Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Why the Democratic Party Lost in 2016

The Democrats lost for many reasons — the party’s failure to address the slow, painful demise of the American middle class, a damaged candidate who was unappealing to many, relentless corporate media propaganda, successful voter suppression and others, including the fact that the election in this “democratic republic” doesn’t actually go to the person who wins the most votes.
The Democrats should have seen GOP fascism coming for decades, and boldly attempted to stop it from the bully pulpit. Instead, they whistled past the graveyard and tried to pretend it wasn’t there while giving happy talk interviews to the fascist propagandists at Fox News.
And now, my friends, we pay the bill.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Never Seen Mad Men? Here's Why You Should

Mad Men was a stylishly executed, sprawling and sophisticated novel of a show about the historic illusions of American society — the facade of postwar suburban perfection, the ignored injustice of 1960s attitudes toward blacks, gays and women in a society “with justice for all,” and a man who successfully sells lies in a backstabbing profession of lies on Madison Avenue. 
The series’ underlying joke is that the man himself is a lie, and its running theme is the characters’ confused groping toward truth.

Monday, December 26, 2016

More Giant Turtle Men Than One Would Expect

You can thank — or blame — Mort Weisinger for all the giant turtle men who used to wander around tearing up highway bridges.
The first was cover-featured in the July 1940 issue of the Weisinger-edited pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories, an illustration for Out Of The Depths by H.L. Gold.
In 1941, Weisinger moved from Standard Magazines to National Periodicals as editor of the Superman and Batman titles. That’s why Superman’s pal became a giant turtle man in Jimmy Olsen 53 (June 1961).
Superman might have had a sense of déjà vu, because he had also confronted a giant turtle man in Superboy 30 (Jan. 1954).
As the Curt Swan/Bill Finger story The Giant Who Came to Smallville! opens, a turtle the size of a Volkswagen clamps onto the Smallville mayor’s car, prompting Superboy to sort things out. The Boy of Steel returns the turtle to its owner, a local scientist named Willis, who complains that no one in Smallville takes his growth serum seriously.
“They all think my giant turtle is just a freak — an accident!” he says. “And they call me a crazy scientist!”
Can’t imagine why. It’s not like he would leave his growth formula in a temptingly shiny test tube next to the baby crib where his infant son could drink it.
Oh wait. He did.
It would prove to be Willis’ last mistake. While the baby was drinking the stuff, his parents were being killed by a volcanic eruption at the remote location to which they’d moved.
The baby, now grown to giant turtle manhood, wanders off to Metropolis, where he plays with an ocean liner as if it were a toy boat. Superboy has his hands full trying to protect the innocent child from being killed by military planes while shielding the public from the giant and finding a way to corral it. With characteristic compassion, he does so by finding a way to befriend the giant boy, not by frightening him.
Superboy develops an antidote to shrink the creature back to normal and arranges for the Smallville mayor to adopt the orphan, while keeping him in the dark about any colossal reptilian incidents in the boy’s past.
Cross-index this one under Monster Toddlers, a category that includes the Fantastic Four’s Infant Terrible and Captain James T. Kirk’s Squire of Gothos.
The story worked a little better here than when it was retooled for Jimmy Olsen. After all, Jimmy had to be not merely expanded into a giant turtle man but also “babyfied” in the brain.
It’s also easier for readers to accept the idea that a toddler might drink a dangerous super-scientific freakish-transformation serum than that Superman’s friends Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Lana Lang and Perry White would do so.
And, of course, delightfully. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Breakfast with Bond

“James Bond’s favorite meal of the day was breakfast,” Tom Weiss wrote. “It was also the favorite meal of Ian Fleming, 007’s creator. Fleming made breakfast not only ‘Bond’s favorite meal of the day,’ but also ‘an important part of Bond’s day.’ This was not mere rhetoric. Among the five hundred meals mentioned in the entire Bond oeuvre, 115 were breakfasts, eighty of them described in appetizing detail.
“When Bond was at home, breakfast consisted of a single perfectly boiled egg, toast with jam, and coffee. It ‘was always the same’ (From Russia with Love). Of course, as a gourmand, Bond could not have an ordinary egg, or just any old jam or coffee — he had exacting standards. The egg came from a French Marans hen, was speckled brown, and boiled for three and one-third minutes. The toast was whole wheat, usually two thick slices with Jersey butter, and there would be three confitures available: Tiptree “Little Scarlet” strawberry jam, Coopers Vintage Oxford marmalade, and Norwegian honey. When in London, the coffee had to come from De Bry on New Oxford Street, and was served only in Menton china…”
“When faced with death, what did Bond eat for breakfast? In Live and Let Die, desperately trying to stay out of the clutches of Mr. Big and his henchmen, Bond ordered room service at the St. Regis in New York: pineapple juice, cornflakes, shirred eggs and bacon, toast with marmalade, and a double espresso. When it arrived, it dawned on him that he had ordered the hearty breakfast of a condemned man. This marked one of the only times Bond had cereal, and the only time he ate shirred eggs. Most of the time, he preferred his eggs scrambled, not shirred.”
By the way, I can see why James Bond stayed in shape. By American standards, Bond’s typical breakfast in his plane-tree’d flat off the King’s Road is nothing much. By postwar English standards, it was lavish.

James Bond Meets Synchronicity

James Bond encounters synchronicity in Ian Fleming’s novel Moonraker:
“Startled at the great crimson words, Bond pulled in to the curb, got out of the car and crossed to the other side of the street to get a better view of the big skysign.
“Ah! That was it. Some of the letters had been hidden by a neighbouring building. It was only one of those Shell advertisements. ‘SUMMER SHELL is HERE’ was what it said.
“Bond smiled to himself and walked back to his car and drove on.
“When he had first seen the sign, half-hidden by the building, great crimson letters across the evening sky had flashed a different message.
“They had said: ‘HELL is HERE… HELL is HERE… HELL is HERE.’”
What Bond didn’t know was that Sir Hugo Drax was at that moment preparing the clandestine launch of a nuclear missile at London.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Captain Comet Deals with Dinosaurs

The mutant superhero Captain Comet returned in Strange Adventures 11 (Aug. 1951) for his third appearance, but second adventure.
Titled The Day the Past Came Back, this story by writer John Broome and artist Carmine Infantino starts by pitting this transitional superhero figure against one of my favorite foes, a Tyrannosaurus rex (this one revived from a skeleton in the Midwest City Museum Hall of Fossils).
Luckily, librarian Adam Blake is nearby. Wading into the action while museum patrons panic, the Man of Destiny uses superhuman strength to handily hurl away the dinosaur. But he learns that Capitol City (apparently Washington, D.C.) is overrun by brontosauruses, pterodactyls, devolved humans and other prehistoric menaces, thanks to an evolution reverser ray invented by Dr. Alex Philador, who has decided humanity is evil and requires a reboot.
The tale anticipates DC’s Silver Age gorilla fetish as Comet himself is devolved into an ape. But the simian superhero, retaining his advanced intelligence, surprises Philador and saves the day. The exploit ends with the humble librarian asking his coworker Miss Torrence to tell jim just how wonderful Captain Comet is.
The increasingly streamlined art and the science fictional themes pointed directly at the superheroic ingredients that would converge to spark the Silver Age of Comics five years later, in Showcase 4 (Sept.-Oct. 1956).

Thursday, December 15, 2016

How Ultra-Superman Got a Swelled Head

Why bother being a mere Superman when you could be an “Ultra-Superman?”
The Superman of 1959 was already powerful enough, a guy who could just about, as Denny O’Neil famously put it, “…destroy a galaxy by listening hard.” But in Action Comics 256 (Sept. 1959), we got an upgrade — a highly evolved Superman from the year 100,000 who can apparently project images and predict the future.
Written by Otto Binder and drawn by Curt Swan, this tale turns out to be just another of Superman’s elaborate hoaxes — this one designed to smoke out a foreign agent’s assassination plot against the president (presumably Eisenhower).
It’s funny. Those “it’s all a hoax” plots tended to make the stories slightly less fantastic, but even more implausible. Not an ideal tradeoff.
Nevertheless, this popular tale was much reprinted, notably in 1961’s third Superman annual (The Strange Lives of Superman! giant).
The weird transformations of Superman and his friends were always an eye-catcher, and all the pals took a turn at the classic “super-intelligent big head look.”
“Of all the freakish distortions of the human body depicted on the covers of superhero comics, none of them quite compared to the spectacle of Big Head Covers (not to be confused with Floating Head Covers),” noted Mark Engblom in Comic Coverage.
“Huge, swollen craniums have been a staple of science fiction dating back to the pulps of the 1920s and ’30s, usually associated with malevolent alien masterminds or highly evolved future-men. As pulps gradually gave way to comic books, big-headed characters found their way into the burgeoning superhero fad, usually as villains...such as Brainwave (All-Star Comics 37, 1947). During the science-fiction craze of the late 1950s and early 60s, Big Head covers began appearing at an alarming rate. It should come as no surprise that the constantly transforming Superman Family was hit particularly hard.”
Engblom notes that Superman startled Lois with his “…intensely disturbing (and vaguely X-rated) futuristic head.” LOL, as they say.
The issue also included the new feature Supergirl and the old feature Congo Bill, recently updated as Congorilla. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Police State, American Style: The 1965 edition

Poet and activist Allen Ginsberg
In 1965, jazz musician Jack Martin was arrested for marijuana possession in New York, and four narcotics agents had a little talk with him.
“(T)hey told him that his bail would be raised from five to ten thousand dollars and that additional charges would be added to his indictment unless he helped them out,” Barry Miles wrote.
“Agent Bruce Jensen acted as their spokesman. ‘We want Ginsberg,’ he said. ‘How would you like to see your wife in jail? … We don’t want you, we want the guy you get it from … Do you know Ginsberg? … Can you get him for us? … Can you set up Allen Ginsberg?’
“To the enforcers, it was inconceivable that Ginsberg would advocate for marijuana (legalization) unless he was somehow involved in its sale and trafficking.” In fact, Martin had never met Ginsberg, who was in California and knew nothing of these events.
Later, at a benefit for a friend, Martin rose and made a speech describing how Jensen had tried to force him to entrap Ginsberg. Three undercover agents in the crowd jumped him, and others — thinking the agents were mere thugs — scuffled with them.
It all ended up in court later, and by then Ginsberg had learned of the matter and appeared there, telling the New York Times: “I feel like the noose of the police state is closing in on me. I’ve had experience of police states in Prague and it’s very similar here.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Can-Do Camelot Era in DC Comics

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

Monday, December 12, 2016

DC Comics Gives the Children a Big Hand

A young couple is driving in a convertible on a sunny day, top down, as a giant hand looms above them. Preparing to seize them? To crush them? How can they possibly escape?
That was the “grabber” of a Gil Kane cover on Strange Adventures 110 (Nov. 1959), and it certainly seized my attention when I saw it in DC Comics house ads at age 5.
I speculated for a long time about what was going in that comic, but never got a chance to read the story until years later. And by that time, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the occult hand was no threat at all.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, in DC’s sunny science fiction titles, alien invasions were routinely thwarted by pet dogs and postmen, and plesiosaurs were tamed and put on display at SeaWorld. The threats implied by the covers were tamed, too, and while that may have made the contents of the comics a little less exciting, it also cut down on the ensuing nightmares.
DC, following not merely the letter but also the spirit of the Comes Code, built reassurance into their stories. The writers, editors and artists took their responsibility to their audience of small children seriously.
Responsibility was in fact the theme of the 9-page story The Hand from Beyond, written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Carmine Infantino, and the tale turns out to be a perfect example of the type.
The mysterious giant hand appears throughout Bill Vickers’ life, always to protect him from deadly peril. Why? Because an alien scientific experiment gone wrong had accidentally impaired Bill’s adrenal glands as a boy, depriving him of the “fight-or-flight” response humans need to help them survive in an emergency. The giant hand was the aliens’ way of protecting him from the damage they’d done.
The issue includes two more science fiction stories and those science fact features that DC always included during an era when Americans still respected facts and science. Technological advances had, after all, just ended World War II and were about to send humanity to the moon. Enticing house ads for the former Quality Comics title Blackhawk and the new features Suicide Squad and Green Lantern were also included.
In the end, Vickers recovers his sense of danger and rejects the aliens’ protection, a decision I’d have advised him to rethink. Having a giant hand always pop up to shield me from mortal harm is the kind of problem I could live with.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Superman: That Thing You Doom

Oddly, despite his science fictional origins, Superman went for a long stretch of his early career having few science fictional adventures. Mundane criminals and crusades against social injustice and political corruption occupied much of his day.
By the time Superman 87 arrived in February 1954, things had started to change.
In this classic tale by writer Bill Finger and artist Wayne Boring, a shape-shifting blob monster from Earth’s bleak far future invades Metropolis, generally wreaking havoc and finally duplicating even Superman, complete with powers.
Their super-battle remains a thunderous standoff until the Man of Tomorrow maneuvers the Thing to a nuclear test site. In 1938, Superman could be knocked for a loop by a “bursting shell,” but by the 1950s he could shrug off H-bomb blasts. The Thing, however, could not.
Science fiction menaces had begun challenging Superman with more frequency during that era — among them The Three Supermen from Krypton in Superman 65 (July-Aug. 1950), It from Action Comics 162 (Nov. 1951), The Machines of Crime from Action Comics 167 (April 1952), the dragon-like Beast from Krypton in Superman 78 (Sept-Oct. 1952), the Return of Planet Krypton in Action Comics 182 (July 1953), the asteroid Menace from the Stars in World’s Finest 65 (Jan.-Feb. 1954, a story also featured on TV as Panic in the Sky).
I suspect it was Hollywood that put the science fiction back into Superman’s stories. Once relegated to movie serials for kids, the genre had reemerged in popular, critically acclaimed films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The War of the Worlds (1953).
Superman’s Thing, specifically, owed a lot to the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing from Another World. The menace there was an extraterrestrial vegetable monster played by James Arness, but in the 1938 story on which the film was based, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?, the Thing is a alien shape-shifter from 20 million years ago.
The blog Confessions of a Superman Fan noted that The Thing from 40,000 A.D. is, “…a fast-paced story with solid art by Wayne Boring and a rare physical match for Superman. It’s also very much a product of 1954, what with the flying saucer angle and story elements prefiguring two sci-fi cinema classics: The Blob (1958) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). And of course there’s the chilling cameo by the dreaded H-Bomb, very much on everyone’s mind at the time.
“Someone must have liked the story, because it was reprinted in Superman 196 (May 1967), and while reprints were not such a rare thing back in the day, they usually didn’t get a second go-round as the lead story, earning the cover spotlight twice.”
The story was also republished in the second Superman Annual (Jan. 1961). As thrilled as I was by the first annual in 1960, I was even more excited to see this “All-Menace” issue — finally, foes worthy of Superman’s stature and some real super-powered action! For the bargain of a mere quarter, you got Metallo, the Invulnerable Enemy, Titano the Super-Ape, Bizarro, Brainiac and my favorite, the Thing from 40,000 A.D. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Those Ugly Things Inside Trump's Cabinet

We just need to rename the positions to suit Trump's nominees — you know, the Secretary of Anti-Labor, the Secretary of Anti-Education, the Criminal General, the Secretary of Illness and Inhuman Services, the Secretary of Looting the Treasury, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of State of Collapse...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Sensible Approach to Sense Experience

“Normally, although our experience is dominated by what we are taking in through our senses, we give ourselves little time for all this sense experience to settle within us; sense experience is piled upon sense experience,” Paramananda wrote in A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation. “Often this feels unsatisfactory, but instead of trying to simplify our experience we continue to seek out new sensations that we hope will do the trick.
“We want to believe that the world, in the sense of what is outside of us, can supply us with all the essential components for our contentment and happiness and assemble them, too. We want to believe it is a matter of finding just the right job or the right sexual relationship for everything to fall into place.
“Of course these things are important — we need to be nourished by friendship and satisfying external experiences, we need to feel that we are doing something of worth with our lives. Yet our ability to be nourished by the external world, to find enjoyment and fulfillment in the things we do, is largely dependent on our inner mental states.
“Our addiction to external experience is based in a sense of internal impoverishment, a kind of hunger and restlessness. If we don’t see this, our experience becomes increasingly shallow, and the only way forward seems to be to seek out bigger experiences. Either that, or we give up.” 

When We Can't Even Agree on Factual Reality

Here’s my NPR Illinois essay on the Great American Political Divide caused by our inability to agree even on what the facts are. A radio interview is included. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Flying High with the Donald

The Crimefighter Who Posed as a Criminal

Knowing what a little superhero nut I was, even at age 5, my grandmother and aunt would tell me about superheroes they recalled. One of them was the Green Hornet.
And because superheroes were thin on the ground in 1959, I listened eagerly to what they remembered from dramatic radio, where the Green Hornet had debuted in 1936. I pictured some guy in green tights who drove a green car that made a buzzing sound. At least I got the buzzing sound right.
I learned later that the Green Hornet was nearly as popular as his relative, the Lone Ranger, who premiered on radio in 1933. Both characters also starred in comic books and movie serials, and I’m a little surprised that the Hornet never followed his ancestor’s footsteps into pulp magazines and newspaper comic strips.
Fran Striker and George W. Trendel’s Detroit-based Green Hornet radio adventures originally aired for 16 years, and listening to them made me realize that the character’s crime-fighting strategy is much better worked out than most. It’s really almost plausible in comparison to, say, Batman’s or Spider-Man’s.
Posing as a mysterious master criminal, Britt Reid is able to infiltrate and intimidate criminal operations that are often marginally within the law. When he exposes and destroys them, it’s dismissed as the action of a rival gangster, and no one figures out what he’s really up to. He also has the resources of a major newspaper to back up his operations and provide him with intelligence.
The approach was pretty well thought out, and retained the flashy super hero elements that made the Lone Ranger so successful — the mask and costume, the symbolic weapon, the daring and faithful friend, the spectacular and speedy transportation.
Trendle said he sought to “…show that a political system could be riddled with corruption and that one man could successfully combat this white-collar lawlessness.” Britt Reid initially hunted “…the biggest of all game! Public enemies that even the G-Men cannot reach!” But that perennial national busybody J. Edgar Hoover didn’t like the implication, so the announcer’s line was changed to “…public enemies who try to destroy our America!”
The Green Hornet’s licensed comic book adventures began in 1940 with Holyoke, but in 1942 switched to the more substantial Harvey Comics for a lengthy run under various titles, including Green Hornet Comics, Green Hornet Fights Crime and Green Hornet, Racket Buster.
The Hornet had a McCarthy era one-shot in Dell Four Color 496 (Sept. 1953), combating a mayoral candidate who was of course secretly a commie spy. In 1967, the Green Hornet returned in a Gold Key title based on the ABC TV series starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee.
Though a shadow of what he once was, the Green Hornet remains famous, and was still popular enough to inspire a pretty dreadful feature film in 2011. The movie was an interesting failure, however. Seth Rogen portrayed the character as the world’s first slacker superhero, interested in justice only as an extension of play. I have a feeling there’s an essay about differences in generational ethics somewhere in there.
Britt Reid also loaned the name of his valet, Kato, to the Pink Panther films.
The character pops up perennially in comics, most recently in a 2016 Dynamite Entertainment series that focused — finally — on the hero’s relationship to the Lone Ranger.
I once interviewed Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger on television and in movies during the 1950s. Thinking I’d trip him up, I asked the actor what his character’s relationship was to the Green Hornet.
“The Green Hornet was the Lone Ranger’s great-nephew,” he replied, in that deep, resonant, super heroic voice of his.
Apparently you can’t fool the Lone Ranger. I found that reassuring.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Super Foe in the Mirror

What’s strange is that with one mirror-image antagonist Superman — Bizarro — already an established character, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Curt Swan would introduce another one in Superman 137 (May 1960).
And what’s even stranger than that is how well the story would work.
As with his The Death of Superman and Superman’s Return to Krypton storylines, Superman’s creator would prove he could still supply plenty of angst and depth in stories about his brainchild two decades after the Man of Tomorrow’s debut.
Here, a mysterious alien spacecraft created a duplicate of Kal-El’s space rocket on its journey to Earth. We readers forgave Siegel the implausibility of the notion that a second Superman could have been raised secretly on Earth because of the intriguing idea this unlikely event permitted him to explore: what if someone other than the kindly Kents had raised Superman?
And in the age-old nature versus nurture debate, Siegel comes down firmly on the side of nurture.
The child raised by the criminals Wolf and Bonnie Derek becomes Super-Brat, inundating a town with giant snowmen, and then Super-Bully, a juvenile delinquent who releases the big cats from Smallville Zoo just so he can bat them around.
Finally, as the adult Super-Menace, he defeats and nearly destroys Superman with kryptonite. The Man of Steel’s life is spared only because Super-Menace’s super hearing reveals that his foster parents had always loathed him and were only manipulating him to satisfy their powerlust and greed. The unloved, heartbroken energy being buries the kryptonite with his super-breath and then — as they scream and plead for their lives — explodes himself at his foster parents, destroying them as well as himself.
Ineffectual as Superman was here, I was always happy that at least one member of the Superman family immediately smelled a rat whenever Super Menace was around.
You can’t fool Krypto, folks.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fiddling With Claptrap While Rome Burns

Republicans keep the country stirred up about things that are symbolic but meaningless in real-world terms — flaming flags, gay marriage, public religious displays, pledges, “death panels,” “wars on Xmas,“ “support the troops” magnets, etc. They are all matters of semantics, useful for keeping the American public distracted from the police-state erosions of its liberty and the corporate picking of its pockets.
In America, flag-waving, cross-swinging, education-hating, xenophobic fatuousness is always the first refuge of a scoundrel, and of the fools who follow him — or, in Palin's, Bachmann's and Conway's case, her. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Four-Color Throb of the Secret Heart

I always keep a couple of DC romance comics on my prized spinner rack — there among the superheroes, the monsters, the machine-gunner GIs and the spacemen — in order to mimic the actual effect of some newsstand in 1960.
Romance was a fresh sales gimmick created to supplant superheroes when they “retired” after World War II, evil presumably having been finally vanquished.
Jack Kirby and Joe Simon inspired the trend with Young Romance (Sept.–Oct. 1947). The first issue, purportedly aimed at “The More ADULT Readers of Comics,” sold 92 percent of its print run.  
The title was shortly selling a million copies a month, a figure guaranteed to inspire a whole genre devoted to the themes of “…romantic love and its attendant complications such as jealousy, marriage, divorce, betrayal and heartache,” Wikipedia noted.
The swiftness of the shift in the combat-weary public’s tastes is illustrated by a single title from EC Comics. Moon Girl and the Prince, starring a Wonder Woman-ish super heroine, debuted in the fall of 1947. By the 9th issue, in October 1949, the comic book was retitled A Moon, A Girl … Romance.
It occurs to me that I find romance comics kind of silly and superhero comics kind of serious, and that that attitude is, in itself, sublimely silly.
It also occurs to me that my ambivalence about the genre may have had something to do with the fact that romance comics tend to be about weakness and vulnerability, while superhero comics are of course about uncanny strength. So more than gender separated those two audiences.
Yet just scratch the surface, and you find that all stories about strength are necessarily also about weakness, and vice versa.
“A sissy wanted girls who scorned him; a man scorned girls who wanted him,” wrote Jules Feiffer, recalling the attitudes of the superheroes’ first fanboys in the 1930s and 1940s. “Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did — but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn't. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, L’il Abner’s or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out.
“Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That’s why they go hit so hard.”
This new stylized, abbreviated, four-color medium first offered individual combat and the triumph of justice. Then it offered anguished relationships and the fulfillment of yearning. The popularity of both genres proved that the ten-cent fantasy was to become a permanent feature of the American landscape.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Avengers: The Impolite Justice League

You know, it’s a funny thing, as Stan Lee would say. Even as a 9-year-old, I was aware that the Avengers, and not the Fantastic Four, were Marvel’s closest approximation of DC’s Justice League of America.
Like the JLA, the Avengers were a team composed of superheroes who all had their own preexisting features. And Disney-Marvel’s repetition of that pattern in the movies — introducing the team only after their individual film franchises were established — was immensely successful.
Beyond that, however, the Avengers didn’t much resemble the JLA, whose members were polite and so civilized they’d all apparently memorized the periodic table of elements. The Avengers were a rambunctious, uneasy lot, brought together only because the Norse god of evil had managed to easily frame the Hulk for a train wreck.
By the Avengers’ second issue (Nov. 1963), the Hulk was the odd monster out, leaping angrily away after being hurt by the revelation of how much his teammates disliked and distrusted him.
Look at the first two pages of that second issue. There’s no visual tension there — Kirby just shows the superheroes having an ordinary meeting. But Lee supplies the suspense through his hectoring dialogue, and builds toward the theme that a breakup is logical and inevitable.
Having a surly monster on a superhero team was a successful plot device Lee and Kirby had introduced with the Thing. An FF teammate had also angrily quit and flown away. The Human Torch — who might have been mistaken for a monster himself, when you think about it — bolted at the end of the third issue in March 1962. But unlike the Hulk, the Torch returned shortly.
The Hulk — his own comic book title having ended with the 6th issue in March 1963 — was now available to play either protagonist or antagonist as needed in the growing Marvel universe. The Hulk would immediately ally himself with the FF’s own hero-villain, the Submariner. Could the fan-demanded slugfest with the Thing be far off?
The shape-shifting Space Phantom was the issue’s villain. Thor, a late arrival to the confused combat, easily disposed of the Phantom, first by rusting his Iron Man armor with a sudden storm, then by bouncing him into limbo when the Phantom had the temerity to try to imitate not a mere human, but a god!
This, too, was satisfying to me as a 9-year-old. Like Superman, a Norse god should be able to handle most matters by himself.  And let’s not forget that this is the issue in which the Hulk suggests that he “…ain’t in the mood to play Spin the Bottle,” which leaves us with the unsettling thought that the monster sometimes IS in the mood to play Spin the Bottle.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Saying Goodbye with Kerouac and Ginsberg

Seventeen-year-old Allen Ginsberg had fallen for an 18-year-old cerebral charmer, his fellow Columbia University student Lucien Carr, at once. Ginsberg’s infatuation with 21-year-old Jack Kerouac, a sensitive and articulate merchant seaman, was equally instant.
All three were also in the giddy early stages of a love affair with intellectual enlightenment. Carr later called it the rebellious students’ search for valid values.
Jack Kerouac (l.) and Lucien Carr
“Their walk had taken them to the Union Theological Seminary; they stood on the corner of West 122nd Street and Broadway and looked down the hill to the gray spread of Harlem,” wrote Barry Miles, Ginsberg’s biographer. “Allen was moving out of the seminary and still had a few things to collect. He and Jack had discussed their admiration of Lucien, so there was a mutual understanding when Allen pointed out the door where he had first heard the Brahms Quintet (that had introduced him to Carr) six months earlier.”
“Allen collected the few books and belongings he had come for, and as he turned from the dormitory suite he bowed to it, made a gesture of farewell, and said, ‘Goodbye, door.’ He continued down the stairs, saying goodbye to each step as he went. He bade farewell to the seventh-floor landing, the sixth-floor landing and all the rest, like a poem, all the way down. Kerouac was struck by this: ‘Ah, I do that when I say goodbye to a place.’ They had a long, excited conversation about the recognition of each of the stairs as the final stair and about Allen’s realization of the changes in himself since he first climbed them six months before.
“‘That struck him as an awareness of a soul in space and time, which was his nature,’ Ginsberg said later. Jack asked him if he knew any other people with the same awareness. Was it awareness? Was it poetry? They decided that everyone had it who was in any way conscious or sensitive. ‘Everyone has the same soul. We’re all here together at once in the same place. Temporarily, with a totally poignant tearful awareness that we’re together,’ they decided. This recognition became the basis of their deep and lasting understanding of each other.”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Black Canary: Siren of the Superheroes

It was 1947. In postwar comic books, superheroes were on the way out and women were on the way in.
Romance comics had just arrived, and even titles like Action Comics and Detective Comics now had women displayed on their covers as prominently as the resident superheroes.
Over at Harvey Comics, the popular super heroine Black Cat had been awarded her own title in 1946. At Timely, in Captain America Comics 66 (Dec. 1947), Bucky got the boot, replaced as Cap’s sidekick by Golden Girl. In Marvel Mystery Comics 82 (May, 1947), the Sub-Mariner met his crime-fighting super-cousin Namora. The Human Torch would team up with Sun Girl.
And, with impeccable timing, the Black Canary arrived in Flash Comics 86 (Aug. 1947).
The creation of writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino, Dinah Drake was originally a masked Robin Hood criminal, a sexy foil for the dunderhead superhero Johnny Thunder.
As she became more law-abiding, the jiu jitsu expert also deftly tossed Johnny out of his own feature and the Justice Society of America. She appeared in Flash Comics until publication ceased in 1949 and with the JSA in All Star Comics until their run ended in 1951.
The Black Canary was back a little more than a decade later in dimension-hopping adventures with the Justice League of America. In 1965, she teamed up with Starman for two issues of Brave and the Bold, apparently as a tryout for a revival (DC did the same thing with an Hourman and Dr. Fate team-up). As comics became more adult in later decades, her relationship with Starman was revealed to be adulterous.
In 1969, when her husband, private eye Larry Lance, was killed, Black Canary joined the JLA and coincidentally got tricked out with a super power — a destructive voice — presumably to make her more useful. Really, she was there to replace Wonder Woman, who had lost her powers the year before and become an Emma Peel-style mod crime fighter.
The Black Canary has been around, in form or another, ever since, appearing more than once on television (in the 2002 WB series Birds of Prey, in the 2012 CW series Arrow, and elsewhere).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mr. Terrific: Truth, Justice and Boredom

London, 1920.
A World War I combat veteran, terminally bored and probably suffering what they then called “shell shock,” places a newspaper ad seeking adventure, and gets plenty of it.
That’s the opening of H. C. McNeile’s novel Bulldog Drummond. The protagonist’s predicament has since provided the springboard for more than one hero, among them The Equalizer and Mr. Terrific.
The latter debuted in Sensation Comics 1 (Jan. 1942) as a backup feature to Wonder Woman.
Writer Chuck Reizenstein and artist Hal Sharp gave the theme a nihilistic twist when young Terry Sloane, a polymath “Man of a Thousand Talents,” found life so unchallenging that he decided to commit suicide. But as with Hugh Drummond, adventure provided an antidote.
Sloane made himself a costume and went into the superhero game, saving a boy from a life of crime while putting some gangsters out of business. He and Wildcat joined the Justice Society in All Star Comics 24 (Spring, 1946). His last Golden Age adventure appeared in Sensation 63 (March, 1947).
Mr. Terrific returned in the Silver Age Justice League of America 37 (August, 1965), only to be murdered in Justice League of America 171 (October, 1979).
Sloane’s nom de guerre, adopted by Michael Holt in 1997, was the only part of the character to make it to TV in 1967.
The success of the Batman show prompted CBS to offer a superhero sitcom called Mr. Terrific, starring Stephen Strimpell as a gas station attendant who gained the strength of a thousand men and the ability to fly. Like Captain Nice over on NBC, this “Mr. Terrific” more closely resembled Sloane’s JSA colleague Hourman. Both gained time-limited super powers through wonder drugs.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Planet Earth Is Blue and There's Nothing I Can Do

Moments of romantic poignancy aren’t necessarily what you’d expect from DC science fiction and superhero comics of the late 1950s. But nevertheless, that’s what you sometimes got.
Take a look at the opening and closing panels from this Adam Strange story by writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino in Mystery in Space 57 (Feb. 1960). In the first, a young woman alone in a broad field looks anxiously at the sky, awaiting the arrival of the man she loves. In the last, a young man on a beach stares wistfully at the sky, thinking of his lover a teleport jump long light years away.
That scene, with its echoes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ star-crossed Martian lovers from 50 years previously, was one of the familiar pleasures in the adventures of Adam Strange, the thinking man’s superhero of the jet age.
His jazzy ray guns and rocket belts might never have been of much help against giants, monsters and alien invaders, but his scientifically trained brains and calm rationalist attitudes always were.
Americans generally prefer brawn to brains, however, and a house ad in that very issue — for Brave and the Bold 28 (Feb.-March 1960) — foreshadowed the renewed popularity of the powerhouse DC and Marvel superheroes who would change the face of comic books and popular entertainment forever.

On the Niceness of Nazis

Trump’s supporters enjoy a self-satisfied smile at every mouthy woman who gets some sense slapped into her, every gay guy who loses an eye to a broken beer bottle, every unarmed, uppity n*gger who gets shot in the street. Don’t let the fact that they bake Paula Deen Snickerdoodles fool you into thinking they're “nice people.”

Sunday, November 13, 2016

President Trump Takes the Joy Stick

Trump said he can easily “fix Obamacare” because he “knows how to do this stuff.” That's the extent of his policy. That he's “good” and ”knows how to do stuff.” He still sounds like a third grader.

Friday, November 11, 2016

What Bernie Sanders Saw That the DNC Ignored

“Let me be very clear. In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout.
“With all due respect, and I do not mean to insult anyone here, that will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not be successful.
— Bernie Sanders Aug. 28, 2015