Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fifty Years Ago Today

This comic, one of the true Silver Age "keys" appeared on the newsstands on March 31, 1959. Although DC had toyed with the idea of a female version of Superman on several occasions, this was the first that they decided to accept such a character on an on-going basis.

It was also the first time since about 1939 that the cover of Action featured a story that was not the Superman story. Yep, Supergirl did not appear in the Superman story, rather she popped up in her very own feature.

The Superman story in this issue featured Metallo. Although I didn't know it at the time, the concept of Metallo had appeared on a few occasions in the past; indeed when one was encountered in an early World's Finest, Lois Lane referred to it as "a Metallo" as if there were quite a few out there. The concept in the DC universe always amounted to a man inside a robot's body, and such was the case here.

John Corben, a reporter, has just committed the perfect crime, murdering the only man who knew he was guilty of being an embezzler. But in a moment he is shattered when his car crashes off a hillside. Fortunately a professor happens by who can save his life, but at quite a cost:

The only thing that can keep his body ticking is uranium, or another element. Unfortunately the professor keels over of a stroke before he can tell Metallo of the second source of power. Corben discovers that he has super strength with his new body. He gets a job at the Daily Planet, where he astounds Clark with his steel grip. But Lois is less impressed when Corben tries to hustle her.

Corben commits several robberies to build up a reasonable stockpile of uranium, but he'd rather have the second element which can last indefinitely. Fortunately the professor has recovered and advises Corben that what he really needs is Kryptonite, a small sample of which he has in a safe. Corben takes the Kryptonite, intending to use it to kill Superman. He wedges it near some pipes in a museum where Superman is about to make an appearance, and puts another sample of Kryptonite which he found in the museum in his body to power it.

But Superman manages to stay alive by focusing the heat of his x-ray vision on the Kryptonite, melting it. And Metallo finds out that the sample of Kryptonite at the museum was phony, and dies.

Comments: Clearly this story was inspired by the famous Atom Man story from the Superman radio show, where a German was injected with Kryptonite which gave him tremendous powers. The young man joined the staff of the Daily Planet and attempted to kill Superman.

The second story features Congo Bill as Congorilla. Congo Bill was a longtime DC character, having debuted in More Fun Comics #56. He switched over to Action with #37, and thus this was his 216th appearance in that magazine. A few years earlier he had gained the power to exchange bodies with a golden gorilla, giving him great strength. In this story, Congo Bill foils a plot by some French Foreign Legion mutineers.

Now we come at last to the reason why this comic is so highly prized by collectors: the debut of Supergirl! Here's her first in-story appearance:

A rocket from Krypton has landed on Earth, and the above is what Superman sees.

Now the decision to make her a girl caused some plot problems. Since Superman was a baby when Krypton exploded, it should be obvious that anyone so much younger than he could not have been born on that planet. Supergirl explains a chunk of Krypton called Argo City was thrown off into space when the planet exploded, with a group of survivors and sufficient atmosphere to support them. However, they did have one problem; the ground had turned into Kryptonite:

That scene of the workers rolling out the lead would be shown many times in the Silver Age; along with the shrinking of Kandor, it was one of the most-reprinted sequences. Zor-El and his wife would eventually have a daughter, Kara. Unfortunately a meteor shower punctured the lead, dooming the residents of Argo City. But Zor-El saved his daughter by sending her to Earth in a small rocket.

The echoes of Superman's own origin are obvious, but the pair discovered another link between them:

As a new relative for Clark would attract suspicion, Superman puts Kara into an orphanage in the town of Midvale, with instructions not to let anybody know that a Supergirl exists. She adopts the name Linda Lee and a brown, pigtailed wig as her disguise.

Comments: It is difficult to overstate the importance of Supergirl. Although DC had made fits and starts towards introducing female counterparts for their male heroes, such as Batwoman, Lady Blackhawk and Miss Arrowette, this was the only time between the late 1940s and the late 1960s that a new female superhero was given her own feature right off the bat. And she appeared in Action Comics, one of the biggest-selling comic magazines in the country. In addition, Supergirl got a big boost from being part of the Superman family, as she very quickly began making guest appearances in Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen (especially after her existence was announced to the world).

Supergirl is, by a wide margin, the most important female character in comics during the Silver Age. Only Wonder Woman even has an argument, and given the wretched state of that feature during the 1960s, I don't think many people will make the case.

Update: Superman was not the only major DC character who got a significant addition to his family 50 years ago today.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Meme Machine

Ol' Groove hit me with the meme stick.

The Rules
1) Link to the person who tagged you.
2) Post the rules on your blog.
3) Write six random things about yourself.
4) Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
5) Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6) Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Some not-so random things:

1. The earliest comic memory I have is of a Baby Huey story where his dad's trying to fill in a crossword puzzle and can't figure out a 16-letter word for "a ringing in the ears". Baby Huey suggests tintinnabulation, which of course is the answer. I can't remember anything more about it, but I have been checking every Baby Huey issue posted for years trying to find it.

2. Another missing comic book memory is of a Fox and Crow story where the Crow puts his dirty mitts on an envelope addressed to the Fox and the latter becomes convinced it is a "black hand letter". None of the adults I showed the comic book to then had a clue what that meant.

3. My favorite comic book character is Batman and my second favorite is the Spirit, while Spiderman comes in third. My favorite character of all time in any medium is Sherlock Holmes.

4. I have listened to almost every available episode of the Superman radio series. It was interesting to realize that the whole rationale behind the "Up, Up, and Away" bit was because they needed a way to tell the kids that Superman was flying off. At the end of his flights he'd often say, "Down, Down," as well, although of course that's not nearly as famous.

5. My favorite baseball team is the Detroit Tigers. Growing up outside of New York, I rooted avidly for the Mets, but when I started watching baseball on TV (1963) the Mets were terrible and so I decided I had to have a team in the American League as well. I picked the Tigers because I liked the animal, the tiger.

6. Almost anything I do I can do well right out of the chute, but I have a frustrating inability to progress much from that level despite significant effort on my part. I broke 100 very quickly in golf; it took me years to break 90.

My six hapless victims:

Chris at I Believe in Batmite.

Dan at the Beat Down.

Avi at Four Color Media Monitor.

Bill at the Golden Age of Comic Books.

Chris/Chalwa at He Collects Dick Tracy.

Allan at Gorilla Daze.

Electro Prototype at Charlton?

Here's a July 1960 Charlton featuring the work of Steve Ditko. The opening story should be of some interest to Spiderman and Daredevil fans, as it features the appearance of a clear prototype for Webhead and Hornhead's longtime foe, Electro. George Clinton (pre-Funkadelic) is an accountant who suddenly and inexplicably finds his body supercharged with electricity. This look a little familiar?

Quite a bit like this:

Clinton goes out into the countryside so as to not be a danger to others, but then suddenly he senses a purpose:

And he sends a bolt skyward:

Comments: The story is ho-hum, but of course the Ditko artwork and the Electro connection make it much more interesting. Ditko seems to be experimenting with his style here; I certainly don't recall him doing lots of close-up portraits as he did in this story.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Silver Age Plot Types: The Tontine

Among the more durable plots of the Silver Age was the Tontine. A Tontine is an investment club with an interesting difference. All the money in the pool goes to the last surviving member. Of course, most of the stories in the Tontine format did not involve an investment group, but with some variations, this turned out to be an incredibly durable plot.

The most important fact about a Tontine is, "Who's the last person?" That is the key question in all Tontine plots. Consider, for example, a murder mystery, like Peril at Playland Isle from Detective #264. We are given the suspects and as the story evolves, each of them is eliminated logically (sometimes by being murdered) until only the guilty one is left.

The most common identifier of a Tontine-type story is the presentation of a cast of characters near the beginning:

The purpose of presenting this cast is so that the reader can go back and forth to this page at least in theory to mentally X out the innocent as their involvement is eliminated. Of course the writer (or in the story the criminal) is aware of this and so there's usually a trick in there to throw the reader off the scent.

Let's go back to the Peril at Playland Isle story. In the tale, Barden, a millionaire, has bought an amusement park and transported it to an island he owns. He is going to make admission free to kids, for reasons discussed in the panel above. But as Batman and Robin tour the site, Conn tells them that Barden wants to see them at the funhouse. When they arrive they are shocked to discover that the millionaire is dead. We learn some potential motives:

Conn is not shown as having a motive, but given that in the next scene he's attacked by the killer I think we can eliminate him. However, things change when Batman learns that a stolen necklace has been found in the park. Now he knows that the motive for the plot is not something personal, but involves other crimes that have taken place and eventually zeroes in on Carter, the business associate.

Note that a murder mystery is not the only use for a Tontine story, not by a long shot. There are several Batman stories where Bruce Wayne is in an isolated place with a few other men, and when Batman appears the other men begin eliminating suspects as to whom he is:

And the Tontine was also used in other series, like the Legion of Superheroes:

Friday, March 27, 2009

DC Annuals in the Silver Age

These comics had a story and a magic all to themselves and so I thought I'd put together a series of posts on them.

Giant comics were not unheard of in the DC Golden Age. DC's regular comics started out at 68 pages, then dropped briefly to 60 and then 52 pages. Big All-American Comics came out in 1944, with an incredible 132 pages. But it, like the World's Fair Comics and World's Finest and Comics Cavalcade issues always featured new stories, not reprints.

So Superman Annual #1 was a landmark in the Silver Age as it was the first time I know of that DC actually reprinted a story in its entirety. Why is this such a key moment? Because after that comics really had to start caring about continuity. In the old days if a current story contradicted a five year old one, it was a couple letters to the editor. But if that original story got reprinted, it became part of the newly forming canon of the character.

Superman Annual #2 followed only a half year later, making obvious the lie of the title. The reprint giants of the 1960s tended to be printed in early summer and early November, which made them perfect for long drives in the car during the former and stocking stuffers or Thanksgiving presents from Grandma and Grandpa.

The next new giant was truly historic:

That's the history of the DC Silver Age right there on the cover. It's edited by Julius Schwartz. The earliest story in the issue is the Martian Manhunter origin, and aside from Aquaman, all early Justice League characters are represented.

Superman Annual #3 came out next and a week later Batman Annual #1, which I reviewed here. In the fall of 1961 DC released Superman Annual #4 and Batman Annual #2.

So what did DC lead off with in the summer of 1962? Well, if you've been looking at the circulation numbers around then, it will come as no particular surprise:

Lois Lane was moving about 4 million copies a year.

In the winter, DC released Batman Annual #4 and Superman Annual #6. The pattern had been basically established: Batman and Superman had winter and summer "Annuals", other characters might get summer Annuals. Batman Annual #5 led off the summer 1963, followed by Lois Lane Annual #2, and Superman Annual #7. But there was no apparent addition to the DC annuals as the summer of 1963 dragged on until in mid-August there suddenly appeared:

Now up to that point although DC had pretended to be opening up their vault, this issue's Star Sapphire story was the first actual 1940s story to be reprinted. It was an obvious nod to the Golden Age fans. Publishing the Flash Annual was something of a surprise, but the other candidates were Superboy and Jimmy Olsen, both of which would just have added to Weisinger's workload.

The Winter Annuals were again Superman and Batman (#8 and #6 respectively). The next year DC led with Superboy Annual #1, then Batman Annual #7.

And then the numbering of DC's Giants gets complicated. The post office apparently wanted to charge them more for all these new "Annual" titles, so DC got the brilliant idea of calling them "80-Page Giant #1, #2, etc." Brilliant from a screw the post office standpoint, but holy hell on anybody trying to figure out which issues he was missing in the early 1970s.

80-Page Giant #1 featured Superman
80-Page Giant #2 featured Jimmy Olsen. This meant that JLA was now DC's highest circulation title without an annual, excluding the variety mags like Action, Adventure, Detective, etc.
80-Page Giant #3 was Lois Lane
80-Page Giant #4 starred the Flash
80-Page Giant #5 featured Batman's 25th anniversary
80-Page Giant #6 was Superman against amazing things and creatures!
80-Page Giant #7 had Sgt Rock's Prize Battle Tales as war comics became the only genre in DC's lineup outside superheroes to win an annual.
80-Page Giant #8 was the second Secret Origins annual, which turned out to be pretty dull compared to the original, with only a 1960 origin revision for Aquaman and the first Silver Age Atom tale really standing as significant stories. I mean, the "Origin of Flash's Masked Identity?"
80-Page Giant #9 was the Flash again, apparently putting his annuals in the semi-annual category. That did not last however.
80-Page Giant #10 was the second Superboy Annual.
80-Page Giant #11 may have been the first comic ever dedicated to a villain:

After that came Batman, Jimmy Olsen, and Lois Lane. The final issue (#15) of 80-Page Giant was World's Finest. Here DC hit on another great idea. By seeding in the annuals with the regular series they could eliminate another title and pay the post office even less money. So 80-Page Giant #16 was also Justice League of America #39, bringing the JLA into the rotation. #20 was also Action Comics #334 and featured Supergirl.

And that was basically it. DC had found a rotation of Annuals where they could issue one per month and they didn't really alter it much after that, perhaps thinking that the market couldn't handle more than one 25 cent comic at a time. They did squeeze in an extra Batman Annual during 1966 to take advantage of Batmania, and Adventure Comics picked up the Supergirl Annuals after she moved over from Action, but aside from that there were no additions and no subtractions to the DC annuals after 1965.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

45 Years Ago Today

The New Look Batman was launched in Detective Comics #327. I don't think it's any secret that during the Jack Schiff era, Batman had become a little too reliant on gimmick stories. Aliens, weird transformations, and monsters had become all too common.

The problem can be seen in the declining average circulation numbers for Batman as reported in the following issues:

Batman #137 (1960 sales) 502,000
Batman #145 (1961 sales) 485,000
Batman #153 (1962 sales) 410,000

This was a sharp decline relative to the market; Batman went from #6 in sales in 1960 (and 3rd at DC) to #7 (5th at DC) to #10 (8th at DC). Unfortunately, we don't have the 1963-64 figures because they were not reported by DC for most of their magazines, but we must assume that there was not a strong uptrend, or else Schiff would have been retained on the feature (he did continue editing for DC at titles like Blackhawk and Mystery In Space).

So Julius Schwartz was placed in the editor's desk. I am sure that fandom responded with glee, as Schwartz had an excellent track record during the Silver Age, having brought back such famed Golden Age characters (in new incarnations) as the Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman), as well as the Justice League of America, a modern version of the Justice Society of America. Schwartz brought with him artist Carmine Infantino, whom he put in charge of producing covers for both Tec and Batman. Infantino also began providing interior artwork for every other issue of Detective.

The way the story gets told now, Julie and Carmine saved Batman; there are claims that Batman issues were being returned in large numbers and the New Look was the only thing that kept Batman around long enough for the TV series.

I'm just a little skeptical. First, although the trendline was not good for Batman sales from 1960-62, there were lots of comics DC published that didn't even sell half of what Batman did. Fox and Crow, for example, sold 1/3rd the copies.

DC published their sales figures again in 1965, and Batman was back up to 465,000 copies per issue, from the 410,000 level of 1962, about an 11% increase. Detective was up 15%. But those increases were not all that unusual; comics were surging in popularity during those years (probably due to demographics). G.I. Combat was up 34%, Action Comics up 21%, Adventure Comics up 25%. Jimmy Olsen was up 18% to over 550,000 copies sold per issue.

So how much Schwartz's manning of the editor's desk is responsible for the sales increase in Batman and Detective is unclear. While Schwartz did get rid of the cheesier science fiction elements that had been so common under Schiff, he did not address the other major problem the series faced: the artwork.

Bob Kane apparently had a deal with DC to provide the bulk of the artwork for Batman. As is well-known, Sheldon Moldoff actually did the drawing. Moldoff's work, while serviceable seemed very stale by 1960s standards. Moldoff did all the interior artwork for Batman issues during the New Look and alternated with Infantino on the interior stories for Detective.

And while some of the stories Infantino did were fine, there were also the very oddball ones like these:

And if anything the series got worse when the Batman craze hit, although it's hard to blame that on Schwartz; obviously he had to deal with the fact that loads of kids were buying the magazine looking for the "pow" and "sock" that they saw on TV.

The New Look was an improvement and perhaps with the situation DC faced with Kane's contract about as much as could be expected. Don't get me wrong here; I do think that Julie rescued Batman, but it was later, after the collapse in sales following the cancellation of the TV show. By that point DC had bought out Kane and Schwartz was free to hire the new Batman artists; Irv Novick and Neal Adams, notably.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Single Issue Review: Fox & Crow #35

DC fiddled around with funny animals for most of the Golden and Silver Ages. Unlike Dell, however, they never signed up with a major cartoon shop, so while Dell was publishing (with huge success) Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and several other licensed characters, DC created their own knockoff characters or licensed a few quite a bit less-known cartoon features. Among the former were Flippety and Flop (Sylvester and Tweety knockoff), Nutsy Squirrel and Dodo & the Frog.

Fox & Crow was a licensed series, although I doubt very much that many of the kids reading their comics in the 1950s and 1960s were aware of it:

The cartoon was well received, and another with the same characters was produced, for release six months after the first. In fact, they became the studio's biggest stars ever, easily eclipsing Scrappy. But by then, Tashlin had departed for greener pastures — he was working at Warner Bros., and making a name for himself with such characters as Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. This one was directed by Bob Wickersham, who used the characters in a completely different way. His Fox just wanted to be left alone, but The Crow wouldn't let him; and the gags were done in a more traditional style than the earlier blackouts. Innocent Fox paired with aggressive Crow became the formula for the series, most of which was directed by Wickersham.

DC licensed the characters in the mid-1940s when the cartoon series was still running, and used them as the cover feature for Real Screen Comics and Comic Cavalcade. Ironically, though, by the time Fox & Crow graduated to their own magazine, they were through in Hollywood as their animation studio was sold and the characters quickly ignored by the new company.

They settled in for a very long run by comics standards, with their first issue hitting the stands in early 1952 and their last in early 1968 (at which point they had been DC's only funny animal title for about 7 years). They did suffer the humiliation of seeing their comic taken over by a backup feature (Stanley and His Monster)

As Markstein notes, perhaps the most amazing thing about the Fox and Crow series is that most stories did not feature any other characters. The Fox and Crow were perfect enemies; indeed it is hard to imaging Luthor and Superman battling each other as relentlessly as those two did. Crawford Crow is a lazy, sponging con artist while Fauntleroy Fox is his eternal mark. However, the writers and artist Jim Davis (no, not that Jim Davis) managed to make the Crow entertaining enough and the Fox insufferable enough that there was always a balance. And you could never guarantee whether the Fox would win out in the end or the Crow.

In the first story, we find the Crow miserable as he realizes that he's completely run out of ways to "chisel" the Fox. But he gets inspired when he learns that the Fox is about to inherit $5,000, tomorrow (August 15, 1956 as a calendar reveals). The Crow reaches through the window and rips out the 15th from that calendar, then starts singing a bluesy tune about how there's not going to be a tomorrow.

Asked for evidence, the Crow points to the calendar, where tomorrow's date is indeed missing. This causes him no end of consternation until the Crow reveals that he in fact has tomorrow, so the Fox begs him to give it back. So the Fox cooks him a turkey dinner, and gives him his convertible and $3,000 cash to get tomorrow back. Of course, in the end he realizes he spent $10,000 in cash and other goods to get $5,000; Bernie Madoff could have done better than that.

Running Tally: Fox 0, Crow 1.

Comments: Good start, mediocre ending.

Next up is an ad for the Superman Space Satellite Launcher:

I don't remember the Superman connection, but certainly remember these cool little toys. They really did fly somewhere close to 25 feet high in the air. Kellogg's had a long association with Superman, dating back to their sponsorship of the radio program in the 1940s.

The filler is a strip called Hound and Hare, which also had a long run. The young hound has discovered that manufacturers have created a mechanical hare, which his father promptly purchases. The Hare overhears this and decides to ensure that the hounds continue to chase him. He stuffs himself in their mailbox with a shipping tag and they assume it is their mechanical pal. But when he starts operating, they learn that he's a little trickier than their normal quarry:

After that the Hare sends them into the briar patch and on top of Old Smokey, at which point they are exhausted. They return to find the real mechanical hare in their mailbox, but they assume the mailman just found it and brought it back to them and they mail it back.

Comments: Cute if predictable.

As you can see from the cover, this issue featured the DC 5000 contest. DC was offering lots of prizes including 18 Columbia bicycles with 80 pairs of roller or ice skates for second place. Third prize would probably bring a firestorm of protest today as there were 200 3rd prizes for boys (a football with a kicking tee) and only 120 3rd prizes for girls (a doll named Sweet Sue that according to the accompanying copy can "kneel down to say her prayers").

The contest was to come up with a slogan for DC Comics. Among the suggestions were:

The slogans were to be chosen by a panel of judges, not a random drawing as was typical; I'll have to find out what the winners were and whether they became significant slogans for DC.

The second Fox & Crow story is something of an oddball because they are not antagonists. While experimenting with a chemistry set, the Crow accidentally creates a storm in his tree. He tries to sell an April shower to the Fox, who scoffs, but:

The Fox gets the brilliant idea of growing corn in partnership with the Crow. But predictably, the Crow gets impatient with watering the corn slowly and creates a deluge that washes their profits and homes away in a flood.

Running Talley: Fox 0, Crow 1 (Neither wins this battle).

Comments: Definitely a mediocre effort without the conflict that makes the series so entertaining.

In the third story, the Crow is reading some nursery rhymes when he comes across a famous one:

This inspires a new mooching idea. The Crow offers himself to the Fox as one of the ingredients for the pie (along with lots of other ingredients of course. The Fox agrees and soon has him wrapped up in dough and peas and turnips and carrots and spuds).

So the Fox plunks him in the oven and they have a running conversation about how things are going. Eventually the Crow asks for a spoon so he can stir things up a bit. Of course we all know that he's probably using it to eat up all the pie. Eventually the pie is finished and out pops the blackbird to sing a little ditty. The Fox kicks him out and returns to the pie, only to find that there's nothing there but the empty pie shell.

Running Talley: Fox 0, Crow 2.

Comments: Good beginning but in the middle you can't help wondering how the Crow isn't being killed by the heat of the oven, which does indeed cook the pie crust. But of course this was quite common in cartoons. You could easily see the story going the other way--with the Crow bravely talking about how hot it's getting and how he hopes that the Fox is going to enjoy this dinner as the Fox gets more and more upset.

Overall comments: I really like this series, but unfortunately I picked a below-average issue to review here. A lot of Fox & Crow gags depend on the willingness to suspend disbelief; this is easier when the Crow is dressed up in a silly disguise and we're supposed to accept that Fauntleroy can't figure it out.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Trivia Quiz #21 Answers

1. Who was Tyrannus' mortal enemy?

Tyrannus' mortal enemy was the Mole Man:

2. Match these Marvel villains up with their respective partners in crime: The Cobra, The Masked Marauder and the Ringmaster.

The Cobra teamed on several occasions with Mr Hyde, while the Masked Marauder had a couple teamups with the Gladiator. And the Ringmaster had his Circus of Crime: The Flying Gambonos, the Human Cannonball, the Clown and Princess Python.

3. Spiderman battled two female heroines in the Silver Age, but only one female villainess. Name all three.

Well the heroines I had in mind were Medusa and the Black Widow, although Dan quite rightly noted that Spidey was involved in brief skirmishes that involved Sue Storm of the FF and the Wasp. As for the only villainess, it was the afore-mentioned Princess Python, in ASM #22.

4. When Matt Murdock was suspected by Foggy and Karen of being Daredevil, who did he claim was really the Man Without Fear?

Matt made up a twin brother named Mike Murdock, and for a couple of years Mike would periodically show up at the office (when Matt was not around of course) to flirt with Karen and tease Foggy about his weight. It is, without a doubt, one of the oddest secret identity dodges of the entire Silver Age.

5. In what comic and issue # did Johnny Romita first draw Spiderman?

JR drew Peter/Spidey in Daredevil #16, with a May 1966 cover date. He moved over to Amazing Spiderman with #39, cover dated August 1966.

Chris Johnson of I believe in Batmite got #3 and #5 right. Dan of Nashville Beat got #2-5 right; only #1 tripped him up. The Hulk did battle Tyrannus at times, but he also allied with him against the Mole Man, who was trying to keep Tyrannus away from the Fountain of Youth. Michael Rebain answered 1 & 2 right and got parts of 3 and 4.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Non-Gay Way of Artificial Resuscitation

As demonstrated by the Hulk on Rick Jones:

Not the recommended technique.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

DC In the Early 1960s: Superman Dominates

It is easy to forget how Superman dominated the DC landscape in the early 1960s. Nowadays it is accepted that DC's two biggest stars are Superman and Batman, with not much separating the two in the public's mind.

But back then there is little doubt that Superman was the big star and Batman a B-lister. And it's not all that surprising. Superman had a very popular radio show in the 1940s and an even more popular TV series in the 1950s which was quite commonly shown in reruns, while Batman's crossovers had been limited to guest appearances on Superman's radio program and a couple movie serials in the 1940s.

When you look at the sales of the two characters in the early 1960s, there is no comparison. Seven of the top nine comic titles published in 1962 featured Superman prominently: Superman, Superboy, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Action, World's Finest and Adventure; the only comics in that grouping that did not include him were Archie and Casper. And even that does not tell the entire story of his dominant position at DC. The figures given for circulation are per issue, here are the annual figures:

Just looking at the two main titles for each character (Superman and Action, Batman and Detective), Supes was outselling Batsy by about 70%. If we look at all the Superman titles except World's Finest and all the Batman titles except WF, Superman was outselling Batman by 4.4 to 1; including WF for each would only reduce that to about 3.3 times. (Note: I don't consider the JLA to be a title for either character; especially in the early days of the Justice League, Batman and Superman were only occasionally featured in that magazine).

If we look at the 1965 circulation figures (DC did not publish numbers in 1963 and 1964), just prior to Batmania, we see a similar story; the top six comics published that year were the core Superman-related titles, followed by Archie, then WF and Batman.

Note in particular that almost all the DC titles showed significant gains in sales between 1962 and 1965, with the exception of Wonder Woman, Mystery in Space and Sea Devils. The latter two titles would be cancelled within the next couple of years, and Wonder Woman was rebooted twice. I suspect that the circulation increases from 1962 reflect demographics, as the biggest bulge of the baby boom reached its prime comics-reading years.

In 1966, of course, things changed dramatically, as the Batman TV show became an overnight sensation. Batman's own title doubled in sales, while Detective showed a 33% jump. The Superman titles all slumped a bit, with declines ranging from about 5% to 13%. The only Superman-related title to jump in 1966 was (not surprisingly) the one he shared with Batman, World's Finest.

Like every fad, Batmania collapsed on itself and by 1969 sales of Batman and Detective had collapsed to their lowest levels of the decade. Unknown to comics fans of the time, changes had taken place that were about to set the stage for one of the greatest eras for the character.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Trivia Quiz #21: Marvel Grab-Bag

1. Who was Tyrannus' mortal enemy?

2. Match these Marvel villains up with their respective partners in crime: The Cobra, The Masked Marauder and the Ringmaster.

3. Spiderman battled two female heroines in the Silver Age, but only one female villainess. Name all three.

4. When Matt Murdock was suspected by Foggy and Karen of being Daredevil, who did he claim was really the Man Without Fear?

5. In what comic and issue # did Johnny Romita first draw Spiderman?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Single Issue Review: Jimmy Olsen #64

Everything a youngster needed to know about relationships back in the early 1960s, he could learn from Mr Sensitive himself, Jimmy Olsen.

The first story is Jimmy Olsen, Hollywood Star. The splash shows Jimmy about to drown in a pool of quicksand as the camera rolls, but the text box at the side informs us that this is really happening, and that we should prepare ourselves for a surprise ending.

The story begins with Jimmy falling off a high-rise office building under construction. Fortunately he calls Superman with his signal watch and is saved in the nick of time. We discover that it's actually a stunt for a movie on Superman's life and that Jimmy's sticking around in LA, which in typically demure DC fashion is referred to as "the television city on the coast". Jimmy encounters some of the biggest stars of the time:

What follows are some bizarre short gags, which really don't fit Jimmy Olsen. He encounters a Bizarro, who does some weird stuff. But it's not a Bizarro, it's:

Bizarro Bob Hope!

And then a parrot escapes on a set to the top of a mast. Jimmy has the elastic formula with him and saves the bird which results in him getting some attention from the starlets:

I get the feeling that Jimmy's a Maxim kind of guy, maybe some of that Axe body wash, I mean class all the way.

But then we get one of the classic dun-dun-DUH panels of all time:

Quicksand? Did you say quicksand?

I decry the appalling tendency for liberal judges in Metropolis to permit obvious gangsters out on bail to murder red-headed cub reporters:

But with Jimmy in the quicksand he doesn't even have to fire his gun. As the bow-tied boy reporter is about to drown an unknown person comes in to rescue him:

Who is Jimmy's mysterious savior? Well, to spoil the 46-year-old suspense, it's Boris Karloff although even Jimmy never finds out.

Mort gives the identities of the Hollywood celebrities in the commissary shot:

Note: Although the idea of a story featuring some famed characters was not new, it was interesting that their names were given in the comic, especially Karloff's; I think kids back then would have seen it as something different and surprising

I don't know who "Margie" is; it does not appear to be the gal from My Little Margie. Anybody?

Update: Michael Rebain points to the TV show called Margie which aired around those years, and I was able to find this promo pic for the show with the lead actress (Cynthia Pepper):

As you can see, it looks like somebody's idea of what college was like in the 1920s.

Story #2 (yes, we've barely cracked this classic) is summarized here:

Could this be a story exposing Lois' irrational prejudice against fiery beings? As it turns out, Lois and Jimmy are assigned to cover the story of an exploding volcano in the South Seas, as is another familiar redhead, who gets just a little too honest with Lois:

The locals, a bunch of ignorant savages despite the suits, are talking about fire gods emerging from the volcano. The sophisticates from Metropolis yuk it up a bit:

A few seconds later they are on the run themselves as they encounter the fiery beings, who appear to be following Lana and Jimmy:

Because of their fiery hair. At first the story seems like a classic, "How can we kill these monsters?" tale, but Jimmy proves protective of the little creatures and coaxes them back into the volcano and gets a scoop.

Comments: The mediocre story is aided by the lack of Superman other than as a statue in the town, so that it's a question of whether Jimmy can save the lava beings.

The letters page starts off with a request for Jimmy to give it to Lucy Lane "good and rough".

And indeed given Lucy's treatment of Jimmy in the cover story we can see where Joanne got that sentiment:

But Jimmy goes home with a friend's shortwave radio set, and a few modifications later he's talking to intergalactic babes who want to meet him:

She helps him make a bracelet that gives him super-smarts. But does he use it for the good of humanity? Does he find a cure for cancer?

Well, first he busts Lucy's twisting pilot buddy as a spy. But then he puts some poor carnival operator out of business to impress her:

But Lucy still doesn't consider Jimmy #1 on her hit parade, so when Allura calls again he agrees to be transported to her planet.

Unfortunately they prove unable to overcome their prejudiced size-ism despite the fact that they are perfect for each other.