Sunday, October 25, 2009

The beginings of the "Rouges Gallery"

First there was Dr. Death, the Monk, Karl "Napoleon" Kruger, Duc D'Orterre, Professor Strange and then...
Inspired by Chester Gould's bevy of bizarre criminals, perhaps swiping as Mr. Kane had done in the past, the JOKER was created. The story is well told of his actual creation between Mr. Robinson, Mr. Kane and Mr. Finger but one thing is certain...he is a wonderful creation.

His debut splash above was one of the most striking and vivid memories I had of "The Great Comic Book Heroes" and what hooked me on the Golden Age of Comics. From that moment I wanted to see all the different variations of the original creations.

The abject evil of the clowns face both attracted and disturbed me. After seeing this image I was hooked, as were the books publishers. I learned that there was a second story in Batman #1 featuring the death of this criminal creation. I finally had a chance to read the story as a Famous First Editions reprint. The Joker stabs himself and then begins to laugh and die...until an editor mentions this is a great character why kill him? It is then that a panel is changed to have a doctor declare that this man should not be but....he is alive! So we begin the many deaths of the Joker......and the creation of the Batman Rouges Gallery.

The current stories use these characters almost exclusively to sell comics, but Batman was created to thwart criminals not create them himself. While I enjoy the interesting character villains, I do miss the common battle, the battle for the safety of Gotham City.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

When Captain America did not throw his mighty shield...

Captain America was a different bird when it came to introductions. He debuted in his own title with four stories, one of which was his origin. One of my favorite memories was of reading that initial story in "The Greatest Comic Book Heroes". Here was Captain America, thin and sinewy, an amazing fluidity to the art. Yet there were two big differences to the Cap I was reading at the time. One was his half cowl, almost a cap with a mask, exposing his ears. And then of course his shield.

We all know Cap's colorful circular shield, emblazoned with a star and stripes. However in his first issue the shield is a triangular shape with stars and stripes, which would make it great for protection but difficult to throw. As of issue #2 the round shield is introduced. It is used for protection and as a weapon only when Cap strikes a villain with it on his arm. I could not find any instance in the first issues where he throws the shield and he may not have until the Frisbee craze of the early sixties inspired the concept, with all the ricochet possibilities. So, when did Captain America start to throw his mighty shield?.....

Monday, September 8, 2008

A "hard water" man

Why are their origin stories in comics? After all this was a child's medium, comic books. And its fantasy! Yet there is always the need to explain why someone or something can perform feats that no other human can. Does Dr. Seuss need explain the origin of Whoville and the Whos to make the story more exciting or meaningful?

No, he did not. But here we are in 1939-1940 with powerful beings being created for consumption by a (according to sales records) voracious little reading public. Superman and Captain Marvel sold in excess of a million copies per issue. Check today's figures and see if any company sells a million comics per week period. Still, why the need to explain why Superman is super, how the Hawkman flies, why the Torch burns and especially why the Batman dresses as a bat! I mean it's in their names!

Again it starts with superhero number one, Superman. Action #1 contains a one page explanation of this hero's backstory, along with scientific facts as to how a man could perform such incredible feats. This was later expanded into a true origin in the first 2 pages of Superman #1. Batman waited until 7 issues into his run at Detective, #33 to be exact, to explain his origin, which is one of the greatest of the era and perhaps the greatest comic origin ever (I will expound on it in a future post).

One of the stranger origins is that of the Flash from Flash Comics #1. In this issue always late and slow college student Jay Garrick (football player, tennis player and scientist) gains his super speed by inhaling the "deadly fumes of hard water". While working late in the laboratory separating the elements of hard water, Jay takes a break to have a smoke (ahh the forties comics), knocks over the chemicals and they crash on the metal floor. While cleaning the floor, Jay passes out from the fumes and is found hours later by his professor. After several weeks of hospitalization, Jay finally regains consciousness. His doctor then explains something curious to the professor as follows...

and so we have the superhero of speed, the Flash. A bit corny for the origin and the chemical part of it was held over for Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, but Jay is truly a "hard" act to follow.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The "Human" Torch?

The first character introduced in Marvel Comics #1 was The Human Torch. The art is hard to follow but the story is compelling, for you see the flaming man is not human at all, but a flawed android who bursts into flame upon contact with air.

Its creator Professor Horton is even told to destroy the creature, but as with all science fiction scientists, he will continue his experiment at all costs and buries him in concrete until he can solve this combustible problem. Inevitably, the android escapes and causes constant havoc as it sets fire to everything and eventually falls into the hands of a criminal. As the story progresses the Torch learns to control its power in small increments until it is no longer even warm to the touch. It rights the wrongs it created, stops the criminal and turns itself over to the police who contact Prof. Horton. Horton, seeing his creation able to control its power, sees a fortune to be made. It is here that the story takes a "human" turn.

Freedom. Many have aspired to gain it, many have died to preserve it and all should be allowed to live in it. At this moment the android became the Human Torch.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

What makes a Superman super?

Weaknesses. That is what makes superheroes super. It's not their powers, or attitude or costume, heck Superman went entire stories out of costume. It is their flaws. Their weakness makes them like us. We cannot bend steel with our bear hands, stop bullets with our chest or super speed, change the course of mighty...well you get it. It is their weakness that is attractive. Superman at his creation was just that, a super man, not the godlike creature he has become. His powers were leaping not flying, running faster than a train, not so fast as to run around the earth in minutes. He could stop bullets but howitzer shells injured him. Needles could not pierce his flesh but you knew there might be something that could. He was more Hercules and less Universe Man (Listen to They might be giants "Particle Man").

Several writers have tried to explain this away with the heavy Krypton gravity vs Earth gravity, yellow sun/red sun stories and even his creators had to come up with bigger and better heroics to fill three comics a month only two years after his introduction. And so Superman slowly became Perfect Man, unable to be harmed, a really really nice guy who always does the right things for the right reasons. Several other writers have tried to take some of that away over the years, to try and reach back to the more innocent time, but the need to fill pages with better stories and art overpowers even a super man.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Of swipes and men....

The early Hawkman portrayed in Flash Comics #4 and on for several years was drawn by Sheldon "Shelly" Moldoff. As you read each story you can see the swipe of Alex Raymond and Hal Foster who each had a syndicated newspaper comic strip. At that time, having a syndicated strip was considered the top of the cartoonist food chain, the Mt Everest of comic art. To swipe or "copy" the style of these artists was not beyond many a comic book artist. Bob Kane has been shown swiping for early Batman stories (See the Vallely Archives blog for details). But as you can see above, Shelly took this to a new level with his style swipe. This Hawkman page from Flash #5 is beautiful in its layout as well as scope. The Hal Foster Prince Valiant style is so apparent yet it does not put you off. Rather, it opens your perspective, especially in comparison to the other stories in this title, such as Flash and Johnny Thunder, both very crudely drawn early on. It is this type of swipe that started to give comics the same appeal as the daily or Sunday strip only with full stories instead of waiting weeks to complete a chapter.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

When size didn't matter....

The panel to the left is from Detective Comics 28, the second appearance of The Batman from 1939. The style is very much of the period. A rough yet sleek embodiment of a figure in motion. The Batman was just a normal human being, no powers or abilities, just a good daily work out. His skill came from training, his knowledge from a good education and his passion from his circumstance. His appearance was meant to strike fear in the lawless.

70 years later his proportions are incredible, he is Superman in blue and gray. His skill is limitless with no parameters, no end wall. His mind is beyond genius but flawed by his passion, his only weakness now is his sanity. His appearance is almost unimportant, as the lawless are now the ones striking fear by their looks. To him, fear is now a weapon to be manipulated thru violence.

They are truly men of their eras...