Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Brain Boy #2

I was not aware of these comics in the 1960s and only recently purchased a couple of issues on ebay, unfortunately, not including the first issue (Four Color #1330), so we'll have to go to Don Markstein's Toonopedia for the origin:
Brain Boy was Matt Price, whose father was killed two months before he was born, in a spectacular car accident that also demolished a high-voltage power line, sending enough electricity through his pregnant mother's body to kill a dozen people. Miraculously, she and Matt both survived, and Matt grew up to be the world's most powerful telepath. He learned early on that kids who can do spooky things get beat up a lot, so he hid his power — but right after he graduated from high school, he was approached by Chris Ambers, also a strong telepath, who recruited him for an agency of the U.S. government so secret, it hid under the name "Organization of Active Anthropologists" so nobody would suspect it was engaged in international skulduggery.

The story in this issue is not particularly unusual: Dictator plans to take over the world by provoking a nuclear war between the US and Russia. However, there are some individual elements that are quite interesting and the concept of a Brain Boy fits in well with the early 1960s, so I thought I would discuss those more than the plot itself.

The early 1960s was a celebration of youth. John F. Kennedy was (and still is) the youngest president ever elected. It was also a time when intellect began to be respected more. The Whiz Kids of Robert McNamara, having reformed and modernized Ford Motor company, moved on to the Department of Defense.

Of course the Whiz Kids weren't really kids; McNamara had been 30 when he joined Ford and 44 by the time he became president of the company. But then, neither was Brain Boy a boy; his adventures start after his graduation from high school.

His powers are not described in full in the story, but it is obvious that they include telepathy, mind control, and the ability to fly:

He also possessed the ability to make himself virtually invisible, a la the Shadow:

Super powers and an origin mark him as pretty much a superhero, although he did not wear a costume. Dell had up till that point mostly specialized in licensed characters such as Donald Duck, but as Don Markstein notes, they had recently spun off much of that business to their Gold Key imprint and thus were apparently willing to experiment more in search of sales. Correction: As noted in the comments by my old buddy King Faraday, Gold Key was an imprint of Western Publishing, which had previously provided content to Dell.

Although Brain Boy did not operate in disguise, he did conceal his true abilities, causing him occasional problems with his girlfriend:

A very standard dilemma for a superhero character and his female companion, although as you can see, Maria (the girl in question) is far from a typical girlfriend for a 1960s superhero character. An interracial romance was definitely cutting edge by the standards of the time.

Brain Boy also lacked the code against killing that was common for the Silver Age:

And as Brain Boy leaves, he says "So die all tyrants." Not quite the literal meaning of "Sic semper tyrannus," (the words John Wilkes Booth shouted after shooting Abraham Lincoln), but close enough that it hardly seems coincidental.

Update: See here for several Brain Boy issues, including the first one (Four Color #1330).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sunday Linkage

Again With the Comics covers the Jimmy Olsen Helmet of Hate story, with some appropriate sarcasm. It is amazing to consider the wild schemes Superman came up with to avoid breaking his word.

Captain America's 1960s version of the I-Phone gets covered (along with the rest of the story from ToS #92) by Jared at Blog Into Mystery.

All recovered from the L-Tryptophan buzz, Jacque Nodell pens a post on why she loves romance comics from the 1960s and 1970s. I would just add one more reason: the characters in romance comics are generally better realized than those in the superhero books.

Comic geeks do not live by the Silver Age alone. Bronze Age Babies covers the first issue of FOOM (Friends of Old Marvel) here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jor-El's Life Story

Although the story is well-known to us today, kids in the 1940s and 1950s would be forgiven for not knowing it by heart, as it was seldom mentioned in the comics. Indeed, the first detailed origin of Superman beyond the very basics came in Superman #53, the tenth anniversary issue.

Well, that is if you ignore the Superman radio program, from which the Krypton part is largely copied. It was on the first episode of that program, in February 1940 that Jor-El's name first appeared.

The origin is pretty much as we know it today; Krypton was doomed, Jor-El was the only one to understand this, and other scientists scoffed at his prediction. In the origin as of Superman #53, we first learn the detail that the core of the planet consisted of uranium, and thus:

This seems obviously inspired by the actual atomic bomb which had been dropped on Japan only three years earlier. Interestingly, when Jor-El suggests rocket ships to Earth, another scientist laughs at the primitive Earthlings and points out that "They do not even have X-Ray vision."

This highlights a common problem with researching Krypton; at this point the writers and editors had not settled on exactly how Superman got his powers. There are stories which indicate that the Kryptonians were super even on their own planet, although this causes obvious problems (like why they didn't just fly away under their own power when the planet exploded).

Jor-El tries to coax Lara into joining their son in the rocket, but she insists on staying with her husband, and they launch their baby into space as their world ends.

In Superman #61, Superman finds himself suddenly experiencing weakness whenever he's around a pair of meteorites. He tracks them into the past and discovers they came from the planet Krypton. He sees a man who looks a lot like him, explaining to his wife that the planet is doomed. He follows the rocket to Earth and is stunned to realize when the Kents come upon the baby that it is his own past he is viewing. This is the first that he knows his own origin (and his first experience with Kryptonite).

Of course, both those aspects of the story were later retconned, as Superboy often encountered Kryptonite and (it was explained) he had nearly perfect memory and could recall many significant details of his life on Krypton.

In Superman #65, we learned that Jor-El was the leader of the Science Council which governed Krypton:

Although making Jor-El a leader was a natural desire for the writers and editor, it does cause some cognitive dissonance. Does it make sense that warnings of doom from such a respected elder would be greeted with the hoots of derision that Jor-El faces?

Note as well the Saturn-like symbol on his chest. This was pretty much the symbol for Jor-El before Weisinger standardized things in the Silver Age, although the colors of his uniform often changed. This story introduces one lasting element of Jor-El's mythos: the banishment of criminals into space in suspended animation:

Until the advent of the punishment ray (aka Phantom Zone projector) this would be Krypton's method of dealing with major criminals. Again, this is problematic from a logical standpoint; if Krypton had developed rocketry, why were they unable to send more than one baby boy off into space before the planet exploded?

In Superman #74, we see the first of Jor-El's many dangerous inventions. Luthor invents a ray that will pull objects from Krypton to him. Of course, his intent is to get a giant chunk of Kryptonite, but by chance he gets Jor-El's weapon cache. Included are a ray that turns people into stone (including Superman himself), levitation bombs, invisibility spray, a lightning projector, a magnet that attracts humans, and a weapon that will give anyone power over all men. This last dread device is finally used at the end of the story, but:

Up to this point (1952) Jor-El had been used sparingly, but afterward he became a frequently recurring character, appearing in many stories. In Superman #77, he met Professor Enders, an Earth scientist whom he teleports to Krypton and who reveals:

In many other stories, however, it is common knowledge among Jor-El and other scientists that they would have super-powers on Earth, although this does appear to be the first mention that some of the powers would come from the sun. And the story does raise more questions than it answers; if Jor-El is able to teleport Professor Enders back to Earth (as he does), then why doesn't he do the same with his family?

In World's Finest #69, Jor-El appears only in a brief flashback, but we learn that he had sent a will along with the rocket ship that his son traveled in. In that will he describes many inventions which Superman soon realizes (after testing them) are too dangerous for Earthlings. But one invention is a nuclear fission tester. When Superman builds it, he learns that Earth is undergoing the same reactions that destroyed his home planet, and he takes steps to quell the coming explosion. Thus, even though Jor-El was unable to save Krypton, he does prevent Earth from suffering the same fate.

Jor-El created many other inventions, including his famous land, sea, air and underground vehicle:

We don't know much about Jor-El's youth. In Superman #141, we learned that his father was named Jor-El I. His brother Zor-El of course is well-known as the father of Kara, aka Supergirl. But did you know he had another brother? Nim-El appeared in Adventure #304, in which we learned that he was the keeper at the Armory of Forbidden Weapons.

Many of the stories in the Jor-El canon concern his courtship of and marriage to Lara. These stories tend to be wildly inconsistent. In Lois Lane #39, we (apparently) learn that Lara got him to stop paying attention to his computer and pop the question by cooking him a rainbow cake:

However, at the end of that story it's revealed that this was just a dream that Lois had, and thus we don't really know that's how they became engaged.

In Lois Lane #59, Lois travels in time and space on a mission of mercy, with plans from a scientist who has invented a device to prevent a nuclear explosion. She hopes to save Krypton from destruction and, using Professor Potter's experimental time machine, she brings the blueprints to Jor-El. But inevitably fate intervenes as it happens that Jor-El constructs the device in Kandor and it disappears with Brainiac's abduction of that city. When Lois discovers that the time machine is out of order, she decides to make the most of a bad situation by stealing Jor-El from Lara:

Yuck. Terrible characterization for both Lois and Jor-El there, especially when Lois reacts to the stealing of Kandor by splitting in the time globe, which suddenly works again.

Of course, Lara got even worse characterization in Superman #170. In that story, Luthor goes back to Krypton, and woos and wins Lara. As they are about to be married, however, fate intervenes as a battery wears down on a device Luthor is wearing to prevent him from being crushed by Krypton's greater gravity. He confesses that he had lied about his planet of origin and (after the battery is replaced) flees. Lara marries Jor-El on the rebound:

In Superman #123 we learn that Jor-El and Lara, as a young couple not yet married, worked as agents for the KBI (Krypton Bureau of Investigation) and had infiltrated a plot to install a dictator on Krypton:

Note the reversed swastika on the wall and the name of the dictator; Weisinger and Otto Binder weren't much for subtlety.

However, as always seems to happen in such stories, the only person who knew they were playing a role has died, and thus they are sentenced to 100 years in suspended animation in a prison satellite. Superman frees them, defeats Kil-Lor, and provides them with proof they were working against the dictator. Flush with victory, Jor-El proposes:

Superman sends them back to Krypton with his best wishes, apparently not realizing that this will result in their deaths.

Even after their marriage, things occasionally got rocky for the young couple, as when Krypto got shot into space:

Although in the original Krypto story in Adventure #210 she was much more understanding about the need to test his rocket ship.

Jor-El won several awards during his scientific career. For starters, he was awarded his seat on the Science Council for inventing the Phantom Zone projector (aka Punishment Ray). His greatest award however was described in Adventure #323:

Of course, even a busy scientist must take some leisure time, and when Jor-El wanted to relax he enjoyed a game of Interplanetary Scramble:

And when he played Robot Wars with his son, he let the tyke win:

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the Grand Comics Database, without which this post would be much less comprehensive. I also thank several friends who were kind enough to scan in copies of the issues I was missing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Some Weird Silver Age Kisses

Okay so Lois is pretty sick in the head:

But check out what turns Superman on:

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Star Spangled War Stories #84

This is another example of the women who began to pop up in the DC magazine line during the late 1950s and early 1960s; I still don't quite understand the sociological reasons for this although I suppose it could be just as simple as the publishers realizing that there was a huge untapped market.

Mademoiselle Marie became a mildly significant character in the DC Universe. In the early 1980s it was disclosed that she had been a lover of Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's butler, and had borne him a daughter, named Julia Remarque. Julia had a continuing presence in the Batman line and became a brief romance interest for Bruce. Of course, this illustrates once again the problems with tying continuing characters to historical events. Back then it would have put Alfred at (say) 60 years old and established a girlfriend for Bruce of about 35 years old. Now it would mean that Alfred is pushing 90 and Julia would be eligible for Social Security.

But all that was far in the future as this August 1959 story was published. A paratrooper is about to land in occupied France. He expresses frustration here:

Eventually the lights appear briefly, but his parachute gets tangled in some trees and it looks like he's going to be snuffed out by a Nazi patrol, until:

She quickly impresses him with her competence and fighting ability. And when he destroys a tank that is about to kill her, he gets a little taste of her softer side:

But then she chastises him for disobeying her order to escape. Later, they attempt to blow up a bridge, but she delays pressing the plunger:

He wants her to come back to England with him, but she knows where she belongs:

Marie was featured in SSWS for the next year, before being bumped for the War that Time Forgot (aka Dinosaur Island) series. She made irregular appearances in several of the DC war comics features of the Silver Age, including Sgt. Rock, the Haunted Tank, and Johnny Cloud. In Detective Comics #501-502, it was revealed that she was shot and killed by a Nazi collaborator shortly before the end of WWII.

There are two backup stories. The first is a Mort Drucker treat called Blind Bomber. As the title implies, a Korean War bomber pilot is blinded by flak, but he still manages to deliver his "eggs" to market:

The final story is No Flag for a Sand Flea. A squad of US infantry is dying of thirst in the desert of North Africa, when they come upon an oasis. But you can probably guess the problem:

The flag has six stars on it, indicating that the Nazis are a crack outfit, having defeated six Allied units. Determined not to be the seventh, the infantry squad manages to take the flag and the oasis. Afterwards they come up with their own flag:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Maybe Karen Deserved It?

After all, how much more thoughtless can you be than to have a picture of yourself framed with the inscription, "All my love, Karen," and give it to a blind man?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Short Life of Mike Murdock

One of the more bizarre sagas from Marvel in the 1960s concerned Matt (Daredevil) Murdock's "twin brother", Mike. As I have discussed in the past, most superheroes are also only children, and as it happens, Matt is no exception to that trend.

The story begins in Daredevil #16. DD's enemy, the Masked Marauder, comes up with a novel idea on how to tie up two superheroes at once. He creates an army of Daredevil knockoffs and instructs them to attack Spiderman, who recently foiled one of his schemes. After the initial attack, they are to fade away, leaving the wall-crawler angry and frustrated.

The plan works to perfection. When Spidey encounters the real Daredevil, he lashes out angrily. While they are battling, the Masked Marauder pulls of a spectacular robbery. This convinces each hero that the other was in cahoots with the MM. By a bit of coincidence, Spiderman happens to be swinging by the law offices of Nelson and Murdock awhile later, and his spider-sense alerts him to the presence of Daredevil. He makes the obvious deduction that DD cannot be a blind man, and thus accuses Foggy:

Matt and Karen eventually convince Peter of the error he's made. In the following issue, DD and Spidey team up to defeat the Masked Marauder. A few issues later, Peter sends a letter to Matt Murdock, revealing that he knows that Matt is really Daredevil, but not to worry, he won't disclose the secret to anyone. Unfortunately, Matt disappears shortly afterward and Karen remembers a special delivery letter and:

This sets the stage. In DD #25, Karen and Foggy confront Matt with the letter:

Of course, Foggy points out the obvious: that he roomed with Matt at college and never heard anything about a twin brother. So Matt prevaricates some more and Karen says what does it matter now that Matt's back, but Foggy still wants to meet this mysterious sibling and so:

And for the next year and a half, Mike became a regular character in the DD universe. It's an insane plot twist but Stan manages to pull it off with some credibility because a) he acknowledges that it's crazy and b) Daredevil's abilities mean that he's able to pass Mike off as a sighted person despite being blind.

It's safe to say that most adult readers today find the storyline unbelievable and a low point. However, I remember reading these issues as a young teen and enjoying the heck out of them. Mike was the opposite of Matt in every way; confident where Matt was tentative, arrogant instead of sensitive and relishing letting Foggy and Karen know he was Daredevil. He flirts outrageously with Karen and teases Foggy abut his weight. What teenaged boy wouldn't want to try being a new person, confident and breezy, especially with the understanding that he could always go back to being the meek and mild-mannered guy if things didn't work out?

Again this is not to deny how ridiculous the stories are. Because Matt and Mike couldn't appear together, Matt was forced to rely on a series of increasingly implausible ruses to keep the imposture going:

And he apparently enjoyed being Mike so much that he began to get some decidedly weird ideas:

For a lawyer, Matt doesn't think things through very carefully.

In Daredevil #41, Mike (as Daredevil) is "killed" while destroying a machine that moves people into another time dimension. Is this the end of the superhero as well? Umm, no, as Matt tells the Jester (plus Foggy and Karen) in the next issue:

Blog into Mystery covers one of the early Mike Murdock stories here. There were two oddities that I noticed while reading the stories in this run:

1. The villain from last month's issue is frequently rescued by this month's villain. This happens to the Gladiator (rescued by the Masked Marauder in DD #19), the Leap-Frog (attempted rescue by the Stilt-Man in DD #26) and the Stilt-Man (rescued by the Masked Marauder at the end of DD #26).

2. The villains often attempted to blind (temporarily or otherwise) DD. The Masked Marauder hits him with an "Opti-Ray" blast that had briefly blinded Spiderman. The Gladiator threw sand in Daredevil's face in #23. The alien invaders in #28 use a "sight-stealing ray". The Cobra and Mr Hyde actually succeed in eliminating DD's extra senses with a potion intended to blind him in #30-32. And Dr. Doom's hynoticon in #37 fails precisely because ol' Horn-Head is sightless (just as the Ringmaster's hat was unable to hypnotize him in Amazing Spiderman #16).

Monday, November 08, 2010

Quick Bits

That wish could be interpreted in more than one way:

How strong is the Hulk?

Strong enough to defy gravity.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Secret Six #1

As the 1960s drew to a close, DC began to experiment more. Whereas previous titles had almost always required a tryout issue or two in Showcase, Secret Six debuted in their own magazine. The only earlier Silver Age title I can think of given that treatment was Captain Storm.

The first part of the story is tied up with introducing our six characters. King is a Hollywood stuntman, Crimson is a top model, Carlo is an escape artist, August Durant is a physicist, Lili is a cosmetologist and Tiger is a former pro boxer. We learn that a mysterious person called Mockingbird has a hold over them, and wants them to defeat criminals that the law cannot touch.

The hold he has over them is somewhat like blackmail, although in each case it does not appear to be something the Secret Six member did wrong:

With the arguable exception of King. I point this out because while the idea of the "anti-hero" was very popular at the time, DC was not quite ready to present their readers with characters that were more than a teensy bit flawed, although that would soon change.

To add an element of suspense, it is indicated that one of the members of the Secret Six is probably Mockingbird operating incognito. He (or she) uses his control of the group to force them to attack criminals who are outside the reach of the law. Their initial misson:

Crimson seduces and drugs one of the financiers. Lili then makes up Tiger to look like the drugged moneyman. Carlo uses his escaping abilities in reverse to find a way into the evil genius' hideout.

They succeed in rather undramatic fashion; in the end the criminal dies by his own gadget as is cliche in these stories.

Overall the story (by E. Nelson Bridwell) is entertaining but nothing special. The art by Frank Robbins (Correction: Frank Springer, as pointed out in the comments by Dan) shows some promise; if I recall correctly, this is an early work of his for DC. The series is obviously inspired by the very popular Mission Impossible show on TV at the time.

Update: I read through the next several issues in this series and I have to say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Although the individual stories are not all that strong or unique, I like the way the series develops. As time goes by we learn more about the background of the Secret Six and the people responsible for the problems that Mockingbird exploits to force them to do his bidding--the crooks that wanted Tiger to throw a boxing match, the charmer that conned Crimson out of the family fortune, the torturer who forced King to reveal army secrets, etc.

Update II: Commander Benson's take on the Secret Six series is here. Commander Benson discusses the logic process that led to his deduction of the identity of Mockingbird here. I should mention that in my reading of the series, I noticed that while there were six issues after the first, and that each issue revealed more about the backgrounds of the characters, the only character whom we did not learn more about was the one that Commander Benson identified.