|Here's real America, 21st century style.|
Monday, February 29, 2016
Friday, February 26, 2016
|Here, a deranged Superman rips the Joker apart.|
What happened to make serial killers, cannibals, vampires, werewolves, witches and zombies such sympathetic figures in 21st century American popular culture? The right-wing American corporate culture made ruthless evil fashionable. That’s what happened.
Popular culture is a funhouse mirror that distorts — but actually reflects — the society which spawns it. Ruthless predatory behavior is admired and rewarded in American society, so what’s wrong with monsters? Nothing. They just want to tear open the throats of innocent people. Is that so wrong?
Even Superman is only acceptable now if he lets his foster father die and breaks some necks. During the Depression, the hunger for economic justice and anger at inequality were white-hot. Ordinary people, feeling powerless, naturally turned to superhero fantasy. The 21st century Superman, by contrast, is starting to seem indifferent to the suffering of ordinary people.
“What was I supposed to do, just let them drown?”
I guess the Man of Steel filmmakers actually expected us to take Pa Kent's answer seriously.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
Man-Wolf and She-Hulk may have been David Anthony Kraft’s favorite Marvel Comics characters to write back in the 1970s, even though the hirsute hero bore the burden of being the second werewolf in the Marvel universe.
A loosening of the Comics Code had inspired a sudden four-color flurry of werewolves, zombies and vampires. To differentiate his character from the cutely named Jack Russell, Werewolf by Night, DAK took him in the direction of planet-hopping science fantasy.
As I recall, there was some discussion at Marvel about whether the Creatures on the Loose cover image at lower right included sufficient peril, what with the protagonist plunging hundreds of feet into a ravine, followed by a plummeting freight train that also happened to be on fire. Subtlety was a hallmark of 1970s comics. Unlike the better-known She-Hulk, Man-Wolf has the distinction of already having appeared in a Marvel movie, albeit in his other form — John Jameson, the son of blowhard Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson.
|Helen Gahagan Douglas|
Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, a former movie star and opera singer, was a principled beacon of liberal light following the death of FDR.
She had once played She Who Must Be Obeyed, and when she ran for Senate in California, Congressman Richard Nixon regarded her as She Who Must Be Waylaid.
Nixon’s dirty tactics — among them smearing Douglas as a Communist and sponsoring calls to ask voters if they were aware that her movie star husband was “a Jew” — earned him the apt, lifelong nickname Tricky Dick. But Douglas was also hampered by her own lofty idealism, and the times were against her, the 1950 election coinciding with both the rise of McCarthyism and the height of the Korean war.
“There was the United States fighting communism and I was the person who said we should limit the power of the military and try to disarm the world and get along with Russia,” Douglas is quoted as saying in Sally Denton’s in The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas.
“The worst moment, a sight I couldn’t shake, was when children picked up rocks and threw them at my car, at me. I knew that in order to survive I would have to accept the rocks and the Nixon campaign, shrug them off and move on. I wondered if I would be able to do it.”
She was, finding herself exhausted but strangely calm after Nixon’s huge victory. “I was so pleased that I had escaped the terrible burden of hating Richard Nixon that I was almost elated,” she said.
Nixon, in later years, at least feigned regret over his behavior in the campaign. “Years later, asked by British publisher David Astor to explain his campaign tactics, Nixon reportedly ‘cast down his eyes with a look of modest contrition’ and explained, ‘I want you to remember that I was a very young man,’” wrote Anthony Summers in The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon. “In 1950, (Nixon) was 37 and a veteran of four years in the House of Representatives.”
Douglas summed it up simply: “There’s not much to say about the 1950 campaign, except that a man ran for Senate who wanted to get there, and didn’t care how he did it.”
After Nixon revealed his true character to the world in Watergate, and was driven from office in shame, Douglas had the last laugh. But she didn’t laugh. She mourned.
“If the national security is involved, anything goes,” she said in 1973. “There are no rules. There are people so lacking in roots about what is proper and improper that they don’t know there’s anything wrong in breaking into the headquarters of the opposition party.”
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Radian might have been a giant flying Japanese prehistoric reptile or a shampoo, but he wasn’t. He was a one-shot superhero created in the Batman-besotted year 1967 by the great Wally Wood, who drew men of steel that somehow looked as if they really could missile through stone walls.
That this one bore more than a passing resemblance to Wood’s hero Dynamo in Tower Comics’ THUNDER Agents hardly mattered — it was always a pure pleasure to see Wood draw those superman.
Virtually no one’s seen Radian because he appeared only in Wham-O Giant Comics, produced not by a comic book publisher, but by the toy company that gave us Hula-Hoops, Slip-and-Slides and Frisbees.
The 52-page issue, priced at almost a dollar, offered 1,500 panels of fairly interesting strips, but presented a fatal problem to the comic book collector. It was a 14" x 21" tabloid. Where in hell could you store a thing like that?
Created by Marvel in 1972 as a feminist heroine (Shanna the She-Devil and Night Nurse debuted simultaneously), the Cat joined a seemingly endless line of cat-themed females, from DC’s Catwoman, to Harvey’s Black Cat (and Marvel’s Black Cat), to DC’s Cheetah, to Republic Studios’ Panther Girl, to Archie Comics’ Cat Girl, to Dell’s Tiger Girl to, arguably, Ian Fleming’s Pussy Galore, “the female who is all feline,” according to Goldfinger’s movie trailer.
As the Diversions of the Groovy Kind blog noted, “Written by the soon-to-be-Mrs. Herb (Incredible Hulk) Trimpe, Linda Fite with art by the incomparable team of penciler Marie Severin and inker Wally Wood, The Claws of the Cat #1 (Aug. 1972) had all the earmarks of another hit for Marvel. A likable, realistic, tragic lead character thrust into the role of a superhero. Story wise and art wise, The Cat #1 was a wonderfully crafted tale that could have come straight from Marvel's Silver Age heyday, but given a ‘modern’ 1970s sensibility. Fite’s plot was heart-wrenching and moody; her dialogue straight from the Roy Thomas/Gerry Conway/Denny O'Neil school of ‘relevance.’ The art by Severin and Wood was lush and as moody as Fite’s story. It should have been a smash hit.”
For somebody who reportedly didn’t care for superheroes, Wally Wood certainly knew how to draw them. His figures are models of convincing clean-limbed power. But the title’s feminism, while well intentioned, may have been a little too heavy-handed. To be effective, the social message has to be in service of the story, and not the other way around.
My own private theory is that the title failed because the heroine didn’t have the traditional alliterative superhero name, like Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Matt Murdock or Jessica Jones.
Greer Nelson. Meh. Try Greer Garson. Now there’s a name which with to conjure.
Sunday, February 21, 2016
Before his own Watchmen, before Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, there was 1982’s Marvelman, Englishman Alan Moore’s milestone deconstruction of the American superhero.
If you ever need an example of why real art requires an outsider’s viewpoint, this is it. Moore took his loving familiarity with comic book conventions — the superhuman powers, the magic words, the skintight costumes, the youthful sidekicks, the secret identities, the archenemies — and juxtaposed it all in his imagination with mundane reality. The result was not the usual parody, but aesthetic insights that cut in more than one direction.
Using the American dreamscape to expose the American collective unconscious, Moore also explored a philosophical theme that paralleled Plato, who had suggested that with great power comes catastrophe. And Moore did it with a character who had an impeccable, if convoluted, pedigree. Marvelman was the son of Captain Marvel, the grandson of Superman.
When the Superman-DC lawsuit finally put Captain Marvel out of business here in 1953, his British publisher L. Miller & Son saw no reason why such a great concept should die there. Writer-artist Mick Anglo replaced “Shazam!” with “Kimota!” and created Marvelman, clearly a pastiche Captain Marvel, in 1954. The feature and spinoffs ran until 1963.
The character was juvenile even by 1950s standards, pretty thin stuff, but Alan Moore’s reimagining was anything but.
Through sheer luck, I acquired the first issues of the British comic magazine Warrior, seemingly rare in the U.S. I realized immediately that here we had something familiar yet completely original, that the ground had shifted under the superhero fans’ feet. Marvel’s Ultimate titles and the whole twilight atmosphere of today’s American superhero comics can be traced back and credited to that obscure black-and-white British magazine. Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon and Damon Lindelof all owe Moore a debt.
In the middle of a terrorist attack, seedy, migraine-ridden journalist Micky Moran sees the oddly familiar word “atomic” backwards through a glass door panel, mutters it and explodes into the god that he had forgotten he was. His wife is incredulous and the authorities are ungrateful. (An understatement. Their term for the superheroes is “the monsters.”)
Moore’s flair for dramatic surprises that amplify his themes appears throughout the series. When his wife expresses concern for his safety, Micky tells her not to worry — nothing can hurt him, he’s a superhero. Then, in an elevator, strangers hand him a baby, point out that he can’t transform without incinerating the child, and shoot him point blank. As Micky sinks into darkness, he is mocked by his own swaggering words…
Friday, February 19, 2016
In June 1962, I celebrated my 8th birthday, receiving what would be a trio of perfect presents. The first comic books featuring Spider-Man, Ant-Man and Thor were all cover-dated that month.
In Journey Into Mystery 83, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s thunder god would stylize the basic concept of a character who had once been the most popular superhero in comics, but who’d vanished nine years before (an eternity to an 8-year-old).
The idea of a small, weak person changed by magic lightning into a super-strong flying champion would be further electrified by Kirby’s art, so eloquent in displaying both angst and dynamic action. The magic word “Shazam” would solidify into a cane that symbolized disability, then transform itself into a hammer that symbolized power.
In his first adventure, Thor repelled the Stone Men from Saturn. Alien invaders have the damnedest luck. So many of them land on this planet, brimming with that vast, cool and unsympathetic confidence, bristling with eerie super-weapons and eager to scrutinize and humiliate a typical earthling, only to discover that he’s an invincible superhero who can single-handedly kick their asses.
I mean, what are the odds?
|Lee Meriwether as the Catwoman with Meredith as the Penguin in the 1966 Batman movie.|
The TV Batman villains of the mid-1960s were terrific — zany, manic anarchists who were almost understandably ready to rain knockout gas and colorful chaos on the ridiculously strait-laced citizens of Gotham City.
The best of the lot, to my mind, was Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, played with a lusty twinkle in the eye, anserous verbal tics and a general air of evil glee.
“Ah, yes, the villainous Penguin. It pursues me,” the celebrated actor reported in his 1994 biography, So Far, So Good. “It was a deliberately overblown approach. It may have done me more harm than good, but it made an impact. I thought it had a Dickensian quality — or a spoof of one. It was fun to act. I was only one of many villains, as you know. I had an elaborate makeup — a huge nose and a great, extended stomach. It was as complete a disguise as you could get, but people recognized me in it. The interesting thing about the Penguin was that I made only a few episodes, maybe nine or 10. And one feature film.
“It’s amazing how many people equate me with that one brief role. I still receive hundreds of request for pictures. The recent feature picture Batman ignited reruns of the series. It never stops. Recently a newspaper qualified me as ‘best known as the Penguin.’ It really an idiot’s corner to get into”
Asked why he took the part in the first place, Meredith replied, “Well, everybody was taking parts in Batman — from Frank Sinatra to Otto Preminger, everyone. It was the trendy thing to do back then. The Penguin stuck to me because the character was vivid. There were probably 25 ‘lead villains,’ the Joker, the Catwoman and so on.
“When Eva Le Gallienne was presented with an award and I was one of the speakers, I told her the first part she had given me was that of the Duck in Alice in Wonderland, and I said I wanted to thank her because ‘it defined my career: I went from a Duck to a Penguin.’”
The young actor Jeff Bridges, thrilled to work with Meredith on a 1970 film, recalled seeing Meredith paste something up on the wall of his hotel room.
“I said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And you said, ‘Look at this!’” It was an article from a Hong Kong newspaper about a man who had been raping people while impersonating the Penguin.”
Reality reportedly intruded when he leaped off a building, opened his umbrella and went splat.
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Superman and the countless characters he inspired were champions designed to deflect the deadly one-two punch that had been inflicted on the world in the 1930s — the Great Depression and World War II.
Picking up Roy Thomas’ hardcover Superman: The War Years 1938-1945 at Midgard Comics, I was interested to see that it begins with the Man of Tomorrow’s first adventure in Action Comics 1 (June 1938). And why not? War was with him from the very beginning.
After smashing into the governor’s mansion to win a stay of execution for an innocent man, this mysterious superhuman crusader for social justice knocks a wife-beater senseless, indicating it will be healthier for the cops if they don’t discover his secret identity (“It would be just too bad if they searched me,” he says ominously, while waiting for the police and donning his Clark Kent disguise).
After discouraging some roadhouse hoods by smashing their car with them in it, Superman heads to Washington, D.C., where he spies on the corrupt Sen. Barrows, who is being bribed by a lobbyist to embroil the U.S. in a war. Dragging the evil lobbyist into the air, Superman attempts to leap from the Capitol Dome to another building, and falls short…
In the second issue of Action Comics, Superman recovers from his fall, having frightened the lobbyist into confessing that the war is being engineered by munitions industrialist Emil Norvell.
While Superman gets his bearings atop the Washington Monument, the lobbyist phones Norvell, warning, “You’re about to receive a visit from the most dangerous man alive.”
Norvell is forearmed, futilely. Superman wades through machine gun fire to seize Norvell, suggesting that the industrialist accompany him to San Monte, which is ground zero for the war he’s engineering.
“You see how effortlessly I crush this bar of iron in my hand?” Superman points out. “That bar could just as easily be your neck. Now, for the last time, are you coming with me?”
Superman forces Norvell to enlist in one of the warring armies in South America. It’s a technique he would use more than once — forcing a wealthy and ruthless predator to suffer the consequences he’d intended to inflict on the common man.
With his own shells exploding overhead, Norvell screams, “This is no place for a sane man – I’ll die!” Superman replies dryly, “I see! When it’s your own life at stake, your viewpoint changes!”
Point made, Superman drags the two warring generals from their tents and orders them to fight it out between themselves, taking time out to smash a fighter plane out of the sky, shield the captured “spy” Lois Lane from a firing squad and hurl a military torturer thousands of yards to his death.
In Action 17 (October 1939), Superman ends a European civil war while recovering a nerve gas formula, watching the spy who stole it die as the sole victim of the gas. Trapping the negotiators of the belligerent nations, Superman demonstrates that, like Samson, he will topple the pillars that support the ceiling over their heads unless they agree to an immediate truce.
In Action 22 (March 1940), Superman stops a false flag submarine attack designed to draw the U.S. into a European war. With characteristic subtlety, he hoists one of the plotters over his head and says, “Confess! Confess that you and Lita Laverne planned the bombing of neutral vessel – or I’ll bash your brains out!”
In the next issue, Superman defuses a world war planned by some mysterious “super-genius” named Luthor.
“My plan? To send the nations of the Earth at each other’s throats so that when they are sufficiently weakened, I can step in and assume charge,” Luthor explains.
“The only thing you should step into is a straight-jacket,” Superman replies, shortly before crashing Luthor’s dirigible and leaping to safety with Lois Lane.
Over the next few years, Superman will repel attacks by Hitler’s trained sea serpents (!) and defend Metropolis against an actual Nazi invasion disguised as a fake Nazi invasion.
War, as one of the greatest tragedies that can befall ordinary men and women, always finds an implacable enemy in Superman.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Created by writer Ken Fitch and artist Bernard Baily in Adventure Comics 48 (April 1940), DC superhero Hourman had the potential to be an interesting variation on the superman theme then flooding the new market for comic books.
Biochemist Rex Tyler was a real Clark Kent — that is to say, he was a timid, nervous fellow, literally afraid of the dark. But the Miraclo drug he discovered not only gave him superhuman strength, speed, stamina and senses, it altered his personality, making him bold and aggressive for an hour at a time.
Imagine the dramatic possibilities inherent in such a mind-alerting super-drug, in a cowardly hero. Unfortunately, in the simplistic storytelling of the day, they were never developed.
Like Bulldog Drummond in the 1920s and the Equalizer in the 1980s, Tyler advertised for people to help in the newspaper, offering his services free to the oppressed.
Like other early superhero features, this one played fast and loose with the secret identity concept. The hero gave himself the long-winded title of Tick-Tock Tyler the Hour-Man.
Encountering Rex Tyler at a crime scene in Adventure Comics 49, a police detective asks, “Tyler? I say, you don’t happen to be Tick-Tock Tyler, the Hour-Man?” “Me?” stammers Tyler.
People who intend to keep their identities secret might be well-advised not to tell everybody their actual last name.
A founding member of the Justice Society of America, Hourman was pushed aside early on in favor of Starman. He inspired two namesakes, his own son Rick and an android from the 853rd century.
He has the dubious distinction of having appeared on TV’s Robot Chicken in 2007, voiced by actor Seth Green. Promoting an erectile dysfunction pill guaranteed to “make you an hour-man, just like me,” Tyler warned “If you become four-hourman, see a doctor.”
As the Bible says, how are the mighty fallen.
Friday, February 12, 2016
Cross a killing-machine Spider-Man with a raunchy Bugs Bunny and you get Deadpool, a Ryan Reynolds action comedy vehicle that is the latest from Marvel. Rarely have franchise and actor melded so delightfully or broken the fourth wall so frequently (told that he'll be taken to the X-Men's Professor Xavier, Deadpool asks "McAvoy or Stewart?").
Violent, vulgar vivacity.
The postmodern, pansexual superhero has arrived (and leave the kids at home).
Violent, vulgar vivacity.
The postmodern, pansexual superhero has arrived (and leave the kids at home).
The first issue of Batman Comics I ever bought, as opposed to Detective Comics, was 132 (June 1960). I was already familiar with Batman, having purchased Detective Comics 277 (March 1960) and World’s Finest 110 (June 1960).
Artist Sheldon Moldoff and Batman co-creator Bill Finger did the honors, and the cover-featured “Lair of the Sea Fox” was the primary attraction. With his underwater sleds countered by the Bat-Submarine, the purple-clad Sea Fox was an interesting though limited villain, confined to the seas and sewers and so forth.
Batman and Robin had by this time taken to wearing their capes while scuba diving, which was odd, but no odder than many other things they did, I suppose.
The Dynamic Duo also faced “The Martian from Gotham City,” actually a confused actor manipulated by criminals. His disguise should have been pretty easy to see through, given the fact that he in no way resembled Batman’s Detective Comics co-star the Martian Manhunter.
The issue also includes what I am confident is the only Batman story named after a Joanne Woodward movie, “The Three Faces of Batman.” An experimental device renders the Caped Crusader hors de combat when he hears a siren or bell. Actually, with Moldoff drawing them, Batman’s “three faces” look pretty much the same.
The issue included the relatively new feature of a letter column, and the questions illustrated the fact that Superman was the era’s dominant hero. Was Superman ever unable to rescue Batman and Robin? (Yes). Does Alfred know Superman’s secret identity? (No). Does Batman ever use robot duplicates like Superman? (Yes).
Tuesday, February 9, 2016
To say that Jonathan Clowes had an unlikely background for a literary agent would be an understatement.
“He was born in 1930, left school at 15, became a Communist and was thrice imprisoned for refusing to do compulsory military service (with spells in Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth and Brixton prisons, where he read avidly, as he’d done in school),” wrote Zachary Leader in The Life of Kingsley Amis.
|Clowes in 1970 (photo by Diane Cilento)|
An autodidact, Clowes also spent two years homeless. “Clowes was wholly self-taught as an agent, which he became by accident, while working as a painter and decorator. A man on his crew, Henry Chapman, had written a play and Clowes managed to get it to (theatrical director) Joan Littlewood, whom he admired but had never met. Littlewood loved it and agreed to put it on, after which Clowes got another friend’s first novel published by Faber and Faber. He then found a third client, a graphic artist named Len Deighton, whose first novel, The Ipcress File, made them both a fortune.”
A 1970 profile in The Guardian noted, “When he began in 1960 with books by two friends of his — Fred Ball’s A Breath of Fresh Air and a play by Henry Chapman — Clowes had never seen a contract in his life, bluffed his way through every situation by staying silent and getting others to do all the talking, and had only heard of one publisher ‘which explains why Fabers took all my first books,’ he says.”
“It was with The Ipcress File that Clowes negotiated his first film deal,” Leader wrote. “The producer Harry Saltzman sent him an enormous, largely incomprehensible contract. Clowes sent it back three times, each time with the message: ‘this is totally unacceptable.’ By taking careful note of how the contract improved with each rejection, a process which took a year, Clowes learned how to negotiate a film deal.”
“Clowes stuck out for a good deal and got it, but the struggle became so intense during the year of negotiations that both parties fell ill,” the newspaper noted.
“I know I am alarming,” Clowes told the newspaper. “People never know what I’m thinking, but that is a distinct advantage.”
Clowes went on to become the agent for the novelists Kingsley Amis and his wife Jane Howard. When American publishers proved skittish about publishing Amis’ 1984 novel Stanley and the Women, which was perceived as “anti-woman,” Clowes turned an obstacle into a stepping stone. He contacted the New York Times and passed along news of the novel’s rejection as “a form of censorship.” The controversy not only got the novel published, but increased its sales.
“The qualities that make a good agent are a good business sense combined with an ability to help a writer aesthetically,” Clowes told the newspaper. “A lot of agents have one without the other.” “Very few people know what an agent does,” Clowes once said. “I’ve had lots of people asking what I do and when I answer, ‘Sell the rights of books,’ they say, ‘Is that a full-time job?’”
Sunday, February 7, 2016
Either main story in Action Comics 258 (Nov. 1959) might have been cover-featured.
In The Menace of the Cosmic Man, writer Bill Finger and artist Wayne Boring confronted Superman with another of those mirror images that appear constantly in Silver Age superhero stories. This time it’s Cosmic Man, who was really a robot designed for an assassination plot. Lois Lane even gets the rare treat of kissing the big guy, but only because he had to feign jealousy to protect his secret identity.
But the cover spot went to the Supergirl story, Supergirl's Farewell to Earth!, and it showed the Maid of Might being hurled into space because she’s displeased Superman. Seems strange to us now, in this post-feminist era, that she’d so meekly accept banishment as the price of violating Superman’s arbitrary rules. Writer Otto Binder and artist Jim Mooney turn the tables in the tale, however. It’s all been one of Superman’s many elaborate hoaxes, this one designed to see if Supergirl can be trusted with the secret of his identity. The fact that Supergirl had already discovered he was Clark Kent left Superman red-faced in the final panel.
The issue’s third feature starred Congo Bill, DC’s answer to Alex Raymond’s Jungle Jim and a character who’d been kicking around since 1940. In January of 1959, in a nod to the renewed popularity of superheroes, a witch doctor granted Congo Bill the power to switch minds with a giant golden gorilla and fight as Congorilla. That became the strip’s new title, with art and story by Henry Boltinoff.
The issue also offered Metropolis Mailbag, a letter column then only a year old. Reader John McGeehan of Santa Ana, CA, wrote in to say that he was sorry that our world has nobody like Superman to make it a better place, but that he was glad we have no Lex Luthor.
Editor Mort Weisinger replied, “Amen!”
Saturday, February 6, 2016
For example, I spotted Detective Comics 287, cover-dated January 1961, in DC’s house ads, but probably spent that week’s quarter on the second (and best) of the Superman annuals, the all-menace issue.
By the next week, 287 must have been vanished from the newsstand, because I remember my disappointment at not finding it. Colorfully costumed figures were still thin on the ground then, just ahead of the Marvel Age, and the bright cover of 287 offered four of them — two bird-themed, one insect-themed and the familiar flying mammal — plus ray guns.
I found the comic a few months later in a used magazine shop, and learned that it also included a story that provided the Martian Manhunter with his own “Superboy,” J’onn J’onzz's young brother T’omm. Never was a nickel better spent.