Tuesday, February 28, 2017

How the Comic Books Found Tarzan's Son

The immense popularity of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies from 1932 to 1948 tended to overshadow Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original novels, which were already 20 years old when Weissmuller put on his first loincloth.
Those movies continued to air on local television through the 1960s, giving several generations of Americans the impression that Tarzan was a kind of jungle caveman whose chimpanzee, Cheeta, found him a son in a plane crash. Unimaginatively, Tarzan and Jane named the orphan “Boy” in the 1939 film Tarzan Finds a Son!
What most didn’t know was that Tarzan’s son had been born in the usual way in 1914 in the ERB novel The Beasts of Tarzan, and that his name was John “Jack” Clayton, Viscount Greystoke — or, in ape-speak, Korak.
The long-running Tarzan comic book series, first published by Dell and then by Gold Key, leaned toward the Hollywood interpretation of Tarzan. But by 1962, the out-of-print Tarzan novels, some of which had fallen into the public domain, were being reissued by no fewer than four publishers: Canaveral, Dover, Ace and Ballantine. Snapped up by readers, the original Tarzan swung back into action.
Gold Key chose that moment to publish their second Tarzan-related series, Korak, Son of Tarzan. In the first issue (cover-dated Jan. 1964), artist Russ Manning and writer Gaylord Du Bois evolved the “Boy” of previous comics into the Korak of Burroughs’ novels. The title, essentially the adventures of a teenaged Tarzan, was popular enough to last 45 issues, through 1972.
Both Tarzan and Korak fit my working definition of a superhero, by the way, which is a protagonist who possesses superhuman powers and/or a dual identity (although not necessarily a secret one). Tarzan and his son fit on both counts. They share the infrahuman ability to talk to animals, and they have dual identities as English aristocrats and jungle lords.

For Ant-Man, Two Letters Make a BIG Difference

Hank Pym was able to become a whole new superhero just by adding two letters to his name.
In Tales to Astonish 49 (Nov. 1963), his 15th adventure, Ant-Man became Giant-Man. I remember enjoying the story by writer Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Don Heck at the time. The switch seemed to give the character a whole new range of powers and possibilities, and firmly differentiate from DC’s Atom, who was busy battling a tiny phantom double that month.
The story opens with a literal bang — Pym, experimenting with increasing his size, has burst through the walls of his Cape Cod house on the New Jersey Palisades overlooking the Hudson River, and must feebly ask his panicked gardener for help.
While Pym learns to control his new powers with the aid of the Wasp, a menace arises from a desk at the Marvel bullpen. Like Paste Pot Pete, the Eraser would seem to have been inspired by artist tools. He’s a green alien invader who “erases” scientists into another dimension, and the effect is made more intriguing and striking by one of Jack Kirby’s signature multi-panel progressions.
Fighting to rescue the victims, Giant-Man exults in his new powers, leaping from one futuristic rooftop to another, manhandling a half-dozen alien troops at once and tearing apart a ray-gun emplacement while sneering that it’s a “toy.”
Giant-Man’s next few adventures provided a fresh angle on super-heroics by suggesting, logically, that super powers might involve a learning curve. Pym proves awkward with abilities that are the opposite of the ones he had mastered as Ant-Man. He finds himself unable, for example, to defeat the mutant Human Top in repeated battles.
Yet the character somehow never achieved the dramatic potential suggested in that debut, and in Tales to Astonish 70 (August 1965), his feature was replaced by the Sub-Mariner’s, which I never much cared for. Despite his status as a milestone hero of comics’ Golden Age, Prince Namor in the 1960s seemed reduced to a tedious single note of haughtiness.
Ant-Man’s expansion would have one distant, happy echo. Fifty-three years later, the surprise transition from Ant-Man to Giant-Man would delight film audiences in Captain America: Civil War ($1.153 billion at the box office).

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Legion of Losers Takes a Bow in Adventure

In the Smallville Mailsack page of Adventure Comics 304 (Jan. 1963), reader Buddy LaVigne of Northbrook, IL, wrote, “I suggest a new character, Polar Boy, who has the power of freezing to ice anything in his area.”
From that suggestion came not just a new character but a new team based on a fresh and contradictory concept: superheroes who were inferior.
Winners who were “losers.”
Created by writer Edmond Hamilton and artist John Forte in Adventure Comics 306 (March 1963), the plight of the Substitute Heroes touched me at once.
Like every high school wannabe who ever mooned over a quarterback or a cheerleader, the Substitutes obsessed about the idols who rejected them. I immediately found their adventures more interesting than those of the super-club they were so desperate to get into because they added an extra element to the drama: poignancy.
After all, movies and young adult novels don’t get written about in-crowds, but about the people who are trying to get into them. In-crowds are, frankly, kind of boring.
“The Legion of Substitute Heroes was founded by Polar Boy, Night Girl, Stone Boy, Fire Lad and Chlorophyll Kid, five young heroes whose powers were not sufficient to earn them membership in the Legion of Super-Heroes — Night Girl for example could only use her powers in the dark,” Wikipedia notes.
“After receiving a Legion flight belt as a consolation prize, the five disconsolate teenagers decided to form a group that could pinch hit for the Legion. After several failures as a team, the Subs managed to save the Earth from an invasion by Plant Men while the Legion was off planet fighting a decoy armada of robot spaceships.
“At first operating in secrecy, the Legion of Substitute Heroes was gradually recognized by the real Legion as a valuable asset, most notably after the assault on the Citadel of Throon when the regular Legionnaires were all defeated and it was left to Polar Boy and Night Girl to lead an effective attack and end the siege. The Substitute Heroes saved the Legionnaires from such threats as the Taurus Gang and the lethal League of Super-Assassins.”
Keith Giffen later treated the team as a joke, missing the point of their outsider appeal, I think. This-series-within-a-series originally offered a useful moral: that being rejected by the people you want to like you doesn’t mean you can’t make a mark in your own way, and still be happy.
Oddly enough, the “underdog superhero” theme would also be explored in a comic book character who got his own title the same month the Subs debuted.
His name? Spider-Man.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What Is Benito Trumpolini? It Starts with an 'F'

Fascism is marked by nationalism, militarism, sexism, racism, repression of labor, worship of corporate power, controlled mass media, contempt for intellectuals and education, religiosity used for political manipulation, rampant cronyism and corruption, fraudulent elections, obsession with national security and the destruction of civil liberties — all the flavors Fox News sells to fools all day, every day.
The elements of fascism I cited are not a matter of opinion, but of fact. They are the 14 identifying characteristics of fascism uncovered by Lawrence Britt in his study of fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile). Britt found these fascist dictatorships all had 14 elements in common.
I've gotten all kinds of ad hominem insults from Republicans when I've posted this list of fascist characteristics, but I've never heard a SINGLE ONE of them post any evidence to dispute it.
And now we have a president who will try to put across every one of these horrors. He’s about to prove that the Republican Party is now Fascist Party of the United States of America.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Secret Origins: The Comic That Made Me Cry

I never wanted a comic book more than the 25-cent DC giant Secret Origins, which was on newsstands in June 1961, the month I turned 7.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone. The comic sold out instantly at my newsstand in Effingham, IL, and I was so disappointed I burst into tears on the spot. Then I was ashamed at having cried.
But we almost never got to read characters’ origins in those halcyon days, and to acquire a bunch of those in one comic would have been a thrill.
I wouldn’t learn until years later than DC’s apparent discomfort with reprinting 1940s material would lead them to cheat a bit on the Secret Origins title, meaning that the real origins of the Superman-Batman team, Wonder Woman and Green Arrow would remain secret.
In fact, the only “Golden Age material” to be found in all 80 pages was an old copy of Flash being chuckled over by police scientist Barry Allen while he ate lunch in one panel.
The earliest story reprinted was the origin of the Martian Manhunter from Detective Comics 225 (November, 1955). The Silver Age characters Flash, Green Lantern, Adam Strange and the Challengers of the Unknown had all debuted in 1956 or later, and their actual first stories were included as well.
But instead of Wonder Woman’s real 1941 origin, we got a reconned version by Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito reprinted from Wonder Woman 105 (April, 1959).
Green Arrow and Speedy got even shorter shrift, merely a text page that summarized their origins from Adventure Comics 256 (January, 1959) and Adventure Comics 262 (July, 1959). In fact, of course, they had debuted 18 years earlier in More Fun Comics 73 (November 1941).
Even May of 1952 was apparently too “Golden Age” for the editors. That’s when Superman and Batman actually met in the pages of Superman 76 (although they’d teamed up even earlier on Superman’s radio series). Instead, DC reprinted the retconned Origin of the Superman-Batman Team by Edmond Hamilton, Dick Sprang and Stan Kay that had appeared in World’s Finest Comics 94 (May-June, 1958).
So that dark, sunny June day I had to content myself with the origin of a new superhero in Archie Comics’ Adventures of the Jaguar 1, Detective, the second issue of Charlton’s  Gorgo, the battle between Batman and the super-powered Villain of 1,000 Elements in Detective Comics 294, learning The Secret of Tigerman from World’s Finest 119, seeing the debut of The Legion of Super-Villains in Superman 147 and the exciting third Superman Annual, featuring The Strange Lives of Superman.
That one was almost as good as Secret Origins.
Despite its deficiencies, Secret Origins remained The One That Got Away. I hadn’t learned, at 7, that desire often makes the unattainable seem more wonderful than reality can ever be.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

GOP Elephant Always Forgets Its Own Racism

So here's a handy remember for them.

Never Trust an Invisible Man

He was almost the first superhero of the Marvel Age of Comics. But, appropriately enough, he took a wrong turn and vanished.
I first encountered Jack Kirby’s fascinating Invisible Man in the second and final Strange Tales Annual (Sept. 1963), but that was a reprint from Strange Tales 67 (Feb. 1959).
I Was the Invisible Man! is the first-person narrative of scientist Adam Clayton, who creates a device that will accelerate his atomic structure and permit him to move at invisible super speed.
Operating (credibly for once) through a secret identity, Clayton at first does good deeds, thwarting a bank robbery and saving a pedestrian from a falling safe. But his actions as what the headlines call “the Invisible Man” become more arrogant and erratic. He interferes with a prize fight and strips the tires from a “hot rodder’s” speeding car for fun.
Building up the Invisible Man’s reputation, Clayton intends to cash in on his powers and become rich and powerful — but never gets the chance. A glance in his bathroom mirror reveals, to his horror, that his super speed has aged him 40 years. He is nearly finished.
“It was too late to regret my foolish desires for riches,” he thinks. “It was too late to reach back and use the valuable time I’d wasted to perfect my formula for mankind’s benefit. Yes, that’s a job for a young man — a much wiser young man than I was.”
The morose old man is nearly run over by a truck because he’s distracted and slow.
“It was an ironic and somehow fitting end to my career as the Invisible Man — who could have weaved in front of a dozen speeding trucks!” he thinks. “A selfish man is a careless man who has lost sight of the values that count — and in turn, loses everything.”
In the 1940s or the 1960s, Adam Clayton might easily have become a superhero. But DC’s Golden Age Flash had vanished almost a decade before and the Silver Age Flash wouldn’t get his own title until that very month.
During the more conventional 1950s, several concepts that had once been used to springboard superheroes were recycled for use as horror or science fiction plots — winged aliens who recalled Hawkman, flaming monsters that resembled the Human Torch, invisible SOBs who were like the Whizzer.
The tale echoed, perhaps unconsciously, the myth of the Ring of Gyges recounted in Plato’s Republic.
Like Tolkien’s One Ring, this magical device permitted the wearer to become invisible at will. The point of the myth is that by freeing the wearer from the fear of punishment or disgrace, the ring would necessarily corrupt anyone who wore it, morality being merely a social construct. Superhumans could not be trusted.
But Socrates argued that justice is more than a social construct, and that the wearer who abused such a power would end up a miserable slave to his appetites. A wise person would refuse such a ring and, by remaining rationally in control of himself, be happier, Socrates said.
In other words, with great power comes great danger. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Oh, the Lack of Humanity...

Benito Trumpolini’s ego is just a dirigible filled with hydrogen.
So it’s out like Flynn, eh? Our job now is to compound Trump’s humiliation at his treasonous, disgraced administration, barely a month old. Let’s crank up the volume.
Trump’s ego is his Hindenburg. Let’s light it up.

Whatever Happened to the Dog of Tomorrow?

By the time I started reading Superman comics in 1958 or 1959, Krypto was already a well-established and well-behaved member of Superman’s expanding “family.”
But he didn’t begin that way.
 Introduced in Adventure Comics 210 (March 1955), Krypto was revealed to be baby Kal-El’s pet puppy, sent into space in a test ship by Jor-El shortly before the planet Krypton’s explosion.
I don’t think anyone here has ever considered naming a puppy “Eartho” or “Terra,” but I won’t quibble about Kryptonian customs in this area.
Superboy is joyful when his pet arrives on Earth, but quickly understands the headaches involved when Krypto playfully rips the wing off a passenger airliner. Finding his dog has fled into space at the end of that first story, Superboy pretends to be glad.
But isn’t.
Krypto would, of course, return soon and for good, playing a role in many Superboy and Superman adventures. In fact, the Dog of Steel would become a member of two distinguished organizations of super-animals — the 30th century Legion of Super-Pets and the Space Canine Patrol Agents.
Krypto would also be the ancestor of a surprisingly large number of superhero dogs that would include Ace the Bathound, Underdog, Dynomutt, Hong Kong Phooey, Marvel’s Lockjaw and (arguably) Disney’s Super-Goof. Radar, Alan Moore’s version of Krypto, could talk thanks to a super-translator installed by Supreme in his dog collar, and is a particular favorite.
Krypto was created by artist Curt Swan and writer Otto Binder, and that seems appropriate. Swan was one of the most iconic artists ever associated with Superman, and Binder, a long-time writer for Captain Marvel, used Krypto to bring a little of that famous Fawcett feature’s heartwarming whimsy to Superman’s “serious” universe. The Big Red Cheese had vanished with Marvel Family 89 (Jan. 1954), just a year before the Dog of Steel arrived on Earth.
Look, I know Krypto’s presence makes Superman even sillier than he already is, but I really don’t care. Given the volumes of anecdotal evidence that attest to canine loyalty and bravery, the idea of a superhero dog has a kind of deep psychological resonance for us.
And Krypto brings a quality of heart to the Superman feature than underlines and counterpoints the recurring theme of the superhero’s loneliness — something Moore understood implicitly.
I defy anyone to read Krypto’s part in Moore’s 1986 story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? without finding that the room has suddenly become unaccountably dusty.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Dark Shadows in Four Colors

Dark Shadows was neither fish nor fowl, though it might arguably have been bat. Neither a traditional soap opera nor a prime-time broadcast fantasy program, the show had a quirky freshness that captured the interest of America’s kids in the late 1960s.
That success seemed somewhat accidental. Beginning June 27, 1966, on ABC, Dark Shadows was at first just a gothic story of the type frequently consumed in paperback form by the housewives who presumably still made up most of the audience for daytime soaps.
The brainchild of producer Dan Curtis and a descendent of the Jane Eyre/Turn of the Screw school of literature, the show featured a mysterious Maine mansion and a vaguely imperiled governess named Victoria Winters. Curtis purportedly came up with the idea for the show in a dream about an enigmatic young woman on a train.
It wasn’t until 200 episodes into its run that kids began to race home from school to catch the show, which aired at 3 p.m. central time. That’s when vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) arrived to kick the show’s most outré elements into high gear.
The Universal monsters of the 1940s were popular with children through Late Show airings and the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and the soap opera capitalized on that, offering not only a vampire but witches, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, time travel and parallel universes.
The show had various reincarnations in other media, including a contemporaneous Gold Key comic book series illustrated by long-time Martian Manhunter artist Joe Certa. Frankly, the soap, with its cheap production values and windy plots, was never quite as good as we wanted it to be. The comic book, freed from the show’s protracted story lines, was better, and in fact outlasted the TV show by five years, running through 1976.
The semi-sympathetic portrayal of Barnabas marked something of a milestone in popular culture, pointing the way toward all the subsequent stories that would present vampires not as mere monsters but primarily as tragic victims.
Barnabas’s nemesis, the witch Angelique (a/k/a Cassandra), was a favorite of mine. She was played by the beautiful Lara Parker, who also left a legacy in another milestone of fantasy television. Parker portrayed Laura Banner, the wife of Dr. David Banner, in the 1977 pilot for The Incredible Hulk TV series. Never heard and seen only in an opening dream sequence, her role nevertheless provided a touching and powerful dramatic impetus to the story. Because Dr. Banner (Bill Bixby) hadn’t had sufficient strength to save her during a car crash, he became obsessed with the research that would trigger his tragedy. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Something That Will Never Let Us Down

“Always probing and rejecting, and this constant dedication to perfection, to the principle of inevitability,” Leonard Bernstein said. “(The composer) will give away his life and his energies just to make sure that one note follows another with complete inevitability.
“It seems rather an odd way to spend one’s life, but it isn’t so odd when we think that the composer, by doing this, leaves us at the finish with a feeling that something is right in the world, that checks throughout. Something that follows its own law consistently. Something we can trust, that will never let us down.”

Friday, February 10, 2017

X Marks a Start for Marvel

Stan Lee wanted to call Marvel’s next new superhero team The Mutants, but publisher Martin Goodman objected that kids wouldn’t know what that meant.
So it became The X-Men 1 (Sept. 1963) — “X” being a spooky kind of a letter that suggests mystery (and for once, I agree with Goodman).
I bought my copy of the first issue off the newsstand, along with Avengers No. 1. (the more exciting choice, because it was a team composed of five characters I already knew and loved).
The X-Men seemed to combine the teenaged appeal of Spider-Man with the bickering bombast of the Fantastic Four, featuring an icy teen instead of a fiery teen and a Beast instead of a Thing. I was surprised and disappointed to see that the Beast’s power was super-agility rather than the Thing’s and the Hulk’s super-strength.
The uncanny team’s protagonist was clearly Cyclops, a brooding romantic underdog whose overwhelmingly powerful eye beams were also an impairment that alienated him from people.
I should say “further alienated him,” because the concept of humanity’s distrust of the mutant heroes was built into the concept from the first.
The X-Men have a handy all-purpose explanation for their super powers — mutation. They don’t need radioactive spiders or exploding planets. They can easily exist in their own self-contained universe (although, like all the other Marvel superheroes, they didn’t).
It’s no coincidence that the first successful superhero team in the movies would be the X-Men, because the explanation for their powers has that appealing dramatic simplicity. It’s harder for audiences to accept a dozen different excuses for the characters’ super powers (the Avengers got that problem out of the way by spring-boarding from separate origin movies that established the characters).
The idea of a school for teenaged superheroes was ingenious. A few years earlier, DC had stumbled onto the similarly crowd-pleasing concept of a club for teenaged superheroes.
The title itself fared well under Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, then faltered in other hands.  A 1970s revamp and revival would propel it permanently into the stratosphere, helped along by a popular character who would anticipate the dark turn to come in comics. The superheroes were going to grow claws.
Odd to think that, in the 21st century, the most popular character from that first issue would be the villain. Says something about how times have changed, don’t you think? It says that in the interval, something wicked this way came.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Look, Up in the Sky! It's a Hawk!

Thanks to his seven comic book titles, his newspaper comic strip, his movie cartoons, his movie serials, his radio show and finally his TV show, Superman’s preeminence in the DC Comic universe was indisputable by the mid-1950s.
An epiphenomenon of that preeminence was the odd fact that so many other DC characters also acquired super powers at one time or another —Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lex Luthor, Batman, Robin, Batwoman, cats, dogs, monkeys and horses.
Even as a child, it struck me as weird that they would always accidentally acquire Superman’s EXACT powers — not just super-strength, flight and invulnerability but X-ray vision, super hearing, super breath, the whole bit.
This applied even to characters as far removed from Superman as two of DC’s three “hawks” — Blackhawk and Tomahawk.
In Blackhawk 125 (June 1958), the crusading aviator accidentally got super through exposure to the Mole’s ray gun beam. The story also off-handedly established that Blackhawk — a character acquired from Quality Comics, after all — existed in the same universe as Superman. Shared universes weren’t always apparent in the 1950s, but in this case Blackhawk remarked that he had gotten powers “…like Superman.”
Tomahawk, being an 18th century frontier fighter, had of course never heard of Superman, but he acquired powers anyway through the attentions of a wise and kindly medicine man in Tomahawk 68 (May-June 1960). Tomahawk, like many other comic book heroes, also borrowed from Batman, always going into action with a boy sidekick, Dan Hunter.
In both cases, the heroes’ powers faded before the final showdown with the heavies, enabling them to demonstrate with their resourcefulness that they didn’t need Superman’s powers after all, thank you very much.
Fan of Superman that I was, I was more likely to buy a comic if the protagonist acquired super powers, so the sale gimmick worked for me.
I wasn’t aware until later that Blackhawk’s super accident was something of an in-joke. In the Columbia movie serials a few years previously, both Superman and Blackhawk had been played by the same actor, Kirk Alyn.
How ironic, as they used to say in the comics.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Taking a Bite Out of Crime

The idea had already occurred to me. Why not make a vampire into a superhero?
So in 1971, I parted with 60 of the cents I’d earned as a cinema usher to snatch Eerie 32 off the Effingham, IL, newsstand, and treated myself to Superhero!, a comic horror story written by Steve Skeates and illustrated (with a wink at Gil Kane) by Tom Sutton.
The punch line? Crime Crusher’s crusade left bad guys bloodless.
The idea has been recycled several times, notably in the saga of Blade, the vampire hunter turned vampire created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan, who debuted in Tomb of Dracula 10 (July 1973).
On TV, we had Forever Knight, the 1989 vampire detective TV series about Nick Knight, and the 1999 Buffy spin-off series Angel.
The concept got the fully realized graphic novel treatment in 1996 with Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. Jeremiah Parrish, a 19th century Roman Catholic priest turned vampire, wages a mysterious war against crime as The Confessor, using Grandenetti Cathedral as his Batcave. Busiek played the tragic and heroic elements of the concept off against each other in a fine story.