Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Greatest Hero of the Silver Age

He wasn't invulnerable, he wasn't even strong. Unlike most heroes of the time, he had no swagger to his walk, no false bravado. He spoke with a nervous stammer and a great deal of self-deprecation.

That's him, bottom right. Tin had more heart in him than any other Silver Age character, because he overcame his obvious fears to do the right thing and the brave thing:

As you can probably gather, Tin didn't succeed very often. This does highlight one problem with the Metal Men in general; they might "die" but as robots they could always be brought back to "life".

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Letters Columns Bring Continuity?

I've often thought this was so, but decided to take a brief look at it with this post. In the GA and the early Silver Age, DC, like many publishers, had two pages of print in every magazine, apparently in order to get a preferential rate on mailing. For many years they had used this space to print an amazing number of absolutely forgettable tales.

But ACG started publishing letters to the editor in their horror mags and apparently these satisfied the post office's requirements. DC, realizing that free letters from their fans were cheaper than whatever they paid for the text stories switched gradually, over a long period of time, to letters columns.

Superboy #68 (October, 1958) was the first issue of that title to feature a letters column. And oh, boy could you see the future of the Silver Age writ large upon that first page:

Okay, no more melting bullets with his X-Ray Vision (perhaps this is why Superboy developed "heat vision" to begin with? Superboy's adventures are taking place during WWII, so don't show the TV antennas on the roofs. Why can't he just make a couple diamonds everytime a charity needs some money? And we get an amusing letter about Supe's fascination with the LL girls, which turns out to be hugely prophetic.

These letters may not seem like much, but they clearly drove characterization for years. First, we get the careful "can his powers really do that?" that marked the Weisinger era. Next we get promo for an upcoming story. Then a time continuity mistake that DC admits is a boo-boo (as they liked to call it in those G-Rated days).

Superboy #70 had more letters of the same type:

Apparently a common enough complaint that DC decided to do a story about it, explaining that the glass for his lenses came from the rocket that carried him to earth.

And another complaint about the collapsed time problem that bedeviled Superboy:

Of course, the problem is that if you have Superboy reacting to 10-year-old fads he's going to seem awfully drab, and yet DC had to maintain the illusion that his adventures were taking place years ago, before Clark became Superman. It was a circle they never quite managed to square.

You can see the continuity being forced on the editors by the readers, or at least forced to be committed to:

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Green Kryptonite Speaks!

Occasionally during the Silver Age, writers got the idea to tell the story from the standpoint of an inanimate object. I've written in the past about how Wonder Woman's Golden Lariat and her Invisible Plane got a chance to tell their stories. It was an original idea, but perhaps carried too far in a series of stories called Tales of Kryptonite.

The series ran for four issues in Superman, #173, 176, 177 and 179, as the chunk of Kryptonite, which had originally been part of a statue awarded to Jor-El, found itself interacting with various members of the Superman family. Hilariously, the Green K here tries mental telepathy:

At the end of the story, Superboy is oddly unaffected by the piece of Green K; it turns out that Lex Luthor had accidentally created a device that made Superman invulnerable to its radiation. But Superboy assumes it's just a rock that looks like Kryptonite and throws it into the Arctic so he won't be fooled by it at some later point.

In Superman #177 things get even more improbable. A plane carrying Clark Kent over the Arctic is about to crash, and the passengers bail out. Clark lands near that same piece of Green K, but manages to escape with a rather cool method:

Improbably, this trip turns out to be the one that convinces Supes to build his Fortress of Solitude, so it's a significant event in the life of the Man of Steel. But this piece of Green K is bound for even more glory, as a professor uses it to create a ray that neutralizes Kryptonite against Superman. Unfortunately it turns out to make the Krytonite deadly for humans.

In the end Superman uses a pair of lead tongs to hurl the chunk into space. But it goes through a red "cloud" in space which turns it into red kryptonite and sends it hurtling back to Earth.

The Red Kryptonite appears in Superman #177. At first Superman can detect no ill effects, but then he discovers that he's unable to speak or write in English, only in Kryptonese. How can he avoid exposing his Clark Kent identity to Lois when he shows up in the newsroom speaking and writing this strange tongue?

Answer: By exposing Krypto to talking dog Red Kryptonite!

The series finally finished in Superman #179. A mysterious ray transforms the Red K, now apparently harmless to Superman (since it only affects him once) into Gold Kryptonite, which will rob him of his powers permanently!

Up till this point the series had been rather silly and pedestrian, but the finale redeemed things a bit. Seening the Red K transmute into Gold K, the Kandorians devised a plan of action. They would send one member of the Superman Emergency Squad (a group of Kandorians who were on call to be tiny, super-powered assistants when needed) to use a Phantom Zone projector to dispose of the dangerous element.

The person would be protected in a lead suit. As it happens, Jay-Ree is chosen, but his girlfriend Joenne insists on accompanying him. While getting rid of the Gold K, they are both briefly exposed to the rays and decide to make their home on Earth for the good of Kandor:

Of course, that's good characterization but awful genetics; acquired characteristics are not handed down to the next generation. This was in an age when nobody was supposed to notice that Superman was of an alien species and quite probably could not breed with Lois. And of course it leaves unanswered the question of just who Jay-Ree and Joenne's children are going to marry.

But despite this obvious glitch, the rest of the story charms, with the little couple doing all sorts of cute stuff. Jimmy Olsen builds them a miniature home inside his pad, and Superman himself presides at their wedding. At the end, Gold Kryptonite threatens to return, but I believe that this was the end of the Tales of Kryptonite.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Supreme Villain

Of the Silver Age was undoubtedly Adolf Hitler. Of course he mostly appeared in World War II comics like Sgt Fury and Our Army at War, but there were several occasions where he popped up in the more modern world.

In this story from Blackhawk #115 (Aug 1957), a series of daring attacks sends a rumor around the world: Hitler is alive! However, it turns out to be a hoax as a gang of crooks have plotted to steal the Nazis' hidden treasure which is in the hands of a fanatical Hitler supporter.

Hitler made a memorable appearance in Adventure #314. A criminal manages to evade the Legion's elaborate security system and steal their only time-bubble. He heads back into the past to gather some of the greatest villains of history: Nero, Dillinger and Hitler. When they come to the present he manages to switch the minds of those three villains into the bodies of Mon-El, Ultra Boy and Superboy respectively. But Saturn Girl senses that the villains can be defeated by informing each of the weakness of the others (Superboy to Kryptonite, Mon-El to lead, Ultra-Boy to radiation). Sure enough they all kayo each other and their minds are transferred back into their evil bodies:

Der Fuehrer also popped up in Jimmy Olsen #86. Jimmy is shocked when watching an old WWII film to discover that he had a double on Hitler's staff and decides to go back in time to investigate. He arrives on D-Day and sees Eisenhower on the beach (a goof, since Eisenhower did not travel to Normandy until the day after D-Day). Jimmy convinces the Germans he's one of them, and after some amazing predictions of his come true (all learned from the history books), is rapidly promoted up the ladder to the German High Command. He was that German general he saw in that film.

Unfortunately, Jimmy neglects to tell Hitler about the plot on the latter's life by the German generals and he is about to be killed when the time travel mechanism he used (a Professor Potter "time bomb") returns him to the present.

In Fantastic Four #21, Stretcho and the gang battle the Hate Monger, a man who is stirring up hatred in the US and a revolution in South America. In the end, the villain is killed by his own supporters and revealed:

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The World's Finest Teamups--Part I

In the Golden Age, DC put out a couple oversized, omnibus books. Comic Cavalcade (initially) was dedicated to the All-American superheros: Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, while World's Finest (called World's Best for the first issue only) featured Superman, Batman, Boy Commandos and several other features. These comics cost a little more (15 cents instead of a dime), but they contained 92 pages, so it was worth the extra nickel.

Initially, there were no Batman and Superman teamups in World's Finest, with the notable exception of the covers, which generally featured Batman, Robin & Superman behaving like, well, teenagers. Here's a particularly amusing example:

But inside the book there would always be a Batman story and a Superman story, with no crossover.

That changed with World's Finest #71, July-August, 1954. DC decided to slim down the book to the standard 36 pages (including covers), and pare the price back to a dime. They maintained a couple of the backups (Green Arrow and Tomahawk), so to fit the other two features they were combined into one story.

This was not technically the first crossover of Batman and Superman. There was a one-shot teamup in Superman #76, in which (improbably) Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent share a room aboard a ship and accidentally discover each other's identity. However, outside the comics Superman and Batman had often paired up in the Superman radio series.

The first seven issues (WF #71-77) were illustrated by Curt Swan, who would go on to the great Superman artist of the 1960s and 1970s. But in WF #78 the series was (mostly) turned over to Dick Sprang. Sprang had been a longtime penciller of Batman stories and his style worked with Superman as well.

Sprang's specialty was perspective, and he always seemed to have the "camera" aimed in the right direction to give the reader the most entertainment. Here's a terrific example from WF #80:

Note that in the first shot, we get the crowd looking up at Batman and Robin, and in the second, we get almost exactly the opposite angle. This was a continuing theme with Sprang.

Sprang would go on to do the lion's share of the next 40 issues of World's Finest. Along the way there were a couple of significant stories.

In WF #88, Luthor and the Joker teamed up in Superman and Batman's Greatest Foes, a story in which the respective nemeses apparently go straight and set up a robot-building business together. Of course, it's just a front for a new criminal endeavor. This is the first super-villain team-up of the Silver Age and one of only a handful in DC history at that point.

World's Finest #90 featured The Super-Batwoman, the story where Batman decides to allow Batwoman to continue her crime-fighting career. He had forced her to retire in Detective #233 by discovering her secret identity, but now he was convinced that she had what it took to handle criminals.

In World's Finest #113, Bat-Mite and Mr Mxyzptlk teamed up. Although neither was truly a villain, this is still a significant early crossover. The Joker and Luthor got together again in WF #129, while Bat-Mite and Mr M renewed their acquaintance in #123.

By this time the editorial reins had been handed over to Jack Schiff and the stories suffered for a number of years with the same monsters, aliens and weird transformations that plagued Batman and Detective of the era. Dick Sprang only did three stories after WF #119, including WF #135's The Menace of the Future Man, his last work in the comics for many years. Schiff's own finale as editor was #140; in the next issue Weisinger took over this book, and that's a pretty good breakpoint.