Sunday, February 27, 2011

Vampirella #2

As the 1960s neared a close, the comics companies found themselves under increasing pressure. As I have noted in the past, demographic changes caused by the birth control pill meant that their target market, kids from about 7-12 years old, was going to shrink dramatically during the 1970s, from a high of 25.6 million in 1968 to 21.7 million in 1976.

In addition, inflation was rearing its ugly head. While the effects of inflation on the elderly were well-reported, it caused similar (if less tragic) consequences to the young, who also survived on a fixed income (called an allowance). This forced the comics companies to prune their lines of their lower-selling titles. I noticed this a couple of weeks ago; when looking at the comics canceled in any one year, there was always a bulge just prior to a price increase. For example, DC shuttered nine titles between 1960 and 1961 (the price increase to 12 cents came in late 1961), but only seven titles from 1962-1967. In 1968 and 1969, DC canceled a whopping 17 titles.

The obvious solution was to cultivate a slightly larger slice of the demographic pie. But that was not without its difficulties. Going after older boys meant a combination of sex, horror and violence, but that would require substantial changes to the Comics Code Authority. In addition, the companies would find themselves facing competitors that had only recently staked out that territory for themselves.

One of those competitors was Warren Publishing. Warren had started out with Famous Monsters of Filmland, which mostly featured text and black and white photographs. In 1964, Warren introduced Creepy, and in 1966, Eerie. Both mags were obviously inspired by the EC horror comics of the 1950s, but they had several crucial differences. They were black and white, cost 35 cents, and (most important) they were magazine-sized, to get around the restrictions of the CCA.

They followed EC's format of having hosts who introduced and provided ending commentary on each story, usually with awful puns addressed to the "boys and ghouls" reading the magazine. Comics fans may not know that EC did not pioneer that concept; in fact it originated with Raymond, the host of Inner Sanctum radio show:

In 1969, Warren began publishing Vampirella, which followed the same format, with an interesting difference: the stories were introduced by beautiful, if somewhat threatening, females. Warren apparently paid well, as his magazines attracted some terrific talent.

The opening story features Evily as shown on the cover and here:

By today's standards, that's tame but in 1969 it was pretty risque. The story itself (like Evily) is silly and padded. She's having a party and her evil guests are all required to bring her the souls of the damned. But her cousin Vampirella shows up and in a magic duel turns her into her opposite: Good!

The second story concerns a trio of tomb raiders, threatened by the curse of Quetzalcoatl for stealing his treasures. Quetzalcoatl can turn himself into any winged creature, from birds:

To insects, and even (in the finale):

The third story features Vampirella herself. She comes down to New York City and auditions for the part of "Monsterella", which (not surprising) she wins, and is put on a flight to Hollywood. In this one, the writer (Forrest Ackerman) goes for the gross-out ending:

The fourth story concerns a movie producer whose last several films have flopped. He turns to his assistant who contacts a writer named Gorry Hackerman, who suggests combining horror and sex with attractive female monsters (sounds quite a bit like this magazine). The assistant discovers an actress who seems perfect for the role, and the producer and his new starlet go on to create several huge hits. But when he confesses that he loves her, she has a secret to reveal:

The next story very much fits the old EC style. A man has discovered a well filled with monsters and wants to explore the area to see where the monsters come from. Perhaps his brother, who has an inheritance (and two young children) could finance things. The kids are frightened of the well and Uncle Carl, but Dad promises them he will always protect them. On a dive to explore the area around the well, Uncle Carl eliminates Dad:

But when he tries to kill the kiddies, he slips in the well himself and is killed by a giant octopus. But somehow his spirit takes over the monster, which goes after the children. But Dad arrives and saves them:

The next story is something of a rip-off of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was later made into the movie Blade Runner. An android whose purpose is to destroy renegade androids falls in love with one. They are judged by a panel of robots who reach a split decision. They are set free in a deserted area. But it turns out to be ground zero for a nuclear test and the two androids are found fused together.

The finale is called Rhapsody in Red, and it's a reworking of the biggest cliche in horror: couple out for a drive during a storm, flat tire, was that a castle we passed back there, oh, did I scare you by mentioning the vampires in the vicinity...

But if the story's a trifle stale, the art (credited to Billy Graham?) is transcendent:

Overall I'd rate the stories as just okay. They're done in the EC style, but just don't quite have the bite of those stories; the twist ending is never quite twisted enough. The art is gorgeous, and I'd suspect that the teens this magazine was aimed at loved the product.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My Sea Hunt Memory

A longtime buddy posts about the Sea Hunt comics put out by Dell in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Sea Hunt was a TV show that ran from 1957-1961, and longer in reruns (which was where I encountered it). It featured Lloyd Bridges as a scuba diver; I seem to recall that one or two of his sons also appeared on the show occasionally.

I don't have any recollection of any specific episodes of the show itself, but in 1964 my mom took me and my sister to the New York World's Fair. My best memory at that fair was seeing a guy wheeling several baskets full of strawberries. Being a little wise-ass I asked him if he had any free samples, and no kidding he gave me a humongous strawberry! Better still, when my sister demanded that I share it with her, Mom said that since I was the one to ask for it, I could have it all.

Anyway, there was a Sea Hunt exhibit at the World's Fair and since I'd seen the show on TV, I wanted to check it out. It was basically a scuba diver in a giant glass tank, with Lloyd Bridges (on tape) narrating the story of a dive that suddenly went awry. A giant octopus attacked him!

Well, in the tank, the diver grabbed a very fake-looking plastic octopus and pretended to grapple with it. The whole thing was very cheesy. Okay, big deal, right?

Except that even as I was griping how fake it was, I realized that only a year or two earlier I would have been enthralled, and oddly that made me feel a little sad. Not at my earlier self for having been a credulous little kid, but at my (then) current self for being unable to suspend disbelief. It was an odd thing; I realized I was growing up and getting just a tad more sophisticated, and it was a little dismaying.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Super-Swipes #7: The Olympics

As I have mentioned in the past, Mort Weisinger operated on the assumption that his readership turned over completely every seven years, and so he had little compunction about swiping stories from that long ago. Here's an example that fits the time pattern precisely:

Action #220 is the September 1956 issue, while Action #304 is the September 1963 issue. Note in particular that in the earlier story, DC was capitalizing on a current event, as 1956 was an Olympic year, while in 1963 the games were a full year away.

The stories are very similar as you can see from these opening panels:

On the next page, things do diverge a bit; in Action #304, Lana Lang happens along in her helicopter and is pulled into space along with Superman, whereas in Action #220 Superman travels alone. There turns out to be an important reason for this difference.

In both stories, a scientist from an alien world has sent out the attraction ray to bring Superman to his planet for the Interplanetary Olympics. In both stories, the prize is the same:

That's rather interesting in that one of the promises of nuclear power back in the 1950s was that it was supposed to be ridiculously inexpensive; in fact the claim was that it would be too cheap to bother metering. That certainly didn't prove to be the case.

In both stories, Superman performs very poorly:

But Weisinger (and writer Leo Dorfman) do have a substantial change in Action #304 to the Action #220 ending (tentatively credited at the GCD to Edmond Hamilton). In the original, Superman discovers that the top contestant, Bronno, is a robot, and that the reason for his own weakness in the stadium is that a block of Kryptonite was used in its construction.

In the revised version, Superman was intentionally losing, because he caught onto the fact that the games were rigged. It turns out that the contestants and the scientist who had brought him to the alien world were actually crooks, hoping to tap Superman's powers and use them to evade the law. Naturally, Superman didn't intend to help them, and in fact the story ends with the interplanetary police arresting the trio.

This also reveals why Lana was brought along with him. In the original, Superman was puzzled by his own weakness, but with the revised ending Lana had to be the one expressing surprise. Note in particular that in the panel where Superman's climbing out of the water, that he carefully avoids lying. "I'm doing what I can," not "I'm doing the best that I can."

Friday, February 18, 2011

The First Underground Comics?

DC was able to launch several series in the early 1960s featuring characters without super-powers. Sea Devils, Challengers of the Unknown, and Rip Hunter all had decent runs before giving up the ghost by the end of the decade. But there were several pilots whose chute failed to open, including this one.

Cave Carson was certainly given a chance to succeed; his tryouts spanned eight issues or about 200 pages. That's longer than some characters that did get their own mags, like the Hawk and the Dove or Anthro.

Cave's crew consisted initially of Bulldozer Smith, a former sandhog (underground tunnel expert) and Christie Madison, a geologist (yet another early 1960s DC female character in a non-traditional woman's occupation). Looking at that lineup, you can see the one item missing in the standard foursome as exemplified by the Fantastic Four, Rip Hunter and the Sea Devils. Smart guy (Cave), strong guy (Bulldozer), woman (Christie), but no kid. The team would expand in later stories to include Lena, a pet lemur, and Johnny Blake, Cave's swaggering rival for Christie's affections.

The story begins with Cave trapped below the surface of the Earth. Via a flashback, we learn that Cave had gone down there to investigate some mysterious occurrences. A giant metal tower and some train cars had been sucked down into the ground. He left his two assistants behind to finish work on the Mighty Mole:

Fantastic modes of transportation were pretty standard in the Silver Age, from the Batmobile to the Arrowcar to the Pogo Plane to the Metal Men's flying platform. Kids are fascinated by unusual vehicles and the Mighty Moles' likely prototype was the Hillman car, a 1960s amphibious craft:

Christie and Bulldozer have completed the Mole and bore into the ground looking for Cave, whom they find trapped under some freight cars. After rescuing him, they learn of the cause of the mysterious occurrences:

And from there, the story has them chased from the magnetic monster to a giant lizard to the lava monster shown on the cover, then back to the magnetic monster who destroys the lava monster before being defeated by Cave and the Mole:

The story is standard early 1960s DC, with monsters and more monsters; Bruno Premiani's art is the main redeeming feature. Jack Schiff was the editor for the first five (Brave & Bold) tryout issues, and the stories feature his steady recipe of monsters and aliens.

Things do improve a bit when the series was given further shots in Showcase #48, 49 and 52. There is some character development and hints of depth in this sequence from #48:

By this point Murray Boltinoff was the editor, with Lee Elias on the artwork and Bob Haney handling the plot and dialog. Although I am not a fan of Haney's work on the Brave and the Bold and Teen Titans, he does a decent job here of making the characters more three-dimensional. He adds what would appear to be a long-term villain here:

But although the series improved quite a bit under the new creative team, it was not a hit with the youngsters of the 1960s and save for a few cameo appearances, Cave Carson has largely vanished. I recommend the Showcase issues as worth reading.

Update: An anonymous commenter points to the Pellucidar series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which Abner Perry invents the Iron Mole, a craft that takes him to a world at the Earth's core. This is obviously the inspiration for the Mighty Mole, although the latter does have an amphibious quality that I cannot find in ERB's creation.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Here Come the Fanboys

It started, as did many things in that simpler era, with a letter. A young man wrote to Julius Schwartz, editor at DC Comics, inquiring as to the availability of back issues of All-Star Comics, a long-defunct DC title from the 1940s. Schwartz did not have any to sell the young man, but he did remember that the writer of those old issues, Gardner Fox, had kept his own copies.

The young man was named Jerry Bails, and following up on Schwartz's suggestion, he negotiated a deal to buy Fox's collection. Bails had read All-Star as a kid and amassed a decent collection before the title was canceled. Now he was looking to recover the issues he'd lost over the years and find the ones that he'd never read before.

If all this sounds a little strange, remember that back in those days there were no comics stores (forget about Ebay). Comics were sold in lots of little mom and pop newsstands and drugstores. Nobody advertised back issues in comics magazines, and so amassing a collection of older issues was pretty much a hit or miss proposition, involving checking garage sales and used bookstores.

And then a very odd and significant thing happened. Another young man wrote to Schwartz, also asking about back issues of All-Star. Schwartz referred him to Fox, who referred him to Bails.

Bails was so thrilled to discover that there was another adult out there who liked old issues of All-Star that he sent the second young man, Roy Thomas, duplicate copies of several of his issues. Over the next several months, Thomas and Bails wrote back and forth dozens of times.

Not long after this, Julius Schwartz resurrected the concept of a team of superheroes, this time named the Justice League of America. He incorporated the two superheroes he had relaunched thus far, the Barry Allen Flash and the Hal Jordan Green Lantern and rounded out the membership with three existing DC heroes, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter.

Bails and Thomas were enthusiastic, but they had seen that comic books come and go. Bails wanted the Justice League to last, and so, during a trip to New York, he suggested to Schwartz that he start up a little newsletter for fans of the JLA, to help market the comics.

It was one of those situations where the stars were perfectly aligned. As it happened, Schwartz knew all about fan newsletters, because back in the 1930s he had started one for the then-new science fiction fandom. His two teen co-editors of Time Traveler had been Mort Weisinger and Forrest Ackerman (later the publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland). He told Bails that his project should be called a fanzine (combining fan and magazine), and started publishing the full addresses of letter writers so that Bails and Thomas could compile a database of older comic book fans for their market. Schwartz would provide Bails with information about upcoming stories so they would have a constant supply of copy.

Alter-Ego #1 (cover shown above) was the result. As you can see, it's something of a parody of the cover of Brave and Bold #29:

Bails opened with a mission statement that is largely what you'd expect, but he did throw a rather large bone to Schwartz and DC: he sprinkled cryptograms throughout the issue that could only be decoded with a key that Bails promised to send anyone who sent him a copy of their subscription label to Justice League of America.

The next few pages were devoted to previews of coming issues of the Schwartz-edited magazines, including a few classics:

If that format looks familiar to you, it should. DC used much the same layout for their Direct Currents house ads in the mid-late 1960s:

There followed feature articles on the Golden Age villain the Wizard (by Bails) and the Spectre (by Thomas), and Wonder Woman (Bails). The issue closed with the JLA parody shown on the cover; here's the splash page by Thomas:

Alter Ego was published sporadically throughout the 1960s; Julius Schwartz recommended it in the letters column of JLA #8, sending circulation soaring:

Thomas revived Alter-Ego as a glossy, slick magazine in the 1990s that is still published today. It's a terrific read; fans will love the special issues devoted to their favorite artists. My copies of the issues dedicated to Dick Sprang (#19) and Will Eisner (#48) are especially treasured.

Bails had already conceived of the next phase of fandom: the Alley Awards, kind of like the Academy Awards but for comic books. Compiling the votes for the awards led to the "Alley Tally", an early gathering of comic book fans, that led to the earliest comic book conventions.

The influence of organized fandom on comic books has been enormous. The comics industry drew much of its next generation of talent (especially writers) from the ranks of the fans. Roy Thomas went on to become a major force at Marvel (succeeding Stan Lee as Editor) and DC. E. Nelson Bridwell, Tony Isabella, Mike Friedrich, Martin Pasko, Jim Shooter and many others started their careers as fans. As the demand for back issues grew, comics companies began (starting around 1965) to emphasize the collectible nature of their products.

Note: I realize I have barely skimmed the surface of this topic. For more details on the birth of Alter Ego, see this article by Bill Schelly. I drew on other sources as well; Julius Schwartz's Man of Two Worlds was especially helpful.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Flash #120

The Flash was probably the most interesting DC hero of the Silver Age. Certainly his comic ran the longest of any of Julius Schwartz's reincarnations; Green Lantern was gone by 1972, the Atom and Hawkman ceased publication (after being merged) in 1969. The Flash made it all the way to 1985.

Given that history, it's worth speculating as to why Barry Allen lasted while the others did not. For starters, it pays to be first; Schwartz introduced the new Flash well before his other re-imagined heroes. The Barry Allen Flash first appeared in Sept-Oct 1956, while Green Lantern debuted a full three years later. Similarly, the first two superheroes from the Golden Age (Superman and Batman) outlasted almost all of their contemporaries.

Second, the Flash had an interesting and colorful rogues' gallery, as shown here (from 80-Page Giant #4):

Third, I would argue that the Flash's ability, running fast, is especially suited to exciting the imaginations of youngsters. Who wouldn't want to be able to tear up the miles rather than having to plod home from school? Who wouldn't want to be able to zip ahead to Grandma's house rather than suffer through the interminable car trips?

One element that was probably not a significant factor, was that the Flash had a juvenile counterpart. While I enjoyed Kid Flash, and especially the "moral" stories that he often appeared in, he didn't show up much in the later 1960s outside of Teen Titans

As you can see from the cover above, this is a Flash/Kid Flash teamup. As the story begins, Barry and Wally West are running late for a yachting trip with Iris and an explorer named Dr. Manners to South America. Dr. Manners is looking for evidence to confirm his belief that South America and Africa were once joined. It's worth noting that this theory was still controversial at the time, although it has now become widely accepted.

It looks impossible for Barry and Wally to make it to the yacht on time, but Barry reveals that he knows Wally is Kid Flash, as a prelude to disclosing his own secret:

They are delayed a bit when they have to prevent a plane from crashing into a crowded area of the city, but they still make it. On board, they learn that there's a young girl of Wally's age:

I like that Infantino has them rather pointedly sitting on separate couches in that last panel. Dr. Manners explains their mission here:

And in fact the Wikipedia article on continental drift notes that the existence of the same animals on both continents are part of the proof that Africa and South America were once joined (although it's mostly fossils and earthworms that are cited there, not lemurs and aardvarks).

They dock in South America and journey inland. A tribe of natives warn them about a mountain known as the Sleeping Giant, but Iris dismisses it as superstitious drivel. However, as they make their way into the valley nearby, the Sleeping Giant awakens; it was a volcano, which causes earth tremors and rockslides. When the party recovers, they seem to have been transported far away, as the Sleeping Giant is nowhere to be seen.

Barry and Wally discover something odd:

They volunteer to do a little scouting around, not telling Dr Manners that it will be in their crimson uniforms. They come upon a caveman being threatened by a giant bird, and save him. But what are cavemen doing in modern times? Later, they see paintings of prehistoric animals created by the cave people. Have they stumbled into a valley that time forgot? They also learn that the primitives fear a giant named Grodan. And sure enough:

Flash vibrates his way free of the giant. He and Kid Flash use some cables that had been brought on the expedition to truss up the behemoth (as shown on the cover). Then Barry realizes that they are not in some hidden valley that has been missed by civilization; rather they are literally in the past. Sure enough, as they do some more exploring:

Okay, so that's a bit of artistic license. The dinosaurs in fact became extinct about 65 million years ago, well before the time of cavemen. Flash and his younger counterpart race around the globe, establishing that the continents were indeed joined at this period in time. But at that moment the earthquakes begin that separates the continents. They dash off to help the cavemen, who are under attack by the giants. But:

The actual phrase is, "there were giants in the earth in those days..." and it comes from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament.

Barry and Wally rush back to their expedition and try to set up duplicate vibrations to the original earthquake that transported them to the past. We get a rather psychedelic panel here:

And then they're back in the present day (well, 1961 anyway). Dr Manners has photographic proof that the continents were joined, and the juvenile romance subplot has been resolved:

Comments: A terrific and entertaining story by John Broome and Carmine Infantino, with only the occasional anachronisms as negatives.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Superboy #68

Although he became a comical, silly character in the 1960s, the original Bizarro, shown above, was played as a tragic figure initially. The story is somewhat loosely based on Frankenstein as portrayed in the Boris Karloff 1930s movie, which in turn was somewhat loosely based on Mary Shelley's classic novel.

As the story starts, Superboy is helping an inventor, who is trying to duplicate a sample of radium. If his duplicator ray works, it will be a boon to hospitals, which use radium to treat patients.

An aside here: Radium was constantly being mentioned in the Silver Age. It was used as a treatment for cancer, with radium being planted in the body to kill the cancer cells (and probably a fair amount on non-cancerous cells. It is not used any more that way; according to this site, it is more common to use either indium or caesium, although the actual treatment is still pretty similar. Radium was indeed an extremely valuable substance and remains pretty spendy: Current prices are about $50 million per pound.

But the experiment does not work; the synthetic radium fails to register on the Geiger counter. But as Superboy is about to leave, the inventor trips, and accidentally beams the ray on the Boy of Steel, creating a faulty duplicate:

It's probably not commonly known, but in the original Frankenstein book by Shelley, the monstrous part of the monster was not that he was horrifically ugly, or that he had an abnormal brain (he didn't). It was that he lacked a soul.

When they return from getting rid of the glowing pieces of the machine, Bizarro has gone for a walk. Superboy asks again, is it alive? No, insists the inventor, no more than a car that moves is alive. We get the first inkling that Bizarro doesn't talk the way he did on the cover here:

Bizarro is upset at the reactions of the people to him, who recoil in horror. But when he sees his own reflection in a shop window, he reacts similarly:

But Superboy is helping corral some escaped animals from the Smallville Zoo (which appeared to have very poor animal enclosures, judging by how often breakouts happened). A posse is quickly formed, led by Professor Dalton, but their efforts to shoot Bizarro have no effect on the monster's invulnerable skin.

He retreats to the safety of the Kents' home, but Mom is terrified of her new "son":

He adopts a farming family on the outskirts of town and attempts to be helpful. But when he wears a scarecrow costume to town as his secret identity:

A psychiatrist could probably write a dissertation on why kids found Bizarro so compelling. On the one hand, the monster often makes silly mistakes while trying to do good; it's not hard to see how youngsters could find themselves in the same situation. On the other hand, he's so goofy that the readers, only a few years removed from infantile behavior themselves, could feel superior to him.

But at the end of Chapter 1, Bizarro finds one person who "sees" the real him:

Melissa is an amalgam of two characters from the movie, in which Frankenstein encounters a girl too young to be frightened of him, and a blind man who befriends him.

In the second part of the story, Bizarro comes to school and disrupts a gym class with his extraordinary strength, forcing Clark to save his fellow students:

He melts the screws with the heat of his X-ray vision. The boys reject Bizarro and he flies off in tears. Superboy realizes it's time for some more drastic measures. He locates a Kryptonite meteor in space, and, wearing a lead costume to protect himself, hurls it at the monster. But Bizarro is immune to the glowing fragments of the planet Krypton.

Determined to prove his good intentions, Bizarro sculpts a likeness of Superboy on a nearby mountain. But improbably:

Superboy and the military team up to try to destroy Bizarro with conventional weaponry, but (aside from some dynamic action), nothing happens. However, as he flies back to Smallville, Bizarro is momentarily weakened when he passes a garbage truck.

Bizarro overhears Melissa wishing that there was a babbling brook in her backyard, and drills down to a spring to create one. But when she falls into the water, he learns that she is blind. If she were sighted, she'd fear him like the rest of Smallville. Meanwhile, Superboy has realized that the glowing fragments of the machine that created Bizarro are what weakened him. And:

Their collision destroys Bizarro, but it does have an upside:

Comments: An absolute classic. I loved this story the first time I read it in a reprint giant as a youngster, and it still enchants me. It must have been very popular with the kids of the time, for DC soon brought back Bizarro as an antagonist for the adult Superman. Weisinger encouraged the kids to write in with their ideas about the stupid things the Bizarros did. This proved popular enough that they were briefly given the backup slot in Adventure Comics, bumping Aquaman.