Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Computers in the Silver Age

This is a topic I will be returning to over time to add details. Comic books were always interested in cutting-edge technology, and computers were certainly considered in that category back in the 1960s.

As I have discussed previously, DC in the Silver Age elevated science to the status of a religion, with Jor-El as the high priest. But curiously, when it came to the fruits of that science--technology--DC was decidedly more ambivalent.

We have discussed in the past the Kryptonian machine that determined what occupation you were best suited for and to which you would be assigned with no appeal. And we've covered the machine 500 years in the future which determines whether you have sufficiently repented criminality before your parole date. And what do both those incredibly sophisticated pieces of technology have in common? They both screwed up!

This is a theme that recurs often in the DC Silver Age. For example, consider a little story from Superman #118 (January 1958) called The Boy Napoleon. Jimmy takes a military aptitude test on an electronic brain, and the brass are stunned to discover that he's a genius. Of course, Clark quickly realizes what happened:

But as Superman he's compelled to help make Jimmy look like Napoleon to convince some foreign spies that they should not invade against this fearsome young general.

Think computer dating is a new fad? Lois Lane #24's cover shows otherwise:

That fella on the right is not Clark Kent. Cute little story with a shocking revelation about Lois' supposed perfect man:

Roger is so embarrassed at his lack of hair that he is unable to face Lois again, so we are left wondering if she could have overcome her irrational prejudice towards the follically challenged. And whether the computer worked or not in this case.

Here's an ad that appeared in many comics magazines during the late 1960s:

Discussion of the Digi Comp I here.

In Jimmy Olsen #5 (May-June 1955), the Daily Planet gets a new tool:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Thunder And Lightning

In JLA #37-38, DC brought back the JSA for the third teamup with the Justice League. Once again, they continued to rotate the characters.

In this story, Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt appeared for the first time since the 1940s. Johnny is probably the least famous JSA member. He effectively had a genie (the Thunderbolt) who would appear whenever he spoke the words "Say you". The humor arose because Johnny apparently didn't know those were the magic words, although of course he managed to say them by accident many times. He was a major DC character of the 1940s, appearing in many issues of Flash Comics (including #1) and All-Star (including as a charter member of the JSA in #3), as well as the first three issues of World's Best/World's Finest and World's Fair Comics 1940.

Fate was not very kind to Johnny. In Flash Comics #86, a backup character was introduced named the Black Canary. Six issues later, Thunder was out and the Canary was in; she also fairly quickly eased him from of his role in the Justice Society.

In this story, Johnny does know the words "Say you". He has been invited to a meeting of the JSA once again. However, upon learning that there are Earth-1 counterparts to some of his old mates, he becomes curious as to what his doppelganger is like. It turns out that the Johnny Thunder of Earth-1 is a small-time crook who remembers reading the old Johnny Thunder comics in the 1940s. He kayos Earth-2's Johnny and takes over control of the Thunderbolt.

Realizing that the JLA will be tough to beat, he commands the Thunderbolt to arrange things so that none of the JLA heroes will arise. The Thunderbolt prevents Krypton from exploding, keeps the lightning from breaking through the window of Barry Allen's lab, stops Abin Sur's rocket from crashing, etc. Sadly, Bruce Wayne's parents are not rescued:

Since Johnny has not shown up for the JSA reunion, his old mates are worried. They track him down to Earth-1 where they are stunned to learn that the JLA does not exist. They battle Johnny and his Thunderbolt, but are unable to prevent them from getting away with magic. They discover from interviewing Thunder's henchmen that there are no superheroes on Earth-1 and never have been. So they decide to mimic the JLA themselves, using their powers to fake the Earth-1 heroes' abilities.

They trounce Johnny and the Thunderbolt, but the former soon figures out that it was the JSA members in disguise. In response, he tells the Thunderbolt to arrange for it that five of his cronies become the JLA heroes Batman, Superman, Flash, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter. Thus his criminal henchmen become supervillians, setting the stage for a battle in the following issue.

In JLA #38, the heroes of Earth-2 battle the villains of Earth-A (since Earth-1 is now an alternate world). But the heroes prove too much for the villains because they are accustomed to using their powers while the villains are still new to the experience. Of course, this makes little sense given that the Thunderbolt had gone back in time to make them super-powered beings:

(Update: Now that I think of it, this is probably why Gardner Fox did not have the Thunderbolt rescue Bruce Wayne's parents, because if they had, what Hawkman would be suggesting here is to allow them to die again.)

Johnny escapes to the moon where he forces the Thunderbolt to create three new villains, but in the end they are defeated, and so it's a battle of the T-Bolt and Dr Fate. But Johnny gets caught up in the fight and is being battered, so he finally wishes that none of this had ever happened.

And so:

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Detective #249

I've always liked this particular issue, for several reasons. First, it features Batwoman and Robin working together. Why? Well, because Bruce Wayne is in prison!

It's something of a stock DC plot, with Bruce agreeing to be found guilty of being the fantastic new criminal, The Collector, in an attempt to befriend a prisoner who has somehow found blueprints to the jail. As in all such stories, though, only one person (Commissioner Gordon) knows that Bruce is not really guilty.

So when one of the convicts attempting a breakout with the plans accidentally kills himself, Bruce is accused of murder and sentenced to die. And of course, the Gotham legal system makes Texas look deliberate, so that Bruce is convicted and receives the last meal rapidly. Can Batwoman and Robin save him?

Well, Robin can, anyway. This was only Batwoman's third appearance and although she insists that the Boy Wonder work under her as he would under Batman, it is clear that Robin is the real detective on this case:

This is contrary to the usual Silver Age stories in which Robin is almost always second banana to the World's Greatest Detective.

Eventually Batwoman and Robin capture the Collector and the warden gets the governor to call off the execution. We never do hear that Commissioner Gordon has recovered from that nasty coma.

The story is unique in that Batman only appears in one panel; it's almost all Bruce Wayne.

The second story is The Ghost that Haunted Roy Raymond. The Roy Raymond stories were amusing little tales of a TV debunker of the supernatural. In this one, Roy proves that the ghost haunting him is actually a fake arranged by a couple of men trying to settle a bet.

The text story is actually pretty interesting, concerning the C.I.B., the Compliance and Investigative Branch of the Department of Agriculture. Yes, Agriculture had their own special cops, who bust people for some, shall we say, unusual crimes:

Yes, thank goodness those wily promoters are not allowed to make a profit on that wheat!

In the Martian Manhunter story, the governor is being threatened by gangsters trying to get a pardon for one of their members who is scheduled for execution. Two death penalty stories in one issue! Detective Jones impersonates the governor using his special power of being able to mimic any form (pretending he used makeup for the trick). The execution apparently goes forward, and the next day the crooks try to get revenge on the governor, but Jones manages to defeat them without revealing he's a Martian.

Friday, July 06, 2007

X Marks the Spot

In 1963, Marvel really got hopping. For September of that year, they turned out not one, but two new superhero teams. The first, The Avengers, was made up of the heroes they had launched to that point, including Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and the Hulk. The second group, therefore, had to be newly created. Rather than give them separate origins, Stan and Jack came up with a new concept for superheroes: They had all been born that way. They were mutants, members of "homo superior", as compared to homo sapiens.

Here's the cover:

The Flyboy is The Angel, originally Warren Worthington III. Although this issue does not reveal much more about him than that he can fly and wears a harness while in street clothes that hides his wings, the name is clearly intended to give us an image of a wealthy young preppie.

The big-footed gentleman on the trapeze is The Beast, real name Hank McCoy. He's something of a monkey-boy, capable of bouncing around at will and using his feet almost like hands. He's also a sesquipedalian, somebody who never uses a simple word when a six-syllable term will suffice.

The laser guy is Cyclops, introduced in this issue as "Slim" Summers although later stories use his given name of Scott. Although it is not apparent in the first issue, Summers is the leader of the team when away from their home base.

The gal in the background looking like she's riding a surfboard is Jean Grey, alias Marvel Girl. Her power is here described as "teleportation" although in fact it is more telekenesis as later stories will acknowledge. Jean is the source of some of the friction in the group, as everybody (except one) is attracted to her.

The lone holdout from the Jean Grey admiration society (at least in this first issue) is Iceman, shown throwing snowballs above. Bobby Drake is the youngest of the X-Men at only 16.

The villain is Magneto, certainly one of the most durable villains of the Marvel Silver Age. He too is a mutant, but an evil mutant determined to take over the Earth as its ruler.

Not shown is the regular leader of the X-Men, Professor Xavier. Although confined to a wheelchair, he possesses a superior mind, capable of telepathy at great distances.

The X-Men were destined to become one of the great teams in comic book history, although that may not have been obvious at first. In fact, they did not survive to the end of the Silver Age, being cancelled after issue #66, March 1970. But they would return in the mid-70s with different members and become extremely popular.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Silver Age Comic Book Advertisers

This is another post, like my Batman and Guns post, that will be regularly updated as I come across interesting stuff to add to it. To most of us comic readers, the ads were generally an annoyance, since it meant one less page of story and art. But some of the ads were well-designed or featured genuinely interesting products, and I am going to comment on those.

First up is Ideal's Motorofic Action Highway set. As you can see, the story (as found in Detective 381, November 1968) is told in comic book fashion, with lots of excitement:

Now that just sounds cool, and according to this website, it was (and is). The set shown above is the "Highway 97" version. I especially liked this discussion of the flagman:

This accessory will stop a vehicle, and allow a flagman to 'cross' in front, then allow the vehicle to proceed. Ingeniously done with a hidden turntable and magnets. The extra fun of the item comes from its own inherent lack of precision: Occasionally the vehicle runs over the obnoxious flagman.

Uniroyal had a brand of car tires called Tiger Paws. Here's a neat little animated commercial from around 1968:

The brand was successful enough that they decided to sell it to kids as well, for their bicycles:

I believe the art on that is by the famed EC artist, Jack Davis. An aside here: Bicycle tires can matter. I was out riding one time with a couple friend who were much better riders than I. But we started riding up this muddy hill and I passed them with ease. As I did, one of the other riders exclaimed "Holy smoke! Look at all that mud coming off that tire!" As it happened, I had a Mud Dawg tire on the back, and it was indeed shedding mud like water off a duck's back.

A ration of Grog for the kiddies?

Here's one of the odder products advertised. A dinosaur that grows its own tail, that you can then plant and watch grow into a beautiful shade tree? And it grows another and another?

Of course, the reality turned out a bit different:

My folks mounted Grog on an upright support of our backyard patio and I filled his teensy tail-hole with soil and planted the seed. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. Maybe I hadn't been watering Grog's tail enough; after all, didn't "succulent" plants need lots of water? So, instead of the eyedropper I was using, I used a small paper cup to water the plant. It immediately overflowed the miniscule receptacle, washing all the soil and seed right out of Grog's tail-indentation! I never did find that seed (it never grew out of the backyard lawn, that's for sure) and Grog soon became another of those items buried in the garage, never to be seen again. Grog was a disaster and a rip-off, but he taught me about mail-order toys from comics, and probably discouraged me from throwing away good comic-buying allowance for such things as those "giant dinosaur balloons" and other such junk available in comic book ads.