Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Other Showcase

Back when I was a young teen collecting comics, I remember picking up this issue at a garage sale and boggling:

Under "Still 10 cents" it says "No. 1115". I was flabbergasted. I knew that Ricky Nelson had starred with the rest of his family in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for a very long time (in fact, that show is still the second longest-running sitcom in US history, behind only the Simpsons), and that he'd had some success as a rock star, but the idea that his comic had over five times as many issues as Superman (back then) was simply impossible to conceive.

And, of course, it wasn't true.

DC did not originate the concept of a tryout magazine, where new features could be tested to see if they sold. They borrowed the idea from Dell Comics, which had a series simply entitled Four Color Comics. Dell published approximately 1350 issues under that name, which I believe is still the all-time record for a single series in the United States, even though the last Four Color issue was published in 1962. Since the first issue appeared in 1942, it is obvious that they put out about 60 comics a year under this line, or five per month. And four of those issues, not 1100+, featured young Mr Nelson.

The Four Color line included the debuts of many long-running series for Dell and its later successors, including Donald Duck, (#9), Felix the Cat (#15), Roy Rogers (#38), Little Lulu (#74), Pogo (#105), Woody Woodpecker (#169). Of course those features had appeared elsewhere, but these were the tryouts that got them their own comic titles. Four Color also featured the first appearance anywhere of Uncle Scrooge (#178).

The Four Color series did create one problem which caused endless anxiety for collectors in the days before the Overstreet Guide. Dell would run, say, four tryout issues for Spin and Marty (a serial about two boys on a dude ranch that ran on TV in the Mickey Mouse Club), spaced out over a number of months, and if the sales justified it, they would start issuing the feature in its own magazine, starting with #5. Which meant that collectors might search forever for the elusive #s 1-4, not realizing that they bore issue #s 714, 767, 808 and 826 on the covers.

As if that wasn't complicated enough, Four Color was actually two series; there were 25 issues in Volume One, and 1300+ in V2. To add to the confusion, while the last issue of V2 was #1354, there were numerous missing issues in the last 100 or so; for example, there is no #1351, #1352 or #1353.

The most valuable issues in the Four Color line are generally the early Donald Duck appearances by Carl Barks, but there are plenty of cheap issues from the 1940s-1960s offering fine quality entertainment.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Repetitive Plots in Sgt Rock

I love reading the DC war titles of the Silver Age; for the most part they have excellent art and entertaining stories. But there is one major problem with reading a bunch of them consecutively, and that is that the main features recycle plotlines consistently.

I've talked in the past about Gunner and Sarge, and how many of the stories featured the same action with Gunner acting as the decoy and the Sarge figuring out where the enemy was located by their fire at his counterpart. The Johnny Cloud stories always had some incident from his youth as a Navajo relating to his problems as an air ace in WWII. In the Haunted Tank series, the ghost of Jeb Stuart would give cryptic advice to his namesake, which inevitably proved prescient.

The Sergeant Rock series was no exception to this trend. The standard plot outline involved Rock being concerned about something that Easy Company is doing wrong that could lead to disaster. For example:

That bit about Easy Company being like a chain came up often. Sarge was as fanatical about eliminating the weakest link as Anne Robinson:

There would then follow several rapid-fire combat sequences proving Rock was right:

Or sometimes the combat-happy Joes would appear to be right for awhile:

Thus increasing the pressure on Rock to prove them wrong. In the end there was always a resolution, although I admit that Kanigher (who wrote these stories) was willing to be more creative in his denouements:

So I recommend these DC war series, but also caution that you should probably read them as they were published; with a month or two in between each issue.

Friday, August 19, 2011

False Dawns

There is a light that precedes the actual dawn by about an hour; it is called the false dawn.
temporary light on the eastern horizon that precedes the rising sun by about an hour; also called zodiacal light

Most comics historians date the dawn of the Silver Age to the Sept-Oct 1956 and the appearance of Showcase #4, with the first Barry Allen Flash. Others will argue for November 1955 and Detective #225, featuring the introduction of Barry's JLA partner, the Martian Manhunter. As you know, I just use 1955 in general because of the appearance of the Comics Code Authority Seal on the covers, starting in around March of that year.

But if we were to date it from the resurgence of the superhero genre, which is certainly one of the hallmarks of the Silver Age, it's amazing how complicated things get, because there were a lot of efforts at relaunching old superheros and inaugurating new ones in the 1954-55 era. And despite Showcase #4 supposedly coming like a bolt from the blue, it took three more years before Flash graduated to his own magazine, and before DC attempted to bring back another updated Golden Age hero (Green Lantern).

For example, Sterling published four issues of a superhero named Captain Flash starting in November 1954. But before that, Headline Publications put out seven issues of Fighting American, a Simon & Kirby collaboration, with the first issue bearing an April-May 1954 cover date. Here's the cover to #2:

And earlier still, in December 1953 Marvel (then known as Atlas) tried bringing back the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and Captain America, with five issues of Young Men:

In February 1955, Charlton attempted to bring back the Blue Beetle, although in this case it was simply a reprint title:

Friday, August 12, 2011

Nick Fury, Agent of Shield #1

The secret agent boom in the 1960s was huge, propelled largely by the James Bond movies. TV responded with shows like Secret Agent, the Avengers, I Spy and the Man from UNCLE. The theme song to the first became a big hit for Johnny Rivers:

The comics were not far behind. Marvel came up with Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. Fury was Marvel's World War II Sergeant, upgraded to Lt. Colonel and updated to the 1960s, and improbably placed in charge of SHIELD despite his fairly low officer's rank. And although he was the head of the organization, he also acted as its main field man.

The series was initially scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby as a co-feature with Dr. Strange in Strange Tales. Effective with #151, Jim Steranko was assigned to do the pencils, initially based on Jack Kirby's layouts. He quickly graduated to doing his own design, and eventually wrote the scripts as well. I believe that he was the first artist on a major Marvel series to handle both chores officially, although of course Kirby often provided suggested dialogue for Lee.

Steranko brought something new to the effort. He was clearly inspired by the psychedelic and op/pop art of the times. These comics stood out on the spinner rack. The artwork is breathtaking in places:

The story is complex, and was certainly confusing to me as a 13-year old back in 1968. Nick Fury is testing a weapons protection system in the desert near Las Vegas. He is about to be hit by a very strong bomb (yep, he's also SHIELD's chief guinea pig), when he realizes that the system has been turned off. He activates a rocket sled which takes him out of range just as the missile explodes.

When he gets to the SHIELD building in Las Vegas, he learns that Scorpio, an unidentified villain who apparently holds a grudge against Fury of long standing, has gassed the occupants and turned off the defense system.

A subplot involves a failed comedian named Flip Mason, who has just gambled away his last cash and already owes plenty to the mob. Just as he's about to attempt a holdup, he apparently gets lucky. A mobster confuses him for Mitch Hackett (another crook) and hands him a briefcase, telling the comic that it contains $200,000. When the real Hackett shows up, he and the mobster engage in a gun duel, just as Scorpio is escaping in a helicopter after battling Fury. As Hackett lies dying, he squeezes off one last round, which hits Scorpio's copter, resulting in the crash and explosion.

And Flip Mason? Does he now get back to his wife and infant son with the cash that will put them on easy street? Nope, for it turns out that the mobster was already planning on double-crossing Hackett, and had put a bomb in the briefcase instead of the money. As Mason dials San Francisco to tell his wife that they're rich, it explodes, leading to that last panel shown above.

Comments: A terrific tale, innovatively illustrated by Steranko. About the only negative I can find with the artwork is that the standard panels which serve to move the story forward seem ordinary and dull by comparison. The story reads like an extended Spirit tale by Eisner. I do suspect it was beyond the understanding of even adolescents; as I said above I was quite confused. Part of the problem is that Mason and Hackett both bear a strong resemblance to longtime SHIELD character Jasper Sitwell:

Although Sitwell had moved over to become a sidekick in the Iron Man series by then, anybody who read the back issues of Strange Tales (as I had) would probably assume that somehow he was involved here, and be waiting for the explanation which never came.

NFAS lasted 15 issues before being canceled in late 1969. I suspect that Marvel overestimated the market for such a sophisticated comic; although older readers did buy comics back then, as a percentage of their age cohort they were tiny compared to the boys and adolescents who made up the bulk of comic buyers. In addition, the comic ran into the brief but sharp 1969 recession and the end of the secret agent fad.

This comic foreshadows much of the 1970s as Marvel and DC pursued the boomer market, often at the expense of the youngsters who came behind them.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Green Lantern #24

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. when I was assembling my collection, I picked up most of my early-mid 1960s DC from a friend of mine named Jon, and his neighbor, Eric. They had long runs of the comics they were interested in, but every now and then there was an issue or two missing. I don't have a clue as to why; perhaps they had just forgotten to go to the newsstand that month, or perhaps they had been broke, or perhaps they had just used the money for a new baseball mitt or something else.

This was one of the issues I never found, and since I wasn't fanatical about completing my Green Lantern run like I was about Batman, it was only a few years ago that I finally found a low-grade copy cheap enough to justify the purchase. IIRC, the first story was reprinted in the 1970s, but I don't think that cover story was until the relatively recent advent of the Archive and Showcase Editions.

The first story is The Shark that Hunted Human Prey. An accident in an atomic station on the coast led to a sudden emission of radiation that hit a passing shark:

Now of course, as far as the science goes, that's absurd. Evolution is a slow, torturous process with many missteps along the way. Still, it's in keeping with the science of comic books, in which Ben Grimm can turn into a pile of orange rocks (and occasionally turn back again).

The Shark discovers he has extraordinary powers, but he retains his essential nature:

After dropping the heavyweight champ without raising a fist, the Shark uses his awesome mental powers to locate a foe worthy of his abilities:

The Shark contacts Hal mentally and issues a challenge. Hal quickly changes into his fighting duds and recharges his ring in the locker room, but:

And for much of the battle that ensues, the Shark maintains his desire to induce fear in Green Lantern. He demonstrates that GL's ring has no power over him as he can block it with his mind. Indeed, his mental powers seem unlimited:

GL realizes that the air in the room is not colored yellow, so he stuns the Shark with a bolt of compressed air. But the Shark recovers and ups the stakes:

His intent was to make Hal afraid, but instead the threat just redoubles GL's resolve to win. He condenses the water vapor in the room and creates a block of ice with which to kayo the villain. Then he uses his power ring to devolve the Shark back into his normal state:

Comments: I found the concept of a shark evolved into a human somewhat ludicrous, and that costume is inane. However, that should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the character development was excellent and the story itself, with the threats to those Hal holds near and dear, is compelling.

The second story is the cover one, and it is pretty simple and straight-forward. While traveling through space, Hal encounters the planet, which suddenly forms a continent that looks like him. It shoots a rocket at him and one grazes him, forcing him to the ground. He encounters visions of Pieface, and several of his enemies. Finally the planet itself finds a way to contact him directly:

It was an intelligent planet who had searched the stars for more intelligence, and GL was the first it had ever encountered. It just wanted to make a friend, but couldn't find a way to express that at first. GL helps it by removing a volcanic core that was causing earthquakes, and they part as buddies.

Comments: Cute story, and the concept of a living planet would be "borrowed" a few years later by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the Mighty Thor series.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Wonder Woman 155

Even by the standards of the Silver Age Wonder Woman, that's a mind-boggling cover.

Back in the 1960s, young boys were off in the woods, playing army, possibly the dumbest game ever invented. Girls tended to want to play house, which certainly seemed dumb, but they were actually practicing the roles they were expected to grow into. The hope was that they would find a good man and settle down, just like Mommy had. Of course, there was also the fear that they would fall for the wrong man, or that only the wrong types would want to date them.

These hopes and fears were expressed and marketed to in many ways. For example remember the girls' board game, Mystery Date?

Note the reaction from the girl when she opens the door to discover the "dud" waiting to take her out. One of the amusing things about this ad is that by the 1970s, when these girls were dating for real, most of them were likely to date someone even more shabbily attired than him.

The covers of Lois Lane are filled with images of her falling for the wrong man:

The Wonder Woman story starts out similar to Wonder Woman #125, which I reviewed a few years ago. She's having problems with the men in her life being too aggressive:

She has similar encounters with Bird-Man and Manno, the Merman, during the latter of which we learn an interesting fact about Wonder Woman's physiology:

There's also this amusing bit:

King Kong's escaped again? What a pain!
She also gets some unwanted attention from an octopus. You have to see it to believe it:

So after all that excessive affection, she is intrigued when she meets a monster prince who rejects her friendship:

But when he destroys his castle during a battle with the Amazons who've come to befriend him:

We learn that's the real way to Wonder Woman's heart:

And she decides to marry him. There's an interesting statement on prejudice here:


And so we get the scene on the cover. But at the last moment the groom gets cold feet:

There follows a zany sequence where a flying sphinx attacks her, and the monster helps save her and turns into a handsome dreamboat. But as they are falling off a cliff, he gets angry again and changes back into his monster self and rejects her, leading to this denouement:

Comments: Obviously the story is an insane remake of Beauty and the Beast. But it is redeemed a bit by the positive characterization of Wonder Woman.