Monday, August 31, 2009

Marvel Monday- Will the REAL Captain Marvel please stand up?

I had a better topic for Marvel Monday, but my scanner is off-line for the present and I couldn't scan the images I wanted to use. Maybe next Monday. Don't despair, though, I will instead talk about Superman's greatest threat. No, not Lex Luthor, not Brainiac, not Kryptonite, not even The Prankster... I'm talking about Captain Marvel.

See, back in what was called The Golden Age, a whole new sub-genre of Science Fiction had been ushered in when two boys from Cleveland introduced the world to Superman in 1938. It didn't take long before the newsstands filled up with other publishers' takes on this new phenomenon; the superhero. Out of scores of lame copies and blatant rip-offs, there rose one serious contender to the throne: Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel had some similarities to the Man of Tomorrow, to be sure. He was tall, dark-haired, handsome, and he wore tights and a cape. The good Captain was superhumanly strong and he could fly. Sound familiar? Sure. Except that could describe dozens of comic book superheroes, not just Superman. That didn't Stop National Periodical Publications (Today better know as DC Comics)from filing a law suit against rival publisher, Fawcett Comics.

The court case (started in the 1940's)dragged on for years. Eventually, the court found in Fawcett's favor. Captain Marvel WAS similar to Superman, but he was unique enough that there was found to be no copyright infringement.

Which was great news for Fawcett. Except for two things. One: the lawsuit had cost them a huge amount of money. And two: it was now the 1950's and superheroes weren't selling nearly as well as Westerns and Romance comics. The Golden Age of superheroes was over. Fawcett decided to sell their small stable of superhero titles off. Ironically, even though Fawcett had won the right to publish Captain Marvel, they ended up selling him to DC Comics, who (spitefully?) sat on him for 20 years and didn't use him.

But wait, things get weirder. DC decided in the 1970's to revive Captain Marvel and give him his own comic again. They even gave him his own live-action TV show on Saturday morning. The weird part is that they were afraid to call him Captain Marvel.

See, in the interim, while DC was sitting on a formerly hot property without actually publishing it, their newest rival, Marvel Comics, had decided that if nobody else was going to field a superhero named Captain Marvel, the name must be up for grabs, and wasn't it a great fit that Marvel Comics would have a guy named Captain Marvel?? So, Marvel Comics had a comic book in publication already called Captain Marvel when DC decided to bring the original Captain back.

To avoid a legal dispute, DC called the comic series and TV show SHAZAM!, after the aged wizard who gave Captain Marvel his superpowers. This lead to years of confusion. I know, as a kid, I thought Captain Marvel's name was SHAZAM!. His TV Show was called SHAZAM!, his action figure was sold as SHAZAM!, his Pepsi glasses say SHAZAM! on them. Heck, even his mid-1980's SUPER POWERS COLLECTION action figure was sold as SHAZAM! It seems pretty obvious that DC, having dragged Fawcett under due to a copyright lawsuit was afraid Marvel would do the same to them if DC went around claiming they owned the name Captain Marvel.

The saddest part of all of this, in my opinion, is that Captain Marvel was a great comic. It was quirky and fun and extremely creative. And it was destroyed before it's time. The later attempts to revive it and update it in the 1970's seemed cynical and awkward. The more recent attempts to hammer Captain Marvel into the continuity of the DC Universe seem even more ham-fisted.

No, for me, the real Captain Marvel vanished in the 1950's in a crash of thunder and lightning.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kryptonite Wedding, "Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane #42

I only wish my scanner was working, so that I could show you the awesome splash panel for this story.

Okay, so get this: Lois sets up a hidden camera and gets some pictures of Superman switching identities. She then locks the camera in a weird little lead box around her waist like a fanny pack, so Superman can't fog the film with his X-ray vision. Then, she drives off to develop the pics, only to get into a car accident (where was Superman, then? See what happens when you mess with Superman?).

Turns out, Lois sustained a head injury that alters her personality and lets her feel comfortable blackmailing Superman. She tells him if he doesn't marry her tomorrow, she'll develop the film and expose (no pun intended) his secret identity. Superman has no choice (because his secret ID is just THAT important), so he agrees.

Superman takes Lois the next morning to the Fortress of Solitude (see Saturday, August 22, 2009) so she can see if she'd like to live there after they are married. Lois spends some time measuring the place for drapes, then her natural nosiness takes over. Finding an atomizer marked "rejuvenation spray" Lois decides she should spray herself with it. After all, Lois rationalizes "I'm not going to get wrinkled while HE stays young".

Problem is, the rejuvenation spray was a gift to Supes from an alien and it's never been tested on an Earthling (or a Kryptonian). Lois begins growing progressively younger, which leads to a wacky series of failed attempts to get a marriage license. Lois sprays Superman with the spray, too, hoping someone will agree to marry two teenagers, but then she becomes a child... it just gets sillier and creepier as it goes.

I won't spoil the ending, but needless to say, the Man of Steel remains a bachelor.

Friday, August 28, 2009

World's Finest Friday- a tip of the tiny, purple derby to World's Funnest

If there is anyone in the world who understands the magic of Silver Age DC comics, it has to be Evan Dorkin. In addition to his numerous other accomplishments, Mr. Dorkin authored a DC one-shot called "Superman-Batman: World's Funnest". Superman and Batman are only tangential characters in this awesome romp through the DC "Universe" as the action centers on those annoying 5th dimensional pests, Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite. Look, making fun of something is easy, crafting a perfect parody is genius.

Mr. Dorkin starts us off with a brilliant homage to World's Finest, in which the "World's Finest Team" (Batman and Robin and Superman) have just foiled a team up by Lex Luthor and the Joker. But before the baddies can be sent off to jail (from which they will doubtless escape or be paroled), Bat-Mite shows up and decides to make things more exciting, and Mxyzptlk shows up to irritate Superman.

The two imps begin fighting and things soon get out of hand, escalating to the demise of the entire JLA and all the supporting casts of Batman and Superman (seeing Green Lantern taken out by a bunch of bananas is a riot). The beginning and ending sequences are beautifully illustrated by Dave Gibbons (of "Watchmen" fame). Once the Silver age is out of the way, Mxy and Bat-Mite take off, hopping from reality to reality, destroying everything in the DCU, including stop-overs at the Super-Friends, "The Dark Knight Returns", and "Kingdom Come". There's even a wonderful sequence in which Bat-mite expresses his dismay at how dark and violent and un-heroic all the modern DC heroes are (kudos, Mr. Dorkin!!). If you've never read this, track one down at Amazon, you won't be disappointed.

And, if you like this, please be sure to track down the anthology book "Bizarro Comics" by Evan Dorkin, et al. It's full of clever little goodies featuring your favorite DC heroes, re-interpreted by the indie-comics set.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Martian Manhunter, the hero who was picked last for dodgeball.

John Jones, Manhunter from Mars. Arguably the first new hero of the Silver Age. Never invited to the cool parties. If you thought Aquaman was the token second stringer in the Justice League lineup, think again. Accidentally teleported from Mars by a scientific genius who dies of a heart attack before he can send him back, Martian J'onn J'onnz (clever)is stranded on 1950's Earth with no way to return home. Luckily, he's telepathic (meaning he doesn't have to work too hard to pick up the lingo) and a shape changer (meaning it won't really be a drawback that he's 6'6" and lime green). He quickly adopts the human moniker of John Jones and then goes out and applies for a job as a police detective (I coulda sworn that-even in the '50s- you had to work your way up to that one) where his various "Martian powers" come in handy. Basically a sort of green Superman/Batman combo, John can read minds, change his appearance, fly, pass through walls, turn invisible, blow really hard with his "Martian breath" and if I've left anything out, it's just because he has so darn many powers. Of course, no hero is complete without a fatal weakness (ever since Kryptonite). Martian Manhunter becomes weak and pathetic in the presence of fire. Even so much as a match can make him queasy. MM had a pretty good run as a backup feature in Detective Comics throughout the 1950's (hey, nobody was ever clamoring to add Roy Raymond, TV Detective to the JLA lineup)and eventually found his way into House of Mystery, grooming him for the solo title that would elude him for the entirety of the silver age. Still, for all his relative obscurity in the decade that spawned him, he WAS a founding member of the JLA and has been featured in just about EVERY incarnation for the Justice League from 1959 to present.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Marvel Monday- HULK JUGGLE!

My friend, Rob, and I once had a lengthy discussion in which we tried to comprehend the sheer surrealness of this particular panel from Avengers #1. We came to the conclusion that this panel must surely be the result of the "Marvel way" gone wrong.

For the uninitiated, the "Marvel way" was a new assembly-line method of making comics which persists to this day. It started because Stan Lee, who was editor and head writer over Marvel's then-fledgling superhero titles couldn't manage to write full scripts for each and every comic each and every month. Even farming out some of the scripting chores to his brother , Larry Lieber, wasn't enough (Larry's scripts tend to have strong, anti-commie sentiments which make them seem very dated). Stan decided that the best way to overcome this problem was Jack Kirby. Jack was an amazing workhorse who drew the bulk of Marvel's early comics. This is not to belittle the great artwork by other Marvel talents like Don Heck or Steve Ditko. Jack just drew more of them. Every month. Stan realized that he could write the first few pages of a story, and the last few pages and then hand it over to Jack, who would use his own judgement and experience to fill in the pages in between- usually with lots of eye-popping action. Stan would then go back over the finished pages, suggest any changes that were needed (time allowing) and then write dialog to match the comics. In many cases, the comics done this way seem to have dialog that's a bit... superfluous.

Anyway, Rob and I were baffled by this particular panel and came up with this scenario to explain it.

Stan: "Why is the Hulk at the circus?"
Jack: "I dunno"... *puffs cigar* I took my kids to the circus."
Stan: "I'll just have to make it work!"

The craziest part is NOT the Hulk hiding out at the circus. it's that the people who run the circus believe that the Hulk is a big, green robot who just happened to wander by, providing them with a star attraction. Look, I don't care if there are mutants and radioactive spiders under every rock in the Marvel universe, that JUST DOESN'T HAPPEN.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Silver Age Man-Caves

Back in the Silver Age, a hero wasn't a hero unless he had a swingin' pad all his own. Someplace he and his teenage sidekick could kick back and relax after a hard day's do-gooding. Luckily, a lot of 50's superheroes were independently wealthy. Here are a few of the most famous super-hangouts:

1. The Fortress of Solitude. Whenever Superman needed to get away from the rigors of his daily life of doing lots of heroic things, he headed to the North Pole. Superman's pad had everything. A model of Krypton, statues of his adoptive Earth parents Ma and Pa Kent and his Kryptonian birth parents Jor-El and Lara, robot duplicates of Superman, statues of Clark Kent and all of Superman's girlfriends and even a miniaturized Kryptonian city in a bottle. Did I mention the freakin' zoo of alien animals?? The Fortress of Solitude could only be entered by unlocking the door with a giant key, disguised as a navigational marker (I'm no pilot, but I'm pretty sure there aren't a whole lot of giant, arrow-shaped markers littering the arctic wastes just to guide planes.) I always wondered what would keep anyone who found the Fortress from just walking in the 20-foot high keyhole.

2. The Batcave. Probably the coolest, most iconic of all superhero hangouts, the batcave is the secret lair of the Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Situated beneath Stately Wayne Manor. The Batcave housed Batman's equipment, the Batmobile, Bat-copter, Batplane, Batboat, Batcycles, etc. Also in the Batcave was Batman's workout facility, crime files and the coolest trophy room ever. I love the giant penny, the giant Joker card and the T-Rex sculpture. The craziest thing about the Batcave is what a perfect hideout it is thematically. Bats live in caves, Batman lives in a cave (sort of). However, the good folks at DC seem to have overlooked that easy piece of logic when the went on to give some of their other heroes hideouts, for example:

3. The Aqua Cave. Yeah, Aquaman and Aqualad have an undersea cave. It's really not that elaborate a hideout, just a couple of hammocks and a lantern fish in a fishbowl on the nightstand. And I guess it makes sense, sort of, that the two fish guys live in an undersea cave. I guess. Certainly there can't be that many heroes living in caves, can there?

4. The Arrow Cave. Why, on Earth does Green Arrow have a cave? I think he and Speedy even live in the city limits. Where did they find a cave in Star City? Under their apartment building??

5. The JLA Secret Sanctuary. Located outside of Happy Harbor, RI, the SECRET SANCTUARY IS IN A CAVE. I'm not even making this up! Geez, silver age heroes seem to spend more time in caves than Cave Carson. Incidentally, Cave Carson never owned a