Thursday, June 30, 2016

When Batman Really Sprang Into Action (Comics)

Dick Sprang, the best of the early Batman artists, once said something heretical: that what he liked drawing best were the World’s Finest stories involving Superman.
Why? Because the soaring, science fictional exuberance of Superman’s challenges expanded what he could play with in his art.
Sprang got more of what he wished as the 1950s wore on, because Superman — now a television star — was the dominant figure at DC Comics, the template for success. Even the most unlikely characters temporarily gained powers identical to the Man of Tomorrow’s — not just Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, but also Batwoman, Blackhawk and even the 18th century pioneer Tomahawk.
Batman acquired his pal’s powers several times, notably in Batman: The Superman of Planet X (Batman 113 Feb. 1958). Teaming with the Batman of the planet Zur-En-Arrh to repel a enemy invasion, the Caped Crusader luckily finds he has super powers there. What are the odds?
The issue also offered a parody Batman (“Fatman”) and the first appearance of a Batman villain who would appear on TV a decade later (False Face, played by Malachi Throne). That was a lot of value for your dime. 

Admire the Steadiness of the Light

Collage by Kelly Walker
I try not to hurry the beagle while he sniffs the ground. I know that he’s busy reading. Like me, he requires new data to stimulate his thinking. If impatient, I watch the steadiness of the bright, slanting sunlight that spills across the lawn, a picture scored by birdsong.
Back at home, George Hilton Beagle falls into a deep sleep, processing all he has learned.

Suspended Between the Depths and the Light

'The Swimming Hole' by Thomas Eakins (1884-85)
Poet Walt Whitman loved swimming with other young men, nude in the fashion of the 19th century, their bodies electric.

Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sun-burnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers, the breath, and breathing it in and out…

“The young men ran dancing and laughing along the sand, bathed in the surf, fished, dug clams, speared messes of fat, sweet-meated eel,” wrote biographer Justin Kaplan. “He loved swimming, of a passive sort — ‘I was a first rate aquatic loafer,’ he recalled. ‘I possessed almost unlimited capacity for floating on my back.’ Cradled, rocked and drowsing, his body rolling ‘silently to and fro in the heave of the water,’ he lay suspended between the depths and the light, between the unconscious and the world of necessity.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How Green Was My Lantern

The first time I saw the original Green Lantern was in the pages of Flash 129 (June 1962), and I was intrigued.
The gently graying Jay Garrick, the original Flash, was reminiscing with his wife Joan about his last adventure with the Justice Society of America 11 years before. He recalled Hawkman drenching the villain’s henchmen, Wonder Woman hoisting a submarine out of the water and Green Lantern deflecting bullets inside a power-ringed, armored shell.
The idea of having a second Justice League somewhere out there was thrilling to me — and this second Emerald Crusader, especially so.
I have since come to love Gil Kane’s elegant, clean-lined and streamlined black-and-green design for the Silver Age Green Lantern costume worn by Hal Jordan. But taste was not my strong suit as a child, and at 7 I preferred things garish. Alan Scott’s original costume certainly filled the bill, with its sweeping collared cape and dominant purples and reds (a “Green Lantern” dressed in red?).
Jon Morris wrote, “A red blouse dotted with yellow insignia, a purple collared cape with emerald green lining, forest green pants, red boots, yellow laces and a broad leather belt made up most of the outlandish costume, accented with his purple domino mask and, lest anyone mistake his color scheme or purpose, a detailed image of a green lantern smack in the middle of his chest.
“The costume served Alan Scott well enough through the end of his popularity, at which point he was effectively replaced in the pages of his own book by a crime-fighting dog.”
Martin Nodell’s concept for the character — a superheroic Aladdin complete with lamp and ring — was an excellent one. Beyond all the claptrap about “will power,” Green Lantern’s ability was one he would share with all his readers — the power to wish for things.
But when I finally read the original GL’s earliest adventures decades later, I was disappointed. Beginning with the hero’s origin in All-American Comics 16 (July 1940), the art was crude, the opponents pedestrian. His vast, fantastic powers seemed to be deliberately played down, as if dullness was actually supposed to be the point of the stories.
As with many DC Comics superheroes, the stories produced after World War II, in the twilight of the Golden Age, were much better. The whole tone of the comics improved considerably.
With talented writers like John Broome and the Hugo Award-winning Alfred Bester and accomplished artists like Carmine Infantino, Alex Toth and Irwin Hasen, Green Lantern now faced memorable menaces like the unstoppable swamp zombie Solomon Grundy and the cheeky rogue Harlequin, who diverted GL’s crusade against crime into a battle of the sexes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Let Crime Beware the Red Tomato, er, Tornado

Stephen Sondheim once said that melodrama and farce are merely two sides of the same coin, and the Red Tornado proves his point.
Almost as soon as the grim, caped avengers appeared in comic books, their inherent absurdity was also parodied there.
“The Red Tornado is … a superheroine in the DC Comics universe, debuting during the Golden Age of Comic Books,” Wikipedia noted. “Created by Sheldon Mayer, she first appeared in her civilian identity as Abigail Mathilda ‘Ma’ Hunkel in All-American Publications’ All-American Comics 3 (June 1939), and became the Red Tornado in All-American Comics 20 (Nov. 1940). As the Red Tornado, she was one of the first superhero parodies, as well as one of the first female superheroes.”
Like the later DC superhero Wildcat, Hunkel was inspired to adopt her costumed identity by Green Lantern, her young son’s hero. Decked out in red long johns, with a cooking pot serving her as both helmet and mask, she used her considerable strength to mop up the urban criminal element.
She was almost a founding member of the Justice Society of America, but had to depart early when her pants split. Her secret identity was rarely in jeopardy, given the fact that the public believed the Red Tornado to be a man.
“(C)riminals found themselves up against a big, brawny, ‘no-nonsense’ superhero — the Red Tornado — no, not, as she frequently found it necessary to point out, ‘tomato,’” comics historian Don Markstein noted. “The Red Tornado wasn’t quite the first female superhero in comics — depending on how you define them, it’s possible she was beaten into print by as many as six (Fantomah, The Woman in Red, Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, Miss X, Lady Luck and the Black Widow, all of whom languish in obscurity). But she was certainly the first to masquerade as male — the other characters in the series all thought she was a man, and she didn’t correct them. She wasn’t, however, the first cross-dressing superhero — that honor, such as it is, goes to Madam Fatal. But she was the first to use red flannel long johns as a prominent costume element, thus paving the way for Supersnipe, Captain Klutz, The Fat Fury and many others who made that fashion statement.”
The Red Tornado was essentially Marie Dressler, a popular film and stage comedic actress of the early 1930s, improbably recast as a superhero.
Like other Golden Age heroes, the Red Tornado was revived in the Silver Age, revamped as an artificial being. At the same time, in another of those parallels between Marvel and DC, the House of Ideas introduced a revived 1940s superhero as a red-faced, caped android — the Vision.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Shadow Returns, and Returns and Returns

By the time Superman arrived in 1938, the Shadow was already a well-established multi-media superhero who’d appeared in pulp magazines, feature films and dramatic radio, and would soon star in a movie serial, comic books and a newspaper comic strip.
Although the Shadow’s pulp magazine ended its 18-year run in 1949, and his radio drama finished in 1954, the character was too popular to stay invisible long.
Not one but two television pilots were made in the 1950s, and from 1963 to 1967 original paperback novels appeared, published by Belmont and flavored with the spy elements popularized by an exciting new character called James Bond. Something of the same approach was taken in a new Shadow comic book series published by Archie in 1964, and the old radio dramas were revived on stations around the country. Even a hardcover collection — The Weird Adventures of the Shadow — was published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1966.
Bantam Books had been successfully republishing the adventures of the Shadow’s pulp “brother,” Doc Savage, since 1964, and in 1969 began doing the same thing for the Shadow, with striking, sketchy covers by Sandy Kossin. More comic books and paperback reprints followed. What was old was new again, and had never really faded from sight.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Man Who Hated Wonder Woman

Early on, I realized that Robert Kanigher hated Wonder Woman, the character he wrote and edited for 22 years.
Many stories were written with a randomness that suggested contempt, the plots taking illogical left turns — people gliding on air currents, dinosaurs and giant birds showing up for no reason. That was nothing like the loving care Kanigher lavished on his DC war comics.
In fact, as author Jill Lepore noted, Kanigher sneeringly referred to her as “…the grotesque, inhuman original Wonder Woman.”
He may well have resented the assignment. Thanks to clever contract negotiation by William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, DC was forced to continually publish the character or lose the rights.
And Kanigher’s distaste for the Golden Age Wonder Woman, with its overripe art by H.G. Peter, wasn’t entirely unfounded. Marston’s admirable promotion of peace and equal rights was, after all, delivered with an admixture of S&M fetishism about the glories of “loving submission.”
“It’s a really big transition time for comics anyway because after the Second World War — this is sort of like what happens to the Cold War in spy films — superheroes have no one left to fight,” Lepore told National Public Radio. “Wonder Woman carries on, though. And Kanigher reimagines her in the 1950s as a kind of daffy, besotted, lovestruck girl, who — all she wants to do is marry Steve Trevor, who’s the guy she’s rescued, which … brings her to the United States in the first place.”
Nevertheless, every dozen issues or so, Kanigher managed to turn out a decent story, always enhanced by the strong art of Ross Andru. And one of them was The Proving of Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman 131 (July 1962). The tale had underworld ghosts, Jove hurling thunderbolts, a trident-wielding Neptune and a gigantic, green, three-headed dog. What more, really, could a kid ask?
Funny how often, from her origin on, Wonder Woman would be required to prove herself in some test or other. That was in part merely a story angle made possible by the fact that other Amazons were available to replace her, I suppose. But she’s one superhero who always had to keep resubmitting her application.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

When the Tiny Tackles the Titanic

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s irradiated giant monsters from the 1950s would occasionally rampage into their irradiated superhero titles in the 1960s. Liking them both, I was happy to see that happen.
Case in point: Tales to Astonish 39 (Jan. 1963). It’s yet another example of the “mirror image enemy:” an insect-sized hero pitted against a gigantic intelligent insect. 
Made titanic in both stature and intellect, the Scarlet Beetle forms an insect army and turns it against humanity, with termites cutting off communications and bees and spiders attacking and immobilizing police and public officials. Can even the Astonishing Ant-Man stop him?
Turns out he can, although not without being redundant (Note to Dr. Pym: all telepathy is mental)
The tale’s conclusion even manages to be a little touching, as Hank Pym releases the de-powered and re-sized insect, who’d after all merely been a pawn of fate, to crawl away on his lawn. It’s perhaps the best ending since the Fantastic Four turned the Skrulls into cows and left them mooing in a pasture.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Adventures of the Fly and Another Guy

Despite the immensely popular Adventures of Superman TV show, the 1950s were kind of a desert for superheroes.
They were characters who’d had their heyday in the Great Depression and World War II, upheavals so vast they seemed to require superhuman champions to set things right. But afterward, with Americans in conformist retreat to the suburbs and wary of annihilation by a war between the actual super powers, superheroes’ colorfully costumed melodrama must have seemed out of place.
Like DC with the Flash and Green Lantern, Archie Comics caught the first wave of the coming Silver Age with its Adventures of the Fly in 1959. Tommy Troy was a boy magically transformed into an adult superhero, a winning concept that was going begging since Fawcett Comics had stopped publishing Captain Marvel five years before. Oddly, that angle was dropped after a couple of issues, and Tommy was rushed through law school to become an adult attorney.
In the first issue I bought, Adventures of the Fly 8 (Sept. 1960), I was delighted to find two superheroes for the price of one (then a dime). The Fly teamed up with the Shield to fight the Monster Gang. Movie monsters too! How good could this get?
I remember being puzzled by the fact that the Shield seemed to come from nowhere, because he had no title of his own. In fact, he did — The Double Life of Private Strong by Simon and Kirby, which lasted only two issues in 1959. The revamped Golden Age character now boasted flight, super-strength, invulnerability, super-vision and the ability to project lightning, and was the orphaned son of a scientist who’d given him his expanded-mind powers. Lancelot Strong had also been adopted and raised by a kindly farm couple.
Sound familiar? DC Comics thought so and threatened legal action, banishing the Shield to near-limbo. He did, however, show up for a couple of guest spots with the Fly. The same thing happened with the Black Hood, another Golden Age superhero I’d never heard of, despite the fact that he’d once had his own comic book, radio series and pulp magazine.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Woman Behind the Man Behind the Witches

With the publication of the first Witch World novel in 1963, we readers knew Andre Norton to be a latter-day, somewhat more literate Edgar Rice Burroughs.
What we didn’t know was that he was a she.
She was Cleveland-born librarian Alice Mary Norton, whose literary cross-dressing was designed to help sell her fantasy novels to a predominantly male audience. Writing more than 100 books, she died in 2005 at the age of 93.
In Witch World, instead of John Carter astral-projecting himself to Barsoom, we had man-on-the-run Simon Tregarth propelled to Estcarp, a continent on the Witch World, through the Arthurian device of a Siege Perilous. He immediately rescues a witch — Jaelithe— who is being hunted by hounds and horsemen, and finds himself on a planet ruled by powerful sorceresses and menaced by mysterious and powerful aliens called the Kolder.
The other nearly 30 novels in the series spotlight the adventures of Simon and Jaelithe’s children, Kyllan, Kemoc and Kaththea, and various other adventurers on the Witch World.
There’s a sedate, often satisfying pace to Norton’s novels, which offer high adventure without blood and thunder. They run to certain themes, among them the presentation of both women and men, of various races, who prove themselves to be capable, level-headed protagonists.
The Witch World novels present a credible kind of delimited magic involving psychic powers, and many of her books show case telepathic bonds between humans and animals. Her 1959 novel, The Beast Master, and its sequels were loosely adapted for the movie and TV series of that name.
“An important role in Norton’s books is often given to animals — both ordinary terrestrial ones, such as cats (with whom she had much personal experience) and exotic fictional ones, whose characteristics are meticulously worked out,” Wikipedia said. “Many of Norton’s animals are highly intelligent without being anthropomorphic, acting as virtually full partners to the human protagonists.”
Her first novels were intended for the juvenile market, but were so well written they crossed over into general circulation.
“Again and again in her works, alienated outsiders undertake a journey through which they realize their full potential; this emphasis on the rite of passage continued her association in many readers’ minds with young adult fiction, although she became a best seller to adults,” Wikipedia noted.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

When I Am Not Myself

“It is held that absence of self is the true nature of every sort of every sort of entity — abstract or material, animate or inanimate — without exception,” wrote John Blofeld.
“Just as there is no part of a teapot, for example, which can be described as the real self of that pot, no essence of teapot independent of its substance, shape, color, age, condition and function, so do gods, men and animals have nothing which can be divorced from the constantly shifting physical and mental characteristics of their beings. The seeming individuality of each is a bundle of transient qualities, all ephemeral and unstable, all dependent for their fleeting existence on innumerable interlocking factors to which billions of causes, prior and concurrent, have contributed.”
Logical and strange as it is, this Buddhist concept echoes an 1899 poem by William Hughes Mearns:
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he'd go away...

When the X-Men Met Star Trek: A.E. Van Vogt

If you’re interested in the origins of persecuted teenage mutant supermen, you’ll have to look earlier than 1963, the year the first issue of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men was published.
At least 23 years earlier, in fact, to A.E. Van Vogt’s 1940 pulp science fiction novel Slan.
His parents murdered, an exploited 9-year-old boy named Jommy Cross is on the run because he’s secretly a Slan, a member of a telepathic, super-strong, super-swift, super-intelligent mutant minority created by scientist Samuel Lann. Slans also have healing powers and super-scientific weapons, and some of them, like Jommy, can be recognized by the golden tendrils in their hair.
In novels like this one, The World of Null-A and The Silkie, Van Vogt explored the superman concept. The strange left turns of his stories are sometimes criticized, but he wrote his fiction through a hypnagogic technique, taking brief naps to come up with new plot angles, and I find the dream logic of his stories intriguing. Van Vogt also offered unique takes on the science fiction monster genre in novels such as Voyage of the Space Beagle, a clear precursor to Star Trek.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Turning Back Time with Superboy

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Superman’s formidable powers increased steadily to some point just short of omnipotence.
By 1960, Superman, Superboy, Supergirl and even Krypto could freeze lakes with their breath, push planets around and see through time. Writer Denny O’Neil recalled the era with a joke, asking, “How do you write stories about a guy who can destroy a galaxy by listening hard?”
Actually, there were ways, one of them illustrated in Superboy 85 (Dec. 1960).
Although Superboy could travel through time, comic book metaphysics required that he be unable to alter events in the past (a rule abandoned in the 1978 Superman film, obviously). The real reason was dramatic necessity — Superboy’s Earth would become radically different than our own if history’s tragedies were to be retroactively averted, and reader identification would suffer.
That stricture would seem to preclude suspenseful storytelling, but in the right hands, it need not.
In The Impossible Mission, Superboy attempts to thwart the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, Superman’s archenemy, the adult Lex Luthor, has fled to the same era to escape the Man of Tomorrow (a nickname that’s literal in this instance). Mistakenly believing Superboy is pursuing him, Luthor paralyzes him with red kryptonite, only to learn the truth, to his horror — that his fear of Superman has caused the murder of the Great Emancipator.
The story (written by Superman’s co-creator Jerry Siegel and drawn by George Papp) suggests previously unexplored depths in Luthor’s character — that while he may be evil, he doesn’t consider himself to be a monster and is appalled by the role which history has forced him to play. Here, he reminds me of the embittered character of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, railing against his inescapable, shameful fate.
This was one of several efforts made at the time to suggest there was more to Luthor than his 20-year obsession with  murdering Superman might suggest. We learned that he had a psychically gifted sister, Lena Thorul, from whom he kept his identity a secret. Lena was another Siegel contribution to the mythos. And we would shortly find that Luthor could play the hero himself and even enjoy the role, on a distant planet, as long as Superman remained far, far away.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Propaganda Came from Outer Space

Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s brief back-of-the-book Marvel tales-with-a-twist were fun. But sometimes, like Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone TV series, they also carried a quietly effective theme about human nature. This one concerns the power and danger of propaganda, a message even more relevant in 2016 than in 1960.
In Tales of Suspense 8 (March 1960), a shape-shifting alien (a direct ancestor of the Skrulls) wreaks havoc until he’s captured because he made the mistake of assuming the form of a beloved astronaut dog who’s in space.
A silly surprise ending, yes, but the real message was slipped in earlier — that beguiling media propaganda can be used not only to dangerously misinform citizens, but even more insidiously to discredit the truth-tellers by spreading suspicion about all news sources.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fascinated by the Face That Wasn't There

Sometimes the comic books you saw in ads but didn’t get to read could be as fascinating as the comics that you actually paid your dime or 12 cents to buy.
At times, they could even be more compelling, because not knowing the story behind the covers forced you into the delightful practice of using your imagination and speculating — of writing, in effect, just the way Gardner Fox and John Broome did.
Such was the case with Strange Adventures 124 (Jan. 1961), which introduced the Faceless Creature.
By 1961, mere aliens from other planets had gotten rather old hat in DC Comics’ Strange Adventures. So the Faceless Hunter wasn’t merely from the planet Saturn, but from Klaramar, a sub-atomic world revolving within an atom on Saturn that operates within a different temporal field than the Earth. Now THAT’S what I call an alien! One Klaramarian day equals a million Earth years (a fact that renders the two sequels to the first story impossible, but we’ll forget about that).
The first Faceless Creature was Klee-Pan, a benevolent alien who inexplicably seems to be stealing the faces from terrestrial monuments. In fact, he is seeking a bomb that will destroy the solar system, one has been locked by the evil Chen Yull into a vault which can only be opened by some giant head.
Visiting Mount Rushmore, Klee-Pan teamed up with two South Dakota Highway Patrolmen, Jim Boone and Bob Colby, to save our worlds. As a reward, Klee-Pan enabled the two police officers to telepathically communicate with each other. The two would return in Strange Adventures 142 (July 1962) to battle Chen Yull himself, and then Chen Yull would return to threaten humanity again in Strange Adventures 153 (June 1963).
Mike Sekowsky, Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane did the artistic honors for the Fox stories.
Elegantly designed, weirdly powered, smooth-faced, pleasantly orange giant aliens, recurring human protagonists who gain superhuman abilities, and DC’s customarily reassuring “cozy catastrophe” science fiction scenarios — I was right the first time. If I’d had the chance to read these tales when they were published, I would have loved them.

How to Succeed at Debating an Agnostic

In 1876, during a train journey, a former general and failed attorney named Lew Wallace was humiliated.
While debating religion with the famed agnostic author Robert G. Ingersoll, Wallace realized that he knew next to nothing about his own Christian faith.
Wallace devoted three years to studying the Bible and researching Christianity, and the result was an adventure novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which eventually outsold every book in the United States except the Bible.
I was fascinated to learn that the first dramatic adaptation of the story was not the silent film version, but a six-act, three-and-a-half-hour 1899 Broadway play which boasted spectacular lighting, large onstage crowds and, as biographer Andre Soares noted, “…two horse-drawn chariots darting at full speed on parallel treadmills, with a Circus Maximus backdrop revolving behind them.” Half a million people saw the play on Broadway, and more than 20 million saw it on tour throughout the world.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Cool Cat Who Was Meta Before Meta Was Cool

You might call DC’s Golden Age character Wildcat an elemental superhero, verging on the generic.
Created by writer Bill Finger and artist Irwin Hansen for Sensation Comics 1 (Jan. 1942), Ted Grant was a champion boxer who put on a costume to clear himself after he’d been framed for murder.
Why a costume? Because a kid who’d been reading about the comic book hero Green Lantern gave him the idea, of course. Wildcat was meta before meta was cool. And his costume had a clean, black-silhouette design.
That back-to-basics approach made the character popular with a number of readers over the decades, among them Piperson in The Great Comic Book Heroes blog.
“Wildcat is a hero who takes on a masked identity for a believable reason with believable physical prowess,” he wrote. “I love the down-to-Earth environment that the story takes place in. This is not some Art Deco Metropolis or some Gothic Gotham, this is the streets of New York City or Chicago. This is Madison Square Garden. And Wildcat is not some idealistic ‘fighter for justice.’ He is a guy who has been wronged and he is taking back what they took from him using the skills he has available to him. Even the costume makes sense in that he is on the run from the law and so has to stay incognito. It’s a great take on the whole superhero genre, one that Brubaker, Rucka or Bendis would appreciate with their gritty, down-to-Earth styles.”
Of course, if you were to show the character to somebody off the street today, they’d be likely to say, “Oh, yeah, I know him! That Marvel character, what’s his name? The Black Panther!”

The Inevitable Arrival of the Diabolical Duo

By their sixth issue (Sept. 1962), the groundbreaking superhero team the Fantastic Four faced the foes they’d inevitably been fated to meet — a super villain team. Stan Lee even extended the parallelism to alliteration — a “Diabolical Duo.”
It took six issues because the FF had to meet some villains before they could team up. As an 8-year-old, I’d already read — devoured, really — the third and fifth issues of the title, so I was delighted with Dr. Doom’s immediate return.
The Sub-Mariner I’d never heard of. But even to a child, it was clear that Namor was more hero than villain (I didn’t know the term “antihero” yet).  A kind of seagoing Superman, he boasted an impressive array of superpowers of which flight and super strength were only the most obvious.
As Mike of Comic Book Curios recalled, “The story reaches a climax when the team is forced to put on astronaut suits and attack Doom’s ship in the middle of space. Everything seems hopeless, until Namor decides to help out. He jumps into a conveniently placed tank of water, gathers up enough energy to shoot out of the building, bounces off of a conveniently approaching meteor storm, and then throws himself onto the hull of Doom’s ship. Namor reveals that he has the powers of all underwater creatures combined, and chooses to use the power of an electric eel to shock Doom through the walls. Finally, Doctor Doom flees, jumping aboard one of those passing meteors - NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN! (We all know better than that though!)”
“In fact, the theme of the issue seems to be how these larger-than-life characters are viewed by others,” Don Alsafi wrote. “On the one hand, you have a troubled Namor — just now beginning to see the error of his ways — cajoled into further villainy by Doom, who sees him as nothing more than an easily manipulable pawn. And the issue opens on a crowd in awe of the Torch flying overhead, and a courier at the Baxter Building flustered at a chance meeting with the Invisible Girl. And then Stan and Jack further invite us to think of the Fantastic Four as real people, as we see an expanded cutaway of their headquarters, first seen in #3 ... and the FF answering their fan mail! In fact, when Reed gets a letter from a hospitalized boy, he stretches out the window and across several city blocks to pay him a visit. More than a few letter-writers after that must surely have been thinking of that very same scene!”
Jack Kirby’s art really was fantastic, with those three-panel progressions he used to convey dramatic and emotional power and those breathtaking splash pages. I can’t count the number of times I savored that issue.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Justice, Like Lightning, Ever Should Appear..."

I understand the Marvel bullpen wasn’t thrilled about publisher Martin Goodman’s idea of appropriating the name of a legendary Fawcett Comics superhero in 1968, but Roy Thomas and Gene Colan made the best of it with a radical approach.
“Captain Marvel” wasn’t a hero at all, but an alien spy and saboteur misidentified and posing as a superhero. This villain-evolves-into-hero dramatic dynamic would be used effectively again in such titles as Thunderbolts and Superior Spider-Man.
However, random changes in writer, artist and direction made the title seem like a lame afterthought, at least until issue 17 in July 1969, when Thomas teamed with Gil Kane — then at the height of his powers — to revamp the character into what became an affectionate wink at the original 1940s superhero.
Mar-Vell’s green-and-white alien battle armor was traded for the red and yellow of the Shazam shouter’s original costume. They gave Mar-Vell the wish-fulfilling power of pure flight, and restored one of the most powerful elements of the fantasy — that of a boy instantly transformed into a superman. Here, the “boy” was Rick Jones, a teenager who’d been knocking around the Marvel universe from the beginning, who “traded atoms” with Captain Marvel by clashing his wrist bands.
“Kane's long, lanky, powerful figures are in constant motion, and his action sequences are mind-boggling (to say the least),” Lloyd Smith noted. “Plus, he gets to draw Captain America (okay, so it’s rarely really Cap, but still...), some Avengers, and the Hulk.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

How Can I Fight You When I Must Save You?

Spider-Man had already fought and thwarted the Chameleon, the Vulture and the Sandman. He’d nearly been beaten by two doctors named Octopus and Doom. He’d fretted about the frailty of Aunt May and fumed about the unfairness of J. Jonah Jameson. But in Amazing Spider-Man 6 (Nov. 1963), the odds against him were stacked even higher.
Now, he had to defeat Dr. Curt Conners, a man who had accidentally transformed himself into the monstrous Lizard while attempting to restore his lost arm. Like the Hulk, Conners could not control his condition, and he had a wife and small son who loved him. So Spidey had to defeat the Lizard and his reptile army while finding a way to avoid hurting a husband and father. His task was heroic indeed, and this Stan Lee/Steve Ditko story set the pattern for Spider-Man movie villains, who always have a sympathetic, damaged and human side to their dangerous rage.
Also, as Don Alsafi noted, “Finally, it’s impressive to see the continued and steady evolution of Peter's character. As mentioned above, early on in the story he’s about to ask out Betty Brant when he's interrupted by another of Jameson's outbursts, and the story ends with Peter phoning up Liz Allan for a date instead. She turns him down — suddenly enamored with that hero Spider-Man who saved her at the museum — but instead of feeling rejected, Peter just shrugs in bemusement at his wry luck. It’s a significant change to see him displaying this kind of cool confidence, something he clearly lacked in his earlier stories.”

Monday, June 6, 2016

What They Said He Deserved

At right is movie star Ramon Novarro in 1925. At left are his murderers.
At 69, the former silent film star Ramon Novarro was murdered by two brothers who were male hustlers.
At their murder trial, defense attorney Richard Walton told the jury, “Back in the days of Valentino, this man who set female hearts aflutter was nothing but a queer. There’s no way of calculating how many felonies this man committed over the years, for all his piety. What would have happened if Paul had not gotten drunk on Novarro’s booze, at Novarro’s urging and at Novarro’s behest? What would have happened if Novarro had not been a seducer and traducer of young men? The answers to those questions will determine the issue and degree of guilt of Tom Ferguson and the issue and degree of guilt of Paul Ferguson.”
Paul Ferguson in a "physique" magazine.
Being beaten to death is what an officer of the court felt free to argue that a gay man deserved in 1969, two months after the Stonewall Riots.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Portrait of a Trump Voter

Painting by Brendan O'Connell.
American snapshot, 2016.
“I used to work at Wal-Mart. The people who shopped there brought with them their family dysfunction and acted it out in front of me as if they forgot they weren’t within the paper-thing walls of their tenements. They unloaded it and pushed it around in their carts as if it were another gaudy purse or screaming brood covered in tears and snot. They made a show of telling their children to shut up, screaming louder than the kids as if such a victory would produce the spoils of silence. It never worked. Nor did it work when they pulled the brat up by the arm and delivered a sharp hit to the butt, one to the leg, another to the back of the back before slamming him or her back down into the built-in seat. ‘There! Now you’ve got something to cry about.’”
— Corey Taylor, The Untoward Adventures of Ichabod Stitch

Never Challenge a Thunder God

Disney-Marvel has retained several of the strengths of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early Marvel tales, and one of them is wit. The humor never interferes with the urgency of the superhero melodrama, but is used for contrast, to give the story a satisfying pace.
Here, in Thor 142 (July 1967), Kirby and Lee delay the hero’s clash with the Super Skrull for a couple of pages in order to show us what happens when a mouthy motorcyclist challenges the thunder god to a race. Pretending to agree and displaying a rarely seen gift for wry sarcasm, Thor takes the teen for a whirlwind tour he won’t forget. What fun.

Reason and Cooperation in Outer Space

In 1945, in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, Murray Leinster published First Contact, a science fiction story with a classic plot twist. He pointed out that if spaceships representing alien civilizations were to meet in space for the first time, neither could dare let the other learn the location of its home planet.
And 18 years later, in the back pages of the first issue of a soon-to-be-classic comic book called Magnus, Robot Fighter, artist Russ Manning and writers Eric Freiwald and Robert Schaefer used that plot as a springboard for the serial Captain Johner and the Aliens.
The solution to the dilemma? An exchange of crew members. The journeys with the aliens — metallic-limbed, dome-headed weirdies that seemed truly alien — provided natural opportunities for stories that emphasized tolerance, reason and the importance of civilized cooperation and teamwork.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

What Everyone Knows And No One Can Say

Driftglass, in his June 3, 2016, podcast: “Everyone knows what the story is. The story is the Republican Party has, at its base, a bunch of bigots and imbeciles who’ve been dumbed-down and angried-up by Fox News and hate radio for 25 years. And they are now so pliable and so angry and so racist and so completely detached from reality that they’ll happily vote for an obvious fraud, con-artist fascist like Donald Trump because he does exactly for them what Fox News and hate radio does for them — tell them what they want to hear. … Everyone knows that’s what the truth is, but no one can say it.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Lucille Ball: The Insecure View from the Top

Vivian Vance played sidekick to Lucille Ball all through I Love Lucy and partway through The Lucy Show, then bowed out, demanding a salary increase she knew would be rejected.
“I was sure she felt I was deserting her,” Vance wrote. “She had a tremendous fear of rejection, and unless she thought it through, it could seem that I was rejecting her, giving her up after 14 years of closeness and clowning, for a husband and a home I wanted to share with him.”
Lucy had other priorities. “Marriage, motherhood, leisure — all were subordinated to the main concern of putting on a good show and turning a profit for the Desilu stockholders,” wrote Stefan Kanfer in Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball. “Though she determined to get along without her feminine foil, Vivian’s departure did make an enormous difference, not only in the scripts but in Lucy’s outlook. In her view, she had been dropped twice, by her husband and by her closest professional friend.”
Richard Burton, Lucille Ball and Elizabeth Taylor
“’On the set, she could be a holy terror,’ said one of the technicians who watched Lucy in action. She summarily fired a New York Method actor who mumbled his lines; intimidated directors and cameramen; and sought confrontations, even when the star was as big as she was.
“When she gave Danny Kaye instructions on how to do humor, he snapped, ‘Just who the hell do you think you are?’ Lucy shot back, ‘You’re full of shit, that’s who I am.’ She was not smiling.
“Joan Blondell, who had known Lucy since their starlet days in the 1930s, had become a first-class film and stage comedienne in middle age. Lucy booked her on the show, then expressed dissatisfaction with the way Blondell read her lines. After one take, her friend Herb Kenwith reporterd, the director yelled ‘Cut!’ and “Lucille pulled an imaginary chain … as if flushing an old-fashioned toilet.’ Blondell turned away but caught the tail end of the gesture. ‘What does that mean?’ she demanded. Lucille said, ‘It means that stunk!’ Joan looked her right in the eye and said, ‘Fuck you, Lucille Ball!’ The studio audience was stunned. You didn’t hear words like that in those days.’ Kaye and Lucy were to make up their differences. Blondell never came back.”
In 1970, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, then the world’s most famous couple, appeared on Lucille Ball’s CBS sitcom Here’s Lucy. Lucy and Liz exchanged increasingly large bunches of roses, but all was not so rosy after Lucy insisted on giving the famous Welsh actor line readings.
Amused, Burton noted that Lucy referred to Liz as “…for the most part as Mrs. Burton or Miss Taylor and occasionally Elizabeth but (she) corrects it to the more formal immediately.” Liz, meanwhile, referred to Lucy as “Miss Cunt.”