Sunday, June 29, 2008

Easier Said Than Done

Among the many miracle cures offered in comics, this one surely inspires the least confidence. Does your truss gripe?

Here's another delightful one from War Comics #33:

The answer, of course, is to change from your brown shirt to a yellow shirt, and from your blue pants to brown pants. Then, once you have convinced the villain to change his green and brown shirt for a snazzy maroon and white combination, throw him over your right shoulder.

Okay, I can't possibly imagine why that young man would want to hypnotize that gorgeous young lady.

I love these machines:

Just lie down and put something on your gut and it will disappear! Or don a pair of interlocking hands underwear:

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Inside Scoop on the Outsider

In the early 1960s, sales of the Batman magazines started to falter. It's not surprising; Batman was at an all-time low in terms of quality of stories and art. DC decided to restaff the editor's desk, putting Julius Schwartz in charge effective with the May 1964 issues of Batman and Detective.

The announced move is here:

It's that little yellow circle around the bat on Batman's chest. This was intended to mark a turning point.

Most of Schwartz's other changes were unannounced, but became apparent over time. Many characters who had been around for years, like Batwoman, Batgirl (Betty Kane), Bat-Mite and Ace the Bathound disappeared suddenly. The three aspects of the early 1960s Batman that sucked the most, the aliens, weird transformations, and monsters, also disappeared.

But one person could not pass from the Batman scene without comment. And in the letters column of Detective #327 Schwartz tried to head off the complaints at the pass:

Detective #328 was indeed controversial. Alfred the butler (nobody back then knew he'd been given the last name Beagle) had been around since Batman #16 (Apr-May 1943). Originally conceived as a comedic foil for Batman and Robin, he very quickly became another serious member of the Batman cast. In the early stories he aspired to be a detective himself, but that aspect of his character had been gone for almost 20 years when he appeared in Detective #328's Gotham Gang Line-Up! With Batman and Robin out of town, Alfred is forced into action:

Batman and Robin return to find Alfred gone. Chasing the same leads he had, they fall into a trap. They learn that Alfred has also been captured by the gang, as criminals vie for the right to kill them. But Batman and Robin manage to escape quite cunningly, as does their faithful butler:

They meet up next at a construction site:

Tragically, the boulder goes on to crush Alfred. This was a stunning moment in DC history. True, they had already killed off Lightning Lad, but he was a relatively recent addition to the DC universe. This was a well-established backup character, who had appeared in many stories over the years. It was a stunning move, and I'm sure had to be approved by top DC brass.

The same issue featured the introduction of a new character to the Batman family:

Aunt Harriet is reported to have been added to the series to quell the persistent rumors that Bruce and Dick were gay by providing them with an added opposite sex chaperone, related to the youngster. And of course it added plot possibilities with the pair suddenly unable to burst into action at the drop of a hat. Aunt Harriet became (to a lesser degree of course) kind of like the Lois Lane to Superman or Lana Lang to Superboy, a pest about his secret identity. This was unlike the Aunt Harriet of the TV show who was too dimwitted to ever guess that Bruce and Dick were the Dynamic Duo.

A couple of issues passed before the letters reacting to Alfred's death appeared.

Well, not to spoil the story or anything, but Dan Kirk got his wish.

In Detective #334, the first story featuring the Outsider appeared. Batman discovers his possessions being ripped off by The Man Who Stole from Batman:

The thief is apparently the Grasshopper, shown in the panel above. But at the end of the story, after Batman captures him, it is revealed that he worked for another:

In Detective #336, Batman must face a witch with extraordinary magical powers. But once again she turns out not to be the real villain:

In Detective #340, we got our first look at the Outsider, albeit reflected poorly:

As we learned more about his abilities, they seemed clearly "magical". I mean, how else do you explain:

He turned the Batmobile into a bucking bronco? I rest my case. But what are we to make of this?

If he's tampering with the Batcave elevator, doesn't that indicate he knows Bruce Wayne is Batman?

The next clue came in the Letters Page of Detective 344:

I don't know how long DC intended to keep up this serial, but events quickly forced their hand. In January 1966, the Batman TV series debuted. The show was a colossal hit, instantly sending sales of Detective and Batman through the roof. But there was one major problem. The TV show included both Aunt Harriet and Alfred the Butler.

The irony is incredible. When Alfred was first introduced in 1943, he was portly. However, in the Batman movie serial, a thin man portrayed him, and so Alfred was slimmed down (the explanation in the comics was that he decided he couldn't be a detective if he was that fat). Now another media adaptation was forcing the return of Alfred, although I have no doubt (given the clues that had been left in the earlier stories) that the intent was there all along to make him the Outsider.

In Detective #349 we see him again as a behind-the-scenes string-puller:

And in the letters page of that issue, Henry Goldman of Philadelphia guesses the answer to the riddle:

Note that he's working it out on the meta-level, not analyzing it inside the story but as "Why would an editor and writer do this?"

Finally, in Detective #356, we get the big reveal:

Bruce and Dick receive a delivery of two large and long crates. Inside they find two coffins. Dick's has a mannequin of Robin, while Bruce's has one of Batman. The mannequins stand up and tell them they have one hour to live, courtesy of the Outsider. They quickly deduce what they've suspected all along:

But there's still a surprise for us:

Following this we get a flashback to Alfred's death, and an explanation of what happened "Three days later" (no kidding). After Bruce and Dick leave Alfred that night, a nutty scientist (out looking for a rare insect) detects life. And fortunately he's a "bring 'em back from the dead" nutty scientist:

"Muahahahaha! They called me mad, but I'll show them!"

Well, you can probably see the fly heading rapidly towards that ointment, right? Yes, he's got a machine, but it's experimental and just a tad unreliable:

Well, you guessed it. The machine turned Alfred into the Outsider, with the kind of inside-out golfball image we saw on the cover. Oh, and the Mad Scientist? He turned into the spitting image of Alfred. But because Alfred's last thought was to save Batman and Robin, the Outsider's first aim is to kill them.

At the last moment Batman encounters the Outsider and hits the perfect punch:

I don't need to tell the rest, do I? Aunt Harriet volunteers to leave at the end of the story, but Bruce, Dick and Alfie all insist that she stay. She did manage to survive to the end of the 1960s, but I can't recall her ever returning after that, except in reprints.

It was a long story arc, featuring the death and resurrection of a major character in the Batman series. Nowadays it seems trite, but it was something of a milestone back then.

Oh, and yes, Schwartz was wrong about the Outsider not knowing who he really was; he knew enough to put that mad scientist into Alfred's crypt.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Okay, This Is Weird

I assume this is a shot from an actual episode of the TV show. I remember about 15 years ago there was a Zest commercial where a roughly 12 year old girl was in the shower and the camera was there with her (focusing only on her face of course) as she extolled the wonders of being Zest-fully clean:

Creepy as hell.

Update: Another couple:


Obviously not as creepy as the earlier examples, because the cartoon nature of the character. But still not where I want the camera.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Punches of 1965: Batman

I did a post the other day counting all the punches landed in Spiderman during 1965. My idea was to compare this to Batman during 1965, to determine whether the common rumor was true that Marvel had more physical fighting than DC during the Silver Age. I found that Spiderman had 102 punches landed in 240 pages. How does that compare to Batman?

It's not even a contest:

Batman #169 had a grand total of 2 punches landed in 24 pages; ironically enough in the same panel:

Batman #170: Four punches landed (including one at a bear) in 25 pages.
Batman #171: 14 punches landed in 25 pages.
Batman #172: 12 punches landed in 25 pages.
Batman #173: Nine punches landed in 25 pages.
Batman #174: 21 punches landed in 25 pages.
Batman #175: 18 punches landed in 24 pages.
Batman #177: 12 punches landed in 24 pages

(Note: I skipped Batman #176 because it was a reprint issue of stories published prior to 1965). The total is 92 punches in 197 pages, or .467 punches per page. That's actually about 10% more punches in Batman stories in 1965 than in Spiderman.

So the theory that Marvel comics were more violent than DC does not seem backed up by this analysis. It is possible that a larger study might find some differences, but I particularly picked two comics that were notable for featuring lots of fight sequences.

Update: One addition. It was definitely my impression that Spiderman had more panels with punches in them. Batman had some very concentrated violence. For example, here's the cover to Batman #174, which had the most punches thrown of any of the comics:

So the plot involves having punches thrown, which not surprisingly add up to a lot in a very few panels.

Still, my overall conclusion remains the same.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Punches of 1965: Spiderman

This is something I've thought about doing for awhile. Back in the 1960s, one of the frequent claims was that Marvel had a lot more physical fighting going on in its mags than DC, which emphasized more the mental battle. So I thought that just for the heck of it, I would look at a couple of features from that era to see if there was any truth to the claim. I chose 1965 because most of the Marvel fixtures of the Silver Age had been established by then. The following year, 1966, saw the beginning of the Batman craze, which resulted in a lot more "Pow!", "Bang!" and "Zap!" in the comics.

So let's do a running punch count, starting with ASM #20:

I'll count hits with the Scorpion's tail, since they are effectively the same as a punch.

That puts us up to six so far, all incredibly from the ninth page of that story.

I'm going to count that as two punches, since the Scorpion hits two cops in that panel. Running count: 10 punches. I am not including missed punches, although that has not been a factor so far.

That's it, a total of 17 punches in 20 pages, or 0.85 punches per page. I won't crop all the punches in the subsequent issues, I'll just give you the totals I counted:

ASM 21: Six punches landed in 20 pages.
ASM 22: Nine punches landed in 20 pages (counting a couple of headbutts by Cannonball).
ASM 23: Six punches landed in 20 pages.
ASM 24: Six punches landed in 20 pages.
ASM 25: Zero punches landed in 20 pages! The irony here is amazing because this is one of my favorite all-time Spiderman stories. And yet despite containing plenty of implied violence, the story has no real fighting as such.
ASM 26: Seven punches landed in 20 pages (counting a couple of times the Green Goblin hits Spidey with his mini-glider).
ASM 27: 17 punches landed in 20 pages (a lot of them by NY City cops).
ASM 28: 15 punches landed in 20 pages.
ASM 29: 10 punches landed in 20 pages.
ASM 30: Six punches landed in 20 pages.
ASM 31: Three punches landed in 20 pages.

So there you have it. A total of 102 punches that connected in the course of 240 pages of Spidey action. Average number of punches is 0.425 punches per page, or roughly one punch for every 2.4 pages.

How does that compare to DC? Coming up next, a count of Batman's punches.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Catch a Wave and You're Sitting On Top of the World!

I have mentioned in the past the first appearance of the Silver Surfer, in Fantastic Four #48-50, as the herald of Galactus. The inspiration for the character was not hard to find; in the mid-1960s the sport of surfing enjoyed a brief mania, reflected in the many hit songs by the Beach Boys.

As was common in the Silver Age Marvel, the Surfer turned out to be morally ambiguous. He represented a horrific villain, Galactus, but he himself had something of a poetic, sensitive soul. In the initial story this soul is stirred by Alicia Masters, Ben Grimm's blind girlfriend. He rebels against Galactus, and this revolt disgusts the master, who abandons his attempt to drain all resources from the Earth, and banishes the Silver Surfer to be bound to the planet for eternity.

As was very typical, the alien found Earth to be unadvanced scientifically and socially. This was played as sort of a "Stranger in a Strange Land" way, with the noble Silver Surfer suffering mightily at the indignities visited upon him.

In his next appearance he was faced with Dr Doom. Doom steals the Silver Surfer's powers and his surfboard and defeats the Fantastic Four, then butts up against Galactus' banishment of the Surfer (and his board) from outer space.

After a few more appearances, Marvel decided to try the Silver Surfer in his own book, starting in August 1968. But they also attempted something very unusual. They put him in a 68-page comic book and charged 25 cents. This wasn't quite unique in the Silver Age; the Thunder Agents books had been similary sized and priced, as had a brief run of superhero comics by Harvey. Marvel itself had experimented with original stories in Marvel Super Heroes.

But still, it was a stretch. Again, I suspect that Stan was looking to see if he could catch those older readers, and this is a way of establishing market segmentation. DC's 25-cent comics were (at the time) 80 pages and almost always 100% reprint material.

Stan (with John Buscema on art) captures teenage angst rather well, here:

Weren't we all trapped on this world of madness? The story goes on to tell (as promised) the origin of the Silver Surfer. Norrin Radd was a discontented soul on his home planet who wondered why nobody'd continued space travel after the first few trips came back empty-handed. He longed to soar between the stars.

When Galactus came to suck his world dry, he offered his services as a herald to save his own planet, even if that meant a certain casual attitude towards other planets along the way.

Despite the cover claim there was not a book-length Silver Surfer story. The 38-page origin of the Surfer was backed up by a 13-page story about the Watcher featuring Gene Colan artwork. It's beautifully drawn but suffers the usual Watcher problem, which is that the story is most interesting when the Watcher decides not to watch but to intervene. It is shown why this became an ironclad law among the Watchers, without noting that the Earth's Watcher had violated the law on many occasions. But the artwork is extraordinary even for Colan:

This was clearly intended as a serious comic in Marvel's push towards the older bracket. Unfortunately (from the publisher's standpoint), it did not lead the way towards 25 cent issues, although that barrier would soon be breached by far smaller comics as the runaway inflation of the early 1970s began to be experienced. After the 7th issue Silver Surfer became a normal-sized comic and the price declined to 15 cents. The Surfer lasted until mid-1970, when the comic was cancelled.

The look of the comic is fabulous; John Buscema could really bring it. Perspective, emotion, and action; his stories never failed to deliver:

That was in 1968, and I would suspect those panels are about as influential on the 1970s as anything I can imagine. The villain in red is, shall we say, not Lex Luthor? These really are extraordinarily beautiful comics, and very much more modern-looking than most of the Silver Age DC. This was the Marvel 1970s on the rise before anybody knew about it.