Friday, July 29, 2011

Wonder Woman 156--Return of the Golden Age

One of the things that I've been meaning to do is look back through the comics to see when the concept of comics being "collectibles" first started; this must be a fairly early example, with an August 1965 cover date. Marvel Collectors' Item Classics started the same month, so obviously by then the news was getting out about the value of the older issues.

This issue also demonstrates the growing influence of fandom. In 1961 and 1964, Wonder Woman was selected by the Alley Awards as the "Worst Comic Book Currently Published."
While that is a bit unfair, I suspect what the fans were getting at was more like "The worst comic that used to be good."

In response, Robert Kanigher decided to give the fans what they wanted; a Golden Age-type story with Golden Age-type artwork. Does it work? Mostly it does. Oh, it's zany, but the GA Wonder Woman was quite wacky. The story starts out with Steve Trevor telling Diana Prince that he always knew his Wonder Woman was worth a million, and now he has the proof:

How'd you like to be able to buy early Golden Age issues for $100 per copy?

Intrigued, Wonder Woman visits the Dream Merchant (a fictional comic book shop). She starts reading an old comic and suddenly finds herself pulled into the story:

Incidentally, although the Brain Pirates were featured in a Golden Age Wonder Woman story in Sensation Comics #82, there is only a superficial similarity between that tale and this one.

The Brain Pirate tries to steal Wonder Woman's brain, but she throws off his control. However, he succeeds with Steve Trevor:

There follows a zany battle with the pirates over Steve's "brain"; at one point they load it into a cannon and threaten to fire it far out to sea. She prevents them from doing that, but she's stymied when they control Steve and order him to shoot her if she does not submit:

Just then the Holliday girls and Etta Candy happen to be rowing by, and the pirates threaten to ram them. Wonder Woman prevents this:

Err, but isn't she supposed to be only as strong as a normal woman when her bracelets are welded together? She returns to the pirate ship and is there when the Holliday girls attempt to rescue her by swimming to the ship. But the Brain Pirates capture the girls' brains, and the ship takes off for outer space.

After landing on the Brain Pirates' world, they torment Wonder Woman by making all the passengers walk the plank, into a shark-infested sea. Wondy fights off the sharks, and saves Steve and the Holliday girls:

She gets them safely to land, but the Brain Pirates still control them and force Steve and the girls to capture Wonder Woman. The BPs parade their slaves into their city. They attempt to kill Wonder Woman but she manages to avoid their spears and swords. Then comes the dartboard scene shown on the cover. She manages to get a dart to pierce the chains holding her bracelets together, and now she's free. The leader of the Brain Pirates makes a deal:

Except, as you can probably guess, the brains of Etta, Steve and the Holliday Girls are inside that box. Fortunately Wonder Woman realizes this, grabs the box and her friends, calls for her plane, and gets everybody safely back to Earth. And in the end Wonder Woman pops back out of the comic and into the store where she ponders:

The next two issues were done in Silver Age style and featured the memorable Egg Fu. Wonder Woman #159 featured a retelling of the origin of the Amazon princess, and Golden Age-style art, and Kanigher continued the experiment until #165, when the Silver Age artwork returned. Kanigher noted in the letters column of #166:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Other Other Captain Marvel

See, there was the Golden Age Captain Marvel, aka Billy Batson, aka the Big Red Cheese. And Marvel came out with its own version of Captain Marvel, the man of the Kree who could change places with Rick Jones. And then there was this fella:

Captain Marvel is a robot who was created on another planet. His mission is to help others avoid the wars that destroyed his homeworld:

So you might say that he was a strange being who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men....

His origin is told in flashback like that, because his memory is faulty. In a robot? He has to recharge his powers every day by passing his hand over that M-shaped medallion on his chest. It turns out that he has a young friend:

We learn that he's a writer for an important press service, and that his next assignment is to cover a revolution in the Caribbean. His flight crashes en route in a jungle. Captain Marvel investigates the area and discovers:

Inside the computer are some giant heads, who initially seem like villains, but then it turns out that they just need Captain Marvel's help getting enough power so they can return to their normal dimension.

Comments: A padded, silly story, although I enjoyed the cartoonish artwork and the insane gimmick of him separating his body into multiple pieces. Like many superheroes, Captain Marvel picked up abilities as needed by the plot:

The second story is pretty much more of the same. Aliens (from Venus) who seem like villains but are really kind of ambivalent:

And how can Captain Marvel prove to them that humans deserve to live? Why by defeating the Venutians' nemesis, the Gronks. And the Gronks are the "Bonus Feature" shown on the cover, Plastic Man. But not that Plastic Man:

Captain Marvel defeats him by using another yet-unrevealed power:

So the Venutians decide that the humans are indeed worthy of living, and head back to their own planet. Plastic Man escapes, setting up a return match with that villain in the next issue. But is he really a villain, or yet another ambivalent antagonist?

Comments: I get the sense that the publisher was intentionally pushing the envelope on copyright/trademark here to find out what they could get away with. Captain Marvel was a former Fawcett character, who had been retired after he was ruled a violation of DC's copyrighted Superman. But DC had not perfected their rights to the character by trademarking the name, so it was apparently out there in the public domain. On the other hand, Plastic Man had definitely been purchased by DC, and so by the next issue he was renamed:

Note that the envelope is again being pushed by that issue with Atom-Jaw clearly a swipe of the longtime Lev Gleason character Iron-Jaw (also a mid-70s Atlas-Seaboard protagonist), and Dr. Fate a GA DC hero.

BTW, I found out about the Silver Age Captain Marvel at one of my regular blogs from the sidebar, but I can't remember where; somebody wrote about him within the last two months or so and intrigued me enough to track down this issue. I'd be happy to link that blog, but I really can't remember where I heard about him. Anybody? Bueller? Update: Jim pointed me to Gorilla Daze, where Allan wrote about the other other Captain Marvel a few months ago. Update II: Booksteve also covered the faux Captain Marvel just last week.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Fifty Years Ago This Month

The multiverse begins as Flash #123 goes on sale.

This story was implied by the very first Barry Allen Flash story in Showcase #4, which opened with Barry enjoying a Golden Age Flash comic during his lunch break:

That's an interesting decision by the writer (Bob Kanigher), I suppose chosen to explain why Barry quickly decides to become the Flash himself when the lightning bolt hits a page later. But it does raise some uncomfortable questions. If the superhero comics are assumed to take place in the real world, then in what world did the Jay Garrick stories take place, since Barry clearly considers the Golden Age Flash to be a fictional character.

As the Flash of Two Worlds story starts, Iris is trying to put on a show for her pet charity, a group of orphans. Unfortunately, the magician she arranged to provide the entertainment has not shown up, and it looks like the kids will be disappointed. Barry suggests that he call the police station, as he just saw the Flash over there, and perhaps the Scarlet Speedster will agree to dazzle the youngsters.

He plays a game of tennis with himself, and then tries the Indian fakir trick of climbing a rope, only to disappear suddenly:

The Flash finds himself suddenly in a field outside the city. But not Central City, as he quickly discovers. Although some of the landmarks look the same, the signs in the metropolis indicates this is Keystone City. But isn't that where... on a hunch, Barry looks into a phone book and sure enough:

So he visits the Garrick residence, where we learn that Jay has aged since his Golden Age adventures and that he has married his former girlfriend, Joan Williams. Barry explains that he knows all about Jay's adventures as a superhero, and gives his theory:

Barry has further thoughts on how Jay Garrick ended up as a fictional character on his own world:

That's interesting because Fox himself was writing this particular tale, in place of usual Flash scripter, John Broome. Note that this maintains the implication that Barry Allen's stories were taking place in "our" world, since Gardner Fox was a real person. This would be maintained as the official story for years, although it was eventually discarded in a 1970s Flash tale, when we learned that our Earth was Earth-Prime, while Barry was from Earth-1 and Jay Garrick from Earth-2.

This concept of multiple Earths became very popular in the DC universe for years, as it gave writers and editors additional "outs". If a current story contradicted another one from years ago, well that old story took place on an alternate Earth. It also gave them an opportunity to play "What if" games without quite admitting that these were "imaginary stories".

Of course, it also caused uncomfortable questions as well. For starters, since Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman had appeared in or were mentioned in several Justice Society stories, did that mean that the Golden Age appearances of those stars had also not taken place on Earth 1? DC was not yet ready to confront the implications of those questions, and would continue to dodge them until near the end of the decade.

As it happens, Jay Garrick has been debating coming out of retirement due to a series of strange robberies. We learn that three Golden Age villains, the Thinker, the Fiddler and the Shade are responsible. They have recently escaped jail and are hoping to defeat their old nemesis.

The individual Flashes split up and combat the Thinker and the Shade, but are defeated. They combine forces to face the Fiddler, but his fiddle controls them:

But they manage to plug up their ears with small jewels, and make quick work of the trio.

Afterwards, Barry returns to his own world and has an idea:

This story led to many more, including the annual JLA/JSA teamups, nearly annual Barry Allen/Jay Garrick pairings, as well as stories featuring the GA Green Lantern and Hal Jordan. It is, as I mentioned in an early post on this blog, one of the five most important DC comics of the Silver Age.

Update: Aaron reminds me of an interesting tidbit about that Flash issue that Barry Allen is reading at the opening of Showcase #4. If you look closely at the cover, especially this panel from an earlier page:

You will see that he appears to be reading Flash #13. The amusing thing is that's not what Flash #13's cover looks like:

You see, Flash Comics back in the Golden Age was an anthology title, like Action or Detective in the Silver Age, and Flash alternated covers with Hawkman, with the latter appearing on the odd-numbered issues all the way up to #87. In fact, that cover could not have appeared as on the covers featuring the Flash, the little inset picture was of Hawkman, and vice-versa.

Jim notes that there were two GA and Silver Age Atom teamups as well, but no pairings of the 1940s Hawkman with his 1960s counterpart. I suspect the problem there was that the two characters were simply too similar to make for an interesting combination.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dennis the Menace Goes to Washington

Fawcett was a major comics publisher in the Golden Age, with Captain Marvel Adventures actually outselling Superman in the 1940s. But after losing the lawsuit to DC over whether the Big Red Cheese was a rip of the Man of Steel, Fawcett went out of the business for several years, before returning with only one character for the entirety of the Silver Age: Dennis the Menace.

Dennis was the creation of Hank Ketcham, and was originally published on the comics pages, as single-panel gags. In 1959, about the time that Fawcett started publishing the comic books, Dennis became the title feature of a TV show starring Jay North. The TV show lasted four seasons in its original series and virtually forever in reruns.

These Dennis Giants were generally organized around a theme, including trips to Mexico, California, Hollywood, Hawaii, and in this one, our nation's capital. They were also frequently republished; this particular giant appeared in 1963, 1964 and 1966. The stories are generally amusing if predictable tales of Dennis alternately exasperating his parents with his mischief, and amusing them with his childlike mistakes.

This giant starts with a quick travelogue of DC; the Mitchells visit the Washington Monument and see the Supreme Court, Lincoln Memorial and White House. While at the Mint, they have an interesting tour guide:

A black woman; pretty outstanding diversity by 1963 standards.

When they visit the White House, Dennis meets someone his own age:

That's obviously Caroline Kennedy; her line appears to be intended as a reference to this novelty song of the time:

Update: I had remembered that the girl who sang that song went with me to Traphagen Elementary School in Waldwick New Jersey, but wondered if that was just one of those crazy things you think you remember, but actually confused with something else. As it turns out, my memory was right (PDF file, see page 8, "Spotlight On"):

There was also a Jo Ann Morse who graduated high school with me in Allendale (one town away from Waldwick) in 1973; I suspect that she's the same one. Pixie gal who definitely loved to sing.

Dennis confronts her with the fact that her father didn't appear on any money, and therefore he couldn't possibly be the president. She checks:

The "Let me say this about that," line was a verbal tick of Kennedy's that was picked up by the impressionists of the time, particularly Vaughn Meader, much as Richard Nixon impersonators would use, "Let me make one thing perfectly clear."

The tour of Washington is occasionally interrupted by Dennis taking a nap and dreaming about himself involved in historical events, like Captain John Smith and Pocahontas:

Another wince-worthy moment is when Dennis comes up with a terrific product for the colonists to send back to England:

The family also visits the FBI, where Dennis meets J. Edgar, and the Pentagon, where he gets confused for a Russian spy:

All in all, it's an entertaining issue with just enough facts to be considered educational by adults, and enough fun so as not to be boring to kids.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


I'm not one of those folks to talk about racist covers on comics when it comes to World War II and the Japanese. It's easy to forget in these days when the wars we are involved in are not against a country and its people but against smaller groups (Al Qaeda, the Baathists, the Taliban), but in World War II we really were fighting Japan and Germany.

But I have to admit, it's covers like this one that makes me understand why Alan Moore had a character in Tom Strong refer to the Black Terror as a borderline psychopath. Killer artwork (literally) by Alex Schomburg.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Classics Illustrated

When I decided at age 13 to start collecting comic books, the reaction from my family was, to say the least, not positive and supporting. My parents definitely shared the view that comics were throwaway trash entertainment for kids. And to be honest, that was not entirely an unfair characterization of the medium, although things were already changing on that front as both DC and Marvel started chasing the adolescents like me.

It's funny because I think of the comic collectors of my era that I've met over the years, and they're all pretty bright, but certainly the image of the time was a dummy who moved his lips as he read, slowly. I had always been a voracious reader; by third grade I was reading five-six books a week. True, it was mostly the Hardy Boys or the Bobbsey Twins, but it most definitely was not picture books for me. By sixth grade I was reading the "We Were There" series, novels of American history as (supposedly) told by the kids who lived at the time.

So comics definitely seemed like a regression to my parents. But I was an obstinate youngster and they gradually accepted my decision. Of course, it helped that I did not solely read comics; by that point I was also a sci-fi fan. I also picked up some "educational" comics, like the Classics Illustrated line, although they were mostly on the wane by then, and it was pretty obvious despite the new covers that the artwork was dated. But it did interest me in some of the stories, and so at 15 I borrowed a copy of The Three Musketeers from a friend.

Who committed suicide by jumping in front of a train a week later. Sorry to spring that on you, but it's a major part of the story. Needless to say, I was emotionally wrecked for the next month or so. But one of the ways I got through it was to dedicate myself. I set a goal for myself to read the classics--not the comics, but the original books on which they were based. I did use the list on the back cover as a starting guide:

How did I do? Pretty well I'd say. Now mind you, finding some of those books (other than the first 20 or so, which virtually any good library would have) was quite a chore. I read all but Adventures of Marco Polo and Michael Strogoff in the first 30. I read Moby Dick unabridged, and let me tell you that really required dedication. And although I'm a big Robert Louis Stevenson fan, I've never been able to finish The Black Arrow. Overall I've probably read about 90 or so of the 167 in the original series (not all of which are listed on that particular back cover.

But most of the books, once you got into them, were terrific. The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Miserables and Crime and Punishment are books that everybody should read once.

The comics themselves varied in quality, both in the written adaptations and in the artwork. Here's the highly stylized splash to Arabian Nights (better known as 1001 Nights):

When the comic was redone in the 1960s, that beautiful style disappeared:

I'll always remember the moment when the inspector confronted Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment. During the story, he's seemingly befriended the young student, and they are discussing the murder that is the focus of the story here:

Of course, collecting the Classics Illustrated has presented many headaches as the comics were often reissued with new covers, and later with new interiors. At one point collectors used the HRN (highest reorder number) on the back cover to differentiate between various versions, but even that is not foolproof.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

First Kiss #2

I haven't talked much about Charlton Comics here. Aside from Steve Ditko's terrific work, it's safe to say that they are considered the ugly stepsister of Silver Age comics, with (mostly) mediocre art and stories. Their comics even seemed to be printed on cheaper paper than the other publishers. And yet they did publish a boatload of comics in the Silver Age; at least 2500 that I've been able to catalog, and I'm positive that I'm missing some.

Like most publishers in the Silver Age, Charlton eschewed the superhero comics except during Batmania. They published a LOT of romance comics, even more than
DC. Their active romance titles in the Silver Age included Career Girl Romances (37 issues), Cynthia Doyle, Nurse In Love, Dr Tom Brett Young Intern, First Kiss (40 issues), High School Confidential Diary and Confidential Diary (17), Hollywood Romances (10), I Love You (82), Just Married (74), Love Diary (69), My Secret Life (29), Nurse Betsy Crane (16), Romantic Secrets (44), Romantic Story (83), Secret Romance (10), Secrets of Love and Marriage (25), Secrets of Young Brides (40), Sweetheart Diary (34), Sweethearts (92), Teen Confessions (65), and Teen-Age Love (70 issues). When flipping through the comics racks back then, I often thought of Charlton as the equivalent of Harlequin in the comics.

The opening story in this issue is pretty good despite the dull-as-dishwater title, Love Him, Love What He Does. Alice is a bit ashamed of her prizefighter boyfriend George. She wants him to take up a more genteel profession, like her friends' husbands:

So she gives him an ultimatum: Either he gives up boxing or she dumps him. However, he's on the verge of a title bout and isn't about to abandon the sport he loves. Alice, who's been moping about, decides to attend the big fight, initially hoping that he will lose and come to his senses:

And win he does, making Alice realize that she's as proud of him as she would be of a lawyer or doctor:

The story could have been more dramatic if there had been a confrontation before the fight between the two lovers, with Alice initially admitting that she hoped George would lose, and then him recovering to win the bout when he realizes that she's rooting for him. Still, it's a solid effort. The subtext (accept your man for who he is, not for who you wish he were) is a frequent theme during romances of this era, although that would change as editors began to demand that leading men be wealthy and/or powerful. Of course, you could argue that a championship fighter was exactly that; back in the 1950s they were probably the most well-paid figures in sports.

The second story is not as satisfying; you can probably guess the ending from this panel alone:

The dreaded mustache tells us that he's not the right man for her. She goes out shopping, gets stuck in a ditch and meets an arrogant man who tells her to stop spinning her wheels. No real surprises here; the arrogant man is her true love.

The third story does present some interesting points. Doris Wiles had married a wealthy playboy, who died and left her and her infant son penniless. She works her way up from waitressing to running her own restaurant. A wealthy former friend of her husband, improbably named Carlos McLean, starts to woo her. But wait, he has the dreaded mustache! Is he a villain?

Nope, and he seals the deal when her son swallows something that puts him in peril:

I'm going to guess that the specialist went by the name of Dr Heimlich. ;)

There's an interesting PSA:

I don't remember DC publishing any overtly religious PSAs during the Silver Age, although they certainly published ones that promoted religious tolerance.

Solid Gold Heart closes out the book. Donna is a succesful model who wants to make the jump to acting. Her downstairs neighbor is Larry, a self-employed biochemist. Donna is promoting her career and making the gossip columns by going out with various wealthy playboys, but she wishes Larry were more successful. One days she promises to attend a sales pitch to an investor, but then her manager calls with a rich date who will certainly get her name in the paper. Torn, she attends the date even though it is at the same corner as Larry is waiting. But it all works out in the end, as:

It's an entertaining story, largely selling the same message about accepting your man for who he is as the opening tale. And as in the opener, the woman doesn't really have to suffer, as it is clear her man will become wealthy.

There's a "movie date" filler bit of advice here:

One oddity; the comic does not seem to contain many ads aimed at women; in fact the inside front cover contains a Joe Weider body-building ad.