Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Hidden Defenders of Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko’s 1950s’ fantasy stories offer examples of one of his running themes: the hidden defender.
Unheralded and unrecognized by the people he protects, the hidden defender is some ordinary-looking person who has access to strange powers that enable him to protect humanity from equally hidden threats. This “unappreciated hero” angle can also seen be in the novels of Ayn Rand, a writer Ditko admires.
In The Old Fool (Charlton’s Tales of the Mysterious Traveler 6, Dec. 1957), Ditko presents us with an old man in the Greek village of Derniani, a silent, self-absorbed character so odd that many villagers talk about having him “put away.”
What they don’t know is that each day the old man sits on a mountainside overlooking the village, meditating and gathering the powers of nature. He uses them to detect and avert various perils — quenching a fire that would have destroyed many houses, calming a runaway horse that would a crushed a little girl. If the contemptuous townspeople ever succeed in having the old man locked away, their village will be plagued by disasters.
In From Out of the Depths (Charlton’s This Magazine Is Haunted 14, Dec. 1957), one of Ditko’s fluid, shadowy creep-things crawls out of the Gulf of Mexico.
A poor peasant named Juan, plagued by drought and at the end of his rope, is the first to see the mysterious horror, which lurches toward the one pathetic crop he has left. In desperation, little Juan channels his fear into anger and charges straight at the giant thing. The very force of his outrage renders the alien being into its constituent elemental gasses, one of which causes rain…
One of my favorite Charlton stories by Ditko is The Human Powerhouse (Strange Suspense Stories 48, July 1960). Accountant George Clinton finds himself mysteriously charged with electrical power, capable of burning down trees and destroying boulders. Then he somehow senses something far out in space, “…a flock of gruesome living entities bearing new and terrible diseases to Earth from another galaxy.” Clinton discharges all his electrical power into the sky, destroying them. Some mysterious natural balance is achieved.
In a broad sense, all superheroes who have secret identities are expressions of this “secret protector” theme. And in a specific sense, so was one of the two most popular characters Ditko ever created. Ordinary people thought of Dr. Stephen Strange as just a Greenwich Village eccentric. They didn’t know that he was the only thing standing between them and unimaginable horrors…

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Man of Tomorrow, Hero of Yesterday

Superman 107 (Aug. 1956) dissects the term “superhero” in a surprisingly thoughtful way.
In Rip Van Superman, the hero is left comatose while saving Metropolis from an out-of-control nuclear reactor. As Lois Lane sobs nearby, Superman is publicly sealed in a glass display in hopes that he’ll awaken soon. But he doesn’t…
The Man of Tomorrow revives in 2956 to discover a world full of supermen who’ve been granted his powers by “amazing vitamins and hormones.”
However, like Gold Key’s later Magnus Robot Fighter, Superman discovers that the inhabitants of the 30th century have been rendered uncertain and helpless by centuries of robot servitude.
When the evil scientist Drago threatens to send the moon, now a prison, crashing into Earth, humanity panics. Superman springs to the rescue —this time not with his powers, which are commonplace, but with his heroic example, which isn’t.
“Listen to me!” Superman tells them. “Your robots can’t help you now! YOU — YOU’RE the masters of your destiny! You’ve been ‘asleep’ longer than I have! It’s time you awakened!”
Organizing the supermen into a force that can push the moon back into orbit, Superman confronts three of Drago’s thugs.  Outnumbered by enemies as strong as he is, Superman now needs inspiration, and finds it in the example of his friend Batman. Using judo and other combat techniques Batman has taught him, Superman subdues his foes.
Crisis averted, Superman is returned to 1956 in an experimental time machine.
The classic Superman artist Wayne Boring drew this tale, which emphasizes the value of character over strength. And it’s no surprise to learn that the writer was Batman’s co-creator, Bill Finger.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Inhuman Torch: Before Marvel was Marvel

Just before Marvel was Marvel, the comic book company was a nameless but distinctive and seemingly endless parade of giant monsters.
Stan Lee was weary of it, but the talents of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko enlivened the standard twist-ending plots and kept those dimes coming in.
Substances and species were switched every month to supply new rampaging creatures. A water monster in April, a smoke monster in May. A giant ant in June’s issue, and a giant lizard in July’s.
Disposable, all. Yet one of them — a tree monster named Groot — has become an immensely popular movie character for Disney-Marvel. How ironic, as they say in the comics.
Marvel’s past was recalled and its future foreshadowed n Strange Tales 76 (August 1960). This time, the substance was fire. A giant flaming alien named Dragoom terrorizes Earth until he’s conned by movie special effects in a wrapup that’s implausible even by comic book standards.
But who cared? The fun was in Kirby’s art. He had a trick of having his giant alien invaders describe the horrific world-destroying plans they had for humanity, giving him the opportunity to draw several big, entertaining disaster scenes that really had nothing to do with the plot.
In 1960, most readers were too young to recognize Dragoom as a monstrous variation on the theme of one of Marvel’s most popular Golden Age superheroes, the Human Torch. He hadn’t been seen since Human Torch 38 (August 1954). And they couldn’t know he would be seen again, soon, in his fresh, edgy teenage incarnation in Fantastic Four 1 (November 1961). 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Panthers, Widows and Wolves: Marvel Widens the Spectrum

Superheroes represent an ideal of human perfectibility, and Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and the artists at Marvel Comics clearly thought that ideal ought to embrace a wider spectrum of humanity.
So they introduced the world’s first black superhero,  (the Black Panther in Fantastic Four 52, July 1966), then launched a female superhero into her own solo feature (the Black Widow in Amazing Adventures 1, Aug. 1970) then unveiled an Asian superhero (Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu in Special Marvel Edition 15, Dec. 1973). And in between, they introduced a Native American superhero (Red Wolf in Avengers 80, Sept. 1970).
Created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema, Red Wolf was William Talltrees, a young man whose Cheyenne family was extorted and murdered by corrupt businessman Cornelius van Lunt. To avenge them, he adopted the legendary persona of Red Wolf, gaining vaguely defined powers from the Native American god Owayodata and a partner, an actual wolf named Lobo.
A 19th century incarnation of Red Wolf was presented when the superhero was featured in his own short-lived title.
I always suspected that had Red Wolf’s power set been a little more unique and sharply defined, he might have proven more durable.
“Red Wolf marked the first time that an America Indian had assumed the role (of mysterious avenger), and it certainly should be remembered at least for breaking ground in a new direction, even if it proved temporarily unsuccessful,” Maurice Horn wrote in Comics of the American West.
In the movies at roughly the same time, actor and writer Tom Laughlin introduced his half-Indian ex-Green Beret avenger, Billy Jack.
“We must applaud Red Wolf for many reasons,” wrote Michael A. Sheyahshe in Native Americans in Comic Books. “The comic contains a character who is the first major Native superhero, one who is a complex character, more human than many other Indigenous characters, and one that even has his own sidekick.”
Of course, DC Comics had already introduced a Native American superhero — wincingly called Super Chief — almost a decade before. But that, as they say, is another story…

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Weird Science: He Walked Among Us

A strange visitor from another planet who uses his superior powers to aid ordinary people — the very premise that kicked off superhero comics in 1938.
But in the darker and more sophisticated storytelling pioneered by EC Comics a little more than a decade later, a different variation would be played on that theme.
In He Walked Among Us (Weird Science 13, May-June 1952), writers Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein and artist Wally Wood tell us the tale of Jerome Kraft, a 2963 space explorer whose mission is to study an alien planet inhabited by primitive humanoids.
Using his advanced technology, Kraft is able to feed the hungry with dehydrated food pills and heal the sick with wonder drugs. But the high priests don’t like the idea of Kraft helping the “rabble” of the lower caste, and demand that he only aid the rich…
Two thousand years later, when terran space explorers finally return to the planet, they find it inhabited by “Kraftians” who decorate their cities with, and wear, an image of the rack — the torture device upon which the ancient rulers put their savior to death.
The benefactor of humanity and civilization who is repaid by being murdered. It is, as the explorers muse, “…rather a familiar story.”

Friday, April 7, 2017

Who That Masked Man Really Was

When I think of my late father, I often imagine him huddled with some of his 11 brothers and sisters, listening with rapt attention to exciting exploits that wafted to him in his parents’ lonely farmhouse on the prairie.
The wind moans outside but inside, through the static-y crackle, he can hear the distant call.
“In the early days of the western United States, a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when from out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!”
The first of 2,956 radio episodes of The Lone Ranger premiered on the Detroit radio station WXYZ on Jan. 30, 1933, the creation of station owner George W. Trendle and writer Fran Striker.
The immensely popular character eventually branched out to movie serials, feature films, television, novels, a pulp magazine, a comic strip and, of course, comic books.
Dell Comics published 145 issues of a Lone Ranger comic book beginning in 1948. At first, the comic book was just newspaper strip reprints, but original material began in issue 38 (Aug. 1951). It’s testimony to the character’s popularity that his partner Tonto got his own comic book title in 1951, and even his horse Silver landed his own title in 1952. More than 30 issues of each spinoff title were published.
The action in the comic books was muted, too restrained to generate much excitement. But the painted covers were beautiful. Sometimes photo covers featured Clayton Moore from the 1949-57 TV show, which was the highest-rated television program on ABC in the early 1950s.
Thirty years later, my father could recall details of radio episodes he’d heard, remembering how his champion would shoot the guns out of outlaws’ hands, then snap, “You’re not hurt!” when they moaned in protest.
We all have our childhood dream selves. My father’s was the Lone Ranger and mine was Superman. And my mother’s was, of course, Wonder Woman.
That very point got a clever nod in the underrated 2013 Lone Ranger film, which opens in 1933 with a scene of a small boy wearing a cowboy suit and a black domino mask at a carnival sideshow, approaching the now-ancient form of Tonto (Johnny Depp).
“Kemosabe?” Tonto asks hesitantly.
Who was that masked man? That’s who he was, that boy. That’s who he’s always been.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Astro City: Fanfare for the Common Man

One comic book series I can always reread with pleasure is Kurt Busiek’s Astro City.
Debuting in August 1995, the title benefits from art by Alex Ross and Brent Anderson that deftly splits the difference between comic book romanticism and photo-realism.
It features variations on familiar themes: a Superman from the future, a vampire Batman, a winged Wonder Woman, a super-powered family with the initials “FF,” and others. Idiosyncratic comic book conventions — secret identities, kid sidekicks, rogues’ galleries — are also wryly explored.
But its uniqueness lies elsewhere, in its dramatic structure.  The lives of ordinary people are placed in the dramatic foreground, played against a background of superhero melodrama. That structure carries with it an implicit, understated theme — that a meaningful life is not just for special people, but should be available to all.
And amid the comedy and the tragedy, the series has a running undercurrent about compassion and responsibility. Unlike certain Hollywood directors, Busiek understands the ethic that necessarily underpins superhero stories.
In Since the Fire, a former firefighter explains to a young boy why someone must do the job that has cost him considerably.
“And better it’s someone trained, skilled and equipped to have the best chance of getting kids like you out,” he says. “Take a look around. All these people, they’re livin’ their lives, and they do what they do, and they sleep a little easier because of guys like me and the others back there.
“The superheroes flyin’ around, they’re okay. But they can’t always be there. We gotta take care of ourselves…”
“I got 47 people out of burning buildings the last eight months. Three that night.
“A leg’s nothing, not to that. Nothing.”