “You’re not hurt!” when they moaned in protest.
We all have our childhood dream selves. My father’s was the Lone Ranger and mine was Superman. And my mother’s was, of course, Wonder Woman.
That very point got a clever nod in the underrated 2013 Lone Ranger film, which opens in 1933 with a scene of a small boy wearing a cowboy suit and a black domino mask at a carnival sideshow, approaching the now-ancient form of Tonto (Johnny Depp).
“Kemosabe?” Tonto asks hesitantly.
Who was that masked man? That’s who he was, that boy. That’s who he’s always been.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Astro City: Fanfare for the Common Man

One comic book series I can always reread with pleasure is Kurt Busiek’s Astro City.
Debuting in August 1995, the title benefits from art by Alex Ross and Brent Anderson that deftly splits the difference between comic book romanticism and photo-realism.
It features variations on familiar themes: a Superman from the future, a vampire Batman, a winged Wonder Woman, a super-powered family with the initials “FF,” and others. Idiosyncratic comic book conventions — secret identities, kid sidekicks, rogues’ galleries — are also wryly explored.
But its uniqueness lies elsewhere, in its dramatic structure.  The lives of ordinary people are placed in the dramatic foreground, played against a background of superhero melodrama. That structure carries with it an implicit, understated theme — that a meaningful life is not just for special people, but should be available to all.
And amid the comedy and the tragedy, the series has a running undercurrent about compassion and responsibility. Unlike certain Hollywood directors, Busiek understands the ethic that necessarily underpins superhero stories.
In Since the Fire, a former firefighter explains to a young boy why someone must do the job that has cost him considerably.
“And better it’s someone trained, skilled and equipped to have the best chance of getting kids like you out,” he says. “Take a look around. All these people, they’re livin’ their lives, and they do what they do, and they sleep a little easier because of guys like me and the others back there.
“The superheroes flyin’ around, they’re okay. But they can’t always be there. We gotta take care of ourselves…”
“I got 47 people out of burning buildings the last eight months. Three that night.
“A leg’s nothing, not to that. Nothing.”

Thursday, March 30, 2017

H.G. Wells: The Long Reach of the Unseen Hand

The inventive British novelist H.G. Wells contributed several conventions that have become mainstays in superhero comics — among them time travel, interplanetary warfare and, oh joy of joys, invisibility.
The concept of human invisibility is a wish fulfillment fantasy that probably predates recorded history. We can trace it as far back as the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic (which was undoubtedly the model for Tolkien’s One Ring). Plato used the magic ring as a metaphor to explore the question of whether an intelligent person would remain moral if he did not have to fear capture and punishment.
Wells’ answer was a firm “no.” In the novella, originally serialized in Pearson's Weekly in 1897, Wells’ optical scientist Griffin decides to use his power of invisibility to become a national terrorist. Felled by an angry mob, the dying Griffin slowly turns visible again.
In 1977, writer Doug Moench and artists Dino Castrillo and Rudy Messina adapted the story for Marvel Classics Comics. My late friend Roger Slifer was editor.
For an entertaining parlor game, ask your friends which super power they would prefer: invisibility or personal flight? The results will be telling, and generally spark an interesting discussion about expediency, ethics and life goals.
In the This American Life radio program, writer John Hodgman asked a number of people that question. “He finds that how you answer tells a lot about what kind of person you are,” host Ira Glass noted. “And also, no matter which power people choose, they never use it to fight crime.”

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Welcome to Blackwhite America

Under Trump and the Republicans, this nation is sinking into madness.

1964: The Return of Marvel's Missing Monster

From March 1963 to October 1964, the Incredible Hulk wandered in the wilderness, both literally and metaphorically.
After his comic book ended with its 6th issue, he was a monster without a title.
But Stan Lee made skillful use of this tortured former protagonist as an antagonist against the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor and Giant-Man, and that move accomplished two purposes. It kept the Hulk alive in the minds of young readers, and it nurtured their growing sense of a vast, interconnected fictional universe, a Marvel universe.
Namor served the same function at the same time.
Rarely out of sight or mind, the Hulk returned in a new feature in Tales to Astonish 60. Drawn again by Steve Ditko, the Hulk was finally established in the form in which most people now know him — as a scientist turned into a monster by stress, anger, the fight-or-flight response.
Shared titles were necessary in Marvel’s expanding universe, and each of them had its own theme. Tales of Suspense featured the out-and-out superheroes, Captain America and Iron Man. Strange Tales featured two characters on the fringes of the superhero world, Nick Fury and Dr. Strange. And once Giant-Man departed, Tales to Astonish featured the Hulk and the Submariner, two super-antiheroes.

Monday, March 27, 2017

How Stan Lee Rescued a Werewolf

Werewolf by Night was born because Stan Lee stood up to the Comics Code Authority.
Created in 1954 to curb the excesses of horror comics, the code banned sadism, lust, excessive bloodshed, disrespect for authority, sympathy for criminals, physically exaggerated females, werewolves, vampires, zombies and drugs.
Lee challenged the latter prohibition because he was determined to do an anti-drug story in Amazing Spider-Man (May 1971). His widely praised effort led to a loosening of the code’s restrictions that permitted Marvel to introduce Spidey’s foe Morbius the Living Vampire and to publish titles like Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night.
Written by Roy and Jean Thomas and Gerry Conway, the cheekily named Jack Russell was introduced in Marvel Spotlight 2 (Feb. 1972). The basic Jekyll and Hyde/Wolf Man plot structure is one Marvel had been using since its second title, The Incredible Hulk, in 1962.
“The Marvel formula of creating a troubled life to make the character more interesting applied here to Jack; his mother had married an overbearing, manipulative man and neither Jack nor his younger sister Lissa cared much about him,” noted the Marvel Monsters blog. “Jack had never known his true father but didn’t learn of the curse over him until his mother explained it to him on her deathbed after the family’s driver tried to bump her off in a rigged car wreck.”
The Werewolf was a more vicious but less powerful protagonist than the Hulk, caught in a tragic situation familiar to viewers of the old Universal horror movies on TV. What was special was Mike Ploog’s beautifully fluid, cartoony-but-unsilly artwork.
Some artists are a perpetual pleasure to the eye, and Ploog is one of them.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Blue Beetle '67: Who Needs Super Powers?

Having walked away from Spider-Man with issue 38 (July 1966), Steve Ditko, at the height of his powers, was in a perfect position to provide us with a pinnacle in the career of a surprisingly long-lived superhero, the Blue Beetle.
“Surprisingly” because the character began as Fox Comics’ rather cheap rip-off of the popular radio hero Green Hornet in Mystery Men Comics 1 (Aug. 1939).
I could understand criminals being afraid of a hornet. But a beetle?
In his debut, the Blue Beetle posed as a criminal mastermind and felled gangsters with gas, just like the Green Hornet. Quickly re-imagined as beat cop Dan Garret (one T), and empowered by an armored costume and Vitamin 2X, the character gained his own title and even had brief exposure in a Jack Kirby newspaper strip and on radio.
Charlton Comics revived the superhero in the 1950s, and revamped him in 1964. This time, the Beetle was archaeologist Dan Garrett (two Ts) who acquired an array of powers — flight, telepathy, strength, the ability to project lightning and who knows what else — from an Egyptian scarab amulet when he pronounces the magic words “Kaji Dha.”
That’s the character Ditko used as a springboard for his own version, an imaginative one that reflected some of his Objectivist philosophical principles.
Introduced in Captain Atom 83 (Nov. 1966), genius millionaire industrialist Ted Kord inherited the identity but not the powers of the Blue Beetle from the dying Garrett. Ditko seemed concerned to demonstrate that a person wouldn’t need super powers to handle whatever menaces appeared, but could rely on his own rationality, ingenuity and training.
Ditko’s story in Captain Atom 85 (March 1967) illustrates that theme. Disabling an enemy sub with his underwater bazooka, Kord fights off frogmen in hand-to-hand combat. And with the help of his versatile “Bug” air-sea craft, the Beetle rescues a falling jet and even fights off a giant octopus. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Iron Fist: Legacy and the Living Weapon

Iron Fist, a superhero created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane for Marvel Premiere 15 (May 1974), was the result of pop cultural cross-pollination.
The Marvel Age of Comics was already more than a decade old, and to freshen it up the Bullpen tried superhero titles reflecting popular trends.
Thanks to a relaxed Comics Code, more vivid horror stories could then be published, so Ghost Rider was born in Marvel Spotlight 5 (Aug. 1972).
Martial arts had been popularized by the David Carradine TV series Kung Fu in 1972 and the Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon in 1973. Add the superhero trappings of a lost-child Tarzan origin, a secret identity, a colorful costume and the ability to focus chi into a punch of overwhelming power, and you have Iron Fist.
The character is presented in his Netflix series as a kind of billionaire super-Buddhist. And that may well ring a bell.
Comics readers might remark on the similarity of Danny Rand to Adrian Veidt, the superhero Ozymandias created by by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for their 1986 Watchmen graphic novel.
Well, yes, and there’s a reason for that.
Iron Fist was in part an homage to Amazing-Man, Bill Everett’s original variation on the Superman theme introduced in Amazing-Man Comics 5 (Sept. 1939). That Tibetan-trained super-being also inspired Pete Morisi to create Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt for Charlton Comics in 1966. And Moore and Gibbons used Thunderbolt as the template for Ozymandias.
The history of superhero comics is a wonderfully multi-faceted and multivariate thing.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Homosexuality and Enlightenment

Eckhart Tolle has put his finger on something here that I’ve wondered about for a long time.
“As you approach adulthood, uncertainty about your sexuality followed by the realization that you are ‘different’ from others may force you to disidentify from socially conditioned patterns of thought and behavior,” Tolle wrote in his book The Power of Now. “This will automatically raise your level of consciousness above that of the unconscious majority, whose members unquestioningly take on board all inherited patterns. In that respect, being gay can be a help. Being an outsider to some extent, someone who does not ‘fit in’ with others or is rejected by them for whatever reason, makes life difficult, but it also places you at an advantage as far as enlightenment is concerned. It takes you out of your consciousness by force.”
I presume this is also one reason so many gay people turn to the arts, where an outsider’s perspective can be a source of inspiration and insight. 

DD Demostrates the Proper Way to Escape a Trap

I’m a sucker for a good inescapable doom trap (from which the hero will, of course, inevitably escape). And so was my father.
Even twenty years later, he could describe in vivid detail how Batman had gotten out of the evil Dr. Daka’s room with the spiked closing walls in Chapter 14 of his 1943 movie serial (the Masked Manhunter blocked them in the proverbial nick of time with a crowbar tossed down to him by Robin). Dad also loved James Bond’s escape from Auric Goldfinger’s laser table, one of the best examples of that venerable melodramatic convention.
Like a classic detective story, the inescapable doom trap should always play fair, I think. The hero should escape by virtue of his own wits, resourcefulness and established abilities, prompting us to admire him all the more. He should never be saved by a random deus ex machina (something that happened too often in the hurriedly written and filmed movie serials).
One of my favorite examples from Silver Age Marvel Comics occurred in the story arc that ran in Daredevil 39-41 (April-June 1968), written by Stan Lee and drawn by Gene Colan.
To save his secret identity, Matt Murdock has had to invent and play the role of his own outgoing and brash twin brother, Mike, explaining away why the unmasked DD looks like him. For the second time, he’s up against the Unholy Three (Cat Man, Ape Man and Bird Man, who might have been Batman villains from a decade earlier). But the trio’s new boss, the Exterminator, has invented a time displacement gun that hurls Daredevil into what is essentially the Phantom Zone.
That’s a fate that would give even Superman trouble. It seemed to the reader that there was no way for a mere costumed acrobat to escape from a limbo where he could observe the real world, but do nothing to affect it. I just had to buy issue 41 to find out what was going to happen.
Turns out that DD was able to use his super senses to detect that he was only out of phase by a fraction of a second, and that increasing his speed just slightly could shift him back into the real world. Using his versatile billy club to snag the bumper of a speeding car did the trick. Daredevil escaped to save the day, killing off Mike Murdock in the process so he wouldn’t have to bother with that exhausting charade any longer.
I was entirely satisfied with the story, which helped fix this period in my mind as a favorite era for Daredevil’s adventures.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Saved by Doom? A Speculation in Superheroics

In 1982, in his seminal series Marvelman, British writer Alan Moore offered a number of original insights on American superhero comics. And one of them was that government authorities, particularly the military, would regard superheroes as monsters.
And when you think about it, many superhero origins are ambivalent enough to create either a hero or a villain. Superman might have been an invader from outer space (an idea explored by Robert Kirkman). Batman might have been a tortured orphan turned super-criminal (an idea explored by Mark Millar).
And Dr. Doom might have been a hero.
Writer Don Glut explored that idea with artists Fred Kida and Dave Simons in What If? 22 (Aug. 1980). With the slightest shift in emphasis, Dr. Doom’s origin — that of a brilliant Gypsy boy whose blameless parents were killed by benighted bigots — could easily have been shown to turn him into a crusader against injustice.
Of course, not all What If? premises were quite so plausible. Take What If Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor? (issue 10, Aug, 1978), for example.
Ridiculous.
Could never happen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Early Marvel: Fairy Tales and Flying Saucers

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s monster comics were visually similar to and yet thematically opposite of the superhero stories that supplanted them.
In the superhero comics, powerful alien menaces to society were thwarted by superhumans with equally formidable powers. But in the monster stories, those same menaces were usually defeated by ordinary humans using their wits. The stories carried a reassuring implicit message that any clever, courageous person need not shrink from a challenge.
For example, take a favorite of mine, No Human Can Beat Me! from Strange Tales 98 (July 1962). An alien conqueror who might have been mistaken for the Thing or the Hulk defeats human champions at every possible competition — wrestling, feats of strength, chess, mountain climbing. But then an ordinary guy steps up, boasting to the alien that he’s the world’s champion sleeper and once slept for a million years. In a denouement that winks at the reader, the alien promptly announces that he will sleep two million years and drops right off.
With soldiers placed on permanent guard at the cave where the monster is sleeping, ensuring he gets his rest, the narrator returns home, where he has even won the respect of his nagging wife.
“You’re wonderful, wonderful,” she tells him.
“Why fight it, doll?” he replies.
Many of these stories offer a science fiction veneer over what is essentially a fairy tale, where the clever Jacks and Aladdins always manage to outwit the djinn, giants and Rumpelstiltskins.
As in a fairy tale, you can peer into the future between the lines here. This comic appeared on the newsstands in spring 1962, alongside the Fantastic Four’s first battle with Dr. Doom in their fifth issue and a month after the debut of a new title, The Incredible Hulk.
Lee sprinkled the margins of the story with teasers, asking, “Have you seen ‘The Hulk?’” He couldn’t know then that someday, everybody would.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Doomed! When Spidey First Faced the FF's Foe

As superhero comic book readers in the 1960s, we did a lot of conscious and unconscious weight-classification, just like prizefighting fans.
We assumed, for example, that a super villain who could give Thor a real run for his Danegeld would be too much for Ant-Man. So stories that challenged those expectations could be particularly exciting.
That’s one reason why Daredevil’s battle with Sub-Mariner in April 1965 was so satisfying. We knew the blind costumed acrobat could not possibly defeat the superman of the seas, and he did not.
Similarly, I was eager to read The Amazing Spider-Man 5 (Oct. 1963). I’d loved the first three issues of the title, with Spidey facing the Chameleon, the Vulture and his multi-limbed opposite number Dr. Octopus. But I’d skipped the fourth issue because the Sandman appeared goofy — dressed like a longshoreman, looking about as sinister as a sandpile.
But the fifth issue brought me back. Spidey was squaring off against Dr. Doom! Oh no! How could Spider-Man survive against an enemy who’d already nearly destroyed the entire Fantastic Four five times?
I couldn’t imagine a more exciting battle — until the Thing went solo against the Incredible Hulk six months later.
Comics historian Don Alsafi remarked, “Over the last year, Stan Lee had been tentatively drawing the connections between all these new superhero creations, and selling the fiction that they all lived in the same world. The first step in that direction had occurred when the Hulk appeared in the pages of the Fantastic Four not just in passing but as the issue’s monster menace du jour, and culminating this same month in the superteam-of-disparate-parts known as the Avengers. So even if Victor Von Doom weren’t the most natural of enemies to face off against a high-school kid, you can understand the intention towards a tighter continuity that Stan Lee was going for. In fact, this is most visible when Doom recounts how he last escaped the Fantastic Four.”
“In addition to inching forward the nascent attraction between Peter Parker and Jameson's secretary, Betty Brant, we get a humorous case of ‘mistaken identity’ shenanigans due to Peter’s main high school tormentor, Flash Thompson,” Alsafi noted. “See, one of the most inspired ideas in these early days is the fact that even though Flash looks down upon the bookish Parker ... he idolizes Spider-Man! So at one point he decides to have a Spider-costume made up, throws it on and lies in wait to jump Parker and give him the scare of his life. Of course, this is exactly when Doctor Doom is scouring the city for Spider-Man, and ends up nabbing this fake Spidey in his stead...”
In this issue, Spidey tried wielding his web like the Human Torch used his flame, making web pillars, throwing web balls and so forth. He was effective enough to prompt Dr. Doom to give us a lesson in how to beat a hasty retreat without losing face or, er, mask.
“I have found your juvenile antics mildly amusing until now,” Doom remarks, on the run. “But now I begin to grow bored, so…”
And with this issue, the title became monthly, on its way to establishing Spider-Man alongside Superman and Batman as one of most famous superheroes in history.

To Fight for the Right, Without Question or Pause

The people fighting on the right side are always in the minority, and often don’t see victory in their lifetimes. The abolitionists were sneered at and spat upon by most Americans, remember.
But the people fighting on the right side are the ones who matter, and there’s a satisfaction in knowing who’s right — the people whose goals are compassion and civilization — and who is so clearly wrong in the eyes of history. We must fight on with an untroubled spirit.
And I have changed people’s minds. Not many, but a few. I also changed my own, which was my best accomplishment.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Agatha Christie Meets the Incredible Hulk

The arrival of Batman’s New Look in May 1964 cleared away not only the alien invaders he’d been fighting in recent years, but deemphasized his colorful rogue’s gallery of costumed villains as well.
Under editor Julius Schwartz instead of Jack Schiff, Batman was back to fighting gangsters and criminal masterminds with his wits and his fists.
The clean-lined yet elegantly moody New Look really did get my attention as a 9-year-old, and the full-page ad in Detective Comics 327 also caught my eye.
“Be first in your neighborhood to read each issue of Detective! Special Subscription Offer – 10 issues of Detective only $1.00. Just 10 cents each instead of 12 cents — like finding an extra 20 cents!”
I wrangled a dollar from my mom and bought my first comic book subscription (and was disappointed to see the issues arrive folded down the middle — a terrible thing to do to a young comic book lover).
Batman’s archenemy the Joker was still around, but new heavies included the mysterious, super-powered Outsider (really a resurrected, mutated and deranged Alfred Pennyworth) and the Blockbuster, Batman’s answer to the Incredible Hulk.
Chemist Mark Desmond increased his own size and strength at the price of his sanity, and was manipulated into committing crimes by his brother Roland.
Introduced in Detective Comics 345 (Nov. 1965) by writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino, Blockbuster returned in Detective Comics 349 (March 1966) and then in Justice League of America 46 and 47 (Aug.-Sept. 1966).
Obviously Batman, a costumed acrobat and detective, would have a hard time handling a Hulk, so the conflict intrigued me from the start.
The satisfying story might have been written by Agatha Christie, with her famous surprise twists. Blockbuster turned out to be the super-villain that Batman couldn’t defeat, but Bruce Wayne could! Having saved the Mark’s life when he was a child, Wayne’s presence could put a halt to his rampages.
 I loved the irony of the setup — Blockbuster was the one foe whom Batman defeated not by assuming his secret identity, but by exposing it.
The grunting, irresistible bruiser also served the interests of the storytelling elements required for the New Look.
“Since Batman had no super powers to play variations upon, Schwartz asked his writers to supply more fisticuffs — not wild Kirbyesque brawls, but choreographed gymnastics cleverly exploiting props and settings,” noted Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs in their book The Comic Book Heroes.
Blockbuster filled the bill.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Long Shadow of King Kong

Good stories often run deeper than we realize.
For example, is 1933’s King Kong just an adventure about a giant gorilla? Or is it about a powerful black thing that is taken from its jungle in chains and brought to America where it wants to escape and grab white women?
Did the filmmakers intend the story as a racist nightmare? No. Is it, nevertheless, unconsciously and in the context of the Depression era? Yes.
That’s one of the elements that gave the story its power, one of the reasons why a clearly absurd tale didn’t play as absurd to those audiences sitting there like the Manhattan crowd of pampered swells in the film, waiting for Kong to break free. On some deep, dreamy level, those audiences knew the story that was flickering up there in front of them seemed real. What we repress consciously comes back to us unconsciously.
Although I’d seen Son of Kong and King Kong vs. Godzilla, I’d missed seeing the brilliant original film as a kid. So I never learned the actual story until Gold Key published its one-shot, 64-page comic book adaptation in the tempestuous summer of 1968.
“Perhaps the seminal monstrous creature film, the 1933 movie of Merian Cooper’s book, King Kong, remains a timeless example of the public’s need to be frightened,” wrote George Haberberger in the Atomic Avenue blog. Thirty-five years later in 1968, Gold Key published a 64-page adaptation of the classic movie. Gold Key, (the comic printing arm of Western Publishing Company), was well known for adapting popular television shows like Star Trek and Man from UNCLE for comics.
The artist, Alberto Giolitti, lived in Rome and mailed his pages back to the United States at a time when living in New York was considered a prerequisite for working in comics. He illustrated Gold Key’s Star Trek series without actually having seen the show, but presumably he had seen King Kong. His depictions of Skull Island and its fantastic denizens are balanced by his equally impressive representation of 1930s New York in this tragic tale of a monster and his impossible love.”

Friday, March 3, 2017

Lois Lane's Bizarre Taste in Boyfriends

In the 1950s, superhero comics didn’t bother much with continuity.
Reasoning that their audience quickly outgrew their product, publishers reused plots and sometimes even arbitrarily altered the characters’ origins. A character seemed to be the only superhero on Earth in one adventure, but was aware of the publisher’s other heroes in the next.
But in the 1960s, the popularity of superhero teams like the Justice League and the Fantastic Four and the expanding families of characters in the Superman and Batman mythos gave rise to a crowd-pleasing attention to continuity detail that turned into something of a fetish. It’s been a fixture of superhero comics even since.
For example, take Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane 74 (May 1967). On the Kurt Schaffenberger cover, we see Superman trying to fend off yet another of the many costumed, super-powered gentleman callers who had the hots for the girl reporter. Superman’s fist plunges ineffectively through the character Hero’s incorporeal body.
The story by Leo Dorfman makes full use of DC’s already elaborate mythology. Awakening the mysterious, rather brutish Hero from a coma with a kiss, Lois finds he can snap metal bonds, melt objects with his hands, become untouchable and move at super speed.
Who is he? Why, a Bizarro duplicate of the Flash, of course.
Particularly astute and/or obsessed readers would have noted that the powers Hero demonstrated were all feats that the Flash had trained himself to do with super-speed vibration, and that his costume provided a strong clue — It was essentially the Flash’s with a new insignia and the colors reversed.
An enjoyable if convoluted story over all, made more so by Schaffenberger’s always handsome, clean-lined art. I liked his solid, stalwart depiction of Superman, which seemed slightly younger than the Wayne Boring and Curt Swan versions. And Schaffenberger’s Lois was definitive.
Poor Lois can’t escape this kind of weird déjà vu dizziness even while she’s unconscious. In the next story in the same issue, after being scratched by a poisoned arrow, Lois feverishly dreams she’s in medieval England, discovering the secret identity of Robin Hood and vying for his affections with a Maid Marian who looks just like that damn Lana Lang.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Good Guy: The Ghost Of Captain Marvel

By the time I became aware of comics in the late 1950s, Captain Marvel was little more than a rumor.
In the 1960s, if you had asked me about a caped, super-strong flying hero transformed by magic lightning, I have replied, “Oh sure. Thor.”
But one had come before him, and had in fact once been the world’s bestselling superhero.
The Big Red Cheese had vanished in 1954, the victim of both DC’s copyright infringement lawsuit on behalf of Superman and Fawcett’s decision to abandon its comic book line entirely in the face of McCarthyesque public paranoia and hostility toward the medium.
I’d found the penultimate issue of Marvel Family in a secondhand shop for a nickel, and wondered who on Earth these Supermanish figures were.
What an oddity — immensely popular characters that couldn’t be published. Even Jules Feiffer, in his seminal 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes, was permitted to republish only a single page of Captain Marvel’s origin. He lived on only in the memories of fans.
Fortunately, the science fiction fandom of the 1930s and 1950s had inspired comic book fandom in the 1960s, helped along by the fact that comic book editors like Richard Hughes, Stan Lee and Mort Weisinger started publishing letter columns.
“Fanzines” were popping up, and one fan in particular was determined to keep the spirit of Captain Marvel alive.
Born in 1939, Alan Jim Hanley had been just the right age to appreciate the Big Red Cheese in his heyday. A self-published comic book artist, he worked as a hired caricaturist at Chicago-area parties. In Alan Hanley’s Comic Book fanzine, published between 1966 and 1977, he brought the gentle fun of Captain Marvel back to life in the form of his own pastiche hero, Good Guy. That was a nickname. Good Guy was officially known as Major Marvel, and was assisted by, of course, Minor Marvel and Ms. Marvel. They gained their powers with a “Pffft!” when they pressed “panic buttons” energized by Golden Age superheroes who were lost in an unpublished limbo.
Good Guy once debated the state of affairs in American popular culture with the Green Lama while strapped to a missile headed for Disneyland. “Well, heck, the world seems like it’s drunk on sexual and violent themes with no time off for sobering up,” Good Guy mused. “A lot of compounded confusion for folks tryin’ to adjust to this complicated society.”
Another Good Guy adventure featured a black Superman confronting racial animus in American society.
I liked Hanley’s work enough to commission him to do a poster of Good Guy Jr. for me in the late 1960s. Wish I hadn’t lost track of it.
Hanley’s work appeared in a number of fanzines and trade publications, and his other characters included The Spook, All-American Jack and a pastiche of a Lee-Kirby Marvel superhero he called Captain Thunder (which, you may recall, was the original name of Captain Marvel). Only in his early 40s, Hanley died in the winter of 1980 as the result of a car accident.
Such are the vagaries of fate. I’ll always wonder if Hanley’s sunny, whimsical talents might have found a broader audience, had he lived. But perhaps not. Innocence still isn’t in fashion, more’s the pity.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How the Comic Books Found Tarzan's Son

The immense popularity of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies from 1932 to 1948 tended to overshadow Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original novels, which were already 20 years old when Weissmuller put on his first loincloth.
Those movies continued to air on local television through the 1960s, giving several generations of Americans the impression that Tarzan was a kind of jungle caveman whose chimpanzee, Cheeta, found him a son in a plane crash. Unimaginatively, Tarzan and Jane named the orphan “Boy” in the 1939 film Tarzan Finds a Son!
What most didn’t know was that Tarzan’s son had been born in the usual way in 1914 in the ERB novel The Beasts of Tarzan, and that his name was John “Jack” Clayton, Viscount Greystoke — or, in ape-speak, Korak.
The long-running Tarzan comic book series, first published by Dell and then by Gold Key, leaned toward the Hollywood interpretation of Tarzan. But by 1962, the out-of-print Tarzan novels, some of which had fallen into the public domain, were being reissued by no fewer than four publishers: Canaveral, Dover, Ace and Ballantine. Snapped up by readers, the original Tarzan swung back into action.
Gold Key chose that moment to publish their second Tarzan-related series, Korak, Son of Tarzan. In the first issue (cover-dated Jan. 1964), artist Russ Manning and writer Gaylord Du Bois evolved the “Boy” of previous comics into the Korak of Burroughs’ novels. The title, essentially the adventures of a teenaged Tarzan, was popular enough to last 45 issues, through 1972.
Both Tarzan and Korak fit my working definition of a superhero, by the way, which is a protagonist who possesses superhuman powers and/or a dual identity (although not necessarily a secret one). Tarzan and his son fit on both counts. They share the infrahuman ability to talk to animals, and they have dual identities as English aristocrats and jungle lords.

For Ant-Man, Two Letters Make a BIG Difference

Hank Pym was able to become a whole new superhero just by adding two letters to his name.
In Tales to Astonish 49 (Nov. 1963), his 15th adventure, Ant-Man became Giant-Man. I remember enjoying the story by writer Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Don Heck at the time. The switch seemed to give the character a whole new range of powers and possibilities, and firmly differentiate from DC’s Atom, who was busy battling a tiny phantom double that month.
The story opens with a literal bang — Pym, experimenting with increasing his size, has burst through the walls of his Cape Cod house on the New Jersey Palisades overlooking the Hudson River, and must feebly ask his panicked gardener for help.
While Pym learns to control his new powers with the aid of the Wasp, a menace arises from a desk at the Marvel bullpen. Like Paste Pot Pete, the Eraser would seem to have been inspired by artist tools. He’s a green alien invader who “erases” scientists into another dimension, and the effect is made more intriguing and striking by one of Jack Kirby’s signature multi-panel progressions.
Fighting to rescue the victims, Giant-Man exults in his new powers, leaping from one futuristic rooftop to another, manhandling a half-dozen alien troops at once and tearing apart a ray-gun emplacement while sneering that it’s a “toy.”
Giant-Man’s next few adventures provided a fresh angle on super-heroics by suggesting, logically, that super powers might involve a learning curve. Pym proves awkward with abilities that are the opposite of the ones he had mastered as Ant-Man. He finds himself unable, for example, to defeat the mutant Human Top in repeated battles.
Yet the character somehow never achieved the dramatic potential suggested in that debut, and in Tales to Astonish 70 (August 1965), his feature was replaced by the Sub-Mariner’s, which I never much cared for. Despite his status as a milestone hero of comics’ Golden Age, Prince Namor in the 1960s seemed reduced to a tedious single note of haughtiness.
Ant-Man’s expansion would have one distant, happy echo. Fifty-three years later, the surprise transition from Ant-Man to Giant-Man would delight film audiences in Captain America: Civil War ($1.153 billion at the box office).

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Legion of Losers Takes a Bow in Adventure

In the Smallville Mailsack page of Adventure Comics 304 (Jan. 1963), reader Buddy LaVigne of Northbrook, IL, wrote, “I suggest a new character, Polar Boy, who has the power of freezing to ice anything in his area.”
From that suggestion came not just a new character but a new team based on a fresh and contradictory concept: superheroes who were inferior.
Winners who were “losers.”
Created by writer Edmond Hamilton and artist John Forte in Adventure Comics 306 (March 1963), the plight of the Substitute Heroes touched me at once.
Like every high school wannabe who ever mooned over a quarterback or a cheerleader, the Substitutes obsessed about the idols who rejected them. I immediately found their adventures more interesting than those of the super-club they were so desperate to get into because they added an extra element to the drama: poignancy.
After all, movies and young adult novels don’t get written about in-crowds, but about the people who are trying to get into them. In-crowds are, frankly, kind of boring.
“The Legion of Substitute Heroes was founded by Polar Boy, Night Girl, Stone Boy, Fire Lad and Chlorophyll Kid, five young heroes whose powers were not sufficient to earn them membership in the Legion of Super-Heroes — Night Girl for example could only use her powers in the dark,” Wikipedia notes.
“After receiving a Legion flight belt as a consolation prize, the five disconsolate teenagers decided to form a group that could pinch hit for the Legion. After several failures as a team, the Subs managed to save the Earth from an invasion by Plant Men while the Legion was off planet fighting a decoy armada of robot spaceships.
“At first operating in secrecy, the Legion of Substitute Heroes was gradually recognized by the real Legion as a valuable asset, most notably after the assault on the Citadel of Throon when the regular Legionnaires were all defeated and it was left to Polar Boy and Night Girl to lead an effective attack and end the siege. The Substitute Heroes saved the Legionnaires from such threats as the Taurus Gang and the lethal League of Super-Assassins.”
Keith Giffen later treated the team as a joke, missing the point of their outsider appeal, I think. This-series-within-a-series originally offered a useful moral: that being rejected by the people you want to like you doesn’t mean you can’t make a mark in your own way, and still be happy.
Oddly enough, the “underdog superhero” theme would also be explored in a comic book character who got his own title the same month the Subs debuted.
His name? Spider-Man.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What Is Benito Trumpolini? It Starts with an 'F'

Fascism is marked by nationalism, militarism, sexism, racism, repression of labor, worship of corporate power, controlled mass media, contempt for intellectuals and education, religiosity used for political manipulation, rampant cronyism and corruption, fraudulent elections, obsession with national security and the destruction of civil liberties — all the flavors Fox News sells to fools all day, every day.
The elements of fascism I cited are not a matter of opinion, but of fact. They are the 14 identifying characteristics of fascism uncovered by Lawrence Britt in his study of fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile). Britt found these fascist dictatorships all had 14 elements in common.
I've gotten all kinds of ad hominem insults from Republicans when I've posted this list of fascist characteristics, but I've never heard a SINGLE ONE of them post any evidence to dispute it.
And now we have a president who will try to put across every one of these horrors. He’s about to prove that the Republican Party is now Fascist Party of the United States of America.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Secret Origins: The Comic That Made Me Cry

I never wanted a comic book more than the 25-cent DC giant Secret Origins, which was on newsstands in June 1961, the month I turned 7.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone. The comic sold out instantly at my newsstand in Effingham, IL, and I was so disappointed I burst into tears on the spot. Then I was ashamed at having cried.
But we almost never got to read characters’ origins in those halcyon days, and to acquire a bunch of those in one comic would have been a thrill.
I wouldn’t learn until years later than DC’s apparent discomfort with reprinting 1940s material would lead them to cheat a bit on the Secret Origins title, meaning that the real origins of the Superman-Batman team, Wonder Woman and Green Arrow would remain secret.
In fact, the only “Golden Age material” to be found in all 80 pages was an old copy of Flash being chuckled over by police scientist Barry Allen while he ate lunch in one panel.
The earliest story reprinted was the origin of the Martian Manhunter from Detective Comics 225 (November, 1955). The Silver Age characters Flash, Green Lantern, Adam Strange and the Challengers of the Unknown had all debuted in 1956 or later, and their actual first stories were included as well.
But instead of Wonder Woman’s real 1941 origin, we got a reconned version by Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito reprinted from Wonder Woman 105 (April, 1959).
Green Arrow and Speedy got even shorter shrift, merely a text page that summarized their origins from Adventure Comics 256 (January, 1959) and Adventure Comics 262 (July, 1959). In fact, of course, they had debuted 18 years earlier in More Fun Comics 73 (November 1941).
Even May of 1952 was apparently too “Golden Age” for the editors. That’s when Superman and Batman actually met in the pages of Superman 76 (although they’d teamed up even earlier on Superman’s radio series). Instead, DC reprinted the retconned Origin of the Superman-Batman Team by Edmond Hamilton, Dick Sprang and Stan Kay that had appeared in World’s Finest Comics 94 (May-June, 1958).
So that dark, sunny June day I had to content myself with the origin of a new superhero in Archie Comics’ Adventures of the Jaguar 1, Detective, the second issue of Charlton’s  Gorgo, the battle between Batman and the super-powered Villain of 1,000 Elements in Detective Comics 294, learning The Secret of Tigerman from World’s Finest 119, seeing the debut of The Legion of Super-Villains in Superman 147 and the exciting third Superman Annual, featuring The Strange Lives of Superman.
That one was almost as good as Secret Origins.
Almost.
Despite its deficiencies, Secret Origins remained The One That Got Away. I hadn’t learned, at 7, that desire often makes the unattainable seem more wonderful than reality can ever be.