Showing posts with label comics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label comics. Show all posts

06 October 2019

Those Crazy Crime Fighting Defiant Ones
part 2: Comics Team-Ups of Yore


Gary Phillips


— Velma

Those Crazy Crime Fighting Defiant Ones
Comics Team-Ups of Yore, part 2

by Gary Phillips

Captain America and Falcon 138
Now we come to the first such interracial costumed do-gooder team-up in mainstream comics. Marvel, earlier in the ’70s, gave us Captain America and The Falcon on the masthead. For somewhere in the midst of these two battling the likes of the Secret Empire and the Madbomb, they knew how to take it to the streets.

Take for instance in 1971 Cap & Falcon #138, “It Happens in Harlem” written by Stan “The Man” Lee and illo’ed by John Romita. The two, with an assist from Spider-Man, take out the local jive turkey mobster Stone Face and his crew.

In issue 143, “Power to the People,” again drawn by Romita but written by Gary Friedrich, a masked firebrand has arrived on the scene and is getting the brothers and sisters riled up. In chapter two in the book, “Burn, Whitey, Burn,” the Falcon in his civilian identity of social worker Sam Wilson has to prevent a riot. Sam is outnumbered and only the intervention of militant Leila Taylor of the People’s Militia saves him from a ass whuppin’.

Captain America and Falcon 143
Mind you, she called him an Uncle Tom and a male chauvinist when she first met him. Anyway, before the cops and the community really go at it, Cap and Falc unmask the hatemonger who turns out to be the biggest nazi of them all, Cap’s long-time nemesis, the Red Skull out to cause a race war and political destabilization. Once the Skull is taken care of, Leila and Sam share a kiss.

The following issue is quite the trip. Remember in our last episode Leila and Sam kiss in his office? When that happened peeping in on them from a nearby handy rooftop was Cap. One of his thought balloons read: “Sam – with the militant girl! I can see this is no time to try and square things with him!”

We’ll get back to that. This outing starts with the tale “Hydra Over All” by Romita and Friedrich, and has Cap working with Colonel Nick Fury, head of the spy organization SHIELD and… wait for it, the Femme Force, a special attack squad led by Agent Sharon Carter, Cap’s girlfriend and the grand-niece of Cap’s WWII-era old lady, Peggy Carter. It gets weirder. The good guys mop up the Hydra goons with ease. It turns out the attack is being televised live to the White House, viewed by President Nixon, Vice President Agnew and what seems to be the Chiefs of Staff. Turns out this whole deal was an elaborately staged demonstration. The Hydra hoods are LMDs, Life Model Decoys, and Fury wanted to show the effectiveness of his projects.

As Fury says to the prez, “… do we or don’t we get the bread…?”

Captain America dreams of Falcon
The other story in the book is “The Falcon Fights Alone!” written by Friedrich and illo’ed by Gray Morrow. This starts with Cap in his Steve Rogers identity having a dream in bed about Sam and Leila and him in his Cap outfit standing between some angry brothers and a white cop. In his sleep he’s mumbling, “I see them! He’s with her again!”

Oh jealousy, thy name is… anywho, on the following page we again see Cap peeping in on Sam and Leila only this time he’s talking to himself and his dialogue starts with, “If he’s that close to her… then he couldn’t be with me!” After Leila splits, Cap and Sam have a showdown which leads to:

“But I’m gonna change all of that!” Sam said. “I’m gonna be proud, baby… proud to be black… and proud to be me! And it’s all gonna start right now! Then, “… the Falcon Fights alone!

To underscore his point, Sam steps back into his office from the restroom where he’d been changing into his costume. Only it’s not his original green and orange get-up, but some new threads that are red and white. The two may be going their separate ways, temporarily as it worked out, but still buddies as they slap five just before a cat busted in to tell the Falcon two pushers have his friend tied up in an abandoned tenement.

The Falcon and Redwing
The Falcon leaps out the window, a handy rope nearby to swing on – as this is before he got his mechanical wings. His sidekick falcon Redwing, who he has a telepathic link with as well as other birds, flies with him. He effortlessly shoulders in a door and deals with the two pushers, who happen to be white though this is Harlem. And even though people don’t recognize him in his new costume, they embrace him for his bravery and making an effort to clean up the neighborhood. As he’s hoisted on the shoulders of well-wishers, Steve wakes up.

“Maybe I’m only dreaming, but I know it all really happened.”

2008 saw the publication of 76, a retro comic book miniseries set in that year and ably taking up the Wu Tangness of it all. It was planned as an 8-part effort with two separate stories playing out each issue, one in New York and the other in Los Angeles B. Clay Moore and Ed Tadem, writer and artist respectively, gave us kung fu street fighters Jackie Karma and Marcus King, looking into who was backing the dangerous Gil Gunn and his super-heroin on the East Coast. As things developed, swordswoman Holly Gold, PI Samantha Jones and the Soul Brigade all lent a hand.

Out west, in “Cool” writer Seth Peck and artist Tigh Walker told the adventure of Vietnam vet pals Pete Walker and Leon Campbell. In an interview with Peck posted on Comic Book Resources he noted, “[this] is the story of two bounty hunters, a stripper, a suitcase full of money, a sadistic midget, a porn star hit man, crooked cops, geriatric mobsters and L.A. lowlifes spending 48 hours trying to kill each other.”

Sadly, the groove thing that was 76 only saw five issues produced. As the real time seventies closed out, Don McGregor and the aforementioned Marshall Rogers produced Detectives, Inc.: A Remembrance of Threatening Green published in 1980 featuring Bob Rainer and Ted Denning. No kung fu’ing chumps through windows but both men carried a lot of emotional baggage we learn in the course of their case. The PI duo had an interesting genesis as the white McGregor (a writer on Black Panther and editor at Marvel in his career) related creating the pair for him and black artist-writer Alex Simmons (Blackjack) to play in Super 8 movies McGregor was making. Check out the trailer here.

Detectives Inc. series covers

To borrow from the 1975 Isley Brothers’ song, these defiant ones sure knew how to fight the power.
Redwing (falcon)



Gary Phillips has a retro pulp novel coming out from Polis, Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem. He is story editor on Snowfall, a show on FX about crack and the CIA set in 1980s South Central.

05 October 2019

Those Crazy Crime Fighting Defiant Ones
part 1: Comics Team-Ups of Yore


Gary Phillips


Graphics novel author, expert, and historian Gary Phillips brings us the first double-fisted episode about crime-fighting duos. Gather ’round as Gary paints the colors in black and white comic strips.
— Velma

Those Crazy Crime Fighting Defiant Ones
Comics Team-Ups of Yore, part 1

by Gary Phillips

“Listen for the thunder, Troy! A bolt of lightning just struck my thinking machine!!”
So says Danny Raven to his partner Theodore “Troy” Young as the two scope out a bad guy in a Rolls. These two swingin’ dudes were globetrotting secret agents whose cover were being reporters – playing off of it seems the real life cases of overseas reporters who provided intel to the CIA. Raven was black and Young white in a daily black and white and Sunday color comic strip called Dateline: Danger! Introduced in November 1968, it was written and co-created by John Saunders and drawn by co-creator Alden “Al” McWilliams and ran for the Publishers-Hall Syndicate until 1974.

Dateline Danger!
Comics historian Maurice Horn noted in 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics, “One of the most noteworthy entries in the crowded field [of comic strips] was Dateline: Danger! a strip based on the popular I Spy program starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. There was much banter and wisecracking going between the partners as they raced cars, engaged in fisticuffs, and dodged bullets in the course of their everyday activities.”

Saunders was the son of comic strip writer Allen Saunders, who wrote among other features the Steve Roper and Mike Nomad adventure strip as well as stalwart Mary Worth. Coming full circle, McWilliams also drew issues of the Gold Key I Spy comic book as well as the Star Trek and Buck Rogers comic strips after Dateline folded.

Dateline Danger!
This interracial set-up was a bigger deal than one might think looking back on that time from here. A couple of years before the strip’s debut, there was the November 1966 Ebony magazine article, “What’s Not so Funny about the Funnies” by Ponchitta Pierce. The effervescent Ronettes girl singing group on the cover, Alfred Andriola, the artist of the Kerry Drake strip which the senior Saunders wrote, lays it bare in her piece.

“Comic characters are a white man’s land,” he said. “Let’s face it. You can’t deal with race or color in comics. A colored maid or porter brings a flood of letters. And if we show the Negro as a hero we get angry letters from the South.” He quickly adds that negative reactions are not limited to any area of the country. “All people who are anti-Negro do not live just in the South.”

Predating Raven and Young by decades in terms of and salt and pepper crime fighting pairings in the comic strips was Mandrake the Magician and Lothar. Created and originally drawn by Lee Falk at the height of the Great Depression in 1934, the strip starred the top hat and cape wearing master illusionist Mandrake and his then racially stereotypical African manservant, Lothar. This was not unusual for the time period of the ’30s and ’40s to have an exaggeratedly drawn minstrel-like black comic relief sidekick. Witness Ebony and the Spirit, Smokey and Joe Palooka and Mushmouth in Moon Mullins. Asians too got clowned like Connie in the Terry and Pirates strip and Chop-Chop in the Blackhawk comics.

Mandrake the Magician and Lothar
Mandrake and Lothar
Lothar too was initially drawn as a caricature but that changed somewhat a year later when Phil Davis took over the art duties. Lothar though remained big, spoke broken English and walked around in a leopard skin for God’s sake. “Not going to kiss the princess goodbye smack, smack,” goes one of his cringe-worthy lines to his boss who then orders him to pack their bags.

According to Jeff Herr in his column entitled “Racism as a Stylistic Choice and other notes” in the online Comics Journal (March 14, 2011) back on October 6, 1943 Ward Greene, an editor at King Features Syndicate sent a letter to Roy Crane who did the Buz Sawyer strip. This was prompted by Crane depicting as was his usual black buffoonish characters. It read in part, “Experience has shown us that we have to be awfully careful about any comics in which Negroes appear. The Association for the Advancement of Colored People protests every time they see anything which they consider ridicules the Negro no matter how faintly. For example, [George] Swanson did a little drawing showing a Negro baseball team breaking up to chase a chicken across the diamond. As a result, papers in cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago were threatened with a boycott by local Negro organizations. Of course, they are hypersensitive, but the sensitivity has, as you know, become more acute than ever with race troubles growing out of the war.”

Lothar would undergo changes in status over the years in the comic strip and other media from the radio to serials to a 1950s TV pilot that didn’t sell wherein he was portrayed by the often underused actor and ex-Rams running back Woody Strode (Spartacus, Black Jesus, etc.). Falk interjected that Lothar came from African royalty and had storylines over the years where Lothar reluctantly must assume the throne of the Federated Tribes. As Tim Jackson noted in his book, Pioneering Cartoonists of Color about the character, he, “… evolved from an illiterate, faithful manservant to a scholarly muscle man making an independent choice of whether to lend Mandrake a hand when his skills were needed. But for some reason, Lothar never lost his passion for wearing leopard print garments.”

Not for nothing about a year after the appearance of the Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52, cover dated July 1966, how Lothar and Mandrake met was retconned. In this version Lothar turned down being a bored prince of the renamed Twelve Nations in favor of being a globetrotting adventurer who was down with the black American experience. By the start of the ‘70s he also got a love interest in the form of his distant cousin Karma.

Daughters of the Dragon
In addition to disco and CB radio, the 1970s also spawned the private eyes of Knightwing Restorations Ltd. aka Daughters of the Dragon in Marvel Comics. Back then there was a spate of black and white comics magazines reminiscent of the old pulps. But premiering in the January 1977, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #32 was the pairing of black ex-cop Mercedes “Misty” Knight and the born-in-Japan of Chinese and Japanese heritage, Colleen Wing. The two-issue story was written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Marshall Rogers, although they did not create the characters.

“There’s a Kung Fu assassin terrorizing the streets of China Town, and it’s up to the Daughters of the Dragon to deliver justice! Colleen Wing and Misty Knight are the dearest of friends, and the closest of allies. Will the “Daughters” be able to defend themselves, and the public, from this Kung Fu menace?”

That’s how the ad copy read. Actually the plot was about the two going to Japan for some R&R and wind up hunting down the killers of Colleen’s grandfather, ex-head of the Secret Service over there. Once the duo start looking into his death, kung fu fighting breaks out damn near around every corner.

Comics Code Authority
The Comics Code still existed then, which was an entity enacted in the ’50s to among other things make sure, “All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.” The black and white magazines were not published under the Code so in the midst of the two kicking the hell out of a bunch of ninjas, some of the ladies’ clothes got torn off.

Later, echoing the passages in Farewell, My Lovely where Raymond Chandler has Philip Marlowe shot up with dope, and riffed on in French Connection II, the women are captured by the arms dealer villain Vachon and shot up with heroin toward turning them into sex slaves. Misty though has a bionic arm courtesy of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, the real one lost in an explosion when she was a cop. She fools the hoods into sticking the needle in that arm and doesn’t get hooked. Colleen on the other hand doesn’t have an artificial arm. But she does have her girl.

As the bad intent Dr. Hartman looms over the smacked-up nude and out-of-it Colleen, Misty escapes and snaps his neck with said robot limb. Through intense meditation, Colleen overcomes her addiction and serves up just deserts to Vachon, whose not too shabby when it comes to sword work, to avenge her grandfather. Misty and Colleen would go on to regularly show up in the four color pages of the Power Man (Luke Cage) and Iron Fist comic book -- the two gents a superhero version of the salt & pepper team.

Check back tomorrow for the second episode of those Crazy Caped Crime Fighters.



Gary Phillips has a retro pulp novel coming out from Polis, Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem. He is story editor on Snowfall, a show on FX about crack and the CIA set in 1980s South Central.

14 January 2015

Genre & Its Discontents


by David Edgerley Gates


There was a recent newspaper article on the wire services - courtesy of the Houston CHRONICLE - about video games now being treated seriously as an academic subject. Not simply gaming design, which is a career path, but themes and narrative, studying the art of the medium. The first thing that struck me was there's sure to be pushback, from more conservative circles, a sense that this is frivolous, or another sign of the impending doom of Western Civilization.

What's the world coming to, that we seriously look into the origin story of Batman, for example, and the dark graphics of Bob Kane, or the influence of MAD Magazine on American culture? There was a time, not that long ago, when comics were seen as a malign presence, poisoning youth. (See SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, published in 1954, which led to mutterings in Congress.) The comic book industry got ahead of the curve with the so-called Comics Code, akin to the Hays Office in the movie biz, which self-censored content. These days, Archie Andrews takes a bullet and dies in a pool of blood. What's next, Nancy Drew comes out to her dad as a lesbian dominatrix, or the Hardy Boys cook meth in their garage? The mind boggles.

This goes back to an older division of the spoils, low-brow vs. high-brow. Or the related question, does commercial success compromise literary integrity? ULYSSES got
tied up in court for a dozen years, remember, over whether it was obscene. Its publication in the U.S. led, for better or worse, not just to LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER seeing the light, but MY GUN IS QUICK. Spillane's books were wildly successful, and struck a deep chord, but the critics took him over the coals, the brutal sadomasochism, the perceived contempt for women, the casual Red-baiting. Not that Mickey gave a rat's ass. He wrote a book in three months, and spent the other nine months fishing off the beach.
The issue is their staying power. Who would you rather read, Spillane or Melville? No disrespect to MOBY-DICK, but most of us are gonna go with the more lurid and accessible.


G.K. Chesterton once remarked that any informed person knows the difference between literature and printed matter. (Chesterton, of course, wrote the Father Brown mysteries, so you couldn't call him a snob.) Genre writing - gothics, Westerns, thrillers, SF and fantasy - has for a long time been condescended to. So have novels themselves, for that matter. Early on, they were thought of as unserious, books for women, who were frivolous by nature. Maybe it's the comfort zone. There's a shapeliness to fiction, unlike life, say. Fiction of itself is a construct, a pattern, a design. Life is messy, and unresolved. Stories are rounded and complete, and usually have a satisfying punchline, mystery stories in particular. I don't think of this as a weakness. There's something to be said for the familiar. That doesn't mean it's paint-by-numbers, or unoriginal. You don't let it get stale. You write faster and smarter. You don't settle for less, although sometimes less is more. And if it ain't broke, don't fix it.


We'll leave the last word with Spillane. (Spoiler ahead.) I, THE JURY ends with Mike Hammer and the killer alone. They have a sexual history together. She tries working her wiles on him yet again. Hammer isn't having any. He shoots her in the belly. She sinks to her knees. "How could you?" she asks him tearfully, holding in her stomach, blood leaking through her fingers.

Mike looks down at her. "It was easy," he says.

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

24 August 2014

Escape Artists


CCA
by Leigh Lundin

When I was a kid with a lot of bad stuff going on, I made a magazine rack purchase that would rock my insular teenage world. But first, a word about superheroes.

My dad, 6'4 and 240 pounds, was literally a tower of strength. Examples abounded: During a blizzard on the way to my world debut with my mother in labor, their car slid off a remote rural byway. Dad waded into the deep snow of the ditch and shouldered it back up onto that ice-slicked country road. Another time, to save a guy under a tractor, legend says he lifted nearly 1100 pounds.

He was smart, a voracious reader, largely self-taught, a great marksman, patient, big-hearted, gentle with children and animals of all sizes, and he sided with minorities, the disadvantaged, and those in need. Women loved him, especially my mother. He taught us boys morality and life lessons. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were living with a real-life superhero.

Except… superheroes are supposed to be invulnerable.

One evening, a Ford station wagon in the wrong lane smashed into him in a head-on collision. His chest reportedly snapped not the steering wheel, but the steering column. The impact shattered the frontal lobe of his skull.

The accident was bad, very bad. When my mother realized he’d be unconscious for months, possibly forever, she boarded my brothers with my grandmother and a family friend. For a while, I still rode the schoolbus out to the farm to milk and feed the livestock. When winter set in and my mother decided to get rid of the last of the stock, I felt bereft. I'd lost purpose.

Books had always been an escape. Our little town was too small to house a library and I’d already ravaged everything our school offered worth reading. From adults, I filched copies of the Mikes: Mike Hammer, Mike Shayne, and Mike Nomad. Their adventure and soupçon of sex was titillating, but I was running out of reading material.

Doc Savage
Many such as my father and James Lincoln Warren enjoyed Doc Savage, but I couldn’t. The problem was Savage was too perfect, especially compared to his aides: The golden-eyed protagonist was smarter than the smartest, stronger than the strongest, faster than the fastest… In fact, much of Doc’s time was spent rescuing his own squad. What good were they?

Escape Artists

I turned to comics, which were controlled by a censor organization called the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was fueled by McCarthy-era Senate hearings and Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. The book convinced parents (possibly including my own mother) that comic books were a subversive evil that, if not stamped out entirely, should be rigidly controlled. Wertham was right, of course, comic books were delightfully subversive and could potentially provide a spark to make children think.

DC then dominated the comic book world. DC, which originally stood for Detective Comics, should not to be confused with Dell Comics that specialized in actual 'wholesome' funnies and counted among their licensees Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM, Walter Lantz, Hanna-Barbera, and the Lone Ranger and Tarzan series.

You probably know many of the classic DC characters, their most famous being Superman and Batman. Superman was okay, strong and smart. Well, sort of smart: He seemed to prefer the shallow, groupie-type Lois Lane to the more caring Lana Lang who liked Clark for himself.

Batman, appearing in Detective Comics, was a stretch. With no detectives in sight, Batman’s main superpower appeared to be bottomless buckets of money and an obsession with bats. Like all other superheroes and heroines, his chest was approximately 300% larger than the average person's rib cage. His little buddy Robin, decked out in leftover off-Broadway garish costumes, seemed to do little more than pedantically cheer Batman on. “You show them, Caped Crusader!”

Another writer described DC characters as the Pat Boones of the graphics novel world– clean-cut and rather dull. Deflecting speeding bullets and emotions, their perfect protagonists led detached Stepford lives. Theirs were comics without comics.

DC endured competition grudgingly: EC (Entertaining Comics), Timely Comics (later to be known as Atlas), and the broad-spectrum Charlton Comics, later assimilated along with Fawcett and Dell by DC.

The Real Villains

Judgment Day
Given their bent toward social and political issues, Entertaining Comics particularly chafed under the rigid restrictions of the CCA, without whose approval they couldn’t find national distribution. Once when the CCA told EC’s publisher he couldn’t use a negro as the main character in a story. William Gaines famously exploded, telling the CCA that was the whole point of the parable, a story you can read here.

Afterwards, a disgusted Gaines turned his back on comics and founded, as you’re sure to know, Mad Magazine.

original Marvel
In 1939, Timely (Atlas) Comics featured a wise-cracking superhero called the Torch. Although Timely used 'Marvel' more as a series title than an imprint, the cover used the words “Marvel Comics”. Later on, small letters MC would appear on many covers of this line.

Timely/Atlas successfully copied the business and publication models of rival DC, but the publisher took a creative tangent. They sometimes portrayed monsters and personated troubled characters as superheroes, one of them an afflicted physicist, Bruce Banner, who in times of emotional stress would become a monstrous green-toned giant with anger issues, and somehow managed to do the wrong thing the right way. Marvel cast scientists and other very smart people in rôles of both good guys and bad guys, not so much a departure from other publishers but giving more of an emphasis.

Bitten by the Bug

So there I was, a kid at loose ends, separated from family, father in a coma, mother staying with him on the other side of the world, forty or so miles away. I turned from reading trashy adult novels to comic books. One afternoon, I picked up a very different one that would become a cult publication.

Its main character was a near-sighted, very smart whiz-kid, an orphan who lived with his aunt and uncle. Although he admired one girl from afar, he was shy and bullied by bigger, meaner kids. Then, a scientific field trip changed everything. The boy sufferd a bite by a radioactively-infected arachnid.

The bite stung and swelled, but the boy discovered that his vision improved and he grew stronger, so strong that he earned extra money appearing as a masked wrestler. He remained withdrawn and once his bullies were convinced he wasn't one to mess with, he settled into a quiet existence, satisfied to earn a few dollars as a kind of a television reality star.

Perhaps too quiet and satisfied: One evening when he was leaving the television studio, he ignored a security guard who asked his help to stop a fleeing thief. Upon returning home, he saw police and an ambulance at his house; a man had just robbed and killed his beloved Uncle Ben.

Angry and in pain, the boy donned his homemade wrestling costume and tracked down the man who killed his uncle only to discover it was the thief he’d earlier refused to help catch. The last panel contained the caption “With great power must come great responsibility.”

The boy of course became Spiderman who, unlike other superheroes, had trouble balancing his secretly heroic life, his job, his schoolwork, and his responsibility helping Aunt May with their strained finances. He was like any other young adult dropped in that situation, up to his ears in unforeseen headaches.

There’d never been a comic book hero like him before. Adults assumed the attraction of Spiderman’s Peter Parker lay in his teenage youthfulness, something kids could identify with. That may have been partially true, but Stan Lee developed something more important– characterization. I wasn’t a writer yet, but I understood what set this character apart from the competition.

Marveling

Fantastic Four
The snappy bickering between the Fantastic Four’s wiseass Human Torch and the brooding Thing were humorous, but Spiderman so overshadowed other characters I rarely bothered to follow them.

DC and Marvel developed their own universes and then alternate universes. Characters died and were brought back to life. Series went through ‘reboots’. I grew impatient and then I grew up (supposedly) and my brother Glen took over my early Spiderman collection.

At a time when my friend Steve and I were both dimeless and dameless, we sometimes visited the local theatres to watch one of the Ice Age flicks or Monsters Inc. He’s a graphic artist and my background was computing so our movie conversations would run along the lines of, “Wow, did you notice how they animated those strands of fur?” “Yeah, and notice the 3-D shadowing?”

Captain America
Steve manages to simultaneously be more of a kid and more grown up than I. He loves the superhero movie franchises, especially Marvel’s. Beyond Spiderman, the WW-II historical Captain America, and those very dark Batman reels, I’m considerably more tepid, but I see writing lessons in these films.

Critics didn’t much like the Fantastic Four film for which Jessica Alba was nominated for a Razzie Award. Michael Chiklis was good as the Thing, but I pondered why I didn’t like the movie. I concluded that the overall plot seemed unfair, four against one, the F4 against one villain. A supposedly epic saga demanded that if anything, the odds should be stacked against the good guys. [Note to self: a hero’s worth is only as great as the massed evil of his nemeses.]

Characterization

Steve celebrated another birthday last week, and our small circle of friends gathered for dinner and a movie. He chose Guardians of the Galaxy.

Knowing nothing about it, I looked up a headline and muttered, “WTF? Vin Diesel as a tree? Rocky Rac…” Well, never mind what I thought but I slouched into the theatre knowing nothing about it and not particularly optimistic.

Guardians of the Galaxy
Unexpectedly, it… blew… me… away. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The best part was the characterization, both good guys and bad. And dialogue that was both funny and poignant. And heart, the movie had heart. For one thing– pardon the pun– Vin Diesel’s bark was better than his bite.

The film parodies superhero canons. A minor character, Rhomann Dey, says about the antihero Quill, “He’s also known as Star Lord.” “Who calls him that?” “Himself, mostly.”

Drax is a very literal character, incapable of understanding oblique references. He tells Quill, “Do not ever call me a thesaurus.” When Rocket explains that metaphors go over his head, Drax says “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast; I would catch it.”

Gamora, the heroine attracted to Quill, tells him, “I am not some starry-eyed waif to succumb to your… your… pelvic sorcery.”

Ronan
Villains make or break otherwise good movies and Ronan, devilishly intimidating, is not a guy you want to meet in a dark alley, never mind a cavernous hall of doom.

And there’s Yondu who kidnaps Quill when a child. He’s sort of ambiguously bad, which makes the rôle interesting. Plus he has a cool toy, a golden arrow with a mind of its own.

The main hero in the story, Quill a/k/a Star Lord, learns to grow up, shoulder responsibility, survive and even thrive, thanks to his dying mother. My dad… that was a near thing. Many months later, he wheeled out of the factory-authorized repair shop dented and battered, as one tends to be when clobbered by two tons of Michigan steel. Whether I’ve grown up is debatable, but for progress in that direction I give a nod to superheroes of all stripes.

Rotten Tomatoes says 92% of critics like the film. See the movie: You can study the dialogue and characterization… or you can simply enjoy the show.

16 October 2011

The Mystery of Superheroes


by Leigh Lundin

Captain AmericaMy kryptonite is the common cold. After struggling more than a week with a blasted cold, I ventured out with friends for soup and salad and then movies. Artist friend Steve Rugg loves comic action heroes brought to the silver screen, and one recent addition is Captain America.

I liked the angst-ridden Spiderman and the dysfunctional sibling-like rivalry between Fan4's Torch and the Thing, but other action heroes didn't do much for me. Indeed, I didn't know Captain America possessed any extra-physical powers, but I since learned the movie closely follows the original 1941 story line:

Early in WW-II, the Army injected Steve Rogers with a sort of precursor anabolic steroid to turn him from a 98-pound weakling into a superdude. Otherwise unarmed, he carries a frisbee-like shield made of something like vibraphonium, batteries not included. (Okay, okay, it was actually called vibranium.)

The evil wicked baddie in the Captain America movie was a Nazi named Schmidt AKA Red Skull. For all the world, he reminded me of Jim Carrey's The Mask. I kept expecting him to whirl, pose, and exclaim "Smokin’!"

German Horton Ho XVIII
I was disappointed the Nazis seemed to have all the fun toys: the sleek submarine, the powerful open-top car, the VTOL plane, and the flying wing. The Allies were stuck with, um, motorcycles and blue steroids.

Even if a movie-goer isn't a fan of comic action heroes, Captain America can be enjoyable. Most of us weren't alive during World War II, but from the outside looking in, the film's ambience appears superb from the era graphics to the burlesque stage shows.

Pulp Mystery Comix


From the early days, there's long been a link between 'comix' and crime fiction. Obviously action heroes battle criminals, but the ties run deeper than mere pulp fiction. Like several detectives, Deborah Elliott-Upton's inamorato, Nick Carter, crossed back and forth from radio to movies to comic books. The Falcon crossed boundaries as did everyone's favorite, the Shadow. For reasons I never understood, Batman got his start in Detective Comics.

Great debate centers around superheroes– whether to wear a cape, whether to wear underwear on the outside, how tight are tights, and do primary colors really make the best camouflage? Radiation appears critical in the development of superheroes. It kills ordinary people, but it grows muscle mass in the comicbookly-predisposed.

Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four
The Unfairness Doctrine

Graphic novels require a subtle balance of fairness, or rather an initial imbalance of unfairness, which should tilt heavily in favor of the bad guys. I never bothered to learn why movie fans and critics didn't like the Fantastic Four, but the failure for me was the good-to-bad four-against-one scenario. In the comic books, much of the focus was on the friends 'n' family relationship of the FF, but we need to spot the bad guys a few points before the game's worth playing. That didn't happen in Fantastic Four. Even the perfect performance of Michael Chiklis couldn't save the FF from ultimate Doom.

I was too young for the height of the Doc Savage novels, but an underlying imbalance marred that famed series for me. Savage was smarter than his smartest guy, faster than his fastest, stronger than his strongest. In the two or three stories I tried to read, Doc ended up rescuing them. What was the point of having a team if they got themselves captured like silly schoolgirls?

As an Author

My knowledge of comics and graphic novels is small compared to Steve Rugg or John Floyd, but I have worked on a couple, most recently the English version of Tentara, a sweeping epic starring a little girl, Angal. The fans and subjects of graphic novels are overwhelmingly male and with the possible exception of Wonder Woman, girls seldom flock to action comics.

This mirrors athletics audiences. Women are very selective what they watch and participate in whereas males consume nearly anything sporting. Savvy promoters carefully position women's sports and graphic novels, knowing their female audience may fall short but male spectators could make up for that shortfall.

I enjoy ventures into graphics novels. Once before during a flu-wracked fever, I wrote an unusual story, sort of (don't roll your eyes) an ancient Chinese fable with romantic overtones. It's a pretty good 10k-word story but it's so unusual, I don't have a clue whom to market it to. It doesn't fit into any particular genre and at the moment it's slightly too risqué for children. Recently it dawned on me– it would make a good graphic novel. That's another can of worms: As I've learned, my experience is just large enough to realize difficulties but not great enough to know the solutions.

Seduction of the Innocent

During the middle 1950s, critics sounded the alarm that comic books led to juvenile delinquency. Congress formed another of its endless subcommittees, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, and held national hearings on the evils of comics.

One of the most heard voices was that of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, author of an article in Collier's, 'Horror in the Nursery', and the 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, subtitled 'the influence of comic books on today's youth.' As an expert witness, Wertham held that violence was obvious, but that images of nudity were hidden in comic panels. He contended Superman was a fascist, Batman and Robin were gay, and Wonder Woman was a lesbian bondage babe. In particular, the German-American Wertham appeared to target beloved artists such as Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman. (Wertham's later writings against racism and violence were largely overshadowed by his anti-comic crusades.)

Even Oscar Wilde noted the poor parenting skills of Americans, but in the post-war fifties, society sought other answers, any answer at all. They blamed rock 'n' roll, they blamed pool halls in River City, they blamed everything except absentee (or simply absent) parenting. Comics became one more target.

Those in the industry derided the hysteria, but parents burned comic books in the streets and the mature comic industry plunged. The entire pulp publication business suffered and dozens of venerable series bit the dust.

One of the primary targets was EC Comics, which owned such titles as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales, Weird Science, and the noirish Shock SuspenStories and Crime SuspenStories. Intended for older audiences, themes often dealt with war, death, racism, anti-Semitism, drugs, sex, and political corruption which disturbed many in the McCarthy era.

On the verge of bankruptcy, EC Comics folded most of its comics, but its owner, William Gaines wreaked a sort of revenge with Mad Magazine that subverted such vulnerable children as me. Ironically, Wertham's original and intact copies of Seduction of the Innocent (its own bibliography was censored, ripped from most books), demand top prices at comic conventions. But there's one more story about EC and William Gaines.

In the throes of survival, EC Comics turned to medical and office dramas, but couldn't make the formulae work. Fighting censorship, Gaines strove against the restraints of the Comics Code Authority, which enforced rules that the words 'horror', 'terror' or 'weird' couldn't be used on comic book covers, wiping out many EC titles. Without the CCA seal of approval, wholesalers refused to carry EC's comics. One of those titles was Weird Science Fantasy, which EC tried renaming Incredible Science Fiction, keeping the WSF sequential numbering scheme.

Line in the Sand

Captain America
The final battleground became the February 1956 issue, Nº 33 of Incredible Science Fiction. After the CCA rejected one story, Gaines substituted another, titled Judgment Day. In it, an astronaut visits Cybrinia, a planet of robots that seeks admittance to the Galactic Republic. He finds the robots indistinguishable except that some are sheathed in orange and some blue. The orange have come to dominate the others, reserving privileges for themselves and subjecting the blues to servitude.

The astronaut determines the bigotry is grounds to deny them admittance to the Republic. In the final panel, the astronaut pulls off his helmet, revealing he is a black man.

"This really made 'em go bananas in the Code czar's office," wrote comics historian Digby Diehl, speaking of Judge Charles Murphy, who couldn't stomach the idea of a black astronaut. Al Feldstein responded, "For God's sakes, Judge Murphy, that's the whole point of the Goddamn story!"

Diehl goes on to say "When Murphy continued to insist that the Black man had to go, Feldstein put it on the line. 'Listen,' he told Murphy, 'you've been riding us and making it impossible to put out anything at all because you guys just want us out of business.' [Feldstein] reported the results of his audience with the czar to Gaines, who was furious. [Gaines] immediately picked up the phone and called Murphy. 'This is ridiculous!' he bellowed. 'I'm going to call a press conference on this. You have no grounds, no basis, to do this. I'll sue you.'"

EC Comics managed to get the comic out, but it was the last EC Comics would publish. At last you know why they were in the superheroes business.