Friday, November 30, 2007

The Secret Secret Origin of Batman.

Tell me if you heard this story before: A wealthy young man whose family is a victim of crime with the help of the family butler puts on a dark costume inspired by bats and seeks justice. His secret hide-out is a cave.

Or maybe you’re familiar with how a hero gains the inspiration for his identity: “he must become a figure of sinister import to all of these people. A strange Nemesis that would eventually become a legendary terror to all of crimedom...he glanced at the oil lamp burning on a table. Then he swung around, suddenly tense. In the shadows above his head there came a slithering, flapping sort of sound.”

…”leaped back instinctively as something brushed past his cheek.
Again the flapping of wings--a weird rustling sound. Terror overcame him
for an instant as something brushed against his hair, caught in a tangled
lock. Something that seemed unspeakably evil.”

“He reached up, tore at it with fingers that had suddenly grown frantic.
He flung the thing aside. As he did so he saw that it was a bat. An insectivorous
mammal, with its wings formed by a membrane stretched between the tiny
elongated fingers, legs and tail.”

“As the creature hovered above the lamp for an instant it cast a huge
shadow upon the cabin wall.”

"’That's it!…. ‘I'll call myself…’"

If you’re thinking it’s Batman, you’d be wrong.

The first is the story of The Human Bat who first appeared in Britain in THE FUNNY WONDER, March 1899! It’s the story of John Holloway whose father is swindled out of his wealth and title. Holloway is given the masquerade costume by the family valet/butler with a distinctive cape t hat allows him glide around. Another bat-winged fellow could also be found in the same magazine, the Spring-Heeled Jack. These “newspapers” seemed to be predominently proto comic strip style along the lines of how Prince Valiant has been done for decades, panels of the strip with paragraph of text under each one.

The second is the story of the Bat, a minor pulp character appearing in the pulps’ Popular Detective circa 1934. It concerns a private detective who is framed for a crime and adopts the masked identity of the Bat to fight crime. He carries a gas gun and leaves little stamps of bats on the crooks he catches. The latter was a popular motif with pulp characters and the later pulp-inspired masked men of comics.

The reason for the history lesson is that I came across a website: that discusses how struggling artist and would-be cartoonist Frank Foster created a character actually called Batman in the early 30’s and even shopped him around to the comic publishers later that decade. Imagine his surprise when just a little later, one of those publishers would come out with a title called Batman! Another coincidence on top of that is the fact that as an alternate name scribbled on the back is “Nightwing” a Batman-esque identity adopted first by Superman when in Kandor (1963) and then by Dick Grayson/Robin in the 1980s.

On the surface, it seems pretty damning for DC. Kane has a history of not only doing swipes in his artwork but also for a long time claiming sole credit despite the fact there’s heavy contributions to the story and later the art by creators Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, among others. Plus, we know Kane was in the area at the same time that Foster was working on the World’s Fair mural, the two could’ve met. The editor of that Superman story is Mort Weisinger who brought many things to Superman that were taken from the pulps such as Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude.

On the surface. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with an older man’s memory and his recounting doesn’t really add up to what we know. First, we can go ahead and discount the Nightwing coincidence as being just that. Weisinger didn’t start working at DC until 1941 and the writer Edmond Hamilton in 1946. As Foster claims his work was returned to him, there is no way to connect the name to either of the gentlemen responsible for creating the DC Nightwing character. And, frankly, it just seems highly unlikely in comics’ early days scrambling to reproduce the successes of Superman & Batman, an editor or creator would remember the name Nightwing and yet hold onto it for nearly two decades while various Phantoms, Ghosts, Ravens, and other dark winged birds flitter across the superhero landscape.

Despite Bob Kane’s rather dubious history, it’s also hard to lay blame at his feet. Again, there’s no direct connection. We don’t even know if the editor that he dealt with was the same as whom Foster showed his drawings to. Then you have to wonder why Kane would take time developing an idea that had already failed to sell at DC. You can put both at the World’s Fair. Dollars to donuts, probably half the people in the comic and pulp businesses in New York at the time were also at the Fair at some point.

Sure, it’s all extremely coincidental. But recall that almost simultaneously as Batman’s debut was the debut of the SECOND Black Bat character with a costume looking a lot like Batman’s with the scalloped cape and dark colors. It’s even more familiar to modern readers as Kane at Finger’s suggestion did “borrow” a design element from the Black Bat, the fins on the gloves. Batman originally wore very standard gloves that ended at his wrist. And as I stated there was another Black Bat before that one, though he didn’t wear a costume and we never learned his real name, he was just a detective called the Black Bat. And you had the Bat before that (which Finger almost had to have read and borrowed Batman’s origin scene, it’s too specific). Across the seas there was that Human Bat (though more than likely almost completely unknown over here at the time). Couple that with the Shadow and detectives and rogue heroes called the Shadow, Spider, Ghost and plethora of Green Ghosts and Phantoms, a character called Batman seems almost inevitable. More than a circumstantial case is needed.

Foster’s own faulty memory really messes the issues up. He didn’t remember the editors or people or exact dates (and no real reason he should after all that time). But, those facts are significant as this time period covered 1936-1939. Superman didn’t debut in comics until 1938! Before 1938, DC Comics might be a vehicle for some of his cartoons, but Batman would have been too different. Superman had the luxury of a sympathetic editor, space in a new book to fill and the fact that Siegel and Shuster were already doing a variety of strips for DC. Post – Superman and we’re looking at DC turning down an idea when they were looking for just such an idea and then somehow for some reason passing it off to another creator in a very short period of time.

Yet we know Foster’s Batman (as well as Siegel & Shuster’s Superman) pre-dated 1938 according to the notes. But even then there’s conflicts between history and testimony that needs reconciling. Foster described this in a 1975 interview with a Boston attorney: “ … he got me interested enough to make some ideas up. And it seems to me that in those days, and even now, that most all of the strips were the heroes of the day – such as, flying through the sky during the day and doing good deeds and so forth and so on – and I thought, well, why couldn’t that be done at night? Have a good guy do stuff at night. So, I started working, just briefly, very briefly, not too seriously, with Al Capp, and cooking up a couple of ideas. … one of the things was Batman … “

See, the site says the early drawings are 1932. Superman didn’t debut until 1938. So, who the heck is he talking about flying and such? Just what was his inspiration for the character because the obvious ones just didn’t exist according to the dates on the drawings. Mandrake the Magician was 1934, the Phantom (1936), Flash Gordon (1934). The closest thing to these drawings in the strips was Buck Rogers but it’s quite a leap from Buck Rogers to Batman, even if you have Buck’s anti-grav belt.

Doc Savage maybe? Except Doc didn’t debut until 1933. The only notable hero before this drawing is the Shadow and he was hardly flying around doing good during the daytime. Foster’s other hero on the site is of the Raven, complete with a council of agents it appears is dated the same year as the Shadow’s appearance. But, once you start looking at the pulps, the costume being tights is an anachronism.

Beginning to see the crux of the problem? Foster’s Batman not only pre-dates Kane’s, but it also conveniently pre-dates many of the evolutionary steps along the way, as if he sprung out Athena-like from Zeus’ forehead as a fully realized conceptual costumed comic mystery-man. Foster’s Walt Gibson, Lester Dent, Siegel and Shuster, Alex Raymond and Lee Falk all rolled into one. With a touch of Dave Cockrum/Gil Kane as his costume is very stylized with its design elements compared to the far more simplistic and minimalist costumes of the early mystery men. His cowl alone with the flanged eye pieces is more a design element that would be at home more than a quarter of a century later. Foster talks about his creation as if it’s in response to other characters out there which should place the drawing 1937 at the earliest, but the dates the site claims are the dates of creation would indicate that instead he was creating something truly revolutionary, the first American comic crime-fighter ever to wear a distinctive mask and skin tight costume.

Yet, in 1998, the Boston Globe did run an article on Foster and Batman. You can search for it on the archives of their website. And, as far as my research online reveals, Al Capp was indeed in Boston in the early 30’s.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Stardust/The Twelve/Black Dossier

Stardust is one of the more obscure golden-age heroes out there. He was the brainchild of Fletcher Hanks, one of the oddest artists of the Golden-Age, ranking up there with Basil Wolverton (Space Hawk, Powerhouse Pepper) and Harry G. Peters (Wonder Woman, Man O’Metal). His style seemed to be a combination of primitivism, art-deco, and some kind of bad acid trip. The stories were outlandish with all sorts of bizarre punishments inflicted on the guilty anticipating the 70’s Spectre stories by several decades. Hanks himself seems to have been a low-life, an alcoholic and child and wife abuser if a recent book is telling the truth, the kind of person deserving the kind of divine retribution that Stardust regularly dished out. He worked under a several pseudonyms, but his distinctive style always stands out. And, he created Fantomah, one of the big contenders for the first woman superhero and is every bit as unique as Stardust. Despite this, Stardust has been reprinted online here and there, he popped up at one of Bill Black's bw reprint comics. Which seems to have generated a bit of interest in the character. Some local people actually borrowed a copy of my reprint in order to do some research on writing a new Stardust story. A large book has been devoted to reprinting various Fletcher Hanks stories including Stardust and Fantomah.

And, as part of Image's anthology The Next Issue Project he will be revived along with other public domain characters in new stories. Stardust is being done by Mike Allred of Madman fame. Now, I've never been a big fan of Allred, his work is too pop-art, too self-aware of its artificiality for me. However, that works for him here, his work is every bit as stylized as Hanks' (the chief difference being Allred's is more deliberately stylized and polished). It ought to be an interesting combination. I fear it may tip the story towards being more pastiche though, a little too much effort being spent on capturing another creator's form and style and not really the character himself. It's instead of trying to doing the best Batman story possible, trying to do the best Dick Sprang type Batman. So, part of me would like to see someone that actually does strange horror be the one to take him on, like Guy Davis, Walt Simonson, or Mike Mignola. All artists that are heavily stylized but with very different sensibilities.

Allred's version of the character.
Who is Stardust?
Stardust: December 1939, Fantastic Comics #1 (Fox). Despite being billed as “the Super Wizard,” Stardust didn’t have magical powers. He was a wizard in the sense that through his super-science, he could do almost anything from flying through space unaided like a comet to a variety of rays that can make things big or small, levitate items, turn invisible, etc. Then he has the gadgets such as crime detectors that alert him to evil and crime and his costume that provides protection against a variety of destructive forces. Stardust maintains a base on a private star and fights various outer space menaces but also holds a fondness for America and is quick to defend her against crime and Fifth Columnists. Stardust himself seemed to vary in size, a huge man with arms like tree-trunks and a bull neck and is very formidable in a fight even minus his powers.

But, despite all of these powers, Stardust wasn’t seen after 1941, his last adventure recorded in FANTASTIC COMICS # 16, never gracing the cover.

The Twelve
Also in December is coming a preview issue of The Twelve. The upcoming mini that's casting them in a more modern and realistic (read gritty, dysfunctional and complete with deaths) style by writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Chris Weston. The Zero issue will feature the origin story of Rockman from USA Comics #1, 1941 by Charles Nicholas and Basil Wolverton; Laughing Mask from Daring Mystery Comics #2, 1940; and the Phantom Reporter from issue 3. Also included are character sketches by Weston and some preview pages to the upcoming mini. 48 pages in all and at a very affordable $2.99. I'm looking forward to this more than the actual mini since I've not plopped money down for any of Marvel's GA hardcover volumes. It is interesting to note that the comic they are looking at is Daring Mystery #3, where the Laughing Mask after his one outing took on the identity of the Purple Mask and is on the cover.

The Black Dossier
Jess Nevins has already put together a remarkably lengthy and complete annotations to Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The Black Dossier, the latest sequel to League of Extraordinaly Gentlemen. I've not cracked open the book yet, I'm sure it's just as excellent as always, but it sounds like it's far more metatextual than the other two, almost a travelogue through the nature of heroes in fantastic literature in the 20th Century than an adventure story with everything and the kitchen sink thrown in, but ultimately bogged down by the all-inclusive conceit of the original concept. If it wasn't for Nevins' annotations, I doubt I'd appreciate the stories as much, seeing all the stuff one misses while reading through and patting yourself on the back for the ones you caught.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Mighty Return of the Green Lama

Briefly in the 40’s, the Green Lama was a multi-media star. Starting out as a pulp hero, he branched out briefly with a radio show and two distinct comicbook runs. Since then, he’s languished in relative obscurity. Mention his name in a comic book store, and people are liable to think he’s a parody hero by the name of the Green Llama.

While the upcoming SUPERPOWERS is supposed to use the Green Lama in a big way, for awhile now, AC Comics has made some minor use of the Green Lama in the past as part of their vault of heroes (various public domain golden-age heroes that had been kept in suspended animation) and has also reprinted a few of his adventures. Like SUPERPOWERS, their version of the character in the present day is as a magician type hero when that's not really true to any of his past incarnations. Some time back they had put into the works a mini-series and it has been done for about a year I believe but only now just being solicited as well as a "0" issue. As I provided the writer with background info on the villain Stopwach (from GL's last appearance in PRIZE COMICS, the cover to which is ironically the image of the Black Owl and Yank & Doodle used here in my Hero Goggles logo), I have a little vested interest in it. The solicitation for it is as follows (with some minor editing for length):

"Title: Green Lama, Man of Strength. Writer is James Ritchey, artists are James Ritchey and Loki Dolza Intended Audience: All-ages fans of thoughtful, character-driven modern style superheroics and Golden Age character revivals. Format: Standard comic book size, 40 pages, b&w with color covers; saddle-stitched. Retail Price: $6.95 (maximum discount 50%) Ship Date: March 5, 2008

“Synopsis: An unsuspecting college student falls heir to the powers of The GREEN LAMA, in a darkly contemporary version of the AC Universe. World War III has come and gone, demons run free in the streets- and only The GREEN LAMA can restore order. Guest-starring The FEMFORCE and GOLDEN LAD.”

“Special Notes: Almost seven years in the making, this "Elseworlds" - style take on the classic Golden Age hero created by Ken Crossen is the product of hot new writer/artist James Ritchey. Refined in consultation with Kendra Crossen Burroughs, daughter of (and executor to the literary estate of ) Ken Crossen, this intro to the smart new series gives a darker, edgier, more modern take on superheroics, and should appeal much more easily to current comics readers. Unlike AC's normal "classic" approach to heroes & storytelling, these characters are more ambiguous, with unknown agendas hidden around every corner. In addition to guest-appearances by Mr. Ritchey's versions of mainstream AC heroes, see the revival of other costumed characters from Crossen's Spark Publications group of the mid-1940's; each with it's own unique spin.”

I give them big props to working with the creator’s heir though the character has apparently fallen into public domain. Although, I’m not a big fan of the reincarnation/legacy angle, I prefer to just see a story with the original characters. And, I find it interesting that the term “Elseworlds” has apparently entered the public lexicon enough to be used in advertising. The term originally was a type of story that DC published, familiar characters and archetypes in non-continuity stories. Another slipping trademark is the term DC uses for their hardback reprint line, “Archives”. I use it for my online reprints of the Fighting Yank, and Dark Horse not only uses the term but the whole look & package for their hardback reprint line they’ve done of classic characters such Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom and Magnus. And they are using it again for a 2 volume reprinting of golden-age Green Lama tales: “THE COMPLETE GREEN LAMA FEATURING THE ART OF MAC RABOY
On sale Apr 30 FC, 208 pages $49.95 HC, 6 1/4" x 10 1/4"

"Chanting 'Om Mani Padme Hum,' the wealthy Jethro Dumont transformed into the Green Lama--a flying freedom fighter made famous in comics by the distinguished and imaginative artist Mac Raboy (Captain Marvel Jr., Flash Gordon). A unique 1940s Buddhist superhero, the Green Lama used special powers gained in a pilgrimage to Tibet to fight master criminals, monstrous dictators, and inequality across the globe. He made his debut in April 1940 in the pulp fiction anthology Double Detective, but he is most well known in his comic book incarnation--especially the stories drawn by Raboy in the eight-issue Green Lama series. Dark Horse Archives presents the entire Green Lama run in two high-quality hardcovers, starting with these first four issues. In addition to Raboy's classic covers and stories, these issues contain entertaining and adventurous bonus stories following the adventures of Lieutenant Hercules, Rick Masters, Angus McErc, and others!
• Our first volume also features an introduction by free speech activist and patron saint of comics collecting Chuck Rozanski!
• Long-deserving archival treatment, these enchanting, historic Golden Age tales are now available to fans who can't spend thousands of dollars on original issues!”

BE WARNED and read that solicitation carefully. See, while it’s titled “The Complete Green Lama”, even if you ignore his pulp series and radio show, the Green Lama ran from issues 7 to 34 in PRIZE COMICS before he was re-invisioned by Raboy for Spark which aren't part of this set. Also, they are only doing 4 issues of his comic each in the archives. If the GCDB is correct, there is only one story, 12 pages, in each issue. So, out of the 200+ pages in each archive, only 48 pages in each is Raboy's Green Lama. 3/4 of the $50 book is actually non-Green Lama material. Raboy's beautiful stuff, and one of the other strips contains work by Mort Meskin but, still, their advertising is more than a little misleading. They could have easily added about 60 pages, and done one volume with all of the Green Lama’s PRIZE COMICS appearances as well as Raboy’s work. Also missing, is the story that takes Magga, a supporting character from his pulp appearances, and turns her into a distaff version of Raboy’s take on GL. Wait and get it cheap on Ebay is my advice. If you don't want to spend thousands or even $50 bucks, here's a sample of Raboy's take for free:

And to sample his radio show:

The Green Lama's original pulp adventures have been getting reprinted by Adventure House over the past year. They are interesting. A bit pedestrian in some ways but still have a charm of their own. Stories aren't static either, the aides he starts off with aren't the same as he ends with as romantic subplots unfold.

So, just who is the Green Lama?

Green Lama: 1940, Double Detective pulp (created by Kenneth Crossen). After graduating Harvard, Jethro Dumont went abroad and studied in Tibet. In the pulps and early comic appearances, he had ventriloquism, various mesmeric abilities, disguise skills, able to generate electrical shocks due to radioactive salts he digested, and above average but not super strength as well as some scientific knowledge in addition to his philosophies. His adventures in the pulps, he was aided by a few assistants that were unaware of his true identity. He seemed to go through some pains to keep his identity a secret. While Jethro Dumont was known to be a lama, he did most of his investigating as a Dr. Charles Pali and was usually disguised as him when operating as the Green Lama, so if anyone did suspect the Lama’s identity, it would be as Pali. In fact, his first two aides Gary Brown and Evangl thought just that, despite being well aquainted with Jethro Dumont, who served as best man at their wedding after which they shortly retired in September of 1940. However, his true identity was uncovered by a mystery woman who also was a student of Buddhism, who would slip him clues and information, giving as her name Magga. Possibly, his servant Tsarong knew his secrets as well. Magga seems to have been a woman by the name of Pat Dell, though it’s a bit unsure if Dumont figured that out.

His adventures were also chronicled in PRIZE COMICS #7, Dec. 1940 – 34, 1943, though one didn’t see his aides. It had been a few months, so one can assume that Gary and Evangl retired from adventuring to lead a respectable life as farmers. Along the way he had attracted the friendships and aid of Ken Clayton and adventuress Jean Ferrell as well as the mystery woman Magga, but they seem to have moved off scene as well. Maybe there were other unrecorded cases somewhere that explains their absence from this period of adventures. Likewise, Dumont seems to have shedded the Dr. Pali identity. These cases were covered apparently by the same man who did his pulp adventures. His foes were getting more powerful such as Stopwach, the man who was also a master of Tibetan hypnotism and helping the heroes Black Owl, Yank & Doodle, and Dr. Frost take down the Frankenstein Monster.

In 1944, another publisher would take on publishing the Green Lama’s adventures, starting off with a slight retelling of the origin. Though this too is supposed to be from Ken Crossen, the Lama had undergone some mighty big changes. He still wore a green hood, but instead of the green robes, his costume was green tights complete with cape and his meditative phrase (Om! Ma-ni pad-me Hum! “Hail! The Jewel in the Lotus Flower!”) now gave him super-strength and flight as it telepathically linked him to monks in Tibet who echoed the phrase. It all looked very good as done by Mac Raboy. By this point, Tsarong definitely knew his identity.

Around this time, Magga would re-appear, only in a solo adventure sporting the powers and Raboy designed costume of the Green Lama and called Magga the Magnificent {April, 1946, Atoman Comics #2 (Spark)}

A few of his adventures got reprinted, but he wouldn’t be seen again fighting crime for several decades until he was brought out to help FemForce and a bunch of other golden-age heroes to fight the Black Shroud in the mid ‘80s. Strangely enough, he had undergone yet another transformation. Still wearing the tights version of his costume, he now displayed not the physical superpowers, but mystical abilities to cast various spells and such (though still able to fly), something he hadn’t shown any talent in before. He’d hang around a while lending mystical aide when Nightveil or Dr. Weir aka the Purple Claw were unavailable. The Green Lama of SUPERPOWERS seems to also follow this vein as he’s being talked up as being akin to Dr. Fate. There’s also the AC mini-series that will look at a modern day Green Lama in a different reality, a descendent and possibly reincarnation of the earlier hero who had fallen in battle with Magga and other allies.