Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fiddling With Claptrap While Rome Burns

Republicans keep the country stirred up about things that are symbolic but meaningless in real-world terms — flaming flags, gay marriage, public religious displays, pledges, “death panels,” “wars on Xmas,“ “support the troops” magnets, etc. They are all matters of semantics, useful for keeping the American public distracted from the police-state erosions of its liberty and the corporate picking of its pockets.
In America, flag-waving, cross-swinging, education-hating, xenophobic fatuousness is always the first refuge of a scoundrel, and of the fools who follow him — or, in Palin's, Bachmann's and Conway's case, her. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Four-Color Throb of the Secret Heart

I always keep a couple of DC romance comics on my prized spinner rack — there among the superheroes, the monsters, the machine-gunner GIs and the spacemen — in order to mimic the actual effect of some newsstand in 1960.
Romance was a fresh sales gimmick created to supplant superheroes when they “retired” after World War II, evil presumably having been finally vanquished.
Jack Kirby and Joe Simon inspired the trend with Young Romance (Sept.–Oct. 1947). The first issue, purportedly aimed at “The More ADULT Readers of Comics,” sold 92 percent of its print run.  
The title was shortly selling a million copies a month, a figure guaranteed to inspire a whole genre devoted to the themes of “…romantic love and its attendant complications such as jealousy, marriage, divorce, betrayal and heartache,” Wikipedia noted.
The swiftness of the shift in the combat-weary public’s tastes is illustrated by a single title from EC Comics. Moon Girl and the Prince, starring a Wonder Woman-ish super heroine, debuted in the fall of 1947. By the 9th issue, in October 1949, the comic book was retitled A Moon, A Girl … Romance.
It occurs to me that I find romance comics kind of silly and superhero comics kind of serious, and that that attitude is, in itself, sublimely silly.
It also occurs to me that my ambivalence about the genre may have had something to do with the fact that romance comics tend to be about weakness and vulnerability, while superhero comics are of course about uncanny strength. So more than gender separated those two audiences.
Yet just scratch the surface, and you find that all stories about strength are necessarily also about weakness, and vice versa.
“A sissy wanted girls who scorned him; a man scorned girls who wanted him,” wrote Jules Feiffer, recalling the attitudes of the superheroes’ first fanboys in the 1930s and 1940s. “Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did — but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn't. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, L’il Abner’s or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out.
“Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That’s why they go hit so hard.”
This new stylized, abbreviated, four-color medium first offered individual combat and the triumph of justice. Then it offered anguished relationships and the fulfillment of yearning. The popularity of both genres proved that the ten-cent fantasy was to become a permanent feature of the American landscape.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Avengers: The Impolite Justice League

You know, it’s a funny thing, as Stan Lee would say. Even as a 9-year-old, I was aware that the Avengers, and not the Fantastic Four, were Marvel’s closest approximation of DC’s Justice League of America.
Like the JLA, the Avengers were a team composed of superheroes who all had their own preexisting features. And Disney-Marvel’s repetition of that pattern in the movies — introducing the team only after their individual film franchises were established — was immensely successful.
Beyond that, however, the Avengers didn’t much resemble the JLA, whose members were polite and so civilized they’d all apparently memorized the periodic table of elements. The Avengers were a rambunctious, uneasy lot, brought together only because the Norse god of evil had managed to easily frame the Hulk for a train wreck.
By the Avengers’ second issue (Nov. 1963), the Hulk was the odd monster out, leaping angrily away after being hurt by the revelation of how much his teammates disliked and distrusted him.
Look at the first two pages of that second issue. There’s no visual tension there — Kirby just shows the superheroes having an ordinary meeting. But Lee supplies the suspense through his hectoring dialogue, and builds toward the theme that a breakup is logical and inevitable.
Having a surly monster on a superhero team was a successful plot device Lee and Kirby had introduced with the Thing. An FF teammate had also angrily quit and flown away. The Human Torch — who might have been mistaken for a monster himself, when you think about it — bolted at the end of the third issue in March 1962. But unlike the Hulk, the Torch returned shortly.
The Hulk — his own comic book title having ended with the 6th issue in March 1963 — was now available to play either protagonist or antagonist as needed in the growing Marvel universe. The Hulk would immediately ally himself with the FF’s own hero-villain, the Submariner. Could the fan-demanded slugfest with the Thing be far off?
The shape-shifting Space Phantom was the issue’s villain. Thor, a late arrival to the confused combat, easily disposed of the Phantom, first by rusting his Iron Man armor with a sudden storm, then by bouncing him into limbo when the Phantom had the temerity to try to imitate not a mere human, but a god!
This, too, was satisfying to me as a 9-year-old. Like Superman, a Norse god should be able to handle most matters by himself.  And let’s not forget that this is the issue in which the Hulk suggests that he “…ain’t in the mood to play Spin the Bottle,” which leaves us with the unsettling thought that the monster sometimes IS in the mood to play Spin the Bottle.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Saying Goodbye with Kerouac and Ginsberg

Seventeen-year-old Allen Ginsberg had fallen for an 18-year-old cerebral charmer, his fellow Columbia University student Lucien Carr, at once. Ginsberg’s infatuation with 21-year-old Jack Kerouac, a sensitive and articulate merchant seaman, was equally instant.
All three were also in the giddy early stages of a love affair with intellectual enlightenment. Carr later called it the rebellious students’ search for valid values.
Jack Kerouac (l.) and Lucien Carr
“Their walk had taken them to the Union Theological Seminary; they stood on the corner of West 122nd Street and Broadway and looked down the hill to the gray spread of Harlem,” wrote Barry Miles, Ginsberg’s biographer. “Allen was moving out of the seminary and still had a few things to collect. He and Jack had discussed their admiration of Lucien, so there was a mutual understanding when Allen pointed out the door where he had first heard the Brahms Quintet (that had introduced him to Carr) six months earlier.”
“Allen collected the few books and belongings he had come for, and as he turned from the dormitory suite he bowed to it, made a gesture of farewell, and said, ‘Goodbye, door.’ He continued down the stairs, saying goodbye to each step as he went. He bade farewell to the seventh-floor landing, the sixth-floor landing and all the rest, like a poem, all the way down. Kerouac was struck by this: ‘Ah, I do that when I say goodbye to a place.’ They had a long, excited conversation about the recognition of each of the stairs as the final stair and about Allen’s realization of the changes in himself since he first climbed them six months before.
“‘That struck him as an awareness of a soul in space and time, which was his nature,’ Ginsberg said later. Jack asked him if he knew any other people with the same awareness. Was it awareness? Was it poetry? They decided that everyone had it who was in any way conscious or sensitive. ‘Everyone has the same soul. We’re all here together at once in the same place. Temporarily, with a totally poignant tearful awareness that we’re together,’ they decided. This recognition became the basis of their deep and lasting understanding of each other.”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Black Canary: Siren of the Superheroes

It was 1947. In postwar comic books, superheroes were on the way out and women were on the way in.
Romance comics had just arrived, and even titles like Action Comics and Detective Comics now had women displayed on their covers as prominently as the resident superheroes.
Over at Harvey Comics, the popular super heroine Black Cat had been awarded her own title in 1946. At Timely, in Captain America Comics 66 (Dec. 1947), Bucky got the boot, replaced as Cap’s sidekick by Golden Girl. In Marvel Mystery Comics 82 (May, 1947), the Sub-Mariner met his crime-fighting super-cousin Namora. The Human Torch would team up with Sun Girl.
And, with impeccable timing, the Black Canary arrived in Flash Comics 86 (Aug. 1947).
The creation of writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino, Dinah Drake was originally a masked Robin Hood criminal, a sexy foil for the dunderhead superhero Johnny Thunder.
As she became more law-abiding, the jiu jitsu expert also deftly tossed Johnny out of his own feature and the Justice Society of America. She appeared in Flash Comics until publication ceased in 1949 and with the JSA in All Star Comics until their run ended in 1951.
The Black Canary was back a little more than a decade later in dimension-hopping adventures with the Justice League of America. In 1965, she teamed up with Starman for two issues of Brave and the Bold, apparently as a tryout for a revival (DC did the same thing with an Hourman and Dr. Fate team-up). As comics became more adult in later decades, her relationship with Starman was revealed to be adulterous.
In 1969, when her husband, private eye Larry Lance, was killed, Black Canary joined the JLA and coincidentally got tricked out with a super power — a destructive voice — presumably to make her more useful. Really, she was there to replace Wonder Woman, who had lost her powers the year before and become an Emma Peel-style mod crime fighter.
The Black Canary has been around, in form or another, ever since, appearing more than once on television (in the 2002 WB series Birds of Prey, in the 2012 CW series Arrow, and elsewhere).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mr. Terrific: Truth, Justice and Boredom

London, 1920.
A World War I combat veteran, terminally bored and probably suffering what they then called “shell shock,” places a newspaper ad seeking adventure, and gets plenty of it.
That’s the opening of H. C. McNeile’s novel Bulldog Drummond. The protagonist’s predicament has since provided the springboard for more than one hero, among them The Equalizer and Mr. Terrific.
The latter debuted in Sensation Comics 1 (Jan. 1942) as a backup feature to Wonder Woman.
Writer Chuck Reizenstein and artist Hal Sharp gave the theme a nihilistic twist when young Terry Sloane, a polymath “Man of a Thousand Talents,” found life so unchallenging that he decided to commit suicide. But as with Hugh Drummond, adventure provided an antidote.
Sloane made himself a costume and went into the superhero game, saving a boy from a life of crime while putting some gangsters out of business. He and Wildcat joined the Justice Society in All Star Comics 24 (Spring, 1946). His last Golden Age adventure appeared in Sensation 63 (March, 1947).
Mr. Terrific returned in the Silver Age Justice League of America 37 (August, 1965), only to be murdered in Justice League of America 171 (October, 1979).
Sloane’s nom de guerre, adopted by Michael Holt in 1997, was the only part of the character to make it to TV in 1967.
The success of the Batman show prompted CBS to offer a superhero sitcom called Mr. Terrific, starring Stephen Strimpell as a gas station attendant who gained the strength of a thousand men and the ability to fly. Like Captain Nice over on NBC, this “Mr. Terrific” more closely resembled Sloane’s JSA colleague Hourman. Both gained time-limited super powers through wonder drugs.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Planet Earth Is Blue and There's Nothing I Can Do

Moments of romantic poignancy aren’t necessarily what you’d expect from DC science fiction and superhero comics of the late 1950s. But nevertheless, that’s what you sometimes got.
Take a look at the opening and closing panels from this Adam Strange story by writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino in Mystery in Space 57 (Feb. 1960). In the first, a young woman alone in a broad field looks anxiously at the sky, awaiting the arrival of the man she loves. In the last, a young man on a beach stares wistfully at the sky, thinking of his lover a teleport jump long light years away.
That scene, with its echoes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ star-crossed Martian lovers from 50 years previously, was one of the familiar pleasures in the adventures of Adam Strange, the thinking man’s superhero of the jet age.
His jazzy ray guns and rocket belts might never have been of much help against giants, monsters and alien invaders, but his scientifically trained brains and calm rationalist attitudes always were.
Americans generally prefer brawn to brains, however, and a house ad in that very issue — for Brave and the Bold 28 (Feb.-March 1960) — foreshadowed the renewed popularity of the powerhouse DC and Marvel superheroes who would change the face of comic books and popular entertainment forever.

On the Niceness of Nazis

Trump’s supporters enjoy a self-satisfied smile at every mouthy woman who gets some sense slapped into her, every gay guy who loses an eye to a broken beer bottle, every unarmed, uppity n*gger who gets shot in the street. Don’t let the fact that they bake Paula Deen Snickerdoodles fool you into thinking they're “nice people.”

Sunday, November 13, 2016

President Trump Takes the Joy Stick

Trump said he can easily “fix Obamacare” because he “knows how to do this stuff.” That's the extent of his policy. That he's “good” and ”knows how to do stuff.” He still sounds like a third grader.

Friday, November 11, 2016

What Bernie Sanders Saw That the DNC Ignored

“Let me be very clear. In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout.
“With all due respect, and I do not mean to insult anyone here, that will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not be successful.
— Bernie Sanders Aug. 28, 2015 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Where Did That Masked Man Go?

“Weighed down by anxieties they were largely helpless to resolve, audiences in the 1950s craved simplicity and clarity,” wrote literature professor Kathleen L. Spencer in her thoughtful book on Have Gun Will Travel. “The Western gave them a world in which social problems could be solved by direct action, including violence if necessary.”
A cover painting from the Masked Rider pulp magazine.
Pop culture historian J. Fred MacDonald observed, “What the TV Western was offering was open warfare, a protracted battle between obvious legality and illegality. At stake was control of civilization. There was neither time nor reason for studied response. The answer to each dilemma was obvious: enough strategy, enough muscle, enough gunpowder. Through the concerted application of the brains and brawn of good men, this form of adult entertainment showed, indeed advocated, an efficient way to tame the savage and rescue humanity.”
Spencer said, “In the process of exploring such issues, the TV Westerns of the 1950s provided models for how a man was supposed to act: protecting the weak, facing down the brigand (whether outlaw, marauding Indian or tyrannical cattle baron) to prevent them from abusing the innocent, even while restraining his own violent impulses within the boundaries of a rigorous ethical code. The Western hero, in his purest form, sacrificed himself to make a better world for others, to transform a nearly lawless frontier into a place where civilization could take hold.”
“There is no way to know how many viewers took these lessons to heart and and acted on them in the real world,” Spencer wrote. “Perhaps some of the idealistic college students who risked their lives to fight for civil rights for blacks  in the South were inspired in part by the Westerner; certainly (as anecdotes reveal) some small but real percentage of the young men who volunteered to go fight in Vietnam were motivated by the television heroes of their childhood and adolescence.”
So why did these cowboy heroes, once so ubiquitous on TV and movies, ride off into the sunset? The answer is they did not. They merely donned disguises.
In all important respects, the western hero has become the superhero, now all dusted off, now streamlined and jet propelled. Civilization is still threatened, but now by forces tricked up as super criminals, alien invaders and supernatural monsters.
Like the western hero, the superhero is still simplistic in his solutions, still self-sacrificing in his ethics and still stands between us and the savage menaces of the frontier, but one that is no longer merely geographical. The superhero’s frontier is, as Rod Serling once intoned, “…a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination." 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Ant Man and Robin to the Rescue!

In June 1963, in Batman 156, DC Comics decided have a little joke at the expense of that upstart superhero publisher, Marvel Comics.
In Batman’s absence, writer Bill Finger and artist Sheldon Moldoff had Robin team up with the shrunken superhero Ant Man. What th--? This was months after Marvel’s diminutive superhero Ant Man first donned his shrinking super-suit in Tales to Astonish 35 (Sept. 1962).
DC’s Ant-Man was a one-off, a fraud, a cheap crook who posed as a hero but failed to fool the Boy Wonder.
Maybe DC regarded the joke as a justifiable act of revenge. After all, in Showcase 34 (Sept.-Oct. 1961), DC had introduced its real shrinking superhero in Gil Kane’s elegant feature The Atom. Of course, Marvel could claim to have introduced Hank Pym at virtually the same time — Tales to Astonish 27 (Jan. 1962) — albeit in one of their “monster” stories, The Man in the Ant Hill, and not a superhero story.
In any case, it’s interesting to compare the static art of Sheldon Moldoff to the dynamic art of Jack Kirby on the same idea. Marvel was on the way up, while Batman was on the way out. Threatened by cancellation, the Batman title would only be saved by Carmine Infantino’s “New Look” in 1964 and the popular TV show in 1966.
The sudden resurgence of the shrinking man concept in comics in the early 1960s certainly owes something to the fact that the long-running Quality superhero Doll Man had ceased publication in 1953, leaving a popular gimmick unused.
But the talented writer Richard Matheson probably also deserves some of the credit. Matheson’s innovative 1956 science fiction novel The Shrinking Man had become the critically acclaimed 1957 hit film The Incredible Shrinking Man. So we can probably thank Matheson for, among other things, Ant-Man, the Atom and the current popular culture plague of zombies (all direct descendants from his 1954 novel, I Am Legend).
People always wonder where a writer gets his ideas. In this case, we know. Matheson said he found the spark of The Shrinking Man in the film Let’s Do It Again, a 1953 remake of the stage and screen comedy The Awful Truth.
“I had gotten the idea several years earlier while attending a movie in a Redondo Beach theater,” Matheson recalled. “In this particular scene, Ray Milland, leaving Jane Wyman's apartment in a huff, accidentally put on Aldo Ray’s hat, which sank down around his ears. Something in me asked, ‘What would happen if a man put on a hat which he knew was his and the same thing happened?’”

No, It Already Has Happened Here

Whatever happens tomorrow, we’ve reached an important juncture in this country. The corporate media and the public have established the practice of treating a racist, openly fascist candidate for president as no different than an ordinary candidate. That’s a real milestone on the direct path to hell.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Marvel Still Has That Old Black Magic

I concur with what Matt Mattingly said: “ ‘Doctor Strange’ was brilliant. Equal parts wit, charm, Eastern mysticism, and absolutely amazing graphic effects. While waiting for the end credits scene, we noticed Charleston’s own Tanner Bartlett had a screen credit as a digital compositor. Especially neat for Dan and Paul since he grew up next door to them.”
It’s a first-rank Marvel film like Iron Man, one that also uses wit to enhance rather than undermine the melodramatic action. Tilda Swinton is a perfect Ancient One, subtly otherworldly, wise and imperious. Benedict Cumberbatch’s skill at playing brilliant, arrogant figures like Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing fits this role like the proverbial glove.
The movie also overcame the plotting problem inherent in super-magician stories, where the characters can just wave their hands and seemingly make anything happen. The extent of their powers being undefined tends to kill suspense, because they can always pull some deus ex machina spell out of their ass at the last minute. But here, all the magical battles had clever and logical solutions. And martial arts kinetic action was combined with the spell-hurling fireworks of the comic books to vary the action. The supernatural vistas both turn our own world inside out and upside down, and send us into artist Steve Ditko’s, where Dormammu dwells. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Kleptocapitalism Personified: Donald J. Trump

The fact that the Republicans actually chose, as their presidential candidate, a man who’s infamous for cheating people out of their wages, goods and services whenever he can is proof America is in the grip of what I call “kleptocapitalism.”
Republicans always regard contracts as a sacred free market principle — unless they have half a chance to f*ck somebody over and defraud them, of course.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

My Interview on NPR Illinois

Photo of Dan Hagen by Jordan Boner

“After hundreds of layoffs at Eastern Illinois University earlier this year, 17 faculty members with annually renewed contracts got word they might be let go this fall. One faculty member, EIU journalism instructor Dan Hagen, says he was dismissed just two weeks before classes started. We talked with Hagen about his experience and what he thinks it means for the state of higher education in Illinois.

The Doctor Is In, As Well As Strange

Strange doctors have been prowling around superhero comics almost from the beginning.
The first Dr. Strange, or Doc Strange, debuted as the lead feature in Nedor’s Thrilling 1 (Feb. 1940), the creation of writer Richard Hughes and artist Alexander Kostuk.
In the wake of the spectacular, multi-media success of Superman, rival superhero characters could have powers similar to Superman’s, or a costume similar to his, but they’d better not have both. That mistake made Fox’s Wonder Man a one-issue wonder in 1939.
“Just as Fox had wasted no time before launching his Superman rip-off, DC wasted no time before suing him,” comics historian Don Markstein noted. “The action started the moment Wonder Comics reached the stands. Fox was hit with an injunction against the use of Wonder Man until the matter could be settled in court.”
Powered by a solar atomic drug he called Alosun, Doc Strange acquired Superman’s abilities — super-strength, flight, invulnerability — but wisely eschewed the fancy dress.
“He didn’t keep his identity a secret, hence no mask; and his superhero suit was both minimal (plain red T-shirt and blue jodhpurs, both worn properly skin-tight, plus ordinary belt and boots) and late in coming (it was half a year later, about when he started calling himself Doc instead of Dr., that he adopted the standardized appearance),” Markstein noted.
In Thrilling 24 (Jan. 1942), Strange acquired a young sidekick called Mike Ellis. Although Mike sported a cape, he wasn’t as much of a boy wonder as he might have been because Strange deemed him too young to use the super-drug.
Strange also appeared with Captain Future, The Black Terror and Fighting Yank in Nedor’s version of World Finest Comics, called America’s Best Comics, and was popular enough to outlast most other Golden Age superheroes. His last adventure was published in November 1948.
In 2001, renamed Tom Strange, the character was revived by the inimitable Alan Moore in his superb Tom Strong title.
Doc’s first name was Hugo, and that may ring a bell. Coincidentally, Prof. Hugo Strange was an early Batman villain, introduced in Detective Comics 36 (Feb. 1940), and the first foe to figure out Batman’s secret identity.
In May 1963, Marvel Comics got into the act — but not yet with Dr. Stephen Strange. Tales of Suspense 41 introduced Dr. Carlo Strange, a lightning-born criminal genius who threatened Earth until his daughter, Carla, betrayed him by aiding Iron Man.
Stan Lee must have liked the sound of the name “Dr. Strange,” because two months later (Strange Tales 110, July 1963) he reused in for the first appearance of Steve Ditko’s legendary superhero magician, Dr. Stephen Strange.
Of course, you could argue that there’s yet another Dr. Strange, whose first name is Adam. The intrepid archeologist-spaceman almost certainly has his Ph.D, but just doesn’t make a big deal about it.