Thursday, February 28, 2013

My Ten Favorite Wonder Girl Moments (old school version)!

Bob Haney, script/Nick Cardy, art
Kicks a bulldozer's ass with precious little help from Aqualad ("The Beast God of Xochatan," Teen Titans #1, February 1966)  Superheroes fight.  It’s what they do.  They fight super-villains, they fight each other.  On The Adventures of Pete and Pete, younger Pete Wrigley and his personal superhero Artie (the strongest man… in the world!) do all superheroes much better and fought the Atlantic Ocean.  Here we see Wonder Girl doing her part in similarly unorthodox superheroics by beating up a bulldozer.  Well, she doesn’t exactly beat it up, but she does pit her strength against it and wins.  With little help from Aqualad, whose idea of doing his teammate a solid is sitting atop the bulldozer while she pulls it from the water.  He did tie the rope to it, but you’d think he’d be considerate enough to at least push from behind or else get his ass off the damned thing so Wonder Girl’s job is that much easier.  Little jerk.

Bob Haney, script/Bruno Premiani, art
Indomitable self-esteem, even in the face of her own mother's belittling comments (Brave and the Bold #60, 196-)  Wow.  Even her own mother denigrates her because of her gender.  It’s an all-too-common phenomenon for parents to project their insecurities onto their children, usually with negative behavior-skewing results.  But the wonderful thing about Wonder Girl is she doesn’t let it get her down.  That’s self-confidence.  Where does she get it?  Certainly not from Mom!

Bob Haney, script/Nick Cardy, art
Chooses the Titans' Peace Corps assignment (Teen Titans #1)  Here she is thrusting a small flag into a map at the Peace Corps headquarters.  What’s at stake?  The Titans’ posting, the location of where they’ll carry out their nation-building humanitarian mission.  Choosing just the right spot is a big responsibility, and we see how Wonder Girl makes it fun as well with some casual athleticism.  Never mind that the flag could have just as easily ended up in the ocean or some uninhabited area.

Bob Haney, script/Nick Cardy, art
Dances with her lasso ("The Million-Year-Old Teen-Ager!", Teen Titans #2, April 1966) You have to feel sorry for the boys in the Titans.  They’re so inhibited.  I wonder if it’s because they feel obligated to live up to the stiff-backed manliness of their adult mentors.  Wonder Girl has no such trouble.  She’s at home in her skin, at peace with herself—she might as well be, since we’ve already seen what a bummer of a mom she has—and that allows her to cut loose whenever she feels like it.

Bob Haney, script/Nick Cardy, art
Figures out a simple trick ("The Secret Olympic Heroes," Teen Titans #4, August 1966)  If you’ve read some of my other posts on the Teen Titans, you know I don’t think too highly of their intelligence.  Here we see Wonder Girl engaged in some rudimentary detective work, which would no doubt tax her teammates’ brains.  They’re all convinced someone has painted graffiti on the roof of one of the dorms in the Olympic Village, but Wonder Girl realizes it’s actually a projection and off she goes.  I can see how your ground-based Titan might make this mistake.  Especially since they’re not that bright.  Except Wonder Girl.  She might not spend a lot of time working calculus problems or reading Proust, but she knows the difference between wet paint and a beam of light.  By the way, this story takes place at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics!  I'll have to write more about that later!

Bob Haney, script/Nick Cardy, art
Mocks a fan's stupid request (Teen Titans #2)  The Teen Titans are kind of mean, aren’t they?

Bob Haney, script/Nick Cardy, art
Destroys property in Tokyo (Teen Titans #4)  Wonder Girl brings down the house in the Olympics Village.  I’m not sure her aggressive approach here will win her friends or do much for international relations, but the Olympics have always been less than pure in that regard.  Conceived as an apolitical contest between equals, they’ve long been politicized and commercialized.  So if Wonder Girl has to smash up a few athletic dorms to capture some bad guys, that’s just your tough luck, IOC.  You can deplore it all you want, but Wonder Girl doesn’t care.  LALALA, she’s not even listening!

Bob Haney, script/Nick Cardy, art
Shows up the boys (Teen Titans #1)  Again we see Wonder Girl’s joie de vivre contrasted with the boys’ more constricted approach to matters.  Wonder Girl enjoys being super.  I’m sure she enjoys just about everything about her life.  That’s a rare gift.
Bob Haney, script/Nick Cardy, art
Zero inhibitions ("The Mad, Mod Merchant of Menace," Teen Titans #7, February 1967)  See a cardboard cut-out of Holley Hip, dance with a cardboard cut-out of Holley Hip.  Can you imagine Robin doing this?  Or Speedy?

And now for the single greatest moment in Wonder Girl history-- or DC Comics history, for that matter-- 

Bob Haney, script/Nick Cardy, art
Saves the Titans with her ponytail (Teen Titans #2) The Teen Titans have been fighting a caveman and are about to fall into a chasm.  Wonder Girl’s hands are “too small” to hold onto the tree for long, despite her immense strength.  A long ponytail might seem a vain affectation—or else the stuff shampoo commercials are made of—but Wonder Girl brilliantly finds a practical use for hers beyond the aesthetic.  She’s appropriately proud of herself, too.  Yes, Wonder Girl has some spectacular hair!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Action Comics #1: When Superman was tough

Joe Shuster, Action Comics #1 (June 1938)
Yeah, Superman was a pugnacious dude when he first appeared in Action Comics #1 (June 1938).  While artist Joe Shuster gave him a mature, beefy look even in his circus tights, writer Jerry Siegel provided the Man of Steel with an aggressive, roughneck personality.  Superman is a good guy, but he isn't playing around.  He manhandles butlers and wife-beaters with equal aplomb.  But you know who else is tough in Action Comics #1?

Joe Shuster, Action Comics #1 (June 1938)
Lois Lane!  The Daily Star's star reporter takes no guff from anyone, gangsters included.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Teen Titans #1 (February 1966): Nick Cardy makes a splash, Bob Haney makes a point

This is the colorful splash page to Teen Titans #1 (February 1966), drawn by Nick Cardy.  Written by the great Bob Haney, this first issue of Titans is essentially a positive, happy-go-lucky propaganda piece about the glories of the Peace Corps, which was a big deal for socially-conscious youngsters back in the early- to mid-1960s.

Officially established by John F. Kennedy with Executive Order 10924  in March 1961, the Peace Corps has been sending young Americans all over the globe to win hearts and minds by doing good works in developing nations ever since.  Back when the Titans made their collective bid for membership, the United States was still basking in the afterglow of having helped defeat fascism in the 1940s and taking leadership in facing down communism ever since.  World War II and the Cold War had frosted isolationism (except for a few backwards people living in mountain shacks and dank caves) in favor of internationalism, engagement on a global scale, and we Americans believed in solving humanity's problems and fostering democracy abroad by providing clean water and education.

In fact, we learn that almost every adult hero in the DC universe is some kind of Kennedy Democrat, a bunch of gaudily costumed but easily recognizable Eastern Establishment types of the kind hated and feared by Tricky Dick Nixon.  Or at least Rockefeller Republicans.  It's not enough that their young wards regularly risk their lives fighting crime.  It's joining their the Peace Corps that makes Batman, Flash, Aquaman and Wonder Woman beam with pride.  Not a single hero expresses anything but almost giddy enthusiasm for this Peace Corps thing.

We miss only Superman's reaction.  Why?  Because Superman is a god who needs no teen sidekick.  He's the father figure to all the other adult heroes, not a bunch of shirt-tail kids.  He's off trying to solve galactic entropy while they're fighting mutated fiddler crabs and giggling morons with chemical burns.  Superman does have his famous cousin, but Supergirl is probably digging canals, inoculating babies against tuberculosis and smallpox and teaching birth control and crop rotation on her own time.

Incredibly, even though he lives with Robin in palatial Wayne Manor, Batman has to learn of his ward's decision from a newspaper headline while he's scaling a drainpipe on a building in downtown Gotham City.  In the "dark of night."  Great night-vision this guy has after years of nocturnal crime-busting, hug?  The Caped Crusader may be on a case-- unless he practices urban mountaineering for fun-- but he still has time to turn, eyeball a handy newsstand through the gloom, make his discovery and loudly proclaim his joy to no one in particular.  I'm guessing he doesn't bother to buy the paper because the fabulously wealthy Bruce Wayne very wisely refuses to carry loose change in his Batman costume in case he gets into combat, kind of like Colonel "Bat" Guano in Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove.

The teen heroes let Wonder Girl choose their destination by sticking a pin in a map, which she does with an athletic flourish and characteristic joie de vivre.  So it's off to the Andes Mountains after a quick training montage to lend a helping hand to those in need.

And, as you can see from this splash page, the Teen Titans version of Peace Corps work doesn't differ all that much from the organization's directives; it's just a bit more aggressive.  They aid the needy using their personal expertise in punching, hitting and kicking things.  But that's not all they do.  They right historical wrongs, as well.  What else is toppling that giant conquistador but the defeat of  the lingering effects of European imperialism and a refutation of criticism America is merely engaging in a modified, cleaned-up twentieth century version?

In case you miss the point that America isn't like all those other old, abusive world powers, the ultimate villain turns out to be a greedy landowner run out of the village before the story even begins by the hard-working campesinos-- all your rapacious developing-world pirate capitalists out to thwart progress, one ruffle-collared bastard representing the kind of repressive guys who made communist revolutions in places like Cuba and Nicaragua necessary because the U.S. sided with them instead of doing what the Titans and the Peace Corps do here.  Of course, there's even one continuing in Peru to this day, but not for lack of Titans effort.

But this book isn't just politics.  After all, it would be a dull-ass comic with just Sargent Shriver making speeches to the Titans.  We readers demand some kind of giant menace for the kids to clamber all over (plus angry, attacking animals with human faces), and Haney knew how to deliver his patriotic, yet somewhat socialist, message in a colorful, action-packed way (like those sneaky vitamins in our chocolate-coated sugar-frosted rice puff cereals).

Looking back, it's obvious what this prescient story is telling us is the U.S. could have avoided a lot of grief in the coming decades if we'd only modeled ourselves after Wonder Girl, Robin, Kid Flash and Aqualad and taken on the real menace instead of merely replacing recalcitrant dictators with more compliant ones.  But there's none of that cynicism in this story.  Haney makes me wish I'd joined the Peace Corps back when I was a teen-aged superhero.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Wonder Girl: Best of all the Teen Titans!

Nick Cardy, Teen Titans #1 (February 1966)

This gorgeous Nick Cardy panel of Wonder Girl showing up the rest of the Teen Titans appeared in Teen Titans #1, way back in February of 1966.  Those were not simpler times.  John F. Kennedy had been assassinated almost three years earlier, the Vietnam War raged in Southeast Asia (the same month this comic came out saw both the Tay Dinh and the Go Dai massacres), John Lennon made his infamous claim that the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus" and a gunshot felled James Meredith during the March Against Fear to encourage African Americans to register to vote.   War, assassinations and riots lay ahead in the next few years as a nation threatened to tear itself apart.  Above it all soared Wonder Girl, held aloft by the hopes of youth in post-war America, amid the fast-fading ghosts of Camelot, the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement, the high-tech hopes of the Space Race, and the attempt at making a Great Society.

How could you not love Wonder Girl?  In fact,* will fist fight at high noon on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Pine Street any sucker who doesn’t like her.  All right, I’m just kidding.  I never get up that early.  We’ll have to fight sometime later in the afternoon, or perhaps just before dinner time.

No, really, Wonder Girl really is a wonder.  Out of all the Teen Titans, she gets the biggest kick out of having powers, being young, being a girl.  The latter would be difficult for the others as they’re all boys, but all gender considerations aside, the 1960s Wonder Girl is pure joy.  She’s a pleasure seeker who finds pleasure almost everywhere, in the smallest things.  Like simply being able to fly.  That’s the kind of true happiness that doesn’t require a lot of extraneous elements; the rest of us—those who aren’t vivacious young Amazons capable of flight-- can get that a similar feeling from running (if we’re runners) or drawing (if we’re artists).  Or whatever it is we like to do with the least fuss. 

Her self-confidence is refreshing, as well.  Being a Titan means she’s probably not the smartest person you’re likely to meet.  She’s more into dancing than reading, for example.  She probably favors Frankie and Annette beach musicals over French Nouvelle Vague cinema, the British invasion over minimalist composers.  There’s nothing wrong with any of that.  It all just goes to show Wonder Girl is comfortable within herself.  And that makes her a positive role model in my book.  A girl to learn from.  Love who you are, love what you do, love life itself.

In the vintage Teen Titans, which are generally easy, breezy, carefree reads about teens who want to help the world rather than tear it apart, Wonder Girl is by far my favorite character.  If DC should ever bring her back, they need to bring back this version or someone similar.  More light.  That’s what’s needed.  More light, fewer shadows.  

*Not in fact.  But you can treat me to lunch.

Richard Dragon Kung-Fu Fighter #5: Lady Shiva's first appearance

Her name is Lady Shiva, and she does hate Dragon's guts.  Actually, her name is Sandra Woosan and the reason she hates Richard Dragon is because she thinks he caused her sister Carolyn's death.  This is how she appeared in DC's Richard Dragon Kung-Fu Fighter #5 (December-January 1975-1976).

She's changed a lot since then-- even more so since the advent of the New 52-- but back in the mid-1970s, Lady Shiva wore a head scarf stolen from Rhoda Morgenstern.  One thing that's remained constant throughout her various DC comics incarnations is Lady Shiva's ability to deal out ass-whippings.

When we first see her, she's in a purple hood and green pants and art team Ric Estrada and Wally Wood have craftily drawn her to look like a man.  In her very next scene, they have her in some kind of Asian fetish dress and looking definitely female.  Later, when she finally gets to fight Richard Dragon, she's back in that purple-green hooded outfit but this time sporting a more feminine shape.  She quickly ditches the hood and spends the rest of the issue in the same green outfit we see her in on the cover.  She starts by throwing shuriken at Dragon, but doesn't hit him, for as she declares in her best Inigo Montoya impression, "I deliberately missed you, pig... To prove I could kill you easily!  Instead, I prefer to do it otherwise...  ...To pound the life from you!  For I am Sandra Woosan...  ...And you caused the death of my sister!"

As the fight begins, Dragon protest, "Sandra... Shiva... We have no quarrel--"

"Afraid to strike a woman, pig?"  Sandra sneers and punches him in the face.

Lady Shiva's first appearance.  Ric Estrada and Wally Wood, Richard Dragon Kung-Fu Fighter #5 (Dec.-Jan. 75-76)

Within a few moments, Dragon convinces her he's not the one responsible for Shiva's loss, that it's Cravat, grotesque-looking guy shooting death-rays at both of them just to make their fight more interesting.  He's drooling, too.  Without missing a beat, Shiva turns her rage on Cravat, but Dragon prevents her from landing a killing blow.  He asks her if the two them are now friends.

"Until further notice, Richard Dragon... we are!"  Lady Shiva tells him as they shake hands.

What a performance.  What a first impression!  Of course, Lady Shiva is another of those dragon lady stereotypes, but she's delightfully amoral and her free way with insults combine with that quality to allow her to steal every panel she's in.  She's way more charismatic and interesting than Richard Dragon, which may explain why she keeps re-appearing in the DC narrative while Dragon has long been relegated to a footnote and why when Cassandra Cain needed a powerful mom to complement her creepy dad, Scott Peterson and Kelley Puckett went with Lady Shiva, renamed Sandra Wu-San by that time.  Fighting is her thing and she's one of the best in the DC universe right from the get-go.  She'd go on to help Dragon in further adventures and we'll talk about them soon right here!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jack Kirby satirizes Stan Lee!

Words and pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Mike Royer (Mister Miracle #6, Jan.-Feb. 1972)

I'm a little upset about this.  It's not even as if this is some obscure bit of comics history.  Way back in 1972, in Mister Miracle #6 (January of that year, to be exact), Jack Kirby vented some of his post-Marvel frustration by lampooning his former creative partner Stan Lee in the story "Funky Flashman."   "Funky Flashman" came out in a mainstream book from DC, not in some indie book or underground title and Jack's target was pretty obvious, hardly obscured by his funky pseudonym.  Plus I'm pretty sure The Jack Kirby Monthly from TwoMorrows covered the whole thing extensively in that hyper-geeky way that makes me love that magazine so (talk about your narrow focus!).  So when Brian Cronin at Comics Should Be Good on the Comic Book Resources website dragged out "Funky Flashman" one more time last week, why did it upset me?

Because I've been thinking about writing something about good ol' Funky for years and years and years.  Okay, years.  Months, maybe.  So while Funky isn't a hidden bit of lore-- his misadventures are readily available in the still-in-print Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Volume Two and you really should own a copy for yourself-- I wanted to spout off about him as if I'd uncovered him after some laborious detective work.  So I'm going to, even if my take is half-formed.

I've always loved the story "Funky Flashman."  It's vitriolic and even unfair-- I mean, taking a shot at poor Roy Thomas, depicted by Kirby as Houseroy, a diminutive lackey forever fawning over a Flashman who will feed him to his enemies before making good his own escape, seems a low blow no matter what your grievances against his boss-- but it's energetic and by some imp of the perverse, every bit as charismatic as his real-world inspiration.

Flashman is indomitable and in that way, if not admirable, he's at least a little likable.  Definitely a compelling figure.  A scene-stealer.  Flashman dominates every panel in which he appears, even alongside Big Barda as she plays with a revolver.  But maybe that's just me.  I have a strange attraction to these kinds of characters, shifty grifters with positive, can-do attitudes.  The Milo Minderbinders of the literary world.  They're quintessentially American types, aren't they?  These Jay Gatsbys, forever recreating themselves in whatever image will win them Daisy Buchanan or money or acclaim.  A Horatio Alger tale, but instead of some dopey kid who earns a reward for being so honest and stalwart, we get a complete bastard who pulls himself up while pulling others down.  And always with a smile on his face and a neat turn of phrase.

There's something to be said for someone who never gives up, who takes a beating-- even if they allow others to get it worse than themselves-- and dusts himself off before strutting on over to his next con-job.  Flashman is obviously a sociopath, but he's also never-say-die, endlessly up-beat, a bold figure we have to grudgingly admire for his knack for survival.  If nothing else, Flashman is fun to read about.  Guys like that can even be fun to know in real life, provide you don't go into business with them.

Flashman is a vicious caricature of Stan Lee.  He even looks like Lee.  Obviously, Stan the Man deeply hurt Jack Kirby at one point, whether deliberately or by accident.  Kirby's response may be passive-aggressive, but it's also entertaining.  The man was a storyteller.  And no one said caricatures have to be nice.  The best rarely are.  Yet Flashman is more than that, too.  Because Kirby-- at least in his prime and at his most involved, as he was with the Fourth World books at this point-- couldn't produce a one-dimensional character if he tried, Flashman's got his inspiration's wit as well.  Kirby wisely left it up to the readers to decide if Flashman is a villain or a hero.  He's probably a bit of both.  Always a survivor.

As Flashman tells himself in the final panel, "On to new conquests, Funky Flashman, you winner you!!!"

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fantastic Four #1: Reed Richards, you maniac!

I'm guessing Reed Richards has at least one doctorate.  Probably several.  He's a genius, highly though of by the United States government.  But for some reason this miracle mind, this all-American Einstein, this pipe-smoking prodigy, decided to take his girlfriend and her kid brother on a rocket joy-ride.  That alone would be enough for the Fed to revoke all his security clearances and toss him in a metal box six by eight feet, surrounded by concrete and stone.  While his real-life brainiac counterparts at NASA occasionally evinced "go-fever" and a kind of engineer-mind tunnel vision that led to disasters and deaths, it's hard to reconcile Richards's genius with the kind of recklessness involved in subjecting himself and his loved ones to cosmic rays and crashing America's most advanced spacecraft.

Think about it one more time.  Reed Richards took his civilian girlfriend and a teenager with him on an unauthorized flight of an experimental rocket, even after the more cautious (but not cautious enough) test pilot Benjamin Grimm warned him the ship wasn't adequately shielded against radiation.  And that was the least of the reasons why this was a terrible idea.  This isn't "we've gotta beat those Reds into space" derring-do.  This is "wearing diapers and driving across the country to shoot someone" multi-layered criminal insanity.

What was he thinking?  Certainly, the lack of shielding represents a calculated risk for Richards and Grimm in their attempt to give the U.S. a Space Race victory.  But to involve outsiders, one of whom Richards is involved in a romantic relationship with, gives one pause.  J. Robert Oppenheimer (perhaps an inspiration for Richards) similarly allowed his personal life to intrude on his national security obligations.  But while Oppenheimer married a former member of the Communist Party and carried on a secret affair with someone who wrote for the Western Worker, a Communist newspaper, he didn't strap either of them to the atomic bomb at Trinity.  But his involvement with radical causes led the government to revoke his security clearances in the early 1950s.  Richards's deed is arguably worse and he doesn't receive so much as a slap on the wrist.

Reckless endangerment.  The failure of this flight could have set the United States back decades in the exploration of space.  The 1967 Apollo 1 fire, for example, caused a twenty-month delay at a crucial time during our moon landing program.  The loss of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia both halted American space flights.  After the 1986 Challenger explosion, NASA grounded their shuttles for three years.  After the 2003 Columbia re-entry disaster, crewed spaceflight via shuttle didn't resume for more than two.  Imagine, then, the catastrophic results of Richards's rash, idiotic act.

The man should be under the jail.  Well, actually, he shouldn't have even survived the crash.  But the bulk of Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961) post-accident should have consisted of Reed Richards on trial as the traitor of the decade. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?  Bah!  Pikers!  The Cambridge Five?  Rank amateurs by comparison.  Richards's alma mater should have demanded he return his degrees, Grimm and Sue Storm should have been jailed as accomplices (the government could have granted them immunity or at least reduced sentences in return for testimony, however).  A life sentence for ex-Dr. Richards.

Instead, Richards is one lucky devil.  He gets rewarded with neat powers (unlike Grimm, who turns into an embittered monstrosity), Sue thinks nothing of the risks he put her and brother Johnny through and everything is just peachy.

Power Records does Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Enjoy the shouty goodness of this Power Records (PR 20, originally released in 1974) adaptation of the 1970 film classic Beneath the Planet of the Apes where the action "comes alive" as you read!!  The story adaptation art and design are credited to Arvid Knudsen and Associates, but that art has the unmistakable look of one of those amazing artists from the Philippines like Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo or someone closely emulating their style.  In other words-- gorgeous!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Old comics on Comixology

Living in Japan, I don't have easy access to the latest American comics.  Japanese comics, yeah.  I can walk over to Lawson and buy tons of those.  But for American comics, I have to go all the way to Tokyo to visit Blister.  Fortunately, I don't buy a lot of new monthlies.  I do, however, buy lots of hardcovers of things like Nexus, Creepy, Eerie and softcovers of things like Swamp Thing, New Mutants, Uncanny X-Men and the like.  For those, I go through  Very fast and it's fun to get boxes even if I know what's in them.  The delivery guy and I have a great relationship, too.

In fact, the last time I ordered something from, he recognized my name and brought it to the wrong apartment-- my old place, which is right across the street from my new place.  He thought he was doing me a snappy favor.  Poor guy was very apologetic once we got things straightened out.

Anyway, the point is, if you live in Japan, unless you happen to be in a location convenient to Blister, digital comics are your best bet for keeping up with the American sequential world.  Comixology carries almost everything.  I've been feeding my Walking Dead habit there, for example.  It's not perfect.  You don't actually own the comics even though you pay the same amount someone would if he or she went to a physical store and bought a physical copy there.  You're paying $1.99, $2.99, $3.99 or more for simply a license to read the comic on your computer (via Comixology's reader, which has its own positives and negatives), or on your iPhone (which is pretty cool if you're waiting for a doctor or a bus).  I won't kid you and say that concept doesn't suck.  If I pay for something, I want to own it outright, without limitations.

Well, I suppose I could order print copies online from other sources, but then I'd have to wait two weeks or more to read what you can read on the same day it hits the shelves.  Like I said, I live in Japan.  These are just little things I've weighed and my conclusion is Comixology is the way for me to go.  Or Dark Horse Digital, which is similar but exclusive to Dark Horse comics.  These are the ways I buy my comics.

Still, I love to read the old stuff more than the new stuff...  Well, Comixology can help you out there, too.  DC and Marvel are constantly adding their back catalog to Comixology.  It seems they focus a lot on back issues related to events in current titles so they can bundle them all together in special sales events meant to increase interest in their current product, but they're bulking up some of the ancient books I like to talk about here.

Let's see--  just recently I bought a bunch of the universe-spawning Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Fantastic Four, the complete first volume of Swamp Thing (twenty-four issues featuring Len Wein, Bernie Wrightson and Nestor Redondo, among others), the first two years or so of the Alan Moore version, the first seven issues of New Mutants plus the original Marvel Graphic Novel (a bargain at $3.99), some 1960s-vintage Teen Titans, two issues of the first volume of X-Men drawn by Jim Steranko, some Neal Adams Batman, John Byrne's Next Men, plus a lot of random stuff I can't remember right now because I'm at work and not at home where I can read my comics.  Many of these I own in collected editions and the like, but now I have a nice collection of really sweet old comics I can talk about here.

So expect a lot of Swamp Thing, New Mutants and Teen Titans coming your way.  And a lot of Jack Kirby.  Which I will analyze, deconstruct, poke affectionate fun at and generally mess around with.

You know, same crap as I always do here.  Only shinier.

Saving Private Doberman

It's hard to imagine now, but there once was a time when I lived in ignorance of Pvt. Doberman. Those foolish days ended when Eddie Fitzgerald posted a bunch of comically ugly pics on his wonderfully fun blog, Uncle Eddie's Theory Corner.

A Pvt. Doberman comic book? Who is Pvt. Doberman, I thought, and why does he deserve a comic book (with a photo cover, no less)? Pvt. Doberman... dare I follow this thread, no matter what horrors I might uncover? No matter that it might lead to a nightmarish re-evaluation of my worldview?  According Nietsche, when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.  According to Pvt. Doberman, "Aw, Sarge."

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This is the image that started it all.
One of my life's goals is to own this comic.
That is one aged private. Maurice
Gosfield was 42 when he started playing
this character. He's 100 now. And dead.

Actually, it just led to my finding out DC published eleven issues of a series based on a supporting character from the old Phil Silvers sitcom, You'll Never Get Rich, also known as The Phil Silvers Show (That's Sgt. Bilko to you and me, Russ).  The program ran from 1955-59, and featured Silvers as a scheming Army sergeant, with Maurice Gosfield as Pvt. Duane Doberman, a character evidently so popular DC had to spin him off from their Sgt. Bilko tie-in book into his own four-color comic series.  To put Doberman's popularity into perspective, Bilko itself ran for eighteen issues (several of which feature either a drawing of Doberman or a photo of Gosfield in character on the cover), while a generation later, Welcome Back, Kotter would last ten issues and The Mighty Isis only managed eight.  Of course, Sgt. Bilko never had a supporting character like Cindy Lee.  Then again, Isis never had one like Pvt. Doberman.

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On The Phil Silvers Show, the lovable Doberman's comic misadventures
include appearing pantsless at the annual WAC Dance.

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Here's Sgt. Bilko's comic. At one point in
the 50s, he was so popular he was appearing
in not one but two comics! And so was Pvt.
Doberman! Discerning kids bypassed Sad Sack
in favor of this title.

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Pretty good caricatures of Silvers and Gosfield.

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This one is fraught with subtext.

In 1960, the Golden Age of Pvt. Doberman comics came to an end as DC cancelled both Sgt. Bilko and Sgt. Bilko's Pvt. Doberman. Some theorize that Stan Lee, over at Marvel, decided to take advantage of this lapse with a service humor comic of his own devising, but realized it was foolish to compete with the genius who created the Pvt. Doberman comic book. Instead, Lee went in a different direction with some some nonsense about four costumed adventurers or something. I seriously doubt that one ran even as long as Sgt. Bilko's Pvt. Doberman.  In the aftermath, Gosfield would go on to portray Benny the Ball on Hanna-Barbera's Top Cat cartoon before passing far too soon at the age of 51.

Also, I'm upset that I'm not the first person to latch upon Pvt. Doberman and his stellar comic book career, but I want to suggest to DC they might go a long way towards incurring my renewed goodwill by offering an Archive Edition of the complete run of Sgt. Bilko's Pvt. Doberman and sending me a free  review copy here in Japan.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day from Hopey!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Look! She's buying something special just for you! Panel courtesy Love and Rockets vol. 2 #16 by Jaime Hernandez.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Avengers #215 (January 1982): Tigra runs a few errands...

First of all, let me say... I really wanted the Columbia Ten-Speed Formula 10 Racer. Obviously, I didn't get it. What I did get for Christmas a year later was a low-end BMX bike, a red Puch Challenger which I owned until just a couple of years ago. That aside, when I was 13 nothing swayed my comics buying decisions more than the cover and interior art.

This cover is by Alan Weiss:

So of course I had to have it.

I think the only comics I was reading at the time were Sgt. Rock, Micronauts, New Teen Titans and Uncanny X-Men. Sometimes I'd pick up another title based solely on how the art looked. And Alan Weiss's art looked pretty sweet to my teen eyes: solid figures rendered with lots of shadow modeling to give them a solid, dimensional quality. Their awkward posing wasn't so much a problem for me then. I liked lines and lots of them.  The more lines, the better, as far as I was concerned.

Marvel's famous cat-lady Tigra is the star of this Jim Shooter-scripted epic:

She'd recently joined the Avengers, viewing it mainly as a lark, a chance to be a superhero superstar. In the previous issue, Avengers #214 (December 1981), the Avengers go west to fight Ghost Rider, and Tigra uses it primarily as an excuse to buy sexy cowgirl-wear. When the heroes confront Ghost Rider, Tigra promptly chickens out.

In "All the Ways of Power," Tigra seems much more at home with the extra-curricular trappings of being a Marvel hero than she does with the job itself.  She loves the generous stipend and status as a semi-celebrity, even if people have trouble remembering her name and powers. Which is hardly surprising when you think about it. After all, Marvel Earth is overrun with mesomorphic oddities from all over the galaxy. People in garish costumes teem. Oh they do teem.  Tigra has a tendency to get lost in the shuffle, and people who can travel between company continuities sometimes confuse her with Catwoman.

Shooter's stories feature these amazing cosmic heroes dealing with the mundane aspects of daily life.  You get the feeling at times their spandex must chafe, cause rashes or just flat-out stink from the laundry hamper.  In this issue, there's an amusing scene where Dr. Donald Blake tries to figure out what to order for breakfast in an "upper west side restaurant" (that must mean something to Manhattanites), gets his Avengers signal, transforms into Thor in what's described as the "tiny men's room," and then can't figure out how to get his god-like physique through the barred window.  He ends up strolling as Thor among the diners, much to his chagrin.

Still, even among all the Norse gods, adamantium-laced bones and giant purple planet-eaters from deep space, Tigra's public appearances as she goes about her everyday tedium tend to be pretty striking themselves:

I can understand the stares. Tigra's a furry catwoman in a bikini, in a bank. Even In Marvel New York, that's going to bring eyeballs a-poppin' and jaws a-droppin'.

There's a John Updike short story called "A & P," about three girls who visit a beach-side grocery store wearing only their swimsuits, before being kicked out. The teen-aged cashier narrating the tale sees this as social injustice and quits in protest, then realizes he probably made a stupid mistake. Taking time to wear appropriate attire isn't being oppressed, it's being polite.

However, the groping is inexcusable, no matter what the security guard claims. I'm not sure the hands-on guy deserves a claw-slash, though. I want to seem him get a comeuppance, yes, but to live afterwards so he can go about his life using what he's learned.  If he hadn't thrown up his briefcase in self-defense, Tigra would have caught him in the jugular, killing him. A simple face slap would've sufficed or better yet, a surprise stomach punch. Surprise stomach punches work wonders against gropers. Air violently whistles out, nausea ensues, sometimes the victim drops to his knees. It's really cool. Unless there's puking, in which case some poor minimum wage-earner has to mop it up.

Tigra seems to understand this, but not before Weiss treats the 13-year-old audience to some cheesecake. I have to admit that in the throes of puberty, this image had a definite effect on me:

It didn't lead to a lifelong obsession with catwomen or furrydom or anything like that. Not my things.  But neither is judging those for whom they are.  Anyway, I liked it at the time.  Here's where Tigra suddenly realizes she's putting on something of a show.  So being a comic book female written by a dude, there's only one thing Tigra can do at this point. Shopping spree! Yay!

It's really cool how the off-register four-color print job provides Tigra with a milk mustache in the bottom left panel. This prefigures the "Got Milk" ad campaign by a number of years; maybe this was its initial inspiration. I'm guessing from his characterization of Tigra in the previous issue and this one that to Jim Shooter, she's essentially a cowardly, emotionally unstable, potentially violent shopping machine. Now fashionably attired but no less self-absorbed, Tigra decides to spend part of her afternoon in a bar inhabited by middle-aged businessmen who have nothing better to do than while away the day drinking Harvey Wallbangers and highballs as their Fortune 500 companies go down the toilet:

Now that's one classy guy; he uses "offbeat" as a euphemism for "potential niche-market porn star." I really don't want to know this guy's private life but I can't help but imagine it involves trying to get his female employees to accompany him on business trips to Sybaris resorts, his suitcase packed with nothing but edible body oils and a gold lame bikini brief.  In this case, Tigra's response is completely justified, and absolutely perfect: the ol' brass necktie.

Finding herself with nothing else to do, she hops on the subway, only to interrupt one of those New York style nuisance crimes in progress. In comics as well as in Woody Allen films, the New York subways are filled with garishly costumed punk refugees from Walter Hill's cult masterpiece, The Warriors:

On second thought, I guess this is something of an improvement on those old Steve Ditko Spider-Man stories from the 60s where teenagers wear bow-ties and drive jalopies right out of Archie comics, but it still looks like Alan Weiss cast his tale from the same talent pool where the casting directors of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Xanadu got their extras. At last Tigra shows off her altruistic side, giving her Avengers stipend to some old guy. Then she throws away her newly-bought clothes (she could've at least given them to a homeless woman or cross-dresser, huh?) and bounds away:

Shooter's point is, even superheroes must sometimes have to stand naked.  Not literally, although that's almost the case with Tigra.  We like to say Marvel introduced personal problems into the story mix, and Shooter takes these things to their logical extreme.  Tony Stark gets hand cramps signing all those checks, Captain America may or may not have hemorrhoids.  That kind of thing.  Even superheroes get the blues.  Watch television.  Go bowling.  At the halfway point, Tigra's carefree midtown jaunt comes to an abrupt end as Silver Surfer shows up with some troubling news-- Molecule Man has set up shop somewhere in suburban New Jersey.

Shooter's story continues to present the action through Tigra, as the audience's proxy. You can draw whatever conclusions you want about Tigra's secondary position and awkward posture on the Surfer's board, but what's truly magnificent here is that Captain America is riding Iron Man like a horse:

Riding Iron Man like a horse. Whatever else you might say about Jim Shooter-- and people have said a lot over the years-- you have to admit at this point we're witnessing something close to genius at work.  The Avengers could have used one of their space-jets for transportation, but with three flying members versus two non-flyers on their roster, they decide on economy over ostentatious displays of technology.  The always-obliging Cap hops on Shellhead and away they go.

Despite its emphasis on daily minutia, I can't call Shooter's writing realistic.  There are still too many space surfers and Norse gods flying around.  Naturalistic, maybe. He'd get a lot of mileage out of this sort of  fantastic-mundane mash-up with his Harbinger series, but here is its genesis.  This is no doubt the truest depiction of how this situation would look in the real world if Captain America had to ride on Iron Man's back.  Actually, I'm not sure who to thank for this incredible image.  This could be pure Weiss.  Weiss might have worked from a simple plot synopsis and interpreted something along the lines of, "The Avengers fly to the scene of the crime," with this as the glorious result, and Shooter simply took one look at the finished page a few weeks later, gave it a thumb's up and said, "Oh, hell yes!  THIS is how we do it here at the House of Ideas!"

Riding Iron Man.  Like a horse.

Tigra's babbling dialogue seems to draw heavily upon Sally Field's role as the talkative "Frog" in the first (and best) Smokey and the Bandit movie. So much so, in fact, that in my mind I hear her voice as Ms. Fields's. Frog was trapped in a 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am roaring along rural highways at speeds in excess of 100 MPH with Bo "Bandit" Darville; Tigra is clinging to a nearly-naked metallic spaceman on a flying surfboard. We'd probably all overflow with nonsense in that Trans Am at those speeds or clinging to a nearly-naked metallic spaceman on a flying surfboard.

Once the heroes are in place, and perhaps because she has frustration and anger to work out after all her hassles that afternoon (plus her guilt at "not pulling her weight"), Tigra uncharacteristically decides to take the lead:

Go for it, Tigra! It's probably as poorly thought through as any of her actions so far in this story, and ends up having much worse consequences. Also, at this point, tentacles make their first appearance. I suppose with a main character who's already a walking fetish, tentacles were inevitable.

I'm thinking back to that John Updike story and wondering how he would've written "All the Ways of Power." He might have echoed Shooter's humanizing the heroes by focusing on the same kind of everyday indignities we all face, but he probably wouldn't have included the tentacles. Probably, he wouldn't have touched this material even if Marvel had provided him with a lead-lined environmental suit in which to work and some kind of remotely operated, robotic vehicle to do his typing.

Still, Mr. Updike should be aware that tentacles aren't just for fuzzy bikini-clad compulsive shoppers:

They're also for star-spangled patriots! Equal tentacles for equal work, that's the Marvel Way.

And also baroque killing machines. This is where the story reaches its emotional climax and Shooter allows Tigra to reveal just how deep her commitment to being a hero is. Your friends are dead, only you can stop a mentally deficient madman from taking over the world, you're getting a weekly stipend you spend on designer label clothes... what do you do?

Probably not what Tigra does here. At this point, in order to preserve our dignity as readers, we really need just to look away and not deal with Avengers #216 (February 1982). Yet as cringe-inducing as Shooter's version of Tigra is at this moment, it's still not as demeaning to the character as the time John Byrne turned her into a mentally-unstable sex freak who had to be shrunk in order to contain her. Although I'll argue neither version is less valid than any other writer's. I just doubt John Updike would characterize her the same way.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Fantastic Four #51: Someone left the Thing out in the rain

Splash page from Fantastic Four #51 (June 1966). One of Marvel's greatest single issues. The Fantastic Four had just faced off against the god-like Galactus and handed him his magenta-and-purple ass. While his teammates and the rest of the world celebrate, Ben "The Thing" Grimm turns his gaze inward.

Feeling sorry for himself, he doesn't even bother to change out of his superhero swimsuit or stop for a sandwich before heading out into the rain to walk around, converse sullenly with well-meaning cops, then accept coffee from a weird bald guy with a prominent brow ridge.

The bald guy is pissed at Ben's buddy Reed Richards. Fortunately for him, the Thing exists. Because without the Thing and their convenient skeletal similarity, his transformation into the Thing's exact duplicate would prove impossible! Ironically, there's one man in the world who actually wants to be the Thing, while the real Thing would do anything- short of suicide- to escape that identity.

Anonymous Bald Freak goes to the Baxter Building where his enemy Richards is planning to invade the Negative Zone tethered to a simple nylon rope he bought at the Yancy Street Hardware Store, and wearing only a goldfish bowl for protection. Things end badly but not before Anonymous Bald Freak learns that all Things (even faux-Things) have an innate quality of heroism and self-sacrifice.

Interestingly, in a story about the Thing's wrestling with his own identity, we never learn the bald guy's name or exactly why he resents Reed Richards enough to want him dead. Even Richards himself hasn't a clue to who this guy is or what he might've done to piss him off. By the time the Thing is back his old rocky self, he's not really able to shed any light on the guy's story, either.  Lessons learned? Ben Grimm's niceness rubs off even on jerks, and Reed Richards has a history of alienating people and making enemies.

Also, Stan Lee's dialogue perfectly balances the mundane and the sci-fi exotic. And Kirby's pencils follow suit. However, this is one of those issues-- despite what the credit blurb claims-- where Kirby did much more writing than Lee. It's full of Kirby-esque moments and moods that would become more familiar to the fans when he started garnering writing credits for himself.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Space diplomacy, 1970s Marvel-style!

Look! It's Colonel George Taylor of ANSA, our first ambassador to the stars...
George Tuska, Mike Esposito, Adventures on the Planet of
the Apes #1 (October 1975)
That's going to do wonders for interstellar relations.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Mighty Isis #8: When Cindy Met Rennie

Rennie Roberts, that is.  It happens in The Mighty Isis #8 (Dec.-Jan. 1977-78), the comic's final issue.  The story is called "Darkly Through the Mutant's Eyes," written by  Jack C. Harris, pencilled by Mike Vosburg and inked by Marvel stalwart Al Milgrom.  Rennie is an unusual name, so it's safe to assume this is supposed to be the TV character and they just made a little mistake with her surname.  But you know, that kind of carelessness isn't enough of an explanation for a hardcore comic book geek like me, so I've put way more thought into this than most would consider sane.

Here's what I've come up with.  The DC Comics version of Isis and her supporting cast are alternate universe versions of the characters familiar from the live-action show and they live on one of those numbered or lettered DC earths where things are subtly different.

How different?  Well, I'm not sure, but I doubt Andrea Thomas works at Larkspur High in the comic.  And Isis spends a lot more time fighting sorcerous foes than helping kids get over losing their beloved dogs or reconcile with their Chinese heritage.  There's also the Rick Mason-Thomas romantic subplot, which at one point is actually a love triangle with a Mason-smitten Cindy Lee; none of this occurs in the live action show.  So perhaps this Rennie Roberts person is the DC universe Rennie Carol.  Different parents, occupying roughly the same place in dimensional continuity.  After all, she looks nothing like Ronalda Douglas, who played Rennie-Prime on TV.

Another explanation is way back in 1977, no one particularly cared as much as I do now about consistency between the comic and the Filmation show.  Someone told Harris there was a new student assistant on the show named Rennie, he shrugged and said, "Far out, but I've got some Wonder Woman to write.  I can't be wasting my time learning all these characters' names."

Which is kind of a shame.  This panel offers the tantalizing possibility Cindy Lee actually was around for the second season of Isis, but the stories that aired were just the ones involving Rennie.  In some ghostly alternate vision, Cindy and Rennie were pals and good-natured academic rivals trading shifts as Ms. Thomas's student assistant.  The Mighty Isis might have benefited from a regular back-up feature where Cindy and Rennie team to solve minor mysteries such as what's in the hamburger patties in the Larkspur cafeteria, because it sure ain't any kind of beef.  You know, with Ranji, C.J. and Feather dropping in from time to time.

Then again, that's probably a stupid idea.  Nothing would have helped sales and by the time Rennie appeared, it was a moot point anyway.  An editor's note in the letters page tells us there just weren't enough fans to keep the book afloat financially, but what few there were could keep watching the Saturday morning TV show for their Isis fix.  With the show already out of production, that wouldn't be true for long.

You gotta believe!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Class! Class! Let's compare the live action Isis characters to their comic book counterparts...

Okay, class.  Good morning, glad to see you're all here.  We're going to do something a little different today.  That's right, Cindy, this will be on the test.  So pay attention all of you and take notes.  Let's take a look at the DC comics versions of our favorite characters from the Filmation live action TV series Isis-- also known as The Secrets of Isis-- and see how alike or different they are from the real thing.  Yes, Cindy, it will be fun.  Everyone look at the screen...

Here's Andrea Thomas in her everyday guise as a teacher:

(Mike Vosburg/Vince Colletta, Isis #3, Feb.-March 1976-77)

She is smart and pretty, Cindy, and a model teacher.  I completely agree.  And here she is in her Isis identity:

(Dick Giordano, Shazam #25, Sep.-Oct. 1976)

What's that?  How many times has she saved you, Cindy?  Amazing!  Yes, if you'd like, you can write an extra-credit essay about Isis and what she means to today's young women.  Here's Andrea Thomas's colleague Rick Mason:

(Mike Vosburg/Vince Colletta, Isis #2, Dec.-Jan. 1976-77)

Thank you, Cindy.  You're so right.  He is a dedicated teacher and his mustache is quite snappy.  Here's Dr. Barnes:

(Mike Nasser/Frank Giacoia, Isis #2 Dec.-Jan. 1976-77; Mike Vosburg/Vince Colletta, Isis #3, Feb.-March 1977)

Good question, Cindy.  We'll talk about that in just a moment.  Anyone besides Cindy have a question?  Anyone?  No?  No one has a question?  Okay, I hear some talking but no questions.  Let's hold it down and look at the screen.  I think we'll all recognize...

(Dick Giordano, Shazam #25, Sep.-Oct. 1976)

Yes, Cindy, that's you!  And no, Rennie Carol never appeared in The Mighty Isis comic.  The closest anyone came was the depiction of a character named Rennie Roberts (although I could have sworn her first name is lettered as Pennie) in the final issue.  That's also the one where the writer labels you "class president" of Larkspur High, Cindy.

Now, as to your question about why Dr. Barnes looks so different.  Compared to the main cast, the character wasn't on the show that often and some of the artists probably never saw even a single publicity photo of actor Albert Reed.

Actually, as you've noticed, none of the likenesses are exact.  They're more general than perfect caricatures.  I think Dick Giordano's take on the cast Shazam! #25 comes closest, but I have a suspicion this has something to do with licensing.  If you've read Marvel's Planet of the Apes adaptations, you'll notice at no time does George Tuska make Taylor look like Charlton Heston, nor does Alfredo Alcala give his Beneath the Planet of the Apes astronaut more than a passing resemblance to James Franciscus.  To do so would have involved other legal and financial arrangements and it just wasn't considered worth the time, effort or money.

Another good point, Cindy!  As you say, Marvel did occasionally use exact likenesses of the Star Wars actors in that title, and DC made a point of at least trying for perfect likenesses in their Star Trek titles.  Yes, even now at Dark Horse, artists draw Buffy as close to Sarah Michelle Gellar as they can.  These things depend on legal departments and the artist's hand, but sometimes licensing means "make 'em look consistent with all appearance in every medium."  Luke Skywalker looks just like Mark Hamill on every book cover, Captain Kirk is always either William Shatner or Chris Pine these days and so on and so forth.

Anyway, back to Isis.  My guess is we're looking at a similar deal here between DC and Filmation and as long as Isis had long dark hair, Rick Mason his mustache and Cindy Lee her pigtails, no one probably gave a rip.  As for Dr. Barnes, he could be anything or anyone depending on who drew him.

You're right again, Cindy.  I am just a speculating fool.  Still, that was a lot of fun, wasn't it, class?  Comparing these?  We enjoyed it, didn't we?