Monday, March 31, 2008

The Secret Agent Wore a Bowtie

Comic publishers were ever alert for the latest trends among adolescent boys. When the secret agent craze hit in the mid-1960s with James Bond and his many imitators the comics were not far behind. Marvel made a terrific entry with Nick Fury, Agent of Shield.

DC responded with... Jimmy Olsen.

Now, you can probably see the problem here already. James Bond was suave, cultured, handsome and the epitome of cool. Whereas Jimmy was naive, unsophisticated, homely and as square as the Bizarro World.

The story (from Jimmy Olsen #89, December 1965) starts with Jimmy and Lucy on a date to see a movie featuring "Jamison Baird, Agent .003". As was common in the DC universe, things were changed just enough to avoid lawsuits, although it seems a bit odd in this case. DC had published a story featuring James Bond only a few years earlier (Showcase #43).

As Jimmy and Lucy watch the movie, he provides running commentary about the gimmicks that Bond--errr, Baird--uses in the movie. After the show, they see a man get shot trying to escape from a ship. He dies on shore, but not before he gives Jimmy a clue. Tell Superman to find a Doctor Juarez in the Latin America country of Andulia.

But in his typically zany fashion, Jimmy decides to become a secret agent himself and pursue this great mystery on his own. He comes up with a kit full of gimmicks and dubs himself Secret Agent Double-5, because... try not to laugh now, both his first and last names have five letters.

Jimmy shows up in Latin America, where a comely senorita gives him a very friendly greeting:

Hey, maybe there's something to be said for this secret agenting business. But of course she tries to kill him:

This gives Jimmy a chance to use his "parachute flashlight", one of the gimmicks he created. It somehow doesn't get ripped out of his hands when it deploys.

He changes his hair color, but now that he's in Latin America he needs something more of a disguise than his green suit and red bow-tie, so he does the noble thing:

Say what? Jimmy stealing clothes from a "peon"? Couldn't they have had him dropping a fiver in front of the poor guy? Terrible characterization, and even worse the poncho disguise works for about five seconds. Jimmy's thrown in a cell with another lovely senorita (one admires the unisex nature of Latin American prisons), and they escape as shown in the splash panel at the top. But of course, she betrays him as well (this spy business is starting to resemble my love life in college), and so he must escape yet again using one of his gimmicks:

Jimmy and Superman eventually solve the mystery, and free Dr Juarez, who turns out to have been working on an artificial heart that the dictator of his country wanted because it would let him rule for another hundred years as a despot. And in the end, Jimmy encounters another "dazzler":

It is this constant tension between the notion of Jimmy as the hero of his magazine, and yet a buffoonish teenager like Archie that creates some of the charm of the Silver Age Jimmy Olsen. They would show him being ultra-competent in one panel and goofing off in the next; gee, can't imagine how that might resonate with adolescents. ;)

Well, Agent Double-Five returned in Jimmy Olsen #92, and this time they showed him kicking some pretty iconic DC superhero butt:

An agent of S.C.A.R. has broken into Jimmy's apartment. But our hero reveals one use for his bow-tie:

I'd try to explain this story but it's virtually incomprehensible. Jimmy catches his double trying to burgle the apartment, then pretends to be the double, then encounters the Robin double who warns him to stay away from a particular location before being disintegrated, where of course Jimmy immediately heads and gets an operation that puts a deadly device in him like the one that killed Robin. Errr, the Robin double. And there are Superman, Supergirl and Batman doubles as well, but they're just basic crooks with similar features, which explains the front cover when they fight him, but the main villain, an alien, (who calls himself Nero) wants to burn the Planet Earth. Jimmy manages to save civilization by preventing Nero from killing the ersatz double superheroes.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Stanhope's Libraries

Most of DC's teen heroes showed some signs of aging, although obviously at nothing like the calendar's pace. In Action #270, (November 1960), Supergirl celebrated her 16th birthday. Four years later, in Action #318 (November 1964), Supergirl graduates high school and begins to attend Stanhope College, so she's aging at about half the normal rate.

Stanhope would be her home for the next seven years. It was a nice, small college, with apparently quite a substantial building budget. In Action #318 Linda Danvers (Supergirl's secret identity) pledges to Alpha Lambda sorority. But she has to pass several initiation tests, one of which involves the new library:

She has to find some way to transport the books from the old library to the new one. Linda implores students to each withdraw ten books from the old building and return them to the new one. A neat little solution, although some might be a little concerned at a library which only has ten books for each student.

But given that, what are we to make of this panel from Action #349 (April 1967), only two and a half years later:

Okay, so Stanhope had three libraries during Linda's undergraduate years. And it was lucky that was all; in Action #366-368 a pair of futuristic fiends named Alpha and Beta threatened to blow up the entire campus with a bomb.

And I'd suspect some substantial repairs to the third building were required after this incident in Action #371 (January 1969):

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Jimmy Olsen's Ape Girlfriend

DC played lots of tricks on Jimmy Olsen, but this certainly takes the cake:

And on the splash panel for the story it's played for comedy, but there's a disturbing subtext:

It may seem hard to believe the CCA let this stuff through, but this sort of offbeat humor was a staple of country comedy in the USA at the time. We do learn that yes, it is a "bride" for Jimmy, so it's not like this is "unnatural" love, heh. Let me add here that despite the timeframe (late 1966), this does not appear intended racially. It's just an attempt at a normal goofy Jimmy Olsen story placing him in an embarrassing situation, which ends up looking either perverted or racist to us today, but would not have been seen as such at the time.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Fortress of Stalkertude

Mark Engblom has been covering Superman's rather creepy Fortress of Solitude in a series of entertaining (and revealing) posts. Highly recommended!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Slightly Off Topic, But

I had to comment on this comic:

The Incredible Hulk #141 is dated August 1971, so it's just outside my normal focus, but it's such a gas that I couldn't resist talking about it anyway. Done as an homage to Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic, it's a superb collaboration between Roy Thomas, Herb Trimpe and Johnny Severin.

In the story, we meet Malicia and Reggie, a wealthy liberal couple who are looking for a socially responsible cause that they can support. Their daughter has the obviously trendy one featured on the cover, but:

So they decide to take up the cause of the poor, misunderstood Hulk. Now that is a positively brilliant premise for a story, and the execution is near perfect. Severin's inks help set the lighthearted tone, and before you know it, the charity fundraiser for old Greenskin is under way:

I get the feeling the gal in the blue dress is supposed to be Barbra Streisand. The blond-haired fella in the background is Tom Wolfe himself, making his second guest appearance in a Marvel comic.

But you can tell that the bull is about to start knocking over the china. Sure enough, the daughter, who turns out to be pretty good at fighting, leads a protest.

The Enchantress has been watching all this and decides to lend a hand, turning Samantha into the Valkyrie:

Val became a regular in the Defenders series as well, although this issue ends with both her and the Hulk transformed back into their normal, socially-oppressed selves.

Highly recommended!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

When I'm The Evil Genius

Nothing will be too easy, too painless:

More of the "When I'm the Evil Genius" posts here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Adventure #253

The October 1958 issue of Adventure Comics featured a rare team-up of the two major teen stars of DC at the time, Superboy and Robin. Of course, due to the constant timeline problems with Superboy, Robin had to be projected into the past in order to interact with Clark as a peer.

The plot is wildly incompatible with the rest of the Silver Age DC. First, Robin is sent back in time to prevent Superman from getting killed years later. But we know that one of the central tenets of the DC universe is that you cannot go back in time to change history, so presumably this was shortly before DC established that principle. And of course the notion of Lex Luthor being the same age as Superboy/Clark had not been established either, so this scene is not as embarrassing as it would appear only a few years later:

"Young" Luthor looks to be at least 30 in that picture.

That brings up another problem with the whole story. Robin and Superboy appear at a scientific lecture where the marvels of the future are discussed:

That dates the lecture to no later than mid-1945, which means it's taking place 13 years prior to the comic, which means Superman is at that time 13 years older than Superboy. But at this point, Superboy looks to be in his late-teens, which would put Supes at 30, several years older than he's supposed to be at that point in his career.

Still, the story does present some interesting opportunities for DC's Teen Titans of their time to show off:

Among the next set of ads is this terrific and hugely influential house ad.

How much more compactly can you tell Superman's origin than that? It's a perfect little bit of storytelling that introduces the major characters in the Superman family at the time and their relationship to him.

The Green Arrow story is part of the brief (7 issues) run of Jack Kirby on the Emerald Archer. In Prisoners of Dimension Zero, Green Arrow and Speedy find themselves transported to another dimension, of giant aliens. They meet Xeen Arrow, a huge counterpart to GA, who manages to send them back to our own earth:

The Aquaman story is somewhat disappointing; he travels back in time, encounters ancient dinosaurs in a cave, and is constantly attacked by a hungry brontosaurus. Of course, nowadays we know the brontosaurus did not exist, but even back then it was believed to be a vegetarian.

Update: Michael Grabois, who runs the terrific Legion Omnicon, asked in the comments whether the letters column in this issue included any comments on Adventure #247, which of course included the first Legion of Superheroes story. As it happens, Adventure #253 was the first issue that included the Smallville Mailsack, but the letters were mostly general questions/observations about Superboy and the other characters:

1. Why can't Lana Lang learn Superboy's real identity?
2. Where did Aquaman get his name?
3. Having Superboy around the house must be nice for the Kents.
4. Please give Green Arrow his own magazine.
5. Why doesn't Superboy make the Kents rich by squeezing coal into diamonds?

I looked in the next ten issues or so and didn't see a mention of the LSH in the letter columns.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Diana's New Rigg

The worst character lasting the duration of the Silver Age is pretty easy to pinpoint. Wonder Woman, aka Diana Prince, had a lost decade and a half. The stories from that era are so easy to lampoon and so tedious to read that it's hardly worth the effort. In 1966, DC tried a brief reversion to Golden Age style stories, but that didn't work either. So in 1968, we were assaulted by the "all-new, all-now Wonder Woman".

Steve Trevor's in a coma, the victim of an assassination attempt. Wonder Woman learns that the Amazons must "journey to another dimension" to replenish their magic, so she will no longer have her super powers. She must learn to fend for herself in the world of men. Fortunately, she meets an inscrutable Oriental named I-Ching, who teaches her the martial arts. Together they decide to tackle Doctor Cyber, the evil genius who plans to take over the world.

Wonder Woman's real role model in this instance was undoubtedly Diana Rigg, Mrs Peel from the Avengers. Unfortunately for DC, the secret agent fad was already on the wane as this series began in Wonder Woman #178, Sept-Oct 1968. The series also drew the short straw on artistic talent, as Mike Sekowsky was assigned to those chores. Sekowsky was easily DC's least interesting artist of that era.

In #180, we meet Tim Trench (could they be any more obvious with that last name--Trenchcoat, you mean?), who turns out to be Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon:

In defense of Denny O'Neill, who scripted this, it's fair to assume that not a lot of people who were reading Wonder Woman at the time had seen the Maltese Falcon.

Steve croaks in WW #180, and although we get one bit of Diana kicking butt on his killers, that's pretty much it; no mourning of one of the longest running sidekick characters in comic history at that point. Steve was the male version of Lois Lane in the comics; the goofy foil who retains solid qualities.

Did I mention that Diana ran a boutique? Yeah, she became a real savvy capitalist; spending all her time gallivanting all over the world fighting evil and still somehow selling enough groovy threads to make a living:

Cute skewering of some aging hipsters there, and the plothole is not likely to occur to most of the readers of this mag at the time, even when they find this on the next page:

Well, of course let's go to Europe. After all, Diana's only living in a crummy apartment that even Trench wrinkles his nose at:

Okay, I'll ignore the obvious money problem from now on.

Doctor Cyber is dramatized a bit unfairly I would say. Check out this from WW #179:

But then we get the big reveal in WW #180:

Which gets even harder to square with this:

Okay, a man/machine combo who turns out to be a woman, but not apparently a machine. And suddenly Ching himself knows this:

Except that at the time, Ching has nothing to tell him other than what he was saying a few issues ago, that Dr Cyber was a man.

Reportedly, the feminists were not happy with the makeover, probably because Wonder Woman went from being a confident, self-reliant woman to a gal with two guys bossing her around. Trench was something of a male chauvinist:

And yet, inevitably:

No, it doesn't make you fickle, it makes you fall in love with total losers. In WW #182, Tim absconds with a batch of Dr Cyber's jewels. But not to worry, in that very same issue, Di meets and falls in love with Reginald Hyde-Whyte, a charming and wealthy Brit who of course turns out to be yet another rat.

Apparently the series went on for another few years in this vein before Wonder Woman returned to the red, white and blue swimsuit. I confess to lacking the fortitude to continue.

Update: Fortunately Marionette read the entire series.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Comic Characters Mentioned in songs from the '50s to the '70s

It's very common these days for comic characters to appear in pop songs, but it was not common prior to the 1980s, so I thought I would start compiling a list:

1. Alley Oop, by Dallas Frazier, first recorded by the Hollywood Argyles:

There's a man in the funny papers we all know
(Alley Oop, oop, oop, oop-oop)
He lives 'way back a long time ago
(Alley Oop, oop, oop, oop-oop)
He don't eat nothin' but a bear cat stew
(Alley Oop, oop, oop, oop-oop)
Well, this cat's name is-a Alley Oop
(Alley Oop, oop, oop, oop-oop)

2. Sunshine Superman, by Donovan

Superman or Green Lantern, ain't got a-nothin' on me

The girl shown in the video is Sue Lyon, best known for her portrayal of Lolita in the 1960s Stanley Kubrick film, who apparently dated Donovan around 1965.

3. Bungalow Bill by the Beatles:

Deep in the jungle where the mighty tiger lies
Bill and his elephants were taken by surprise
So Captain Marvel zapped him right between the eyes
All the children sing

Not sure who was zapped right between the eyes; one of Captain Marvel's best friends was a tiger named Talky Tawny.

4. Part of the Union by the Strawbs:

I'm not too hard but the sight of my card makes me some kind of Superman.

Perhaps a good indication of why England's economy almost collapsed in the late 1970s?

5. Wish I Could Fly Like Superman by the Kinks:

Superman, Superman, wish I could fly like Superman
Superman, Superman, wanna fly like Superman.

The song also evokes the old Charles Atlas ads, which were also mentioned briefly on the album The Who Sell Out.

6. Superman by the Clique:

I am, I am Superman, and I know what's happening

I suppose the Hitler stuff is in there to kind of reflect the Superman/master race idea. This song was more famously covered by REM in the 1980s.

7. Guitarzan by Ray Stevens

Stevens did mostly did comedy/novelty songs like this, although he had a monster hit with "Everything Is Beautiful" in 1970.

Any others from this era? I'm not including theme songs (like the Spiderman song or the Batman theme).

Update: Here's a huge list that includes more modern songs. Hat tip to commenter Michael Grabois.

Here's a whole album of Marvel-related songs by a group called Icarus. Interestingly, two musicians appearing on that album were part of the Strawbs and were co-writers of Part of the Union, discussed above. Hat tip to commenter Matt.

I thought of another three songs after making the post. The Royal Guardsmen had three terrific hits with their Snoopy Versus the Red Baron, the Return of the Red Baron and Snoopy's Christmas.

Apparently there was a Snoopy for President song as well, appropriate this year:

Update II: Remembered another one. Apparently Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart recorded a song called "Metal Man Has Won His Wings". This was inspired by a comic they found lying around in the recording studio which had an ad for two DC issues: Hawkman #1, which said "Hawkman has won his wings!" along with an ad for an early Metal Men issue. I'll see if I can locate the ad in question.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

If Ever If Ever a Wiz There Was....

One of the more durable villains in the Marvel Universe was the Wizard. He first appeared in Strange Tales #102, where we learn that he's fabulously wealthy from the inventions he's created, that he's a master chess player, and an accomplished magician. But as with many villains he longs for a challenge:

He creates a situation where only the Torch can rescue him, and in apparent gratitude, invites Johnny to his home. But once there he uses a water cannon to douse the Torch's flame, then imprisons him in an asbestos-lined room. Then he commits a series of crimes while disguised to look like the Torch. Johnny manages to get away, but he is apparently stymied when the Wizard shows him photographs revealing that the Wizard was actually behind the crime wave. But Sue helps out her brother by stealing the photos, thus clearing him.

This is something of an oddball story in that the Wizard is apparently well known by that name (indeed, we do not hear his real name in this story), but nobody supposedly knows the Torch's real identity, which was never hidden in the Fantastic Four series.

The Wizard returns in Strange Tales #105. After breaking free of prison, he resolves:

This is the sort of feedback loop that commonly exists between villains and heroes; hero defeats villain, villain must get revenge. It's extraordinarily common in the Marvel superhero mags of the 1960s and allows the writer to quickly set the stage for the inevitable battle.

The Torch and the Wizard battle it out for a few pages, before Johnny's sister, Sue Storm, arrives. After trapping her, the Wizard forces the Torch to join her, where a peril awaits:

These kinds of deathtraps became something of a cliche in the 1960s, even forming the centerpiece of the Batman TV series. At any rate, Johnny manages to disarm the trap and capture the Wizard.

The Wizard's next appearance is indeed a key story, as he teams up with Paste-Pot Pete, another villain from the Torch's rogues' gallery. This pair (with Pete renamed the Trapster) would later join up with the Sandman and Medusa (of the Inhumans) to become the Frightful Four, whom I discussed previously.

However, as in all such teamups the bickering between the two villains is intense:

The Wizard has a cameo appearance in two panels of Strange Tales #112, then returns for real in ST #118. This time he has invented an antigravity device which allows him to fly:

This invention became a staple of the Wizard's, appearing in many stories and giving rise to his more alliterative nickname, the Wingless Wizard.

After that, the Wizard mostly appeared in Fantastic Four issues, starting with the original Frightful Four appearance in FF #36.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Was the Torch a Flamer?

Did he have a thing for the Thing? Not that there's anything wrong with that.

From Fantastic Four #65, August 1967, comes this amusing scene:

And check out this bit of them disputing who gets to use the bathroom first:

Okay, I'm just having a little fun here. As usual with these sequences, they arise out of a plot need. Stan has to have Johnny and Ben discover that they had the same nightmare, so he had Jack put them in bed together. I assume that the CCA wouldn't have allowed Reed and Sue to be shown that way, even though they were married. As I discussed in an earlier post, it was a similar situation in a Batman story that led to the famed scene of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (apparently) in bed together.

It is amusing though, considering the constant bickering between the two; isn't that the way it always is with couples? We all knew Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books were destined to marry by the way they quarreled, right?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Turn of the Cards

This is a rather odd cover; the obvious "puzzle" would have been Lois getting the high card and choosing the new guy.

In Superboy #148, Kal-El gets just one card:

The Justice League face a full hand:

And here:

Of course, all card-type villains probably go back to this guy:

Sunday, March 09, 2008

When I'm the Evil Genius

I will not conceive a still greater revenge:

Entire When I'm the Evil Genius series, click here.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bottoms Up!

One of the odder bits in the Silver Age seemed to be the obsession with spanking.

There were a lot of comics that featured some form of smacking of the rear, frequently with a hair brush. Professor Lang barely remembers in time that his daughter's a little old for a bit of corporal punishment here:

Pa Kent tried a "paddle wheel" on Supertot:

Pa Kent apparently forgot this lesson later:


Ah, but every boy grows up to be a man and must discipline his own son, as Clark does here:

Lois and Lana take (unsuccessful) turns here:

And more:

In all the spanking sequences this is one of the few that actually resulted in pain to the recipient:

Update: Some amusing letters on the topic of spanking:

Note the interesting arguments: She deserves it versus Superman would never hit a woman. Important social lessons being taught there. I'll have to look around for the baby Lois spanking bit.

This letter and the response drew a reply from the North Shore Corporal Punishment Fan Club a few issues later: