Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Wall Street Journal on EIU's Crisis

The Wall Street Journal on the EIU crisis: “Less than a decade ago, (Eastern Illinois University) enrollment was at its peak of 12,000. Then it began slipping by a few hundred ayear. The decline picked up speed after the state’s budget troubles began in 2015. Since then, enrollment has dropped by about 1,500 to 7,400 last fall. ...Administrators say it is doubtful that they will have even 7,000 students this fall.”
“In Charleston, where the university is based, empty storefronts litter Lincoln Avenue, the main thoroughfare running by campus. Jerry’s Pizza, a staple for professors and students since 1978, closed last October, citing the university’s shrinking population. ‘For Rent’ signs are posted outside rows of apartments that cater to students, with one ad offering free iPad minis to students who sign a lease.
“ ‘Had we had 12,000 students here, the businesses would probably all still be here,’ says John Inyart, a former Charleston mayor who owns an auto-repair shop across from the university’s main hall. He has had to cast his net wider for customers as faculty and students dwindle, he says.
“ ‘Any community that had a university was kind of like Teflon. You had that stability in your community, with stable good paying jobs,’ says Cindy White, chairwoman of the local chamber of commerce. ‘Well, now, that’s not so much anymore.’ ”

Friday, June 23, 2017

When Spider-Man Almost Dated Tom Ripley

What did the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train really want to write? Wonder Woman.
In the mid- to late 1940s, the aspiring novelist Patricia Highsmith penned the comic book adventures of The Human Torch, The Destroyer, The Black Terror, Fighting Yank, Captain Midnight, Spy Smasher and other superheroes, but she never landed the gig she really wanted.
 “Always keen on advancement, Pat tried to write for the high-paying, widely distributed Wonder Woman comic book, but was shut out of the job,” noted biographer Joan Schenkar in her book The Talented Miss Highsmith. “This was in 1947, just one year before she began to imagine her lesbian novel The Price of Salt (filmed in 2015 as Carol). Wonder Woman, daughter of Amazon Queen Hippolyta and still the heroine of her own comic book, has a favorite exclamation: ‘Suffering Sappho!’ She lives on the forbidden-to-males Paradise Island with a happy coepheroi of lithe young Amazons, and she arrived in America in 1942, in the form of her alter ego, Lieutenant Diana Prince, to help the Allies fight World War II. The thought of what Patricia Highsmith, in her most sexually active period (the 1940s were feverish for Pat) and in the right mood, might have made of Wonder Woman’s bondage-obsessed plots and nubile young Amazons can only be inscribed on the short list of popular culture’s lingering regrets.”
Although Highsmith later tried to efface her comic book work, superhero-ish themes like alter egos and dopplegangers emerged to play a significant role in her most famous novels.
Highsmith had gotten into the superhero business by answering an ad from comic book editor Richard Hughes, but her favorite company was Timely (now Marvel). Timely editor Vince Fago reportedly tried to arrange a date between Highsmith and young Stan Lee, but neither was interested.
“So Spider-Man (the superhero Stan Lee co-created) misses his opportunity to date Tom Ripley (the antihero Pat Highsmith created),” Schenkar quipped. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

How to Handle an Asshole

Wisdom pointed out by my old friend Jim Jenkins: “Oh, there are a lot of lousy people in the world. Also, a lot of terrific people. You've gotta remember that, and you've got to move in the right circles. I have days where I just want everyone to go fuck themselves or walk off a cliff, but I only say that to myself, and I smile and I walk home and I have some tea, I talk to Garson [Kanin, her husband], I might take a nap. Then I wake up and I write, and in writing, I wipe away all the unpleasantness of the day, of the people, of the city, whatever. We have it in our power to overcome assholes, and I think we have them thrown into our path to see if we have the chops to handle them. Handle them.”

— Ruth Gordon

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Universal American Tornado Arrives

America is all one prairie, swept by a universal tornado. Although it has always thought itself in an eminent sense the land of freedom, even when it was covered with slaves, there is no country in which people live under more overpowering compulsions.
— George Santayana

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Fox News Can't Save Trump with a Fire Hose

The problem for Fox News is, their lying propaganda only really works on offense. They need a Democrat in the White House. Their defensive game often rings false even to their own trained zombies.
Fox News is largely just a fire hose spewing rage. You can turn that against minorities, but you can't really use it to defend your blundering stooge in the White House.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Loser in Chief in the Land of the Losers

Someday, after he has inflicted untold suffering and disaster on Americans, Trump will be reduced to an object lesson in stupidity and failure — as irrelevant, meaningless and pointless as Bush and Cheney are now. In the eyes of history, they’re all one of Trump’s favorite words — “losers.”

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Wonder Woman: Finally, a DC Hero with Heart

Gal Gadot as the amazon princess Diana, a/k/a Wonder Woman
The 2017 film Wonder Woman shares a strong thematic vibe with Johnny Weissmuller’s first Tarzan movie in 1932 and Christopher Reeve’s first Superman movie in 1978. Once again, heroic innocence is pitted against the “civilized” forces of cynicism and murderous corruption, with the contrasts played effectively for both comedy and melodramatic pathos.
Wonder Woman’s origin story was contemporary when she was created in 1941, sending her off the amazons’ Paradise Island to fight for peace during World War II. This film does not update but backdates her origin to World War I, which in some ways works even better.
This independent, courageous superwoman is juxtaposed against the fight for women’s suffrage, and is determined to make good on the promise that this will be “the War to End All Wars.” We know what she doesn’t — that despite her impressive super powers, her mission is impossible, and that gives the film its poignancy.  Wonder Woman’s naiveté — her inability to understand why human beings would willingly slaughter children in a war, for example — stings because we also recognize it as the profoundest wisdom.
Wonder Woman’s tearing through the enemy trenches is reminiscent of Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator, which was an inspiration for Superman.
Chris Pine’s low-key charm works perfectly for Capt. Steve Trevor. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman (a name never used in the film, btw) radiates the same shining, un-ironic goodness that Reeve projected as Superman (no easy feat for an actor, btw).
You know, it doesn’t really matter how “dark” a superhero film is, as long as the hero has heart. And that’s a lesson that the DC Comics movies finally seem to have learned after several misfires. Wonder Woman is as good as a Disney-Marvel superhero movie, and that's high praise indeed. This film is probably the best thing ever done with this iconic character, and a worthy successor Lynda Carter’s campy-but-earnest 1970s’ TV series. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

DC Anthology Titles: Three Thrills for a Dime

As a small boy, I loved the comics devoted to the adventures of a single DC hero, titles like Superman, Batman and Superboy. But I loved the anthology titles they headlined even more.
Action Comics, Detective Comics, Adventure Comics and World’s Finest offered three features in each title, and among them were the handful of obscure superheroes who’d survived the Great Superhero Extinction of the early 1950s.
For example, take Detective Comics 279 (May 1960). While the Dynamic Duo tackled the alien Creatures That Stalked Batman, the Martian Manhunter was bedeviled by zany genius Hiram Horner in The Impossible Inventions. With art by Joe Certa and a script by Jack Miller, J’onn J’onzz spun himself like a whirlybird to lower a flying building back to the ground.
Even as a 5-year-old, I couldn’t conceive how that would work.
But the Martian Manhunter sported those eye-catching colors — green skin, blue cape — and an array of powers that rivaled Superman’s, so I was an immediate fan. I loved it when police detective John Jones would emit a concentric rainbow of light to change form.
Of almost equal interest was the seemingly pedestrian feature Roy Raymond, TV Detective, which had begun in 1949. Initially, the brainy Raymond would debunk supernatural hoaxes, but by the time I met him, he was up to more interesting stuff like tricking an actual giant monster conjured by a sorcerer back into the stone it came from. The creature looked like some, slate gray sinister variation on the monster Gossamer that menaced Bugs Bunny in the Warner Bros. cartoons.
Fun stuff, particularly when presented in the richly illustrative art of Ruben Moreira.
Or let’s take as an example World’s Finest 110, with Superman, Batman and Robin backed up by Tommy Tomorrow as well as Green Arrow and Speedy. An embarrassment of riches.
Like Roy Raymond, Tommy Tomorrow was a character who began as something else — in this case in 1947 as an example in a one-off “future facts” feature.
“(I)n fact, Tommy was obviously designed simply as a stereotyped hero to represent the sort of man who might pilot the first rocket to Mars,” noted comics historian Don Markstein. “Even his name was chosen to project the ‘generic future man’ image.”
But by 1960, he had evolved into a near-future “Planeteer” space cop whose purple uniform included curious short pants.  Illustrated by the capable, workmanlike art of Jim Mooney and written by Jim Miller, the tale The Robot Raiders featured this 21st century “future man” tackling space pirates armed by giant robot lobsters and hovering eyes — the kind of intriguing mechanical menaces that Blackhawk had specialized in combating.
“A wealthy playboy, guardian to a young boy … they fight crime together, hiding their identities behind outlandish costumes … Except for the archery motif, the ‘Green Arrow & Speedy’ series sounds like a direct swipe of Batman and Robin,” Markstein noted. “They took the archery motif from Fawcett's Golden Arrow, but more directly from a minor hero from a minor company, called simply The Arrow. But the prior hero he most precisely resembled was Tom Hallaway, alias The Spider.
“Green Arrow was created, if that’s not too strong a word, by Mort Weisinger, editor of DC’s More Fun Comics, who introduced the crime-fighting archer in the 73rd issue of that title (Nov. 1941) — the same one that first featured Aquaman.”
“Green Arrow was never as strong a character as the one he was modeled after. Whereas Batman appears intensely motivated — driven, even — Oliver Queen, the man who masqueraded as Green Arrow (Roy Harper, his ward, was Speedy), seemed merely to dabble in crime-fighting.”
Nevertheless, a character created in 1941 who has his own long-running TV shoe in 2017 must be said to have hit some mark.
In this issue of World’s Finest, the distinctive art of Lee Elias and the writing of Ed Herron introduced us to The Sinister Spectrum Man — a super villain, something we rarely got to see in a feature where the heavies were often just criminal thugs.
With his plane, gimmicks and color motif, Spectrum Man was a distorted mirror image of the hero. That’s a theme that gets played again and again in superhero comics, in various variations.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Refusing to See What We Foresaw

Even with the evidence now before their eyes, Trump voters are still refusing to see what we foresaw last year. America is a deteriorating, shell-shocked battleground between the armed camps of the willfully ignorant and the horrified prescient.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Monday, May 22, 2017

Woman and Superman, Ego and Super-Ego

One of the dramatic advantages of the TV show Mad Men was its timing.
Aired almost 50 years after the events it portrayed, Mad Men dramatized an era that was still within living memory. But that era was also sufficiently remote in time for significant social change to have occurred since then. The result was a drama that felt both familiar and, at times, strikingly alien. The attitudes of the times were remembered as real, yet now recognized as shocking.
And old comic books can, accidentally, serve the same function.
For example, take the "imaginary" tale The Wife of Superman! in Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane 26 (July 1961).
In Jerry Siegel’s story, TV reporter Lana Lang accidentally discovers Superman’s secret identity, but tells him she will forego the scoop and keep his secret to protect his work against crime and injustice. Impressed by Lana’s compassion and maturity, Superman finally falls for her and proposes.
“Her lips … they’re THRILLING!” thinks Superman. “Great Scott! I love the girl! Despite all my mighty powers of mind and body … I … I never knew it till NOW!”
With Lois Lane as a heartbroken bridesmaid, Superman marries Lana and, as a wedding present, provides her with a test tube full of experimental serum. The treatment grants Lana super powers identical to his own. And because she’s a human being, not a Kryptonian, Lana will also remain immune to kryptonite.
Yet in the context of 1961 sexual politics, that happy outcome turns out to be tragic.
As Super-Lana repeatedly rescues her husband from kryptonite traps, his attitude shifts from gratitude to depression.
“His pride’s hurt, due to my invulnerability to kryptonite!” Super-Lana thinks. “Before HE was the world’s mightiest person … But now they’re saying I’m GREATER than he is, and that he NEEDS me desperately!”
After saving Superman from the effects of his own rampage when he’s rendered evil by red kryptonite, Super-Lana does what is obviously the only thing left for her to do, and packs her suitcase to leave Earth forever.
Wait, what?
“My invulnerability to kryptonite has proven a CURSE! So – I’m going to give you back your self-respect by going out of your life forever!” she tells Superman. “I’ll live in another galaxy! If you love me … HELP me … By looking the other way with your telescopic vision, so you won’t see where I go! Don’t … follow! Goodbye … darling…”
Of course, Superman talks her out of this self-sacrificing but obviously bad decision, right?
Wrong. He agrees with her.
Turning away heartbroken, Superman thinks, “She’s … right! In time, our love for each other would’ve been destroyed by her pity for me! How can I be her hero when she’s mightier than I am? … (Choke!!)”
Neither Superman nor Lana seem to care or consider that more than the “destruction of their love” is at issue here — that robbing the Earth of another hero like Superman will result in the loss of thousands of lives in tragedies that could have been prevented.
I’m still touched by the soap operatic grandeur artist Kurt Schaffenberger invested in that last panel of a tearful Super-Lana flying off into space, thinking that she’ll “never, never stop loving him … (Sob!)”
Very noble, Lana. But the fact remains that you are exiling yourself from humanity forever merely in order to spare Superman’s fragile ego from having to confront the fact that a mere woman might be more powerful than he is.
Clark Kent and Don Draper turn out to have a lot in common.
Goes to show you how the unconscious attitudes of one generation can, soon enough, become the sick jokes of another.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Super-Lad Strains the Suspension of Disbelief

Even in 1959, at the age of 5, a guy knew when he was being had.
So Jimmy Olsen just coincidentally happens to be wearing a Superman costume for a fan club meeting when he coincidentally gets stuck on a missile that coincidentally lands on the planet Zolium, where conditions coincidentally grant Earth people super powers — coincidentally, the exact same powers as Superman?
And why couldn’t the cub reporter use his Superman signal watch to summon the Man of Steel to rescue him? Because, coincidentally, those little “zee-zee-zee” signals can’t travel through outer space.
Aw, come on.
Such was the scenario provided for our amusement by writer Robert Bernstein in The Super-Lad of Space!, the cover story in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen 39 (Sept. 1959).
Actually, all those coincidences weren’t the annoying part of the story. We were accustomed to those. What was irritating was the Jimmy Olsen, instead being amazed at suddenly being granted the powers of his hero and glorying in his ability to fly and bop monsters on the nose, spends all his time fretting that the Zoliumians (Zoliumites? Zolians? Whatever) can see through the various secret identities he tries to establish.
Bigger picture, Jimmy! This is ultimate wish fulfillment. Enjoy it! Generally, stories suggesting that you might not have to be born on Krypton to acquire super powers stirred fantasies that plunked those dimes down on newsstand counters.
Nevertheless, this was still a favorite story of mine. Why? Two words: Curt Swan.
The famed Superman artist was then approaching the peak of his powers, and flexing the muscles of his creative ingenuity. The detailed verisimilitude of Swan’s style made you believe in the actual existence of impossible things, and this alien setting provided an opportunity for him to go to town drawing giant flying metal-eating monsters, giant twelve-legged borrowing monsters, massive spiraling death rays, a wide variety of exotic alien dress, etc. etc.
More than a half-century later, I can vividly recall those gigantic yellow melons grown underground to feed the population of Zolium.
That, my friends, is called talent.

Amazing Spider-Man 3: Live and Learn

In a convention charged with psychological significance, superheroes frequently fight distorted mirror images of themselves.
Spider-Man battled other “animal men” from the start, defeating the Chameleon in Amazing Spider-Man 1 and the Vulture in ASM 2. But Dr. Octopus, in the third issue, was the most clearly mirrored of the villains (spiders and octopi both being multi-limbed, somewhat creepy creatures). And Otto Octavius also provided an opportunity for dramatic development unique in superhero comics at the time.
For The Amazing Spider-Man was not just a series but a serial, a soap opera, and at first its teenage protagonist was really too immature to handle the dangerous responsibilities thrust upon him by his guilt over his uncle’s death.
Peter Parker got a lesson in life’s unfairness in the first issue, when after rescuing J. Jonah Jameson’s son from certain death, the Daily Bugle publisher still trashed Spider-Man.
In the second issue, Spider-Man’s challenges escalated from a master of disguise to the Vulture, his first fully super-powered foe. Acquitting himself well in that showdown, Spidey regarded his victory the way many inexperienced young men would.
He became overconfident.
“It’s almost TOO easy,” Spidey mused. “I’ve run out of enemies who can give me any real opposition. I’m too powerful for ANY foe. I almost WISH for an opponent who’d give me a run for my money.”
In ASM 3 (July 1963), Lee and Ditko fulfill Spidey’s wish by confronting him with Dr. Octopus, who gives him a beat-down that shakes his confidence to the core. However, inspired by the Human Torch, a sadder but wiser Spider-Man returns to fight another day…
Comics historian Don Alsafi noted that Dr. Octopus, too, is characterized with subtle sophistication.
“When we first meet Dr. Otto Octavius, he seems a genial sort of man: well-liked, respected by his colleagues, and miraculously unscarred from the trauma of having been named Otto,’” Alasfi wrote. “However, an explosive accident during his atomic research causes the metal arms he uses in his experiments to fuse to his body — and Doctor Octopus is born!
“Although we only get to see Octavius for about a page before his mind becomes deranged, what’s interesting is just how abrupt this change is, and the idea of a man suddenly enslaved by his madness. In an era where most villains were evil just because, the astute reader quickly realizes that this isn’t the way Otto has always been, and the tragedy of that original mind trapped within the broken one is poignant.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mac Raboy: From Fawcett to Flash

Mention the name Flash Gordon to me and you conjure images of the lithe, clean-lined figures drawn by Mac Raboy, and not those of Alex Raymond, the newspaper strip’s celebrated creator.
That’s because in 1959 or 1960, when I first saw the strip in the Sunday color funny pages, Raboy drew it. I’d never heard of Raymond, the artist who’d inspired Raboy and who’d also created another strip I liked, Rip Kirby (then drawn by John Prentice).
Born in New York City in 1914, Emanuel “Mac” Raboy began his career with government-funded art classes and in President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Several of his federally funded wood engravings remain in the permanent collection of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum.
“Heavily influenced by the outstanding Flash Gordon work of Alex Raymond, Raboy created Captain Marvel Jr. in its image,” noted comics historian David Brancatelli. “His figures were lithe and majestic, tightly rendered and classically composed … The anatomy and draftsmanship were always perfect.”
Comics historian Benito Cereno wrote, “Raboy’s work on Captain Marvel Jr. manages to strike a perfect balance between the drama and dynamism necessary for the superhero genre and a realistic-looking, though idealized, vision of a teenage boy who punches Nazis all the time (whose overall look and design famously inspired the caped jumpsuits worn by latter era Elvis Presley).”
Raboy left Fawcett to draw the Green Lama in 1944. “The strip became a minor classic, but it never sold enough,” Brancatelli observed.
In 1948, King Features assigned Raboy to take over his hero’s strip, a step up for him in the popular mind because newspaper comic strips were respected while comic books were often despised. Raboy, who kept a portfolio of Raymond’s Flash Gordon art by his side for inspiration, drew the strip until his death in December 1967.
Comics historian Graham Exton observed that Raboy’s life ended on an odd note of synchronicity. In the summer of 1967, Raboy stayed in a quiet cottage near the village of Flash, Staffordshire, and produced his last comic strips there.
“Flash Gordon was actually produced in Flash. Some coincidence!” Exton noted. “Mac was clearly very ill at the time, and died shortly afterwards, presumably as a result of heavy smoking.”

Friday, May 12, 2017

There Were Giants in Those Days

Ah, those glorious “annuals.” I use quotation marks here because their popularity pushed up their publication faster than yearly.
If regular comics were a ten-cent treat, the annuals were a quarter miracle.
I had just turned 6 in June 1960 when I pushed aside the other comics on the newsstand.
Out of my way, Ricky Nelson comics, Beep Beep the Road Runner 6, Girls’ Romances 70 and Tales to Astonish 13 (featuring some giant monster, no doubt soon to be forgotten, by the name of Groot).
I had eyes only for something new under the sun, and stared agog at the first Superman Annual.
I loved Superman, and an 80-age comic that promised some of the best of his past adventures seemed to be designed with me personally in mind. Fortunately, hundreds of thousands of other kids had that same feeling, and plunked down enough hard-wheedled quarters to make the giants a permanent fixture of the Silver Age.
Within this square-bound beauty were The Witch of Metropolis from Lois Lane 1 (March-April 1958), The Supergirl from Krypton from Action Comics 252 (May 1959). A Visit from Superman’s Pal from Superboy 55 (March 1957); The Girl in Superman’s Past from Superman 129 (May 1959); The Execution of Krypto from Superboy 67 (Sept. 1958); The Fattest Girl in Metropolis from Lois Lane 5 (Nov.-Dec. 1958); The Super-Brain of Jimmy Olsen from Jimmy Olsen 22 (Aug. 1957); The Super-Key to Fort Superman from Action 241 (June 1958) and a story called Superman’s First Exploit. It wasn’t — it was from Superman 106 (July 1956) — but we were too happy to care.
Included, intrigingly, were the first issue covers of Superman, Superboy, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, then rarely seen, and a map of Krypton designed by Jerry Siegel. A treasure indeed.
But the second Superman “annual” appeared on the newsstand a mere six months later, and was even better. The “All-Menace” issue featured Superman’s battles with Brainiac, Titano, Bizarro, Metallo, the Invulnerable Enemy and the Thing from 40,000 AD. Tarzan also landed his own Dell Giant late in 1960.
June of 1961 brought the third Superman Annual (“The Strange Lives of Superman”) and two others that I missed because they sold out instantly — the first Batman Annual and Secret Origins.
I can vividly remember my shame at bursting into tears when the news dealer told me Secret Origins had vanished as soon as he’d set it out.
The fourth Superman Annual (“Adventures in Time and Space and on Alien Worlds”) arrived in November, along with the second Batman Annual (“Action Roles!”)
Over at a company book company that had not yet even acquired its famous name, Stan Lee took notice. He published a Strange Tales Annual full of giant monster stories in July 1962, along with a Millie the Model Annual. In 1964, Lee published Marvel Tales Annual, a title devoted to reprints of superhero features then only a year or two old.
My love for these 80-page giants tempted me to try to bind my favorite comics into volumes — an idea better in conception than in reality, I’m afraid.
Why do I write these articles and create these collages? Mostly because these comic books warmed me with an immense joie de vivre at the dawn of my life, and I like to rekindle at least a reflection of its radiance here at sunset.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Trump Breaks Watergate Record

As Alfred Adler advised, don’t listen to what the words say. Watch where the feet go. Obviously, Trump fired FBI director James Comey because Comey had evidence that Trump’s a bought-and-paid-for Russian agent.
Trump’s now desperate, and that makes him even more dangerous. And Trump was already plenty dangerous.
It took Nixon five years to get to Watergate, but Trump has arrived at his in only a hundred days. I suppose that qualifies as some kind of accomplishment. Sets a new Republican record.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Robert Lincoln: Saved by the Hand of Fate

Robert Lincoln, son of the 16th president
Robert Lincoln nearly died on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey, in late 1864 or early 1865.
He described the strange synchronicity of events in a 1909 letter to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine:
“The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform.
“Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”
The famed Shakespearean actor did not learn until some months later than the man whose life he’d saved was the son of the president whom his brother would assassinate.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Green Lantern: The Color of Excitement

The colors were what I found irresistible at first glance.
I was 6 years old when Green Lantern 3 (Nov.-Dec. 1960) appeared on the newsstand, and I’d already met the Emerald Crusader in the pages of Brave and the Bold 29 (April-May 1960). That was the second issue featuring something called the Justice League of America, a concept that left me dizzy with delight.
GL 3 drew my dime like a magnet, I think because of the cover’s child-pleasing array of vivid colors. Yellow futuristic tanks fired red lightning bolts that bounced off Green Lantern’s defensive force bubble. I had a thing about lightning bolts (which simply must be drawn with little jagged edges, you know). Red ones were particularly appealing.
And within that force bubble, drawing the eye, was Gil Kane’s intriguingly designed, form-fitting costume for the jet-age Green Lantern, with its spring-green torso balanced by arms and legs as sleek and black as an oil spill.
What I didn’t see at that time was John Broome and Kane’s careful construction of an elaborate cosmic mythology to amplify and extend the Aladdin’s lamp concept of the 1940s’ Green Lantern.
Their ideas tumbled forth in rapid profusion, among them a parallel universe where the moral polarity is reversed, a series-within-a-series set in the far future and an exotica, Lensman-like police force whose power battery insignias identified them as nearly omnipotent space patrolmen.
“Broome’s stories tend to come in series,” noted comics historian Mike Grost. “These are two or three stories with common subject matter and approaches. Apparently his creative imagination worked that way: rarely just one story, and rarely four or more in a series, but rather two or three. There are three main early stories about Qward, and three stories about Sinestro and the Green Lantern Corps: these two series were the science fiction high point of the early magazine. There were also three Sonar stories, two Zero Hour tales, two Star Sapphire stories, and so on.”
“What was most wonderful about Green Lantern was the science fictional background. Story after story opened vistas of life among the galaxy, life lived by dozens of intelligent races among the stars. The fact that these races were literally of all colors sent a civil rights message that resonated with the politics of that era.
“Green Lantern was unusual among comic book super heroes in that his powers were not fixed and limited. Instead, whatever he could imagine, the ring could do. Broome tried not to repeat himself from issue to issue. Instead, he tried to make each super feat something that Green Lantern had not done before. The newness of the feats was not underlined by editorial comment; it just was. Still, it is remarkable to see Broome stay fresh across stories.”
“Green Lantern also had the role of exposer of hidden truth. The ring had remarkable search capabilities. In the first story, SOS Green Lantern (1959), it searches the entire globe of Earth, for example.”
“Green Lantern’s powers were unusual in that they could explore the inner workings of the human mind. He could shine the rays from his ring on a person’s brain, and it would penetrate to its hidden resources and memories. Many stories center on the ring’s exteriorizing people’s thoughts, giving them bodily shape outside a person’s mind. The ring translates Green Lantern’s wishes and thoughts directly into green beams, for instance. The monster in The Invisible Destroyer (1959) emerges from a character’s subconscious, as does that of The Leap Year Menace (1960) in #3.”
All that power-packed wonder, and the lyrical lines of Gil Kane’s art. Who could resist? Why try?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Guardians 2: The Wizard of Oz in Space

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 last night with Bill, Bart and Jeff. It’s a terrific piece of entertainment, easily moving from witty, character-driven comedy to effective and even heartfelt melodrama.
The irresistible cuteness of Groot, the reluctant sweetness of Gamora, the damaged humanity of Nebula, the social obtuseness of Drax, the charm of Quill and the unique comedy/pathos of Rocket — all delicious. The film even includes an interesting philosophical undercurrent concerning one of the long-time Marvel Comics characters, aptly named “Ego.”
I was struck, once again, by the subtle but strong echoes of The Wizard of Oz in these films — a child is whirled from rural America to an otherworldly environment, teaming up with a talking animal, a being composed of plant matter, a mechanical person and other strange companions to learn that what you needed was with you all along.
The critics who have carped that it’s “just more of the same” are missing the point that it’s a seamless continuation of the first film’s story, and is as good or marginally better than the first movie. When it ended, members of the audience applauded. I was one of them, and I drove home with a smile on my face.
As Karen Teeple said, “It was nice to laugh and forget about our government for a few hours.”

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Hidden Defenders of Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko’s 1950s’ fantasy stories offer examples of one of his running themes: the hidden defender.
Unheralded and unrecognized by the people he protects, the hidden defender is some ordinary-looking person who has access to strange powers that enable him to protect humanity from equally hidden threats. This “unappreciated hero” angle can also seen be in the novels of Ayn Rand, a writer Ditko admires.
In The Old Fool (Charlton’s Tales of the Mysterious Traveler 6, Dec. 1957), Ditko presents us with an old man in the Greek village of Derniani, a silent, self-absorbed character so odd that many villagers talk about having him “put away.”
What they don’t know is that each day the old man sits on a mountainside overlooking the village, meditating and gathering the powers of nature. He uses them to detect and avert various perils — quenching a fire that would have destroyed many houses, calming a runaway horse that would a crushed a little girl. If the contemptuous townspeople ever succeed in having the old man locked away, their village will be plagued by disasters.
In From Out of the Depths (Charlton’s This Magazine Is Haunted 14, Dec. 1957), one of Ditko’s fluid, shadowy creep-things crawls out of the Gulf of Mexico.
A poor peasant named Juan, plagued by drought and at the end of his rope, is the first to see the mysterious horror, which lurches toward the one pathetic crop he has left. In desperation, little Juan channels his fear into anger and charges straight at the giant thing. The very force of his outrage renders the alien being into its constituent elemental gasses, one of which causes rain…
One of my favorite Charlton stories by Ditko is The Human Powerhouse (Strange Suspense Stories 48, July 1960). Accountant George Clinton finds himself mysteriously charged with electrical power, capable of burning down trees and destroying boulders. Then he somehow senses something far out in space, “…a flock of gruesome living entities bearing new and terrible diseases to Earth from another galaxy.” Clinton discharges all his electrical power into the sky, destroying them. Some mysterious natural balance is achieved.
In a broad sense, all superheroes who have secret identities are expressions of this “secret protector” theme. And in a specific sense, so was one of the two most popular characters Ditko ever created. Ordinary people thought of Dr. Stephen Strange as just a Greenwich Village eccentric. They didn’t know that he was the only thing standing between them and unimaginable horrors…

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.”