Hitting 50: Help!

Help!, the Beatles’ second motion picture, arrived in American theaters fifty years ago this month.  Like its predecessor A Hard Day’s Night, it was directed by Richard Lester and featured a number of new songs, a frantic pace and screwball humor, with the Fab Four playing a fictionalized version of themselves.  But where the first film was filmed in black and white, lending an almost documentary feel to the proceedings, Help! made the transition to living color and full-blown fantasy.

In fact color very much defines the look of the film, as the previous film’s city-bound and overcast “all England” locations give way to the blue skies and wide open locations in the Austrian Alps and the sunny Bahamas, and interior shots feature sets with brightly painted walls and lit with color gels.   Under cinematographer David Watkins, color practically becomes another character in the film.

 
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The plot, such as it is, centers on a ring that’s being sought both by members of an Indian cult and a pair of British mad scientists, but which is currently stuck on the finger of our favorite drummer, Ringo.  Beyond that basic notion, it’s mostly just an hour and a half of musical performances, slapstick comedy and pretty locations, strung together in just-short-of-random fashion.

The lads continue to demonstrate a flair for comedy, even if their accents and rapid-fire delivery can sometimes make the dialog a challenge for these American ears to follow.  Ringo probably fares best, especially in a scene where he explains to an incredulous police inspector that the cultists want to paint him red so he be sacrificed to their god.  “It’s a different religion from ours,” he says.  “I think.”

Just in case anyone’s still taking things seriously, at one point Paul is accidentally shrunk down to do doll size and has an “adventure on the floor.”  And hang on, girls: when he shrinks, his clothes are left behind!

 

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Cannily, the gag-a-minute approach only requires the stars to remember a few lines at a time, with the lion’s share of the work falling to the editors and post-production wizards to make it all somehow gel as a film.  And that’s a good thing, as all four of the Beatles later admitted they were usually too stoned to focus on much of anything during production, and even the shortest scene could take all day to capture between giggle fits.  Anyway, the genius of making the whole thing a madcap lark is that it almost renders criticism impossible.  “But it’s all so illogical!”  Yes, that’s what we were going for.  “Nothing makes any sense!”  Yep, that’s the idea.  And admittedly, it does kind of work. Films built around pop stars always involve ridiculous detours into the fantastic as characters suddenly break into song with mysterious instrumental accompaniment wafting in magically from somewhere off-camera (Heaven?) .  But whereas in the Elvis movies that just felt like a bizarre, almost supernatural interlude in an otherwise conventional romance or adventure, here launching into a spontaneous performance on electric instruments in the middle of a pasture, on a ski slope or on a beach is no more or less insane than anything else that happens.

 

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In about a year’s time, the Monkees would borrow this approach of stitching together short, comedic scenes shot in multiple locations with “concept” musical performances and build a TV show around it, becoming something of a popular sensation and earning more fan mail than any performers on the tube (though Mr Spock and Ilya Kuryakin gave them a run for their money).  Also in its no-holds barred use of garish color, Help!‘s inspiration is seen in shows like Batman, also a year away at this point.

There are three sequences that always stick out for me. One is our first look at the Beatles’ London flat(s).  In this fictionalized version of their lives, they all live happily together in a giant space that’s part swingin’ bachelor pad and part carnival funhouse (and which they’re able to casually enter and exit without being mobbed by throngs of screaming girls).

In a neat touch, the music stand on the electric organ is filled not with sheet music but with vintage issues of Action, Jimmy Olsen and Superman comics (I look at exactly which ones here).

The next wild scene comes when the lads try to travel incognito to the Bahamas, arriving at the airport in disguises designed to look ridiculously over-the-top but which, amazingly, end up closely mirroring the looks the Beatles will grow into in just a few years time.  Well, at least in the case of John, George and Ringo, anyway.    Paul just looks like he’s impersonating Eric Idle.

 

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The other amazing scene comes in the Bahamas, when George rides on the back of the villains’ car in what strikes me as a fairly dangerous stunt.  In the Beatles Anthology book, George notes in surprised hindsight that the Fab Four were plopped onto skiis for the Austrian scenes and simply told to perform, despite having no experience whatever on skiis.  His point was that no one seemed overly concerned at the prospect of one or more of the films’ stars ending up seriously injured.  If anything, the car stunt is even more outrageous; from what I can tell that’s really George on the trunk as the car careens down a mountain road at a not inconsiderable rate of speed.

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George doesn’t mention this stunt in Anthology, but he does note that the film provided his first introduction to Indian culture, a development that would have a huge influence in his life and music, and eventually, if briefly, lead all four Beatles to explore transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Also interesting for me as a 007 fan is the influence of the Bond films, starting with composer Ken Thorne’s homage to the famous Bond theme (tacked on to the start of the title song, at least on the “Red Album”).  Goldfinger had exploded onto pop culture just a year earlier and was likely still in release as Help! was being filmed.  In one scene where the femme fatale tries to remove the ring from the finger of a slumbering Ringo, the accompanying music is clearly inspired by John Barry’s Goldfinger score, specifically the scene where Bond finds the late Jill Masterson covered in gold paint.   And in a “blink and you’ll miss it” gag, one of the villains doffs his headgear and throws it at someone, adding his own “swisshhh!” sound effect to mimic Oddjob’s deadly bowler.  However, as the “headgear” in this case is a turban, it merely unravels en route and falls to the floor.

As a film, I have to agree with the consensus that Help! is inferior to A Hard Day’s Night, and the first time I saw it, it didn’t really hold my attention to the end.  But as time goes on and 1965 slips further into antiquity, I think it takes on a greater value as a sort of filmic time capsule.  It’s got a lot of great footage of the young Beatles near the end of their “moptop” phase, the groovy fashions, interior designs and vehicles of the mid-60s, a few really clever gags and, of course, plenty of awesome music.  Also, taken in the context of the times, it takes a fairly ingenious approach to the old problem of how to make a movie starring non-actors.  Probably its greatest charm is that it presents the Beatles not quite as they were, but as we liked to imagine them; witty and carefree, shuttling around the world from one romp to the next, all living happily together in one groovy flat and prone to breaking spontaneously into song.

Verdict: Still looking Fab at 50

 

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: Emma Peel

emma-knife2It’s hard to believe I share a birth year with Emma Peel, but that’s probably because I made my 1965 debut as an infant, while Emma showed up fully grown.  And rather nicely so, at that.

For the uninitiated, Mrs Emma Peel was the female half of The Avengers, the British dynamic duo that debuted on American airwaves in 1965 (even though the show had been around, with a different female lead, for a couple seasons already in the U.K.). Legend has it the character’s name derived from the writers’ shorthand description of what the still-in-development character was to bring to the show: “Man Appeal” or “M. Appeal.”  This she delivered in spades, as legions of male admirers could attest.

I was a late joiner to those legions, having had to wait until the early 90s before I could finally see the show on cable’s A&E Network.  Until then, my exposure to the The Avengers concept was limited to The New Avengers, a short-lived, Emma-less revival in the late 70s that aired on the CBS Late Movie on Friday nights.  Suffice to say it wasn’t the same.

If ever a show was tailored to my oddball sensibilities, The Avengers was it.  At its center was the cool and quirky superspy John Steed (Patrick Macnee), who worked for a mysterious arm of British intelligence and came equipped with a sword-umbrella and a bowler hat with a steel crown good for konking foes on the noggin.  Like James Bond and other 60’s favorites Jonny Quest and The Wild Wild West, this was “spy” fare only in the 60’s pop culture sense; not political intrigue or anything remotely close to real-life espionage, but fantastic and fanciful battles with diabolical masterminds and their nefarious (if preposterous) schemes against mother England and the world. Episodes from the 1965 season involved robotic assassins, telepaths, weather-controlling devices, enemy submarines parked in Scottish lochs and man-eating plants from outer space.  Things would get even crazier the next year, with the addition of color.

duo4Also, for a confirmed Anglophile like myself, the show offered an idealized, fairy tale version of England, from a travel brochure-worthy London to gorgeous country estates, and populated with all manner of delightful eccentrics daft enough to make Steed, with all his affectations, seem positively normal in comparison.

Well, perhaps not normal, as Steed is held up repeatedly within the context of the show as the very exemplar of all that is British, what with his impeccable manners, his mastery of all things sartorial and culinary and his ability to handle any danger with imperturbable calm and wit.

And then there was Mrs Peel, in the (pleasing) form of Diana Rigg. Smart and capable, fearless and intrepid…and far from incidentally, quite lovely.  Where Steed represented the best of English tradition, Emma represented the future, with her trendy outfits and progressive attitudes.  And of course the “Mrs” signaled she was a widow, with all the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” connotations that would have carried back in the day.   No mere “damsel in distress,” she was Steed’s equal in most respects, and his superior in others: accomplished artist, karate expert, crack shot, CEO of a major corporation; there was nothing she couldn’t do.  For every baddie Steed clobbered, Emma probably took out three.  When, in “The Masterminds,” the pair needs to infiltrate an exclusive club of geniuses, Emma passes the entry test with ease, while Steed only squeaks by because he cheats, with her help.

But lest the show be interpreted as outright propaganda for the Women’s Lib movement, it should be noted that few opportunities were missed to exploit Emma’s sex appeal, as she ended up clad in the flimsiest of outfits on the flimsiest of excuses, from leather catsuits to mini-skirts to bikinis to harem girl costumes and the like.  In later episodes, she would favor tight-fitting body suits known as “Emmapeelers,” often with holes artfully cut out to display flesh.  In the infamous “Touch of Brimstone” episode, she’s put in a black teddy with high-heel boots and a spiked dog collar, and attacked by a whip-wielding villain.  Apoplectic American network executives pulled that one from broadcast (but, it was rumored, enjoyed it privately at their Christmas parties).

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Steed’s previous partner had been Mrs. Cathy Gale, in the person of actress Honor Blackman.  Partial to leather outfits and adept at tossing bad guys across the room with her judo prowess, she made a huge impact on pop culture in the U.K. before leaving the show to take a step up (or down, depending on your point of view) to the role of “Pussy Galore” opposite Sean Connery’s James Bond in Goldfinger.  Unfortunately for her, this move came at the same time production of The Avengers transitioned from videotape to film, enabling its export to America, where a new, larger audience would assume Emma Peel was the first to knock down a lot of gender barriers that Cathy Gale had in fact already shattered.

merryquipsThat said, Emma brought something new to the mix in the form of warmth and humor and a genuine affection for Steed.  Where Mrs Gale’s relationship to Steed was often adversarial and prickly, Mrs Peel’s was cozier and more openly flirty.  For instance, there was the scene in “Death At Bargain Prices” where Emma goes undercover as a department store salesperson and Steed shows up as a “customer:”

STEED: “I asked the chief predator where to find you.  He said, ‘our Mrs Peel is in Ladies’ Underwear.’ I rattled up the stairs three at a time!”

EMMA: “Merry quips department on the fifth floor, sir.”

There’s certainly an attraction between these two, but they handle it the same way they handle all those insidious death traps, or the alarmingly frequent discovery of corpses in unexpected places: with breezy wit.  Fans watch closely for hints of what might have gone on between scenes (“Did they or didn’t they?”) and a certain current of romantic tension does add to the show’s charm (YouTube is rife with fan films accentuating their “special moments” to the accompaniment of various schmaltzy tunes).  But unlike, say, Moonlighting, Remington Steele or other shows that mix romance and crime-solving, with The Avengers it was never more than a subtext, very much secondary (at best) to whatever evil plot was unfolding, and never more than friendly flirting.  Thus, happily, we never reached the dead end we did with those other shows when the relationships eventually, inevitably passed the point of no return.  We never had to endure a scene where Mrs Peel said, “We need to talk about us…”

That said, it’s no less heartbreaking when, out of the blue, the presumed-dead Mr Peter Peel shows up very much alive and (understandably) wants his wife back.   Steed gets a last, chaste kiss (on the cheek!) and then Emma’s out of his flat, and his life, crossing paths on the stairway with the next girl in line, Tara King (Linda Thorson).

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But while on screen Emma was rejoining her husband, in real life Diana Rigg, like Honor Blackman before her, was leaving Steed for James Bond (that bounder!).  As the Countess Teresa deVincenzo alias Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, she would present us with arguably the most important woman in 007’s life, and the only one who could get him to walk the aisle.  Alas, Bond isn’t the domestic type, so she also ends up dead in the end (Oops! Spoilers!).  Often, the “Bond girl” roles went to freshly discovered ingenues whose primary “qualifications” involved certain body measurements, but with a new and untried actor (George Lazenby) as Bond, and given the comparative gravitas inherent in the Tracy role, casting a known draw and proven talent like Ms Rigg made sense.

It might have worked too well. In his 1973 book, “James Bond Diary,” Roger Moore recalled attending a private screening of OHMSS hosted by Bond producer Harry Saltzman:  “When the lights came up, Harry said, ‘Well, what do you think of my new monster?’ Bob Goldstein, a Hollywood producer present, said ‘You made a mistake, Harry. You should have killed him and saved her.'”

Tracy would cast a long shadow, her marriage to Bond being one of the very few “canon” events in the series’ history, alluded to in the films of two (arguably 3) subsequent lead actors.  Meanwhile, Diana Rigg (now Dame Diana Rigg) would go on to more triumphs and remains in the spotlight at age 76 thanks to her award-winning performances on Game of Thrones.

Our Emma, though, would remain untouched by age or mortality.  She’s preserved forever as we last saw her, on the stairs of Steed’s flat, in her trendy outfit and with that ever-present air of casual confidence and good humor.  On her way out, she leaves Steed (and us) with the reminder to “Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds.”

Words to live by.

Hitting 50: Jimmy Olsen vs. Captain America in 1965

To my eye, there’s little if any difference between Marvel and DC Comics today, but in 1965 the difference was fairly pronounced.  Two books on the stands in April of that year, DC’s Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Marvel’s Tales Of Suspense, provide a good example of what I mean.jimmyvscap
The mere fact that DC even published a book devoted to the likes of Jimmy Olsen, a lowly “cub reporter” and goofball sidekick to Superman, is testament to the company’s then-dominance of the comics industry, albeit a dominance already beginning to erode and soon to slip irretrievably away.  Superman in 1965 was the 800-pound gorilla of the superhero crowd; having conquered television, cartoons and radio, and proving a merchandising cash cow for DC, he was featured in numerous monthly and bi-monthly comic titles plus various spin-offs, all of which sold like hotcakes, so why not a book for that hanger-on Jimmy as well?

Meanwhile, just down the street, rival Marvel Comics was making waves with its stable of unconventional, even oddball superheroes.  By 1965 the “House of Ideas” was at the crest of a four-year hot streak where almost every new character and concept it introduced met with success.  And yet during those early years, Marvel’s line of books was decidedly smaller than DC’s, in part because of an odd arrangement where DC actually controlled the distribution of Marvel comics.  So it was that while a mere sidekick like Jimmy Olsen rated his own book at “too big to fail” DC, Marvel A-listers Captain America and Iron Man had to share space in a single title, Tales of Suspense, itself a leftover from the “sci-fi/horror” period that preceded the superhero revival.

So, let’s look at April ’65.

Jimmy Olsen #85 features three stories, starting with “Love Me, Love My Beast,” in which a beautiful girl from outer space lands in Metropolis and takes a fancy to Jimmy.  Unfortunately, so does her “pet,” Gnor, a huge, shaggy creature led around by the girl (Shara) on a leash.

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Jimmy is chosen to be Shara’s guide and companion on Earth, which suits him fine until he realizes that wherever Shara goes, Gnor goes, too. Though creepy (and one suspects, smelly), Gnor has the seemingly magical ability to make “wishes” come true, which leads to all sorts of “funny” mishaps.

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Eventually, Jimmy’s sort-of girlfriend Lucy Lane goes to warn Shara to keep her hands off “her man,” but finds Shara near death in her spaceship.  Fading fast, Shara admits she is not a real girl but an android, and that Gnor is draining her life energy from her via the “leash” around his neck.  Since Shara’s nearly out of energy, Jimmy’s been selected as Gnor’s next “owner”/victim…and he’s already holding the leash.  Of course Jimmy’s the last one to figure this all out, so Lucy Lane and Superman work together to get him off the hook.  Disguising himself as crackpot inventor Professor Potter, Superman “accidentally” exposes Jimmy to an “age accelerator” that leaves him aged and nearly without energy, so Gnor instinctively transfers his “leash” to the most energy-filled person in the room, Superman.  This turns out to be a bad move, as Superman has too much energy, and, unable to handle the super-transfusion Gnort blows up.

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Note that this outcome was Superman’s intent all along, reminding us once again that Superman never, ever kills…except when he does.  I still haven’t figured out why they made Shara an android, though.  I can only imagine that an editor somewhere thought it would be too traumatizing to kids if a real, live girl were to die in the story, but if she’s really just an android, then who cares if her energy is almost gone?  All she has to do is recharge her batteries and everyone’s happy, right?

Story number two is “The Adventures of Chameleon-Head Olsen,” which I reviewed in detail on my old Superman site.  Here’s the gist: Jimmy is given a potion that allows him use the shape-changing powers of Chameleon Boy, but he only manages to drink enough to change his head.  If that concept sounds funny to you, you’re the target audience of writer Jerry Siegel, who seems determined to single-handedly bring back Vaudeville with his ham-fisted puns and dopey sight gags.

Finally, in “King Olsen’s Private Island,”  Jimmy saves the life of an eccentric sea captain who’s discovered a new, if tiny, island and has had himself declared its ruler/owner.  When the captain is later lost at sea, Jimmy is named in the will as the island’s new owner.  In the Daily Planet helicopter, Jimmy takes Lois, Lucy and Perry White with him to check the place out, and finds, among other things, an underground treasure room full of golden artifacts. Based on this sudden change in social status, Jimmy declares himself king of the island and orders everyone else to leave.

When Lois and Lucy return a few days later expecting Jimmy to have come to his senses, they find the opposite is true.

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Superman returns from a mission in space and tries to talk some sense into Jimmy, but his “pal” forbids him to set foot on the island, launching kryptonite at him with a catapult.  Around this time, the “dead” sea captain emerges from the ocean and reveals himself to be a space alien.  It turns out he only pretended to be a human sea captain so he could “will” the island to Jimmy, knowing Superman would eventually come to visit and thus fall into a trap: One of the golden artifacts in the island’s subterranean treasure room is made from Gold Kryptonite, which will take away Superman’s powers forever.  Luckily, Jimmy noticed the object weighed far too much to be made of Earthly gold and, based on that one clue, figured out the whole convoluted plot.  So he only acted like a jerk as part of his master plan to save his pal.

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So, to recap:  Jimmy alienated all his friends so they would tell Superman he was being a jerk, so Superman would come to the island, so Jimmy could launch a bunch of kryptonite rocks, which Superman would be sure to verify the atomic structure of using his super vision. And of course Superman would decide to inspect the ONE rock that Jimmy wrote a message on.  A microscopic message. Written with…um…a microscopic Sharpie?  Or something.  Because all of that makes more sense than simply going back to Metropolis and meeting Superman when he returns to Earth and checks in at the Daily Planet…which is the first thing he does, by the way…and saying, “Hey, Superman, don’t go to that new island, because there’s gold kryptonite there.”  Okay…

So anyway, that’s what’s happening at DC this month in 1965.  Meanwhile, over in Tales of Suspense #67, Captain America rates a mere 8 pages to Jimmy’s 24, and is relegated to the back of the book, surrendering the front spot, and 60% of the cover, to Iron Man.  We join the Sentinel of Liberty mid-way through a three-part tale revealing the origin of Nazi super-villain the Red Skull.  Page one throws us into the middle of the action as Cap trains with a crack team of Nazi agents in preparation for a top secret mission.

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That’s right, I said trains with Nazis. At the end of the previous chapter, Cap was brainwashed by the Red Skull to serve the Axis powers.  Now he’s conducting a practice run for the assassination of a high-ranking American military official.  Oh, Cap, say it ain’t so!

Meanwhile, Cap’s sidekick Bucky is stuck in a P.O.W. camp, where the Nazis have obligingly let him keep on his costume and mask but otherwise are making life miserable, as Nazis will do.  Bucky and his fellow prisoners are dragged out before a firing squad but find it’s just psychological warfare, as the Germans have loaded their rifles with blanks.  You know, just to keep everyone in a state of terror and hopelessness.  Except Bucky’s no dummy, and realizes that if the Germans’ guns aren’t loaded, they’ll be…well… a lot easier to beat (Oops.  “You said this plan was foolproof!  Shultz, you dumkopf!”)

Bucky may not get the press Robin does, but he proves why he’s comics’ baddest sidekick by pulling no punches.  Batarang, nothin’. Here, have a hand grenade!

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Tickled with his triumph over Captain America, the Red Skull takes the brainwashed hero to meet Der Fuhrer himself.  In a neat sequence, Lee and Kirby show Hitler as a sniveling coward, intimidated by his own lacky the Red Skull and mortally terrified of Cap.  When he tries to slip in a sucker punch, we get proof positive that Cap can beat Hitler even in his sleep.

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Cap and the Nazis parachute to their mission of murder.  At the last minute, Cap’s willpower keeps him from killing his assigned victim, but the Nazis force him to follow through.  Or do they?  We’ll have to tune in next month to know for sure.

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So to recap; 24 pages of fake-outs and vaudeville gags with Jimmy Olsen versus 8 pages of non-stop action and mayhem with Cap.  Both books feature “out of character” behavior as a plot hook, but Jimmy’s just pretending to be a jerk as part of a complex hoax, leading the reader to wonder merely (if they care at all), “gee, why is he being such a jerk THIS month?” whereas Cap has been brainwashed into betraying his core beliefs, missing a chance to wring Hitler’s neck and…perhaps…committing a traitorous act of murder.  Only one approach generates suspense.

Granted, in 1965 DC was putting out more creative plots and stylish artwork in books like Green Lantern and the Flash, but in a way I think it’s more revealing to compare what the companies were doing in these “lower tier” books.  DC is happy to stick with formula and tradition, churning out stories that could just as easily have appeared ten years earlier (indeed, there is the distinct feeling that Jimmy Olsen is routinely assembled using “inventory” material of indeterminate age), while Marvel is more “in the moment” and improvisational, adopting the old Hertz slogan of “We’re number 2 so we try harder.”  As a result, both Cap and Iron Man will eventually spin out of Tales of Suspense into their own solo books, while Jimmy’s sales will slide steadily downhill until, in 1970, he gets a major revamp courtesy of, ironically, Jack Kirby.  Not that this will help much, either.

Anyway, that’s what was on the stands in April ’65, the year I made my debut on planet Earth.  Obviously my comic reading days were still a few years away at this point, but I suspect if I’d been able to plunk down 12 cents on one of these books, it would’ve been Jimmy Olsen, in spite of everything.  I was a square from Day One.

 

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.