Friday, January 30, 2009

Single Issue Review: Batman #93

While working on the Dick Sprang tribute post yesterday, I noticed this August 1955 issue and thought it would be fun to review as it has three very different tales that have one marvelous thing in common. They were all drawn by Mr Sprang, making this one of only three all-Sprang issues published by DC in the Silver Age.

Early on, Sprang's style was so different from the other Batman artists (primarily Jerry Robinson) that it was quite common to see an all-Sprang issue followed by an all-Robinson. In fact, Sprang did every story in Batman #s 19, 21, 23, 24, 26, 29, 30, 32, 40 and 46. After that there were only one or two Sprang stories per issue, so this one was a real treat.

What were the other two all-Sprang comics that DC published in the Silver Age? I'll let you folks ponder that for awhile and append my answer in a day or two. Update: The other two "wall-to-wall" Sprang issues published by DC were Superman #123 (a Supergirl tryout issue), and World's Finest #161 (a reprint 80-pager which has the distinction of having the most pages of any comic ever drawn by Sprang).

The issue starts with Journey to the Top of the World. A plane has crashed in the Himalayas. It jettisoned a cylinder carrying microfilm with the names of several major international criminals. Can Batman and Robin retrieve the cylinder before the crooks do?

This story is obviously inspired by the ascent of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay two years earlier, and is heavily focused on mountaineering.

After being summoned to FBI headquarters by J. Edgar himself, Batman and Robin become part of a team already intending to ascend K-4, which is described by Robin nervously as "The world's most unclimbable peak! T-the place where the mystery snow creature of legend is supposed to live!"

That this will be a "Whodunnit" is pretty clear when we get this panel:

Plot problem, here. If Batman and Robin were given the assignment, isn't the FBI going to notice that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson did the job and make the obvious connection?

The story is filled with little bits of information about mountains and mountain climbing. We learn that a couloire is a steep gully on a mountain, and that a bergschrund is the crevasse at the head of a glacier.

Some of the climbers go off in pursuit of the "snow creature", leaving it to Dick and Bruce to pursue the summit, with a killer after them. Robin saves Batman's life on two occasions:

And in the end they retrieve the cylinder while the villain falls from a cliff and dies (leaving nobody to ask questions about how Batman and Robin were on the mountain).

Comments: An exciting story with a dramatic backdrop. As always, Sprang makes you feel like you are there.

The second story is very much off-beat, as you can pretty quickly gather from the splash:

Heheh. For some reason, Bruce was encountering a whole slew of relatives around this time: Aunt Agatha, Cousin Bruce N. Wayne, Great Uncle Silas Wayne, and in this story, Cousin Jane. Her husband is ill in the tropics and obviously she can't bring Junior so can she leave the baby with him, thanks, bye!

Well, no sooner said than Junior launches into a bawling jag. How can they shut him up? They're out of milk so they go in search of a milkman, but unfortunately he's made his final delivery for the day. And the stores are closed, so:

Batman milking a cow? Alfred suddenly the funny Alfred of the mid-1940s? And a secret identity crisis, all on one page? Wonderful, wonderful stuff!

Batman and Robin manage to defeat some crooks in a helicopter, but:

They manage to calm him down with a top, and in order to keep Alfred from resigning Bruce makes a deal:

Batman winds up the case alone and in the end, the secret identity crisis is averted by Dick's quick thinking:

This one is clearly played for grins and it delivers. As a change of pace from the usual Batman story it gets high marks, and Sprang's artwork is note-perfect. Check out the expressions on the faces of all the characters in that last set of panels.

The final story is The Caveman Batman. An archaeologist working for the Gotham Museum (where Bruce is a trustee), uncovers an ancient painting of cavemen running from a Tyrannosaurus Rex. But T-Rex died out well before the cavemen, so the painting is deemed a hoax and the archaeologist's reputation is ruined. Bruce and Dick decide to go back in time to the caveman era to find out the truth.

After changing into their costumes, they encounter a man dressed in a sabre-tooth tiger outfit, who discloses that he's fighting against the evil caveman Borr. Rog is the prehistoric equivalent of Batman! They give him some pointers:

Rog reveals that Borr has a T-Rex with which he terrorizes the villagers. It turns out that the dinosaur is frozen in a block of ice. In a desperate gamble to free Robin from Borr's clutches, Batman melts the ice with a fire, and the creature comes to life:

Thus proving that the discovered painting was legitimate. As added evidence, Bruce and Dick point the archaeologist to a companion drawing of the T-Rex frozen in the ice. And the story closes with a final mention of the significance of Tiger Man:

Note: This is the earliest appearance of Batman in Earth's chronology.

Overall this issue is terrific with superior art and stories. Although the Silver Age of Batman was not in general his finest hour, this was an exceptional comic.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Tribute to Dick Sprang

Dick Sprang was a longtime Batman artist, starting in the early 1940s and ending (except for a few special appearances) in the early 1960s. Sprang was the master of perspective, and some of his best work featured overhead oblique views of large areas. Here's a crowd getting a view of the trophies of Batman and Superman from World's Finest #86:

A similar overview of Mechanical City from Batman #114:

In a story from WF #87, Superman has lost his powers, while Batman, Robin and a crook named Eldon Craig have gained them. Look at the camera angles Sprang chooses for the first three panels:

They are carefully selected to show maximum action against an immense backdrop. Note that due to the scale, some of the characters are just blobs of ink. This is a signature of Sprang's work, something that appears in almost every story he drew. The guy could draw the details when required, but he also knew when to step back and show the action.

Check out this amazing little panel from Detective #229:

Is that beautiful or what? And check out this panel from WF #92, as Superman encounters Skyboy:

Another Sprang specialty is to reverse the camera angle from one panel to the next; this gives greater flow to the page as you can see in these two consecutive examples:

Noted for the realism of his historical objects, Sprang drew the lion's share of the Professor Carter Nichols stories in Batman comics.

Update: See also Bill Jourdain's post on the Secrets of the Batcave lithograph. I have the second Sprang litho, entitled Guardians of Gotham, hanging on my wall. They are beautiful pieces, an essential for any Batfan.

Update II: I had to add this sequence, even though it's from the Golden Age:

That last panel is breathtaking.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Single Issue Review: Rip Hunter #20

As I have discussed in the past, time travel was a frequent topic in the Silver Age. Almost all of DC's superheroes had some method or another of going backward or forward in time, whether it was the Flash with his cosmic treadmill or the Atom with his time pool. But Rip Hunter was solely a time traveler; that was his entire schtick.

It should have been enough; time travel is an inherently fascinating concept, and the ability to travel to famed historical events would seem to offer endless possibilities for stories. But DC was in the middle of its gorillas and monsters and dinosaurs phase and thus the actual historical content of most issues was somewhat lacking.

Fortunately this was one of the issues that concerned itself with real-life monsters, in the form of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich. Rip and his pals, Jeff, Bonnie and Corky are filming action on the Eastern front of World War II when they are shot down (Rip's time machine was able to fly as well). The machine is recognized by the Nazis, and Rip explains:

Now of course that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Rip appears to be late-20s, early 30s at most, and so unless he was inventing his time machine in grade school it seems unlikely that 20 years earlier (the comic was published in 1964) he was being featured in news magazines during WWII.

At any rate, Rip is brought to meet Hitler:

Rip is assigned the task of bringing Napoleon back from the 1800s so the Nazis can learn his secret escape route from Russia. To ensure he returns, Hitler orders Jeff held as a hostage.

Comments: Excellent premise for a story, putting incredible pressure on Rip. If he succeeds, Hitler manages to get his crack troops out of Russia, meaning they will be available to repel the D-Day invasion later that year. And if he fails, Jeff gets the firing squad.

Part II brings us back to July 14, 1815. Unfortunately, the history starts to go a little off the rails in this section. This was after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. The story emphasizes that the Prussians (i.e., Germans) are in command, which is reasonably true, but only as part of a coalition force that included the English. Indeed, there's this comical scene:

Lafayette wasn't a particularly good friend of Napoleon's, and while Napoleon did surrender aboard the Bellerephon the next day, it wasn't as if he was "escaping". What's going on here?

I suspect that the writer and editor decided that explaining to the readers that the Germans and English had been allies against the French back then was too complicated, so they make it appear as if Napoleon was a good guy. After all, his old buddy is Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution.

The Prussians are closing in, but Rip manages to decoy them while Corky makes last-minute repairs to the time machine. Rip asks one favor of Napoleon before escorting him to the Bellerephon, and thus the historic meeting takes place:

Rip then takes Napoleon to the Eastern Front, where the Germans are desperate to escape. Napoleon shows the secret exit, through a mountain pass, and the Germans take it. But:

The German general sends a radio message to Hitler advising him of Rip's betrayal. Can he get back in time to prevent the Nazi from killing Jeff?

Comments: A very entertaining story overall. I enjoyed the artwork more as I read on, but Bill Ely (credited at GCD) did not do a very good job on the faces. Everybody has that mannequin look as you can see in the panel where Hitler meets Napoleon.

One very oddball feature about the comic is that each chapter ends with a house ad for the very next issue of Rip Hunter. Here they are:

It's an interesting teaser.

An aside: Don Markstein notes that the Rip Hunter "team" was comprised of four people: Smart guy, strong guy, woman, kid, which was the template for another fantastic foursome that debuted two years after Rip Hunter's first appearance.

Monday, January 26, 2009


I try to highlight the work of other comics bloggers at least once every other week, because there's plenty of good blogging going on elsewhere.

Ol' Groove has a tribute to legendary artist Neal Adams.

Why is Neal Adams such a catalyst in the origin of the Groovy Age? 'Cause when Adams came on the scene at DC drawing mags like Strange Adventures (Deadman) and Brave and the Bold, comicdom had never seen anything like him.

Amen. Adams' work was transcendent, and enormously influential. Although he's best known for his Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories, he was also a prolific cover artist for DC especially in the 1967-68 era, when virtually every title featured several of his covers.

It's been awhile since I linked Fred Hembeck, but that's not because I don't love reading his blog. The main problem Fred has is that he has no permalinks to individual blog entries, so if somebody reads this a month from now and clicks on the link, they're not going to find the entry I pointed to. His January 23rd post is on the Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon show from the 1960s.

I watched faithfully on my primitive black and white TV set--and yes, the Captain America episodes were clearly my favorites, possessing as well the one theme song I could, even many after years last seeing the show, still hum (conversely, I recently checked out some Sub-Mariner episodes--more on THAT later--but y'know, I STILL can't recall that tune!...)-- and then, one day they were gone, and I didn't anymore. Watch, that is.

I can't remember the individual theme songs, but I do remember, "You belong! You belong! To the Merry Marvel Marching Society!"

The Fortress Keeper has a serious post on the Final Crisis series that is nearing conclusion, and the apparent death of Batman (as Bruce Wayne) in that series.

Although this blogger once defended Geoff Johns’ use of gore in Infinite Crisis as an effective way to advance the story, the ever-mounting pile of corpses at both DC and Marvel taught us that modern comics were less about redefining super-heroics in a post-Sept. 11 world (as Messers Quesada and Didio often insist) than getting a rise out of an increasingly small and jaded fanbase.

Once pristine characters like Supergirl and Mary Marvel were shamelessly sexualized, C-list heroes like Tigra were beaten down and humiliated to prop up superstar writers’ pet projects and old-school paragons like Captain America were ridiculed for being “out of touch” with the Facebook nation.

Read it all, and also this post which the Fortress Keeper references. If you want to know why I focus on the Silver Age Comics, it's because that's the last era where superheroes were legitimately heroic, where the stories were uplifting, and where the gore and humiliation were kept to a minimum. As for the "death" of Batman, I'll let Bruce have the last word on that:

On a lighter note, Mark Engblom has an entertaining series on the Superpowers that Time (or Superman's writers) Forgot. In one of the Superman TV episodes from the 1950s, the writers gave Superman the ability to vibrate through solid objects (much like the Flash in the Silver Age).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Put A Lid On It

One of the more interesting aspects of the Silver Age of Comics was the increasing use of fashionable headgear, oddly enough just as the men's hat business was collapsing. I don't know if some haberdashers, driven to despair by their shrinking market, went into designing chapeaus for supervillains or what, but it is undeniable that especially in Marvel Comics, toppers became very elegant during the 1960s.

In Spiderman comics, Mysterio went in for the opaque fishbowl look:

The Green Goblin preferred a stocking cap:

The Whirlwind (fka the Human Top) went in for the knight's helmet:

Magneto's was more football-looking:

Daredevil baddie the Gladiator went for a stylish, yet simple look:

While his occasional partner in crime the Masked Marauder had a weird combination of miner's helmet, goggles and a veil:

One of the wildest hats resulted in a famous nickname: Ol' Hockey-Stick Head:

At least Galactus confined himself to one style; Odin was the Imelda Marcos of hood ornaments:

Update: Commenter Ralph C noted one particular face covering that never came off: Baron Zemo from the early Avengers:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Single Issue Review: Sad Sack #154

Sad Sack was a long-running comic character. Originally a cartoon strip put together during World War II by George Baker for an army weekly, the series was popular enough to get its own comic book starting in 1949. It lasted through to the 1990s.

The Sack (as he was referred to) was an unlikely candidate for stardom. He was a lowly private in the army who had zero success at anything he did. Almost every story ended with Sad Sack getting the short end of the stick.

And yet kids of all ages loved the comic. During the 1950s and 1960s the series kept expanding, adding titles like Sad Sack and the Sarge (155 issues), Sad Sack's Funny Friends (75 issues), Sad Sack Laugh Special (93 issues), Sad Sack Army Life Parade (61 issues). There was even a Little Sad Sack (19 issues). Indeed, it is obvious that Sad Sack was Harvey's biggest hit before Richie Rich.

Why the appeal? Well, for starters, army life was a rich source of comic material, as other cartoonists like Bill Mauldin and Mort Walker had already discovered. Sad Sack had a rich supporting cast, including the Sarge, General Rockjaw, Sadie Sack and Muttsy. And third, reading Sad Sack didn't require much reading.

Here's the opening gag:

Although it says "The End" in the final panel, the story actually continues. Sad Sack has trouble controlling his jet pack when he gets out to fix the flying saucer and flies straight into the hands of alien robots, who clone him many times over. Meanwhile, thinking that the Sack is dead, the Captain wishes:

Well, before you know it, the base is overrun with Sad Sacks working for the aliens. And unlike the original, some of them are quite intelligent and start rising through the ranks. And not just in the army:

Meanwhile, the Sarge has discovered the alien robots and is trying to figure out which is the real Sad Sack:

Clever little gag there. When the Sarge and Sack get back to Earth, they discover that the fake Sacks can't take a punch to the stomach, so the men go around punching every Sad Sack they see, much to the annoyance and pain of the real one.

The story continues with one of the alien robots coming to Earth and having Sad Sack show him around. The story turns into a series of gags on how crowded and polluted everything is, including this scene at a nightclub:

And in the end, the aliens decide not to invade Earth because it's so undesirable.

In the final story, after digging a ditch, Sad Sack is sent to the dry cleaners to pick up Colonel Bagby's suit. There's a tiny tear in the coat, so the tailor has Sad Sack wear it while he sews. But an air raid alert causes him to run outside, where everybody's asking him for orders. Sack says, "Aw, shoot!" and the soldiers treat this as an order. The colonel becomes a hero for brilliantly anticipating the surprise attack, and of course, the Sack goes back to digging ditches.

Comments: The Sad Sack stories are light and pleasant reading. The artwork is simplistic, but consistent.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Spring Cleaning at JLA HQ

This bit of domestic bliss comes to us from Justice League of America #66 (November 1968).