Saturday, May 27, 2017

Refusing to See What We Foresaw

Even with the evidence now before their eyes, Trump voters are still refusing to see what we foresaw last year. America is a deteriorating, shell-shocked battleground between the armed camps of the willfully ignorant and the horrified prescient.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Monday, May 22, 2017

Woman and Superman, Ego and Super-Ego

One of the dramatic advantages of the TV show Mad Men was its timing.
Aired almost 50 years after the events it portrayed, Mad Men dramatized an era that was still within living memory. But that era was also sufficiently remote in time for significant social change to have occurred since then. The result was a drama that felt both familiar and, at times, strikingly alien. The attitudes of the times were remembered as real, yet now recognized as shocking.
And old comic books can, accidentally, serve the same function.
For example, take the "imaginary" tale The Wife of Superman! in Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane 26 (July 1961).
In Jerry Siegel’s story, TV reporter Lana Lang accidentally discovers Superman’s secret identity, but tells him she will forego the scoop and keep his secret to protect his work against crime and injustice. Impressed by Lana’s compassion and maturity, Superman finally falls for her and proposes.
“Her lips … they’re THRILLING!” thinks Superman. “Great Scott! I love the girl! Despite all my mighty powers of mind and body … I … I never knew it till NOW!”
With Lois Lane as a heartbroken bridesmaid, Superman marries Lana and, as a wedding present, provides her with a test tube full of experimental serum. The treatment grants Lana super powers identical to his own. And because she’s a human being, not a Kryptonian, Lana will also remain immune to kryptonite.
Yet in the context of 1961 sexual politics, that happy outcome turns out to be tragic.
As Super-Lana repeatedly rescues her husband from kryptonite traps, his attitude shifts from gratitude to depression.
“His pride’s hurt, due to my invulnerability to kryptonite!” Super-Lana thinks. “Before HE was the world’s mightiest person … But now they’re saying I’m GREATER than he is, and that he NEEDS me desperately!”
After saving Superman from the effects of his own rampage when he’s rendered evil by red kryptonite, Super-Lana does what is obviously the only thing left for her to do, and packs her suitcase to leave Earth forever.
Wait, what?
“My invulnerability to kryptonite has proven a CURSE! So – I’m going to give you back your self-respect by going out of your life forever!” she tells Superman. “I’ll live in another galaxy! If you love me … HELP me … By looking the other way with your telescopic vision, so you won’t see where I go! Don’t … follow! Goodbye … darling…”
Of course, Superman talks her out of this self-sacrificing but obviously bad decision, right?
Wrong. He agrees with her.
Turning away heartbroken, Superman thinks, “She’s … right! In time, our love for each other would’ve been destroyed by her pity for me! How can I be her hero when she’s mightier than I am? … (Choke!!)”
Neither Superman nor Lana seem to care or consider that more than the “destruction of their love” is at issue here — that robbing the Earth of another hero like Superman will result in the loss of thousands of lives in tragedies that could have been prevented.
I’m still touched by the soap operatic grandeur artist Kurt Schaffenberger invested in that last panel of a tearful Super-Lana flying off into space, thinking that she’ll “never, never stop loving him … (Sob!)”
Very noble, Lana. But the fact remains that you are exiling yourself from humanity forever merely in order to spare Superman’s fragile ego from having to confront the fact that a mere woman might be more powerful than he is.
Clark Kent and Don Draper turn out to have a lot in common.
Goes to show you how the unconscious attitudes of one generation can, soon enough, become the sick jokes of another.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Super-Lad Strains the Suspension of Disbelief

Even in 1959, at the age of 5, a guy knew when he was being had.
So Jimmy Olsen just coincidentally happens to be wearing a Superman costume for a fan club meeting when he coincidentally gets stuck on a missile that coincidentally lands on the planet Zolium, where conditions coincidentally grant Earth people super powers — coincidentally, the exact same powers as Superman?
And why couldn’t the cub reporter use his Superman signal watch to summon the Man of Steel to rescue him? Because, coincidentally, those little “zee-zee-zee” signals can’t travel through outer space.
Aw, come on.
Such was the scenario provided for our amusement by writer Robert Bernstein in The Super-Lad of Space!, the cover story in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen 39 (Sept. 1959).
Actually, all those coincidences weren’t the annoying part of the story. We were accustomed to those. What was irritating was the Jimmy Olsen, instead being amazed at suddenly being granted the powers of his hero and glorying in his ability to fly and bop monsters on the nose, spends all his time fretting that the Zoliumians (Zoliumites? Zolians? Whatever) can see through the various secret identities he tries to establish.
Bigger picture, Jimmy! This is ultimate wish fulfillment. Enjoy it! Generally, stories suggesting that you might not have to be born on Krypton to acquire super powers stirred fantasies that plunked those dimes down on newsstand counters.
Nevertheless, this was still a favorite story of mine. Why? Two words: Curt Swan.
The famed Superman artist was then approaching the peak of his powers, and flexing the muscles of his creative ingenuity. The detailed verisimilitude of Swan’s style made you believe in the actual existence of impossible things, and this alien setting provided an opportunity for him to go to town drawing giant flying metal-eating monsters, giant twelve-legged borrowing monsters, massive spiraling death rays, a wide variety of exotic alien dress, etc. etc.
More than a half-century later, I can vividly recall those gigantic yellow melons grown underground to feed the population of Zolium.
That, my friends, is called talent.

Amazing Spider-Man 3: Live and Learn

In a convention charged with psychological significance, superheroes frequently fight distorted mirror images of themselves.
Spider-Man battled other “animal men” from the start, defeating the Chameleon in Amazing Spider-Man 1 and the Vulture in ASM 2. But Dr. Octopus, in the third issue, was the most clearly mirrored of the villains (spiders and octopi both being multi-limbed, somewhat creepy creatures). And Otto Octavius also provided an opportunity for dramatic development unique in superhero comics at the time.
For The Amazing Spider-Man was not just a series but a serial, a soap opera, and at first its teenage protagonist was really too immature to handle the dangerous responsibilities thrust upon him by his guilt over his uncle’s death.
Peter Parker got a lesson in life’s unfairness in the first issue, when after rescuing J. Jonah Jameson’s son from certain death, the Daily Bugle publisher still trashed Spider-Man.
In the second issue, Spider-Man’s challenges escalated from a master of disguise to the Vulture, his first fully super-powered foe. Acquitting himself well in that showdown, Spidey regarded his victory the way many inexperienced young men would.
He became overconfident.
“It’s almost TOO easy,” Spidey mused. “I’ve run out of enemies who can give me any real opposition. I’m too powerful for ANY foe. I almost WISH for an opponent who’d give me a run for my money.”
In ASM 3 (July 1963), Lee and Ditko fulfill Spidey’s wish by confronting him with Dr. Octopus, who gives him a beat-down that shakes his confidence to the core. However, inspired by the Human Torch, a sadder but wiser Spider-Man returns to fight another day…
Comics historian Don Alsafi noted that Dr. Octopus, too, is characterized with subtle sophistication.
“When we first meet Dr. Otto Octavius, he seems a genial sort of man: well-liked, respected by his colleagues, and miraculously unscarred from the trauma of having been named Otto,’” Alasfi wrote. “However, an explosive accident during his atomic research causes the metal arms he uses in his experiments to fuse to his body — and Doctor Octopus is born!
“Although we only get to see Octavius for about a page before his mind becomes deranged, what’s interesting is just how abrupt this change is, and the idea of a man suddenly enslaved by his madness. In an era where most villains were evil just because, the astute reader quickly realizes that this isn’t the way Otto has always been, and the tragedy of that original mind trapped within the broken one is poignant.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mac Raboy: From Fawcett to Flash

Mention the name Flash Gordon to me and you conjure images of the lithe, clean-lined figures drawn by Mac Raboy, and not those of Alex Raymond, the newspaper strip’s celebrated creator.
That’s because in 1959 or 1960, when I first saw the strip in the Sunday color funny pages, Raboy drew it. I’d never heard of Raymond, the artist who’d inspired Raboy and who’d also created another strip I liked, Rip Kirby (then drawn by John Prentice).
Born in New York City in 1914, Emanuel “Mac” Raboy began his career with government-funded art classes and in President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Several of his federally funded wood engravings remain in the permanent collection of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum.
“Heavily influenced by the outstanding Flash Gordon work of Alex Raymond, Raboy created Captain Marvel Jr. in its image,” noted comics historian David Brancatelli. “His figures were lithe and majestic, tightly rendered and classically composed … The anatomy and draftsmanship were always perfect.”
Comics historian Benito Cereno wrote, “Raboy’s work on Captain Marvel Jr. manages to strike a perfect balance between the drama and dynamism necessary for the superhero genre and a realistic-looking, though idealized, vision of a teenage boy who punches Nazis all the time (whose overall look and design famously inspired the caped jumpsuits worn by latter era Elvis Presley).”
Raboy left Fawcett to draw the Green Lama in 1944. “The strip became a minor classic, but it never sold enough,” Brancatelli observed.
In 1948, King Features assigned Raboy to take over his hero’s strip, a step up for him in the popular mind because newspaper comic strips were respected while comic books were often despised. Raboy, who kept a portfolio of Raymond’s Flash Gordon art by his side for inspiration, drew the strip until his death in December 1967.
Comics historian Graham Exton observed that Raboy’s life ended on an odd note of synchronicity. In the summer of 1967, Raboy stayed in a quiet cottage near the village of Flash, Staffordshire, and produced his last comic strips there.
“Flash Gordon was actually produced in Flash. Some coincidence!” Exton noted. “Mac was clearly very ill at the time, and died shortly afterwards, presumably as a result of heavy smoking.”

Friday, May 12, 2017

There Were Giants in Those Days

Ah, those glorious “annuals.” I use quotation marks here because their popularity pushed up their publication faster than yearly.
If regular comics were a ten-cent treat, the annuals were a quarter miracle.
I had just turned 6 in June 1960 when I pushed aside the other comics on the newsstand.
Out of my way, Ricky Nelson comics, Beep Beep the Road Runner 6, Girls’ Romances 70 and Tales to Astonish 13 (featuring some giant monster, no doubt soon to be forgotten, by the name of Groot).
I had eyes only for something new under the sun, and stared agog at the first Superman Annual.
I loved Superman, and an 80-age comic that promised some of the best of his past adventures seemed to be designed with me personally in mind. Fortunately, hundreds of thousands of other kids had that same feeling, and plunked down enough hard-wheedled quarters to make the giants a permanent fixture of the Silver Age.
Within this square-bound beauty were The Witch of Metropolis from Lois Lane 1 (March-April 1958), The Supergirl from Krypton from Action Comics 252 (May 1959). A Visit from Superman’s Pal from Superboy 55 (March 1957); The Girl in Superman’s Past from Superman 129 (May 1959); The Execution of Krypto from Superboy 67 (Sept. 1958); The Fattest Girl in Metropolis from Lois Lane 5 (Nov.-Dec. 1958); The Super-Brain of Jimmy Olsen from Jimmy Olsen 22 (Aug. 1957); The Super-Key to Fort Superman from Action 241 (June 1958) and a story called Superman’s First Exploit. It wasn’t — it was from Superman 106 (July 1956) — but we were too happy to care.
Included, intrigingly, were the first issue covers of Superman, Superboy, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, then rarely seen, and a map of Krypton designed by Jerry Siegel. A treasure indeed.
But the second Superman “annual” appeared on the newsstand a mere six months later, and was even better. The “All-Menace” issue featured Superman’s battles with Brainiac, Titano, Bizarro, Metallo, the Invulnerable Enemy and the Thing from 40,000 AD. Tarzan also landed his own Dell Giant late in 1960.
June of 1961 brought the third Superman Annual (“The Strange Lives of Superman”) and two others that I missed because they sold out instantly — the first Batman Annual and Secret Origins.
I can vividly remember my shame at bursting into tears when the news dealer told me Secret Origins had vanished as soon as he’d set it out.
The fourth Superman Annual (“Adventures in Time and Space and on Alien Worlds”) arrived in November, along with the second Batman Annual (“Action Roles!”)
Over at a company book company that had not yet even acquired its famous name, Stan Lee took notice. He published a Strange Tales Annual full of giant monster stories in July 1962, along with a Millie the Model Annual. In 1964, Lee published Marvel Tales Annual, a title devoted to reprints of superhero features then only a year or two old.
My love for these 80-page giants tempted me to try to bind my favorite comics into volumes — an idea better in conception than in reality, I’m afraid.
Why do I write these articles and create these collages? Mostly because these comic books warmed me with an immense joie de vivre at the dawn of my life, and I like to rekindle at least a reflection of its radiance here at sunset.