Thursday, February 4, 2016

TRULY GONE & FORGOTTEN : ROBBIE THE ROBOT AND PROFESSOR BRAINSTORM

Henry Boltinoff is rightfully celebrated at DC Comics for penning a veritable army of half-page gag features throughout its silver age titles. From Cap's Hobby Hints to Vic Varsity to Super-Turtle, he practically owned the inter-story pages huddled above the ads for Palisades amusement parks and Superman on TV (all of which is long-overdue for a remastered collection - the comics, that is, not the ads).

Less celebrated, however, is the work of Hi Mankin, whose scientific-themed Robbie the Robot and Professor Brainstorm strips filled half- and three-quarter-pages in Strange Adventures...



Having made a career largely on Looney Tunes strips, western comics and animation storyboarding (you'll find his name in the credits of many an original Johnny Quest episode), Mankin had reportedly begun his career with a one-day stint in the Siegel/Shuster studios. Personal conflicts left him seeking the door, which has unfortunately robbed us of his energetic cartooning having graced a full-length story of the Man of Steel.



Professor Brainstorm is a spin on the absent-minded professor gag, although his particular issue seems to revolve around his contrary nature more than his memory lapses.




As for Robbie, he emerges fully-formed from his origin story, in which a scientist builds him to take over day-to-day distractions -- like eating, sleeping, and watching TV. Basically, it's like the guy who invented Soylent, taken to an even more absurd end.



Likewise, Robbie also seemed to wander the world indulging in other quotidian tasks which his inventor couldn't be arsed to deal with, such as watching movies and attending boxing matches. And getting drunk af.



Mankin didn't leave much of a legacy at DC, but he has a plethora of crime and western comics floating around, including having produced a lengthy stint of Roy Rogers comic strips for King Features. It seems like he'd be a good pick for a nice career overview volume, in which Brainstorm and Robbie would definitely have a place ...



Wednesday, February 3, 2016

SUPERMAN V BATMAN : THE SAGA OF SUPERMAN VS BATMAN

"And I will WRECK his senior portrait, too!"

It was Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's The Dark Knight Returns which popularized, in the minds of fandom, the apotheosis of the Superman/Batman rivalry. Of course, the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader had fought one another countless times in the past, but Miller's first genuine magnum opus (and say what you will about the fella, he's had a few) introduced the central conceit which has entranced the often-resentful, adolescent emotional intelligence of the typical comic book fan -- that Superman and Batman hate each other.


Batman, drilling dirty peepholes.
Since then, the duo have come to blows, metaphorically and literally, on dozens of occasions. It's a pretty good guess that if you saw both of them in a square-bound prestige format comic book, they were going to throw down somewhere on the interior. Prior to these grim and gritty days, however, Batman and Superman turning on one another (this is distinctly opposed to "turning one another on," a subject for a different blogpost, possibly on Tumblr if not DeviantArt) was the exception rather than the rule.

Take, for example, World's Finest Comics vol.1 No.153 (November 1965), an imaginary story which postulates the existence of a world where Batman believes Superman to be responsible for the death of Thomas Wayne (Not Martha, though. Superman has standards), and dedicates his life to destroying the big lug.

The idea of Superman and Batman becoming bitter enemies was so unusual and jarring that it had to be consigned to a non-canonical story. Put that in your bat-pipe and super-smoke it.

In the story, Thomas Wayne appears to have survived the holdup which saw him and his wife killed before their son's eyes in mainstream reality ... Mom, however, snuffed it, just a like a Disney cartoon. Devoid of matrimonial bliss, Thomas Wayne turns his attention to the next-prettiest raven-haired nymphet of his acquaintance, the teen defender of Smallville himself, Superboy.

Developing an anti-kryptonite serum in his laboratory, Wayne is reluctant to hand it over until it's been tested, despite Superboy's desperate need for the protective measure. Denying the frustrated Boy of Steel apparently results in Wayne's death later in his laboratory, smacked straight-up dead as a blue-and-red streak vanishes into the night with the formula safely tucked under his wing.

At this point, fate does what fate does in these comics, and Bruce Wayne dedicates himself to a life of fighting crime -- specifically to develop the skills to defeat Superboy, prove his guilt, and bring him to justice.

Okay, get it out of your system.
Another feature of this reality is that the now-grown Superman is like basically the nicest, most beloved person on the planet. When Batman adopts Robin as a crimefighting partner, the Boy Wonder bails on the arrangement when he discovers Batman's red-hot hatred for the Metropolis Marvel. You'd think Robin might go off to warn Superman about his ex-boss' plans, but he actually just fucks off into nothingness, after posing for the internet's favorite Batman picture.

Meanwhile, Superman is literally doing such incredibly nice things like saving a South American village from an army ant invasion while refusing to harm the ants, instead building an ant-bridge for their needs. I'm sure they'd probably just eat the bridge, but it's a nice thought and it works the first time, at least. He also gives Batman a "flying belt" from another planet, just because Batman seems nice.

How does Batman repay this generosity? Well, he shoots Superman with radioactive tracking doohickeys, breaks into the Fortress of Solitude, slugs Superman with a kryptonite batarang and teams up with Luthor, of all things. Once you've teamed up with Lex Luthor, you can all but guarantee that you're on the wrong side, ain't you?

Luthor puts Superman in a green kryptonite isolation tank, all the better to ask him difficult quiz questions for cash and prizes. He also accidentally lets it slip that he's responsible for Thomas Wayne's murder, not Superman, and then just sort of idly kills Batman for the heck of it.

In the final panel, Batman's life-force fades away, as the Dark Knight perishes in the arms of his one-time enemy. "If this had happened differently, we could have been a great team" he chokes, somewhat presumptuously given that he just spent twenty years trying to railroad Superman into jail. This is just the kind of nice guy Superman is, though, that he doesn't just hurl Batman's corpse into the sun out of spite. It's what I would do.

Yeah, phew, thank goodness this will never happen.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

TRULY GONE & FORGOTTEN : HIP KNOX, THE SUPER HYPNOTIST



Golden Age comic book companies must have been tripping over their own dicks in the rush to co-opt the "Super-" prefix which had already been appended to the red-booted paterfamilias of comics' superhero genre. It was a risky proposition, with hungrily litigious National Periodical happy to slap lawsuits on anything that even twitched in a manner reminiscent of their boy in blue. I couldn't say as to whether short-lived Komos Publications ever faced some degree of that particular brand of courtroom drama, but the plucky little company -- helmed by sci-fi's own primogenitor Hugo Gernsback, as a matter-of-fact -- did risk everything by doubling down on the literal super-lative...

Within the pages of Superworld Comics resided Hip Knox, the Super-Hypnotist, possessor of a "super-brain." If there were any way to cram another "Super-" in there, I genuinely trust Komos to have found it.

"...dressed like that."
Knox enjoys one of those typically grim and ethically questionable superhero origins which populate the early days of comics. As a gruesomely injured infant on death's doorstep, Hip is experimented upon by his adoptive father Professor Knox. I knew a guy in high school named Professor, I wonder if it's the same fella.

The Professor's experiments gift Hip with the aforementioned "super-brain," granting the little shaver the power to mentally dominate any living mind through the power of his super-hypnosis (there we go, we found another super-). As an adult, Hip chooses to align himself with unidentified government agencies in order to wage a battle on crime.

Specifically, Hip wages his war against Eric Mac Fadden, a devious gangleader who actively pursues Hip as a favor to other crooks and criminals. There's typically a scene in Hip's adventures where, convinced of the super-hypnotist's demise, Mac Fadden has a pleasant, comforting sit-down with a local big-time crook to reassure the mobster in question that all planned crimes may proceed unhindered by super-hypnosis. In a lot of ways, Mac Fadden is sort of a superhero to crime.

On the other hand, he might be the actual hero of the story. Hip, as it turns out, has a bad habit of misusing his powers in practically criminal fashion. In the course of being abducted by Mac Fadden and his men, Hip desperately uses his hypnotic powers on pedestrians as the car which carries him zooms past. The result: the pedestrians freeze in their place like human statues, providing what Hip hopes will be (and which doesn't actually happen) a trail of bread crumbs leading to his eventual destination.

Deleted scene from Jesus Christ Superstar.
Later, trapped in a rocketship which is plummeting towards South America on a collision course, Hip hypnotizes a flock of "millions" of condors. Ordering them to form a living airbag in order to prevent his cataclysmic end, Hip's gimmick ends up killing the birds en masse. Who killed the condor? Hip Knox did. (It's also worth mentioning that, having landed safely amidst what I can only assume was a flurry of blood and feathers, Hip promptly hypnotizes a local tribe of "savages" -- a surprisingly African-looking tribe considering the South American locale -- into accommodating his safe return to the United States. He doesn't even say hello, he just immediately hypnotizes them into servitude. Some hero)

Mac Fadden, for his part, doesn't even seem to want to kill Knox, at first. I mean, I can sympathize, I have a feeling that the guy really grates on you after a few unwilling hypnosises. Still, when a ray beam intended to remove Hip's hypnotic powers seems to destroy the fella instead, Mac Fadden cries "Gosh, he's dead! I didn't mean to kill him!"

When Knox invariably frees himself from Mac Fadden's schemes, he neglects to incarcerate the supposed fiend and chooses instead to merely humiliate him in public. Mac Fadden has been hypnotically forced to skip and flop like a fish through public thoroughfares, stand stock still as a statue, and act as a performing seal on a Coney Island dock. Still, every issue, Mac Fadden comes back with a new scheme and even more henchmen happy to take a shot at snuffing Hip Knox.

That's the kind of sticktuitiveness one expects of the good guys. Maybe the title of the strip should have borne Mac Fadden's name.

As one final note, it's worth mentioning Hip Knox's costume, being one of the most absurd and unsalvageable affairs in comicdom. Long red underwear and what appears to be the kind of hood worn by 1950s ladies in the hair salon, deciding on the most absurd portion of it is a genuine challenge. Is it Knox's tiny, curled mustache? The open eye emblem worn just a smidge too low, in a somewhat unsettling fashion, just above his ribcage? Or is it the oblong golden belt buckle which seems to serve as a small lingam emerging from his crotch, like some sort of living Greek herm? Why does it have to be just one? Perhaps Hip Knox is merely super-ridiculous.

How will you know unless you try it?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

AQUAMAN'S SECRET POWERS


With a new movie slated to be released in the midst of 1,800 other movies about second-tier superheroes that'll be hitting your local movie theaters over the remainder of your life and the lives of all of your children for a thousand years hence, until the tribe of Lost Children from Mad Max:Beyond Thunderdome becomes a reality, Aquaman is hot. 

Well, not literally, but that's pretty much the only thing that DC's King of the Seven Seas doesn't do in this adventure from Aquaman vol.1 No.14 (March-April 1964, "Aquaman's Secret Powers"). When Aquaman and his kid sidekick, Aqualad, discover a bearded hermit floating on a storm-tossed raft in the middle of the ocean, they naturally drown him and consume his flesh, as do all merpeople of the unforgiving oceans.

That's good. You want to stretch before working out.
Nope, wait, hold on -- Aquaman and Aqualad rescue the old codger, learning that he's in possession of a magic powder. So are most television executives, but in this case it's a magic powder capable of granting the user the ability to transform themselves into four amazing shapes at will. The powers come with the usual, exceptionally-specific Silver Age rules. In this case, each power can only be used once, the transformations last for six hours precisely, they all wear off after twenty-four hours, and if you have an erection lasting longer than four hours then you should see your doctor.

I've always been of the mind that Aquaman should have more powers than his traditional assortment of water-breathing and fish commanding, and I know I'm not alone in that. When you consider all the possible powers you could extrapolate from his aquatic environment, you realize that the sky's the limit. Sort of. The sea's the limit.

Anyway, Aquaman could always pick up a venomous or electric touch, the ability to control water, cuttlefish-like camouflage, sonar and other enhanced senses, ink sacs, the seahorse-like ability to gestate young ... you know, all the classics.

Those aren't the powers granted by the magic powder, though. Impulsively dusted with the sprinkly stuff, Aquaman is now simply playing out the clock until he gains the opportunity to use his new abilities -- opportunities which come in short order (we're fighting a twenty-four hour deadline here, mind you).

You'll never be normal, Aquaman.
Firstly, Aquaman rescues a man dying on the deck of an ocean-going cruiseliner, and returns him to land by stretching his legs to ridiculous lengths -- miles, possibly -- so as to deposit the guy at the hospital. And then live with mile-long legs for six hours. Imagine if part of one of them washed up on shore in the interim, it'd be a genuine mystery of the sea.

Rescuing a damaged ship-at-sea a scant six hours later requires Aquaman to blow up like a dirigible so that he can haul the vessel to shore. I've seen worse novelty hot air balloons than that, to be honest. His high vantage point allows him to witness a tidal wave, which his third transformation luckily blocks -- Aquaman spreads out and becomes a human wall. That happens to a lot of men in middle age, it's nothing to be embarrassed about.

His final transformation is to turn into a stone giant, hundreds of feet tall. For the life of me, I can't figure out why this seems like the unlikeliest transformation of all, but it really does. Maybe because the other ones can all be accomplished with Silly Putty, so the stone giant seems out of place.

Once the transformations are concluded, Aquaman returns to his normally-powered self. I assume so, anyway, because they didn't extrapolate as to whether Aquaman kept any of the magic powder or if he and Aqualad did anything with the old hermit's corpse. It might still be rotting on a beach somewhere, clutching a sack of supernatural cocaine in his bony claw. Now THAT part I hope ends up in the movie.

Aqualad is insensitive.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

IF YOU SEE SWAMP THING, SAY SWAMP THING: THE EMERALD HEART

With superhero television programs blowing up in the last few years, recaps of superhero television shows have become all the internet rage. Other sites, however, are hobbled by the need to cover shows which have been "recently broadcast" or which are "any good at all." But who covers the uncoverable? That's why Gone&Forgotten chooses to cover the 1991-1993 USA Network live-action Swamp Thing television series in a feature I like to call...

If You See Swamp Thing, Say Swamp Thing
The saga of a giant turnip and his heroic attempts to establish an evil-free zone around his beloved cesspool.
Season One / Episode One : The Emerald Heart


At a shaved-down twenty-two minute running time, you'll have to come to grips with the fact that Swamp Thing is a television show which doesn't have a lot of room for "establishing the episode's premise" or, at the other side of the spectrum, "providing a satisfying conclusion." The fact is that sometimes you're going to get an episode that opens on nothing more elaborate than a slow, silent zoom on a dwarf strung up by his feet from a candy-striped pole in the middle of the swamp, and that will have to hold you over until dinner's ready.

Something terrible has happened at Santa's workshop.

Swamp Thing arguably spins off from the pair of big-screen motion pictures which preceded it, Wes Craven's Swamp Thing and not-Wes Craven's Return of Swamp Thing, a sequel so under-budgeted that it couldn't afford a definitive article. The primary connection is Dick Durock, stuntman and actor who donned the suit of dried yams every time DC's muck monster made it to live-action, which sounds like the product of a witch's curse.

Durock does an admirable job with the surprisingly thin gruel given to the show's title character. Primarily, though, the highlight of the performance is that he's finally nailed down the Swamp Thing voice. In the first movie, his direction seemed to be "bashful." In the second, it was apparently "surfer dude (thumbs up!)." In the TV show, he finally speaks like the comics suggested the character might -- as though he were a man with a poor diet trying to hold a conversation through a bathroom door after three straight nights of cold lasagna for dinner.

Swamp Thing is clearly on cocaine.

Soap star Mark Lindsay Chapman is the successor to Louis Jordan's big-screen depiction of Doctor Anton Arcane, and looks like David Byrne's skeleton still wearing David Byrne's suit from Stop Making Sense. If you had difficulty finding shoulder pads between the years of 1991 and 1993, then I expect the culprit was the costume designer for Swamp Thing. 

Making up the rest of the cast is Tressa Kipp (Carrell Myers), a single mom who's moved in with her mother Savannah Langford (Patricia Helwick) after some "problems" her son, Jim Kipp (Jesse Ziegler, a sort-of pink, leftover Gremlin) experienced when the pair lived in Philadelphia. My guess is that Jim was just chilling out, maxin', relaxin' all cool and playing some b-ball down at the school, and furthermore that it was actually a couple of guys who were up to no good who started making trouble in the neighborhood. Still, Jim got in one little fight and his mom got scared and said "Let's go live on the Universal Studios backlot with your grandmother. PS, don't get emotionally attached to the old bird."

But, with everyone introduced, it's on to the episode recap!

Following the title sequence, it's Jim who discovers the strung-up dwarf (Humphrey, a former assistant/test subject of Arcane's, played by John Edward Allen) while punting the swamps and ineptly filming the tops of trees and closeups of his shoes. Humphrey is on the run from Arcane, whose immoral experiments produce unconvincing rubber man-monsters to serve his evil desires.

The one evil desire which quasi-scientific monstrosities can't provide Arcane is a woman's sensuous touch, which is why he patrols the shopping district in his sweet ride, harassing Savannah Langford into pimping out her daughter. It sounds like a sleazy and uncomfortable plotline, and it sure is. Arcane is pretty consistently played as some sort of gruesome date rapist, and the bird's nest of weaponized mousse he wears as a hairstyle doesn't help matters.

Literally driving around, just hoping to pass a ZZ Top video shoot.

Meanwhile, Humphrey's got the trubs. One of Arcane's men has discovered him and leaves the weird little fella beaten to literal death by the shoreline. Jim's of no particular help, on account of he's being menaced elsewhere in the swamp by one of Arcane's creations - a short-fingered, toothless chimp nicknamed Toad Boy (Bobby Porter). Fortunately, this gives Swamp Thing his one chance in this episode to perform his equivalent of hulking out, demonstrating all of his greatest superpowers: He intimidates Toad Boy and sends him skittering into the glades, returns Humphrey to the world of the living with his bio-restorative touch, turns the bad guy into a tree as punishment for committing an act of evil in Swamp Thing's swamp and -- most importantly -- is a good listener.

Jim promptly adopts Swamp Thing as a surrogate father, like one does with a two-legged bag of compost who lives in your backyard. He also goes to great pains to explain his and his mom's Philadelphia diaspora to a barely-interested Swamp Thing. "I'm used to strange things," explains Jim as he and Swamp Thing go for a walk, "I'm from Philadelphia." Nuff said.

"I got this thing where I love to wander around different neighborhoods late at night. I sneak out after my mother goes to bed. You'd be surprised at the things I see." This is a nine year-old boy, talking like the Son of Sam. Calling his mom "my mother" is particularly Ed Gein-y of him. If he doesn't have a shoebox full of cat skulls under his bed, I'll eat my hat. Or I'll eat MY shoebox full of cat skulls, whichever's closest.

"How would you like it if somebody picked YOUR apples!"

Speaking of Tressa, the groundwork is laid for Swamp Thing having the hots for Jim's mom, which certainly goes a long way towards explaining why the big muck monster tolerates listening to Jim's unmedicated rambling. As Tressa idly and purposelessly wanders the gross swamp in her backyard, Swamp Thing tries to lure her attention with a roughly heart-shaped pendant necklace inside of which he's bolted an LED. Swamp Thing is surprisingly crafty! Also, Tressa doesn't fall for it, wandering away and leaving the necklace behind. My guess is that she's pretty used to swamp monsters trying to stick her with cheap jewelry. Fool me once, shame on you, as they say ...

Arcane manages to get his hands on Humphrey while hauling a dime piece back to his secret cavern/laboratory. There, his unconvincing man-misfits hang around languorously chained to walls giving the place a certain insouciance. Currently occupying the three convenient hollow cave slots are Arcane's most horrifying recent experiments, (a) some sort of bat-monster (b) a pig-man and (c) a woman. To be fair, her hair is a mess. Terrifying!

Atmosphere is everything in the cave/lab, since it's serving a double purpose: not only does Arcane terrorize an exhausted and restrained Humphrey in the grim spot, he also has to use it to manhandle (booo!) his date and coerce her into performing the least erotic bump-and-grind in wetlands history. 

"And now let's welcome to the stage Candy, Candy on the center stage, and two dollars off all shots!"


Say what you will, Chapman and Allen at least seem to be having fun, even when Arcane idly shoots Humphrey through the top of the head. Well, you have to laugh.

Tressa ends the episode by getting on a boat piloted by the shirtless local simpleton, Obo (Anthony Galde), leaving Jim to stay with his much-suffering grandmother while Tressa beats cheeks back for Philadelphia. Given how fucked up and evil this supposedly evil-free swamp is, "leaving in a hurry" is the correct answer. Even if you keep in mind that the creepiest thing she saw in the swamp was novelty jewelry. If she'd seen even half of what the audience had, she'd shit herself sideways to the next county. 

"Can someone get me a magazine, please?"

Elated, Jim runs into the swamp screaming "I'm staying! Did you hear, I'm staying," Swamp Thing's muted response to this is to solemnly and wordlessly observe the tyke's idiot antics from behind a fern and grimace. I feel the same way.

With Tressa going back to Philly, that's the end of the pilot episode of Swamp Thing, which surprisingly has a full minute of closing credits. No scene in this entire episode lasted a minute ... heck, I don't think any subplot lasted a full minute. I guess you don't cross the Unions.

You can pick up, in two weeks, where this Swamp Thing saga goes after the pilot, with a reshuffling of the cast and new, unfortunately non-lethal menaces to face Jim. Please keep your evil in a safe place and do not dangle your evil out of the windows, thank you.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

TRULY GONE & FORGOTTEN : TIM STEELE, THE MILLIONAIRE ROBOT

"Try the Yellow Pages, under 'Robots, Killer'"

Both Marvel and DC Comics have a long and rich history of science-fiction and horror anthologies in their collective pasts, although Marvel has arguably made better use of the creations within those books. Not being afraid to reach back into their non-superhero genre titles, for instance, granted Marvel license to force Iron Man into confrontation with Fin Fang Foom, assembled the Headmen to fight The Defenders, and turned the monosyllabic would-be world conqueror Groot into a movie star.

Ooh, check out Mister Sensitive here ...
DC, on the other hand, hasn't made much use of those characters who weren't explicitly created as superheroes in those books - Adam Strange, Animal Man, Ultra the Multi-Alien and so on. With the exception of The Faceless Hunter from Saturn, to name a very deep cut, I'm not sure any of the old characters from their 1950s/1960s sci-fi books have made it onto television in any form.

Which is a shame, because there's limitless fodder for extrapolation in many of these old stories. Take, as an example, the Otto Binder and Harry Sharpe creation Tim Steele, a golden, murder-minded robot whose story ran through two back-to-back issues of Strange Adventures in issues No.53 and 54.

Debuting in "The Millionaire Robot," Steele is the surprise guest at the reading of the will of recently deceased inventor Jonathan Murdock. Much to everyone's surprise, Jonathan fails to leave his considerable fortune to his beloved nephew Harvey, and instead leaves it to Tim Steele, a "thinking robot" of his own invention who smugly accepts the cash, despite being a six foot tall humidifier.

I'm so tired of the mainstream media's pro-killer robot bias.
Of course, to accept the cash, Tim must be declared human. Luckily, Murdock stipulated that the courts should, by his wishes, declare Steele to be human. Big deal, except according to Murdock's lawyer, "Last wishes must always be respected by law!" Oh shit, this is an opportunity. I am putting some amazing requests into my will. Most of you will end up pantsless on national TV if I have my way.

Steele begins to spend the money on ridiculous, pointless and destructive avenues. He smashes an expensive sports car ($15,000! Which is exactly how much my Scion XB cost the day I drove it off the lot. I feel so fancy!), sinks a yacht, bets on losing horses and just straight up throws money into a fire. I like this 'bot's anti-capitalist style.

Harvey pieces together the truth of his uncle's death, in the interim. It seems that Tim used a hidden super-magnet in his chest to knock his inventor off of a tall roof, while the old man tinkered with a "sun mirror invention" (my guess is that it's a giant mirror which the sun can use to make sure it looks nice before a big date).

"I meant 'shoot him,' Ted. Go pick up your gun."
Of course, the now-considered-human-by-law mechanical murderer poses a problem for law enforcement - he can't be executed or imprisoned! By his second appearance, Steele is leading the po-po on a "robot dragnet" (the most exciting cop procedural of the 25th century). Defying guns, acid, tanks, planes, bombs and public dissatisfaction with his "destroy human civilization" platform, Steele begins to indulge himself in symbolic demonstrations of strength. "The bank robbery will serve as a demonstration of my powers" he says, ripping a vault door from its hinges, adding"And this squandering of the loot as my scorn for money!"

Harvey tricks Steele into thinking that his electronic brain is in dire need of recharging, luring the rampaging robot back to his creator's lab and into the clutches of "deadly fission-rays" which are poured into the robot's noggin, fatally. Hooray for humanity, that's one for us and a million dollars' worth of burned money for the robot!

Tim Steele's look (and name) predates DC's hallmark automaton, Cliff Steele, a.k.a Robotman of the Doom Patrol. In fact, Cliff had also gone on a multi-issue rampage in the back pages of the Doom Patrol's eponymous title (he didn't throw wads of cash into an incinerator, though). It's nothing compared to Tim Steele, Millionaire Robot, though ... a perfectly good character they just chucked on the scrap heap, he's probably been hollowed out and used as a junk drawer by now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

MAD AD : STOPS "BED WETTING"


While comic book advertising -- like most advertising, to be frank -- capitalizes on the fear of shame, death, and social stigmatization, it's nonetheless impressive to find a new, densely-worded canon of dread in its firmament. If owed to nothing else besides relative location on the human body, acne cures and baldness fixes make up a surprising concatenation of ads targeting comics' multitude of varying-aged readers (not to mention the ads for heel lifts, applicable for the worried pre-teen and the height-humiliated adult), meanwhile the relatively taboo bed-wetting problem seems rarely addressed.

Luckily this ad for the "Gary Pharmaceutical Co" (Is that Gary Pharmaceutical of the Boston Pharmaceuticals?) of Chicago, Illinois covers all of the potential bases in one swell foop.

The simple in-a-pill solution is always the start of an unbelievable sales pitch, and typically requires a little brazen fear-mongering to successfully land. Luckily, Gary "Big" Pharmaceutical namedrops Shame, Discomfort, and Inconvenience right out of the gate, also listing the chilling, word-association accouterments of bed-wetting -- "electrical devices ... rubber sheets ... alarms" like a shopping list for a cartoonishly evil asylum.

For a slight chill down the spine, read the clinical summaries of the probably-fabricated test cases (I mean, this is a sugar pill mixed with alum or something, right? There can't possibly have been trials): "Recently married, and embarrassed by habit." reads one, "Nervous, irritable" understandably describes the text on the assessment of a six year-old girl who was, presumably, being quizzed about how often she pissed herself. "Child has remained well for the past three years," explains a passage one might assume is attached to a government report on a alien infant restrained within a sterile plastic playsuit. And, lastly, "Child had no organic defect" which is the "Baby Shoes, Never Worn" of anti-bed-wetting ads.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

TRULY GONE & FORGOTTEN : RAG-MAN


Your Humble Editor's fascination with z-list superheroes goes back to the days when Moses ran after-school errands. I can clearly remember a time, in kindergarten class, when we were playing superheroes. While the other kids quickly sorted through Batman, Spider-Man, Superman and The Hulk ... I picked Ragman. Not only did my five year-old self choose to play the role of the hero of Bob Kanigher, Joe Kubert and the Redondo Studios' abbreviated five-issue series, I was actually nervous that one of the other kids would pick him before I got a chance to.

He's not that familiar,
Admittedly, my fascination with Ragman had everything to do with how cool he looked jumping over his own name in a quarter-page ad which ran in DC Comics at the time. Still, Ragman has, in fact, remained one of my favorite characters, and I'm of the opinion that he's never been better written nor drawn than in the original 1976/1977 run of the book (or, at least, not in any of the subsequent versions which I'd read). Imagine my surprise, with that in mind, to discover that Ragman wasn't actually the first Ragman -- there was also The Rag-Man!

Alternatively credited as Ragman, Rag-Man, The Rag Man and so on, the original bearer of the name Ragman debuted in the first issue of Holyoke's Cat-Man Comics (which itself suffered an on-again, off-again relationship with its hyphen -- this seems to have been an epidemic at Holyoke ... or should I say Holy-Oke! I should not, no).

Jay Garson Jr is a socialite, bon vivant, and crusading crime reporter for the Daily Star. Mysterious crooks, angry at Garson for "breaking rackets and solving crimes" via his regular column, lure him to a desolate stretch of road in the middle of nowhere - and shoot him dead!

Well, they think they have, anyway. Who they actually shoot is a harmless bum who happened to be wandering the side of the road when Garson stopped to ask directions. After asking the hobo if he'd seen any accidents or other "excitement" in the immediate area -- in what, frankly speaking, sounds like a pickup line, but who am I to judge -- the panhandler utters some of the saddest last words ever uttered. "No sir, bud" he tells Garson, "I ain't seen nothing -- I'm looking for a nice cozy bench to sleep on for the night!" Then he is shot to death by a sniper's bullet. This is the "baby shoes, never worn" of shabbily dressed superhero origins.

Talk of the town.
Garson notices that the bum "looks enough like me to be my twin brother" and embarks on a frankly illegal and equally unethical plan. Switching clothes with the unlucky corpse, he decides to take advantage of his apparent death to become a mysterious avenger of the night, unknown to his foes and having no loved ones they can threaten. And so, in honor of his shabby stolen clothes, becomes the Rag-Man!

Rag-Man is one of dozens of characters who take their inspiration - in large and small measures - from Will Eisner's The Spirit (The iconic windows from the Spirit's graveyard hideout are featured front and center in an inaugural fight scene, as the most telling clue).

One thing which Rag-Man had that the Spirit didn't, however, was a career and a profoundly incurious editor. Despite being dead, Garson would anonymously submit stories detailing the Rag-Man's latest victories to the crime desk at The Daily Star, baffling the chief -- up to a point. "It's written by Jay Garson Jr. We're not carrying his column any more he's dead!" he blurts in exasperation, summarizing in conclusion "I give up" as he throws the paper down. The Star wasn't known for connecting the dots, evidently.

Much of Rag-Man's accouterments are ditched halfway through the character's run (following a year-long absence from the pages of Cat-Man). His suit of rags starts to look pretty natty, his frustrated editor is written out of the scripts and he's actively and publicly contributing to newspapers again (This time around, the Midtown Sentinel). He even uses Garson's Park Avenue address as the public home of the crimefighting Rag-Man. It's hard to find much Rag in Rag-Man by that point.

"They were supposed to give us a lift to the maaa-llll..."
The most interesting thing about Rag-Man, however, might the evolution of his manservant "Tiny." Portrayed in the initial adventures as burly but subservient, pink-lipped, goggle-eyed, easily spooked and expressing himself with a lugubrious Stepin Fetchit patois, Tiny starts experiencing a change in fortunes with his fourth appearance. As Herman C.Browner's credits first appear on the splash panels, so too does featured billing for Tiny - "The Ragman's faithful helper" reads an early example, "six feet of dynamite" adds a pair of subsequent adventures. He's as high-profile as his boss from this point on.

Likewise, Tiny drops the subordinate demeanor, his frantic superstition, and - most importantly - his minstrel show dialect (what remains can be liberally read as merely "Southern" rather than servile, if you're so inclined to identify it). He's decked out in a double-breasted suit, loses his exaggerated features, and begins to act less like Rag-Man's factotum and more like an equal partner.

Where exactly Tiny might've ended up had the series continued is anyone's guess, as Rag-Man bows out after seven appearances. In fact, the real question might be how much further Rag-Man could've wandered away from his roots and still kept the shabby sobriquet. We were possibly only a month or two away from the debut of Nice Suit Man ... and Tiny!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

CAPTAIN AMERICA VS THE ASTHMA MONSTER



There are some folks who suggest that superheroes outlived their relevancy by the end of World War II, when the blatant evil of fascism was effectively wiped from Europe and the colorful, practically-made-for-fiction evil of the Nazis was no longer a viable source of villainy. Well, those folks are wrong on two levels: Superheroes were always irrelevant and they never stopped fighting Nazis anyway.

And a third reason is because they also went on to fight allergens!

"...you don't have a home anymore. You belong in the
streets, with the rest of the filth."
Captain America twice faced off against Daniel Tyler, The Asthma Monster, in a pair of asthma-awareness comics released by Marvel in conjunction with Glaxo Inc, manufacturers of (::pause as I look at a list of medications produced by GlaxoSmithKline, recognizing none of them and unable to pronounce most of them::) drugs.

Asthma Monster's m.o. is to shoot cat dander directly into the open mouths of everyone on the planet Earth, crippling them with asthma attacks and allowing him to conquer the world. Why dress like a monster to do this? Good question, and also a tough call, and also I don't really know except kids hate monsters like with their whole literal brains, so he's a good villain for a kids' comic about why you shouldn't make fun of the guy who brings his inhaler to the kickball field.

When the Asthma Monster makes his return to bedevil the innocent town of Midville -- and to revenge himself upon not just Captain America, but also meddling kids and asthma sufferers John and Ruth who aided the Star-Spangled Avenger in defeating the Asthma Monster the first time around - he doesn't come alone. Accompanying the baddie and his sole weapon, the Aller-Gun (which sounds ominously Wagnerian, if you say it out loud), is a parade of tiny, hairy, dusty Gremlins ... with attitude!

Well, you're never going to be able
to hear anything at the movies
ever again.
With John's and/or Ruth's parents (I don't know and I don't care) kidnapped and their house empty, Cap does the responsible thing and leads the kids inside with him. If you think this sounds like a great set-up for the Asthma Monster to pop out of nowhere and fire a blast of pure churro farts into the faces of our assembled heroes, you're right! But unless you also predicted that the Asthma Monster's introductory line would be "Inhale these allergens, you patriotic fool!" then you fail to win our big prize. In the meantime, I finally found just the right words to use when I propose to my girlfriend.

The Asthma Monster's primary powers are hucking cigar ash up your nose with a Nerf bazooka and teleportation, so he fucks off out of the fight as soon as it begins. Taking his place is his platoon of asthma-causing assistants, a crew of twisted little gnomes and weirdos who resemble what might happen if the Smurfs fucked a bunch of Ugnaughts.

Leading the crew is Rugburn, the monster who does it doggy style in front of the couch, I guess. Decked out in gold shorts, orange suspenders and roller skates, he chews "Super Smokin' Cigars" and is dispatched with a hand-held vacuum cleaner, which is a summary of the type of dream you get after a dinner of pulled pork and straight gin.

Avengers -- Inhale!
Supporting Rugburn is Dust Dragon, a hissing pain-in-the-ass who hides in vents and can be taken out by getting slammed super-hard in the face by something like, oh, let's say an adamantium shield. Feather Boa, a feathery snake monster and symbol for sexual insecurity makes up the third member of the crew, while the high-bouncing, hair-shedding Furball joins the fray just long enough for Captain America to kick him to death. There's also The Mold Patrol -- now in color!

As a personal aside, I suffered from asthma when I was a kid, growing up in the wildly unsafe-to-inhale state of California during a period when its air pollution was world-famous for literally murdering people. I ended up spending a few non-consecutive weeks in an air tent just to keep alive. If only my doctors had informed me that I could have merely beaten the tar out of filthy mogwais, I'd've reclaimed a lot of my childhood.

Anyway, the conclusion of the battle involves the apparent final defeat of the Asthma Monster, the return of John's or Ruth's parents -- whoever -- and also one kid in school who had asthma is inspired to go get treatment for it, which is good news for him because that keeps the Asthma Monster away. Victories all around!

Simpsons fans might enjoy the actual coda, though, where a reformed Asthma Monster -- himself an asthma sufferer who merely tried to give everyone asthma just so he'd feel like less of an outsider -- is granted parole and returns to a normal, healthy life as a coach for a high school swim team. In fact, it's the high school swim team on which John, the kid he'd been trying to kill earlier, is the star athlete. If he starts assisting with Ruth's meetings for Job's Daughters International, then both of those kids'll have something more than swollen bronchial passages to be afraid of.

Check out this dumb tool just imitating Captain America behind his back.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

90 FROM THE 90s: PART EIGHTEEN

Throughout 2015, I posted an intermittent series of articles under the "90 From The 90s" heading, covering the scars, scratches, poorly-thought-out tattoos, and other distinguishing marks which typified the culture and industry of comics in the 1990s. This is the final installment of the series and, appropriately for its significance, I'd like to end with what the Blink 182 era truly brought to comics and which stick with it to this day -- the major problems.

Starting with ...

The Speculator Market
Anyone who worked in a comic shop during the 1990s remembers the experience of having a grinning, previously unknown figure walk through the doors, position themselves in front of the newest released rack and, with hands on hips, loudly ask "So which of these are going to be worth a lot of money in the future?"

It was the type of customer which some shops and publishers were dying to hook, and more than willing to create. Orders were amplified beyond reason, based on the expectation of exceptional sales, which was then reported by content-hungry local news, which would bring veteran and curious collectors alike out to the shops in order to purchase multiple copies of four-color birdcage liner in bulk.

While the repeat customer willing to buy multiple issues of any given book -- at the very least, "one to read and one to keep in the bag," as it were -- was a much-sought-after commodity in the heyday of the speculator market (and continues to be to this day), it's a false purchasing segment which creates what is at best a temporary bubble of success. After all, when the speculator inevitably becomes burned out, distracted or disillusioned, it's not just one customer the book has lost -- it's two, or five, or ten or even more.

That speculators kept books out of fans' hands by snapping them up and overpricing them is practically the least of the speculator market's sins, particularly now in an age of digital media and trade collections. That they were a comfortable lie against which publishers and retailers could rest their weary noggins is the real problem, having created a market which generated no new readers and merely taxed its existing audience to near-extinction.

The Celebrity Creator ... But To What End?
Comics creators have a long if sporadic history of fame and wealth. Creators like George MacManus, Harold Gray, Charles Schulz and a few dozen others enjoyed quite a bit of celebrity along with exceptionally comfortable paychecks from their syndicate bosses.

What never came of these bouts of popularity was any sort of union, collective bargaining tool, or in short anything which genuinely helped anyone except the highest-earners in the field of comics -- and not to mention how much harder comic book creators had to work to gain the respect which their newspaper strip counterparts acquired with such seeming ease.

The young turks of independent comics picked up a slate of star-like accolades throughout the nineties, appearing on talk shows and jeans commercials, featured in non-comic magazines, courted by movie studios. But, again, the end result was fat wallets for the few and their friends. The closest comics had come to this level of popular celebration prior to this was restricted to the coverage surrounding the plight of Siegel and Shuster around the time of the Superman motion picture release -- a movement which at least resulted in the attempt to improve creator's rights across the board.

This takes us to the present day, where page rates among even the biggest publishers resemble the same unadjusted-for-inflation page rates of the Eighties, while we find a need for very worthwhile charities like Hero Initiative when rather what we should have is a hard-but-rightfully-earned retirement and health resource for united freelancers and creators.


Con-Glomeration
Cons - once a sort of promised land for comics enthusiasts, rarely staged and often remote - began to enjoy its first incarnation as an industry in and of itself. And like any industry, it grew as quickly as its customers were willing to shell out the dough to support it.  It didn't take long for the first Con megalith - the dreaded Wizard World con founded by Wizard Magazine's Gareb Shamus - to pop up, and immediately begin crowding the smaller, more modest cons out of the marketplace.

We're in a state these days where a single entity is running a significant number of Cons around the country, focusing on television and film at the expense of comics while shoving comics out of the big halls where smaller creators need the most exposure. The future of this touring roadshow of past-the-sellby-date genre actors is a conceivably grim spectacle of the mall comic shop exploding into an unbroken chain of bulwarks across the country, and speaking of which ...


The Tipping Point
Comics have always embraced merchandise, as far back as the debut of Superman. The merchandise, in fact, may have provided a collectible component long before anyone ever considered the madness of "holding on to a comic" long after it had been thoroughly read and enjoyed. By the time that the Previews catalog became required reading at your local shop, however, the back pages of the books where all the plastic bullshit resided outweighed the actual comic book listings by a significant amount.

T-shirts and buttons always had a home in comic fandom, being the means by which fans would often express their interest to one another, not unlike a handkerchief system but for nerds. It has spread far beyond t-shirts and buttons, though. How many bottle openers can one person even own?

 The end result of this increasing devotion to the collection of shotglasses, chess sets, bobbleheads and novelty ice cube trays has been the rise of the dreaded "comic shop at the mall," an entity which - with exceptions, admittedly - primarily exists as a means by which to sell marked-up action figures, statues, heroclix and other non-comic merchandise at the expense of actual comic books. In many ways, the one wall of new releases and the token shelf of trade paperbacks represents what some diehard fans secretly always wanted - to have the actual content of their fandom marginalized and ignored for the sake of flashy nonsense. This is how you keep a scene "real."


The Direct Market as Battleground
When the Direct Market debuted, it was a godsend to smaller publishers who'd either never before had a chance of getting their books sold anywhere other than a head shop or who were locked out of a distribution network wholly owned by either of the major comics publishers. Companies which had struggled so long to dominate the much-more-profitable-than-comics distribution networks weren't planning to give up so easily, however, especially as smaller and more friendly distributors began multiplying in the wake of the newly opened market ... monopolies took a lot of work! That shriveled little spider Mister Potter wasn't going to let Bedford Falls Building and Loan mess up his schemes ...

The direct market became the site of tooth-and-nail battles for the arguably-expanded retail environment, with exclusivity deals crowding smaller distributors into dark, forbidding corners where they perished without celebration. The result is a single distributor almost exclusively serving every shop, opening the direct market up to the very battles which the newsstand distribution system had suffered a few decades earlier. Flooded shelves, variant covers, special editions and retailer incentives which make for less room on the rack for less-prominent titles also reduce the entire field of mainstream comics to a tug-of-war between two rivals, with occasional mud-and-blood being spilt on some nearby observers.


Thursday, January 7, 2016

TRULY GONE & FORGOTTEN : CAPTAIN TRIUMPH



In the mid-1950s, National Periodical Publications acquired the bulk of Quality Comics' titles and characters as the former company dissolved. Although primarily picking up the properties so as to continue Quality's popular war titles (including Blackhawk) and a top-selling romance book, and to nail down the rights to their then-still-popular superhero Plastic Man, National nonetheless acquired literally hundreds of characters which remained, for the most part, unused and underutilized in DC's already-packed publishing schedule.

While a few reappeared as The Freedom Fighters in an annual Justice League/Justice Society crossover, their own short-lived title, and an arc in the nostalgia-heavy All-Star Squadron, the vast majority of Quality's characters suffered persistent guest roles or less (at least until the Nineties and Aughts - almost a full half-century after the acquisition)!

Quality's back catalog, however, remains in the public domain, even if the trademarks now reside with DC Entertainment. This means that many of adventures of their most enjoyable and best-crafted characters can be freely downloaded, their modern-day omissions to behold.

As a for instance, there's Quality's supernatural Superman, a mix between the Man of Steel and the World's Mightiest Mortal - Captain Triumph!

Puberty in a nutshell.
Immediately earning cover graces with his debut in Crack Comics no.27 (January 1943), Captain Triumph is the magical melding of twin brothers Lance Gallant - journalist, alive and kicking - and Michael Gallant - adventurer and pilot, deceased. Quick to sign up with the Army Air Corps, avid flyer Michael unfortunately snuffs it in front of his loving brother and adoring on-and-off fiancee, Kim Meredith during what appears to be a routine hangar landing.

Cradling his dying brother in his arms, Lance rushes through the "anger" and "bargaining"portions of his five stages of grief in short order, pledging vengeance to a suddenly stormy sky. "Michael Gallant was my brother" he shouts, fist raised, to a seemingly uncaring sky, blackened by plumes of smoke. "I swear there's no risk I wouldn't take, nothing I'd hesitate to do! I'd sacrifice anyone's life -- my own included -- to wipe from the face of the Earth the evil that brought about this disaster!"

This is ambitious talk, considering that -- at this point -- there's been no sign of foul play in Michael's untimely death. Lance's journalistic instincts are correct, though, and verified by none other than the invisible audience to his pledge -- his brother Michael's ghost!

Granted tremendous powers by the three Fates of myth (although their involvement isn't mentioned or explained until the Captain's second appearance), Michael's ghost and Lance's living body can merge together to become the mighty Captain Triumph. Touching the T-shaped birthmark on his wrist, Lance initiates the change, granting the gestalt brothers the powers of flight, invulnerability, invisibility, tremendous strength and more. They also get a skin-tight tee-shirt and jodhpurs, for reasons best left to your imagination.

It's important to mention that Lance gets
knocked unconscious like every third issue.
Like the original Captain Marvel, Triumph appears and disappears in a lightning bolt. Also like the Big Red Cheese and his assorted junior partners, no one seems to notice the resemblance between the Captain and the living half of the pair which creates him. Criminals are a cowardly, superstitious and near-sighted lot, evidently.

Captain Triumph's adventures are among the most enjoyable Golden Age stories I've read (and, as you can imagine, I've read more than is clearly healthy). The appeal isn't just the attractive art (the excellent Reed Crandall handles art duties for about half of the character's lengthy run) or the entertaining concept, but -- like with The Fantastic Four, Metamorpho, the Metal Men, or any of the better ensemble books in superhero history -- because the supporting characters and the hero make for an inseparable bundle, stronger for all their complementary shortcomings and weaknesses.

The Captain acquires a manservant in the form of former clown Biff (whose debut in full clown regalia makes for one of the most unsettling cover appearances in the entire field. He thankfully ditches the clown suit immediately), a career fuckup whose enthusiasm is tempered by his inability to keep from tripping over his own feet. More importantly, he's a character who's desperate for approval and purpose, and arguably either adopts Kim and Lance as his immediate family or allows himself to be adopted by them.

Kim Meredith, Michael's former fiancee, still pines for her lost love (despite being engaged to Lance, according to a single caption -- although there's more on that in a moment), and throws herself into danger in what any observer might accurately call a deathwish. Her affection for Michael never translates to Captain Triumph, who is effectively the combined form of her suitor and her closest friend, which is seemingly sad. Captain Triumph, in whose chest beats Michael's heart, never exhibits any exceptional affection for her, either.

You're really selling Biff down the river there, Cap.
In fact, one of the most intriguing character elements is that Michael, Lance and Captain Triumph are all consistently portrayed as separate entities - Triumph isn't so much the two brothers working in accord as he is a third, spontaneously generated Gallant triplet, alive only when trouble calls him. Meanwhile, Michael can only enjoy life vicariously through observing his brother and friends at play, while Lance ... Lance seems to have his own problems.

It's always a tricky proposition to read the signifiers on old characters to determine if they were intended, however discreetly, to be gay, but there's a lot in Lance's favor. Despite the single mention of engagement to Kim, there's no romantic affection brewing between the two. He's otherwise a very tidy bachelor, and there must be some reason he didn't join up with his brother, or get picked up in the draft. It might just be me, of course, your mileage may always vary...

Whatever the case, the cast ends up being a tight-knit and co-dependent quintet of characters, compelling on their own even without Captain Triumph's superheroic escapades (and a modest rogues gallery, including lots of one-time baddies like the hypnotic Khor, the deadly Mr.Pointer, and the criminal twins A. and Z.Spade).

Captain Triumph has made a few appearances, including a fairly recent showing in an issue of Titans where Michael's ghost turned out to be a psychotic killer and the less said about which the better. Likewise, he formed a key component of James Robinson's and Paul Smith's miniseries Golden Age, although scripting the brothers as antagonists devoid of their company seems to miss the mark of the intent of the original stories.

By the end of his career, Triumph's get-up-and-go started to get-up-and-go, with his powers diminishing one by one until he couldn't even fly. Still, nothing's been done with Captain Triumph so decisively that the character isn't available for further use, if only there's a creator who knows how best to make use of an ensemble cast in an age of independent heroes ...

A thankfully brief diversion.

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