Wednesday, May 31, 2017

DC Anthology Titles: Three Thrills for a Dime

As a small boy, I loved the comics devoted to the adventures of a single DC hero, titles like Superman, Batman and Superboy. But I loved the anthology titles they headlined even more.
Action Comics, Detective Comics, Adventure Comics and World’s Finest offered three features in each title, and among them were the handful of obscure superheroes who’d survived the Great Superhero Extinction of the early 1950s.
For example, take Detective Comics 279 (May 1960). While the Dynamic Duo tackled the alien Creatures That Stalked Batman, the Martian Manhunter was bedeviled by zany genius Hiram Horner in The Impossible Inventions. With art by Joe Certa and a script by Jack Miller, J’onn J’onzz spun himself like a whirlybird to lower a flying building back to the ground.
Even as a 5-year-old, I couldn’t conceive how that would work.
But the Martian Manhunter sported those eye-catching colors — green skin, blue cape — and an array of powers that rivaled Superman’s, so I was an immediate fan. I loved it when police detective John Jones would emit a concentric rainbow of light to change form.
Of almost equal interest was the seemingly pedestrian feature Roy Raymond, TV Detective, which had begun in 1949. Initially, the brainy Raymond would debunk supernatural hoaxes, but by the time I met him, he was up to more interesting stuff like tricking an actual giant monster conjured by a sorcerer back into the stone it came from. The creature looked like some, slate gray sinister variation on the monster Gossamer that menaced Bugs Bunny in the Warner Bros. cartoons.
Fun stuff, particularly when presented in the richly illustrative art of Ruben Moreira.
Or let’s take as an example World’s Finest 110, with Superman, Batman and Robin backed up by Tommy Tomorrow as well as Green Arrow and Speedy. An embarrassment of riches.
Like Roy Raymond, Tommy Tomorrow was a character who began as something else — in this case in 1947 as an example in a one-off “future facts” feature.
“(I)n fact, Tommy was obviously designed simply as a stereotyped hero to represent the sort of man who might pilot the first rocket to Mars,” noted comics historian Don Markstein. “Even his name was chosen to project the ‘generic future man’ image.”
But by 1960, he had evolved into a near-future “Planeteer” space cop whose purple uniform included curious short pants.  Illustrated by the capable, workmanlike art of Jim Mooney and written by Jim Miller, the tale The Robot Raiders featured this 21st century “future man” tackling space pirates armed by giant robot lobsters and hovering eyes — the kind of intriguing mechanical menaces that Blackhawk had specialized in combating.
“A wealthy playboy, guardian to a young boy … they fight crime together, hiding their identities behind outlandish costumes … Except for the archery motif, the ‘Green Arrow & Speedy’ series sounds like a direct swipe of Batman and Robin,” Markstein noted. “They took the archery motif from Fawcett's Golden Arrow, but more directly from a minor hero from a minor company, called simply The Arrow. But the prior hero he most precisely resembled was Tom Hallaway, alias The Spider.
“Green Arrow was created, if that’s not too strong a word, by Mort Weisinger, editor of DC’s More Fun Comics, who introduced the crime-fighting archer in the 73rd issue of that title (Nov. 1941) — the same one that first featured Aquaman.”
“Green Arrow was never as strong a character as the one he was modeled after. Whereas Batman appears intensely motivated — driven, even — Oliver Queen, the man who masqueraded as Green Arrow (Roy Harper, his ward, was Speedy), seemed merely to dabble in crime-fighting.”
Nevertheless, a character created in 1941 who has his own long-running TV shoe in 2017 must be said to have hit some mark.
In this issue of World’s Finest, the distinctive art of Lee Elias and the writing of Ed Herron introduced us to The Sinister Spectrum Man — a super villain, something we rarely got to see in a feature where the heavies were often just criminal thugs.
With his plane, gimmicks and color motif, Spectrum Man was a distorted mirror image of the hero. That’s a theme that gets played again and again in superhero comics, in various variations.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Refusing to See What We Foresaw

Even with the evidence now before their eyes, Trump voters are still refusing to see what we foresaw last year. America is a deteriorating, shell-shocked battleground between the armed camps of the willfully ignorant and the horrified prescient.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Monday, May 22, 2017

Woman and Superman, Ego and Super-Ego

One of the dramatic advantages of the TV show Mad Men was its timing.
Aired almost 50 years after the events it portrayed, Mad Men dramatized an era that was still within living memory. But that era was also sufficiently remote in time for significant social change to have occurred since then. The result was a drama that felt both familiar and, at times, strikingly alien. The attitudes of the times were remembered as real, yet now recognized as shocking.
And old comic books can, accidentally, serve the same function.
For example, take the "imaginary" tale The Wife of Superman! in Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane 26 (July 1961).
In Jerry Siegel’s story, TV reporter Lana Lang accidentally discovers Superman’s secret identity, but tells him she will forego the scoop and keep his secret to protect his work against crime and injustice. Impressed by Lana’s compassion and maturity, Superman finally falls for her and proposes.
“Her lips … they’re THRILLING!” thinks Superman. “Great Scott! I love the girl! Despite all my mighty powers of mind and body … I … I never knew it till NOW!”
With Lois Lane as a heartbroken bridesmaid, Superman marries Lana and, as a wedding present, provides her with a test tube full of experimental serum. The treatment grants Lana super powers identical to his own. And because she’s a human being, not a Kryptonian, Lana will also remain immune to kryptonite.
Yet in the context of 1961 sexual politics, that happy outcome turns out to be tragic.
As Super-Lana repeatedly rescues her husband from kryptonite traps, his attitude shifts from gratitude to depression.
“His pride’s hurt, due to my invulnerability to kryptonite!” Super-Lana thinks. “Before HE was the world’s mightiest person … But now they’re saying I’m GREATER than he is, and that he NEEDS me desperately!”
After saving Superman from the effects of his own rampage when he’s rendered evil by red kryptonite, Super-Lana does what is obviously the only thing left for her to do, and packs her suitcase to leave Earth forever.
Wait, what?
“My invulnerability to kryptonite has proven a CURSE! So – I’m going to give you back your self-respect by going out of your life forever!” she tells Superman. “I’ll live in another galaxy! If you love me … HELP me … By looking the other way with your telescopic vision, so you won’t see where I go! Don’t … follow! Goodbye … darling…”
Of course, Superman talks her out of this self-sacrificing but obviously bad decision, right?
Wrong. He agrees with her.
Turning away heartbroken, Superman thinks, “She’s … right! In time, our love for each other would’ve been destroyed by her pity for me! How can I be her hero when she’s mightier than I am? … (Choke!!)”
Neither Superman nor Lana seem to care or consider that more than the “destruction of their love” is at issue here — that robbing the Earth of another hero like Superman will result in the loss of thousands of lives in tragedies that could have been prevented.
I’m still touched by the soap operatic grandeur artist Kurt Schaffenberger invested in that last panel of a tearful Super-Lana flying off into space, thinking that she’ll “never, never stop loving him … (Sob!)”
Very noble, Lana. But the fact remains that you are exiling yourself from humanity forever merely in order to spare Superman’s fragile ego from having to confront the fact that a mere woman might be more powerful than he is.
Clark Kent and Don Draper turn out to have a lot in common.
Goes to show you how the unconscious attitudes of one generation can, soon enough, become the sick jokes of another.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Super-Lad Strains the Suspension of Disbelief

Even in 1959, at the age of 5, a guy knew when he was being had.
So Jimmy Olsen just coincidentally happens to be wearing a Superman costume for a fan club meeting when he coincidentally gets stuck on a missile that coincidentally lands on the planet Zolium, where conditions coincidentally grant Earth people super powers — coincidentally, the exact same powers as Superman?
And why couldn’t the cub reporter use his Superman signal watch to summon the Man of Steel to rescue him? Because, coincidentally, those little “zee-zee-zee” signals can’t travel through outer space.
Aw, come on.
Such was the scenario provided for our amusement by writer Robert Bernstein in The Super-Lad of Space!, the cover story in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen 39 (Sept. 1959).
Actually, all those coincidences weren’t the annoying part of the story. We were accustomed to those. What was irritating was the Jimmy Olsen, instead being amazed at suddenly being granted the powers of his hero and glorying in his ability to fly and bop monsters on the nose, spends all his time fretting that the Zoliumians (Zoliumites? Zolians? Whatever) can see through the various secret identities he tries to establish.
Bigger picture, Jimmy! This is ultimate wish fulfillment. Enjoy it! Generally, stories suggesting that you might not have to be born on Krypton to acquire super powers stirred fantasies that plunked those dimes down on newsstand counters.
Nevertheless, this was still a favorite story of mine. Why? Two words: Curt Swan.
The famed Superman artist was then approaching the peak of his powers, and flexing the muscles of his creative ingenuity. The detailed verisimilitude of Swan’s style made you believe in the actual existence of impossible things, and this alien setting provided an opportunity for him to go to town drawing giant flying metal-eating monsters, giant twelve-legged borrowing monsters, massive spiraling death rays, a wide variety of exotic alien dress, etc. etc.
More than a half-century later, I can vividly recall those gigantic yellow melons grown underground to feed the population of Zolium.
That, my friends, is called talent.

Amazing Spider-Man 3: Live and Learn

In a convention charged with psychological significance, superheroes frequently fight distorted mirror images of themselves.
Spider-Man battled other “animal men” from the start, defeating the Chameleon in Amazing Spider-Man 1 and the Vulture in ASM 2. But Dr. Octopus, in the third issue, was the most clearly mirrored of the villains (spiders and octopi both being multi-limbed, somewhat creepy creatures). And Otto Octavius also provided an opportunity for dramatic development unique in superhero comics at the time.
For The Amazing Spider-Man was not just a series but a serial, a soap opera, and at first its teenage protagonist was really too immature to handle the dangerous responsibilities thrust upon him by his guilt over his uncle’s death.
Peter Parker got a lesson in life’s unfairness in the first issue, when after rescuing J. Jonah Jameson’s son from certain death, the Daily Bugle publisher still trashed Spider-Man.
In the second issue, Spider-Man’s challenges escalated from a master of disguise to the Vulture, his first fully super-powered foe. Acquitting himself well in that showdown, Spidey regarded his victory the way many inexperienced young men would.
He became overconfident.
“It’s almost TOO easy,” Spidey mused. “I’ve run out of enemies who can give me any real opposition. I’m too powerful for ANY foe. I almost WISH for an opponent who’d give me a run for my money.”
In ASM 3 (July 1963), Lee and Ditko fulfill Spidey’s wish by confronting him with Dr. Octopus, who gives him a beat-down that shakes his confidence to the core. However, inspired by the Human Torch, a sadder but wiser Spider-Man returns to fight another day…
Comics historian Don Alsafi noted that Dr. Octopus, too, is characterized with subtle sophistication.
“When we first meet Dr. Otto Octavius, he seems a genial sort of man: well-liked, respected by his colleagues, and miraculously unscarred from the trauma of having been named Otto,’” Alasfi wrote. “However, an explosive accident during his atomic research causes the metal arms he uses in his experiments to fuse to his body — and Doctor Octopus is born!
“Although we only get to see Octavius for about a page before his mind becomes deranged, what’s interesting is just how abrupt this change is, and the idea of a man suddenly enslaved by his madness. In an era where most villains were evil just because, the astute reader quickly realizes that this isn’t the way Otto has always been, and the tragedy of that original mind trapped within the broken one is poignant.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mac Raboy: From Fawcett to Flash

Mention the name Flash Gordon to me and you conjure images of the lithe, clean-lined figures drawn by Mac Raboy, and not those of Alex Raymond, the newspaper strip’s celebrated creator.
That’s because in 1959 or 1960, when I first saw the strip in the Sunday color funny pages, Raboy drew it. I’d never heard of Raymond, the artist who’d inspired Raboy and who’d also created another strip I liked, Rip Kirby (then drawn by John Prentice).
Born in New York City in 1914, Emanuel “Mac” Raboy began his career with government-funded art classes and in President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Several of his federally funded wood engravings remain in the permanent collection of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum.
“Heavily influenced by the outstanding Flash Gordon work of Alex Raymond, Raboy created Captain Marvel Jr. in its image,” noted comics historian David Brancatelli. “His figures were lithe and majestic, tightly rendered and classically composed … The anatomy and draftsmanship were always perfect.”
Comics historian Benito Cereno wrote, “Raboy’s work on Captain Marvel Jr. manages to strike a perfect balance between the drama and dynamism necessary for the superhero genre and a realistic-looking, though idealized, vision of a teenage boy who punches Nazis all the time (whose overall look and design famously inspired the caped jumpsuits worn by latter era Elvis Presley).”
Raboy left Fawcett to draw the Green Lama in 1944. “The strip became a minor classic, but it never sold enough,” Brancatelli observed.
In 1948, King Features assigned Raboy to take over his hero’s strip, a step up for him in the popular mind because newspaper comic strips were respected while comic books were often despised. Raboy, who kept a portfolio of Raymond’s Flash Gordon art by his side for inspiration, drew the strip until his death in December 1967.
Comics historian Graham Exton observed that Raboy’s life ended on an odd note of synchronicity. In the summer of 1967, Raboy stayed in a quiet cottage near the village of Flash, Staffordshire, and produced his last comic strips there.
“Flash Gordon was actually produced in Flash. Some coincidence!” Exton noted. “Mac was clearly very ill at the time, and died shortly afterwards, presumably as a result of heavy smoking.”

Friday, May 12, 2017

There Were Giants in Those Days

Ah, those glorious “annuals.” I use quotation marks here because their popularity pushed up their publication faster than yearly.
If regular comics were a ten-cent treat, the annuals were a quarter miracle.
I had just turned 6 in June 1960 when I pushed aside the other comics on the newsstand.
Out of my way, Ricky Nelson comics, Beep Beep the Road Runner 6, Girls’ Romances 70 and Tales to Astonish 13 (featuring some giant monster, no doubt soon to be forgotten, by the name of Groot).
I had eyes only for something new under the sun, and stared agog at the first Superman Annual.
I loved Superman, and an 80-age comic that promised some of the best of his past adventures seemed to be designed with me personally in mind. Fortunately, hundreds of thousands of other kids had that same feeling, and plunked down enough hard-wheedled quarters to make the giants a permanent fixture of the Silver Age.
Within this square-bound beauty were The Witch of Metropolis from Lois Lane 1 (March-April 1958), The Supergirl from Krypton from Action Comics 252 (May 1959). A Visit from Superman’s Pal from Superboy 55 (March 1957); The Girl in Superman’s Past from Superman 129 (May 1959); The Execution of Krypto from Superboy 67 (Sept. 1958); The Fattest Girl in Metropolis from Lois Lane 5 (Nov.-Dec. 1958); The Super-Brain of Jimmy Olsen from Jimmy Olsen 22 (Aug. 1957); The Super-Key to Fort Superman from Action 241 (June 1958) and a story called Superman’s First Exploit. It wasn’t — it was from Superman 106 (July 1956) — but we were too happy to care.
Included, intrigingly, were the first issue covers of Superman, Superboy, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, then rarely seen, and a map of Krypton designed by Jerry Siegel. A treasure indeed.
But the second Superman “annual” appeared on the newsstand a mere six months later, and was even better. The “All-Menace” issue featured Superman’s battles with Brainiac, Titano, Bizarro, Metallo, the Invulnerable Enemy and the Thing from 40,000 AD. Tarzan also landed his own Dell Giant late in 1960.
June of 1961 brought the third Superman Annual (“The Strange Lives of Superman”) and two others that I missed because they sold out instantly — the first Batman Annual and Secret Origins.
I can vividly remember my shame at bursting into tears when the news dealer told me Secret Origins had vanished as soon as he’d set it out.
The fourth Superman Annual (“Adventures in Time and Space and on Alien Worlds”) arrived in November, along with the second Batman Annual (“Action Roles!”)
Over at a company book company that had not yet even acquired its famous name, Stan Lee took notice. He published a Strange Tales Annual full of giant monster stories in July 1962, along with a Millie the Model Annual. In 1964, Lee published Marvel Tales Annual, a title devoted to reprints of superhero features then only a year or two old.
My love for these 80-page giants tempted me to try to bind my favorite comics into volumes — an idea better in conception than in reality, I’m afraid.
Why do I write these articles and create these collages? Mostly because these comic books warmed me with an immense joie de vivre at the dawn of my life, and I like to rekindle at least a reflection of its radiance here at sunset.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Trump Breaks Watergate Record

As Alfred Adler advised, don’t listen to what the words say. Watch where the feet go. Obviously, Trump fired FBI director James Comey because Comey had evidence that Trump’s a bought-and-paid-for Russian agent.
Trump’s now desperate, and that makes him even more dangerous. And Trump was already plenty dangerous.
It took Nixon five years to get to Watergate, but Trump has arrived at his in only a hundred days. I suppose that qualifies as some kind of accomplishment. Sets a new Republican record.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Robert Lincoln: Saved by the Hand of Fate

Robert Lincoln, son of the 16th president
Robert Lincoln nearly died on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey, in late 1864 or early 1865.
He described the strange synchronicity of events in a 1909 letter to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine:
“The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform.
“Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”
The famed Shakespearean actor did not learn until some months later than the man whose life he’d saved was the son of the president whom his brother would assassinate.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Green Lantern: The Color of Excitement

The colors were what I found irresistible at first glance.
I was 6 years old when Green Lantern 3 (Nov.-Dec. 1960) appeared on the newsstand, and I’d already met the Emerald Crusader in the pages of Brave and the Bold 29 (April-May 1960). That was the second issue featuring something called the Justice League of America, a concept that left me dizzy with delight.
GL 3 drew my dime like a magnet, I think because of the cover’s child-pleasing array of vivid colors. Yellow futuristic tanks fired red lightning bolts that bounced off Green Lantern’s defensive force bubble. I had a thing about lightning bolts (which simply must be drawn with little jagged edges, you know). Red ones were particularly appealing.
And within that force bubble, drawing the eye, was Gil Kane’s intriguingly designed, form-fitting costume for the jet-age Green Lantern, with its spring-green torso balanced by arms and legs as sleek and black as an oil spill.
What I didn’t see at that time was John Broome and Kane’s careful construction of an elaborate cosmic mythology to amplify and extend the Aladdin’s lamp concept of the 1940s’ Green Lantern.
Their ideas tumbled forth in rapid profusion, among them a parallel universe where the moral polarity is reversed, a series-within-a-series set in the far future and an exotica, Lensman-like police force whose power battery insignias identified them as nearly omnipotent space patrolmen.
“Broome’s stories tend to come in series,” noted comics historian Mike Grost. “These are two or three stories with common subject matter and approaches. Apparently his creative imagination worked that way: rarely just one story, and rarely four or more in a series, but rather two or three. There are three main early stories about Qward, and three stories about Sinestro and the Green Lantern Corps: these two series were the science fiction high point of the early magazine. There were also three Sonar stories, two Zero Hour tales, two Star Sapphire stories, and so on.”
“What was most wonderful about Green Lantern was the science fictional background. Story after story opened vistas of life among the galaxy, life lived by dozens of intelligent races among the stars. The fact that these races were literally of all colors sent a civil rights message that resonated with the politics of that era.
“Green Lantern was unusual among comic book super heroes in that his powers were not fixed and limited. Instead, whatever he could imagine, the ring could do. Broome tried not to repeat himself from issue to issue. Instead, he tried to make each super feat something that Green Lantern had not done before. The newness of the feats was not underlined by editorial comment; it just was. Still, it is remarkable to see Broome stay fresh across stories.”
“Green Lantern also had the role of exposer of hidden truth. The ring had remarkable search capabilities. In the first story, SOS Green Lantern (1959), it searches the entire globe of Earth, for example.”
“Green Lantern’s powers were unusual in that they could explore the inner workings of the human mind. He could shine the rays from his ring on a person’s brain, and it would penetrate to its hidden resources and memories. Many stories center on the ring’s exteriorizing people’s thoughts, giving them bodily shape outside a person’s mind. The ring translates Green Lantern’s wishes and thoughts directly into green beams, for instance. The monster in The Invisible Destroyer (1959) emerges from a character’s subconscious, as does that of The Leap Year Menace (1960) in #3.”
All that power-packed wonder, and the lyrical lines of Gil Kane’s art. Who could resist? Why try?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Guardians 2: The Wizard of Oz in Space

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 last night with Bill, Bart and Jeff. It’s a terrific piece of entertainment, easily moving from witty, character-driven comedy to effective and even heartfelt melodrama.
The irresistible cuteness of Groot, the reluctant sweetness of Gamora, the damaged humanity of Nebula, the social obtuseness of Drax, the charm of Quill and the unique comedy/pathos of Rocket — all delicious. The film even includes an interesting philosophical undercurrent concerning one of the long-time Marvel Comics characters, aptly named “Ego.”
I was struck, once again, by the subtle but strong echoes of The Wizard of Oz in these films — a child is whirled from rural America to an otherworldly environment, teaming up with a talking animal, a being composed of plant matter, a mechanical person and other strange companions to learn that what you needed was with you all along.
The critics who have carped that it’s “just more of the same” are missing the point that it’s a seamless continuation of the first film’s story, and is as good or marginally better than the first movie. When it ended, members of the audience applauded. I was one of them, and I drove home with a smile on my face.
As Karen Teeple said, “It was nice to laugh and forget about our government for a few hours.”