Thursday, December 27, 2007

Flip Falcon returns from the 4th Dimension

Talk about a little serendipity. I was reading some Golden Age tales, getting a few more villains for my home website. In the bunch were a couple of Flip Falcon stories. Flip is your standard non-costumed adventurer that was prevalent back in the day. His home was in FANTASTIC COMICS from Fox. His hook was he had a dimension machince that allowed him to travel into the 4th Dimension. More than just the dimension of Time, the 4th Dimension was home of all sorts of otherworldly and supernatural beings.

So, when I head over to Comic Book Resources, they reveal that as part of the first comic from The Next Issue Project from Erik Larsen and Image Comics will be Flip Falcon himself! Handling the writing is Joe Casey and art by Bill Sienkiewicz. Bill S. is thankfully using a bit more of a straight forward style though unmistakenly still his scratchy bizarre self (not one of my favorites, but that's alright).

One of the things I like about this project is that while some of the creators like Allred seem to be creating almost pastiches, Casey and Sienkiewicz are handling it as if the most recent issue with this character was last month, not over a half century ago. It looks to be a pretty straightforward modern take on this character. It's just a shame the colorist didn't follow that lead, and instead we have the artwork printed deliberately out of register. Which kinda gives the whole thing a late 70's - early 80's type of vibe.

Can't wait.

Meanwhile.... Read THE TWELVE #0, a reprinting of several of Timely's more obscure heroes that wil be featured in the upcoming mini-series by that name. It also reprinted several of the promotional pieces that had been circulating the web and found on the artist Chris Weston's blog as well as the opening pages to the mini. Have to say that color adds a lot of much needed vitality to the previously seen stark b/w art.

However, in those opening pages, the Phantom Reporter serving as narrator refers to himself as being seen as a "tourist" next to the super-powered and brightly costumed crowd as he and Mr. E only wear suits plus a mask and capes as costumes and with the Laughing Mask and the Witness, have no superpowers but rely on the use of guns, wits and fists. Which is fine as a bit of character narration, it tells us a little about the character.

Only it's not just narration. From an interview, we know this is actually Straczynski's own point of view: In selecting his roster, Straczynski asked Marvel for a laundry list of unused characters that hadn't been seen or heard from in more than half a century, and simply picked his favorites. "[Editor] Tom Brevoort, knower of all things Marvel, gave me a list of, I think, 20 or 25 characters," Straczynski explained. "I went through them carefully, researching each one individually, looking for characteristics that might make for good combinations and good conflict."

"I eventually opted for splitting them into three groups: the typical super-hero/scientifically created hero like Captain Wonder, Dynamic Man and Electro; those with a touch of the supernatural such as Black Widow and Master Mind Excello' and those I classified as 'tourists,' heroes with no powers, just a cool costume and a .45 caliber such as The Phantom Reporter and Laughing Mask."

"This gave me a really good cross-section of the kind of heroes you had back then."

See, the term is that of JMS' own classifying the type of heroes he was researching. While it shows up in story, such as the Phantom Reporter looking down at himself in a self-deprecating manner, it still stems from what seems to be JMS' shallow understanding of the characters and their historical context. And sadly, that point of view is then being reinforced by his projecting it into the words of the characters so it makes it into story continuity.

He uses the term`tourists' because frankly he's a tourist in regards to the history of superhero comics. Like Knowles' analysis of Superman & Action Comics #1, he's not looking at the real context & evolution of the genre. To a tourist, especially one whose appreciation of the genre really extends to the Silver Age if that far, superheroes are about powers & tights. To the mindset of a tourist, the superhero genesis must go no further back than superman, a footnote. Thus, the likes of the Phantom Reporter, Witness, and the Laughing Mask are considered second rate character types even alongside the likes of equally obscure Rockman & Fiery Mask. In reality, they come from an older and richer pedigree, the pulp heroes. The
Phantom Reporter's heritage is even richer with his name putting him in that subset of Phantoms running about, which also included Timely's Phantom Bullet. Instead of downgrading the character, it should be recognized that the Phantom Reporter is a bit more purer to the time and the heritage. What should be celebrated and the character should be likened to are the likes of the Shadow, the Spider, the Green Hornet, the Phantom, and the Phantom Detective. If anything, the likes of the super powered Joes should be the tourists, heroes more because of the posession of power than desire and drive to see the innocent protected and justice to be done.

Also released over the web, the cover to issue #3, an "homage" to two Doc Savage covers, specifically the Bantam reprints of THE MAN OF BRONZE and THE MYSTIC MULLAH. Questions raised got me thinking about the differences between parody, homage and swipe and the legality of it all. We see swipes and homage covers, so often, we don't really give a second thought to legal issues behind them.

Copyright and trademark law do allow fair use in terms of Parodies and Satires. So, parodies are actually protected. Swipes are not. Homages are a bit trickier, and I'd say they are NOT protected legally. So, it's fine for Marvel to do homages to infinity of FF#1 and they might turn a blind eye towards DC doing so, but it wasn't that long ago that Guice using an Amy Grant cover for Doctor Strange that got Marvel into some legal trouble (though one could argue that would fall under a parody/satire of taking an album cover from popular crossover Christian singer and putting it on a comic book with vampires and sorcerors). However, a parody or satire means poking fun at the original AND that the audience would recognize it as such, it is making a comment on the source material. I'd be hard pressed to make that case here. A swipe is usually done in the hopes that others won't recognize the original source, putting a vaneer of your own style over someone else's work. An homage is in between the two. It's usually up front about the source (so not a swipe), but it's using that source to make a statement about the current work and not the other way around as in the case of satire and parody. In other words, here we are using Doc Savage's trademarked and copyrighted paperback covers to build up and legitimize the Fiery Mask. That's a very good argument for a lawyer to take to court as trademark infringement (and it's being used as promotion and advertising material, more ammo for trademark lawyers, it's EXACTLY the sort of thing copyright and trademark laws are in place to prevent). And when you consider that Marvel couldn't even get permission to reprint the MARVEL-TWO-IN-ONE that their comic book version Doc Savage appeared in, ouch.

Now, what would have been funny is if in this cover, the pic of Doc was based on their version with the bare chest, short vest and white pants... And that indeed would have been considered a parody and satire, a backhanded comment on them not being able to reprint that take on the character.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The End of the Golden-Age?

Comics fans like to break things down into their component parts. Especially in this day and age of continuity obsession. It's not enough to tell stories that are more or less free of continuity errors, stories must be continuity driven. DC is cannabalistic in its continuity obsessions as each of their mega stories destroy much of the history behind them while replacing characters right and left with "legacy" characters no matter how obscure.

One of the early products of the fandom, especially in regards to superheroes was the creation of the Comics Ages. Taking its cues originating with Hesiod's "Work and Days", the beginning of comics with Superman was termed the Golden-Age and the then present time of the 1960's as the Silver Age (Hesiod, referred to his own Age as the Iron, one of toil and hardships). Of course, as comics history became a bit more mainstream and better known, a "new" age was created to pre-date the Golden, to refer to the pre-Superman comics which were mostly reprints of newspaper strips as well as a few new non-superhero characters as "Platinum".

Interestingly, while the beginnings of the Comics Ages are usually agreed upon, the endings are not. Partly because one can point to a watershed moment, such as the publication of Superman (1938) and The Flash II (1956) as when things took off for the superheroes. But, when did the Golden Age end? Like the dinosaurs, it's probably not really one significant life altering event, but the culmination of small ones and a slow decline that seems sudden and stark in retrospect.

Just like the dinosaurs, superheroes didn't ALL die out much less at one time. It's just that by 1951/52, they were mostly all gone and many of the companies also leaving the field. But DC continued on and continued publishing Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and a few others. And a few companies tried introducing new ones but not finding foothold. And, DC being the major company of the time got to be credited to starting the Silver Age with the creation of the new Flash. Although, the character really doesn't seem to be that much more popular than the others that preceeded him at other companies. He debuted in Showcase in 1956, had another appearance in 57, 2 in 58. The next superhero after him was Green Lantern in 1959, 3 years to the month after the Flash's debut, the same year the Flash finally got his own series. Interspersed in those issues of the Flash were sci-fi adventurers like Challengers of the Unknown, Adam Strange, and Space Ranger. Not quite the explosion you would expect. At least Green Lantern would have 3 successive appearances in SHOWCASE before graduating to his own series in 1960. Showcase still doesn't leap onto debuting more superheroes though as it shows off characters like more Rip Hunter and Time Masters and the Sea Devils over the next year before bringing in Aquaman who was currently being published in ADVENTURE. In late 1961, two years to the month after Green Lantern and 5 from the Flash, the new Atom debuts.

If you look to the years preceding the Flash, you will see all sorts of superheroes and pseudo superheroes being created at about the same pace if not moreso. I think it's safe to say DC gets the credit just because they were able to last. I don't see many signs in their published material that they had a lot of confidence in the superheroes to take off. It's not until Marvel gets into the game that you can really say you have the beginning of a new Age.

But, DC really confuses the issues of the delineation of the ages. All the other companies went bust, and Marvel at least stopped publishing straightforward superheroes for some time and changed their company name. DC continually published at least some superheroes. And then "Flash of Two Worlds" came about which put most of their Golden Age heroes on a separate Earth, Earth 2. It became a bit of a fun debate and speculating what was the last adventure of the Earth-2 Superman, Batman, et al and the first solely Earth 1. Unfortunately, the terminology of Earth 1 and 2 became synonymous with Golden Age and Silver age, leading fans to consider the Earth 2 heroes the "original" heroes. Thus there was a big uproar when DC killed off the Earth 2 Superman in one of their mega crossovers a little bit back. How dare they kill off the original Superman? Don't recall as big an uproar when they killed off the Earth 2 Batman, Robin, and Green Arrow. But that was pre-internet fandom.

See, Earths 1 & 2 are not historical delineations, they are continuity retcons. There was NO Earth-2 much less an Earth-2 Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al until the publication of "The Flash of Two Worlds". Until then, all stories featuring Superman were of the same Superman as much as he has always been, just as today's Phantom, Mandrake, and Dick Tracy are historically the same characters that first appeared in the '30s. Because of the "Eternal Now" conceit, one has more or less willingly ignore that in 1955, Robin is still a teenager, that they had WWII era adventures and so on. As such, the Earth-2 Superman is not the "original" Superman, he's a retcon character who incorporates little forgotten aspects and retconned out trivia that was no longer "true" of Superman no matter what cut-off date you choose, his backstory was constantly having small retroactive changes (such as the source of his powers). And those little forgotten pieces are now cemented as being non-canonical of the Earth 1 Superman. Even then, we only had the concept of an Earth 2 Superman, he wouldn't appear for some time. DC could have just as easily decided there wasn't an Earth 2 variation of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, that they were so iconic, they were unique to Earth 1. The transition from one to the other is a fan exercise, but it doesn't really have historical significance beyond the mostly dead continuity of the DCU Multiverse.

When talking the Ages though, one needs to look at the actual historical record, the context of the comics, the growth and abandonment of themes both in-story and in culture in regards to the comics. Dates to look at:

1949: Doc Savage and the Shadow cease pulp publication. Captain Zero is the last of any new pulp super hero titles created and lasts only a handful of issues. Read one and you'll see a character that would fit in very well with the style of heroes created by Stan Lee in the '60s.

1950: Marvel Boy... the last new Golden Age hero from the company that would be Marvel? Or the first of the proto Silver-Age heroes?

1951: The JSA closes it's doors and All-Star Comics becomes All-Star Western, a clear reflection in the changing trends and movement beyond Superheroes. 3 Months later we get Captain Comet

1952/53: Fawcett loses on appeal the lawsuit from DC Comics and closes shop.

1953: Captain America, Human Torch, and Namor are brought back only with then more modern sensibilities, the atomic bomb and Red Menace now fueling the stories.

1953: The Phantom Detective, the last of the pulp superheroes, retires from the pulps.

1954: The Shadow retires from Radio

The Black Cobra (1954), Captain Flash (1954), The Avenger (1955) The Martian Manhunter (1955) are all created, owing more to modern and future Silver-age times than the sensibilities of the Depression and WWII golden-age.

1955: Better drops out of pulps.

1956: Standard/Nedor/ Better closes. Pines Comics, a spin-off company continues for a couple of years, no straight superhero titles.

1956: Showcase #4, Barry Allen Flash

1959: Showcase debut of Green Lantern

1961: Fantastic Four #1: Debut in their own title.

My own take, from Captain Comet on, all "new" continuing titles and characters are post-Golden- Age. After Fawcett shuts down and sells off the next year, no title is really a golden-age title. We're in a bit of no-man's land. Call it the "Atomic Age" or what have you. Superheroes are around, but they aren't the dominant species any more. By the mid fifties, almost all of the chief influences on the Golden-age of superheroes are gone: the Depression, WWII and the pulps, replaced by Communism, atomic bombs, rockets, television, EC comics, Frederik Wertham, cowboys and interest in space. But it's really 1961, with the publication of Fantastic Four #1, that it all gels into something starkly new and the superheroes are made relevant once more.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Secret Secret Origin of Superman?

We got letters! If you wish to read them in full, just scroll down to the past blogs, specifically the Stardust and Green Lama focused ones. However, I do want to call attention to them and a couple of links they provided. Paul Karasik reminds me that the name of his Fletcher Hanks book is “I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!” and is currently on its third printing! Way to go Paul! Also, there’s a link provided to a Fantomah story not found in the book if you cannot just get enough of Hanks’ oddball style to:

Writer/artist of the Green Lama mini coming from AC Comics has a preview of the first issue up at his site (there are a few more pages in the printed book, he promises). So, if you a bit more of a sample than the cover image:

The Secret Secret Origin of Superman

In talking about his upcoming book “Our Gods Wear Spandex”, Chris Knowles compares Joe Shuster’s iconic cover of Action Comics #1 to the renaissance painting “Heracles and the Hydra” by Antonio Pollauoio. By comparing angles and such he scores a few hits in making an objective and informed argument, even if to do so, he must in one instance have Superman be the same size as the Heracles figure and in another, change the size of the figure so as the Hydra and car line up properly.

But, where he falls is when he tries to take the arguments further and what he actually ignores. A problem I had in my younger days with English teachers and criticisms. They become so concerned with intellectualizing a story, with dissecting and codifying it into themes, metaphors, and symbolisms that would put Dan Brown to shame, they forget the actual story and confuse it all with actual intent and fact. Many times, the symbols and themes that one sees in a story inform us more about the readers than the authors, it’s what they bring to the book not necessarily what’s really there or intended. Ask Roy Thomas about the sexuality of Union Jack and Dynamite in THE INVADERS sometime, something many readers and some creators thought was very obvious. Until someone actually thought to ask Thomas what he intended.

Despite his objective hits, in his subjective arguments Chris Knowles shows many holes in his reasoning. First, we’ll look at the painting. 1) While Kane is known for using swipes, Joe Shuster used models and tons of assistants. But no one before has really shown a link to any swipes. 2) While swipes was indeed a common practice, most of these artists were pulp and comic strip fans and indeed aspired to working for them and as such, swipes tended to be from those and other illustrator sources. Not museum pieces. (And for a painting that he claims is famous, as someone who read a lot of mythology and was an art major for 3 years in college, I cannot say if I ever saw this painting before). 3) I’ve never seen in the history of swipes or homages or what you want to call it, where the energy and direction of the two pieces would be so dissimilar resulting in a completely different effect.

The last part is where I really have trouble with it. He argues that the anatomy of the Shuster figure seems off, yet I don’t see any inconsistencies in it especially compared to his other drawings. What it does show is a very different style and approach to drawing, more akin to the pulp and comic strip illustrations. Whereas the painting Heracles does look stiff and awkward and suggests impending action. He’s rearing back, preparing to strike, all the energy and the viewer’s attention is being pulled into the Heracles figure. Shuster’s cover instead is action personified, a violent explosion emanating from the Superman figure as he is shoving the car forward while in full run, the dashing against the rock with parts flying and people fleeing outward. The two works are almost complete polar opposites in the way they actually read which is not something one aims for when choosing to actually reference an earlier work. You use the reference to gain a similar effect, to help get it right. Not to do it differently (unless you are purposely parodying or critiquing the reference).

In looking at pulp covers, I came across a cover from 1935 that is very simlar to the running pose of of Superman on that cover. In fact, other than the position of the arm, I think it has more in common with the Superman figure than the Heracles does. For one thing, much of the energy, the suggestion of forward movement is the same. And, then there’s this 1936 issue of MORE FUN COMICS, a title Siegel and Shuster were doing Doctor Occult. Look closely, and you’ll see the same triangle frame-work that ACTION COMICS #1 and the Heracles painting share though reversed. But, noting the similarity and actually arguing the intent are two different things.

As Knowles goes on, it becomes obvious that he’s over-intellectualizing in his approach to Superman and other early comics. He sees similarities and relationships without taking into account contexts, without actually looking at the creators or the time period they and their works exist in. From his interviews:

This all started with a nagging question: Why would Superman wear a cape? It would be a liability in a battle; it could blow in your face and block your vision at the worst damn times. And what about the Spandex? Superheroes like the Shadow and Doc Savage were around before Superman and most of them didn’t run around in skintight clothing, right? Well, perhaps it’s because the guy who created Superman had his sights set on an earlier role model.

… Well, I got to thinking that it reminded me of Hercules and his lion skin, which was always flapping around in the breeze. Of course, I thought this until I saw "Heracles and the Nemean Lion" by the Renaissance relief sculptor Antico, which pictures Hercules almost exactly as Superman is today: short, wavy hair, long, flowing cape and naked, muscular body. Well, OK, add the Spandex and the underpants and it’s Superman.

Except for a few other nagging details. Because, instead of looking to the sources, to the accounts by Siegel & Shuster, to the context of the times and the types of works that they and other creators stated as serving as inspirations for the characters, he runs with what the character reminds him of. Right away, he's judging the work through his own eyes and perceptions instead of actually being objective.

If you look at Siegel and Shuster’s own accounts and such, we know they read pulps. In fact, the pulp that inspired both of them, the one that contained the first Buck Rogers story, but whose cover of a flying man (not Buck) seemed to be a watershed moment for many early science fiction fans and wannabe writers, I’ll be danged if it doesn’t look too different from a superhero type costume. Tights were already being worn by the Phantom in the comic strip pages. An early drawing of Doctor Occult in superhero costume shows him in cape, tight shorts and boots, looking very much like covers and the St. John drawings of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter. And you have Tarzan himself flexing his muscles fighting lions and such. There were covers of Doc Savage where he wore just shorts, looking very much like a superhero. Keep in mind that Carter’s abilities and all were Superman in reverse, an Earthman on a warlike planet with lesser gravity giving him vast powers and able to bring about justice through that greater strength. Circus performers, weight lifters and other professional strongmen ( and had been sporting similar outfits for years whereas Lee Falk credited portrayals of Robin Hood in tights inspired the costume of the Phantom. Either way, there’s plenty of direct popular sources for adopting such a look that don’t require a trip to the library or museum. The precedent is in place without them re-inventing the wheel. And Knowles doesn't provide a logical reason as to why his Heracles theory should carry more weight.

No one is arguing that Hercules, Samson, Gilgamesh and Beowulf aren’t the grand-daddies of them all. But, Knowles wants us to believe that they are the direct sources, the direct links. Because it makes the comics sound more intellectual and cleverer than they in reality were, drawing inspirations not from classical literature but the pop culture of the time. It sounds better that they are using renaissance paintings and classical sources for their inspiration instead of some decades old pop culture source a couple of times removed that the general public will never have heard of.

Just as he also suggests that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster seemed to be into the occult and that Lex Luthor bears a strong resemblance to Aleister Crowley. Forgetting that Luthor wasn’t bald to begin with, the argument is spurious at best. Shuster’s drawings were primitive and cartoony in likenesses for all the energy and luster they could have. To say any one character bore a strong resemblance to a living person would be hard to prove. Why not say that it was the actor Lionel Barrymore that fueled the likenesses of Luthor, especially in the post “It’s a Wonderful Life” years? Why would anyone base a mad scientist on Crowley anyways?

And again, to say that early comics were interested in occultism… where’s the charge that Siegel and Shuster were interested in law enforcement and spies since they did strips starring such characters? The real truth is messier and more mundane. First off, both were Jewish just as I’m a Christian. With that comes a bit mythos in upbringing and heritage. One doesn’t have to look any further than the Old Testament to see where the likes of the Spectre comes from. It’s not a question of some esoterical and exotic interest that makes the creation and artform more glamorous, but one of simply heritage and religious background. An everyday humdrum background and heritage that millions share. A lot of comics did deal with ghosts, vampires, magicians and sorcerers, things a little bit out of the purview of that background.

You want an explanation for the ghosts, ghouls and other nightly creatures? Just look again to the pulps. Even by the time of the creation of Doctor Occult, the extremely popular WEIRD TALES had been around for over a decade with tales of Atlantis, heroes on other planets, and ungodly creatures. A steady diet of the likes of Lovecraft William Hodgson’s Carnacki, Seabury Quinn, Manly Wade Wellman and Robert E. Howard will give you enough inspiration to last a lifetime without doing any kind of formal research. You also have the Universal Horror mo vies Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy; the popularity of magician characters such as Chandu and Mandrake, and so on. You don’t need a deliberate interest in the occult more than a general liking and reading of such tales, gaining information second hand from the gestalt of the popular culture of the time any more than Jerry Siegel needed an interest in Entomology to make the comparison of Superman’s leaping ability to a human sized flea. And, the truth is, these comics weren’t all that intellectual. I’ve recently read several werewolf comic book stories, one where the creatures could turn others into creatures like themselves just by their howls and could be killed by bombs and another that stated the preferred method of killing such a creature was a stake through the heart! There's very little indication of any serious research beyond one of today's youth writing a vampire story based on knowledge solely gleaned from watching Buffy and Angel and never reading Dracula or even more obscure tales.

These are people making it up as they go along, pulling bits and pieces from all these different sources that are part of their individual make-ups, from what movies they’ve seen, what books they’ve read and just from what they see in their culture every day. It’s messy and inexact and inaccurate so the method to kill a werewolf is taken from how to kill a Hollywood vampire. It’s not pretty. It’s not people going to the museum or the library to do hours of research as much as it is pulling from various sources just laying around and looking at what succeeds on the next rung up. It’s not glamorous and offends our ideas as we think artists and creators should be all about creation and being Artists. And, too often, comic book fans want to legitimize their hobby and hold it up as high Art by denying the true fact that it is a craft and trade as much as art, meant to tell stories and to entertain and excite. Read some golden-age comics. They are fun and full of potential, rawness and creativity. And many are poorly drawn, stories badly structured and full of latent racism. But, they ain’t intellectual.