Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Coming In May--A Celebration of Superman

Not only is May the 70th anniversary of Superman, but it's also the 50th anniversary of the Silver Age Superman. In 1958, Mort Weissinger took over responsibilty for the Superman family of magazines. This resulted in a remarkably different character than had been the case in the Golden Age comics or the TV or radio series. It is an amazing saga that has stood the test of time, and I am going to attempt to take a look at key events, people and places that made the Silver Age Superman such a delight to read.

To start, perhaps I had better have a little discussion of the Golden Age Superman. The origin is well-known--Krypton exploding, Jor-El and Lara sending their baby off to Earth, where he is raised by the Kents. The early Superman stories, reflecting somewhat the pulp fiction novels of the time, were pretty gritty. Remember, at this time the concept of comic books as entertainment for adolescent boys had not yet taken hold. But over time, the sheer power of Superman necessitated a change.

The change was handled differently in the comics versus the radio show. In the comics, the character and his adventures took on a more whimsical tone. Oh, Superman had some serious villains that he foiled, but he had a lot of more buffoonish enemies as well: Wolfingham,, the Toyman, the Prankster and Mr Mxyztplk for example. In the radio show, which was hugely influential, the series over time developed into "Clark Kent, Detective", with Superman often reduced to mop-up work.

This came about simply because the character was far too swift and strong. Nobody could compete against him physically and so they were forced to rely on guile and cunning. Even Luthor was usually portrayed as operating behind the scenes; in many Golden Age and early Silver Age stories he is not shown until the last page.

The TV show, which was in its final year in 1958, was somewhat similar to the radio show, with Clark doing all the brainwork, and Supes showing up at the end to show off his abilities and corral the villains.

This was the Superman that Weissinger inherited. What he did with the character starting in 1958 was historic:

1. Introduced new major and minor characters. Supergirl, the Legion of Superheroes, Lucy Lane, Pete Ross, etc., all made their first appearances early in the Silver Age.

2. Introduced new locales: Kandor, Krypton (not technically a new locale, but it was rarely used as the setting for a story before the Silver Age), the future, outer space, the Fortress of Solitude, the Phantom Zone, etc.

3. Added new villains to the roster (Brainiac), while developing the characters of older ones (Luthor) as well as resuscitating defunct ones (the renamed Mxyzptlk).

4. Developed Lois Lane into a character who could sustain her own comic.

5. Added continuity between stories, so that characters and relationships would evolve over time.

6. Added letters columns to create a sense of community between Superman fans.

7. Developed new weaknesses for Superman, creating more of a balance between the Man of Steel and his enemies.

I hope you enjoy this month-long project!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

50 Years Ago--Action Comics #239

This is one of those goofy covers that you have to laugh at. "No comment?" That's what Mafia members were saying to reporters around this time.

What happens in the story is that a scientist is experimenting with transmutation, changing one element into another. One of the elements he's experimenting with is Kryptonite. When Superman sees the machine is about to explode he carries it into space, where the blast can't hurt anybody. Unfortunately because of the Kryptonite it scars him in some way (we can't see how until later in the story). He starts wearing bandages and later an iron mask to cover his face. This encourages crazy speculation:

Somehow Perry fails to notice that this wild story comes from his own paper. Of course it's pretty obvious that somebody forgot to tell Wayne Boring to label the newspaper with one of the Planet's competitors. Meanwhile Lois is getting suspicious because Clark hasn't shown up at the office. When he does arrive, though, he only has a small bandaid in the middle of his forehead. Surely this can't be the scarring that caused Superman to hide his face?

But it is. You see, earlier in the story Perry White had given his reporters new press cards:

And the explosion had pitted Superman's face with the words "Clark Kent". He tries various methods to get rid of the words, including diving into lava and letting himself be hit by a lightning bolt, but neither worked. Finally he creates an atomic explosion and that does the trick.

The Congo Bill story is rather interesting, since it concerns an attempt by the US to launch a satellite into space (from Africa). This appears to have been inspired by the launching of Sputnik, in October 1957 (this is the April, 1958 issue of Action). Congo Bill and Janu, the Jungle boy, are pressed into labor building a pyramid, but it turns out that the point of the pyramid is just to point the way to the launch site, which had been concealed with netting. Fortunately Congo Bill spoils the plot.

The Tommy Tomorrow story concerns a time capsule from 1958 (TT's stories were set 100 years in the future, in 2058) that contains toys from that era. Tommy decides to use them to defeat some space pirates. There's a mention of Sputnik here:

Friday, April 18, 2008

More World's Finest Weirdness

I'm working my way through the early Weissinger issues and I have to admit, I didn't realize how odd it gets. Batman exposing his secret identity is just part of it. Both Batman and Superman are characterized horribly in several stories, and some of the wacky stuff that works for Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane is completely misplaced with Batman as the co-feature.

Consider the topic of mental illness. In WF #143, Batman is accidentally struck by a bullet that ricocheted off Superman. At the hospital, he shows signs of depression:

Superman decides to cheer him up by letting him solve a mystery. So that Batman will believe he's really needed, the mystery is set in Kandor, where Supes doesn't have his powers. A friend of Superman there is in on the gag. But does Batman brilliantly deduce that he's being patronized?

Of course, something's gone wrong and suddenly the menace they're facing is real, but Supes can't convince Bats, who snaps:

Eventually Batman is convinced of the reality of the menace, defeats it, and manages to shrug off his "inferiority complex".

Weissinger appears to have been copying a bit from the Marvel comics, which often featured the heroes bickering. The difference was that in the DC Silver Age universe, everything had to be restored to normalcy at the end of the story, so it was always some sort of temporary mania.

Or alien hypnosis as in WF #145:

Which causes Superman to snap:

In WF #148 Superman decides to check the security of his secret identity. He uses a "selective amnesia ray" to eliminate Batman and Robin's knowledge of his secret identity, so that they can try to crack the mystery. They do this fairly easily, wounding his pride. So he uses the ray on himself to create a challenge to discover Batman's real identity. But the obsession becomes a distraction from his real work:

So Batman decides to let Superman win:

In WF #150, Batman decides to check out Gambler's Isle, a legal offshore casino. He suspects something's crooked because people are losing their life savings. But get how he checks whether the roulette wheel is fixed:

It's not, and so Batman engages in a little "mathematical" gambling:


Hitting on 17? Apparently the great game theorist didn't play a lot of blackjack!

It all turns out to be a plot by gambling-mad aliens to lure Superman and Batman to their world. As all aliens must be, they are a different color:

But (conveniently for plot purposes) their women are not:

Yep, another LL girlfriend for Superman.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Worst Mistake Ever?

Well, a pretty bad one, anyway. In 1964, DC decided to team up their two biggest teenage characters, Robin and Jimmy Olsen. So in World's Finest #141 we got the origin of the "Olsen-Robin Team":

It's a classic DC puzzle cover. Why are Robin and Olsen faking their deaths? Well, it's a little complicated. Some crooks were planning to kidnap them so that Batman and Superman couldn't capture them when they robbed the bank. And they couldn't just hide out in the Batcave or the Fortress because:

Yep, too obvious. The crooks would figure out that they're in the Fortress, go there, pick up the giant key and... okay, it doesn't make any sense. But at any rate, they go out to Stone Island, rig up the graves to convince Batman and Superman that they're dead, but the latter don't broadcast the news to the world, so the crooks go the Fortress, pick up the giant key... errr, we'll just ignore that plot hole for now.

While they're off on their own, Robin and Olsen set up their own little hideaway:

Eventually the crooks are caught and Robin and Olsen plan a surprise return to the living. But (as must always happen in such cases) Superman and Batman had figured out that the lads were still alive.

But that's not the worst mistake ever. No, the worst decision came a few issues later, in World's Finest #144. In that story, Jimmy is temporarily contaminated with Green Kryptonite, just when he's "needed" to help Superman battle Brainiac, heh. Supes gets the brilliant idea of switching junior partners with Batman, who needs a bow-tied cub reporter to help him handle Clayface. So Batman heads off with Jimmy, and a few panels later, it happens:

Oh, my! I suppose what happened is that Mort Weisinger (the editor) was planning on doing more with the Robin-Olsen team and thought things would go easier if Jimmy knew their secret identity, but it's an absurd moment. First, remember that Jimmy's big friends with Superman, not Batman & Robin, and yet he doesn't know that Clark Kent is actually the Man of Steel. If his best friend doesn't trust him with the secret, why in the world would Batman?

Second, it was a cliche of the comics that anytime anybody knew a superhero's secret identity, he would immediate find himself blabbing it accidentally, somehow. I would be very surprised if there wasn't a Jimmy Olsen story out there with that exact theme, but here's a bit from Batman #71 as a placeholder:

DC had sold us on the idea that the secret identity was sacred, that it had to be protected at all costs. Part of this is to give the hero an additional way to lose, since the ultimate loss (death) is basically out of the question. So to have Batman just casually tell Jimmy is completely out of character.

And as it happened, the Olsen-Robin team was basically through at this point:

Update: I should add that there was actually at least one more major Robin/Olsen teamup in World's Finest #147 (February 1965). Jimmy and Robin withdraw from their respective partnerships with Superman and Batman and join forces with each other. However, they accept rewards and use the money to build a rocket ship. Eventually Superman figures out that it's because of some alien jewel lifeforms who have taken over the two boys.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Random Cover of the Day: Showcase #20

Not too hard to guess who the editor was for this issue; if there's a monster, a dinosaur or an alien on the cover, odds are it's a Jack Schiff comic. Yep.

Another hungry brontosaurus who hasn't been told he doesn't exist and is a vegetarian anyway. It's pretty obvious what the "one way to save Corky and Bonnie" is; given that Rip has torn his shirt off, I'd guess that he's going to blindfold the dinosaur.

Rip Hunter was a reasonably successful title for DC; although it took him four tryouts to land his own mag, he lasted 29 issues or almost five years. This is his first appearance. He used one of DC's classic time traveling bubbles, and frequently encountered famous figures from the past including Adolf Hitler, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy and George Washington.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Silly Stuff

In Superman #145 (May 1961), Clark and Lois attend "The Interplanetary Circus", which has mysteriously arrived on the outskirts of Metropolis. After observing some of the exhibits, they get a mite hungry:

Gee, you think you could make a whole meal out of that, Lois?

Saturday, April 05, 2008

A Little Tribute to Murphy Anderson

Murph is probably my favorite artist of the Silver Age, since Dick Sprang was only around for the first half of the era. And among inkers, Anderson had no peers, only envious rivals.

Anderson was probably best known in the Silver Age for his work on Hawkman. Here's an example of his work from the first issue of that magazine:

Notice the intricate work that Anderson adds to his pencils; the inks on the jacket of the man in the background of the first panel really stand out. That's one thing noticeable about Anderson's artwork; he had lots of little bits in the background that make you feel like you're really there, like the hangars, the flight control tower, and the cityscape in the second panel. Of course, he does blow one small detail; more about that later.

Anderson was a master of sequential art; do we need any words here?

And look at the beautiful scenery in these panels:

Because Anderson was so solid at detail, he could draw smaller figures to give us more of a "wide-screen" feel to his panels:

In 1965, DC made an effort at bringing back some of the GA heroes. In Brave & Bold #61 and #62, we got a teamup of Starman and Black Canary:

You definitely get the impression that Anderson was a master artist working extremely diligently to make sure that everything is perfect. Notice the reflection of the house in the water. That is beautiful.

Anderson spent the early years of the Silver Age laboring on DC's science fiction magazines, mostly on one-shot stories and characters, although he did create the terrific Atomic Knights series.

Blown detail. Look at the second panel of the first picture I posted. Notice the plane coming in for a landing without its landing gear down?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


This was a post I had been planning to do for some time, but given the passing of Jim Mooney, it's especially apt.

Mooney was a terrific artist for DC during the Silver Age of Comics. He was originally hired as a Batman artist and did some terrific work on Batman in the late-1940s. He became the regular artist for the Robin solo stories in Star Spangled Comics. Later he moved on to Tommy Tomorrow, an early DC science fiction hero.

His most famous work in the Silver Age was on Supergirl, who was at the time the backup feature in Action Comics. He drew her until the great DC shake-up in 1968. In the meantime he filled in on World's Finest after Dick Sprang left DC. And in House of Mystery #156 (January 1966) he created (along with writer Dave Wood) the character Robby Reed, in Dial H for Hero.

Robby was a young genius living in Littleville, a rural community. As he and some friends observe a robbery being executed by a giant robot, he suddenly falls into a cavern, where he finds a mysterious dial:

He deciphers the writing, which tells him to dial H-E-R-O. Of course this is something of an anachronism; I doubt if anybody under the age of 30 has used a dial phone, and they were headed out the door at the time. Being a red-blooded teenager, he does as suggested and finds himself transformed into Giant Boy, in which guise he saves a plane about to crash and foils another attempted robbery by the giant robot. Then he returns to his normal teenage form by reversing the order of the letters on the dial (O-R-E-H).

Things get really interesting the next time a hero is needed. Robby dials the letters but he is not transformed into Giant Boy again, but to the Cometeer:

And later in the story to the Human Mole:

That pretty much became the formula for the series; Robby would be transformed into three new heroes in every story, and his challenge would be to figure out their powers and how to use them best in the situations he found himself in.

Robby, as is pretty typical with superheroes, is an orphan (see Superman, Batman, Robin, Spiderman, etc). He lives with his grandfather and a housekeeper named Miss Millie. His early opposition is the Thunderbolt gang, led by Mr Thunder.

It's a cool concept for a hero, but with one obvious drawback; the requirement that three new superpowers (or more) be created for every story. Not surprisingly, Dave Wood began recycling some Golden Age favorites, as here:

Bulletman was a long-running feature in the 1940s in the Fawcett line.

In House of Mystery #157 we learned one of the drawbacks of the dial; after using it, Robby couldn't change into a different hero for another few hours. In #160, there were three very interesting heroes for different reasons. Giant Boy returned, marking the first time that Robby had been turned into one hero twice. His second transformation was into King Candy, who has magic lollipops (like Herbie Popnecker), and his third metamorphosis was truly historic: Plastic Man.

Plastic Man was, of course, a major hero for the Quality Comics line from the 1940s-1950s. His solo book lasted until 1956, making him one of the very few heroes to make it through to the end of the Golden Age. I cannot do justice to the character in a post about Robby Reed, but I can put up a few pix from the story that will give you a feel for Mooney's version of the character:

As a side note, a few months later, Plastic Man was given his own magazine by DC, although it only lasted for ten issues in this incarnation.

Littleville seemed a bit small in scope for Robby, so we quickly learned it was near Zenith City, allowing the heroes to act in an urban environment where the astonishing array of criminal activity might not be so stunning.

In House of Mystery #160, we met Robby's love interest, a gal that lives near one of his cousins, named Suzy:

In HoM #166, the romance angle was pushed forward a bit, as Suzy and her parents moved to the same block as Robbie and his grandfather. In #169, Suzy discovers Robby's secret:

And being naturally curious, she wonders what would happen if she dialed H-E-R-O-I-N-E. In the obituary for Jim Mooney, they mention that he was noted for his exceptionally beautiful women, and they weren't lying:

Unfortunately for us, Suzy suffered the convenient amnesia that afflicted most characters who discovered a superhero's secret identity during the Silver Age, so we didn't get to see her in more outfits as a heroine. Robby was canceled after House of Mystery #173 (along with Martian Manhunter), as the magazine returned to its (tame) horror roots; the last few stories weren't drawn by Mooney.

About the title: Sockamagee was Robby's expression of delighted surprise.