Saturday, November 29, 2008

Single Issue Review: Lois Lane #16



Don't you hate it when you accidentally get Kryptonite vision? As I have commented in the past, Lois Lane comics were my secret vice back in the Silver Age. No guy wanted to admit reading them. I not only read them, but I really enjoyed them.

The first story basically writes itself from the splash panel:



Lois sees how useful it is for Jimmy to have his signal watch, so she asks Superman for one. He resists initially, but as its her birthday, he finally relents. But she continually calls him for minor things like a stuck zipper and a dog chasing a cat, and he starts gettting annoyed. Then, when some crooks capture her and threaten her life, she refuses to signal him, infuriating him even more when he finds out. Finally:



Cute little story, art by Kurt Schaffenberger. There's a silly filler from Henry Boltinoff, featuring Varsity Vic, who's been writing to a Hollywood starlet for two years. When asked what she's like, Vic is forced to admit he doesn't know; she's never written him back.

The second story is The Mystery of Skull Island. Perry has gotten Lois and Clark jobs as maid and butler to a Hollywood couple, so they can get the inside scoop on their marriage. But Lois begins to suspect something is wrong when she never sees the bride, and we see that it's true, her husband is hiding something:



But it turns out that the woman had been killed by her lawyer, and the Hollywood actor had covered it up to find out who was the killer.

Comments: Better than average thriller, with excellent art by Schaffenberger again.

The next feature is a little bit on Teen Talk, which appears to have been completely made up. We learn that a hair raid is a crewcut, a fileboner is a hard-working student, and hip-happy means plump. Maybe when Weisinger was a teen, but not in the early 1960s.

The last story is the cover one, and it's a doozy. Superman leaves some objects with Lois, warning her not to touch them. Of course, she does, and gets the Kryptonite vision shown on the cover. He's pretty exasperated:



Wow, very harsh there. Lois takes off for Alaska, where she is worshiped as a goddess for the green rays coming from her eyes. She teaches Eskimo children. Then Jimmy and Clark show up with an antidote. But Lois is unwilling to let the opportunity to test whether Clark is Superman pass. To her (and our surprise):



That's scuzzy enough, but it turns out that Lois has not drunk the antidote yet; when she does, the green rays go away. And we learn the truth:



That's a horrible trick to play on somebody!

Friday, November 28, 2008

New To Me

I've been meaning to pop some more good comics blogs on the sidebar, but I've always felt I should do an introductory post before doing that and so I don't get around to it. Go say hello to:

Gorilla Daze: Appears to be largely focused on the mid-60s to early 1970s, which should fit in well with my readers, although I clearly disagree with his opinion of the Diana Rigg-era Wonder Woman.

Bill Jourdain is a pioneer comic historian on the internet; I remember going to his Golden Age Batman comic site back in 1998. He also has done the terrific Golden Age Podcasts for several years. His Golden Age Comics blog cannot come more highly recommended.

Dispatches from the Arrowcave covers all things Green Arrow. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the Emerald Archer. No post there yet about Miss Arrowette?

Being Carter Hall takes on the Hawkman beat. I loved the Silver Age Hawkman, especially the Murphy Anderson years.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 1990

One of the oddities of the Silver Age is how secular comics often seemed, especially compared to the rest of society. It's even more obvious when you look back at comics in the 1940s, which often featured Christmas scenes; both Action Comics and Batman comics had annual Christmas stories until about 1947. And then... virtually nothing.

Ditto with Thanksgiving, perhaps even more so. It was almost never brought up in the Silver Age, with only a few rare exceptions, one of which was Strange Adventures #132 (September 1961).

I've talked about the splendid Atomic Knights series in the past. It was set in a post-apocalyptic America, after an atomic war had devastated most of the planet. A band of knights (in radiation-proof armor) had banded together to fight injustice and help humanity get back on its feet again. The series appeared every three issues in Strange Adventures and, uniquely for DC at the time, the story progressed a little bit with every appearance.

In Strange Adventures #129, the Atomic Knights had battled ancient Atlantis, which had apparently jumped forward in time due to their own apocalypse (caused by a cobalt bomb). They escaped with some seeds and fruits from that island, which they planted back in Durvale (their headquarters). Fortunately, the seeds grew quickly:



So they were able to have a Thanksgiving meal with several of the other small bands of survivors:



Gardner is distracted by a sudden attack by the Atlanteans (oddly called the Atlantides). They fend off the attack thanks to their armor, which protects them from an odd, mirror-laser contraption that the enemy uses for a weapon. And in the end, Gardner has an answer for Marene's question about peace on earth:



Comments: The story seems to have chopped up for presentation in several issues rather than one, book-length tale (which would include the AK stories in Strange Adventures #129, 132 and 135, all of which featured the villains from Atlantis).

Are there any other Thanksgiving tales you can remember from this era?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Best Silver: Batman #127's The Second Life of Batman

Here's a story that's so far ahead of its time that I have to admit that I blinked a bit when reading it. There have been many "What If" stories over the years about Batman, but here's what surely must rank as the first:



Well, you can probably guess the single event that Bruce would like to not be affected by; the death of his parents. So Dr Nichols hooked him up to a machine that told him what his future life would have been like.

A side note: This appears to have been mirrored by a terrific Superman story that same month, in Superman #132, called Superman's Other Life.

We see the dissolute lifestyle that Bruce would have led with his, um, merry chums:



Hilariously (and ingeniously) Bruce shows up as Superman. However the young playboys are distressed when a robber (dressed as Batman but called the Blue Bat) shows up. The real Superman arrives to save the day, but Bruce also helps out with his natural athletic ability.

When the Blue Bat's mob beats him up, Bruce decides to get revenge. He dons the Bat's costume and faces him down. And in the end he resolves:



That is just beautiful. In the early days, Batman often did that bit with the cape across the lower part of his face, a la Bela Lugosi in Dracula, but it had been years since it had been seen. It's just a minor detail, but great stories always get the minor details right. And check out the closing panel:



Wow. Art by Dick Sprang, Story by Bill Finger.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Random Issue Review: Daredevil #50



A very mediocre cover, with mediocre elements. The villain is big and green, and he's the only person doing anything dramatic (smashing a car). Daredevil is on his knees and holding his head, while a couple of bystanders are apparently shouting. Even the literary title is well below the mean: If In Battle I Fail--! Stan's not trying very hard with that one.

The story is a continuation from the previous issue, which is one of the problems with doing single issue reviews of Marvel Comics from the Silver Age. However, this was not an uncommon problem with collecting comics; sometimes I'd pick up an issue like this at a garage sale and not find the prior one for years (if ever).

DD is battling a robot (who is actually colored purple, not green) as we begin the story. Over the course of the story we learn what's going on both with the battle (a crook named Biggie Benson hired a robot-maker to destroy Daredevil) and with the soap opera (Foggy has been elected DA and Karen and Matt are on the splits again).

Daredevil succeeds in confusing the robot so it no longer remembers who is its target. It goes off in search of its maker, with DD in hot pursuit. Seeing DD, the maker tries desperately to load his picture into the "aromascope", which will target the robot again. But by accident, he loads Biggie Benson's photo instead. As the story ends, DD has broken into the jail but is wounded and largely incapacitated as the robot breaks in.

Comments: Not a great story; the robot is a pretty dull villain. The artwork is notably not by Gene Colan, DD's regular artist, but by a very young Barry Smith. Smith would go on to great fame in the 1970s for his work on Conan the Barbarian, but this is still early in his career and he had not yet developed his own unique style and indeed seems to be trying to imitate Colan. Smith did three issues of Daredevil (#s 50-52) and showed growth with every outing. Here's one dynamic sequence:



Solid work, but not yet the transcendent art we would get from Mr Smith in the next few years.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Best Silver: The Spirit #1 (Harvey Comics)



This is the first of an occasional series where I will discuss the comics, stories and characters that I consider to be the finest of the entire Silver Age. These selections are intended to be idiosyncratic choices, although I assume that many of them will turn out to be consensus picks nevertheless.

A bit of background, first. On January 9, 1966, the New York Herald Tribune printed an article about the Spirit comics of the 1940s in its Sunday magazine supplement, along with a new, five-page Spirit story. The article must have gotten the attention of the folks at Harvey Comics. As I have discussed in the past, Harvey (like many other publishers) found itself caught flat-footed when the superhero craze hit in 1966, inspired by the Batman series. They rushed out a couple of very mediocre series, and this comic, which I would rank as among the greatest comics of the Silver Age.

I cannot say if it exploded like an atom bomb or like a dud; there was a second issue which is also terrific, but then The Spirit vanished in the night until Warren Magazines brought him back successfully around 1974.

Now a little bit about myself; I had always been a reader of real books since about third grade. I don't remember much about comics at that point in my life. My dad got the Sunday Herald Tribune and in the magazine section there was Miss Peach and BC as I recall. When the Batman show took off (right around the same time), the kids of my age (11) all started buying Batman comics, and talking about how cool X story was versus the TV show.

And my dad said to me that the best comic was the Spirit. Now I have talked to him many times since then and he doesn't remember reading the Spirit as a kid. So the obvious conclusion I have reached is that he remembered reading the Herald Tribune story, only a few weeks/months earlier and told me about the Spirit as this great comic that I would never have heard about.

But I didn't find The Spirit #1 on the newsstands in 1966. Instead it was pure circumstance that I found a copy in 1973. I was a senior in high school and walking by this classroom when I noticed that they were reading comic books. I poked my head in the door and asked if I could read one of the books.

A few comics down I found the first Harvey Spirit comic. I remembered what my dad had said about the Spirit and borrowed the comic. And promptly had my world turned upside down.

Here's the splash for the first story:



Now that was different; the Spirit spelled out by the top level of a tenement. The clack, clack, clack of his shoes as he raced along the pavement, all this was incredibly new in 1966--or 1973 as I came across the series.

The first story was (of course) an origin story. Denny Colt is a detective presumed killed, why not let the crooks think that way so he can fight crime behind the scenes? So he creates a hideout in the local cemetery and becomes the local man of mystery.

It's a fairly pedestrian origin although I believe it was newly drawn for this issue. That's not surprising because the Spirit himself is seldom the featured character in his stories. And that's not a knock on the character; it's just that Eisner really stretched himself with the other characters.

The rest of the issue consists of reprints from the Spirit stories of the 1940s. The second story is an oddball choice, but I suppose Lorelei of Odyssey Road gave Harvey a chance to introduce readers to one of Eisner's many femmes fatale. The CCA would probably not have let them publish someone like P'Gell, for multiple reasons.

It has one of the classic Eisner openings:



Weather was often featured in Spirit stories. Eisner always remembered to place his stories in reality, so it wasn't just who what where, it was also what time of year. There is also some terrific art in the story that approaches psychedelic; it's clearly way ahead of its time in that regard although it is hard to credit the Harvey people with recognizing its appeal to older teens.

The third story captivated me, both by its story telling gimmick and its message. The gimmick is that Eisner presents two pages side-by-side. Carboy T. Gretch and Cranfranz Qwayle led apparently similar lives. Gretch was a career criminal who was now getting beaten on by the guards while Qwayle was was a henpecked husband who was the subject of much domestic violence from his wife. But they both "get away" when they are forced to clear out the sewer.

Here the story merges. As it happens, they have come out near each other and in a flash of brilliance, Qwayle offers Gretch a wad of cash to switch identities with him.

The stories separate again. Gretch thinks he's got it made, until the cops return him to his angry wife, while Qwayle enjoys life behind bars with plenty of books and no nagging spouse.

The Spirit himself only appears for two panels in this very offbeat tale.

There follows a little two-page 1960s humor, with a Q-type fellow showing the Spirit his new weaponry--the bulletproof hat, the X-ray mask, the powerful gloves, etc. Just as he starts to think he could take over for the Spirit, he gets a fist to the snoot.

There are two more terrific stories that follow, but I want to skip ahead. Ten Minutes is my absolute favorite Spirit story. Freddy is a young man in a hurry and the story starts out by telling us that the next ten minutes will be the last ten minutes of Freddy's life. He goes into the local candy store with no particular aim in mind but to play pinball, but when he finds himself alone with the owner he decides to rob the place. He kills the owner but finds himself trapped behind the counter as a horde of customers comes in, including a gal who wants to flirt with Freddy. What follows is the finest piece of sequential art that I have ever seen:



The expression on that girl's face as she leans over and sees the dead body is a perfect combination of shock, disgust and fear. And then the next panel with the eeeeek following Freddy out the door... I mean how much better does it get?

Another solid story about Thorne Strand (another femme fatale) and the finale is the tale of Gerhardt Schnobble, who had a rather special ability:



That's interesting, for more reasons than one. Jack Kirby had started to introduce photographic elements into his stories with some controversy regarding the same. But this was a story from decades earlier by an acknowledged master of the genre.

It's a cute little story, although not one with a happy ending as Eisner warns up front. That's another thing about his tales; they often had sad or shocking denouements.

Why did the Spirit not succeeed? I suspect partially because Harvey was the wrong publisher; the Spirit would have done best with an older teen audience, which Harvey had not cultivated during the 1960s. Could it have succeeded? Undoubtedly; it sold well for Warren about 8 years later.

There were probably somewhere around 20,000 or more comics published during the Silver Age; there are not five that deserve to be ranked above The Spirit #1.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Trivia Quiz #16 Questions (Jeopardy Style)

1. Ace, Prof, Rocky and Red.

Q: Who are the Challengers of the Unknown?

2. The Gloom Room A-Go-Go.

Q. What was the name of the bar owned by the Kingpin where Mary Jane Watson was a dancer? (In ASM #59-60)

3. The Green Goblin and Captain Stacy.

Q. Who were the two people in the Silver Age to discover Spiderman's real identity of Peter Parker?

4. Edward Nigma.

Q. Who was the Riddler?

5. The Super-Adaptoid, Amazo and the Composite Superman.

Q. Who were the three villains who had the respective superpowers of all members of the Avengers, Justice League of America and the Legion of Super Heroes.

Dan got all five correct! Terrific job, Dan, I really thought I'd stump everybody with #2. Thelonius Nick and Michael Rebain scored four of five. Lito S got three; he was close on #5 but the Composite Superman was not an android as I discussed here.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Modern Silver: The New Frontier Part II

The second book opens with the Martian Manhunter being transported to Earth by Dr. Erdel. Darwyn Cooke (the writer and artist for the series) clearly intends to follow the chronology of the Silver Age DC heroes, and thus MM is the first to appear, as he was in Detective #225 (November 1955). We see that Wonder Woman and Superman are both involved in missions in Southeast Asia, although it appears that they don't care much for each other. Diana has freed some women from the "rebels" who then turned on their captors and killed them. Superman is appalled and threatens to tell "the undersecretary".

This sequence appears to place in Vietnam, and from other context later we can see that it's in the mid-1950s, so Cooke has done some time compression. We learn that a police scientist named Barry Allen survived a close call with death when he was nearly hit by lightning that splashed some chemicals on him.

The Martian Manhunter has become John Jones, Detective. He teams up with Slam Bradley to try to rescue a young boy who has been kidnapped. They arrive to find that Batman is already fighting the kidnappers and they assist in the rescue of the youngster.

In the next sequence, Ted (Wildcat) Grant is boxing against Cassius Clay (later known as Mohammed Ali) in Vegas. This again gives us the time period as the very early 1960s, as Clay has not yet become the champion, but he has turned pro (which he did after the 1960 Olympics. Improbably Grant ends up beating him. Of course the real Clay was not beaten as a professional until the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971.

After the fight is over, Captain Cold shows up to try to steal the purse. But he screws up by freezing Iris West while she is on the phone to her fiance. Barry (as the Flash) hotfoots it to Vegas and foils Cold's robbery attempt.

The politics in this issue is handled much more indirectly. Oliver Queen storms off when Lois Lane denounces the Flash as being every bit the criminal that Captain Cold is (for violating the laws against being a superhero). Of course, this is contra Queen's personality late in the Silver Age, when he never backed down from expressing his political opinions.

At the end of the story we learn that Chuck Yeager has arranged for Hal Jordan to get a job at Ferris Aircraft. We can see that he yearns for excitement.

Comments: Overall this issue is mostly a stage-setter. The characters are beginning to move into position, but the major plotline has only been hinted at so far. The Flash sequences are delightful:



But Cooke still has some characters to introduce before the series really takes off.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Trivia Quiz #16: Jeopardy Style

Okay, as in Jeopardy, I will give you the answers, you have to provide the question. Please be sure it is in the form of a question:

1. Ace, Prof, Rocky and Red.

2. The Gloom Room A-Go-Go.

3. The Green Goblin and Captain Stacy.

4. Edward Nigma.

5. The Super-Adaptoid, Amazo and the Composite Superman.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Modern Silver Age

Although the Silver Age of Comics ended (in my estimation) about 38 years ago, the market is still served via Archive Editions (DC) or Masterworks (Marvel). In addition, several modern comic book series have been produced to provide new looks at the Silver Age characters. Three that I have specifically in mind are the Silver Age series produced by DC around 2000, 1963 by Alan Moore, and The New Frontier, released by DC in 2004.

I thought I would take a look at that last series over the next few days. I will say right up front that while the series has a few unfortunate flaws, it comes with my highest recommendation. It is a fine achievement in storytelling and captures the essence of the Silver Age while clearly reflecting modern sensibilities as well.

The name, "The New Frontier", refers to a phrase used by John F. Kennedy in his acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention:

We stand at the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.


In the title it evokes the same era in comics, as DC began the great revival of superheroes that became known as the Silver Age.

The story begins with the Losers, several of DC's Silver Age WWII characters, stranded on an island with a T-Rex. This evokes the rather oddball "WWII and dinosaurs" era of Star Spangled War Stories in the mid-1960s, although the Losers (Captain Storm, Gunner, Sarge & Pooch and Johnny Cloud) came along later. The T-Rex kills all but Johnny Cloud, who avenges his fellow losers:



It is basically a digression from the real story, but isn't that the point? The DC war comics of the 1960s are certainly nowadays considered a digression from the really interesting superhero era. Which gets underway in the second part of the first book, when a young man meets Colonel Chuck Yeager:



There is a moment in every great comic where the reader suddenly realizes that this is going to be really good. For me it came a few panels later, when it is revealed that the young lad who idolizes Col. Yeager is Hal Jordan. It's the missing piece of the puzzle, the moment where we understand why Hal became a test pilot for Ferris Aircraft in the Silver Age. It may seem minor, but an additional piece of characterization for one of DC's major SA characters that fits what we already know and yet adds depth to the character? Priceless.

This highlight is followed by a bit of tedious political correctness that has apparently become part of the DC mythos. We are told through an Iris West feature article that the Golden Age comic heroes of the DC Universe were banned and either retired or hunted down during the McCarthy-inspired "Red Scare" of the 1950s. This merges Earth-1 with Earth-2. We hear that Roy Raymond got caught up in the blacklist and that's why his show was canceled. We also learn that Richard Nixon was behind it all, and Superman was the enforcer of the edict against superheroes.

The negative of this nonsense is that it wasn't true. DC's Golden Age Superheroes were not forced to take a dirt nap by anything other than consumer (lack of) demand. Roy Raymond's series was canceled in 1961, well after the Hollywood Blacklist had been broken.

When this tedious bit is followed by the revelation that Hal has become a young fighter pilot in Korea, but that he refuses to shoot down enemy pilots, I resumed my skepticism that the story was going to prove pleasing. Fortunately I was wrong, but this was a silly attempt to shoehorn in the prohibition against killing. Perhaps we can buy Hal's refusal to become an ace, but how do we understand his commanding officer's acceptance of same?

The last part of the first issue weaves in Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. Hal actually does kill an enemy soldier, but solely because he cannot remember Korean for "The war is over."

Comments: This issue has some terrific moments but also slips into an annoyingly PC view of comic history at the end that actually had me wondering if it was worth continuing. If you get through the first book and are wondering as well, definitely read on. There will be more annoying moments, but the good parts outweigh the bad by a large margin.

Bloggy Comic Book Goodness Elsewhere

It's been awhile since I've pointed out the excellent posts going on around the comic blogosphere, so here's a taste:

Mark Engblom's got a pair of posts up on his ten favorite comic book robots of all time. I'm disappointed that neither the Doom Patrol Robotman or the Star Spangled/Detective Comics Robotman made the cut, but he did include the Metal Men. The Vision is a bit of a cheat (he's an android, not a robot), and I was inclined to feel the same way about his #1 selection, until I watched the little video that he included with the post. Okay, he qualifies!

Booksteve's Library has a post on a series of Bob Hope shows in Cincinnati. Which reminds me, I really should put together a post on the Bob Hope comics of the Silver Age. I'm not sure how much involvement old "ski-jump" nose had with the comics that bore his name, but they're actually quite funny and entertaining.

The Groovy Agent has a post up on Don Newton and the Phantom that I recommend. Newton's art was unfamiliar to me, even though he apparently worked on Batman at one point, but it is indeed beautiful.

The Fortress of Fortitude points out a Charlton comic where Steve Ditko reprised his Doctor Strange character (albeit with another name). Ditko has always been one of my favorite artists, and it is my opinion that his Dr Strange stories were among the most beautifully illustrated books in the Silver Age, so it's a real treat to read a "new" Ditko Dr Strange. Note: After clicking on a page, click on the magnifying glass, otherwise the text is hard to read.

Four Color Media Monitor has a post on the demise of several Batman-related books (Birds of Prey, Robin, and Nightwing) and speculation on the upcoming Batman, RIP series. If you want to know why I pay almost no attention to current comics, it's because of what DC has done with Batman over the last two decades. I focus on the Silver Age because it's the last era in comics where heroes were worth emulating and provided their readers with a strong moral code.

Along the lines of my recent post about defining the Silver Age, I Believe in Bat-Mite has a post defining the 1950s Batman as extending to the end of Jack Schiff's run as editor in May 1964. This is a good argument and one that I essentially agree with. I've been meaning to put together a post on the four distinctly different Batman eras of the 1960s; maybe this will get me busy on the topic.

Note: Friday Trivia Quizzes will return, although maybe not every week; I just felt like I was running out of good questions.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Single Issue Review: Star Spangled War Stories #132


In honor of Veteran's Day, I thought I'd cover one of DC's war comics. Star Spangled #132 has the oddball distinction of being one of those rare comics that actually was printed twice. Star Spangled Comics started out as a superhero book, featuring the adventures of the Star Spangled Kid and Stripesy. When that feature proved insufficient to sustain sales, DC added the Newsboy Legion, a Simon & Kirby creation. Eventually interest waned there, and DC began a series of (terrific) stories featuring Robin, the Boy Wonder. In the late 1940s SS fronted Tomahawk, a western feature that quickly graduated to his own magazine; then in the early 1950s DC pushed "horror" stories in keeping with the trends. Eventually the book switched to a war format, and became Star Spangled War Stories with #131. That lasted until #133, when DC, for reasons unknown, decided to reboot the numbering, although even there they screwed up as they started with #3 even though there had been three issues before that.

The end result is that there are two separate comics known as Star Spangled #132, the one issued in 1952 and the one issued in 1967. The one I am going to talk about actually falls outside the Silver Age, being published in September 1952.

The cover story leads off the issue, and it's terrific. Hank Miskov is a major-league hurler who won game seven of the World Series in memorable fashion, tossing the first no-hitter in the history of the fall classic (this was before Don Larsen accomplished that feat for the New York Yankees). However, his elation turns to disappointment as he's drafted into the army to do his part in World War II. He's worried (as shown on the cover) that he'll ruin his arm. Fortunately he meets a fellow recruit named George Harris who's a big fan and who volunteers to do the risky work for him. Miskov quickly earns the scorn of the rest of the soldiers for his refusals to risk his arm, but Harris still idolizes him. Inevitably:



Well, you can probably guess the rest of the story right there; inspired by George's sacrifice, Hank becomes a lean, mean, fighting machine, wiping out Germans by the score with his throwing arm and a box full of grenades, and when the war is over, he has the inspiration he needs in a jam:



Comments: A wonderful and inspirational story. About the only flaw I can see is that they show Miskov throwing grenades overhand, which of course probably would have ruined that million-dollar arm. Because (at the time) DC's war stories were almost exclusively one-shots, they needed terrific characterization presented very quickly, and this tale delivered it in spades.

The next story in the book is an offbeat number called Suicide Detail. Trip-wire Wiggins is the army's best man at laying anti-tank mines, but he's also something of a jitterbug and loves to listen to popular music, which drives his commanding officer batty. But things turn grim as his company is trapped by the Germans and the only way out is through a minefield that Wiggins had laid earlier. He can't remember the pattern he used until he hears a fellow soldier playing guitar. This jogs his memory and he successfully leads the men through the mines.

Comments: Cute little story and a good change of pace.

The Braggart of Company B is the third yarn in the book, and it concerns George Pringle, a PFC who continually regales his squadron with tall tales about his heroism in action. But in a twist on the old "boy who cried wolf", when Pringle actually does do something courageous, nobody believes him.

Comments: Okay story, nice art by Jerry Grandinetti, one of DC's top war artists.

The text story is a good one, about the training fighter pilots undergo at the old Williams Field Air Force Base in Chandler, Arizona, written by Air Force Lieutenant Joseph Jarrett.

The final story concerns a mail clerk in the army who never receives any mail for himself. This is another aspect of the war stories that DC published; they tried to cover every occupation in the military, not just the fighting men. In this one, a soldier is anxiously awaiting news of the birth of his first child, but the mail never seems to come. Finally a postcard arrives for the soldier; it's a boy! But the proud papa is under fire on the front lines, and the mail clerk decides to risk his own life to deliver the message.

Moved by his bravery, the rest of the company decides to see to it that the mail clerk gets some mail of his own:



Comments: Another wonderful and heartwarming story.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

My Favorite Batman Story

Well, actually I have two of them, and although they appeared within nine issues of each other, one of them is in the Golden Age (Detective #211's The Jungle Cat-Queen) and the other is in the Silver Age (Detective #220's The Second Batman and Robin Team).

They're both terrific stories but while The Jungle Cat-Queen has been reprinted numerous times, The Second Batman and Robin Team has not appeared in print for 53 years. And that's a shame because it's a gem of a story.

It begins 700 years in the past, when famed scientist of the Middle Ages, Roger Bacon, notes a curious coincidence. He discovers that two strangely-garbed males (Batman and Robin) had appeared three times in the past and excited much comment. The oddity is that the places were separated by thousands of miles geographically and centuries in time; once in Ancient Greece, once in Ancient Rome, and a third time in the medieval Viking era.

Of course, he is referring to three Golden Age Batman stories; It Happened in Rome from Batman #24, Peril in Greece from Batman #38 and Batman and the Vikings from Batman #52.

Bacon deduces from these three appearances that Batman and Robin must be from the future, and further that this indicates that scientists in the future have learned how to travel through time. He puts his mind to the task and shares the results with two of his pupils, brothers Marcus and Guy Tiller (who happen to resemble Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson:



Arriving in the future Gotham City, Marcus and Guy gape a bit at the skyscrapers and cars, and mistake a plane for a dragon. But they quickly realize that they are the only people dressed in strange costume. A policeman advises them that the Bat-Signal is in the sky and tells them to go to police headquarters. Commissioner Gordon notes that the pair talk a little oddly and have medieval weapons with them, but... well, he's learned not to ask too many questions, I suppose.

Meanwhile, the real Batman and Robin arrive just in time to see their counterparts entering Police HQ. Changing quickly to Bruce and Dick, they rush inside to see what the fake Batman and Robin team are up to. Commission Gordon tells the ersatz duo that the Speedboat Bandits are going to rob the Dock Street Bank, and that they should apprehend the mob.

The medieval pair head off in search of the Dock Street Bank, with the real Batman and Robin trailing behind. They are sure that the fake duo must be intending to help the crooks, but sizing up the situation quickly Marcus and Guy decide to foil the robbery. They succeed but are kayoed in the effort by a blast. Batman and Robin take the pair back to the Batcave, where they learn the true story. The Great Question comes up again:



This is a form of foreshadowing, of reinforcing in the reader's mind that they want to hear the Great Question. We sense that a climactic moment in the story will be when the Great Question is finally revealed.

Batman and Robin suggest to their new friends that they remain in the Batcave while the Dynamic Duo wrap up the case of the Speedboat Bandits. But:



As it turns out, Batman and Robin had tricked the crooks, and the medieval pair end up alerting the villains, who were hiding out in a lighthouse. With the dual teams trapped nearby, they turn to the old methods, using a trebuchet (similar to a catapult) and a mantelet (a covering to prevent fire from above) to attack the lighthouse, and eventually defeat the villains. And in the end we learn the Great Question:



Wow. Now that is a Great Question, and a great answer. And the final panel does not disappoint either:



Note that despite the obvious "fish out of water" plot, the focus is not on what a pair of buffoons Guy and Marcus are. They are not played as the Beverly Hillbillies, but as good men from another time whose knowledge and experience may be different from ours but valuable nonetheless.

GCD tentatively credits the script to Bill Finger. The artwork of course is by Dick Sprang at his absolute peak.

Update: I'm going to tentatively credit the script to Edmund Hamilton. Note the very similar sentiments expressed by Batman in that panel and by Bruce in this one:



That's too close to be coincidental. That comes from The Caveman Batman in Batman #93, which GCD says was by Hamilton.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Single Issue Review: Doom Patrol #86



I have previously discussed the origin of the Doom Patrol, a team of freaks and outcasts which debuted in My Greatest Adventure #80. The DP continued to be featured in MGA through #85, when DC decided to award them their own magazine, which started with issue #86.

As you can see, the cover is a classic DC 1960s "Open Me" issue, with the heroes watching the villains on a giant-screen TV. That the villains include a talking ape with a submachine gun and a bubbling vat of fluid just makes it even cooler, and you can imagine how this comic must have flown off the shelves in March 1964, when it appeared.

The splash page is even better. I'll just transcribe the dialogue to you:

Elastigirl (thinks): "The Brain, the guiding spirit of the Brotherhood of Evil, has sent a giant robot to steal the Statue of Liberty! It's the most brazen theft in history!"

I mean, a giant robot, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brotherhood of Evil... how can you go wrong for 12 cents?

The story begins with the three members of the Doom Patrol (Negative Man, Elastigirl and Robotman) preparing gifts for the Chief. Since they don't know his birthday (indeed, he refuses to tell them anything about himself), they have decided to make today his birthday and give him gifts. We also learn that Larry (Negative Man) has scarred features:



Clearly a Dr Doom swipe; as I discussed in the prior post, the Doom Patrol ripped off Marvel's Fantastic Four while arguably Marvel's X-Men ripped off the Doom Patrol. We later learn that Rita (Elastigirl) is in love with Larry (Neg Man).

The story itself does not hold together very well. The Chief designed a giant robot named Rog (as in Roger?) for work on the moon that was stolen by a crook named Morden who used it to commit senseless acts of destruction. But it turns out that Morden was really trying to get into the Brotherhood of Evil.

We learn that the BoE is run by the Brain, a disembodied brain that lives in a jar of liquid. So smart is he that he trained the gorilla shown on the cover (Monsieur Mallah) to be a genius with a 178 IQ and a criminal. Now that Morden has the giant robot under his control, the Brain decides to execute a heist of the Statue of Liberty, but Rita has other plans:



Monsieur Mallah, featured so prominently on the cover, ends up with a very minor role in the story aside from a dramatic introduction. He ends up landing one punch on Cliff (Robotman) and gets decked in the payback. He never carries a submachine gun or straps on a few hundred rounds during the story, either.

Overall: Good art, good premise for the story, but mediocre and cramped execution.

Although the name of the comic had changed to Doom Patrol, there was a backup feature with nine pages of Howard Purcell art and story. Purcell was a DC artist from the Golden Age, perhaps best known for his work on Sargon the Sorceror, but his art here actually looks more like the 1970s than anything anybody else was doing in 1964:



Note the detailed coloring; very unusual for that era. In the story, the astronaut had been exposed to radiation from an atomic bomb blast, resulting in a mutation of his body into the whirlwind form shown on the splash. But in actuality, it turned out that he was not Major Reed, but an unrepentant Japanese war criminal from World War II, who had taken his place after splashdown (and who had actually been caught in the atomic bomb blast). The Japanese war criminal is greeted as a hero in the US, but he plans to seek revenge for "his emperor" for the humiliation of their defeat in World War II.

A historical side note: There seemed to be regular reports at the the time about Japanese soldiers who had gone into the jungle on various deserted islands during World War II and continued to labor on, unaware of the war's end or unwilling to accept surrender. How true these stories were I have no idea, but it was sufficiently well-known that it inspired an episode of Gilligan's Island. Update: Wikipedia reports that two Japanese holdouts were captured on Guam in 1960 and another in 1972. See also this terrific Gunner & Sarge story on the same theme.

Major Reed escapes from where the war criminal imprisoned him and decides the only way to stop the villain is to gain similar whirling super-powers. So he drapes himself in seaweed (the Japanese had been gathering seaweed when the atomic blast transformed him), and canoes a log to near a new atomic test site. Then a waterspout gets him twirling, and presto-change-o, he's another human top.

As dueling whirlwinds, they have a battle climaxing atop the Washington Monument (yet another landmark backdrop for a fight), and eventually the Major defeats the war criminal:



Comments: Although the story is nothing special, the artwork really stands out.

Overall Doom Patrol #86 is an entertaining issue. My chief criticism is that the Doom Patrol story should have been longer, and the interesting Monsieur Mallah character given more of a role. What's the point of giving a gorilla a 178 IQ if you're not going to use him as anything more than a fighter?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Counting Words

By the mid-1960s, both Marvel and DC were starting to reduce their page counts of story and art. Marvel pretty much settled on a standard page count of 20 starting around 1964 and stuck with that, while DC more commonly had 23-26 pages and gradually reduced that to a standard of about 23 pages by the end of the Silver Age.

But what about the number of words? Surely with all the anguished thinking going on in the minds of Marvel's tormented souls, Marvel comics had far more words per page than DC, thus making up for their lack of pages?

It's an interesting argument, and one I do not propose to settle with this post. But I thought I'd add a few data points to the debate, so I went back and picked (reasonably at random) Avengers #19 (August 1965) and counted the words on each page. Since the comparable DC comic is the Justice League of America, I picked JLA #37 (also August 1965) and performed the same task.

The results were somewhat surprising to me. The Justice League of America story had quite a bit more words than the Avengers tale, approximately 4,000 words compared to around 3,300, or about a 20% difference. The difference is largely caused by the additional pages in the JLA story; through page 20 (where the Avengers issue ended) the JLA story was only a little over 100 words longer, or about 3% more verbose.

Some other effects which are probably not surprising, but interesting nonetheless:

In both comics, the fewest words to appear on pages other than splashes or partial pages (the JLA story had three 2/3rd story and art pages with 1/3 page devoted to advertising) were the fighting sequences. In the JLA story, pages 12, 20 and 21 were the only pages aside from the splash not to have over 100 words, and those were the major combat pages. Who needs words when you've got one guy punching another? Ditto with the Avengers, where pages 4, 13, 16 and 17 featured characters more using their jaws to block fists rather than to talk.

I did not differentiate between dialogue and those scene-setting boxes at the top of panels, which was probably a mistake. Dialogue is always more interesting to the reader than exposition, and from a quick look it certainly appears that Marvel had more of the former and less of the latter than DC. Looking at the stories again quickly, the Avengers book had only 42 panels with scene notes, while the JLA story had 65.

Overall conclusions? There's not reall a significant difference between the number of words in Avengers #19 and JLA #37 beyond the obvious four additional pages of story and art. If I'd chosen two other issues I might have found something different.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On the Dividing Line Between the Silver Age and Modern Comics

This came up tangentially in the most recent quiz. What is the Silver Age and what is the Modern Age?

I tend to go with the 1955-1970 timeline for the Silver Age, although there are numerous reasons why this doesn't always work. The key factor in my mind about Silver Age Comics is the influence of the Comics Code Authority, for the simple reason that it ceased to be a major factor after about 1970.

As evidence, consider the famed "drug" issues of Amazing Spiderman #96-98 (May-July 1971). They were the first comics by a major publisher to ship without the CCA seal of approval:



The series was almost ludicrously anti-drug, with the young man shown on the cover above falling off a roof because he was high on something (we are not told what). Harry Osborn becomes addicted (heh) to LSD by a guy who gives him his first batch for free. Stan clearly had about as much understanding of drug effects and distribution as Lawrence Welk did.

Contrary to expectations, the world did not end. Distributors still distributed the books, newstands (remember those?) still sold them, and the CCA was exposed as a paper tiger. And only a year later, DC would publish its famed Speedy on Smack series, with a much more nuanced plotline that managed to garner the CCA's approval.

So we can see that within a very short period of time, what the CCA was willing to endorse changed significantly.

Another indication comes in the kinds of comics issued towards the end of the Silver Age. For example here are the new comics that DC published in 1968 and the genres they fit into:

Secret Six (Adventure)
Beware the Creeper (Superhero)
Anthro (Adventure)
Hawk and the Dove (Superhero)
Brother Power the Geek (Superhero)
DC Special (Variety Reprints)
Bat Lash (Western)
Captain Action (Superhero)
Angel & the Ape (Humor)
Binkie's Buddies (Humor/Teen)
Date With Debbi (Humor/Teen)
Witching Hour (Horror)

(Note: Publication date used to determine whether the comic was published in 1968, not the cover date)

As you can see, a variety of titles were launched, but the focus still was on superheroes. Now let's look at the titles DC initiated in 1971:

Mister Miracle (Superhero)
Ghosts (Horror)
Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love (Horror/Gothic Romance)
Spirit World (Horror)
Weird War Tales (Horror/War)
In the Days of the Mob (Crime/Detective)
Sinister House of Secret Love (Horror/Gothic Romance)

Quite a difference there; only one new superhero book launched, and that was part of Kirby's Fourth World series. By contrast, the horror genre, which had been virtually eliminated during the CCA's heyday, returned with a vengeance. And even that doesn't tell the whole story; several DC mags also reverted from superhero to horror or other genres, including House of Mystery, House of Secrets and Strange Adventures.

To give a better idea, consider this: In 1968, DC published 365 comics, of which 206 or 56% were superhero. In 1971, DC published 352 comics, of which 169, or 48% were superhero.

Similar things were happening at Marvel, although I don't have as good a database of Marvel Comics to do the numerical comparisons. However, once again, here are the comics that Marvel initiated in 1968:

Captain Savage (War)
Captain America (Superhero)
Doctor Strange (Superhero)
Groovy (Humor)
Incredible Hulk (Superhero)
Iron Man (Superhero)
Mighty Marvel Western (Western Reprints)
Nick Fury, Agent of Shield (Adventure)
Pussycat (Humor)
Silver Surfer (Superhero)
Spectacular Spiderman Magazine (Superhero)
Sub-Mariner (Superhero)

And 1971:

Creatures on the Loose (Monster Reprints)
Kull the Conqueror (Adventure)
Marvel Feature (Variety)
Marvel Spotlight (Variety)
Monsters on the Prowl (Monster Reprints)
Savage Tales (Adventure)
Special Marvel Edition (Superhero Reprints)
Western Kid V2 (Westerns)

Again, a very decided move away from superheroes. Indeed, all of Marvel's long-running superhero mags had been introduced by 1968, and all of their major long-running features (the solo series heroes/teams as well as Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Dr. Strange, Hulk) had been introduced before that. The only new series Marvel launched in 1970 that had any staying power was Conan the Barbarian, which I'd classify as an "Adventure" comic with horror themes.

Now it's true that all these things happen in a continuum; it's not like people woke up one day and the comics had changed from Silver Age to Modern. But if you have to draw a dividing line, I'd be much more inclined to point to Amazing Spiderman #96 as marking the true beginning of Modern comics than ASM #121, which others have argued for. The death of Gwen, while shocking was not all that new--see Ferro Lad, Alfred the butler (temporarily), Lightning Lad (temporarily), Proty I, Frederick Foswell, Captain Stacy... the list goes on.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Trivia Quiz #15 Answers

1. In Detective #336, Batman was bewitched. Who was the witch, and who was the real mastermind behind her?

As I discussed previously, Zatanna was the witch, and the man behind the scenes was the Outsider.

2. Although vampires were prohibited, the CCA allowed two stories featuring a villain who stole the life force from people, battling (and battering) Superman. What was the name of this villain?



The Parasite.

3. Who was the original Green Goblin?

Peter Parker discovered in ASM #40 that the Green Goblin was actually Norman Osborn, the father of his (later) college roommate.

4. What was the name of Marvel/Atlas' late 1950s ripoff of Casper, the Friendly Ghost?

Marvel tried amusing the kids with Homer, the Happy Ghost.

5. Although werewolves were banned as noted above, one key DC character turned into a wolf in a mid-1960s comic. Name him.

Superboy turned into a wolf in Superboy #116:



Well, a Wolf-Boy, anyway. As usual with these really amazing situations, it's all a plot to fool some aliens:



Michael Rebain got all but #4 although he was thinking of a later Superboy story than #116. Dan M scored 100%, and gets extra credit for pointing out that Jimmy Olsen turned into a Wolfman in April 1961. On #2, George C notes Starbreaker, a villain who appeared in JLA #92, but the story was published in 1972, when the CCA had very much relaxed its standards regarding horror themes--for example, Spiderman battled a vampire-like creature named Morbius in ASM #101-102, which came out in October/November 1971. Mike P came up with all but #4.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

New 1950s Batman Blog Debuts

I heartily recommend checking out I Believe in Bat-Mite, a new blog dedicated to discussing Batman stories of the 1950s. As many of you know, Batman is my favorite comic book character of all time and so reading these posts was a real treat for me and I'm sure you will enjoy them as well.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Single Issue Review: Thor #159


In Thor #158, Marvel reprinted the origin of Thor story from Journey into Mystery #83. While on vacation in Norway Don Blake had heard strange stories of an alien invasion. Investigating, the lame doctor found himself being pursued by the aliens. He managed to find his way into a cave, where he found a cane. He discovered that by tapping the cane, he was suddenly transformed into the mighty Thor, with extraordinary powers and abilities. He repelled the alien invasion and began fighting crime while maintaining his secret identity.

While it is certainly a very unusual origin, it presented some problems, especially since early on Stan introduced the concept of Asgard, where Thor was a god with his father Odin and numerous friends and enemies. It wasn't long before the fans noticed the problem with this. If Thor had existed all along, who was Don Blake? What had happened to the mighty Thor that his magic hammer/cane was sitting in that cavern?

This was the subject of an almost endless series of letters to the editor speculating on possibilities, and in Thor #159, Stan decided to finally settle the matter. Thor had been exiled to Earth by Odin as a punishment for his lack of humility. We learned that Don Blake had only actually existed for a few years, having been created by Odin with a lame leg in order to humble the Thunder God.

Of course, the idea that he had learned some real humility is rather silly; if ever there was a character who was full of himself, it was Thor. This is part of his character as a god, so maybe Odin was grading on the curve.

The story is solid, with new details about the origin of a major character in the Marvel Universe. At last we understand why Don Blake himself has no life aside from his doctor's office. Indeed, Blake had no friends or continuing characters from his earthly life, with the exception of Jane Foster, who of course was gone by then.

On the art side, I am not a huge fan of Jack Kirby's Silver Age work, but I must acknowledge that this issue was terrific. Check out this full-pager:



What's not to like there? Simply beautiful, as is the rest of the book.