Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Boxing Day.

I've been busy lately, what with Christmas and all and I haven't had much time to write much of anything for y'all, much less read anything to write about.

The Bias' had a good Christmas. My kids got loads of good stuff from us and our family and Santa. I got several original and repro Mego dolls (in case any of you ever need to shop for me) and some old superhero cartoons on DVD and a Lone Ranger DVD box set of the later, color episodes.

We arrived home this evening to find that the vintage ViewMaster reels I ordered for my wife, Amy(aka,Spectergirl) at the last minute had finally made it (hooray!)

I have no regrets. I lack for nothing. Sadly, however, no-one bought me any of the collected volumes of comics I asked for. Which means I will have to work that much harder to go through my collection of reading material and find something worth sharing, commenting on, mocking, etc.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Was Totally Taken In

There are many ads which ran in comic books over the years. Some memorable ones- the countless offers for huge sets of army men for next to nothing (they were 1:72 scale- a fact which was not disclosed in the ad), offers to sell Grit newspapers and Olympic greeting cards, the ubiquitous X-ray specs and Giant Monster ads. But the one that will always be the most iconic ad campaign to run in comics has to be the Sea Monkeys.

Oh the wonders those ads promised! Look at that happy family of fantastic, aquatic creatures. And they do tricks! Sadly, the advertisers have colored the truth a little.

The example above is a latter-day ad which includes a close-up view of an actual "sea monkey", the lowly brine shrimp. The brine shrimp (commonly sold as fish food) is a life form so simple it can survive being dehydrated and then resume life upon contact with water (which makes them convenient to mail). They look nothing like the cute, pink, sea people depicted in the ad. As to tricks... well they do respond to certain stimuli by doing a sort of flip.

Although I never could bring myself to cut up a comic book, even as a kid, I really pity the poor kids who cut up their comic book and mailed in their hard-earned money just to get some plankton by mail.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Who The #$@% is Captain Flash?

Wow! When I posted the poll last week, I never expected to have 100% of the response be "Who the #$@% is Captain Flash".

Honestly, I discovered his existence by pure chance. I was looking at the custom action figure galleries on the Mego Museum site when I saw a fantastic custom is Captain Flash by Troy "Aquatroy" Younger and noticed his figure of Captain Flash. " "Who the #$@% is Captain Flash", I thought. So I looked him up and discovered the following:

Captain Flash was a short-lived superhero published by the equally short-lived Sterling Comics in 1954. His comics series only lasted for 4 issues before Sterling closed its doors. Captain FLash is considered by some (Including Uncle Scrooge writer/artist and comcis historian Don Rosa) to be the first Superhero of the Silver Age. A title usually claimed by The Flash.

Captain Flash was professor Keith Spencer. Spencer accidentally exposes himself to a deadly dose of cobalt during a routine experiment. His doctor tells him to go home and make himself comfortable, as he is definitely going to die. Spencer retires to his home and tends his rose garden. Strangely enough, he notices that his heavily irradiated body has no ill effects on his plants. In fact, Spencer begins to feel stronger.

Spencer discovers that by clapping his hands together, he can trigger a "miniature atomic explosion" within his body that gives him super powers. He decides to become "America's Ace Defender" as Captain Flash and he teams up with his young friend Ricky Davis who becomes his eponymously named sidekick, Ricky.

So what's all the fuss? Well, for one thing, Captain Flash is one of very few new heroes of the 1950's. He predates DC's revamp of the flash by nearly two years. In the second place, he's the earliest of the Atomic super heroes, predating Solar, Captain Atom and Nukla by years. His origin story would feel right at home as a Silver-Age Marvel story, as would his quirky stable of supervillains.

Another element that makes Captain Flash seem so at home in the Silver Age is the look of the comic. Drawn by future JLA artist Mike Sekowsky, the look and feel of Captain Flash is well ahead of it's time. Personally, I prefer Sekowsky's art on Captain Flash to his legendary run on JLA. I always thought his JLA work, while clean and pretty, was a little stiff. Without 7+ heroes mucking up his panels, Sekowsky really shows you some dynamic action!

There's a site where you can download scans of public domain Golden Age comics for free, and they have all four issues of Captain Flash, so I was able to read some (Sorry, I can't find the url or the name right now ) and I have to say, I was VERY entertained.

So, back to the original question of the poll, is Captain flash the first Silver Age hero, or one of the last Golden Agers?? You decide.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Next Time, Call Ahead. Amazing Spider-Man #1

I realized that I have somehow neglected to cover a single Spider-Man story on this blog. Today, I rectify that.

The Amazing Spider-Man #1 gave readers a lot for their twelve cents. The issue starts with a brief recap of Spidey's origin as it appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 and establishes characters like bombastic publisher J. Jonah Jameson and his hero son, astronaut John Jameson. We learn of Aunt May's financial troubles for the first time and, before the issue's first story is over Spidey is branded as a criminal and a public menace. Unlike many of Marvel's other long-lasting features, the tone for the next 40+ years of Spider-Man stories is set at the very begining.

The back-up feature starts off even better, as it includes a guest appearance by Marvel's other early superstars, the Fantastic Four.

Peter Parker gets the bright idea to seek a job with the Fantastic Four. Unable to get past the FF's private elevator, Pete decided to climb to the FF's offices as Spidey. PEte has no idea he has already tripped the FF's security system, however. When the Cosmic Quartet come out swinging, Spidey uses the donnybrook as an ersatz audition.

After Mr. Fantastic settles everyone down, Spidey states the purpose of his visit and sugests that his talents are worth top dollar. Richards explains that the FF are a non-profit orginization who put all their extra earnings back into developing crime-fighting technology. Before anyone can offer to help, Spidey leaves in a teenage huff.

The rest of the story introduces Spidey's first supervillain, the Chameleon. *Yawn*

Even though Amazing Fantasy #15 sold remarkably well and Marvel receieved tons of letters asking for more Spider-Man, they were clearly nervous about giving Spidey his own book. The cover could have just as easily been for an issue of Fantastic Four. And, although Spidey doesn't end up joining the FF (saving the team lots of money, since they won't have to order new PJ's that have a "5" on the chest.) there is a wonderful chemistry between the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, almost as if the FF are the family Peter has been missing.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Maybe He Should Have Offered the Axis Some Fruit Pies?

Oh, sure, Paste Pot Pete isn't exactly in the same league as Hitler, Mussolini or Hirohito. And, yeah, doubtless "Def Fuhrer" would have claimed that -historically- Hostess had always belonged to Germany. But think of how we could have changed the tide of the war by implementing dessert warfare. Whole units of starving enemy soldiers would have surrendered to our light, tender crust.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I'm a big fan of Captain America... but I'm not all that fond of his work.

Sometimes, you love a superhero and can't really put your finger on why.

I first discovered Captain America in a very roundabout way. I was probably 6 or so, and I had been given a Mego Batman and Robin for Christmas.

Other figures soon followed; Spider-Man, Superman, Shazam, Mxyzptlk... I asked my mom and dad what other superheroes there were. I was only 6 and all I really knew were the Superfriends, Spidey, the Hulk and Shazam (My dad told me his name was Captain Marvel, but I didn't believe him. I argued with my dad about this all the time.) . One of them mentioned Captain America. "Captain America, who's he?" I asked. Dad said he was a superhero who wore red, white and blue. I set about pretending my Evel Knievel was Cap.

Some time later, I got a Captain America Mego from Sears.

Having never read a Captain America comic book, I knew nothing about him. Just that he was super and liked America. It was 1976, so EVERYONE seemed to like America. I watched the two Reb Brown made-for-TV Cap movies... I thought his outfit and the clear shield were weird. And I HATED his motorcycle helmet.

I picked up a comic somewhere with Cap and the Falcon. Cap didn't seem to be very heroic to me in it. I found a book on Cap at the Library and for the first time understood who he was. He was a soldier. HE fought the Nazis (I knew who they were. they were the bad, grey army men).

As time went on, Cap came to and went from my mind. When I was a regular Marvel reader in the 80's. I didn;t even buy his comic. I had a few here and there, but he never seemed to be... relevant.

And I guess that's the problem with Cap. He's a symbol. In order to really be successful as a hero, his mission has to be one of relevance to a hero who represents all that is best about America. And, sadly, it hasn't happened often enough in Cap's 68 year history.

In the 1940's he was right there, punching Hitler in the face. We weren't at war with Germany yet, but we knew a bully when we saw one. Cap continued to symbolize the American fighting spirit. When we didn't need him anymore, we put him away.

In the 50's Cap resurfaced. This time as a sort of McCarthyist stooge who was almost unrecognizable as the defender of Liberty. Instead of being a symbol of strength and hope, Cap mirrored the fear that gripped our nation.

In the 60's he came back for good. But he was sad that he didn't fit in. A man out of time, Cap seemed to have aged prematurely in spirit, if not in body.

By the 1970's, like America itself, Cap was trying to find out who he was, what his role was. It was a weird, selfish period for the Captain, just like the country he symbolized. Art imitated art, as the Captain America in the comics became sort of like the Captain America of the movie "Easy Rider" a drifter on a motorbike, looking for the "real"America.

In the 80's, Cap was just another costumed hero. Period.

In the 90's Cap was replaced by the government in favor of a more right-wing version who would follow orders, hinting at our fears that the people in authority are not always acting in our best interests. But the original kept going, without government sponsorship, eventually taking back his mantle.

So, I guess what I'm saying is I like the IDEA of Captain America. Maybe we see in him what we want to see, what we want America to be like.

I'm going to confess something: On September 11,2001, as I left work early to go home and watch the news unfold, as I felt reality slipping away from me into a million possible futures I could not fathom, a single thought went through my mind, unbidden- "Where was Captain America when this happened?" . I told my friend, Rob what went through my head as we walked in a daze to the parking lot of our office. "Yeah", he said. "I was kinda thinking the same thing."

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Legion of Doom. Off-Topic Rant

My son was watching "The Challenge of the Superfriends" yesterday and, once again, I shook my head in disbelief at the Legion of Doom.

Oh sure, the Superfriends comes under a lot of fire as a sad, watered-down version of the Justice League of America but personally, I think it (within the strict requirements of 1970's children's programming regulations) does a fair job of capturing the spirit of Silver-Age JLA comics. The "Cahllenge of the Superfirneds" season, in particular tends to do stories in a three-act format that reminds me very much of early Fox/Sekowski stories.

But that's not why I'm writing today.

The Legion of Doom is a great idea, executed poorly. "Thirteen of the most sinister villains of all time!" - That's some hook. So who do we have? Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Gorilla Grodd, Sinestro.. wow, we're off to a great start. Black Manta, Captain Cold, The Riddler, The Cheetah...well, they're all good, solid villains. Scarecrow, Toy Man ( a weird version dressed as a jester?) Giganta?? Really? BIZARRO and SOLOMON GRUNDY???- A backwards, omnipotent moron and a zombie?!?!

Okay, so the line-up is a little uneven. I mean, sure, every team has it's strengths and weeknesses and there need to be leaders and soldiers but Bizarro? Don't get me wrong, I love Bizarro, but he's NOT a team player. And why the Scarecrow (who never uses his fear gas, ever!) and the Riddler? Where's the Joker?? Or at LEAST the Penguin?

In their first caper, the L of D let Captain Cold do the planning. CC has been in touch with alien conquerors from Venus who want the Legion to change the Earth's climate to that of Venus, so they can invade. In exchange the Legion will rule the Earth. Okay, you guys know you live here too, right?

In the next one, Bizarro (yep, Bizarro) comes up with a plan involving made-up elements like "robalt"... and everyone goes right along. Clearly Luthor needs to be a little more involved in the planning stages!

In at least two episodes, the L of D have access to a TIME MACHINE. And when they make a mistake, they DON'T GO BACK AND TRY AGAIN!!!

Perhaps before they call the Superfriends "Superfools" once more, they should look at who has to live in a swamp.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Art Imitates Art Imitates Art... An Open Letter

Ever wonder why comics from the Bronze Age to today feel so different from the comics of the Golden and Silver ages? Is it new developments in printing techniques? Changing times lending new themes and topics? The inevitable change that happens as generations of artists retire and start? Well, yes, all of those things play a role but the real difference is this:

The first crop of comic book creators had never read a comic book when they started.

See, in the 1930's, comic books were invented as a way to repackage previously published newspaper comic strips. In a few rare instances, publishers bought new strips from unknowns as filler material. It wasn't until 1938's Action Comics #1 that a comics magazine containing all- new material was introduced.

When a demand for new material was established, the majority of the artists and writers (in many cases the same person) were young hopefuls, desperately hoping to get noticed and picked up by one of the big newspaper syndicates. If you were a newspaper cartoonist, you were a celebrity, if you drew comic books, you were nothing. To get noticed, you needed something unique... yet familiar.

The first comic book creators drew on what they knew. The first superheroes are clearly influenced by some of the great newspaper heroes; The Phantom, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Tarzan, Buck Rogers... but it goes deeper than that.

Tights, Tights, Tights!

The first comic books heroes were also influenced by literary (often pulp) characters. Writers such as Conan-Doyle, Verne, Burroughs, Stevenson...In the hands of an eager young crop of creators, Zorro and Sherlock Holmes became Batman, Doc Savage became Superman, Robin Hood became the Green Arrow, The Shadow became The Spirit, The Sandman, The Crimson Avenger, Jekyll/Hyde became the Hulk...

The visual influence of silent films cannot be underestimated, either.

Comic book artists were influenced, without a doubt by comic strip artisits like Hal Foster, Byrne Hogarth, Milt Caniff, Alex Raymond. But they were also influenced by classical illustrators such as Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.

I'm pretty sure The Mole Man was based on Wyeth's Treasure Island painting of Blind Pew.

Another great source of inspiration seems to have been the circus. E. Nelson Bridwell cites the circus as the obvious origin of the tights worn by Flash Gordon, The Phantom and their brood. At the circus you could see men and women engaged in acts of daring do- acrobatics, mastering fierce beasts and soaring through the air. In the side show, you could see the ever-stretchy India Rubber Man,The Strong Man, the Fire-Breather, Giants and tiny people... The circus was a font of amazing super-people.

By the late 1960's and early 70's, things began to change. A new generation fo writers was coming in. They were more influenced by current events and socially critical non- fiction. Their art informed by advertising design and Pop-art. At their best, the comics they created were a mirror to social ills, illustrated with a cutting edge flair for design. At their worst, they were a pale imitation of comic books they had read as children, copying the look but not the essence or the creativity.

Contemporary comics are at worst an over-designed series of splash pages with nothing to say and at best, a self-referential pastiche of ideas put together by greater talents.

IF comic books are to grow and flourish in this new century, I believe we will need to look beyond the comics we so dearly treasure and look eslewhere for inspiration.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor Day- A Visit to the Golden Age

On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a sneak attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was assumed by the Japanese war department that such a huge blow to the American military would demoralize America, causing us to recoil in disgrace, leave the Pacific to the Japanese and stay out of the War.

The Japanese did not understand the American psyche. America's citizens had been struggling and debating whether or not to get involved directly in the events of the war being waged by the Axis powers. Japan, instead of merely frightening America, gave us a reason to feel that this was our fight too.

The covers below illustrate the thinking of the times in the days and years following Pearl Harbor:

After twelve issues of battling Nazi spy rings, Cap takes the fight to the Pacific.

Too young to enlist, the Young Allies join in anyway.

I love how the Japanese labeled their Counterfeit bond plant. And in English, no less.

These covers are very much of their time. Today, We understand the Japanese better and they understand us better. And though the art contains racial stereotypes that today seem crude and ignorant, the goal was to show that we would not take defeat lying down.

If there is a lesson to be learned from 12/07/41, and I believe there is, it may be: It is better to be vigilant, than to be vengeful.

R.I.P. Pearl Harbor victims.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Silver Age Fight Club!

Okay, we've all heard (or, sadly been a part of) those juvenile arguments about who can beat up who. "Who's stronger? Superman or the Hulk?"- "I bet Robin would mop the floor with Bucky!" "Who'd win in a fight, Aquaman or the Sub-Mariner?" (That one's easy. Aquaman would win. The Sub-Mariner is a sea-creature and subject to the whims of Aquaman's telepathic commands!)

Well, I don't want to stoop to that level of playground commentary, But I do have a dream match-up for you: Magnus, Robot Fighter vs. Brainiac!

The breakdown:

Brainiac is a relentless, coldly logical super-computer in an android body who wears hot-pants and go-go boots.

Magnus is a futuristic ubermensch who battles robot menaces on a daily basis- who wears a minidress and go-go boots.

Clearly this battle was meant to be.

Now, gentle readers, I'm asking you to write back with your opinions of the outcome of this fight. Feel free to draft a whole scenario, if you like. Just let us all know who you think would win and why?

The reader with the best scenario will get a special prize from yours truly. Deadline is next Thursday, December 10th.

Superfriends Poll Closed.

Well, I guess it's no surprise that the Wonder Twins won. It 's a little surprising that they BARELY beat out Apache Chief, though. The Wendy and Marvin fans put in a good showing, too, as did the Black Vulcan camp.

I have to admit, they are hard to resist.

Samurai was always my favorite, though.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Supergirl Needs to Mind Her Own @#$! Business. Action Comics #289

Big key going into keyhole. Paging Dr. Freud.

After watching a movie in which a bachelor delays proposing and loses the only woman he ever loved, Supergirl gets it into her head that Superman needs to be fixed up. After all, she reasons "It doesn't look as if Superman is ever going to marry either Lois Lane or Lana Lang!"

So, Superman's cousin decides it's time to do a little Super-meddling. She heads right away to the Fortress of Solitude , fills out the "time-traveling log book" (which is a log of time-travels, not a book that travels through time) leaves a quick note for Supes and whoosh! she's off.

When Superman arrives at his Kryptonian Man Cave, he discovers an "urgent" note from Supergirl asking him to join her in the past, ASAP. Superman flies back to the appointed time and finds Supergirl waiting for him in Ancient Troy, where she hopes to hook him up with Helen.

Thank you Encyclopedia Made-upica!

After a few gladiatorial hi-jinks and the foiling of a royal plot, Helen gets pissed off because Supergirl is stealing her limelight. The Cousins of Steel head back to the present, empty-handed.

Next, while cleaning the Fortress, Supergirl has another stroke of inspiration. She coerces Superman into heading to the 30th century for a Legion of Superheroes Christmas party. She leads him to a time 10 years further into the future than usual, however, meaning that the Legionaires are all adults.

Supergirl decides Saturn Girl- now Saturn Woman- would be a good match for Kal-El. She then goes about setting things up so Supes and Saturn meet under the mistletoe. Superman has such a great time he goes in for seconds...

only to discover that Saturn Woman is married to Lightning Man.

Still blushing from his faux-pas, Superman and Supergirl head back to the present. Again.

Supergirl confesses her plan to Superman, prompting one of the most awkward and..creepy.. bits of exposition EVER:

Oh! and she's a child!

Supergirl tries one last time, this time looking for an adult duplicate of herself anywhere in the universe. (Still creepy). The Fortress' super-computer gives her the name of a planet where such a woman can be found (and displays it in Lite-Brite pegs!) and Superman is off! (Still creepy).

It's love at first sight for Superman and Superwoman (aka Luma Lynai) but alas it is not to be. Seems the Earth's yellow sun effects Superwoman like Kryptonite effects Superman. The lovers part ways after Superwoman insists that Superman must return to Earth for the greater good (maybe she met his cousin and noticed the creepy resemblance?) . Superman returns heart-broken and Supergirl swears off match-making.

The moral of the story is: don't take romantic advice from your teenage girl cousin, especially one who's in love with a boy who is also her horse.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tonto- Upstaged by a Horse!

Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of The Lone Ranger and of Tonto. I enjoy the TV series, the Radio shows, and especially the Dell/Gold Key/Whitman comics. I even liked Joe Lansdale's L.R. miniseries over at Topps. And, honestly, one of the best things about the Lone Ranger IS Tonto. Tonto is by far the more dynamic of the two characters. While the Ranger looks cool and solves mystery after mystery, Tonto lays the beat down on bad guy after bad guy.

Not that the Ranger is a wuss or anything, but Tonto is a serious Man Of Action.

Which brings me to today's topic. In 1951 the good folks at Dell Comics decided to give the Lone Ranger's Faithful Indian Companion his own comic book. And man, does it rock. Out of all the Lone Ranger comics I've scraped up over the years, my copy of The Lone Ranger's Companion Tonto #19 is my prized possession.

No, that's not The Shadow!
In his own comic, Tonto has lots of adventures as a young man, living with his own tribe (where they all-including Tonto- speak normal, flawless English; clearly because they are all speaking their native tongue) and as an Army scout (where he speaks the broken English associated with Tonto). The Tonto comics or at least issue #19 are very exciting and good, sturdy Western comics with rather nice art and beautiful painted covers.

But here's the crazy thing. Tonto wasn't the only Lone Ranger character to get his own series. Dell also published "The Lone Ranger's Famous Horse Hi-Yo Silver".

First of all, I would like to state that the horse's name is Silver, not Hi-Yo Silver. I have yet to read an issue of Silver's comic, as I have never been able to AFFORD one. Silver has a much higher resale value than Tonto. Apparently, Silver spends a LOT of time fighting other animals

and actually has arch-nemeses of sorts in the recurring characters of an angry puma

and an Indian named Keenay who wants to capture Silver.

The saddest thing, in my opinion, is not that Silver got his own comic, nor is it that Silver's comic is more valuable. No, the saddest part of all is that Silver's comic lasted for 34 issues. Tonto's only lasted for 33.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Wife HATES Stretchy Guys!

My lovely wife, Amy (aka Spectergirl) HATES stretchy superheroes. She just does. She finds them "creepy" ad insists that when they stretch their limbs look "all penis-y". I, however, have no such aversion so here's a breakdown of who's who in the world of stretchiness.

1. Plastic Man.

The original and still best. Although Plastic Man survives 'til this day in comics, no-one has ever been able to duplicate the genius of his creator, Jack Cole. A reformed criminal, Plastic Man works as a special agent for the FBI, using his unique shape-changing talents to bring down organized crime- often his former associates. He even got his own postage stamp:

Or is this just Plas in disguise?

2. Elongated Man

Despite his naughty-sounding name, Elongated Man was a fairly innocent superhero feature from the pages of Flash. Ralph Dibny, became obsessed as a young man with the flexibility of "India Rubber Men" in carnival sideshows. He noticed over time that all of them drank a particular brand of soda-pop made with extract of "gingold". Dosing himself with a powerful concentrate of gingold, Ralph discovered he was able to stretch any part of his body (!). He then decided to fight crime as the "Ductile detective", Elongated Man.

3. Elastic Lad

After taking an "Elastic Serum", Jimmy Olsen had a short-lived career as
Elastic Lad. Since Jimmy has had too many bizarre powers and shapes to list, I don't know what else to say.

4. Mister Fantastic

Okay, this is the one stretchy guy my wife actually likes. But does she like him for his cool, stretchy power? Does she like him for his mind-numbing intellect? No. She likes him because he's a pompous ass. This explains SO much about why she married me.