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.

Hitting 50: Wally Wood’s Daredevil

dd7Fifty years ago this month, fans of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil (assuming there were any) found a surprise on the cover of issue #7: a whole new look for the world’s greatest blind superhero courtesy of artist Wally Wood.

Daredevil had been launched the year before in a fairly obvious attempt to duplicate the huge success of The Amazing Spider-Man, and indeed the new book was kind of, sort of like the one headlined by the celebrated wall-crawler, only without the cool costume, memorable villains, exciting artwork, interesting plots, sense of humor or general spirit of innovation.  It was, in a nutshell, a sorry mess of a comic that hobbled along for four uninspired issues before the reigns were handed to plotter/artist Wally Wood, a terrifically talented veteran of EC Comics and past collaborator with Jack Kirby on DC’s “Challengers of the Unknown” and the “Sky Masters” newspaper strip.

For his first two issues, Wood did what he could with Daredevil’s original costume, which, like the rest of the feature, was a half-hearted affair; yellow tights with black trunks, boots and gloves and up top — just to ruin anything close to a clean design — a black wife-beater emblazoned with a capital letter “D.”  You know, for “Daredevil.”  A devil’s-head or some other demonic symbol would’ve been more eye-catching, but in 1964 maybe it would have also been controversial.  Anyway, a pair of horns on Daredevil’s yellow cowl were a nod to the “devil” angle.  The eyeholes, meanwhile, were solid black, threatening to ruin the one thing DD did have going for him; a rock-solid secret ID as a blind attorney.

Yellow isn’t often chosen as the predominant hue for superhero costumes, and this one showed why.  Indeed, in Daredevil’s case it makes no sense on any level.  It isn’t a color anyone really associates with “devils” and considering the character is billed as “The Man Without Fear,” it seems totally counter-intuitive to dress him in the one color that’s synonymous with cowardice.  However, in a way the outfit did make sense in that you could easily believe a blind man put it together.

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Upon his arrival with issue #5, Wood immediately began tweaking the costume, rounding off the gloves and the wife-beater’s collar and changing the chest emblem to a pair of interlocking D’s.  With issue #7 he went whole hog and gave Matt Murdock the first real break he’d ever had, streamlining the entire outfit in head-to-toe crimson, removing the extra lines created by the old trunks and tank top and creating a sleek new form that finally reflected the nimble, gymnastic nature of the character while also providing the vaguely satanic connotations his name had always suggested.

I don’t want to give the impression that an attractive costume is all it takes to make a character work, or indeed that the only thing wrong with Daredevil up til now had been the artwork.  But with Wood at the art board, things finally began to fall into place; Matt Murdock and his love interest Karen Page looked glamorous and elegant, people began moving naturally, even gracefully, and places and objects became more solid and real.

Just to give an indication of how dire things had been, consider this pre-Wood sequence from Daredevil #2, wherein our hero takes on a ring of car thieves with a…well, let’s say unique battle plan.

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That’s right, with a truck bearing down on him at top speed, Daredevil somehow stretches a tire around a car engine, lifts said engine, lies down with the engine on his chest and uses the tire like a giant rubber band to launch the engine at the truck. Keep in mind Daredevil’s only super-powers are a heightened sense of smell, hearing, taste and touch and a “radar sense” that lets him detect objects around him in much the way a bat uses its “sonar.”  There are never any claims he has super-strength, but even if he did, this maneuver is strictly the stuff of Bugs Bunny cartoons.   If an eight-year-old included this sequence in a homemade comic, it’d be cute, but here it’s just pathetic (besides, what 8-year-old would draw that poorly?)

Admittedly, things weren’t always THAT bad, but this sequence symbolizes the lack of attention or effort given to these early issues.  The general impression is that Daredevil’s being ignored in favor of big guns like The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man; his creative team seems to be just churning out a by-the-numbers comic without any emotional or mental involvement whatever, sometimes apparently not even sure which character they’re working on and what exactly he can and can’t do. Once Wood arrives, the dramatic improvement in art alone reassures us that finally someone actually cares.

So anyway, after two issues of fighting forgettable menaces like The Matador and Mr Fear, things are ramped up considerably in Issue 7 with the arrival of Prince Namor, aka the Sub-Mariner.  Aside from a comedic cameo by the Fantastic Four in issue 3, this is the closest thing to an “A-Lister” we’ve seen in these pages yet.

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In one of those kooky plot points typical of early Marvel, Namor’s decided that before simply taking over the surface world by force, he’ll try filing a legal claim, suing the entire human race.  So he picks a law firm at random and ends up, naturally, at the offices of Nelson and Murdock.  Matt and Foggy try to explain to Namor the impossibility of his plan, so Namor decides there’s one sure way to have his day in court: trash the city until he’s arrested and brought before a judge.  Daredevil tries to stop him, but Round 1 does not go well, and it’s only through the good sportsmanship of Namor that our hero avoids death by drowning.

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Namor does get his day in court, but the wheels of justice grind slowly and the Atlantean prince isn’t famous for his patience.  Soon enough he escapes court custody and gets back to his campaign of mayhem, and the U.S. Army is mobilized to battle him on the streets of New York.  Knowing such a conflict could lay waste to much of the city and lead to untold casualties, Daredevil convinces the troops to give him a chance to stop Namor first.  And so the decidedly lopsided contest resumes for a couple more rounds, with Daredevil using brainwork and acrobatic skills to avoid being demolished by Namor’s superior strength, while employing any weapon at hand (including a fleet of construction vehicles and heavy machinery) to deliver blows which Namor shrugs off with ease.  At one point, DD lassoes Namor but gets more than he bargained for when the Sub-Mariner takes flight, leading to this interesting tactic that brings him back down to Earth.

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This was where I first learned that those little ankle wings were what gave Namor the power of flight.  It’s one of those examples of kooky Golden Age “logic” they usually tried to avoid mentioning in the Marvel Age.  Anyway, as the fight goes on longer than Namor ever imagined possible, he alternates between angry irritation and a growing, grudging respect for this hopelessly outclassed opponent who nonetheless just refuses to give up.  When Daredevil tries one last desperate gambit, jolting Namor with live electrical wires from a broken lamppost, the Sub-Mariner is only briefly dazed, but DD goes down for the count.

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Finally, out of respect for his opponent’s valor, Namor avoids further conflict with the surface world’s military forces and returns to Atlantis, putting off his vengeance for another day.

One of the cool things about Marvel heroes is that they were allowed to lose from time to time, and in my opinion it never worked better than it does here.  Daredevil never has a chance against an opponent of Namor’s might, but that doesn’t stop him from giving everything he has.  Finally we’re getting something to hang our hats on, some indication of what it is that makes Daredevil special.  Up ’til now, he’s been doing pretty much what any non-powered hero could do (except for that bit with the engine) and the only “hook” has the “irony” angle: “I wonder what they’d say if they knew a blind man was doing this!”  Now we see that what defines Daredevil is his indomitable will, his refusal to ever give up.  Being the “Man Without Fear” doesn’t mean he’s never scared, it means he never lets his fear stop him from doing what he knows must be done. It’s a trait he’ll call upon frequently as he pursues a career as an essentially non-powered player in a game made for supermen, gods and monsters.   Here, Daredevil’s “mere mortal” status is what brings him (very painful) “victory”: if he’d had super-strength or other powers, the fight would’ve dragged on and torn up the city and the outcome still would have been in doubt.  As it stands, he takes one for the team (or the city, anyway), and finds the one way to make Namor stand down.

This brings up another neat angle of the Marvel Age:  if you substituted any two other characters in this scenario, it might have all played out very differently, but Daredevil and the Sub-Mariner have very distinct personalities that drive the story in the direction it’s meant to go:  Matt Murdock is a man of courage and will, and Namor is a man of nobility and honor, and mixed together this is what results.  By accenting the clash of wills and personalities rather than muscles and powers, the story is elevated to something more interesting than a comparatively “even” match between Namor and, say, the Hulk.  For Marvel, the problem has always been “how do we find a way to pit two heroes against each other without one of them ending up the loser?”  This story remains their most elegant solution to that quandry: Daredevil wins by losing.

Which is not to say that everything is honkey-dorey from here on in.  The next issue brings us another D-List villain, the infamous Stiltman, then we get a two-parter with the combined “might” of Ape Man, Cat Man, Bird Man and Frog Man (!) and then Wood is gone.  The art will reach a few more high points later at the hands of John Romita and Gene Colan, but the stories will rarely be any great shakes, and for the most part DD will labor on as a mediocre also-ran until Frank Miller shows up in the early 80s, bringing a mix of Eisner-esque storytelling techniques, Mickey Spillane toughness and kung-fu, ninja hi-jinks to finally elevate our hero into the big leagues.  Still, it’s hard to imagine our boy Matt lasting that long without the boost he got from Wally Wood at this crucial, early stage.

 

 

 

Hitting 50: Strange Tales #131

Well, I guess it happens to all of us sooner or later (if we’re lucky):  this is the year I hit the big 5-0.  No doubt the AARP literature is already on its way to my mailbox.

st131Rather than count the lines on my face and the gray hairs on my head, I figured it might be more fun to examine other things hitting 50 this year, and since comics are never far from my mind, they’d seem as good a place to start as any.  This month, I’ll look at Strange Tales #131, bearing an April cover date but actually on newsstands in January, 1965.

The official “star” of the book is the Human Torch, who as the presumed fan-favorite member of the Fantastic Four had been spun off into his own feature.  Soon enough and for decades to come, he’d be overshadowed by the actual fan-favorite, his team-mate Benjamin J. Grimm, aka the Thing.  On the cover of this issue, Ben and Johnny take on the awesome evil of…The Mad Thinker?

Trust your instincts, it’s about as boring as it sounds.  Frankly, the Torch’s strip was pedestrian at best and not my area of interest here (In a few months, it’d be shelved to make way for superspy Nick Fury).  However, relegated to the back of the book was the infinitely superior Dr. Strange, which is where I’m focusing my attentions today.

As Master of the Mystic Arts, Stephen Strange straddled the divide between Strange Tales’ origins as a showcase for tales of the supernatural and its later transition to superheroics.  Decked out in primary hues and constantly moving from frying pan to fire, Dr. Strange checked off several of the requisites for the superhero genre, but there was much more at work here than your typical spandex-clad fisticuffs; this strip owed just as much to H.P. Lovecraft’s pulps, German expressionist films and, visually, the paintings of Salvadore Dali.

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As primarily a DC kid, I never totally warmed to the “feet of clay” heroes at Marvel, but Dr Strange was the exception.  Originally a supremely gifted but utterly heartless surgeon, Strange suffered an accident that stripped him of his surgical skills and personal fortune and reduced him to a wandering bum in search of a miracle cure.  What he eventually found was a new sense of purpose and calling that completely reversed his entire personality, turning him into a selfless servant of humanity.  It was a powerful story of redemption and personal transformation and one of my favorite origins of all time.  My only regret is that when they finally get around to the Dr Strange movie, they’ll find all that good stuff’s already been strip-mined by other superhero films:  arrogant, egocentric jerk gets in touch with his inner hero (Iron Man, Green Lantern, Green Hornet) after an arduous quest to Tibet (Batman Begins), etc.  But Dr Strange did it best.

In this particular issue, Strange is on the run from his old nemesis Baron Mordo, who has somehow amped up his own sorcerous powers to incredible new levels (we will learn that he’s being lent power from the far more formidable Dread Dormammu) and has dispatched an army of unearthly wraiths and human spies to scour the globe in search of our hero and their mutual teacher, the Ancient One.

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This storyline runs for several issues and remains one of my favorites despite, or maybe because of the fact that the usual formula is shaken up.  Strange’s awesome costume — his scarlet cloak of levitation, blue tunic and mystical amulet the Eye of Agamotto — are AWOL as Strange disguises himself in a blue suit and hat, while the Dali-esque vistas of alien dimensions give way to the Earthly streets of Hong Kong.  Strange himself, vastly outnumbered and not even sure exactly what it is he’s up against, is strictly on the defensive throughout, surviving by his wits and cunning.

When human spies spot our hero, the extra-dimensional wraiths ramp up the search in Hong Kong, passing through walls and floors, ships and cars while mere mortals carry on their everyday lives, oblivious to the drama unfolding around them.

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One of the recurring themes through the Dr Strange strip — at least in these early Stan Lee and Steve Ditko days — is that the forces of magical evil are around us all the time, with only the courage and skill of Stephen Strange standing between us and a fate too horrible to imagine.  In fact, it’s often not entirely clear whether menaces are literally invisible or whether they’re so bizarre and mind-blowing that our brains simply refuse to register them.  Anyway, the neat part is that Strange is fighting this war under our noses, and never looking for thanks or recognition.  Indeed, on the few occasions when people do twig to what’s going on, he’s sure to wipe their memory of the whole episode.  This was one of the appeals of old spy movies for me — the idea that high-stakes battles are being fought all around us without us noticing — and here it serves to underscore Strange’s personal transformation from a selfish lout who prizes personal rewards and recognition over charity and compassion, into a selfless messiah who labors on humanity’s behalf without thought of reward.  In fact, many regard him as “that magician kook in Greenwich Village”…and that’s fine with him.

This is an aspect I’d love to see explored in the Dr Strange movie: spectacular action scenes unfolding around (and through!) unsuspecting bystanders, and a complete lack of acknowledgement from the public that he’s done anything at all. At the very least, I don’t want to see Avengers-style mayhem with folks running in panic as giant demons knock over buildings and stomp cars.  That would be missing the whole point.

Arguably the most memorable visual in this story comes as Strange is making his getaway on a passenger jet and one of Mordo’s spies discovers him (hey, “Wraiths On A Plane!”).  Like air travel doesn’t make me nervous enough, already.

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Here we get a (colorless) glimpse of Strange’s normal costume as his astral self separates from his physical body to do battle with the wraith.  This was a common stunt in the Ditko days, and it’s interesting that his “magic suit” has a “spirit” while his street duds do not.  Logically it would just be Strange himself who has an astral self (not his clothes), but you couldn’t exactly have a naked hero floating around in a 1965 comic.  Anyway, banishing (destroying?) the wraith, Strange, still in astral form, realizes he wouldn’t look all that different from the other wraiths with a slight change to his costume, so he disguises himself as a baddie and waves off  the others, allowing him to escape on the plane.

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And so our hero lives to fight another day.  The serial has a couple more installments to go, but that’s all we get here in January, 1965. Not that I’m complaining: there’s more packed into these ten pages than you’d get in three issues of a modern comic.

Verdict?  Stephen Strange is still looking awesome 50 years on, with just a dash of gray at the temples and despite that pencil-thin, Ronald Coleman mustache that was already two decades out of date in 1965.  Off and on, other writers and artists would treat Strange and his fans to other awesome adventures, but on the whole he never topped his glory days at the hands of Stan and Steve.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Marvel can do with the guy on screen.  Casting Benedict Cumberbatch was a good first step; he can do heroic, he can do “selfish egomaniac” and he’s probably got the best voice in the biz for uttering phrases like “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!”

 

In 1974, The Price of Adventure Was 20 Cents

The first time I ever read a comic book was almost certainly before 1974, but in that year — my ninth year here on Earth-Prime — no trip to the local pharmacy or grocery store was complete without a stop at the creaky, spinning spindle racks that served up comics by the dozens, from humor to superheroes, war stories to westerns, horror to romance.  If I was really lucky — and if I’d stayed mostly out of trouble the previous week — I could usually beg enough change off my folks to buy a few of these four-color treasures (so much better than Pixie Stix or bubblegum, which were gone in mere minutes!).  Then it was a matter of reading and re-reading them until the images were burned forever into my brain.

1974-superman274For instance, there was the cover of Superman #274, drawn by the late great Nick Cardy and like most Superman covers tons more exciting than the story inside.  On this one, Superman is reaching out to the reader (me!) pleading for help as his lower body is stretched impossibly thin and sucked through the planet Earth.  With his left hand, he clings desperately to the books’ logo, crushing it in his super-grip.  Maybe there was a kid out there who could resist that kind of brilliant salesmanship, but whoever it was, he was stronger willed than I.

But if Superman was the early favorite, possibly because he wormed his way into my consciousness through cartoons and live-action TV, Batman soon eclipsed him.  Drawn regularly by the likes of Neal Adams, Jim Aparo and Irv Novick, on occasion by Walt Simonson or Bernie Wrightson and in time by Marshall Rogers and Michael Golden, the darknight detective was a magnet for the best artists in the business.  While Superman and his god-like ilk threw mountains at each other, Batman was a flesh-and-blood human who could be knocked out, beaten up, potentially even killed by things as mundane as poison, knives, guns, long falls, speeding cars…basically anything that could kill you or me.  That certainly made it a lot easier to create dramatic situations to build stories around.  Plus he could be made to work in almost any type of story.  For instance, 1974 saw an obsession with horror and the supernatural, thanks to then-recent movies like the Excorcist and Rosemary’s Baby (and that summer, Jaws).  You could throw Batman into a horror story and have it work — in fact that’s where his roots were, as I  would later learn — whereas no ghosts or goblins could possibly raise a goosebump when pitted against the brightly colored, invulnerable Man of Steel.  Batman had a “vampire” vibe going with those pointy ears and a swirling cape that, depending on who drew it, might billow out as huge as a ship’s sail.  It was this creepy, borderline supernatural take on the character — despite the contemporaneous Super-Friends version and reruns of Adam West — that most shaped my view of Batman.

1974-lce-batmanIf I had to pick a single Batman comic from 1974 to name “most memorable” — and it would be difficult — I’d have to go with Limited Collector’s Edition C-26, a decidedly boring and nondescript name for a spectacular-looking book.  This was the first “tabloid” comic I ever saw; tall as an old LIFE magazine, with cardstock covers and a collection of stories from various eras, topped off with a wonderfully garish red cover with a Neal Adams-drawn image lifted from Batman #251 and destined to re-appear innumerable times on merchandise of every kind for decades to come.  On the back cover was a “3-D Diorama” of Batman leaping onto some bad guys: we were encouraged to cut it out and assemble it for display on a tabletop, and that’s just what I did (who wants to get rich off a “mint condition” comic, anyway?).

These oversized comics, as celebrated on Rob Kelly’s excellent Treasury Comics website, were a huge hit with me and Marvel’s version of the format accounted for, as near as I can tell, almost all the Marvel Comics I bought in 1974.  In a million playground arguments over which heroes were best, I always picked DC over Marvel,  but it wasn’t that I disliked the Marvel characters, per se: in fact, I thought Spider-Man had possibly the coolest costume of any superhero, and Captain America was the bomb.  No, the problem was that no Marvel comic ever seemed to have a beginning or an ending; they started in the middle of a story and ended in a cliffhanger.  Nowadays the “serialized storytelling” approach has been adopted by every publisher, but at the time it struck me as slightly shady, taking my 20 cents and not giving me a whole story.  That, combined with the tone of “Stan’s Soapbox” and the little text adverts that ran across the bottom of every page struck me as vulgar hucksterism; to me, Stan Lee was like the carnival barker who promised you a peek at the dog-faced boy or the Fiji Mermaid; amusing in his way, but not to be trusted.

1974-mte-1Moral posturing aside, it was really came down to simple pragmatism: living in the boonies as I did, with no guarantee I’d even get to go along on those weekly trips into town, there was no way I could count on finding two consecutive issues of any comic, no matter how much I might like it.  So it just didn’t make sense to buy, say, Iron Man in a given month when it was more than likely I’d never find out how he got out of the pickle he found himself in at the end of the issue.

The tabloids, however, were  divorced from the constraints of monthly continuity, being  essentially “best of” collections that cherry-picked particularly memorable stories for reprinting.  Plus, like their DC counterparts, they had some truly awesome covers.  Marvel Treasury Edition #1, starring Spider-Man, was a prime example, with a dazzlingly colored illo of Spidey by the great John Romita.

Not everything was about DC and Marvel, though.  There was the slightly off-kilter universe of Gold Key comics, featuring “almost but not quite right” takes on Bugs Bunny, Bullwinkle and the Pink Panther and an unfathomably clueless version of Star Trek,  where every character spoke and acted completely out of character, wearing costumes that kinda-sorta resembled designs seen only in the pilot, living on an Enterprise with a bridge that looked like a 1930’s auto factory and huge plumes of flame shooting out of its warp nacelles.  With the show more popular in 70s syndication than it ever had been on network TV — indeed as a bona-fide cultural phenomenon —  it always seemed incredible that the only people in the world who had no clue about the characters, technologies and backstory of Star Trek were the writers and artists chosen to create the comics.

1974-Magnus-38There was one case where the daft sensibilities of Gold Key worked well, though, and that was in the pages of Magnus: Robot Fighter, a comic built around the loopy concept of a futuristic muscleman whose sole purpose in life was to punch, kick and karate chop rampaging robots into scrap metal.  I’ve seen Magnus described as a sort of future Tarzan, and I guess that’s fair enough; there’s certainly a beefcake angle as he dashes around with bare arms and legs, although it’s more than compensated for by his girlfriend Leeja, whose va-va-voom figure is barely concealed by a skintight nightgown-type outfit seemingly fashioned out of tinted saran wrap.  In fact, Magnus artist Russ Manning drew the Tarzan newspaper strip for years, so there’s that connection if nothing else. “Guy punches robots” seems like a pretty flimsy premise for an ongoing title, but it’s hard to deny the obvious appeal to the average American boy, especially in the days of “Rock-Em, Sock-Em” robots, when we could still pretend we were the masters of the machines and not the reverse.

1974-phantom-61Elsewhere on the spinner rack were the “ghetto” Charlton titles.  If Hertz Rental Cars’ motto was “We’re number 2, So We Try Harder,” then Charlton’s must have been “We’re number 5 ’cause we barely try at all.”  Comics had always been a medium devoted to cheap, disposable entertainment, but Charlton took it to extremes: where most comic covers were slick and glossy, Charlton covers were grainy and course.  Where other companies’ interior pages at least tried to look whiter and prettier than their true pulp nature, Charlton paper had a brownish tinge right off the presses, with raw edges that looked like they’d been torn rather than cut.  Even when we were too young to care about how fairly artists and writers were compensated, somehow we knew the folks at Charlton weren’t paid squat.  But everyone’s got to start somewhere, and if nothing else Charlton was a foot-in-the-door for an impressive roster of future stars including Jim Aparo, John Byrne and Dick Giordano, as well as a refuge for ex-Marvel pioneer Steve Ditko.  Plus they had the license for The Phantom, guaranteeing they’d get at least some of my change, and when they also snagged the rights to The Six Million Dollar Man, they’d get even more (even though that book was lousy).

On the website “Hey Kids, Comics” (and in the book of the same name), I’ve shared my thoughts about another comic from 1974; the Warren Magazine reprint of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, which opened my eyes to a whole new realm of comic book history. Indeed, one of the cool aspects of comics in my young mind was the long, vast history of the medium.  I was fascinated by the idea that comics had been coming out every month since my Dad was a kid, and that countless heroes had come and gone in that time, many of which I might never get to see.  Luckily for me, DC launched a series of “100-Page Super-Spectaculars,” each of which led off with one new adventure before offering up reprints from past decades.  This is how I was introduced to Dick Sprang’s amazing take on Batman, to the the goofy-but-terrifying Composite Superman and to the “cooler than the new kids” Justice Society of America.  It was also my first look at comparatively obscure characters like Robotman, Kid Eternity, the Black Condor and the Sea Devils.  Even now, the first thing I look for at any comic convention are Super-Spectaculars to fill the holes in my collection.

1974-xmen87At some point, I gave Marvel another spin, but unfortunately the book I chose was X-Men #87.  Drawn by the  craptacular combo of Don Heck and Vinnie Colletta, this stunningly lackluster story was already lousy when it was first printed in issue #39 and now for some reason it was being printed AGAIN.  Little surprise that within a few issues the title would be granted a mercy killing, but who knew that a couple of years later the supergroup would creep back onto the stands with a retooled membership to become the biggest fan sensation ever.  I don’t even remember if I noticed the X-Men’s return, but if I had I’d have passed, thanks to issue 87.

And that brings me to the other notable comics of 1974: the ones I neglected to pick up.  Great things were happening in the pages of Master of Kung-Fu, but I was immune to the chop-socky craze.  Fans were excited about Tomb Of Dracula, but I stayed away thanks to a general disinterest in horror and a specific aversion to the art of Gene Colan (who I now quite like).  In The Incredible Hulk #181 a runty Canadian anti-hero called Wolverine made his debut, but I wouldn’t have known it as I couldn’t see the Hulk for dirt.  Captain America was wrapping up another of those lengthy storylines Marvel so loved, this one famously featuring a vast conspiracy headed by — we’re left to conclude — sitting President Richard M. Nixon.  Again, missed it.  In the aftermath, Cap would ditch his flag-based costume and shield to become a character called Nomad, but since the red-white-and-blue gimmick accounted for 90% of his appeal to me, that meant I was out.  Swamp Thing was midway through a historic run by creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, but I was uninterested.  Archie and the kids of Riverdale were up to their usual hi-jinks while Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, Lil’ Hot Stuff and Uncle Scrooge went for the laughs.  This stuff I would read, and sometimes enjoy, but almost invariably I’d wait and read a friend’s copy, or one I’d found at the barbershop or the doctor’s office.

“Experts” will tell you the comics of the 70s — like the TV, movies, music and fashions of the 70s — were inferior to their 60’s counterparts, that by 1974 the glory days were already gone and the medium had settled into formulaic mediocrity, at best.  But as others have said, “the Golden Age of Comics is nine” (or seven, or 12, depending on who’s saying it), meaning that whatever age a kid discovers and falls in love with comics, that will always be, for him or her, the greatest period of the medium.  Certainly I found a lot to love about comics in this era, enough anyway to keep up the weekly trips to pharmacies, groceries and convenience stores in small town Virginia for another decade, and to comic shops for another decade after that.  If, in the end, comics and I grew apart, I still indulge in the occasional back issue and collected edition, and few beat the appeal of the covers and stories that first drew me in back in ’74, when a quarter could take you to on amazing adventures in exciting new worlds, with a nickel left over for gum.

 

 

 

 

Preserving the Superman Fan site

confessions2012What seems like a gazillion years ago, I started a fan page dedicated to Superman.  Originally it was just a few static pages devoted to my favorite artists and stories, but when the blogging craze took hold, I transformed it into a blog and labored diligently to update it at least weekly and often two or three times a week.

The site lived, in those days, as a subdomain of a huge virtual entity known as “Superman Through The Ages,” on server space donated by the friend who ran it.  But like the hero it honored, STTA seemed cursed by fate, haunted by repeated disasters and plagued with villainous attempts on its virtual life.  It was repeatedly hacked and taken offline and at one point the site owner himself purposely knocked the whole thing offline for still-mysterious reasons.  By that time, a number of us super-fans had built up something of a community on the site’s message boards, so to give us a new place to gather, I built new boards around my site, which I had meticulously reconstructed from back-up files and moved to a new host.  Which in turn got bought out and shut down.  And so on.

Anyway ultimately I figured it wasn’t worth the headache, so I dropped the whole matter for the last few years.  But few days ago I figured, what the heck, I put a lot of time and effort into all that content, so it ought to live somewhere other than a CD-ROM at the back of a drawer.  And so, once again recklessly courting doom at the hands of the internet deities, I’ve set aside a branch of this site as a sort of “museum” to the old Superman Fan site and blog, with my old blog entries reformatted into static pages…at least those I could salvage from my last, incomplete backup of the database.

Wow, that’s probably a lot more than anyone really wanted to know, but if you have any interest in Superman at all, I hope you enjoy browsing these pages, outdated as they may be here and there.  They were fun for me to create, and as it turns out, kind of cathartic.  I tend to get obsessive about my hobbies and won’t shut up about them while the interest level is high (as my long-suffering wife will tell you).  In the case of Superman, having to turn out a weekly (or semi-weekly) blog on the Man of Steel for three years eventually burned me out entirely.  When I quit, I had literally said everything I ever wanted to say about the guy, and to this day I’m pretty much “over” him.  Interestingly (?) I had already gone through the same cycle with James Bond, who used to fascinate me endlessly but after eight or so years keeping alive the “Mr Kiss-Kiss Bang-Bang” site (also now-defunct) I’d pretty much lost interest in the mug.  (In fairness, four Pierce Brosnan films in a row helped cool me off considerably, as well)

So now I know that yes, I can get beyond an obsession, but honestly if it takes that much labor, it’s not a strategy I’m likely to try again.