Bat-Signal Over LA

The city of Los Angeles arranged a nice tribute to Adam West yesterday, flashing the bat-signal on the side of City Hall.

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The cool part is they got the symbol right: there have been several iterations over the years, but this one matches the one on West’s costume (on the show, the shape of the projected signal was different, but why quibble?).

What makes it doubly awesome, though, is that LA City Hall doubled for the Daily Planet starting with the second season the old “Adventures of Superman” TV show, making for a cool, if probably unintentional, cross-reference.  Wish I could’ve seen it in person.

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Murphy Anderson, RIP

Comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on Oct. 23, and while I always knew I liked his work, it hadn’t occurred to me until now just how many of the most powerful and best-remembered images of my childhood flowed from his brush.

I was a “Bronze Age” kid, introduced to comics in the early 70s when Mr Anderson was teamed with the late, great Curt Swan on the Superman family of comics. Their styles melded together so seemlessly, they became known as the blended entity “Swanderson,” producing not only memorable covers and interior art but also figural icons used on the comics of the era as well as countless pieces of Superman merchandising, including a good half of my school supplies.

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Decades later, the covers Anderson produced with (and without) Swan still have the same pull they did when they first appeared on the spinner racks, calling out to me, “Buy this book!”

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On the inside, “Swanderson” specialized in distinctive, expressive faces, something not even the best comic artists always truly master.  A great example occurs in the much-celebrated and often-reprinted story, “Kryptonite Nevermore.”

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I’d missed out on the “Silver Age” of Comics by a few years, but the images Anderson created with Carmine Infantino in the ’60s for Batman and related characters were omnipresent well into the 70s.  So again I knew Anderson’s work long before I figured out who he was.

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One of the things that made me a “DC Kid” when most of my friends were Marvel Zombies was the more “polished,” elegant “house style” of DC art, which seemed tied to the tradition of classic magazine illustration, compared to the more hi-octane, cutting-edge Marvel style.  In retrospect probably the best exemplar of “DC polish” was Anderson, who paired with Swan created Norman Rockwell-like imagery of life “not as it is but as it ought to be.” More vitally, for me, he smoothed out the rough edges of artists like Infantino and Gil Kane; each were brilliant at drawing figures that conveyed power, speed and agility, but those figures were often saddled with faces too sharp-edged and stylized (even “cartoony” at times) for my taste.  If I had a criticism of Anderson, it was that when he did both pencils and inks, his figures could be a bit on the stiff, posed side, so when he was paired with Kane and Infantino, we got the best of both worlds; dynamic, kinetic figures but with added elegance and attractive faces.

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This ability to, let us say, tame the wilder tendencies of some artists led to Anderson’s most controversial gig, re-drawing faces of Superman family characters in Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics. Wooing Kirby away from Marvel was a coup for DC (although by the end, he couldn’t have needed much of a “push”), and for months his arrival was touted with house ads proclaiming “Kirby Is Coming!” But when he arrived, he seems to have been more than the company was ready for, so they covered up his signature style with something closer to what it was felt the DC readership would accept.

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This infamous editorial move is often cited as one of the many injustices done to Kirby by various publishers, though no one blames Anderson, who just did what he was told.  In all honesty, for me it worked.  I likely never would have pestered my folks to buy me Kirby-era issues of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” without the comforting presence of Anderson’s handsome Superman.   As it was, the books were already crammed with trippy psychadelic vistas and creepy creatures like “The Four-Armed Terror” that alternately intimated and thrilled grade-school me;  Anderson’s reassuring inks were like having a trusted parent along on a walk through a Halloween “haunted house.”

Over the years, almost every major DC character was drawn by Murphy Anderson, and they always looked the better for it.

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I never got to meet Mr Anderson personally (I missed my chance at a convention once, and I’m still kicking myself for it), but he had a big impact on my youth and helped spark a lifelong love of comics.  If nothing else, his consistently excellent artistic output ensures he’ll live on through his work, as long as classic old comics are reprinted.

RIP.

Hitting 50: Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD

fury_st135Fifty years ago this month, the world met Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.

Okay, so technically we’d already met Nick a couple years earlier as a tough-as-nails three-striper in “Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos,” but that book was set in World War II; now the character was being brought into the very-60s world of high-tech espionage to cash in on the spy craze then sweeping the entertainment world.  As writer/editor Stan Lee said in his 1975 book, Son of Origins, “We were going to out-Bond Bond and out-UNCLE UNCLE.”

Certainly in the pages of a comic book, where artist Jack Kirby’s boundless imagination could churn out gadgets and vehicles and massive secret facilities free from the constraints of a TV or movie production budget, that seemed like a goal they just might achieve, even if at first blush, Fury didn’t seem the superspy type.  Where James Bond and Napoleon Solo (and an-ever mounting number of competitors) tended to be impeccably dressed, highly cultured smoothies with expensive tastes in wine, women and cars, Fury was a working-class Joe who grew up on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen and remained, in 1965, essentially the same tough-talking, cigar-smoking roughneck he’d been on the battlefields of Europe.  With his tendency to bite the “g’s” off the ends of verbs while chomping on a stogie, he seemed closer in temperament to Lee Marvin than 007, and with Kirby drawing him, he could go for months without a proper shave.

But like most everything else from Marvel in this period, it worked.  It really was time for the comic industry to get its own superspy (why hadn’t someone thought of it before?) and Lee and Kirby delivered the goods in their patented, thrill-a-minute, out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire style.  One of them (probably Kirby) came up with the idea of giving Nick an eyepatch, which besides granting him an instantly recognizable “look” also added a sense of mystery and intrigue, like the guy in the Hathaway shirt ads (which may have inspired the move).  Immediately our interest is piqued: What happened to Nick during those “missing years” and how did he lose his eye? (He’d still had it as recently as Fantastic Four #21).

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Strange Tales #135 opens with Fury reclining in what looks like a hi-tech bathtub, as technicians take a cast of his body and warn him not to speak or even move, as it could prove deadly (yet they still let him smoke his cigar!). Quickly he learns the purpose of the procedure: a virtual army of automated simulacrums called Life Model Decoys (or LMDs) are being created from a mold of Fury’s body to act as decoys for enemy assassins.

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The LMDs will prove one of the most useful of all the gimmicks introduced in the series, as over the years Nick Fury will be “killed” in the pages of various comics, only to reappear later with the revelation that the victim was “only an LMD” (Dr Doom would pull the same gag repeatedly with his “Doombots.”)

Next up, Fury’s ushered into a sportscar filled with gadgets and weaponry to rival 007’s Aston Martin, but true to their promise to “out-Bond Bond,” Stan and Jack give this one a trick even Q can’t match.

fury_carThat’s right, this car can fly.  And fly it does, right up to the strip’s real show-stopper, a creation blending the superspy trifecta of gadget, vehicle and hi-tech headquarters in one massive Kirby masterpiece, the SHIELD helicarrier.

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Brought before a collection of high-ranking government officials and billionaire industrialist Tony (Iron Man) Stark, Fury is presented with a proposition: sign on as director of SHIELD (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division) and keep the world safe for democracy.  At first he demurs, but when his uncanny instinct for imminent danger, his ability to form and act on an instant plan of action and his natural command ability combine to save the assembly from a hidden bomb, everyone in the room, even Fury himself, knows SHIELD has found its leader.

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A mere 12 pages into the saga of SHIELD, a plethora of amazing creations have already been introduced, with many more in the pipeline, but ultimately the greatest invention is SHIELD itself.  With it, Marvel takes a major step forward in its efforts to weave a web that connects its full universe. With Tony Stark on board as SHIELD’s benefactor and tech provider, we have a link to Iron Man. Through Fury’s war career we have a tie to Captain America, who will operate as a quasi-agent for SHIELD as time goes on.  Over time, Nick will show up to advise, assist, irritate or harass every superhero group and loner in the Marvelverse as SHIELD extends its reach across borders and into people’s lives with “Big Brother” tactics so far-reaching and ubiquitous they make the NSA look like pikers.  Not that it isn’t handy having an omnipresent, international police force: When (I kid you not) Godzilla stomps his way into the Marvelverse the 70s, SHIELD steps in as the logical agency to deal with rampaging, giant lizards on a monthly basis.

In time, the real-life hi-jinks of the CIA and other intelligence agencies would cause us to look at espionage with a more jaded eye, and Nick would often be portrayed in a less sympathetic light, walking a thin line between all-knowing protector and Machiavellian schemer and sometimes coming down on the wrong side of that line.  I won’t even get into what his personal saga has devolved into in recent comics: Suffice to say any character strong enough to hang around for 50 years will eventually be rewarded with a hopelessly muddled continuity that sucks all the fun out of the original concept.

fury-jimnick-slurpeeBut in May of ’65, when Strange Tales #135 hit the stands, things were looking very bright for ol’ Nick.

They’d get even brighter in a few years when artist/writer Jim Steranko arrived to remake what had been essentially a plainclothes “war book” into something more sleek and stylish and “of the moment,” infusing innovative graphic design with a frequently psychadelic sensibility, and outfitting Nick in a tight-fitting tactical suit that brought him closer, visually, to his superhero brethren, thus opening the door to merchandising possibilities (Nick would eventually end up as an action figure, but when I was a kid we had to settle for a 7-11 Slurpee cup!)

Sadly, when Steranko left the strip, he took most readers with him, and Fury’s solo book was cancelled before it even hit issue 20.  But growing up in the 70s, I almost preferred it that way; Nick seemed to work better as a guest star, breezing into some other hero’s life when he was least expected, and always bringing with him excitement and intrigue.  More than once, I bought a comic I wouldn’t ordinarily have purchased (I’m looking at you, Spidey!) because I flipped through and saw Nick Fury was in town.

And why not?  Nick was always dependably Nick; timeless and dated all at once, a link to both the Swingin’ 60s and World War II, lugging around next year’s technology.  In army fatigues or a tech suit, on a halftrack or in a jetpack, battling Nazis or Hydra, he was always the same tough-talking, straight-shooting guy he’d ever been, the one constant in an ever-changing Marvelverse.

whattheUm, yeah.  Well, anyway…

I guess sooner or later, time changes all of us.

 

Hitting 50: The Super-Moby Dick of Space

adventure-332Even though I wouldn’t lay eyes on it until it was reprinted in the early 70s, the bizarre tale of the Super-Moby Dick of Space fist hit newsstands in March of 1965.  When I finally did get around to reading it, it left a whale of an impression.  Ahem.

This tale was probably my introduction to the Legion of Super-Heroes, the 30th Century club of super-powered, teen-aged champions of justice.  As one might expect when dealing with a team of teens, the strip was full of emotional drama drawing on themes of alienation, romantic longing, betrayal, rejection and hurt feelings.  But there were also surprisingly darker forays into profound loss and death.  For instance, Triplicate Girl could split into three copies of herself until the story where one of her selves was killed, necessitating a name change to “Duo Damsel.”  On another mission, founding member Lightning Lad was struck dead and stayed that way for several months, before being resurrected in a cycle that would come to define comics in the 70s and beyond, but was still fairly novel (if not pioneering) at this early stage.  As the years went on, other Legionnaires would die and stay dead, enough of them that their memorial statues would eventually fill a somber wing of the Legion clubhouse.  Compared to serving in, say, the Justice League, being in the Legion was a very dangerous proposition.

Here in Adventure Comics #332, poor old Lightning Lad gets the short of the stick again, losing an arm in a nod to “Captain Ahab’s” lost leg.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The story opens with a space-going ore ship attacked by an enormous creature.  In a typical example of Silver Age DC dialog that turns even the most casual utterance into ponderous exposition, one of the crew says, “That colossal space-beast! No one has ever seen anything like it before!”

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While tooling around in his Legion cruiser, Lightning Lad intercepts a distress call from the survivors of the attack and races to the scene.  Zapping the creature with his lightning powers, he finds his own bolts reflected right back at him, only with an added tinge of poison.  His right arm takes the bolts full on, then grows painful and turns green (never a good sign).  The surgeon/scientist called in to help him is forced to amputate Lightning Lad’s arm to save his life.

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Waking to find his arm replaced by a metallic prosthesis (apparently 30th-century medicine has regressed somewhat since Steve Austin’s bionic heyday), Lightning Lad vows to find the Super-Moby Dick and kill it.  As this would constitute a violation of the Legion’s code against killing, his fellow heroes race to find the beast first and neutralize its threat in a non-lethal fashion.  Superboy goes first, but has to retreat when he finds the creature is exuding Kryptonite radiation (naturally).  Then it’s up to Ultra-Boy, a personal favorite of mine due to the novel nature of his powers: basically he has all the powers of Superboy, but he can only use one at a time.  So it is that to use his super-strength against the Super-Moby Dick, he has to turn off his invulnerability, meaning he needs a space suit to survive in the vacuum of space.

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Note artist John Forte draws the creature smaller here than at the start of the story.  This is one of the many quirks of Forte’s art; objects and characters change scale constantly to suit his needs.  Here it’s a more dramatic difference than usual, as “Moby” goes from the size of an aircraft carrier to that of a crosstown bus.

When Ultra-Boy, too, fails in his solo mission, it’s time for an organized assault.  Lightning Lad claims the right of leadership based on a Legion by-law that says the member most familiar with a threat should lead the team that faces it.  But for him, it’s very much personal.

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Now we veer a bit into “Caine Mutiny” territory as the Legionnaires begin to fear for Lightning Lad’s sanity, with his growing obsession turning him into a tyrant.  Pursuit of the creature takes the team to a populated asteroid where the humanoid inhabitants have mineral-based flesh, making them likely snacks for the metal-eating Super-Moby Dick.  Superboy and Colossal Boy sneak off to try their own assault on the beast, but fail at the last moment as Lightning Lad arrives to chew them out and scares off Moby with the noise of his rocketship.

Finally, the team has had enough and holds a formal meeting to remove Lightning Lad from command, but while the others meet, he sneaks off and confronts the creature alone.  The other heroes arrive just in time to see him launch a lightning-powered attack, this time with his electrical bolts greatly amplified by a device in his new metal arm.  Under this onslaught, however, the Super-Moby Dick is not killed, but instead is reduced to tiny size, and Lightning Lad reveals this was in fact his true intent.  It turns out that in an exchange neither the team nor we readers were allowed to witness, the doctor who gave LL his new arm, and who has been traveling with the team this whole time, confessed he was responsible for this whole sorry mess, having performed an experiment on a tiny ore-eating creature that increased it from harmless lizard-size into full-on Godzilla proportions.

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Of course, Lightning Lad couldn’t just TELL his teammates that he intended to shrink, not kill the beast, because then where would we get our drama?  In retrospect, this is probably the most interesting aspect of the whole story: the fact that the central concern is not so much the threat to life and property posed by the Super Moby Dick, and how to stop it, but rather the disturbing prospect that Lightning Lad may have lost his marbles.  This is because more than most — and arguably any — DC comics of the period, the Legion of Super-Heroes revolved around relationships, or more specifically the constant fear that relationships will be shattered; friendship ended, love lost, “that old gang of mine” broken up.  And as this example shows, generating all that angst often meant straining credulity with highly contrived and implausible plot twists.  It’s also interesting to note that the main focus of the Legion here is less “how do we get rid of this monster” than it is “how do we keep Lightning Lad from killing it?”, which strikes me as fairly progressive for the time.

Not that any of that mattered to me when I first read it.  No, what stuck with the young me was the powerful image of that reptilian, winged “whale” with the angry face, flying around and eating everything in sight (and the fact that it was drawn in Forte’s bizarre, cartoony style just made it more creepy, not less).  That, and the disturbing loss of Lightning Lad’s right arm; “not a hoax, not a dream,” this was a very real maiming of a core character, and a change to the status quo (well, at least for a couple of years, until a scientist found a way to grow the kid a new, living arm).  Interestingly, considering how unhinged it left him at first, Lightning Lad is pretty laid back about his lost arm by story’s end.

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The writer for this story was Edmund Hamilton, my favorite Superman writer of the Silver Age and author of numerous great science fiction short stories and novels.  He may have been onto something, as Melville’s Moby Dick would prove highly adaptable to science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular.  In the Original Series episode “The Doomsday Machine” a haunted and deranged Starship captain loses his own ship to a mechanized space leviathan and nearly sacrifices the Enterprise, as well.  In “Obsession”, it’s Captain Kirk’s turn to play Ahab as he chases a cloud-based creature through space while his crew begins to wonder if he’s gone off his nut.  And in the film, The Wrath of Khan, the titular villain not only quotes Melville’s novel but does so in a way that suggests he understands and accepts that he’s playing the Ahab role, pursuing an obsession that will probably — and indeed eventually does — lead him to ruin.  (His last words, directed at Kirk, are a quote from the novel: “…To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” ) A generation later, on a later iteration of the Enterprise, Captain Picard’s bloodlust toward the Borg is only cooled when someone compares him to Ahab.  Realizing to his horror it’s an apt comparison, Picard quotes another passage (“And he piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.“)

Obviously the epic nature of the Moby Dick tale is a perfect match for space opera, and the Legion of Super-Heroes milks it pretty thoroughly here.  All in all, it was a pretty powerful introduction to the Legion, and the probable genesis of my long-lasting fascination with the team , despite — or maybe because of — those utterly daft images of a grumpy-faced fish-lizard, flying through space on little, red bat wings.