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.