Friday, December 22, 2006

Amazing Spiderman 50-52

ASM #50 begins another cycle of the Spiderman saga. As in ASM#17-18, Spidey is in a fight when Aunt May takes ill. Once again, Peter decides to discard his uniform. Once again, the gangs start operating the minute it becomes obvious the friendly neighborhood Spiderman is out of business.

But the issue does bring one big new aspect to Spiderman: the Kingpin makes his first appearance. One of the most enduring villains in the Spiderman and Daredevil rogues gallery, he decides to take over the mob in New York City.

But when Peter sees a guard about to be killed by mobsters, he can't hold back, even though he doesn't have his costume. He goes into action, quickly subduing the gang and getting away before he can be seen. Afterwards, he remembers that it was his failure to stop a criminal that resulted in Uncle Ben's death.

Aunt May and Uncle Ben are the hammer and anvil Peter is continually suspended between. If he plays his Spiderman role too long, he's neglecting Aunt May; if he ignores the Spidey aspect too long, he's not living up to his obligation to Uncle Ben. This tension between the two aspects of his character is what makes him so memorable.

Peter is not the only person torn between his past and his future. Frederick Foswell, the ace reporter who had previously been a mob boss (in ASM #10), is apparently tempted to resume a life of crime. He tries to take over the Kingpin's position, but is casually brushed aside. Apparently the Kingpin is smarter, stronger and faster than he looks. He imprisons Foswell and captures J. Jonah Jameson, whose editorials against the crime boss are causing problems.

In ASM #52, Spidey and JJJ are about to be killed, but they survive thanks to Peter's strength and quick thinking. However, this does not impress the newspaper magnate. Spidey and the Kingpin battle, while Foswell tries to save JJJ from the rest of the mob. In the end, Foswell is killed and the Kingpin gets away.

Comments: A superb mini-series, among the best of the Lee-Romita stories. Foswell becomes the first, but by no means the last, long-running character to die in ASM. The other major deaths in ASM to this point had been Uncle Ben, Betty Brant's brother and the Crimemaster, all of whom died in their initial story arc. Foswell on the other hand had been around since ASM #10.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Daredevil #3-5

The DD series began to hit its stride in these issues. For starters, each issue featured a new villain. In #3, DD first faced the Owl, who would be a longtime foe. In #4 we first met the Purple Man, an intriguing character who could convince anybody to do anything by force of his personality. Although the villain in DD #5, the Matador, was not terribly interesting, the artwork, which had been handled by Bill Everett in the first issue and Joe Orlando in #2-#4, was turned over to Wally Wood. Although Wood did not last long, his influence on the character is undeniable.

On the romance front, it becomes obvious in these issues that Foggy is pursuing Karen romantically. This adds for an additional dimension to the usual "if only I dared tell her that I love her" that was a staple of the Marvel superheroes of the time. Now Matt has to feel guilty about being in love with his best friend's girlfriend.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

See No Evil

Daredevil first appeared in April 1964, in Daredevil #1. He was something of a new concept; a handicapped superhero. True, Don Blake was lame, but that disappeared every time he turned into the Mighty Thor. Daredevil was blind, 24/7.

We learn his origin in that first issue. Matt Murdock was the son of a prize fighter. The old man, known as Battling Murdock, was determined that his son should get an education. However, as Matt prepares for college, his dad's career is on the skids. The only manager who will handle him is known as The Fixer.

But Matt's life takes a sudden turn when he saves a blind man from being run down by a truck. The truck was carrying radioactive materials which hit Matt in the face, blinding him. However, he also discovers that he has gained incredible agility and his other senses (especially his sense of hearing) have become stronger.

This of course, makes Daredevil yet another Marvel 1960s superhero who gained his powers from radiation, like Spiderman, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk (and many villains as well, including the Sandman).

Meanwhile, his father's career has suddenly taken off. But, true to his name, The Fixer has been arranging for other fighters to take a dive against Battling Murdock. Now that the big fight is here, it's Dad's turn to lose. But with Matt in the stands he kayos the opponent, angering The Fixer, who has him gunned down in retaliation.

Matt decides to avenge his father's death, but he had promised his dad he wouldn't be a fighter. So he dresses up in a yellow and red costume and Daredevil is born:

The yellow part wouldn't last long; perhaps it was seen as inappropriate for a character dubbed "The Man Without Fear". Which was another oddity about DD; all of Marvel's characters had a name like "The Mighty Thor" or "The Amazing Spiderman" or "The Incredible Hulk", but Matt Murdock was "Daredevil, the Man Without Fear".

DD #1 also introduced Matt's buddy Foggy Nelson. The two start up a law practice together and their secretary, Karen Page, becomes the love interest.

In DD #2, Stan pitted him against Electro, who had previously appeared in Spiderman #9. This was one of many smart things that Marvel did in the 1960s. Although DC had done superhero crossovers for years, especially with the long-running Batman/Superman teamup in World's Finest, the villains tended to remain pitted against one superhero. This gave Marvel a distinct edge. Not only did they have to invent fewer villains (at least at first), but they could capitalize on the popularity of Spiderman and the FF by hiring out their villains.

However, that Stan was still thinking this stuff out on the fly is evident. The Thing arrives (yet another crossover!) at Matt Murdock's office to ask him to review a lease. Matt's out, so Thing delivers these instructions to Foggy:

Yeah, okay, my blind partner will come out and inspect the premises.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Silver Surfer and Galactus

As we have discussed, the Inhumans saga ended (temporarily) about six pages into Fantastic Four #48. But that issue was also significant for the first appearances of the Silver Surfer and Galactus.

The inspiration for the former is pretty obvious. This was the mid-1960s and there was nothing cooler among teens than surfing. Believe it or not, I actually got up on a board a couple times while visiting my cousins on the Jersey shore; the main impression I got was how fast you went; it was definitely a thrill ride.

As the FF returns from the Hidden Land after their encounter with the Inhumans, they discover that New York is covered with a fiery sky. What is going on? We also see the Silver Surfer for the first time, looking through the universe for a particular type of star and a particular type of planet orbiting that star.

It turns out that the Watcher had tried the fire as a way to conceal Earth, but since that caused panic among the humans, he revised his plan and tried hiding us behind a wall of space debris. But the Silver Surfer makes it through anyway and conveniently (for story purposes) lands on the Baxter Building. He sends a signal to his master, Galactus, who arrives with bad news:

The Thing has punched the Silver Surfer away from the Baxter Building, but in the grandest tradition of coincidence, he lands atop Alicia Master's skylight. She treats him with kindness, and is horrified when the Surfer tells her of Galactus' intentions for Earth. We can see that he is swayed by her arguments.

Meanwhile, the Thing and Mr Fantastic have temporarily delayed Galactus' plan to drain the earth of its energy. The Watcher sends Johnny to the home world of Galactus, where a weapon exists that may stop him. And Alicia convinces the Silver Surfer to attack his master in an effort to save Earth.

In Fantastic Four #50, we see the battle between the Silver Surfer and Galactus. While the latter is clearly more powerful, the Surfer is not without some ability himself. Meanwhile Johnny is racing back with the weapon from Galactus' homeworld. He arrives in the nick of time and hands off the instrument to Reed. Threatened with potential destruction, Galactus agrees to leave. But first he strips his former herald of the ability to roam among the stars; he will be stuck on Earth.

These are terrific issues; at this point the FF was going from strength to strength, with Stan and Jack turning out memorable characters seemingly at will, from the Inhumans to the Silver Surfer and Galactus to the Black Panther, who would shortly make his initial appearance.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Our Apocalyptic Past

One of the hazards of comic books is that a writer may pen a story when the future seems far off and then time passes and suddenly that future is 20 years in the past. So it is with the Atomic Knights. They were formed in the dark days of 1986 after the nuclear holocaust that, as you may recall, didn't quite happen.

However, this was a terrific series nonetheless. In Strange Adventures #117 (June 1960), we learn that Gardner Grayle is a soldier in an underground bunker when World War III starts, with atomic bombs destroying much of the planet. He teams up with Douglas Herald, a schoolteacher, who's hoping to defeat a local tyrant called the Black Baron. By chance, they discover that a set of medieval suits of armor blocks the radiation from the Baron's rayguns, with which he has been keeping control of the local citizenry.

They look for volunteers to help them fill the six suits. Hollis and Wayne Hobard, athletic twins, join up, as does Bryndon, a scientist. However, the final suit proves too small for a grown man, so they leave that one behind. Herald also introduces someone else:

Of course, Marene and Gardner become an item, and following their deepening romance is one of the real charms of this series. In the origin story, the Knights attack the Baron's stronghold, but it turns out that in addition to the rayguns he's got an old rifle. Gardner is unsure that his armor will hold up to a bullet, but at the last moment he is saved by one of the other knights, who pushes the Baron aside, causing him to shoot wide. Gardner later discovers that his savior had been none other than Marene, who had managed to fit into the remaining suit.

The story continued every third issue of Strange Adventures over the next several years. Each was written by John Broome with superb artwork by Murphy Anderson. The stories tended to move forward sequentially; for example, in one story the Knights were attacked by Giant Dogs, but after taming them that issue in later ones the dogs were helpful.

The stories also featured the Knights traveling to different locations in what remains of the the US, with titles like "The Cavemen of New York" and "The Lost City of Los Angeles" and "Danger in Detroit". The series continued like clockwork until Strange Adventures #160 (Jan 1964), when the final instalment appeared. There was no announcement at the time that the series had ended. I suspect that what happened was that Murphy Anderson had been assigned to replace Joe Kubert on Hawkman effective with Mystery in Space #87 (Nov 1963), and that Atomic Knights just didn't fit into his workload any longer (remember that Anderson was one of DC's top inkers in addition to his fine pencils).

Monday, November 27, 2006

Dr Jerry Bails, RIP

One thing I don't get into much around here is the fan aspect to comic book publishing. I liked comics but only attended one comic convention (around 1971 in New York), and only knew of a couple other kids my age who were into them as well. I only wrote one letter to the editor (pointing out a mistake in a Thor issue), which went unpublished. I pretty much was out of comic collecting by 1977, and the only comics I bought from about 1979-1998 or so were Spirit reprints, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and the final issue of The Flash.

But Dr Jerry Bails' passing does deserve mention, because he was the young man who pushed for the return of the Justice Society of America with letters to Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox in the 1950s, and thus may have been a partial inspiration for DC's Silver Age heroes. And considering that it was sales of the (renamed) Justice League of America which inspired Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to create the Fantastic Four, it's not hard to see that this man had a huge impact on Silver Age comics.

Here's a terrific interview with him from a couple years back, hitting on a theme I've returned to on occasion here:

A culture passes on its values through stories, and I credit comics with shaping many of my values. I noticed when I wrote a book on the impact of technology on the environment, I made lots of references to the morals in famous children's stories, and classical stories. My view of the moral world was shaped by comics, radio drama, movies, storybook time at the library, as well as the traditional Sunday school. All these sources conveyed values by telling stories. It's part of humanity's oldest tradition. Comics were just the best visual method for the mid-20th century.

The lighter moments when we are reading for fun are not trivial. They are part and parcel of the mortar that strengthens our character by providing both stress relief and reaffirmation of cultural values. I don't personally get into the study of this function of pastime reading, but I'm aware of it.

Frankly, I think readers tend to be more empathetic and less aggressive than people who prefer aggressive sports for the cathartic effect. Unfortunately the mass media today sell more advertising and admissions by playing up caustic, vituperative and downright antisocial values. I can't believe that's good for any of us, but especially kids. Stories, even crime stories, can and should have a redeeming value. I guess that's why horror for its own sake never interested me. I prefer heroic behavior in my stories, even if the hero is a slow learner.

I especially liked his tale of hunting down the All Star issues back in those pre-comic store, pre-Ebay days. I didn't buy a whole lot of back issues by mail back then because they were expensive and so my experience was pretty much the same; slowly finding back issues by checking around here and there--used bookstores, somebody's older brother, etc. I had one great score around 1970 when an antiques show came to town with a big batch of 5 cent comics including a nearly complete run of the Legion issues of Adventure.

Batman was probably the easiest to locate, as everybody had bought issues back during the TV show craze, and I quickly assembled a fairly long run (although I did have to break down and buy one "filler" issue). Which resulted in my fascination with the character that continues to this day.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Howling At Hitler

In the early 1960s, the World War II generation began to come into power. This was reflected in both politics, where Navy veteran John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House over fellow Navy vet Richard Nixon, and in pop culture, where the theatres were filled with WWII features like The Longest Day, The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone. On TV, there was Combat, the Rat Patrol and McHale's Navy.

So it's not surprising that as Marvel was casting about for new ways to wrest 12 cents out of the nation's youth, that they hit upon the idea of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. As is de rigeur in such series, there is an ensemble cast:

This was a tradition dating back to the Boy Commandos (also co-created by Jack Kirby) and Blackhawk, and movies like Destination Tokyo. But this group was a little more integrated than most. Although it isn't obvious in the portrait above, Gabe Jones was a black man, and Izzy Cohen the first explicitly Jewish heroic character that I can remember in comics.

The Howlin' Commandos typically get the suicide mission assignments with big stakes. In SFAHHC #1, they have to rescue the resistance leader who knows the planned date of D-Day, while in #2 they are assigned the task of destroying Hitler's attempt at an atomic bomb. By the standards of the time, these were incredibly violent comics, although Kirby avoided the gore with some clever tricks:

There are many memorable moments in the first few issues, such as when the Howlers intentionally get themselves imprisoned in a concentration camp:

As always with Marvel, there were frequent crossovers. For example Reed Richards appears as a young major in #3, while Baron Zemo, Captain America's nemesis, pops up in #8. Cap and Bucky themselves fight side by side with the Howlers in #13.

As with most war comics, the bullets hit all around the Howlers but seldom were stopped by them. However in Sgt. Fury #4, that changed suddenly:

We have already discussed how Sgt. Fury #6 tackled the subject of racism. In retrospect, it is obvious that Stan was using the backdrop of World War II to talk about issues that were on the front burner in 1964.

Of course, another issue that was moving to the front burner that year would eventually doom the war comics: Vietnam. For the times, they were a-changing.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Getting Smaller, Getting Bigger

Following the Fantastic Four, the next super-powered hero to appear in the pages of a Marvel comic was the Ant-Man (technically, anyway). Hank Pym was introduced in Tales to Astonish # 27, January 1962, in a short story entitled The Man in the Ant-Hill.

Hank is a scientist interested in pursuing his own line of study. He creates a pair of serums that will shrink and later expand objects. He decides to test it on himself, but unfortunately he forgets that he will be too far away from antidote to expand back to normal. The ants are after him, but he manages to elude them with the aid of one friendly ant. Eventually he makes his way back to the serum that restores him to normal size. He decides that the method is too risky, and throws away the twin potions.

But in Tales to Astonish, #35, Hank returns, this time in full superhero garb and with additional powers: he has learned how to communicate with the ants.

At first, Ant-Man changes sizes by pouring liquid on himself from a test-tube. In TTA #36, this changed to a gas that he could inhale; later still it became just a matter of swallowing a pill.

In TTA #44, things changed dramatically for Ant-Man. He had been thinking that he needed help in his fight against crime, an assistant to take some of the load off his shoulders. In a flashback, we learn that Hank had been married to a woman named Maria, whose father had defected from Hungary. She wants them to visit her homeland for their honeymoon, but when they arrive the commie rats kidnap and kill her. In a way, she had led to Hank becoming the Ant-Man, by telling him jokingly that he should "go to the ants".

Back in the present, Hank meets a fellow scientist and his attractive but young daughter, Janet Van Dyne. She reminds him of his wife, but he insists she's too young for him. Meanwhile, she's thinking that she doesn't want a scientist, she wants a man of action.

When her father is murdered, she turns to Hank Pym. However, the Ant-Man answers her summons. She expresses a desire for revenge and Hank wonders if she might be the one he's been looking for. Yep:

He discloses his secret identity to her and outfits her with a small pair of wings and antennae that only appear when she shrinks down to tiny size. However he maintains a strictly business attitude towards her, not wanting to be hurt again with the loss of a lover. But in the end, we see she is determined to win his heart.

Comments: I confess I did not remember these stories having the charm and entertainment value that they did.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

More Relevant Comics--Payola?

The Payola scandal involved (as this cover implies) the effort by record companies to bribe deejays to play their records. It hit the newspapers in November 1959; this is the April 1960 issue of Archie. In something of a rarity for Archie at the time, the cover actually refers to a story inside, where the kids at Riverdale High pay Archie to spin their records.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Classic Stories of the 1960s: Super-Menace

A friend of mine suggested I review this terrific story from Superman #137 (May 1960):

It starts with a brief retelling of Superman's origin, with one striking new detail: The rocket which Superman came to Earth in had hit an alien space ship which bathed the rocket in a duplicator ray. The second rocket also landed on Earth, but this time near the hideout of a gangster and his moll. At first they worry that the super-infant inside has been sent by their enemies to kill them, but then they discover that he's actually friendly. They decide to pretend to love the boy, whom they dub Super-Brat so that when he grows up, he will help them with crime.

In the second act, both Superboy and his doppelganger, now referred to as Super-Bully, are teenagers. Super-Bully despises Superboy, and dreams of defeating him. This seems quite possible when he discovers that unlike the real Kal-El, he's immune to Kryptonite. In a bit of irony, Super-Bully actually helps out Clark. While Superboy is busy, he changes into Clark's clothes and visits Lana Lang, who tries out some Kryptonite to find out if Superboy is secretly her neighbor. Super-Bully also tries imitating his rival with Krypto, but this turns out badly as the super-dog recognizes that this is not his master.

The final sequence tells us about Super-Menace's adulthood. His crime boss father wants him to go kill Superman, knowing that this will result in his daddy becoming the leader of the crime syndicate. But the gangster mistakenly admits that he never really loved Super-Menace, and the latter overhears this.

The battle between Superman and Super-Menace initially starts out pretty even, but of course with the latter's invulnerability to Kryptonite, it isn't long before he brings down some meteors of Green K. They both discover that Super-Menace is actually a "force manifestation" and not really alive.

But as he watches his enemy dying, he wonders if the mobster and his moll never really loved him, perhaps the other things he was taught by them were untrue as well. He saves Superman, then rushes off to confront the couple who raised him. He converts himself into pure energy, ending his life as well as theirs.

Comments: A terrific story with many entertaining features. For example, this was a precursor to the Reverse Flash; a character exactly like a hero but evil. In addition, the sad ending echoes Frankenstein in some ways (the movie, of course, not the book). It also includes a brief retelling of Superman's origin.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Journey Into Mystery #91-94

Overall, these stories don't move the character forward. Stan still seems to be struggling to find someone tough enough to fight Thor to a standstill, and when he does find a worthy foe, he simply lets the Thunder God appeal to Odin for assistance. This is of course Deus Ex Machina writ large.

In JIM #91, Thor faces Sandu the Sorceror, whose normal powers of ESP and levitation have been enhanced a thousand times by Loki. He starts by robbing banks by teleporting them to a location where he can take the money at leisure. But he quickly realizes that the world is helpless against him and decides to become its ruler. However, when it appears that Thor is about to be killed Odin sends him a belt that makes him even stronger. Sandu at one point transports Thor's hammer to another dimension, and seemingly has him helpless. But he foolishly tries to take control of the hammer and in his attempts he expends his magical power, resulting in the hammer returning to Earth.

Loki battles Thor personally in JIM #91. But, amusingly, there is a subplot involving a wounded gangster who needs Don Blake to operate on him, just as in JIM #89, only two months earlier. Once again a major part of the plot involves separating Thor from his hammer. This time, Thor travels to Asgard and fashions different hammers from wood and stone around him to defeat his enemy. However, there is one odd thing; despite being separated from his hammer for a long time, he does not revert to his Don Blake identity. Perhaps the 60-second limitation only applies on Earth?

In JIM #92, Thor again battles the communists. Are we seeing a pattern here? Aliens and commies and Loki, oh my! Chen Lu, a Chicomm scientist, turns himself into the Radioactive Man. He hypnotizes Thor and forces him to discard his hammer. However, this actually works to Thor's advantage as when he reverts to his Don Blake identity he is no longer under the Radioactive Man's control. He locates the hammer at the bottom of the Hudson and (somewhat unbelievably) swims down to the bottom to retrieve it. With his hammer back he sends the Radioactive Man back to China inside a tornado, causing a nuclear explosion there.

It's Loki's turn once again in JIM #93. He manages to turn Thor evil by distracting him so that the hammer conks the Thunder God on the noggin, resulting in a personality change. Thor comes to Asgard and frees his evil brother. Then they return together to Earth, where Thor destroys many famous landmarks, like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A delegation from the United Nations comes forward offering mankind's surrender, but Loki wants control of Asgard. The delegation turns out to be Odin and other gods in disguise, who manage to restore Thor's original, good, personality, and he defeats Loki.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Thor Prototype at DC?

It's well-established that prototypes for many Marvel characters appeared in the horror mags the company specialized in prior to the release of Fantastic Four #1. But it also appears that Stan Lee wasn't above lifting a hero or two from his competitors as well. I had always known there was a Batman story featuring the Mighty Thor out there, what I did not realize is that it so clearly presaged Marvel's later character.

Here's the cover of the issue in question:

Let's trace the elements of similarity. Hammer flies back to him automatically? Check. Refers to his opponents as "mortals"? Check. Winged helmet? Check.

Secretly a meek, unassuming man? Changes back into Thor when he touches the hammer? Check, check.

Obviously there are dissimilarities as well; this Thor has red hair and a beard, and the man who changes into him has no memory of his Thor persona when he changes back. But overall, it's pretty obvious where Stan got the inspiration for one of his major characters of the Silver Age.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Batman II & Robin II.

Although Batman did not have imaginary stories per se in his comics, there were many stories that served the same function--dream stories, most notably. Along the same lines were the Batman II and Robin II stories. They were stories that Alfred, Batman's butler, wrote about a possible future time when his employer had retired from crime-fighting and been succeed by Dick Grayson as Batman, while the new Robin was none other than Bruce Wayne, Jr., the offspring of Batman and Kathy Kane, the former Batwoman.

The series debuted in Batman #131, the April, 1960 issue. Batman has just retired in favor of Dick Grayson, and Bruce, Jr., wants the job of Robin. Over time, he proves his mettle, although typically for a youngster he is impulsive and prone to not thinking things through. However, in a noticeably weak ending the new Batman and Robin are about to be killed when Batman I and Batwoman show up to save them.

The duo return in Batman #135. This time they are faced with a criminal bent on revenge against the original Batman. They are captured, but fortunately the original Batman saves them.

Are we beginning to see a problem here? These are supposed to be tales of the new Batman & Robin team, and yet every time, just as they are about to be killed, the old Batman shows up and saves them. Ditto with Batman #145's third entry in the series, The Son of the Joker:

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Brave & The Bold

One of the more interesting DC magazines of the Silver Age was the Brave & the Bold. The first issue hit the stands in Aug-Sept 1955. Perhaps inspired by the movie The Black Shield of Falworth, it featured the adventures of warriors from the past: The Golden Gladiator, the Viking Prince, and The Silent Knight. The features, drawn by Russ Heath, Joe Kubert and Irv Novick were terrific reads with some famed covers:

But after issue #24, DC decided to take the magazine in a new direction. Showcase, another DC magazine, had been churning out new characters (or revamps of old ones) on a regular basis. With issue #25, Brave & Bold became another tryout magazine for new features that DC hoped would catch on with the public.

The first effort was called the Suicide Squad, a Mission Impossible-type force that did not seem to catch on with young boys. After three issues, Brave and Bold came up with a winner as the 28th issue featured the Justice League of America. The JLA was an organization of superheroes, including (at first) Aquaman, Flash, the Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. Batman and Superman were also members, but at first they were usually kept in the background, probably for fear they would dominate the group.

This series succeeded quite memorably, but oddly that turned out to be the exception rather than the rule. After three JLA tryouts, Brave & Bold tempted youngsters with Cave Carson's Adventures Inside Earth. No sale. Then came three issues of Hawkman drawn by one of his GA artists, Joe Kubert. These also failed to fly off the shelf, so DC came back with three more tryouts for the Suicide Squad. When the kids failed to drink the Kool-Aid, the Brave & the Bold went back for two more issues of Cave Carson, followed by three more of Hawkman.

None of those features graduated to headliner status. Particularly troubling to DC must have been the Hawkman failure; this was the first superhero mag put out by DC in the Silver Age which failed to catch on (although it did later after a third trial run in Mystery in Space).

Brave & Bold did try something different with #46-49: Strange Sports Stories. These were oddball adventures mixing science fiction with sports. Drawn by Carmine Infantino, they also included something unique; the narrative captions were given illustrations too:

But once again, the sales did not justify creating a new title, so with #50 they again tried something different: A teamup of two of DC's existing superheroes, in this case the Martian Manhunter and Green Arrow. B&B #51 featured Aquaman and Hawkman. Then, in a surprise manuever, DC teamed up several of its top war comics features: Sgt. Rock, Johnny Cloud, and Jeb Stuart for #52; this was the first crossover for the war heroes, although there would be more. Issue #53 featured a teamup of the Atom and the Flash.

Finally, DC hit the jackpot again in B&B #54, with the Teen Titans (although they were not referred to as that in the story or cover). Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin teamed up to help some of their fellow teenagers. There followed two more teamup issues before Metamorpho debuted in B&B #57 and #58. Batman hooked up with Green Lantern in #59, followed by another Teen Titans tryout.

In Brave & Bold #61 and #62, DC tried bringing back some more Golden Age heroes, with Starman and the Black Canary. Although the series did not take, the stories in those issues are particularly gorgeously drawn by Murphy Anderson and are well-worth reading.

B&B #63 features a meeting of Wonder Woman and Supergirl. The story concerns Supergirl's desire to be more like a normal girl. She decides to abandon fighting crooks in favor of being a fashion model in Paris, where she falls for a young Frenchman. Wonder Woman, dispatched by Superman to talk her out of it, finds herself enticed by the simple life. The story does reveal one major drawback of teamup stories. Because they are created by people other than their usual writers and editors, there are frequent goofs. For example, consider this embarrassing flub:

Of course, it was well-established in the Superman books that only lead could block Kryptonite radiation.

The next three issues featured more of the seemingly random teamups--Batman/Eclipso, Flash/Doom Patrol and Metamopho/Metal Men. By this point (mid-1966) it was obvious that the Batman show was a major hit, and for the next six issues (a full year), the teamups featured Batman and another DC character. Batman did not appear in B&B #72, which featured the Spectre and the Flash, or #73, with Aquaman and the Atom.

After that, though, the teamups always featured Batman, I believe all the way to #200, the final issue for this interesting title.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Journey Into Mystery #87-90

As remarked by Thelonius Nick in the comments on the earlier Thor post, Stan Lee seemed unsure as to what to do with the Mighty Thor at first. The Thunder God was far too powerful and cosmic a character to waste against the usual crooks & mobsters. In Journey into Mystery #87 he defeats a plot by the communists to kidnap American scientists.

Loki returns in #88. Having learned of Thor's secret identity, he forces the Thunder God to choose between recovering the hammer and saving Jane Foster. Then Loki surrounds the hammer with a force field, preventing the now helpless Don Blake from recovering his powers. Fortunately Don tricks Loki into removing the force field and sends Loki back to Asgard.

In #89 Don and Jane are kidnapped by mobsters to operate on a wounded crime boss. In a classic example of Deus Ex Machina, he prays to Odin to intervene when he and Jane are about to be killed despite saving the mobster's life. Odin sends down a thunderbolt to save them. We also get a new power for Thor (that is never again mentioned); that of super-ventriloquism.

In #90, Thor again fights aliens. Ho-hum.

Lee still had not found the right format for the Mighty Thor in these issues. Nobody really seems able to handle the Thunder God, and so the plot often revolves around him somehow losing control of his hammer, despite its well-established tendency to return to him.

This is similar to the problems that DC had with Superman in the 1940s. DC had solved it by using deceptive villains like Mxyzptlk, the Prankster and Wolfingham; even Luthor was usually operating behind the scenes. But of course, this had the tendency to diminish the value of the powers that Superman possessed, which, after all, was what made the character different.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


I've talked briefly about Thor in the past, but now it's time to discuss him in a little greater detail. Thor is the Norse god of thunder. His initial appearance in Marvel was in Journey Into Mystery #83. JIM was one of Marvel's horrible "horror" mags, which featured stories like "I Unleashed SHAGG Upon the World!" and "I Found RRO... The Thing from the Bottomless Pit!"

Don Blake, a lame physician, was on vacation in Norway when he discovers a plot by alien invaders from Saturn. He is spotted by the Stone Men, and runs into a cave. There he discovers a small staff, which is fortunate because he has lost his cane. But when he strikes the cane against a boulder blocking his way, he transforms suddenly into the Mighty Thor!

Thor has many powers. He is virtually invulnerable and fantastically strong. But even more important is his mighty hammer (the staff transformed), which makes it possible for him to fly and which destroys almost anything it's thrown against and returns automatically to his hand like a boomerang. It can also cause lighting and storms.

But of course with this power comes a weakness. If the hammer leaves Thor's hand for 60 seconds, he reverts to Don Blake, the lame physician. As always in the Marvel universe, there is also a love interest. Nurse Jane Foster secretly loves Dr Blake, and he adores her but worries that she could never love a weakling like him.

Initially Thor battles fairly traditional enemies for superheroes: Aliens intent on a hostile takeover, communist dictators and assorted crooks. But quickly a supervillain worthy of Thor's interest was discovered; his evil brother, Loki, the God of Mischief. Loki first appeared in JIM #85, and was returned quite often in the early issues: He is featured in JIM #88, 91, 92 and 94 as well as Avengers #1.

The characterization of Nurse Jane Foster in these early issues stinks. She's the typical 1960s Marvel eye-candy airhead. We see her thinking about how much she loves Don Blake, but she has an eye for Thor (not realizing that they are actually one and the same). And the first time Loki shows up, he's quite a prize as well:

This is all too typical of Marvel at the time. Girlfriends/love interests existed mostly as potential hostages for villains and were generally placed in traditional women's occupations: nurses like Jane Foster and secretaries like Karen Page, Betty Brant. Compare that with DC, which had Lois Lane as a reporter, Vicki Vale as a news photographer, Jean Loring a young attorney and Carol Ferris running an aircraft factory.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Robby Reed Unveiled!

In the final (for now) post on Dial B for Blog. His blog is incredible; undeniably the finest comics blog on the net.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

More DC Scientofascism

As we have discussed in the past, if there was a religion in the DC Universe back in the Silver Age, it was science. In a way, this is probably a natural outgrowth of the postwar era, as it seemed that technology, government and industry were forging ahead to move us into the glorious future. But it looks just a tad creepy with the benefit of hindsight.

For example, consider this bit from Flash #153, the June 1965 issue. Professor Zoom, aka the Reverse Flash, aka Eobard Thawne has apparently reformed thanks to the "electro-reeducation" provided by prison authorities in the year 2465:

Of course as often happens in these stories, there is something wrong with the machine. In fact, Professor Zoom has tampered with the Cerebro-Scanner to make sure that he will pass the test despite not having gone straight at all. As was the case in Superman #132, once the machine is repaired, nobody stops to think, hey, maybe we shouldn't be setting murderous crooks free just on the basis of them passing a test.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Challengers Part II

I didn't have the time or the inclination to read all of the Challengers series at this point, so I thought it might be entertaining to jump ahead five years and check the changes.

Challengers of the Unknown #31 contains a retelling of the Challengers' origin with new details. We learn that before the fateful flight, Rocky had defended his wrestling championship despite an attempt by the mob to influence the bout.

More unbelievably, Prof Haley was reintroduced as a rich delinquent. Uh, how did he get the nickname "Prof" then? He reforms after helping rescue an ancient statue from the deeps via his skin-diving ability.

Red Ryan, who had originally been introduced as a circus daredevil (only to have Kirby ignore that aspect of him), was now reincarnated as a mountain climber, and electronics expert. He builds a radio tower on a mountain with the money of a rich patron to educate the poor people of a valley in South America. However, it turns out that the patron really intended to use the tower to transmit propaganda and become a local dictator, fortunately prevented by Red.

Ace Morgan was a pilot who had contracted to carry high explosives for miners in his plane, but was forced to toss them out when they broke loose. He manages to hit the mountain in a place that reveals a vein of ore, so the miners are happy.

However, as the four men fly in Ace's plane, they feel like failures for one reason or another, especially when the plane conks out and they must crash land in a forest. Given a second chance, they feel like they are living on borrowed time, and resolve to do something more with this second chance at life.

This origin retelling is contained within a larger story where a mysterious stranger claims to have rescued the Challengers from their plane. Thus they were not really saved by "fate" as they had long believed. Their rescuer, a Mr Clayton, presents evidence. He is in a jam and needs the Challengers to help him reassemble an ancient statue. It turns out the statue's actually a giant robot that has two arms missing which when assembled will give him incredible power. But the Challengers eventually realize Mr Clayton did not really save them and defeat his robot.

Comments: Interesting but uneven origin retelling by DC.

Challengers of the Unknown #32 contains two stories. The first one features Volcano Man, who had previously appeared in Challengers #27. In the second story we learn that the Challs had picked up an alien pet whom they called Cosmo. He seems to have almost unlimited mental powers, so much so that he dwarfs the rest of the team. Looking back I see that Cosmo first appeared in Challengers #18, and had made a couple intermediate appearances. In this story, they discover his original alien owner, who is happy to let them keep the pet since it is proving of so much use. Perhaps typically for DC, this ended up being the last time Cosmo appeared in the Silver Age Challengers; probably for the reason noted above; he was just too powerful and made it too easy for them to get out of tight scrapes.

My previous article on the Challengers is here.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Atom Man

Marvel was not the only comics company to notice the success DC was having with its Silver Age heroes. Gold Key Comics decided to try their hand at the superhero biz with an entry called Dr Solar, Man of the Atom, which debuted in October 1962. Dr Solar was a research physicist working on project that attempts to convert energy into matter. Unknown to him, Rasp, another scientist working at the same facility, is secretly an agent for a villain named Nuro. Rasp tries to get on Solar's project, but is rejected in favor of Dr Bently. After trying to kill Solar and failing, he sabotages the nuclear reactor so Bently is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. Dr Solar finds Bently dying, but apparently survives the radiation himself. However, it is later discovered that he had not survived so much as transformed:

Note the green color; the Hulk had debuted about a half-year earlier. Not sure if changing color is really a side-effect of radiation poisoning or if this is just a little copying.

The action takes place in Atom Valley and there is a love interest; a pretty blonde Gail Sanders whom Dr Solar had known back at college. Oddly, although she does not know what happened to Dr Solar (who now must stay in a lead-lined office), when talking to him through a lead window she makes no remarks about his green skin.

Meanwhile, we discover that Dr Solar has the ability to generate enormous heat, like a miniature sun. However, this rapidly drains him of energy and he must expose himself to the atomic pile to regenerate. Dr Clarkson, head of the laboratory where Dr Solar works, is the only person who knows his secret.

By the second issue, they had mostly dropped the green coloring, although it does appear occasionally. We learn of new powers; Dr Solar is capable of generating "lightning-like rays" with his eyes. He is also capable of changing his body into a wave of energy and flying through the air.

In the fourth issue we learn that he has "radar-like vision". In Dr Solar #5, he gains a superhero costume:

It actually looks a little more red than pink on the covers.

Dr. Solar lasted for 27 issues before finally folding in 1969. He made a brief comeback in the early 1980s for another four issues under the Whitman Comics line.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Avengers Part II: Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!

One advantage that DC had over Marvel in the early 1960s (although it would change by the end of the decade) was that their characters seemed frozen in time. Thus it was no great challenge for writers and artists on different mags to portray Batman.

Not so with Marvel's characters, and the Avengers demonstrated this as early as their second issue. Hank Pym's Ant-Man was replaced in this story by Hank Pym's Giant Man. In addition, the Hulk decided to leave the team.

By the third issue, Iron Man had exchanged his all-gold outfit for the gold and red combination which has mostly endured (with minor changes) to this day. And in the fourth issue.... well, let's just say that things changed for good.

The second issue featured the Space Phantom, a shape-shifter who could banish any human that he imitated to a place called limbo. He imitates all of the Avengers in turn, but eventually he makes the mistake of trying to mimic Thor, the Thunder God, and is banished to limbo himself as a result.

One oddity about Avengers #2 is that it contains an obvious boner. Rick Jones, who is shown living in the Southwest in both Avengers #1 and #3, appears on the streets of New York and confronts the Hulk (really the Space Phantom).

In Avengers #3, the Hulk teams up with the Submariner to fight the Avengers. Obviously this is a major comic, and yet it is dwarfed by the following issue.

Captain America returns! It is one of those interesting coincidences that in Fantastic Four #4, Stan Lee brought back the Submariner, a major Marvel character of the Golden Age, and in Avengers #4, Captain America, the biggest Marvel character of that era returned.

Cap helps the Avengers in another battle against the Submariner and in the end was offered and agreed to join the team. We learn that Bucky, Cap's sidekick, had died at the end of World War II, although we don't learn the identity of the man responsible for his death (yet). He seems interested in pursuing a friendship with Rick Jones much like that he'd had with Bucky back in the Golden Age.

Avengers #5 featured a pedestrian one-off battle with a former foe of the Mighty Thor, the Lava Men. But in Avengers #6, we first meet Baron Zemo, who is responsible for Bucky's death. He had been working on a super adhesive for Hitler's war machine when Captain America destroyed the factory. In the process, Zemo's mask, which he'd worn to prevent reprisals against him from the common folk, became permanently glued to his face.

Zemo returns in Avengers #7, this time assisted by the Enchantress and the Executioner, a pair of immortal villains who had previously appeared in a Thor story in Journey into Mystery. Banished from Asgard, they hook up with Zemo for different reasons. The Enchantress convinces Thor that the Avengers have gone bad and they are his enemy.

Up to this point, the Enchantress has seemed like a character caught between good and evil, much like other Marvel characters who eventually reformed. But we can sense the evil coming to the fore in this sequence:

Is this the first genuinely evil female in the Marvel universe? I can't think of another one.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Avengers

It is well-known that Marvel started the Fantastic Four as a way to cash in on the superhero team craze that the Justice League of America was creating over at DC. However, the team that actually seemed more like a knockoff of the JLA were the Avengers. Consider that the the JLA and the Avengers both featured existing characters in their respective universes, while the FF featured three new characters and one revival of a Golden Age superhero (the Human Torch). Both the Avengers and the JLA included a teenaged "honorary" member (Rick Jones and Snapper Carr).

In Avengers #1, Loki wants to get revenge against Thor for getting him banished to a barren isle as ordered by Odin. He decides to utilize the Hulk in this effort. By faking a bomb on a train trestle, Loki deceives the Hulk into destroying the trestle. Fortunately for the train, the Hulk rectifies his mistake in time, but the humans still believe that the Hulk was responsible for the near accident.

Rick Jones, the Hulk's only friend, sends a shortwave message intended for the Fantastic Four, asking for their help, but Loki diverts it so that Dr. Don Blake receives the SOS. Unknown to Loki, though, the Ant-Man and Iron Man have also received the summons, and they independently make their way to the Southwestern United States.

Thor realizes that Loki is behind the illusions and heads to Asgard. Meanwhile, the Ant-Man and Iron Man have located the Hulk, who is disguised as a circus strongman. Thor battles Loki and eventually subdues him, returning to Earth. He interrupts a fight between Iron Man and the Hulk, proviing that Loki was responsible for the near accident involving the train.

As they are about to leave, Ant-Man suggests that they form a regular fighting team, and the others agree:

The Avengers would undergo the most dramatic changes over the next few years of any superhero team in the Silver Age. Stay tuned for more!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Identity Crisis Superhero of the 1960s

Was the Mighty Thor. While vacationing in Norway, the lame doctor Don Blake discovers an invasion of Earth by the Stone Men of Saturn. They chase him into a cave, where he discovers a cane. When he taps it on the ground it transforms into a powerful hammer while he himself changes into the Norse God of Thunder. Hey, it made for a very quick costume change, which was useful for a comic hero of the 1960s.

Over time, it was explained that Thor actually was the famed Norse god and that he had a family including his father, Odin and his evil brother, Loki. Of course, this made things a bit confusing for readers; wasn't Don Blake the real person and Thor just a superhero identity? Where did Thor go when he tapped the hammer on the ground and changed back into Dr. Blake? Eventually things got so mixed up that Marvel actually asked its fans to help them figure it out, and here, from a letter published in Journey Into Mystery #111 is the explanation that Stan Lee decided to use:

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Blogroll Surfing

Dial B for Blog has a terrific post on The Final Chapter from Amazing Spiderman #33, frequently cited as one of the highlights of the Silver Age. My post on that issue is here.

Booksteve's Library has a post about Green Arrow and the Red Feather Kid. I believe that the Community Chest mentioned in that ad is probably the forerunner of today's United Way. Of course these days Community Chest is only mentioned when playing Monopoly.

Speaking of Community Chest, Phantom Lady seems to have one in this post over at the new digs of the Fortress of Fortitude.

Four Color Media Monitor has a long and thoughtful post on Captain Anti-America (as he should have been known circa 2003). I don't engage in a lot of serious commentary over here, but one of the reasons I focus on Silver Age comics is that it's the last era where superheroes were heroes, not alcoholics and wife-beaters and Chomskyites.

Some cheesecake from the 1970s over at The Legion of Superheroes Blog.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Living On Borrowed Time

That was the schtick of the Challengers of the Unknown. Ace Morgan, a test pilot, Prof Haley (Hale in #1), a skindiver, Red Ryan, a circus daredevil, and Rocky Davis, an Olympic wrestling champion. After they survive a plane crash unhurt, they decide to band together and take on dangerous assignments because, after all, they shouldn't rightly be alive anyway.

The series marked the (brief) return of Jack Kirby to DC Comics. Kirby had been influential with DC in the early 1940s, creating several long-running series like Boy Commandos (originally a Detective Comics backup strip, who later expanded into their own book which lasted a full 36 issues and the Newsboy Legion, who held down the lead feature in Star Spangled Comics for several years.

The Challengers first appeared in Showcase #6, the Jan-Feb 1957 issue. They made three more appearances in #7, #11 and #12, before graduating to their own title in Apr-May 1958. They were the second feature to make the jump from Showcase to headlining a magazine after Lois Lane, but before the Flash.

One of the more interesting facets of the Challengers was that they started out with book-length tales. This was unique for DC comic books of the time, which always had at least two stories and usually had three. Kirby broke the stories into four parts and had splash panels on each part, very much like what he would do with Fantastic Four a few years later. Oddly enough, though, when the series moved into its own title there were generally two stories in each issue.

June Walker (later June Robbins), a highly regarded young scientist was an honorary Challenger. Of course, like many other DC features the Challengers would eventually attract a bunch of subsidiary characters.

The Challengers initially had rather bland purple uniforms that basically looked like a sweatsuit, although that would change twice before the Silver Age was finished. They went to an ugly yellow and red combination with an hourglass (symbolizing borrowed time) in Challengers of the Unknown #43, then to back to purple suits with yellow striping on the arms and legs in #70, one of the last original issues.

One interesting facet of the early Challengers was the use of "modern" science. In Challengers #1, a Dr Evil-type steals a rare transistor. In #2, we see what a good calculator looked like back in 1958:

The series was edited by Jack Schiff, and as with all Schiff's titles suffered from a surfeit of monsters, dinosaurs and weird transformations.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dr Strange Part II

Dr Strange returned in Strange Tales #111. This story introduces his arch-rival, Baron Mordo. Mordo is another former student of the Master, the Tibetan monk who taught Dr Strange the Mystic Arts. His ecoplasmic form compels the Master's servant to poison him, and hectors the Master to give him all his secrets if he wishes to remain alive. Fortunately Dr Strange arrives and saves the day. This is a very short story (only five pages), and the last Dr Strange for a few issues.

Dr Strange returns in Strange Tales #115, in "The Origin of Dr Strange". Stephen Strange (the first we learn his given name) was a skilled but arrogant and money-hungry surgeon. A car accident leaves the nerves in his hands damaged and he becomes a drifter. When he hears of a man who can supposedly cure anyone, he seeks out the Master in Tibet. However, the Master is not willing to help him because his motives are selfish, but he does offer to tutor Strange in the magic arts.

Strange is introduced to the Master's other pupil, Baron Mordo. Mordo is trying to kill the Master. Mordo casts a spell preventing Strange from warning the Master of his danger. Strange realizes that in order to defeat Mordo, he must learn black magic himself.

The next appearance is in Strange Tales #116. Dr Strange faces the villain from the first story, Nightmare, who has worked out a way to bring sleeping humans into the dark world he inhabits.

Ditko's artwork is again perfect for the moody, mystical story:

Dr Strange manages to rescue the sleeping men from the clutches of Nightmare, but not without considerable risk to himself.

This was also the last issue of Strange Tales not to feature at least a mention of the Dr Strange story on the cover.

For the previous Dr Strange post, click here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

I'm Late to This Party

But Dial B for Blog, which is always terrific, has a superb series on Ira Schnapp. Who was Ira Schnapp? One of the most important men in the history of comics. This is highly recommended!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

"Imaginary" Stories

In the early 1960s, Mort Weisinger, the editor of the Superman line of comics (including Action, Adventure, Superman, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and World's Finest) began to allow his writers to script what were called "imaginary" adventures. Of course, all superhero comics are "imaginary", but these stories allowed the writers to break some of the rules that were required with such successful continuing characters. We could see what might happen if Lois Lane married Superman (or Lex Luthor) while the next issue could completely ignore that wedding, because it had been clearly labeled an imaginary story.

I suspect in some ways this was an outgrowth of the way DC's comics of the early 1960s often featured what I call a "puzzle" cover. The puzzle was "Why is this happening?" For example, suppose the cover showed Jimmy Olsen doing something particularly nasty to Superman, like the following:

The last one even offers a double puzzle since not only is Olsen betraying his friend, but Brainiac and Luthor, Superman's worst enemies, are pleading for his life.

Anyway, the point is that DC loved these puzzle covers and so apparently did their readers. But of course it became tougher and tougher for the writers to create situations that managed to not only create a great puzzle cover, but which ended with everybody unchanged essentially. Hence the imaginary stories.

The concept has proven irresistable. Marvel published hundreds of "What If" issues and DC has its "Elseworlds" line; both are clearly inspired by the "Imaginary" stories. Of course you can track imaginary stories back to dream stories; the difference is that you don't have the falling asleep and waking up scenes.

I believe (but I'm not sure) that the first "Imaginary" story billed as such was "The Death of Superman" in Superman (V1) #149, November 1961. This is one of the most famous Superman stories of all time because it does not cop out at the end; Superman dies and Supergirl (until then still unknown) must carry on her cousin's tradition. (Correction: As noted in the comments, the first imaginary story is "Mr and Mrs Clark (Superman) Kent" from Lois Lane #19, August 1960).

In the story, Luthor convinces the world and Superman that he's reformed by finding a cure for cancer, then ambushes his longtime opponent and kills him with Kryptonite. Supergirl apprehends him (much to his dismay), but Luthor thinks he can escape the death penalty because he knows how to expand the bottle city of Kandor, where the trial is taking place, to normal size. However the Kandorians demand justice and Luthor is sentenced to the ultimate penalty.

There were some terrific "Imaginary" stories; "The Story of Superman Red and Superman Blue" in Superman #162, "Jor-El II and Kal-El II" from Superman #166, and "Clark Kent's Brother" in Superman #175 were all excellent three-part tales that explored Superman's character in new ways that would not have been possible otherwise.

Unfortunately, the great stories did not come without a price. Some stories which created bad characterization would be undone by the explanation that "it was an imaginary story". For example in Superman #205 (April 1968), it was disclosed that a heretofore unknown villain named Black Zero had actually destroyed Krypton. Jor-El was wrong, the planet would not have exploded without Black Zero to restart the nuclear reaction.

This of course was horrific characterization for Jor-El, who was God the Father in the DC universe in those days and the story was kicked under the carpet. In a similar fashion, DC explained in Flash #167 that Barry Allen had not been hit by chemicals and lightning by accident in Showcase #4; rather he'd been blessed by a Guardian Angel. Exit Guardian Angel stage left.

For the most part the "Imaginary" stories were confined to Superman, but a couple crept over to Batman via the World's Finest title, so we saw what would happen if Bruce Wayne had been adopted by the Kents. In an influential pair of stories, DC tried an imaginary look at Superman and Batman's sons in World's Finest #154 and 157. Amusingly, forced to come up with a wife for Batman, Weissinger chose Kathy Kane aka Batwoman, who had been retired from Batman for about two years.

No DC stories of the Silver Age that did not prominently feature Superman were billed as imaginary at the time, although they have been retconned to that status.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Amazing Spiderman 48-49

In Amazing Spiderman #48, Marvel did something rather interesting. They replaced an aging villan (the Original Vulture) with a newer, updated version. Blackie Drago was the cellmate of the OV, and has been pestering him for the secret of his wings. The Vulture, facing death as a result of a machine shop accident, decides to divulge the hiding place of a pair just outside the prison walls.

At this point Blackie laughs and reveals that he was responsible for the accident which injured the Vulture. He wastes little time in breaking out of prison and once he has the wings he seems to be invulnerable, especially since our friendly neighborhood Spiderman is coming down with a cold.

The story comes to a climax atop a bridge, with a hostage and Spidey facing an enemy who can fly. This time, however, the hostage is a nobody and thus does not die. Eventually the new Vulture manages to defeat Spidey, helped a great deal by the latter's illness.

There are a few examples I can think of where an old villain was replaced by a new one in the GA and SA. For example, Batman's old nemesis Two-Face came back as two different people before Harvey Dent himself resumed the role at the very end of the Golden Age. Still, it was not common as of 1967, when this story first appeared, although of course in modern comics there are many examples of crooks retiring and others (sometimes related, sometimes not) taking over their names.

Another interesting aspect to the story is that it's plainly set in the winter in New York, and the weather plays a key role in the story.

In ASM #49, Kraven reappears. Jealous that the Vulture has gotten attention by defeating Spiderman, he resolves to attack Drago. Meanwhile, Peter is still sick and recuperating in bed. Aunt May stops by and insists on calling Dr Bramwell, the family doctor. While Peter is waiting to see him, and starting to feel much better, he learns that Kraven and the Vulture are tearing up the city. So he joins the battle and this time manages to decoy Kraven into kayoing the Vulture before he removes the former's ray gun that so devastated Peter in ASM #47.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Amazing Spiderman #46-47

ASM #46 starts rather abruptly. Spidey, his arm still in a sling from his battle with the Lizard in #44, encounters the Shocker, a guy with special vibrating gloves which give him extraordinary power. He kayos Peter and gets away.

The next big event in Peter's life comes later. Harry Osborn's dad has rented an apartment for him close to Empire State U. He invites Peter to take the second bedroom. Of course, our hero is thrilled at the prospect, but has to figure out whether it would be an inconvenience to Aunt May. Fortunately, she has already decided to move in with Anna Watson, so for once things seem to be breaking Peter's way. At this point he appears to be casually dating Mary Jane, but Gwen is starting to interest him more.

Spidey handles the Shocker in their second battle by not allowing the crook to use his thumbs on the vibrating gloves. Some modest pop culture and political references; Spidey mentions Hubert Humphrey and The Man from UNCLE. Still, we get some inevitable teenage angst here:

Kraven returns in #47, as well as (briefly, in flashback) the Green Goblin. We learn that Gobby had hired Kraven to attack Spiderman in ASM #34, something that was not disclosed at that time. In addition, Norman Osborn himself (aka the Green Goblin) had acted as a go-between, exposing himself as a crook to Kraven.

Kraven has developed a new ray that will eliminate Spidey's super-speed, and is confident once that is gone he will be able to subdue Webhead. We get a long dose of the Archie stuff:

But eventually the battle starts. Kraven decides to kidnap Harry, who's with Peter at a going-away party for Flash Thompson, who's been drafted into the army as discussed in earlier issues. Peter sneaks away and reappears as Spiderman. He taunts Kraven into dropping Harry and they fight. This time Kraven defeats him with his ray, but stops short of killing him when Norman Osborn shows up. However Kraven is baffled when his jungle senses tell him that Osborn doesn't remember him at all. Of course, he had no way of knowing that Osborn has amnesia about his Green Goblin years. Kraven decides that his victory over Spiderman is enough and dashes off.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Lo, There Shall Come a Geek

Of all the weird heroes to arise at the end of the Silver Age, and there were a lot of them, perhaps none was weirder than Brother Power, the Geek. A creation of Joe Simon, the less famous half of the Simon & Kirby team, Brother Power came to life via spontaneous generation. He was originally a tailor's dummy, but combined with the heat from a radiator, a little machine oil, and a spark from a bolt of lightning, he came to life.

He was initially a friend of hippies, but aspired to more than their lifestyle. He had incredible strength, which came in handy for beating up a bunch of motorcycle goons:

In the first issue he's kidnapped to be a featured attraction at a carnival freak show, but his hippie buddies rescue him. He decides he wants to become a politician, but the carnival operators convince the cops to arrest him for breaking up their tents. At the end of the first issue he drives off the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the second issue, after being pulled from the deep by another group of losers, and almost kidnapped by a bizarre Baron with a Fokker biplane (sic), Brother Power goes into the world of business. He rapidly moves up the ladder, with smart thinking and hard work. Eventually he runs a major missile plant, beating out a villain named Lord Sliderule. But Sliderule gets revenge by sabotaging a missile launch. BP is once again wanted by the police. He sneaks into the missile in an attempt to escape but Lord Sliderule blasts it into space. The hippies manage to convince the cops that LS is to blame for the problem with the missile launch, but in the meantime, what will happen to Brother Power?

Despite the promise of a next issue, none appeared and Brother Power, The Geek was sidelined for several decades, although he did pop up in a couple comics in the 1990s.

In retrospect, it seems like DC had decided to try to go after the burgeoning hippie market. In some ways this seems inspired, but of course as with much that DC did back then, it was half-hearted. It poked fun at the hippies for their laid-back lifestyle and while this was certainly a fair criticism, it did undercut the marketing to many teens who saw the hippies as role models (mostly because they were their older brothers).

This Wikipedia entry certainly indicates that BPtG was controversial in DC's halls.

While sales of the title were modest, Brother Power was not popular among the staff. DC Comics artist Carmine Infantino claimed in an interview that Superman editor Mort Weisinger disliked the character very strongly, and petitioned DC publisher Jack Liebowitz to shut down the title. Weisinger hated hippies and felt that Simon portrayed them too sympathetically.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Spiderman TV Cartoon

I don't remember the original 1960s run of these cartoons, but recall them more from the early 1970s in the afternoon. As you can see, the quality is pretty mediocre, and it would get worse before the end of the run (this was the tenth episode). Most adaptations of comics were pretty cheesy back then; it wasn't until the Superman movie in about 1978 that anybody approached the subject of superheroes with real respect.

Obviously the biggest impact of the Spiderman cartoon series was the theme song, (snipped from this cartoon) which has been incredibly durable. Here it is:

I always liked the part about "In the chill of night at the scene of a crime...."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

DC, The Home of WeirDCrooks

In the Golden Age, it was seldom necessary to give criminals a motivation. They were just crooks, simple as that. Some of them (Luthor notably) also were mad scientists, a bogeyman familiar to youngsters from the TV and radio serials.

But as the Silver Age wore on, establishing a motive for the criminal behavior became more important. Two of the oddest motivations came from Captain Cold and Sonar.

Captain Cold was one of the Silver Age Flash's first villains, appearing in Showcase #8, the second comic to feature the Scarlet Speedster. His weapon was a gun that could freeze things instantly; a rather pedestrian power. But he was an interesting character nonetheless because his reason for pursuing a life of crime was to impress women.

Initially he had a crush on Iris West, Barry Allen's girlfriend, but would later transfer his affections to other women. Along the way, he picked up a supervillain polar opposite named Heat Wave, who frequently was his rival for the affections of women.

Sonar, on the other hand, had the ability to control sounds with a special tuning fork. Again, this is not an ability likely to fascinate readers for long. But Sonar's back story was wild. He came from a small European country named Modora. Frustrated that his homeland was not a player on the world stage, he resolved to make it a major power.

In one of the annoying coincidences that plagued Green Lantern in the early years (see for example, my earlier post about Qward), GL discovers Sonar because he is searching for a stamp from Modora. He searches the mind of an old clockmaker, whose apprentice, Bito Wladon (Sonar) has just quit the job. The clockmaker is worried because Wladon had discussed his dangerous ideas before leaving.

GL battles Sonar twice, but each time the villain manages to escape. The third time turns out to be a charm and in gratitude, the citizens of Modora issue a special stamp for Green Lantern to give to Pie-Face.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Fantastic Four Annual #1

As I have discussed earlier, DC's success with "Annuals" (really 80-page reprint mags) resulted in Marvel looking to add this profitable niche to its line. The problem was that Marvel had not been publishing their superheros long enough to be able to reprint stories and expect them to sell very well, or so they thought. So Fantastic Four Annual #1 featured a brand new double-length story with the FF facing the Sub-Mariner and his Atlantean hordes.

This was the first time since Namor's return in FF #4 that he appears in Atlantis. We learn that the Atlanteans are blue in color, which raises some questions about the claims that he is "a prince of the blood" as one character puts it. We also learn that he has a love, Lady Dorma, and a rival for both the throne and the girl, in the Warlord Krang. He gives a speech to his subjects in which he vows to make the "insolent human race pay for its crimes against our people."

The next sequence shows us the FF in a typical opening, with Johnny and Ben fighting. This time they damage some of Sue's priceless gowns. In an effort to relieve the team's tension while accomplishing some business, Reed suggests a cruise of the Atlantic, where sea monsters have been reported recently.

The sea monsters turn out to be a trap for the FF. Namor advises Reed that he declares the seas and the skies above them as his territory, banning any overseas boating or flights. This of course will mean war with the humans.

There follows a brief bio of Subby; turns out he's the product of a marriage between an human and an Atlantean princess; hence the caucasian skin. The Sub-Mariner's forces quickly take over New York and other major cities on the coast. However, the invasion is thwarted when Reed manages to create an evaporation ray, depriving the Atlanteans of the water in their helmets that they need to survive on land.

Angered, Namor kidnaps Sue Storm. While the boys fight it out above, Dorma, in a fit of jealousy, breaks a window in the undersea room where Sue is being held. Sue, realizing it is her only hope, jumps out the broken window. But she becomes tangled in some seaweed, and nearly drowns. Namor flies her back to the mainland to a hospital. But his act of selflessness has a price, as the Atlanteans feel betrayed and desert him.

In the second feature, the brief encounter between Spiderman and the FF from ASM #1 is retold in an extended version. The book also contains a reprint of the FF's origin from Fantastic Four #1, and a gallery of their most memorable villains.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Ultra, the Multi-Alien

DC introduced a lot of weird characters in the late 1960s, but few of them were weirder than Ultra, The Multi-Alien. Ultra was Ace Arn, a space explorer from the near future, who was accidentally transformed into a freak with the composite powers and body of four different aliens. As was becoming common, some of the conflict in the story was actually internal; the hero was unhappy with being "different". See Ben Grimm (Thing), Metamorpho, the Doom Patrol and others. At first one of the agonies for him was the loss of his girlfriend, Bonnie Blake, but eventually she accepted him despite his strange appearance.

Ultra's powers were pretty basic--he could fly, had incredible strength in one arm, could shoot lightning and had magnetic powers as well. He first appeared in Mystery in Space #103, taking over the cover and feature slot from Adam Strange. There were eight appearances in all, with #110 spelling the end for both the Multi-Alien and Mystery in Space.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lois Lane

Lois Lane famously appeared alongside Clark Kent in Action Comics #1. In the early Superman stories, Lois appears to despise Clark, who loves her and longs to win her himself, although it quickly becomes apparent that she's more interested in Superman.

Lois earned a feature of her own right in Superman #28. Although the title of the feature may seem sexist to us now, "Lois Lane, Girl Reporter" was accurate at the time. Many newspapers had a "girl reporter" as something of a novelty--Nellie Bly being the most famous. The stories were generally four pages long and emphasized comedy over drama, much like the Alfred series that was printed in Batman around the same time.

In 1954, a Superman supporting character was given a solo book, but it wasn't Lois Lane or even editor Perry White. Rather it was Jimmy Olsen. Olsen had been a relatively minor character in the comic books up till that time. In fact, he was so minor that in Superman #72, a character looking exactly like the Silver Age Olsen appeared, as Perry White's son!

Of course, Olsen had been a much more significant character in both the Superman radio show and on television, which is the most probable reason for the sudden launch of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen.

Lois didn't get her shot until Showcase #9, July-August 1957. She had one more tryout in the following issue, and in March-April 1958 Lois Lane #1 appeared on the newsstands. That issue also included the first artwork by the man who was to define Lois for the rest of the Silver Age, Kurt Schaffenberger.

Schaffenberger had drawn Captain Marvel back in the Golden Age, and he seemed to sense that Lois Lane needed to be slightly different from the ultra-serious Superman series. The covers often featured Lois or Superman in a particularly humiliating, yet comical situation, such as this:

The stories from this era are always a guilty pleasure. They have just the right amount of whimsical humor without quite dissolving into farce. A frequent theme had Lois being wooed by another man, either wealthy or powerful. Of course, Lois' goal was always to marry Superman, and there was a continuing "imaginary" series including the above story about the trials and tribulations of being married to the Man of Steel.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Gunner & Sarge

In the late 1950s and early 1960s war comic books became more popular, mirroring trends in pop culture as a whole. As the World War II generation moved into positions of power, they naturally wanted to explore the themes of the most important events of their generation. DC had several war magazines as the Silver Age started; All American Men of War, Our Army at War, Our Fighting Forces, and Star Spangled War Stories; they added GI Combat after purchasing the title from the old Quality Line. For the most part the stories in these comics were one-shots, featuring characters that would not appear again. This was a significant negative as most other comics had continuing characters.

So DC gradually began to add features to its titles which did not have them. Our Fighting Forces starred Gunner & Sarge starting with issue #45, with a May 1959 cover date. Gunner was a Thompson sub-machine gunner, while Sarge was the crusty order giver. The pair apparently formed the smallest squadron in the US Marines, although they grew a bit with Our Fighting Forces #49, when a German shepherd dog (named Billy, but simply called Pooch) was added to the mix. Although they mostly fought in the Pacific, oddly enough in the first story they were in Europe battling the Nazis.

That story also established a basic pattern for the series. Gunner was the decoy, intended to draw the fire of the enemy so that the Sarge could locate and finish them off. Many stories featured Gunner griping about this.

Gunner, Sarge & Pooch lasted until Our Fighting Forces #94, August 1965, when they were retired in favor of the Fighting Devil Dog, a series of Vietnam stories featuring Sergeant Rock's younger brother, Larry. However, they were resurrected a few years later for a series called "The Losers" which featured them, Johnny Cloud, and Captain Storm. Ironically, The Losers lasted even longer than Gunner & Sarge's original fifty issues, accounting for the final 59 issues of Our Fighting Forces.

Update: Star-Studded War Comics has a post up featuring a solid Gunner & Sarge story.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pete Ross

Pete Ross was a moderately interesting character in the Superboy/Superman mythos. Young Clark Kent meets Pete in Superboy #86, when a couple of bullies pick on Clark in a theatre line. Ross soon sends the bullies packing and a friendship is struck.

But Clark has always avoided close friendships for a good reason: Because a buddy would notice if Clark suddenly disappeared all the time whenever an emergency came up requiring Superboy's services. And it turns out that Pete has a hobby that makes Clark a little nervous. He's recording information on Superboy's attributes and comparing those to Clark's. However, it all proves to be innocent, as Pete wants Clark to portray Superboy in a school play.

In Superboy #90, Pete discovers Clark's secret identity. Pete and Clark are camping out together when an emergency call goes out for Superboy. As Clark changes, a lightning flash reveals him in his Superboy costume.

This was a pretty big deal for DC, because Superman, their signature character, had never had anybody know his identity at that time aside from the Kents and Batman. Thus it would seem that Pete would become a significant character in the DC universe.

But as it worked out, there really wasn't a lot of use for him in the stories. In Superboy #94, Pete helps Superboy protect his identity, but you can only do that so many times before it becomes tiresome. At one point he was inducted into the Legion of Super Heroes because of his nobility in knowing Superboy's identity and not announcing it. But of course, once that's done, there's not much use for Pete in the Legion.

He did appear a few more times in Superboy and in Superman (as an adult) as well, but he was pretty much a marginal character despite what seemed like an exciting and promising beginning.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Hawkman in Mystery in Space

DC had a tough time launching Hawkman in the 1960s. The first three tryouts, in Brave & Bold #34-36 apparently did not sell well enough to justify giving him his own book. DC gave it another run in B&B #42-44. When those did not work out as well as planned, DC shifted the character to Mystery in Space effective with #87. In addition, Joe Kubert was taken off the art chores. Kubert had drawn Hawkman in the Golden Age, but his style did not seem to impress superhero fans (although his war comics sold well at the time).

DC handed the character to Murphy Anderson. Anderson had mostly been a science-fiction penciller for DC, although he also did inks for many titles. A fine artist, Anderson had a tight line and a terrific eye for facial expressions. Sadly, Anderson's assignment to Hawkman may have prompted the end of the terrific Atomic Knights series which he had created in Strange Adventures; the last episode of that feature appeared two months after the first MIS Hawkman.

The first story in Mystery in Space introduced a frequently recurring villain known as Ira Quimby, aka IQ. Quimby at first could think up brilliant criminal schemes but he was unable to put them into action until one day at the Metropolitan Museum, Quimby is turned into a genius by light rays falling on a glowing stone. Now his great ideas work because he is able to invent amazing machines that make them possible.

As it happens, Carter Hall and his wife Shiera are visiting New York at the time and they witness IQ's first major crime. However, he brilliantly manages to come up with a way to defeat the Winged Wonders. Quimby later figures out that the stone is behind his sudden brilliance, but his attempt to steal it results in chips of the stone being left behind. Hawkman is able to use these to defeat Quimby.

Adam Strange makes a brief appearance in the story in his archaeologist guise:

One particularly oddball facet of the Hawkman series was Mavis Trent. Mavis worked at the same museum as Carter Hall, and decided to set her cap for Hawkman after meeting him, even though he was obviously partnered with Hawkgirl. The heat gets turned up on this romantic triangle a notch in MIS #88, where Mavis impersonates Hawkgirl after accidentally finding her costume in the museum. Because Mavis has discovered a connection between Hawkman and the museum, they worry that she'll connect Carter Hall and Shiera with Hawkman and Hawkgirl, so they convince Police Commissioner Emmett (who knows their secret identities) to imply without quite lying to Mavis that Hawkman is still single.

The highlight of Hawkman's brief run in Mystery in Space came in MIS #90. The story "Planets in Peril" featured a book-length team-up between Hawkman and Adam Strange. Earth is suddenly transported to an orbit around Rann's sun, but on the opposite side from Rann, and with a slightly faster orbit, which means the two planets will collide eventually. But with the heroes of two worlds working together, they manage to defeat the villain who caused the Earth to be teleported to Alpha Centauri.