Friday, February 27, 2009

Trivia Quiz #20: Grab-Bag DC

1. (Easy) True or False: Bruce Wayne was a star athlete in his college days.

2. (Moderate) Within 2 years, how old was Lois Lane supposed to be in the comics when Lois Lane #1 debuted?

3. (Tough) Name two Superman villains in the Silver Age of comics who obtained their power from green kryptonite.

4. (Really Tough) What woman did Batman rename the Batplane after?

5. (Tough For Some) During the Adventure Comics run of the Legion of Superheroes, what two LSH members were cross-dressers?

The last one may seem impossibly hard, but it was discussed yesterday in one of the blogs on the sidebar (and I'll give full credit in the answer post). Remember that my quizzes are based on the Silver Age, and in the Silver Age, nobody had ever heard of retcons.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

When I'm the Evil Genius

I will not prefer that my enemy live so that I can toy with him some more:

For the rest of the When I'm the Evil Genius series, click here.

Best Character of the Silver Age: Marvel Edition

This is not a terribly difficult determination. One of the things I look for is how well all aspects of the character are developed. Almost all superhero characters have a well-developed heroic aspect; it's the central focus of the series.

But most of them do not have a well-developed secret identity, as we shall see. For instance consider Thor. The Thor series has a huge cast of characters: Odin, Balder, Sif, Heimdall, Loki, Karnilla, etc. But whatever happened to Don Blake? On a regular basis, Blake interacts with the following people:

As if that wasn't bad enough, Jane Foster disappeared from the series in early 1967, leaving nobody for Don Blake to interact with. Okay, Don Blake is kind of an oddity, apparently never having existed before Odin banished Thor to Earth, so it's not like the human side of his character was real. But what about Daredevil's Matt Murdock?

This is actually not all that atypical; whom did Clark Kent interact with other than the people in his office? Lana Lang is about it, and even she was more involved with Superman than his alter ego.

A somewhat similar situation applies with Bruce Banner/Hulk, although he does have a few more people in his life:

Tony Stark is pretty much the same:

Some of the Marvel characters don't lend themselves to an analysis like this. The Sub-Mariner, for example, does not have an alter ego; neither, arguably, do the Fantastic Four or Doctor Strange. Captain America's real identity of Steve Rogers was pretty much forgotten in the 1960s. The X-Men were self-contained.

So who's left? Oh, yes, Peter Parker. Here are the people Parker interacted with regularly:

Not to mention Liz Allen, Fredrick Foswell, Anna Watson, Ned Leeds, Joe Robertson's son, and numerous other characters that we may not (yet) have noticed were in the picture like Dr Bramwell and Professor Warren.

Don't get me wrong here; it's not that all these people make Peter Parker a more rounded character than any other in the Marvel lineup in the Silver Age. It's that they reflect how well-revealed Parker was to us. He's got family (Aunt May). He's got neighbors (Mrs Watson and Mary Jane). He's got a pal (Harry). He's got a love interest (Gwen). He's got a rival/enemy (Flash). He's got people he works with (JJJ, Betty, Robbie, Foswell). And the people he deals with have friends and relatives of their own (Captain Stacy, Robertson's son, Ned Leeds, Norman Osborne).

And I am not criticizing the other Marvel characters in favor of DC, as we shall see when I analyze the DC characters. Whom did Barry Allen interact with in the Silver Age? Iris and Wally West, and even Wally quickly became more of a companion for the Flash than Barry.

There's a logical reason for this as well; the more effort you put into characterization, the less time you have for plot. I have griped when reviewing some of the Spiderman Silver Age that at times the "Archie" aspect of the character interferes with the superheroics, but that's a tradeoff Stan was willing to make and which paid off handsomely for Marvel.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Silver Age Plot Types: The Three-Act Play

Modern writers often marvel over the compact nature of storytelling in the Silver Age. Every Batman issue from 1955-1962 contained three stories ranging in length from 6-10 pages each. Because of this marvelous consistency, I decided to examine the stories.

By far the most common plot used was what I call the Three-Act Play.

1. Batman and Robin battle some crooks, who get away (sometimes with the loot).
2. Batman and Robin battle the crooks a second time. The crooks get away, but never with the loot. Sometimes they kidnap Batman or Robin at this point.
3. Batman and Robin capture the crooks.

There is a solid logic to stories having three acts, because we are acculturated to the notion that the third event is the climax. Many jokes are effectively three-act plays; we understand that the third incident is going to be the funny one.

For an example of a three-act play, consider the story City of Heroes from Batman #116. Batman and Robin are after the Gimmick Gang, who are dressed up like Thor, Cyclops and Pan (yep, three villains), for an annual costume event in "Legend City". In their first encounter, Thor's hammer explodes near Batman and Robin, stunning them so to the gang can get away. In the second act, the villains have changed their costumes to Hercules, Medusa and Zeus. Medusa turns Batman and Robin "to stone" (paralyzes them with a gas). In the third act, Zeus tries throwing thunderbolt gimmicks at Batman and Robin but they outsmart him with their Batarangs and capture the gang.

The three-act play was used endlessly in the Silver Age in longer stories as well. Many of the stories that I have discussed in my single issue reviews are effectively three acts. In X-Men #8, Hank is defeated by Unus, then the rest of the X-Men are defeated by Unus, then Hank defeats Unus. The JLA/JSA teamups had a very similar structure. Indeed, DC comics often made the three acts explicit in their book-length stories with three separate splash pages leading off each "chapter".

The Batman/Joker stories in this era feature an unusual and interesting twist on the three-act formula. Some item of pop culture gives the Joker his inspiration for a new set of (three) crimes, which inevitably leads him to success on his first mission, more limited success on his second, and failure in the third. Some of these stories show real ingenuity despite the reliance on a formula.

A particularly amusing example comes from Batman #86 (September 1954), The Joker's Winning Team. The Joker is at a baseball game when the lightbulb goes on above his head:

The Joker gets the brilliant idea of trading some of his reliable henchmen for other gangsters who have the specific skills needed for upcoming crimes. In the first act, his getaway specialist helps the gang escape from Batman and Robin. In the second act, a military strategist and two acrobats manage to hold off the caped crusaders long enough for the Joker to get away. In the third act, a disguised Batman infiltrates the Joker's gang and foils the scheme. These stories typically end with Batman, Robin or a cop making a sarcastic comment based on the pop culture inspiration the Joker was using, as here:

Hence the "Bah!" response I pointed out a couple days ago.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Illustrated Conversation From Batman #200

In Batman #200, DC did some very remarkable things. First was the commemorative cover shown above. They also had a reprint of the very first page featuring Batman from Detective #27, and a conversation between two longtime Batman fans, Mike Friedrich, who of course went on to become a comics writer and Biljo White, described at the beginning of the article as the number one all-time Batman fan.

I loved the conversation, but there was one problem. They were describing all these great books that I had no chance of reading at the time. This was in the dark ages, before Archive Editions and Masterworks, heck it was before Famous First Editions. Unless you got lucky and an annual reprinted a particular story, your only option was to buy the originals, and even with the lower prices back then that wasn't an option for me for any more than a few books occasionally.

But with the grace of computers and scanners, that's no longer a problem, and so I would like to present herewith an illustrated version of that conversation from the March 1968 issue:

White, of course, was the creator of the Batmania Fanzine in the 1960s.

And the mayhem Batman inflicts on the crooks responsible is excellent:

Public Enemy No. 1:

As you can probably guess the story's similar to the James Cagney movie, Public Enemy.

The hurricane scene from Batman #11:

And of course, the original Alfred appearance is the story that changed the Dynamic Duo's life.

I mentioned the Christmas Batman stories back around the holidays; as Friedrich says they were gems. It happened in Rome?

The Carter Nichols stories were terrific; I recently discussed the Tiger Man story in Batman #93, which was a Carter Nichols tale.

The Penguin-Joker "team-up" in Batman #25:

As you can probably tell, they're in a competition and whoever loses is supposed to vacate Gotham City. Eventually they realize that they should work together:

But they still come out losers against Batman and Robin.

Vicki Vale's first appearance:

Vicki hung around for a long time, but it would probably be inaccurate to describe her as comparable to Lois Lane as a snoop. For one thing, she was a much smaller character in the Batman series, often disappearing for years at a time.

1000 Secrets of the Batcave:

Birth of Batplane II is certainly in the top ten Batman stories of all time:

The Catwoman's reform era:

Killer Moth:

Killer Moth was definitely one of the oddball villains in the Batman rogues' gallery.

Here was a rare opportunity for me to smile back then, as two issues earlier, in Batman #198, DC had reprinted that story with this famous sequence:

Robin Dies at Dawn was an interesting story. Batman and Robin find themselves suddenly on an alien planet, being chased by monsters. This was not, unfortunately, an uncommon occurrence for them during that era. In the story, Robin is killed by a boulder thrown by a stone giant. Suddenly Batman wakes up. He's been in a chamber simulating space flight for the past few days and that's why he was hallucinating the whole bit with the monsters and the robot. But unfortunately, the hallucinations recur and cause him problems:

And no, those are not gorillas in that first panel, they're men in gorilla suits.

The first "New Look" cover:

The Zero Hour For Earth story:

The Riddler story:

Death Knocks Three Times is indeed an excellent story:

Comments: The interview clearly was focused on stories in the Batman title, so the Detective and World's Finest stories don't get mentioned. As you can see, there's a pretty huge gap between the Golden Age stories discussed and the first Silver Age stories mentioned; Robin Dies at Dawn appeared in 1963. I am not quite as thrilled with the "New Look" as Friedrich and White were; while it was an improvement over the Jack Schiff era, it was not enough of an improvement. I am much more impressed with what happened to Batman after this interview; the character's resurrection in the late 1960s and early 1970s was terrific.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Commissioner Horndog?

You never know what you'll find in these old comics. The Commish sure looks like he was getting ready to act when Batman came in.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Odds & Ends

Blog-buddy Michael Grabois has an interesting post on the changes that have occurred to the story in Adventure #247 as it has been reprinted over the years. One background character was changed to look like Colossal Boy in Superman Annual #6, and in subsequent reprints he's Brainiac 5. Yet another example of why you can't trust reprints.

John Glenn Taylor covers the dysfunctional Kents. I'm always amused by these "Superman is a dick" types of collections, although it's also interesting to wonder why the original comics had those particular panels. I think the rug-eating one was caused by Red K, and I know the last panel was Ma and Pa Kent's only way to discipline Clark. The one where the Kents are dressed as Jor-El and Lara is from Superboy #100 and the nominal reason is that the Kents have gone insane, although you never know, that could be a trick to fool the aliens.

I don't usually link to webcomics, but I did get a kick out of the story The Collector at this site. It starts out as a takeoff on the movie Comic Book Villains, but with an ExCellent twist at the end.

I Believe In Batmite has a review of the Batman as Superman story from Batman #113, a Dick Sprang story. That story features some of Sprang's amazing robots, which I forgot to include in my Sprang tribute:

There are a number of Sprang stories with these robots or ones very much like them:

They strike me as a perfect combination of sci-fi, menace and wackiness all at the same time.

Bill Jourdain covers some of the early romance comics, including the very first graphic novel (from the 1950s), It Rhymes with Lust.

Mark Engblom rates the top headquarters for comics heroes and villains. One that I would definitely argue for inclusion is Luthor's Lair, a lead-lined abandoned museum in Metropolis that features this Hall of Heroes:

How can you not love that?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why All the Women?

This came up as part of a discussion over at the Fortress Keeper's. Noting the strong female character of June Walker (from Challengers of the Unknown) the FK writes:

June Walker, the unofficial fifth Challenger, occupied a rather unique and definitely unheralded space in comics history – a strong female character that solved problems with her wits. Heck, she didn’t even wear a revealing outfit when springing into action!

And let’s face it, fan people, how many times have we seen a comic where the male leads marvel over a heroine’s prowess while she poses in a manner that states, rather powerfully, that she not only deserves but expects their respect!

(An aside: Actually June Robbins is the usual name of the character; the "Walker" used in this issue is a mistake by the writer.)

What is interesting is that June was hardly alone; there were a whole slew of female characters popping up at DC. Let's put together a timeline:

1956: Batwoman makes her first appearance in Detective #233 (July).
1957: June Robbins makes her first appearance with the Challengers of the Unknown in Showcase #7 (March-April) Lois Lane makes her solo debut in Showcase #9 (July-August) Queen Arrow makes her only appearance in Adventure #241 (October).
1958: Lois Lane gets her own title (March). Supergirl tryout in Superman #123 (August).
1959: First Lady Blackhawk appearance in Blackhawk #133 (February). Supergirl (Kara) launched in Action Comics #252 (May). First Mademoiselle Marie in Star Spangled War Stories #84 (August). First Aquagirl (Lisa Morel) appearance in Adventure #266 (November).
1960: First Miss Arrowette (Bonnie King) in World's Finest #113 (November).
1961: Batgirl (Betty Kane) debuts in Batman #139 (April).

Usually when something like this happens suddenly, I can point to overall changes in society that were driving the comics. For example, we see covers like this one and it's not hard to understand the cultural context:

Long-haired demonstrators carrying signs were not exactly a novelty in 1969. BTW, the trio attacking the Flash were aliens disguised to look like hippies.

But I have to admit that I'm not aware of an strong social movement of women that could account for their sudden emergence as independent characters in the DC universe in the late 1950s. Remember, beyond these examples you have the DC girlfriends of the Silver Age (all introduced in the same general era) who were also non-traditional females. Iris West was a reporter, Carol Ferris ran an aircraft manufacturing company, Jean Loring was an attorney and Shiera Hall was a policewoman/museum curator.

Why was this happening back then? It's not as if comics are often ahead of their time; in fact they're generally a lagging cultural indicator. Was DC simply trying to market more to girls while maintaining their core readership of boys? Was there a sense that the girls of the baby boom generation were going to be much more independent and achieve more in the outside world than their mothers?

It's not as if this continued. The first Aquagirl only had that one appearance; Julius Schwartz banished Batwoman and Batgirl when he launched the New Look Batman and Miss Arrowette disappeared along with Green Arrow. Lady Blackhawk did become a semi-regular in the Blackhawk series. Supergirl became the backup feature in Action but did not get her own mag until 1969.

I'm interested in your answers; feel free to blog it (I'll link in a followup post) or post some thoughts in the comments.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Brainiac 5, Scientologist

The next step is to get Lex (yep, that's the non-bald young Luthor) a series of books and lecture tapes by L. Ron Hubbard that will help him become ancestral karmatics clear.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Legion Rejects: Part I

One of the very cool things about the Legion of Superheroes was that kids could write in with suggested heroes, many of which became long-running characters in the DC universe. But sometimes more fun were the rejected applicants.

The most famous rejects, of course, were Superboy and Supergirl. Superboy was rejected in the very first Legion tale in Adventure #247 as a test of his character, which he passed by accepting his rejection, after which he was accepted. Supergirl was rejected because temporarily she had become an adult due to exposure to Red Kryptonite.

But the other rejects are the focus of this post, starting with Adventure #301, the first LSH issue with tryouts. First comes what we might call Lucre Laddy:

His money was no good there. Next up was Storm Boy:

Is that a weather modifier in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?

We learn that Bouncing Boy was actually rejected during his first attempt to join the Legion:

Shocking, I know, given that Bouncing Boy became the greatest Legionnaire of all time, but there was a time when his super power of being about to bounce around like a beach ball was underrated.

Which might be fine but he also makes those radio stations audible to everybody in the area, which results in a cacophony.

Dynamo Kid (whose "power" resembles that of Lightning Lad), turns out to be a fraud:

There are four basic reasons why candidates didn't make it into the legion:

1. Fake powers.
2. Undependable powers.
3. Useless powers.
4. Limitation on powers.

Adventure #306 introduced the Legion of Substitute Heroes, a group made up of Legion rejects. Polar Boy, rejected for reason #2, gets a nice parting gift:

He meets several other folks looking for a second chance including:

Unfortunately Night Girl's powers only work in darkness, so she was rejected for reason #4. Here are the other charter members of the Subs:

Reading from left to right, Chlorophyll Kid (super plant growing, rejected for reason #3), Stone Boy (turns to stone, rejected for reason #3) and Fire Boy (fire-breathing, rejected for reason #2). The Substitutes featured in several terrific stories around this time, and several of them were (much) later admitted to the major league club.

But not this unnamed youth (reason #4):

Or Camera Kid (reason #3):

Which brings up an obvious question: How did he manage to observe Superboy fighting Bizarro #1, an event which had taken place over 100 years in the past?

In Adventure #309, Jungle King becomes the first to vow revenge for his (reason #2) rejection:

But not the last:

Memo to aspiring Legionnaires: Incorporating the word "Satan" in your name is grounds for rejection. She turns out to be a red-kryptonite evil duplicate of Supergirl.

Ribbon Ronn is rejected for #3, but would return many years later as a part of a supervillain group. Alaktor was another baddy rejected for reason #1:

In reality the devices in his belt had taken X-ray pictures of everything in the Legion clubhouse.

In Adventure #315 the Substitutes got a big break. Now that the Legion knew of their existence, it was decided to have a contest to determine which of them would be allowed into the big club. But in a nice bit of characterization the winner, Stone Boy, decides to stick with his current buddies.

Well, at least Leadfeather Lad wasn't rejected by Bouncing Boy for his useless power; now that would be an insult!

Radiation Roy failed for reason #2.

Next came the Amazing Spidergirl:

Fortunately for DC's attorneys, her tresses proved uncontrollable and she was rejected for reason #2.

Double-header was clearly a reason #3 reject:

Totaling it all up through Adventure #325:

1. Fake powers. Three rejects.
2. Undependable powers. Seven rejects.
3. Useless powers. Seven rejects.
4. Limitation on powers. Two rejects.

Satan Girl was rejected on general principles.