Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Black Hood: On the Page and in the Air

In the early 1940s, the Black Hood became MLJ Comics’ first cross-media star. The feat would later be repeated by Archie Andrews and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Created by Harry Shorten and Al Camy for Top-Notch Comics 9 (1940), the Black Hood was New York City police officer Kip Burland, framed and all but murdered by the green-masked arch-criminal the Skull. Nursed back to health and trained by a hermit, Burland dons a black mask and yellow tights to evade both the police and criminals in his war to bring the Skull to justice, and finally clears his name.
Oddly for a company that would later be defined by Archie’s light-hearted romantic high jinks, MLJ’s superheroes often had brutally violent adventures in the 1940s. Light on super powers, the protagonists leaned toward being somewhat interchangeable tough bruisers in tights. Even the Shield, who began as a superman, eventually lost his powers.
The Black Hood also starred in a pulp magazine, Black Hood Detective, which morphed into Hooded Detective. “The Black Hood’s pulp adventures lasted only three issues, dated September, 1941, November, 1941, and January, 1942,” Richard Lupoff wrote. “The demise of the magazine may have resulted from paper rationing imposed by the government, the United States having entered World War II on Dec. 7, 1941.
“For the pulp adventures of the Black Hood, (publisher Louis) Silberkleit obtained the literary services of George Roberts, a solidly competent pulp scrivener who used the by-line G.T. Fleming-Roberts,” Lupoff wrote. “For the three book-length adventures of the Black Hood, Roberts grappled with some serious problems involved in converting a comic book hero to a pulp adventurer.”
“Kip wears his Black Hood costume under his street clothes, and in at least one instance we see him strip to his tights, hide his civvies in the bushes outside a mansion, and set off to chase the crooks. He seems to have forgotten to come back for them. Or maybe I missed that in all the excitement.”
“Roberts modified the Black Hood’s costume by adding a flowing black cloak, permitting him to disappear into the shadows when it suited him. (Shades of Walter Gibson's crime-fighter, the Shadow.)”
The Black Hood debuted on radio’s Mutual Network in 1943. Using Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as its theme music, the 15-minute show ran for 120 episodes over six months and starred Scott Douglas as Kip Burland/The Black Hood. Marjorie Cramer played his Margo Lane-like friend and confidant, reporter Barbara Sutton.
Sound effects: GONG Hit
ANNCR: The Black Hood!
ANNCR: Criminals beware... The Black Hood is everywhere!
HOOD: (filter) I, the Black Hood do solemnly swear that neither threat, nor bribe, nor bullet, nor death itself -- will keep me from fulfilling my vow: To erase crime from the face of the earth!
MUSIC: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Paul Dukas. UP AND FADE OUT UNDER ANNCR.
ANNCR: The Black Hood, who is really patrolman Kip Burland, a fact known only to newspaper woman Barbara Sutton, has just been talking to Barbara on the phone. They were discussing the old Miracle Man and his strange housekeeper Womba. Sergeant McGinty, Patrolman Burland's superior had thought their visit to the Voodoo doctor merely routine. But Kip Burland and Barbara Sutton were fascinated by the black magic of the Old Miracle Man. In fact, the old man had given Barbara an odd emerald ring in a twined serpent setting. Womba, the old housekeeper had objected to the gift. We find the telephone conversation between Burland and Barbara Sutton has been interrupted by a stranger at Barbara’s door — Burland is holding the line.
BARBARA: (Screams) What are you doing here with a gun? You can't come in!
GUNMAN: Oh, I can't --eh? Well, I’m coming in, and no one's going to stop me, either! Not till I get what I came for.
KIP: (filter) Barbara, are you alright?
GUNMAN: There's no one around. I checked and made sure the doorman was out...
KIP: (filter) Barbara!
GUNMAN: I came in and walked up the stairs...
KIP: Well, I've heard enough of that! I'd better get over to Barbara’s right away... (deeper) It’s time for THE BLACK HOOD to go to work!...
The Black Hood’s 1940s superheroic career was wide-ranging but short-lived. During the summer of 1946, in Black Hood Comics 19, he became one of the few Golden Age superheroes to have his secret identity exposed. Captured and unmasked by the Dick Tracyesque criminal Needlenoodle, Burland abandons his costumed identity and opens the Black Hood Detective Agency.
That development was conveniently forgotten, however, when the Black Hood returned to fight Silver Age crime in The Fly and the Black Hood Join Forces (The Adventures of the Fly 7, July 1960).

Something to Keep in Mind about Self-Worth

Thoughts from my great friend Jim Hampton, the one fixed point in a changing age.

I'm Crossing You in Style Some Day

Audrey Hepburn as the Truman Capote character whose cards read "Holiday Golightly, Traveling."
When I first watched Blake Edwards’ 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s at age 12, I was immediately fascinated by Holly Golightly’s veneer of toughness over vulnerability, particularly because Audrey Hepburn’s plucky portrayal of Truman Capote’s character was counterpointed by the poignancy of Henry Mancini’s song Moon River.
 “I suppose you think I’m very brazen or très fou or something.” Mad parties, mean reds, the cat in the rain. Youth and beauty and longing.
Thus have gay voices always reached across the generations to each other, even when others could not hear them.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

At the 11th Hour, Call Doctor Mid-Nite...

Dr. Mid-Nite was, in a way, the child of the Black Bat and the father of Daredevil.
Blinded by a mobster’s grenade, Dr. Charles McNider lost the bandages over his eyes when a fortuitous owl crashed through his window and the surgeon discovered he could see in the dark.
Created by writer Chuck Reizenstein and Stan Asch, Dr. Mid-Nite first appeared in All-American Comics 25 (April 1941), a comic book headlined by a champion of light, the Green Lantern. The green-caped and red-vested Dr. Mid-Nite became its champion of darkness, wielding blackout bombs and assisted by that helpful owl. With infrared goggles of his own design, the hero was able to see in daylight as well. Like the Shadow, he made the very darkness an ally.
Though technologically savvy, McNider wasn’t very creative with names — he called his owl “Hooty” and sported a nom de guerre that sounded almost exactly like his own name.
But the real origin of his name was a wink at a radio melodrama then airing that boasted an audience in the millions. Captain Midnight featured a World War I flier fighting superhero battles against the villainous Ivan Shark as the head of the Secret Squadron, an aviation-oriented paramilitary organization. I suspect copyright infringement conerns were behind the idiosyncratic spelling “Mid-Nite.”
Turnabout being fair play, when Fawcett brought its version of Captain Midnight to the comic books in 1942, they superheroed-him up with “a skintight scarlet suit and used an array of gizmos like Dr. Mid-Nite which released clouds of blinding darkness,” Wikipedia notes.
Dr. Mid-Nite wasn’t the first superhero who could see in the dark. The Nyctalope, a French cyborg champion created by author Jean de La Hire in 1911, also had that power, among others. And Dr. Mid-Nite’s origin was virtually lifted from that of the Black Bat, the pulp superhero created in 1939 who had also been blinded by criminals, and who could also secretly see in the dark.
This disability-as-superability theme would be amplified and explored by Stan Lee and Bill Everett with Daredevil in 1964. Like both the Black Bat and Dr. Mid-Nite, attorney Matt Murdock would use his “blindness” as a convenient means of keeping people from suspecting his dual identity.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Buck Rogers: Optimism and Armageddon

The art may seem a little crude, but the sense of wonder is palpable in the early Buck Rogers newspaper strips.
Jumping belts, ray guns, rocket ships, robots, domed cities, tiger women — fresh fantasy delights daily that began for America’s children before the Great Depression and helped sustain them right through it. Whatever their privations, they always had the Future.
“Anticipating the Wall Street Crash by nine months, the escapist action doubtlessly benefited from the worsening economic straits of the Depression Years, by providing escapism,” noted Andrew Darlington. “Eventually the strip was reaching a massive readership, syndicated through nearly 400 newspapers.”
A bored financial writer for the Philadelphia Retail Ledger named Philip Francis Nowlan had penned a tale for Hugo Gernsback’s new science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories, calling it Armageddon 2419. The head of the syndicated National Newspaper Service, John Flint Dille, spotted its potential as something new, a newspaper adventure strip. The first episode by Nowlan and artist Dick Calkins appeared on Jan. 7, 1929 – oddly enough, the same day that the Tarzan comic strip was launched
In another synchronicity, the cover of the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, where that first story appeared, perfectly depicted a smiling Buck Rogers soaring through the air in a flying harness. But that wasn’t Buck Rogers at all. The cover illustrates E. E. “Doc” Smith's serial The Skylark of Space, which began in the same issue.
A precursor to Flash Gordon, Superman and Star Trek, Buck Rogers quickly crossed over into dramatic radio, movie serials and toys. It also gave us Ray Bradbury.
“I learned that I was right and everyone else was wrong when I was 9,” the famed fantasy writer recalled. “Buck Rogers arrived on the scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips.
“For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living.
“The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; those are my enemies.
“I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space-travel, sideshows or gorillas. When such occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Suicide Has Rarely Been This Much Fun

As instantly recognizable as its superhero titles or its science fiction anthologies, Silver Age DC Comics offered another genre that became familiar to its readers — the “uncanny team” comic book.
Actually, the heroes were canny while the menaces they fought were uncanny — alien invaders, giant monsters, mad scientists, what have you. Without super powers to support them against these fantastic foes, the heroes had to rely on their wits, their uniformly dauntless courage, some mid-century high tech and each other. Being miniaturized or propelled into other times or dimensions were not uncommon experiences for them, certainly no cause for panic. In the idiom of the day, they were cool cats.
Such uncanny teams included the Challengers of the Unknown, the Sea Devils, Cave Carson’s intrepid band of spelunkers, Rip Hunter’s temporal explorers and — borrowed from Quality Comics — the World War II military fliers the Blackhawks, re-enlisted into the fight against extraterrestrial enemies and super villains.
Often, the team consisted of the main hero, his strong pal, a young guy and the girl — a configuration borrowed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for what was arguably the most significant team of the 1960s, the Fantastic Four.
And in Brave and the Bold 25 (Aug.-Sept. 1959), writer Robert Kanigher and artist Ross Andru introduced us to the Suicide Squad, a/k/a Task Force X, a team headed by pilot and military intelligence officer Col. Rick Flag (clearly a hero from the “Mike Hammer,” “John Shaft” and “Peter Gunn” School of Coincidental Naming).
The team included physicist Jess Bright, astronomer Hugh Evans and military nurse Karin Grace, “all the last living members of their respective crews, all willing to die to save the world and uplift their lost friends’ legacies,” as C. David noted. “They’re basically a crew powered by pure survivor’s guilt.”
They proved to be just the kind of plucky people you might hear say, “Never thought we’d be trying to save a whale from a flying dinosaur!”

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

First, Fascism Wants You To Remain Ignorant

The fact that you remain unaware of the nature of fascism doesn’t mean that fascism is not a grave national threat, right here, right now. In fact, it is. Think Benito Trump. 
Americans somehow prefer to think that their smugly defensive “common sense” ignorance protects them, when in fact it bares their throats to the knife.

The Mindfulness in the Moon

By Hung Su Steve Sampson and Jim Hampton
The night of 9-11, I slept fitfully, dreaming of pursuit, awakening after midnight to switch on CNN and watch the hypnotic orange flames dancing at ground zero.
That was the worst. Your fears are always magnified after midnight, and jitterbug on the walls like giant shadows cast by those hellish flames. Civilization seemed to be burning in that fire, and, for all I knew, maybe it was.
Better, then, that next afternoon, sitting on the steps of the deck, but still feeling as if an asteroid had knocked the planet off its axis.
I'd have been chain-smoking if I hadn’t stopped three years before.
Instead I just sat and looked at the yard, and was quietly surprised.
The birds weren’t migrating in panic, they were just singing. The sky was an untroubled clarion blue. The trees nodded and murmured regally, as usual. The dark green of their late-summer leaves shifted and swayed to form patterns of dappled sunlight, as rhythmically soothing as waves on the ocean.
The world was as it always was. Nothing had changed it. Nothing could. And I thought it was trying to tell me something, if I had the wit to understand.
This juxtaposition — the calm, measured solidity of the natural world standing in contrast to the mad panic of human events — tugged at something in my memory. What was it?
I recalled my long-ago ethics class with Frank Taylor at Eastern Illinois University. Young and eager to know what the greatest human minds had discovered, I'd been particularly impressed by Taylor's discussion of the practical philosophy of the Stoics, people like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
The Stoics were keenly aware that it isn’t events themselves that ordinarily affect us — it’s our emotional reaction to events that rules us.
Emotional reactions, grounded in past traumatic associations, are automatic and often inappropriate responses to new and changing circumstances. If we could govern our reflexive emotional reactions to situations we regard as adverse, we could be calmer, happier. Our psychological and philosophical standard of living would rise.
The lesson was there before me in birdsong, patiently waiting for me to listen.

What Fox News Really Has in Mind for You

Fox News propaganda routinely endorses both torture and slavery. That should give you some idea of what the Republicans really have in mind for you.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Subdividing the Superheroes

There’s a tendency now to subdivide the most popular superheroes like valuable beachfront property — multiple Supermen, several Spider-Men, various Iron Men, Batman Inc., a half-dozen Avengers teams, male and female Thors, One Hulk, Two Hulk, Red Hulk, Blue Hulk.
It’s predictable that rent-seeking corporations would think of franchises. And it’s also a reflection of the corporate capitalist tendency to choke the consumer with product and the illusion of choice, like the half-mile-long cereal aisle in the supermarket, rather than relying on superior storytelling from people like Mark Waid to carry the day.
This trend will inevitably prove to be as tedious as the previous corporate comics scheme of killing off major characters and then bringing them back to life.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Submitted for your Approval: The Phantom Zone

A number of enduring concepts in the Superman mythos were introduced not in titles featuring Superman, but Superboy. And that’s kind of a shame, because we almost never see those key stories reprinted.
Among those concepts were the Legion of Super-Heroes; red, white and gold kryptonite; Krypto the super dog; General Zod; Bizarro and the spooky, evocative Phantom Zone, a realm which provided an intelligent answer to the question of how an advanced alien civilization might avoid capital punishment.
Banishment to an eternal incorporeal existence seems almost worst than execution, in a way.
In a neat reversal, the Phantom Zone even saved the life of Superman’s “brother,” Mon-El, by removing him from exposure to lead, a substance fatal to him that is widespread on our planet. Mon-El’s fate had that offhandedly haunting angle that periodically appeared in these early Silver Age comics. To survive, Mon-El would have to endure hundreds of years of immaterial existence with only psychotics as companions.
And in a gift to the comics’ plotters, the Zone provided a means to periodically unleash super-powered villainous hell on Earth. That had first been done in Superman 65 (July/August 1950) when, in the story The Three Supermen from Space, the Kryptonian criminals Mala, Kizo and U-Ban were accidentally freed from suspended animation in a prison rocket ship. The evil trio returned in Action Comics 194 (Jul 1954), when their prison ship was whanged by yet another piece of space debris. Clearly this was a cumbersome means of retrieving menaces from Krypton.
The Phantom Zone was also a way of making Superman vulnerable, and those are always welcomed by writers (Supergirl too, in her 1984 movie).
The more efficient, elegant solution of the Phantom Zone was introduced in the comics in Adventure Comics 283 (April 1961) by Robert Bernstein and George Papp. But that wasn’t really its first appearance.
An identical concept had been introduced in the movie serial Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) as an invention of Luthor’s (Lyle Talbot) called the Empty Doom. The tell is that both the serial Superman and the comic book Superboy escaped from the ghostly trap the same way — by telekinetically manipulating the keys of a typewriter to send a message back to Earth.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

It's an Insult! It's a Train! It's Super Chief!

Steeped in stereotypes and yet intended to be innocuous, the politically incorrect Super Chief is one of the few super heroes you’ll probably never see revived, unless it’s ironically.
By 1961, the mainstream view of Native Americans was shifting from the villainous savages of the old westerns to the victimized peoples they actually had been. DC Comics’ Super Chief had a moccasin-clad foot in both camps.
Debuting in All Star Western 117 (March, 1961), Super Chief was secretly Flying Stag, a pre-Columbian Indian who prayed for peace to the Manitou and, apparently in answer, received a meteorite that, when fashioned into an amulet, gave him super powers.
“Wearing the amulet gave the newly superheroized man the strength of 1,000 bears, the speed of 1,000 deer and the leaping ability of 1,000 wolves — but only for one hour out of each 24,” noted comics historian Don Markstein. “Manitou gave him to understand that he’d have the power only as long as he kept his identity a secret; so he concealed it by wearing a hood made from the head of a black buffalo.”
“Like a proper superhero, Super Chief came equipped with a girlfriend (tribal maiden White Fawn) and a sidekick (her younger brother, Lightfoot). Of course, neither had any idea who he was.”
Ancient Indians, alien invaders and astounding feats all delivered in the same sleek, sunlit Carmine Infantino art that was also giving us the Flash, Adam Strange and Strange Adventures at that time. Gardner Fox penned the tales.
Comics historian Steven Thompson remarked, “I recall thinking him the weirdest-looking hero ever! I stand by that when I see this one in which our Native American protagonist meets up with aliens!”
Super Chief always reminds me of Mighty Mightor, Hanna-Barbera’s super-caveman hero whose animated adventures that ran on CBS from 1967 to 1969. Granted the power of flight and superhuman strength by his magical club, Mighty Mightor, like Super Chief, was one of those heroes who had to strain to find a reason to have a secret identity.
His name was a pun, by the way. The Super Chief was a famous passenger train, the flagship of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, called the Train of the Stars because of the celebrated actors it carried between Chicago and Los Angeles. Just about every kid in 1961 would have known that, given the fact that we loved trains almost as much as we loved superheroes.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fox News' Roger Ailes: How a Fascist Got Flushed

Eric Boehlert: The hate and paranoia that has permeated Fox programming, especially during the Barack Obama years, reflects Ailes’ bigoted view of America and its supposed pending doom under Democratic leadership. Like his longtime friend Rush Limbaugh, Ailes has been a cancer on American politics for decades. He’s built a career that thrives on fabrications and falsehoods and character assassination. 

I'm Guessing This Is a Panel from the Comic Book 'Adventures of the GOP'

Clearly, they are Republicans.

The Grin on the Mushroom Cloud

For 13 days in 1962, when I was 8, my grandparents and the other adults around me were tight-lipped and white-faced. They tried to reassure children like me as best they could, but found it rough going. That’s because they knew we might be mere minutes from the end of human civilization.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba, was the closest humanity came to all-out nuclear war.
That’s why it’s ironic to see a smiling mushroom cloud on the cover of DC Comics’ Strange Adventures 143 (Aug. 1962).
In this Gardner Fox-Murphy Anderson adventure, alien conquerors called the Andrann are coolly outsmarted by American professionals who display the typical Julius Schwartz-edited traits of optimism, ethics, bravery and scientific rationalism (in this case a rudimentary working knowledge of geology). When iron pyrite is switched for power-giving gold, both the U.S. and an alien planet are saved — a routine outcome in the sunny universe of DC science fiction.
Born in the early part of the 20th century, having survived two world wars and the Great Depression, Julius Schwartz and his writers and artists had an implicit faith in scientific and material progress that was brightly reflected in their stories. They had grown up reading can-do space opera science fiction like E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman stories (a precursor to the Green Lantern Corps).
Superheroes aside, in the Schwartz stable’s stories competent American middle-class professionals were perfectly capable of saving the day. And even in the superhero stories created by this team, the superhumans and their friends shared those values and those occupations. They were the young urban professionals who embodied the zeitgeist of President Kennedy’s forward-looking New Frontier — police scientists, lawyers, test pilots, journalists, university professors and museum curators.
Tales in which even mushroom clouds are rendered harmless and benign seem silly now, I know. But this kind of cheerful, effective resourcefulness was quite reassuring to young readers like me in the early 1960s, an era when American adults took their responsibilities to children seriously — at least in the comic books.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Day Marvel Comics Stood Still

In guided imagery, asked to picture a wise being, I always think of Michael Rennie as Klaatu.
He starred in my favorite science fiction film, 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, as an alien ambassador who lands on the Washington mall and is attacked. Captured, Klaatu escapes easily to disguise himself as human and explore our planet. Befriending a boy, Klaatu turns not to political leaders but to a thinly disguised Albert Einstein to get across his message of universal peace and civilization.
When he’s shot and (temporarily) killed, Klaatu sends his friend Patricia Neal to speak the words “Klaatu barada nikto” to his giant robot Gort, who will otherwise incinerate humanity for its violence against him.
The film, brilliantly directed by Robert Wise, was based on the Harry Bates story Farewell to the Master (published in the October, 1940, issue of Astounding magazine).
Twenty-two years later, Marvel Comics’ Roy Thomas secured the short story rights for a comic book adaptation by penciller Ross Andru and inker Wayne Howard in Worlds Unknown 3 (June, 1973).  Thomas had been a fan of the film since childhood, but Andru had never seen it — a fact that insured a fresh visual interpretation for the comic.
This 65-year-old film, with its stern warning about the human capacity for panic, prejudice and mass violence, remains both entertaining and meaningful. Patricia Neal, who expected the film would be B-movie crap, was delighted to be wrong.
“My first film of the new Fox contract was going to be a science fiction thriller called The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the Oscar-winning actress wrote in her autobiography. “I was not encouraged in the least, but I did not want to begin my career at Fox by going on suspension. The director was Robert Wise, who had been good to me in the past. He believed in the project and wanted me to do it. I am very glad I said yes. I worked with an old friend, Hugh Marlowe, and a new one, Michael Rennie.
“I do think it’s the best science fiction film ever made, although I admit I sometimes had a difficult time keeping a straight face. Michael would patiently watch me bite my lips to avoid giggling and ask, with true British reserve, ‘Is that the way you intend to play it?’”
Neal needed whatever laughs she could get in 1951. The press was busy hounding her about her ongoing affair with actor Gary Cooper.
“I was no longer the young darling of Hollywood,” she recalled. “I was the unsympathetic side of a triangle. Gary sensed my increasing anxiety and grew more tender toward me.”
“The press was relentless now. They followed me everywhere, even onto the set, but I would not speak to them. The publicity department made up responses for me to their questions about Gary. So in print, I could be vague (‘We’re just good friends’) or cute (‘If I were in love with him, I’d be silly to advertise it. After all, he is a married man.’) or even haughty (‘I do wish people would find something else to talk about’).
“Dear Michael, who was as exasperated as I was, thought I should honor their questions with my favorite line from the film.
“ ‘Miss Neal, did you break up Gary Cooper’s marriage?’ “ ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’
In novels like Slan, The World of Null-A and The Silkie, A.E. 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. I find the dream logic of his stories intriguing.
Some dreams are, of course, nightmares. Van Vogt often explored the theme of monsters as well as supermen. He offered unique takes on the science fiction monster genre in novels such as Voyage of the Space Beagle, a clear precursor to Star Trek.
The story here, Black Destroyer, was published in the July 1939 issue of Astounding and adapted for Marvel Comics by Roy Thomas, Dan Adkins and Jim Mooney in Worlds Unknown 5 (Feb. 1974). The tentacled, cunning super-panther Coeurl is not the kind of kitty you want to bring home, but he ends up on board the exploratory starship Space Beagle anyway. The events that follow were echoed in the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Archie: Even a Teen Who Is Pure in Heart...

On my 8th birthday, my aunt Shirley handed me two comic books, one a Superman title and the other an issue of Archie Comics. She carefully explained that the Superman represented the kind of comics I’d be leaving behind, and the Archie reflected the genre I’d be growing into.
“Uh-uh,” I replied firmly. “Nope.”
My parents and grandparents were a little concerned about my stubborn fascination with superhero comics, and hoped it was something I would grow out of.
I hope they’re not still waiting.
What a sweet and ironic retribution, too, when, about two years later, the “mature” Archie Andrews became a superhero. Finally I was buying Archies, but it brought my loving young aunt little comfort.
Pureheart the Powerful, Archie’s superhero identity, actually offered a rationale for superheroes that made a weird kind of sense. If super heroes exist, why don’t we ever see them in action? Archie anticipated the Men in Black movies with his neat answer to that question.
Inspired by a self-help book, Archie uses the power of his pure heart to transform himself into a caped superguy complete with rocket belt (Archie Comics never liked the idea of people just “flying” without a visible motive power).
But the sheer telepathic force of Archie’s willpower wipes out everyone’s memories when his super deeds are done. That clever angle let Archie’s superhero adventures slip neatly into the comics’ teen humor continuity.
The weakness that robbed Archie of his super powers turned out to be the same sexual feelings that delighted and/or plagued him in his regular continuity. Another neat storytelling trick.
Penned by Frank Doyle and drawn by Bob White, Archie’s crusade against evil began in Life With Archie 42 (Oct. 1965), just ahead of the national Batman craze that followed the premiere of the TV show in January 1966.
“By 1965, the superhero revival in American comic books was in full swing, and even the funny guys were starting to get into the act,” comics historian Don Markstein observed. “That was the year Goofy became Super Goof, Herbie became The Fat Fury, and Archie became Pureheart the Powerful.”
Soon Betty Cooper became Superteen and Jughead Jones a surprisingly effective Captain Hero. The trio had already been super-secret agents a la the Man from UNCLE, so this evolution seemed natural.
“Even Little Archie got into the act — Little Pureheart was first seen in Little Archie 40 (Fall, 1966),” Markstein wrote. “To celebrate this efflorescence of superheroics in Riverdale, the 142nd issue (Oct. 1966) of Archie Giant Series magazine reprinted all these guys’ origin stories.”
“But the glory was short-lived. Pureheart the Powerful/Captain Pureheart lasted six issues, exactly as long as Superteen’s tenure in Betty & Me. Little Pureheart made only three appearances, the last in Little Archie 44 … Jughead as Captain Hero bucked the trend by hanging on for seven issues, but it too was gone as of November 1967, and the entire ‘Pureheart’ scenario became a fond memory for fans of superhero comics.
Their lighthearted adventures delighted me while they lasted, as did those of their Archie’s Mad House colleagues Captain Sprocket and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Even Archie’s rival Reggie Mantle had donned envy-green tights as Evilheart.
Odd name for a superhero, I always thought. 

Captain Comet: If They Only Knew...

As a writer, I like to retain, recycle and recast material I’ve written when it might be useful again, and DC Comics also long practiced this form of intellectual thrift.
For example, compare the Murphy Anderson covers of Strange Adventures 35 (The Cosmic Chessboard, Aug. 1953) and Justice League of America 1 (The World of No Return, Oct-Nov. 1960).
In both cases, heroes are playing a cosmic chess match that imperils real people, and both stories even feature a dinosaur fin-headed alien who sports a third eye, (one green-skinned, the other red-skinned). That’s one easy “tell” for recognizing the hand of particular comic book artists, by the way. They all tend to have distinctive types of fantasy aliens that they draw.
For DC, publishing in an era in which it was expected that readers would begin and then stop reading their product within a span of five to seven years, it made good business sense to recycle fantasy ideas that had proven popular. Hence all those intelligent gorillas…
Note, too, the way John Broome’s Captain Comet story might slyly be read as merely the daydream of a frustrated librarian.
When Adam Blake offers a suggestion to a chess player in Midwest City Park, the man sneers at his intellectual abilities. Then the inconspicuous librarian muses that he is really a secret superman who saved Earth and other planets in a recent cosmic chess match against an extraterrestrial despot, but of course nobody on this planet knows that…
Superheroes as wish fulfillment? Could it be?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Demon Hunter: Back in the Day Before Dark

The short-lived Atlas line was dark before dark was cool, let alone done to death. One of their comic book protagonists actually ate people, after all.
Better ideas also came from the 1970s comics publisher, and one of them was Rich Buckler and David Anthony Kraft’s Demon Hunter — a character so good, in fact, he wouldn’t stay dead, and was reincarnated under the thin disguise of Devil Slayer at Marvel Comics.
In his first and last issue, published in September 1975, Gideon Cross was a former hitman with a mission: to destroy the demon-worshipping cult that had recruited and empowered him. Telepathic, Cross could make his cape and body suit appear to be ordinary business attire or even become invisible. His Shadow Cloak was a dimensional portal that permitted him instant access to any weapon he desired, among other things.
Calling it one of the best Atlas/Seaboard comics, the Diversions of the Groovy Kind website enthused, “Just dig Demon Hunter’s cape. Yeah, we’ve seen capes that could lead to other dimensions (Cloak, Obsidian) and capes that seem to be alive (Spawn), but Buckler’s Demon Hunter did it first — and best! And how many super heroes (supernatural or otherwise) do you know of that were (at least partially) inspired by the music of Blue Oyster Cult?”
Buckler recalled, “My collaborator/writer, David Kraft, wrote the dialogue and narration from my story notes. We were both Marvel guys and fans of the rock band Blue Oyster Cult, but I think between the two of us, I was the only one who understood the alchemical and Freemasonic origins of much of their material. Who knows how much of the occult meanings were actually understood by the songwriters in the band? That’s anybody’s guess.”
“Like Deathlok, the premise for Demon Hunter was probably ahead of it’s time,” Buckler said. “Being the first with an idea or character or concept is not always rewarding or gratifying. The popular versions that come later are usually the ones that people remember or identify as ‘cool’ or original.
“I might sound to some like I am beating my own drum here. Maybe I am, just a little. But I’ve always thought of new concepts or ideas of mine as things that have a life of their own which actually arrive at my ‘address.’ It’s what I call a ‘Eureka moment.’ When that happens, it's almost a magical phenomena — and definitely not something to keep to yourself.”

Monday, July 11, 2016

I Sing the Body Elastic

The sharp-eyed and thrifty producers of comic books rarely permitted a long-running, profitable superhero concept to remain abandoned for long.
Thus, within a handful of years, the lightning-born magical superman concept passed from Fawcett’s Captain Marvel to Marvel’s Thor, and the shrinking crime-fighter concept from Quality Comics’ Doll Man to Marvel’s Ant-Man and DC’s Atom.
And then there was Quality Comics’ immensely popular Plastic Man, created by writer-artist Jack Cole for Police Comics 1 (Aug. 1941). DC Comics acquired the character when Quality Comics was shut down in 1956, but unlike Blackhawk, they did not continue publishing him.
Nevertheless, by 1961 three new versions of the stretchable superhero had already been created — Elastic Lad in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen 31 (1958), Elongated Man in Flash 112 (1960) and Mr. Fantastic in Fantastic Four 1 (1961).
A crime-fighter who is essentially made of chewing gum stretches the already absurd concept of superheroes to its campy limits, and the talented Cole, understanding that, leaned into the humorous angle of the character. Jimmy Olsen’s super powers were played as much for humor as heroics (presumably in part so that he wouldn’t threaten Superman’s status as the real hero of Metropolis), and even the amateur detective Elongated Man had his touch of whimsy (when Ralph Dibny “smelled” a mystery, his rubbery nose twitched).
But Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did the unexpected and played against type. Far from being amusing or charming, the FF’s Reed Richards was something of a pedantic bore.
From one angle, the innovative and ground-breaking Fantastic Four can be seen as a recycling of popular concepts. Reed Richards is Plastic Man. The Thing is another of those transformed monsters Lee and Kirby turned out for science fiction titles. The teenaged Human Torch evokes Timely/Marvel’s android Human Torch, one of the most popular superheroes of the 1940s. And the Invisible Girl is Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, one of the first female superheroes. Published by the Chicago Times, her newspaper strip ran from June 3, 1940, to 1956.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Nick Fury, Marvel's Man from ACRONYM

Having a tightly interconnected comic book universe afforded Stan Lee and company a certain economy of motion.
Let’s say secret agents have become immensely popular, thanks to James Bond 007. Okay, you’ve already got a World War II combat hero handy in the Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos title (which began in May 1963), and, in Fantastic Four 21 (Dec. 1963), you’ve already updated him to the 1960s as a CIA agent fighting the Hate Monger (an enemy he knew well, as it turned out).
What could be simpler than to turn Nick Fury into the head of some new, super-secret super-organization like UNCLE, CONTROL or ZOWIE? Call this one SHIELD (Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division).
To tell the truth, I never really warmed to Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (who premiered in Strange Tales 135 in August 1965). This gruff, barking guy with an eye patch seemed particularly unsubtle for a spy, and we were already swamped with spies by then — James Bond, Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Napoleon Solo, John Drake, Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, Amos Burke, Maxwell Smart. Even Archie Andrews became a secret agent, for pity’s sake.
The spies of popular fiction offered sex, violence and gadgets, and with the sex and violence necessarily muted by the Comics Code, that meant the gadgets had to be amped up through the roof in SHIELD — flying cars, invisibility suits, death rays, Life Model Decoys, even a flying aircraft carrier (most of them provided by Marvel’s resident tech genius Tony Stark, naturally).
The gadgets served the same purpose for Fury as the spells of Dr. Strange, SHIELD’s companion in Strange Tales, and they offered the same dramatic problem. When you can always pull a deus ex machina out of your ass to resolve whatever peril you’re in, suspense becomes elusive.
More than one enduring element of the Marvel universe sprang from the series — most notably Hydra, the evil cabal that’s now probably even more famous than SPECTRE, the spy organization that inspired it, and seemingly as immortal as its mythological namesake.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How to Handle an Intelligent, Invisible Dinosaur

In the sunlit world of DC Comics’ Silver Age, it wasn’t just superheroes who could repel the alien invasions that seemed to arrive every week or two.
With a little courage, a cool head and a reasonably intelligent layman’s scientific knowledge, about anybody could do it. Think what a reassuring idea that was to a child of the early 1960s.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re a small-town jeweler, and Earth is being invaded by intelligent, invisible dinosaurs…
 “I read The Invisible Dinosaur in its first appearance in Strange Adventures 133 (1961),” noted Pappy’s Golden Age Blogzine. “At the time I didn’t think there was anything unusual about this totally screwball story. Wristwatches that cause vibrations that negate the effects of aliens with whips who control humans. Intelligent dinosaurs, descended from Earth dinosaurs of 175 million years ago, captured for an interplanetary zoo. And said dinosaurs are invisible on Earth. I did not think any of that was extraordinary, nor did I question how something invisible could cast a shadow. My critical thinking skills were yet to develop, I guess.
“In those days I was more interested in looking at the Murphy Anderson art. Murphy was one of my favorite artists from the Julius Schwartz editorial stable. What I see now when I look at this story is another immaculately drawn tale with an absurd plot, rendered completely straight-faced.”
I think the Gardner Fox/John Broome method was to dazzle you with one pseudoscientific and/or scientific and/or frankly fantastic reference after another, all of which only SEEMED to connect plausibly. The stories, of course, came from the covers. The stories were merely a process of trying to justify the covers.
As Philip Rushton observed, “Those intelligent, invisible dinosaurs got everywhere when I was a kid in the 1960s!” Yes, as a child, I too was kind of surrounded by invisible dinosaurs, not to mention superheroes. How nice to find a comic book that reflected my, er, “reality.”

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Disgusting 'Family Values' of Fox News

The point of Fox News — the alleged “news” channel that interviews Hooters girls about economics, poo-poos rape and specializes in hiring leggy Aryan blonde women “reporters” — is to promote fascist propaganda, and sexism is one of the key elements of fascism. Therefore, Roger Ailes’ disgusting behavior was completely predictable.  And remember, this is Fox News, the channel that achieved its fame by trying to hound President Clinton out of office over a blow job.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Do Commies Think They're Playing With Kids?

Marvel Comics’ second groundbreaking title, The Incredible Hulk, was very much a work in progress.
In fact, it’s interesting to consider the several contradictory ways in which this character — conceived by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Frankenstein — might have evolved.
For the first two issues, the Hulk is definitely a monster, while his alter ego Bruce Banner is the protagonist (a relationship DC Comics would echo with Eclipso). The Hulk muses about seizing an alien spaceship and using it to rain terror on humanity, and there’s a dark hint that Betty Ross might be threatened with rape, a possibility that always loomed in the monster movies that the Hulk echoed.
Of course, Banner was almost as much antihero as hero. Although he risked his life and destroyed his future happiness to save a teenage stranger from a bomb blast, he was also cold and haughty scientist. And Banner had, after all, invented a gamma bomb that could potentially wipe out human civilization in a nuclear war. Seen in perspective, that made Banner far more dangerous than the Hulk.
Was the curse of the Hulk, somehow, his fated punishment?
Ah, those poignant, haunting Kirby scenes — his teenage pal Rick Jones, slumped and exhausted, keeping a lonely all-night vigil in an underground chamber as the caged, angry Hulk pounded relentlessly on the thick metal vault door behind him.
In the third issue, the Hulk discovered he had the power of virtual flight, and Jones discovered he had the power to telepathically control the Hulk when the military’s attempt to exile the monster into space went awry.
Putting Jones in the driver’s seat increased possibilities for reader identification — readers could now imagine that they commanded the strongest being on Earth. And the monster was now a robot-like force for good who corralled the Ringmaster’s Circus of Crime.
The character’s course seemed set — and was immediately changed with the fourth issue (Nov. 1962). Marvel certainly kept readers on their toes.
Now the Hulk regained his free will and some of Banner’s intelligence, although his personality remained aggressive. Using a gamma ray to transform at will, the Hulk was free to act as a full-fledged superhero, fighting the commie space robot Mongu and even becoming a founding member of the Avengers.
In his next, penultimate issue (Jan. 1963), the Hulk thwarted an invasion by the underground overlord Tyrannus, then bounced off to battle the Asian despot Gen. Fang while disguised as the Abominable Snowman.
The character would continue to evolve, and even relapse into villainy. When his title ended with the sixth issue, the Hulk shifted from reluctant protagonist in his own feature to formidable antagonist in other superheroes’ titles. The Marvel universe wasn’t about to let him go to waste.