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.