Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Disappearance of the Catwoman

The Catwoman had been a regular foe of Batman's since her first appearance in Batman #1. While not appearing as frequently as the Joker, she did pop up in at least 19 stories between 1940 and 1954, so roughly once a year the readers could count on another Catwoman story. But Detective #211's The Jungle Cat-Queen was her final appearance for almost a dozen years.

What happened? I suspect that part of it was that the Catwoman was objectionable to the Comics Code Authority. Not only was she an attractive criminal, but she frequently got away from Batman (although not with her ill-gotten gains), as in this final sequence from that story:

In many of the earlier stories, Batman seemed to intentionally help the Catwoman escape. This of course was contrary to the Comics Code Authority:

General Standards Part A:

1. Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
2. No comics shall explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime.
3. Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
4. If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
5. Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates the desire for emulation.
6. In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

Of course, the Catwoman clearly violated #5 and #6 regularly, and so she had to go. She disappeared (outside of story reprints in 80-Page Giant #5 and Batman #176) until 1966. And when she returned, it was in a surprising location: Lois Lane #70. Why there? Well, it was November of 1966. Batmania was in full swing, and Mort Weisinger may have decided to ride the wave by borrowing Batman's female nemesis.

After that it was only a matter of time before Catwoman appeared again in Batman #197, although DC decided to modernize her uniform:

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Monday, January 23, 2006

I'm A (Time) Travelin' Man

Most of the superheroes in the DC universe had some method or other of traveling through time. Batman had Professor Nichols, who initially appeared to project him and Robin into the past via hypnosis, a preposterous notion that DC covered up for years by throwing more and more scientific-looking instruments into the room.

Flash had his Cosmic Treadmill, a definite forerunner of the exercise machine gathering dust in many basements across America. The Atom had the Time Pool. Superman could just fly in a tight circle for awhile and he'd automatically go forwards and backwards in time.

For awhile DC even standardized the look of a time machine for their characters who had no other way to travel through the ages:

The basic glass sphere would remain constant for most of the Silver Age. Many of the machines had skids, like a helicopter, or else a tripod arrangement for stability when on the ground.

The crucial element of time travel that DC established first appeared in a Superboy story, The Impossible Mission, in Superboy #85. Superboy decided to travel back in time to save President Lincoln from John Wilkes Booth's bullet. But when he got back there, he encountered the adult Luthor, who had also traveled backwards in time for some plot. Luthor, thinking Superboy was onto his schemes, managed to paralyze Superboy with a piece of red Kryptonite. When the commotion arises at the Ford Theatre, across from Luthor's hotel room, Lex realizes he has helped to kill the greatest President the country ever had. Surprisingly he seems genuinely upset and guilt-ridden. But the lesson that Superboy takes from this escapade is that you cannot go back in time and change history. And for the most part, DC stuck with that rule for the rest of the Silver Age.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Secret Agent Man

Comic publishers have always dutifully scanned popular culture for clues as to topics that appear to interest teenagers. In the 1950s, comics were produced to capitalize on the appeal of Westerns at the movie theatre. When monster movies were popular, monster comics were not behind. And when spies and secret agents became hip in the mid-1960s, the publishers rushed to fill the demand.

Marvel made a particulary strong entry into the secret agent genre with the paranoia-tinged Nick Fury, Agent of Shield series. NFAS took over the lead feature in Strange Tales that had previously belonged to the Human Torch (and briefly, Torch and the Thing team-ups) effective with issue #135, featuring a terrific cover by Jack Kirby:

(Note: Fred Hembeck has a cool takeoff on this cover and some memories of the NFAS Saga in the January 17, 2006 edition of his blog.)

Fury had been a character in the Marvel universe for several years already, albeit as a historical character. He was Sgt. Fury, leader of the Howling Commandos, a World War II fighting squadron. Now Marvel decided to age him a few years (but not quite the 20 that the calendar called for) and make him a secret agent.

S.H.I.E.L.D. of course was a direct swipe of U.N.C.L.E. (which was probably a swipe itself of S.P.E.C.T.R.E.) and stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division. Shield's chief enemy was a group called Hydra, which mercifully does not stand for anything, but does have some cool rituals:

NFAS was blessed with great stories and artwork. After handling the introductory story in Strange Tales #135, Jack Kirby did layouts for the amazing Johnny Severin for the next few issues, followed by a year or so of rotating artists including Ogden Whitney (!). Finally in Strange Tales #151, a new artist was hired for the feature who would define Agent of Shield for the next few years: Jim Steranko. Steranko's style was unlike most comics artists of the time; he was heavily influenced by the psychedelic posters and album art of the late 1960s as this cover shows:

In early 1968, Marvel decided to quit doing anthology magazines. Strange Tales was changed to Dr Strange with issue #169, and Nick Fury Agent of Shield was given its own title starting with #1. Unfortunately the title struggled a bit on its own apparently, possibly because of the inevitable decline of the secret agent genre after the initial fad died down. The first twelve issues of NFAS were published on a monthly basis, but with #13, the frequency was changed to bi-monthly and the title only lasted to #15. A year later Marvel published three more issues but they were reprints of the early Strange Tales stories.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Early "Relevant" Comics

Although the more famous "relevant" comics came at the end of the Silver Age, there were several earlier attempts. Here's an amusing story from Superman #114, July 1957:

Not even Superman can avoid the taxman! In the story, Superman owes a billion dollars to the government, and must pay up by the next day. But every time he tries getting something valuable he finds a better use for it than paying the debt--hospitals need the radium he digs out of the ground, for example. In the end, a compromise is reached.

This is only one of several Silver Age stories I can think of that featured the emerging snares of the postwar era. For example, in Batman #91, the Caped Crusader had to deal with "Batman's Publicity Agent", an overagressive promoter. In the following issue, "The Fan Mail of Danger", Batman is forced to hire a secretary when his fanmail starts to pile up. There was also a story about Superman at some point where he had to purchase life insurance, and as a result the insurance company begins bugging him not to engage in so many risky events.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Kookie #2 Part 1--As Requested by Fred Hembeck

(Welcome fellow Fred Hembeck fans!)

Fred Hembeck wrote eloquently about his appreciation for Kookie #1, an early 1960s good girl comic with a twist; the girl worked in Greenwich Village, at an espresso bar frequented by beatniks. You can read this terrific comic online here.

Fred also put out a request for somebody to post #2 online; this is my reply. The scans are not my own, I downloaded them from a few months ago. The occasional snide commentary is all mine. You can click on each picture to expand it up to two times; at the second level of magnification it becomes more readable.

"Bring me the head of John the Beatnik!"

Kookie #2 Part 2--As Requested by Fred Hembeck

Who says comics aren't educational? Fleahaven gives us all a lesson in geopolitical realities here:

Kookie #2 Part 3--As Requested by Fred Hembeck

Mama Pappa's into inhalants?

More education on the quaint customs of Islam and the treatment of women:

Kookie #2 Part 4--As Requested by Fred Hembeck

Kookie #2 Part 5--As Requested by Fred Hembeck

Kookie #2 Part 6--As Requested by Fred Hembeck

Kookie #2 Part 7--As Requested by Fred Hembeck

Kookie #2 Part 8--As Requested by Fred Hembeck

Kookie #2 Part 9--As Requested by Fred Hembeck

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Convenient Comic Cliches of the Silver Age

#1--If you're suffering from a mental disturbance, you should never be told that you've gone crazy. People around you should humor your delusions.

"Serious damage to her mind, you say, Doc? Like--err, if she were to say that I'm really Superman?"