Saturday, April 30, 2016

Back in the Day That Needed Saving

My first exposure to a seminal Superman story came in cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer’s wonderful 1965 book, The Great Comic Book Heroes. Feiffer was apparently the first to realize that superheroes were an American cultural phenomenon significant enough to belong between hard covers.
Interestingly, the story Feiffer chose to reprint as representative of the early Superman has no villain. The emphasis is on Superman as rescuer, always his central role and the essence of the character (a fact that has somehow escaped Zack Snyder’s attention).
From Action Comics 5 (Oct. 1938), the tale features the Man of Tomorrow’s desperate race to save a town and Lois Lane from the deluge caused by the collapsed Valley-Ho Dam. Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film nods directly at this story. In both cases, Superman hurls mountaintops into the path of the flood, changing the course of a mighty river.
Written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster, the story features art that’s crude but elemental and dynamic. Some of the excitement of the feature would be polished away by better art in later years. Here, what it most evident is the sheer joy of Superman’s bounding into the sky, outracing trains and hurtling past the moon with Lois safe in his arms.
That romance with Lois was steamier in those halcyon days, too — contrasted, of course, with her contempt for the cowardly Clark Kent. The secret smirk inherent in that setup was the revenge of every nerd.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Secret Agent Matt Helm in "The Blowhards"

Donald Hamilton’s brisk, distinctively voiced Matt Helm spy novels, which I read when I was a teenager, had titles like The Silencers and The Ambushers. I’m starting to think the titles should have been more like The Sexists and The Blowhards. Helm takes murder and treachery in stride, but he draws the line at pants suits.

A Timely Warning from the Twilight Zone

Thanks for the warning, Rod Serling. Too bad we didn't heed it

Monday, April 25, 2016

Burl Ives: That Powerful Yearning

My newspaper interview with actor and folk muscian Burl Ives, which appeared in the Mattoon, IL, Journal Gazette on May 10, 1985. Ives was one of the most famous alumni of Eastern Illinois University.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Alien Invasion at the 18th Hole

Having always had somewhat less than no interest in spectator sports, I shouldn’t have been expected to embrace a 1963 comic book called Strange Sports Stories.
That I had any interest in it at all was entirely due to the talents of writers Gardner Fox and John Broome, artist Carmine Infantino and editor Julius Schwartz, who had refined the optimistic, sunlit, linear-landscaped science fiction stories they created for Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space into a distinctly odd sub-genre.
Where else might you find intangible prizefighters, invisible baseball teams or rocket-sledding golfers who had to overcome alien spaceships instead of water hazards?
“Some of the ideas are ingenious, and could be put into place with today’s electronic technology,” noted comics historian Mike Grost. “Broome always had a flair for new technological devices. Others involve non-violent hunting and evading of alien animals; these recall the similar tracking of alien animals in Fox’s Star Rovers tales. Broome was quite insistent in his tales about the reality of social change. Several of his stories suggest that today’s conventional ideas will change drastically in the future.”
“The expert athletes in Broome future sport stories remind one of all the magician characters in his other works,” Grost wrote. “All of these men are highly skilled, and they can bring this repertory of skills to bear on unexpected science fiction situations in which they find themselves. They are also men who perform in public, and who get fame and public acclaim for their work.”
In the story The Man Who Drove Through Time, Fox anticipated Back to the Future, transporting an auto inventor from 1896 to the 1964 Indianapolis 500.
Many of the stories provide the cozy reassurance of what Grost called “the futuristic Art Deco cities and gracious living of Infantino’s futures.”
But the concept never progressed beyond five tryout issues in The Brave and the Bold, so general interest in it was apparently as tepid as my own.
Presumably the kids who wanted to play baseball were out doing it, while the ones who wanted to read comics were sprawled on the living room carpet doing that. Strange Sports Stories explicitly tried to bridge that gap by providing more than one story (Goliath of the Gridiron, The Hot-Shot Hoopsters) about young intellectuals who become literally fantastic athletes. 
But after all, why be a mere star athlete when, with the same mental leap, you could be a superhero? That left Strange Sports Stories falling short, an idea whose time never came.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Superman: Back to Futuro

Stan Lee once observed that comic book readers do not want change, they want the illusion of change. Certainly that was true when I was growing up, in the case of popular stories like the one in Superman 132.
The tale had Superman, Batman and Robin watching an alternate history in which Krypton never exploded and Kal-El was permitted to grow up there. Logically, that would seem to suggest a superhero story with no superhero, and while that might fly these days in the Gotham TV show, it would never do in October 1959.
In fact, of course, children — by far the primary audience for Superman then — like reassurance. They like to be told the same stories in exactly the same way, again and again. So even though Krypton didn’t blow up, a caped “superman” appeared anyway in the form of Kal-El’s professor, who called himself Futuro after an accident gave him (and Krypto) super powers identical to Superman’s.
“Jimmy Olsen” appeared in the form of Futuro’s pal Kal-El. Kal-El acquired a “spaceman costume” duplicating his familiar super suit, and also dressed in the weird earthly clothes of Clark Kent for a costume party. Lois Lane showed up on Krypton and immediately fell for the super guy. And because Futuro intended to marry Lois and return to Earth with her, he decided to empower Kal-El with that “one last charge” and leave him to guard Krypton as Superman.
Perfectly absurd. Perfectly satisfying.
Wayne Boring was the Superman artist of my childhood, and although his figures tended to be stiff, he had a wonderful way with those perfectly round, brightly colored planets and asteroids that Superman juggled, those massive transparent globular ray guns and those graceful minarets that soared above the cities of advanced civilizations. His drawings drew me into his universe. I remember being particularly entranced by the white-and-violet color combination of Futuro’s costume as he soared to the rescue.
Futuro’s secret identity, by the way, was “Dr. Xan-Du.” Writer Otto Binder was signaling, as clearly as possible, that this was all wish fulfillment. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Monday, April 18, 2016

You Can Go Holm Again

My newspaper interview with Celeste Holm, which appeared in the Charleston Times-Courier on Oct. 3, 1982.

Friday, April 15, 2016

I Was the Reader Without Animal Powers

I was 11 when those aliens gave stunt man Buddy Baker his animal powers in DC’s Strange Adventures 180 (Sept. 1965), courtesy of writer Dave Wood and artist Carmine Infantino.
I enjoyed his adventure then and in The Return of the Man with Animal Powers (Strange Adventures 184, Jan. 1966), despite the fact that his super powers caused cognitive dissonance even in a child.
For example, how could you “borrow” the flying ability of an eagle without also acquiring wings or an avian bone structure? Superman’s powers — mostly amplifications of human abilities — seemed almost plausible by comparison.
But Infantino’s clean-lined, graceful art was always refreshing to the eye, and I also found it refreshing that Baker chose to go into super-powered action without fancy dress. Much as I love superhero costumes, the cliché was already becoming a bit shopworn by 1965. I had been attracted to Gold Key’s quasi-omnipotent Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom in 1962 in part for that reason, and my interest waned when he put on red spandex in his fifth issue.
I breathed another small sigh of regret when, in Strange Adventures 190 (July 1966), Baker put on his super suit. I didn’t read him much after that. In part it was because with the Batman craze in full swing, we had an embarrassment of superheroic riches.  Just as we have today.

The Second-Best Spaceman in the Universe

Even when I was 6 years old, in 1960, I was clear on the fact that Space Ranger was only the second-best spaceman in the DC universe.
Over in Mystery in Space, Adam Strange had the advantage of stories by Gardner Fox and art by Carmine Infantino (who could not only make you believe the unbelievable, but make you believe the unbelievable to be sleek, tempered and elegant). Space Ranger, the lead feature in Tales of the Unexpected, was delivered with the workmanlike art of Bob Brown and goofy-fun stories by Arnold Drake and Bob Haney.
DC’s two spaceman superheroes — one operating in the present, the other in the future — were actually created to be rival concepts and placed with rival editorial teams.
“Two sci-fi heroes came out of a 1957 editorial conference — Space Ranger and Adam Strange,” comics historian Don Markstein noted. “They were assigned to successive runs in Showcase, the comic book where new concepts were tried before committing the publisher’s capital to a full-scale title launch. Editor Jack Schiff took Space Ranger, while Julius Schwartz took Adam Strange.”
Space Ranger, like many another minor DC hero, was originally set up to resemble the popular Batman, with a secret identity (wealthy playboy Rick Starr), a secret cave headquarters (inside an asteroid), a flashy, speedy vehicle (the scarlet spaceship Solar King) and a sidekick, his small, adorable alien friend, Cryll.
Like Batman, Space Ranger had no super powers, but Cryll did, being able to transform himself into any animal, like the later Beast Boy. Since Cryll had the whole densely inhabited universe to choose from, he could essentially transform himself into anything. The Martian Manhunter’s super-powered alien pet/pal Zook was similar.
In place of powers or a utility belt, the yellow-clad, translucent-helmeted Ranger had his all-purpose multi-raygun which seemingly could emit any kind of beam: heat, ice, disintegration, and so forth, anticipating Space Ghost’s multi-beam power bands.
By the time I started reading Space Ranger, his secret identity had been largely abandoned as superfluous (a character who was always on yet another weird planet hardly needed a disguise). He kept the 22nd century safe from the likes of  The Army of Interplanetary Beasts, The Invasion of the Jewel-Men, The Menace of the Sun-Creature, The Beast from the Invisible World and The Menace of the Alien Indians (don’t ask).

Once Upon a Very Strange Time

Imagine, if you will, a 12-year-old boy in 18th century Amsterdam who is whisked away to the mansion of the richest woman in France, where he is enrolled in the best boys’ school, given jewels and clothing and a pony.
A fairy tale? No, it’s history, and a rather sad one. The boy was the son of Teresa Imer, a former lover of Giacomo Casanova and the half-brother of Casanova’s illegitimate 5-year-old daughter. Casanova took the boy to live with the 63-year-old heiress Jeanne de Lascaris d’Urfé de Le Rouchefoucauld.
The Marquise d’Urfé entertained such purportedly uncanny figures as the Conte de Saint-German, who claimed to be several hundred years old; Franz Anton Mesmer, the pioneer in hypnosis; the Conte di Cagliostro and Casanova, who claimed magical powers derived from the ancient Hebrew secrets of the Cabala. Giuseppi Imer was obtained and pampered because the Marquise was convinced Casanova could help her transplant her soul into the body of a young boy and thereby make her immortal.

No wonder France had a revolution.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Yin and Yang of Ravens

A white (not albino) raven and his counterpart on Vancouver Island. Native American legends about white raven legends talk about them being the bringers of light and tricksters.
White flight

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Shadow of Hawkman's Ghost

The Gentleman Ghost, a character created by Robert Kanigher who first appeared in Flash Comics 88 (Oct. 1947), was an elusive and recurring mysterioso foe of Hawkman throughout the late 1940s. Here, we see him in Flash Comics 92 (Feb. 1948),
When Hawkman received his jet-age reboot as an alien police officer from the planet Thanagar (Brave and the Bold 34, Feb.-March 1961), I suspect writer Gardner Fox, wanting to recapture some of that old magic, created a similar arch-criminal whose powers would be super-scientific rather than supernatural. In both cases, Joe Kubert did the art.
So Carl Sands, after saving alien explorer Thar Dan of the  Xarapion dimension, was rewarded with a Dimensiometer, a device that transformed him into the intangible Shadow Thief. Hawkman’s mission to capture Sands was more urgent than he realized, because only comic book readers knew that overuse of the Dimensiometer would wreck human civilization by causing global climate change.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

How Fox News Wrecked the GOP — and the U.S.

"(M)ake no mistake, spewing hate has a significant impact upon society,” wrote journalist Cody Cain. “It is the equivalent of modern-day propaganda where the population is barraged with a stream of consistent messaging. As ordinary people go about their daily lives, they are exposed repeatedly, day in and day out, to the same messages in numerous forms and by numerous people. Pretty soon, these messages begin to sink in and take effect. The audience begins to adopt a worldview consistent with these messages, regardless of the degree of truth. It is a remarkable phenomenon.
"From Nazi Germany in the 1930s to Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, history is replete with examples of propaganda’s effectiveness as a tool for shaping public opinion. Propaganda is powerful stuff. Many people are susceptible to it and can be swayed by it, especially the less educated.
"In America today, right-wing media is engaged in this very same activity through Fox News and extremist talk radio. This network is constantly barraging its audience with a stream of consistent messaging. And this messaging is overwhelmingly negative and destructive."

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Miss Liberty: The Surprising Superheroine of 1776

I have an affection for obscure superheroes, in part because the very idea is incongruous — a world-saving champion whom virtually nobody knows. And you’d hard-pressed to find a superhero more obscure than DC’s Miss Liberty, in part because she turned up in a title where she had no place being.
“Tomahawk” was Thomas Hawk, a Revolutionary War-era pioneer woodsman created just as superheroes were fading in 1947. The character anticipated and undoubtedly got a boost from the Davy Crockett craze of 1954-55.
Graduating from a back-up feature to his own title in 1950, Tomahawk evolved along the lines of DC’s Batman. With his boy sidekick, Dan Hunter, he fought British troops, Indians, aliens, giant apes, dinosaurs, a frontier Frankenstein monster, tree men and alien Indians (don’t ask). Like Batman, he occasionally gained super powers and encountered a female masked champion of justice — Miss Liberty.
“In 1960s DC comics, the superheroes were back — and lo and behold, one turned up in Tomahawk,” comics historian Don Markstein noted. “Miss Liberty, who represented that segment of the superhero population which wrapped themselves in the American flag like a cheap politician (as did, for example, The Shield and Fighting American), debuted in #81 (August, 1962), and was a frequently seen supporting character thereafter.” Bess Lynn, a nurse, donned mask, wig, cape, tricolor costume and tri-corner hat to ride out on heroic missions. She armed herself with powder horns, essentially using them as frontier hand grenades. Unlike many superheroes, she had a credible reason for keeping her identity secret. Her brother was still in England, and reprisals would be taken against him were she to be exposed.