Sunday, January 31, 2016

Another Look at the Monster at My Window

There’s something about the thing that’s inexorably approaching that can send a particularly keen frisson of fear straight up our spines.
I remember being impressed by this dramatic technique as a boy watching the otherwise undistinguished science fiction horror 1958 film Monster on the Campus. A woman walking home alone in the evening looks behind her and sees a shadowy, stalking figure moving furtively from tree to tree. Yikes!
The classic 1963 Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, based on a short story by Richard Matheson, frightened a generation. Passenger William Shatner — frightened by some thing, some creature he sees out there on the wing of the airliner — draws the window curtains. Overcome by curiosity, he yanks them open again to find the monster with its face pressed to the window, staring straight at him.
In a 3rd Rock from the Sun sitcom episode from 1999, Shatner, making his first appearance on the series, tells John Lithgow he saw something horrifying on the wing of the plane he just departed. Lithgow replies, “The same thing happened to me!” Lithgow had played the Shatner role in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie.
The trick works well in literature, too, as in Fritz Leiber’s 1941 short story Smoke Ghost. A man traveling home on the elevated train spots a vaguely menacing black thing on the rooftops that grows closer each day, as he passes. “Leiber very deftly captures that particular experience of riding home at night along suburban train lines, looking out over the roofs and seeing a peculiar high-rise world that is invisible from street level,” critic Maureen Kincaid Speller observed.
But my favorite example of this technique is Jack Kirby’s 1962 cover to Tales to Astonish 34, illustrating Monster at My Window. A hulking alien is crawling across the high ledge of an apartment building toward a frightened man at his window. The cover was memorable enough to earn a 2008 cartoon contest homage from New Yorker cartoonist Harry Bliss. By the way, the winning caption by Patrick House read, “O.K. I’m at the window. To the right? Your right or my right?”
Actually, the technique goes at least as far back as 1797, when by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

Like one, that on a lonely road        
     Doth walk in fear and dread,        
And having once turn'd round, walks on        
     And turns no more his head:        
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
     Doth close behind him tread.

The Secret Origin of Superman

Fascinated though I was by Superman when I was a small boy in the late 1950s, I had no idea where he came from.
My grandmother helped me out with that, recounting Superman’s origin for me — the doomed planet, that poor vulnerable infant in the rocket, the kindly Kents and their adopted son who could haul wagons like a team of horses and find lost objects by peering through hay stacks. She’d seen the story only once, a dozen years before in the 1948 movie serial Superman, but remembered it all vividly.
Interesting to note that in the 1948 serial, young Clark Kent saves his foster father from a tornado. But in the 2013 film Man of Steel, he deliberately lets him die in one. Times, as they say, have changed.
Superman (as an adult or as Superboy) was featured in seven DC titles at the time — Action Comics, Superman, World’s Finest, Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, Superboy and Adventure Comics — yet information on his early years remained oddly hard to come by.
Even when DC began reprinting Superman’s adventures in the first giant 25-cent annual in 1960, the 1930s and 1940s stories were ignored. Superman editor Mort Weisinger said that was because the art was “crude,” but I suspect it was in fact because the legendarily unfair and nasty Weisinger was trying to erase Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, from history.
So I didn’t start seeing Superman’s earliest adventures until about 1965, when cartoonist Jules Feiffer published his hardcover revelation, The Great Comic Book Heroes. There, among other wonders, was the complete account of how Superman saved the Valleyho Dam from a flood in Action Comics 5 (Oct. 1938).
And yes, the art may have been crude, but it was vital and dynamic in a way that the polished, static Silver Age Superman stories were not (as some wag once said, Superman stories had started to look as if they were being drawn in a bank).
Red cape streaming like a banner, Superman sprang, sped, soared, smashed, in constant exciting motion like the Marvel heroes who were about to overtake DC in popularity. He was not the omnipotent, blandly benign figure he’d evolved into by the 1950s. He couldn’t fly, he could be hurt, but you’d better get the hell out of his way.
Clearly an FDR-inspired socialist crusader spawned by the Great Depression, Superman was impatient with injustice and contemptuous of the compromised police. He dramatically deposed dictators, occasionally killing criminals without apparent regret, hurling wife beaters into walls and the owners of dangerous mines straight down into them. He dealt brusquely with Lois Lane and she loved him for it, just as she perversely (but typically) despised Clark Kent for adoring her.
The early Superman lived up to his name, a character of such emphatic momentum that walls, guns, tanks, planes, decades and even centuries could not stop him. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Who Has Seen Anything Cleaner?

…I wish we could be friends,
  but when he sees me
    daring to look at him
      he opens his strong arms

that are dressed, always, in the darkest ribbons,
  and floats off —
    but only a little way
      and he’s down again on the sandy track.

and who has seen yet anything cleaner,
    more gleaming, more certain of its philosophy
      than the eye he turns back?

From ‘Crow’ by Mary Oliver

The Fox News Idea of a "Real Journalist"

In other words, Megyn Kelly is a lying fascist propagandist, not a professional journalist
What Megyn Kelly represents is at least as dangerous as Donald Trump. What Kelly represents CREATED Trump and Ted Cruz. 
Kelly is a lying propagandist who, in the first Fox News debate, was under orders from Roger Ailes to knife Trump. Nothing that happens at Fox News happens spontaneously or — the very notion is laughable — because of journalistic integrity. Fox News is the Fourth Estate's fifth column. Fox News exists to DESTROY professional journalism.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The First Time I Saw Wonder Woman

I was the first-born child of the Lone Ranger and Wonder Woman. Well, in a way, anyway. They were my parents’ childhood dream selves, just as Superman was mine.
Isolated in a farmhouse miles from town, my dad lived for the 1930s radio adventures of the Lone Ranger, wending their way across the Illinois prairie from Detroit.  He listened so intently that he could virtually recite them decades later. My mother, not quite so isolated, was able to feed her proto-feminist fantasies on the 1940s comic book exploits of the first female superman.
 But the first time I saw Wonder Woman, she was slugging it out with a futuristic giant robot, along with four other members of the Justice League, in the second of the team’s tryout appearance in Brave and the Bold in May 1960. By July, I was ready to give her own comic book a try. I picked up issue 115, coincidentally the first one to follow the reader-friendly trend of offering a letter column.
So here was Wonder Girl — Wonder Woman’s younger self, just as Superboy was Superman — and Wonder Woman, who had her own Lois Lane in the form of Steve Trevor. Making goo-goo eyes at the heroine at every opportunity, Trevor didn’t cut too impressive a figure. What can you say about a guy who actually accepts the explanation, “I’ll marry you, but only after I’ve eradicated crime from the face of the Earth?” Talk about a brush-off.
I appreciated the Amazing Amazon’s strength and speed and her transparent, telepathically controlled jet, but her “gliding on air currents” power gave me pause. Even to 6-year-old, that seemed shaky at best. The flatly inexplicable power of flight somehow seemed a better bet.
Wonder Woman was drawn by the capable Ross Andru, but penned by Robert Kanigher, who wrote spare, moody combat stories for DC’s war line but bizarrely erratic and unsatisfying Wonder Woman adventures. The plots didn’t make any sense, even by comic book standards. Dinosaurs and gigantic clams and electric eels and nuclear missiles seemed to show up and disappear for no reason, and Wonder Girl displayed an unsettling taste for dating teenage males who were half-fish or half-bird.
Take this issue’s tale cover story, Graveyard of Monster Ships, for example. Wonder Woman’s enemy Angle Man — dressed strangely even by his standards in a high silk hat and purple suit, sporting a red cape decorated with astrological symbols — decided to destroy her using a “mechanical brain” (what we called computers then).
While Wonder Woman and Trevor are investigating an underwater area full of lost wooden ships, Angle Man uses his computer to animate the ships’ figureheads — including, weirdly, a Wonder Woman figurehead from a sunken Amazon ship (?). That “mirror image” theme was pursued obsessively in superhero comics, emerging from some unconscious source and repeated so relentlessly that it must have been selling comics.
Wonder Woman is able to defeat the fearsome figureheads by typing on the computer keyboard at super speed, transforming all the hostile carvings into guided missiles that launched themselves into space (?).
Even as a child, I sensed that Kanigher actively disliked Wonder Woman and just kind of threw her adventures at the wall to see what might stick there. Puzzled me 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Experimental Hulk, circa September 1962

By the third issue of the second title of the Marvel era, The Incredible Hulk, it became clear that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were flying by the seats of their pants here, but doing so brilliantly.
Marvel’s early comic books had an experimental quality rivaling that of the first superhero comics in the late 1930s. It began with the Fantastic Four in 1961 — conflicted heroes, unburdened by credibility-straining comic book conventions like costumes and secret identities, who regarded their powers and each other warily.
The group’s most popular character was probably the embittered man-monster, the Thing, so Kirby and Lee swiftly retooled the concept into a solo title about a man-monster that arrived on the newsstands in May 1962, at the same time as the FF’s fourth issue.
A gamma bomb blast transformed the coldly rational physicist Dr. Bruce Banner into a creature that looked vaguely like the Universal Films Frankenstein monster, an image popular with the era’s children thanks to frequent appearances on the Late Show. But the character shared a tragic fate with another doctor, Henry Jekyll, and Universal’s Wolf Man. Banner’s powerful dark side would emerge each evening as the sun set.
Oddly, the first Marvel character to have a secret identity was the one who’d find it most difficult to maintain one. But with the help of Rick Jones, a teenager he’d rescued, Banner somehow managed it. The scenes of Rick slumped forlornly in front of a massive underground bunker, protecting the creature who pounded relentlessly on the walls inside, have a poignant and despairing quality rarely seen in comics at the time.
In his second issue, in July 1962, the Hulk faced an alien invasion. The monster wasn’t capable of repelling it, nor was he interested in the task. Expressing his hatred for humanity, the Hulk mused about seizing an alien spaceship and raining terror on his own planet. Banner had to play the hero, proving himself more powerful than the Hulk when he constructed a massive Kirbyfied gamma gun that hurled the entire invasion fleet of Toad Man away into space.
By the third issue, the plot constraints of having a hostile character who only gained his powers at night were discarded. Duped by the military into betraying the Hulk, Jones lured him into a space capsule and banishment. But intense solar exposure combined with an electrical accident changed Banner into a full-time Hulk, while giving him a telepathic link to Jones that made him subject to the teenager’s will. Now another flavor of fantasy was offered as the Hulk became a kind of genie ruled by a boy. And to further up the wish fulfillment ante, Lee and Kirby took a page from the earliest Superman comics and gave the Hulk the effective power of flight through seven-league leaps. Such changes would continue through all six issues of the Hulk’s first comic book series, and the character’s flexibility saved him when his title ended. Kirby and Lee kept him in the public eye as an antagonist fighting other superheroes like the FF, Spider-Man, the Avengers and Giant-Man.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The First Time I Saw the Shadow

The first time I saw the Shadow was in 1964, when I was 10 and the aging crime-fighter was at a low point in his fabled career.
My parents and grandparents knew the Shadow well, but had never seen him, having listened to his adventures as an invisible superhero on radio in the late 1930s through the early 1950s. I’d also heard references to the character on television (When TV writer Rob Petrie’s wife Laura began acting mysteriously, he accused her of disappearing “…like Lamont Cranston.”)
From the Shadow's subsequent indignities.
Archie Comics had acquired the comic book rights to the Shadow, and I recognized John Rosenberger’s magazine-sleek art from the company’s other two superhero titles, The Adventures of the Fly and The Adventures of the Jaguar. The cover depicted the Shadow in traditional pulp magazine form, lurking hawk-nosed in a cape and slouch hat. But inside he’d been “modernized,” and not always to good effect.
Following President Kennedy, the men of the era had discarded their hats, and the Shadow followed the fashion. Now a prettified blond with three identities, he used his role as millionaire playboy Lamont Cranston as a cover for his activities as an American secret agent (James Bond had just become immensely popular). And his spy missions were a cover for his superhero activities, an identity he assumed simply by slipping on a black cloak and “blending into the shadows.” No one else knows he’s the Shadow, not even his girlfriend Margo Lane.
His vaguely defined powers included stealth, ventriloquism and a kind of super-hypnotism, and his opponent was his recurring arch-foe from the pulps, Shiwan Khan, restyled as a Bondesque freelance spy villain. The Shadow also displayed a hint of 007’s ruthlessness, hurling one of Khan’s henchmen down a shaft to his apparent death. 
Not as good as the pulp or radio Shadows and disjointed, but not terrible. In later issues, however, penned by Superman creator Jerry Siegel, the character would hit bottom — tricked up in a superhero’s mask and tights, and armed with gadgets that would have embarrassed even Batman (a “power beam,” “weakness gas,” boot-heel jumping springs, and so forth).

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Let the Rich Beware the Raven

A costumed vigilante called The Raven who battles evil one-percenters? How could I resist a character like that?
The Raven (who first appeared in Sure-Fire Comics 1 in June, 1940) was really New York City Detective Sgt. Danny Dartin. With the aid of the police chief’s daughter, Lola Lash, he sprang into action as a 1940s Robin Hood, stealing money from criminals and redistributing it to the poor.
The Raven was based on an even weirder pulp hero, the Moon Man. Operating in the depths of the Depression, from 1933 to 1937, the Moon Man donned a spherical helmet of Argus one-way mirror glass as a mask, along with a black robe and gloves. He, too, robbed criminals, distributed the money to the poor and was pursued by his police pals, who didn’t know he was really Detective Sgt. Stephen Thatcher, son of the police chief. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Black Widow: From Siren to Superhero

Marvel Comics’ Black Widow, in the first six years of her fictional career, moved from minor villain to headlining hero. Over the same span, her dramatic journey paralleled the advancement in the status of women across the 20th century.
Created by Stan Lee and Don Heck in Tales of Suspense 52 (April 1964), Natalia Alianovna “Natasha” Romanova was introduced as a Russian communist spy, a foe of capitalist industrialist superhero Iron Man.
She wasn’t a costumed character but a beautiful “femme fatale,” an archetype created by male writers that represents a woman’s sexual attractiveness to men as a siren threat, a weapon. Dashiell Hammett’s Brigid O'Shaughnessy, from the 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon, is a classic of the type, seducing several men to their doom. The femme fatale has often amounted to a nightmare view of female independence and confidence.
But Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, credited with sparking the second wave of American feminism in the 20th century, was already a year old when the Black Widow debuted. So, by the end of the decade, the character was transformed from a slinky villain into a playgirl feminist superhero with her own feature in Amazing Adventures
Defecting to the U.S. and trading espionage for superheroics, Natasha had settled by 1970 on a costume that consisted of a skintight black catsuit and wristband weapons. Already spider-themed, the character naturally became the first of several female counterparts to Marvel’s most popular superhero, the first of several fully feminist Marvel superwomen and finally a Hollywood hero.

Jessica Jones and the Fear of Flying

Picked up the first volume of Marvel’s Alias trade paperbacks at Midgard Comics, pleased to see it begins exactly like the superb Netflix TV series it inspired, with an homage to the first scene in Chinatown (the PI showing a distraught man photos of his wife off the reservation).
As on TV, she throws him through her door when he gets tough, adding, “And then there’s the matter of your bill…”
The art by Michael Gaydos is unromantic, deliberately muddy, noir-ish, suggesting a world apart from the bright moral clarity of the traditional superheroes. And the writing by Brian Michael Bendis undermines and winks at superhero fantasy in subtle ways, as when a cop asks Jessica if she can fly and she replies, “Not really... I can take off, all right? But I can't -- I can't really land that well. So I just don’t do it all that much. Like most things in this world, it’s not all that it's cracked up to be -- flying. Trust me.”
“You ever meet the Fantastic Four? Love the FF,” her interrogator asks.
“I met the big orange guy once.”
“The Thing.”

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The First Time I Saw the Spectre

In the mid-1960s, DC Comics’ house ads created quite a considerable drum beat for the Spectre, heralding his first Silver Age appearance in Showcase 60 (Feb. 1966).
It was a reappearance, really, because this wasn’t a retooled, updated version of a Golden Age hero like the Flash, the Atom, Green Lantern and Hawkman, but the original 1940s Ghostly Guardian who, we learned, had been trapped in his human host body for two decades. The art was sumptuous — Murphy Anderson at the height of his form — and the story of The War That Shook the Universe! was the usual fact-peppered super-science stuff that writer Gardner Fox could handle in his sleep (while salting it, this time, with a tinge of the supernatural).
But the Spectre’s audition issues led to only a short-lived title. Something was off, and it was the same something that sometimes troubles the characters Dr. Fate and Dr. Strange.
Jerry Siegel’s Superman was the premiere, the most popular and the most powerful superhero by early 1940, when Siegel debuted his second such character, the Spectre. So how do you top Superman?  With super-Superman, a ghost bent on justice who could grow, shrink, vanish, read minds, catch comets and cause death with a glance. And therein lies a plotting problem, because omnipotence is a condition that contradicts suspense. Dr. Fate, Dr. Strange and the Spectre all have vast but ill-defined powers that always make it somewhat difficult for readers to believe them to be in any understandable peril. The fact that their publication histories have been sketchy is, I think, no coincidence.

'Spotlight' on What Journalism Really Means

'Spotlight" details how Boston Globe investigative reporters exposed the Catholic Church's system of covering up sex abuse.
Back from the film Spotlight with Bart​, the story of how, in 2001, a Boston Globe investigative team turned Cardinal Law into Cardinal Not-the-Law. It’s a realistic anthem to American journalism, flags flying with full trumpet fanfare.
Maybe also a swan song for journalism, but one that will remain a reminder of what professional journalism is supposed to be and do, and why a society must necessarily fall prey to great evil without it.
Yesterday, Bart and I went to Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. The movie evoked 1950s New York with the care of an oil painting, portraying the delicacy of seduction and the bittersweet beauty of love.

Friday, January 15, 2016

As the GOP Plunders, You Go Under

Why? Because the people who puppeteer that party are authoritarian sociopaths who want a feudal society with themselves as the unchallenged aristocracy. Even if you're uncomfortable with terms like “evil,” these boys are basically a working definition of it — perfectly willing to crush centuries of civilization and human progress under the limo wheels.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The First Time I Saw Dr. Strange

The first time I saw Dr. Stephen Strange was the first time any reader saw him. I was 8 when the magician arrived unheralded in the back pages of Strange Tales 110 in July 1963.
Astral projection, entering people’s dreams, battling a shadowy horror-movie figure named, appropriately, Nightmare — in a mere five pages, this character proved himself to be a superhero who was different and distinct, yet another from a comic book company, soon to be called Marvel, that somehow kept turning them out.
As the series continued, we’d see just how strange his milieu was, as the sorcerer visited other ominous dimensions where weird, twisted and ominous shapes hung suspended, obeying vastly different laws of space and time.
 “(H)is otherworlds were vast open spaces with no up or down, no horizon or vanishing point, only floating pathways linking one aerial island to another,” wrote Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs in their excellent book The Comic Book Heroes.
“These pathways were impeded by doorways set in space, where disembodied snake-jaws waited to snap down on the unwary traveler, guarded by legions of mindless, horrid creatures harkening to the commands of dark lords. Battles were never fought with fists and feet, but with incantations… with plasmic blasts of mystic force, with undulating webs of magic, with hypnotism and astral projection. The effect of these brief, tightly plotted stories was an eerieness that bordered on the hallucinatory, a genuinely disturbing air very rare in comics books.”
Looking back, I can see that those scenes also represented an interface between artist’s Steve Ditko’s bizarre, powerful imagination and the ordinary world (a contrast you can also see in his later work for DC on Shade, the Changing Man).
A"meta" panel from a later tale, somewhat akin to "The Tempest," in which
the magic turns out to be the artist's imaginative power over the audience
Another intriguing angle was that Dr. Strange was a secret champion, a lone defender who stood bravely against eldritch Lovercraftian forces that were constantly plotting to invade, enslave and corrupt this plane of existence. The people who brushed past him on the streets of Greenwich Village would never know that he alone had saved them and their loved ones from madness and destruction, time and again.
His origin, when we learned it, was equally fresh. An arrogant and egotistical surgeon whose steady hands had been ruined in an accident, he sought out the Ancient One high the mountains of Tibet for desperately selfish reasons. It was only as he gained his arcane powers that he also gained compassion, enlightenment and purpose.
The romance and tragedy of Dr. Strange’s situation was well expressed by director-writer Philip DeGuere near the close of the 1978 Dr. Strange TV pilot movie, when Stephen Strange, played by Peter Hooten, asks his mentor Lindmer, played by John Mills, what choice he has.
“To serve yourself, or all of mankind,” Lindmer replies.
“Is that a choice? What will I be called upon to do?”
“Become more than a man,” Lindmer replies. “And to renounce such earthly pleasures as are given to men who are only mortal — the pleasure of ignorance, or offspring, or an easy death.”
“Will I be asked to give up even love?” 
“The universe is love,” replies the ancient one. “That, you shall have.”

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The First Time I Saw Adam Strange

This was the cover that prompted me to buy my first issue of DC’s Mystery in Space featuring Adam Strange — No. 68, cover-dated June 1961.
The Carmine Infantino-Murphy Anderson scene showed a horned alien tiger springing even as a colorful rocket-belted hero with a ray gun was teleported away, leaving a damsel in distress. Much too much to resist.
And inside, even more! The issue introduced Strange’s recurring foes the Dust Devils — sentient, sinister, semi-anthropomorphic whirlwinds perfectly designed to inhabit the dreamlike mental landscape of a 6-year-old. And they weren’t even the main menace on the playbill. That role was reserved for Kaskor, a mastermind from Ranagar.
Adam Strange was the thinking man’s superhero of the late 1950s, rendered with a sleek, space-age elegance by Infantino and written with a reassuring respect for intelligence by Gardner Fox.
I always liked him, but I was an adult before it suddenly dawned on me that Adam Strange was conceived as an exact thematic mirror-reversal of the same company’s flagship character, Superman.
Instead of a man sent to Earth from an exotic planet to act as a savior with his superhuman powers, we have a man sent to an exotic planet from Earth to act as a savior with his human powers.
Superman overcomes all obstacles with his superior physical powers, but Adam Strange has none. Thanks to his access to alien technology, he does have a rocket belt and a ray gun, but they provide little or no help to Strange in fending off the overwhelming alien menaces that appear whenever he returns to visit his sweetheart on the planet Rann.
Lacking Superman’s brawn, Adam Strange relies solely on his brain, reasoning his way out of every dilemma, no matter how difficult. This celebration of scientifically grounded reason and flexible critical thinking is sorely needed today, in dumbed-down, shoot-first, rant-and-rave 21st century America. But for that very reason, nobody is now interested in Adam Strange. 
More’s the pity.

Grabbing Wall Street by the Big, Short Hairs.

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling give adept, quirky performances in 'The Bg Short' 
The film The Big Short, which I saw yesterday with Bart Rettberg and Matt Mattingly, does something I would not have thought possible — making an entertaining, clear and even bitterly funny movie out of the story of how Wall Street's bottomless corruption wrecked the world economy in 2008. This movie will leave American right wingers squirming in sheer cognitive dissonance, unless they cover their ears and sing, “Lalalalala!” at the top of their lungs.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Treasure I Left on the Newsstand

Fantastic Four 2 was the first issue I spotted on the newsstand in late 1961. I debated picking it up. But I was unsure if this intriguing new comic was about superheroes or some kind of a battle between various monsters. Had the Human Torch been fully ablaze on the cover, he might well have lighted my way to a purchase.
I had only a quarter a week to spend, and that usually had to be devoted to two superhero-related comics — say a Justice League, a Lois Lane or a Flash, maybe an Adventures of the Fly (a title also created by Jack Kirby) or a Space Adventures (featuring Steve Ditko’s first superhero, Captain Atom).
At the half-priced used comic book store, with the means to buy five whole issues for 25 cents, I might be able to expand my horizons and indulge my taste for a Strange Adventures, a Tales to Astonish, a Gorgo, an Archie’s Mad House with its funny monsters (or even, on some rare occasion, John Stanley’s Little Lulu, providing it featured Witch Hazel or Tubby as the crime-fighting, suspicious, always-in-error Spider).
So sadly, I didn’t risk my dime on that Fantastic Four 2. But when Fantastic Four 3 appeared, with the heroes finally in costume and airborne in a bathtub turned flying saucer, I was certain what they were, snapped it right up, entered the Marvel Age of Comics and never exited.
Looking at the early Marvel art now, I’m struck by its paranoiac quality — all stalking and shadows, fear and anger and angst. Despite the protection afforded by superheroes, Marvel’s world was edgy and uncertain where DC’s was sunlit and secure. Both had their attractions.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Heroes Who Save the Day in a Small Way

Everything about superheroes is gigantic, symbolically if not literally. They are colossal, displaying the strength of titans, flying across the landscape as if in seven-league boots, with stupendous endurance and a monumental dedication to justice and the protection of the innocent.
So the last quality you’d expect to associate with superheroes is … smallness. Yet at least three major superheroes have made it big through being tiny. That very counter-intuitiveness became part of their appeal.
Children, who are little and often pushed around by bigger people, turned to superhero comics to forget being small, to indulge in fantasies of freedom and power. Superheroes permitted them to transcend their condition, but the superheroes I’m talking about went one step further, and empowered them within their condition.
How do you turn weakness into strength, loom large while being tiny? Well, when you think about it, small targets are tough to hit. Small spies might as well be invisible. And the small may slip in where the large are barred.
The first such hero started early — in Quality’s Feature Comics 27 in 1939 — and didn’t end his run until 1953. The caped, blue-clad Doll Man, who used mental concentration to shrink to six inches while retaining his full strength, headlined Feature Comics and his own title. Like the similar later heroes, the adventures of Darrel Dane were kept interesting through semi-comical juxtapositions in size. He could ride a Great Dane like a horse, fly in a toy airplane or on an eagle, and even shrink his girlfriend to join him in his crusade as Doll Girl.
After Quality went out of business, the very longevity of the now-defunct character undoubtedly caught the interest of DC Comics and what would become Marvel Comics, once they got busy dusting off old superhero concepts for the space age.
In October 1961, in Showcase 34, DC debuted the Atom, a freshly stylized version of a Golden Age character who just been a short young guy with formidable and finally superhuman strength. But the new Atom, physicist Ray Palmer, owed more to Doll Man than he did to his namesake.
The Flash, DC’s first Silver Age superhero, was able to ring in many changes on the feats that could be accomplished with super speed, and the Atom did the same with his small stature. He could ride the wind by reducing his weight, use a telephone as an effective teleporter and shrink into subatomic worlds (where he could paradoxically appear as a giant).
In January 1962, Tales to Astonish 27 featured the spooky tale of Henry Pym, a biochemist who invented a shrinking formula and wound up trapped in an anthill. Barely escaping with his life, though the help of a friendly ant, Pym destroyed the formula — only to have to retrieve it eight issues later as Marvel shifted emphasis from monster stories to superhero tales.
Thus was born Ant-Man, who — like the Atom and Doll Man — could not only shrink and retain his strength, but also command ants like an army. Ant-Man followed Doll Man’s lead in acquiring a girlfriend who doubled as his superhero partner, the Wasp. The history of the big little superheroes has illustrated one of Stan Lee’s favorite principles in storytelling — the idea of turning a seeming disadvantage into an advantage for the character.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

When Batman Was a Robot

Batman’s apparent replacement by a robot was somewhat ironic, given the fact that the people working on Detective Comics 21 years after Batman’s debut were by 1960 largely going through automatic, repetitive motions.
Batman had fallen under the shadow of DC Comics’ star Superman, whose popularity had been sustained and enhanced by immensely popular movies and radio and TV series. Ideas cross-pollinated, sometimes appearing first in Batman titles and other times in Superman’s, but leaving the impression that the Masked Manhunter was a knockoff of the more famous Man of Tomorrow. Sometimes the original idea came from elsewhere, for example Fawcett Comics’ once-popular, now-vanished Captain Marvel (Mary Marvel, for example, preceded Batwoman and Supergirl, just as Captain Marvel Jr. anticipated Superboy).
Superman, under editor Mort Weisinger, had acquired a Supergirl, a Superdog and robot doubles. Batman, under editor Jack Schiff, got himself a Batwoman, a Bat-Girl, a Bat-Hound and his own robot double. Superman’s annoying fifth dimensional imp Mister Mxyztplk had his counterpart in Batman’s cloying fifth dimensional imp Bat-Mite. 
Both heroes were subject to frequent alien encounters and transformations, with Batman, Robin and friends acquiring Superman-like powers almost routinely. In a role reversal, Superman acquired a Fortress of Solitude that echoed Batman’s longstanding Batcave with its giant weird souvenirs. But the universe of aliens, robots and magic in which Batman found himself in the late 1950s was Superman’s, not his.
It was a situation that had to change, and would with 1964’s Schwartz-Infantino “New Look” for Batman.
Nevertheless, this Batman was my first, and the Detective Comics of this era was my favorite anthology title. In addition to Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff’s Batman and Robin, you got Joe Certa’s blue-caped, green-skinned Martian Manhunter with his plethora of exciting superpowers and TV detective Roy Raymond, who faced off against weird menaces made vivid by the gorgeous art of Ruben Moreira. Raymond’s feature went all the way back to 1949, but by Detective Comics 281 his fictional TV show was nearing cancellation. By Detective 293, he’d be squeezed out to make room for Aquaman.

The First Time I Saw Hawkman

The first time I saw Hawkman, the winged wonder and his wife were fighting some kind of gigantic dragon/dinosaur that came roaring out of an urban highway tunnel in early 1961. These bird people appeared to be heavily outgunned, but undaunted. Brave and bold, indeed.
The scene was the Silver Age debut for the characters in Brave and the Bold 34, and naturally I had to have it.
“Naturally” because Hawkman had a unique and intriguing superheroic design — yellows, greens, bare-chested with big working wings and a fascinating hawk mask so striking it was almost grotesque.
I had no way of knowing that the design had also captivated my parents’ generation 20 years before, on the covers of Golden Age Flash Comics.
What The Comic Book Heroes called artist Joe Kubert’s “lean, attenuated figures” held a darkly elegant appeal, and you were never quite sure what you might see next — a forlorn dog turning into a raging bear, an aerial night view of a quiet suburb, an arrow-like spaceship, a museum diorama, a purple pterodactyl.
Monsters, heroes, ancient weapons, science fiction — that was another dime well-spent by 6-year-old Danny.
Hawkman and Hawkgirl were the coolly rational heroes typical of the Julius Schwartz shop at DC, alien manhunters with the kind of superheroic “extras” that readers like me liked to see, in their case a streamlined spaceship and an Absorbascon, a Thanagarian gadget that enables users to telepathically read the minds of sentient life forms and absorb the whole knowledge of their culture — and even, by what one would call a real stretch of the imagination, learn the language of birds. This, in the childhood mind, put the flying hero parallel to the long-running Aquaman, a swimming hero who could talk to fish. DC soon teamed them up.
The Absorbascon was another yet reflection of America’s space-race respect for scientific knowledge, something we’ve lost to our peril. Think of being able to access the entire knowledge of a world’s culture!
Well, Americans literally hold that power now in the palms of their hands, but use it mostly just to play games and take selfies. Yesterday’s wonders are today’s banalities.
On a return trip to the planet Thanagar shortly after this issue’s adventures, Hawkgirl was shown reclining while enjoying a shopping channel on a large wall-screen TV. What marvels!
Just imagine… 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hey Kids! Know Your Weather Birds

A  feature page from DC Comics' Brave and Bold 34, which saw the debut of Hawkman

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Strange Adventures: When Turtles Attack!

Thanks to The Mad Artist for the image scans of Strange Adventures 118
In their DC science fiction anthology title Strange Adventures, editor Julius Schwartz and his staff demonstrated an understanding of the dreamlike quality of the childhood mind.
As an example, let’s take issue 118, appearing on newsstands early in 1960 and cover-featuring the tale The Turtle Men from Space by writer Gardner Fox and artist Mike Sekowsky.
Boys in 1960 often had pet turtles in little plastic water dishes that sported a plastic palm tree, and even more frequently owned green plastic “army men” (sold in bulk for as little as a penny apiece in clear plastic bags during the decade, before the Vietnam war eroded their popularity).
Massage those interests a while in your subconscious, and you might come up with the idea that turtles are armored, and military tanks are armored, so…
In that issue, you also got the stories Threat of the Planet Wrecker and The Indestructible Menace and a full page ad for the first issue of a new comic called Green Lantern. A Spotlight on Science feature answered questions about whales and water pressure, how to test water for hardness and the phases of the moon. This was back before Americans began to regard verified, factual knowledge as a threat. You got your dime’s worth.