Golden Age Showcase: Miss Masque

It’s been a while since we had a lady superhero on this blog that didn’t have a huge mainstream movie come out this year.

Let’s see…what femme fatale looks good this week?

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Okay, she looks good.

Today we take a look at the comic book superhero Miss Masque and no, she is not a Carmen Sandiago clone…although that would be pretty kickass.

Origin and Career

Miss Masque made her first appearance in Exciting Comics #51 in September of 1946 and was published by Nedor Comics, a division of the company Standard Comics.

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #51

She shared the limelight with her slightly more famous superhero comrade, The Black Terror.

That was the cover of her first issue, this is the double page spread that introduced her to readers:

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #51

I’m not going to lie, as first impressions go that’s a pretty good one.

As for creators, there are no author or artist credits on any of her stories.  However, artists Alex Schomburg and Frank Frazetta have been credited with supplying several covers featuring Miss Masque.  For anyone who might not know, Alex Schomburg was one of the most prolific and dynamic cover artists of the Golden Age of Comics.

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and Frank Frazetta is the reason why we think Conan the Barbarian looks like a chiseled barbarian warlord.

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Anyway, back to Miss Masque.  Her backstory is simple, she’s a socialite named Diana Adams and she moonlights as a superhero, that’s it.  No tragic event, no dead parents (that we know of), and no lab accidents.

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She’s just an ordinary lady with her wits, two pistols, and a lot of time on her hands.

Her first adventure is a simple one.  After her car breaks down she attempts to get help from a greedy old farmer who is currently engaged in a water dispute with his neighbor.

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #51

The farmer attempts to fix the problem by hiring a bum to burn his neighbor’s property to the ground but the bum attempts to steal from him, the farmer gets violent, and Diana changes into Miss Masque in order to investigate.

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #51

The farmer knocks her out (this kind of happens a lot in the future) and attempts to ditch the evidence by burning his house down.

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #51

All pretty standard evil so far, but he tried to kill the dog and that is unforgivable.

Miss Masque escapes and tracks the farmer down, only to have him drown in a cruelly ironic way.

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #51

That…is not a good way to go.

Most of her stories followed a similar format.  Her stories would open with a massive double page spread,

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #54

and then she would go on to solve the “case of the week” with little to know continuity between issues.

It’s worth noting that she was a pretty capable superheroine.

Comic Book Cover For Exciting Comics #54

She would find a problem that usually involved whoever she was dating at the time, discover some dastardly scheme, and kick all kinds of butt and have the situation wrapped up in a couple of pages.

The artwork is pretty good too.

The formula must have worked because Miss Masque turned out to be pretty popular.  She got a couple of cover appearances,

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and she even became one of Nedor’s top three characters along with the Black Terror and the Fighting Yank.

Comic Book Cover For America's Best Comics #24

It’s worth mentioning that she underwent a costume redesign around 1947 where she showed off a bit more skin.

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Sometimes it’s important to remember that stereotypes about women in comics exist for a reason.

So what happened?

Nedor Comics must have been undergoing the same troubles the entire comic book industry was suffering through in the late 1940’s because they were consolidated into their parent company Standard Comics in 1949, which went under itself in 1956.

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It almost seems like a broken record at this point but Miss Masque most likely suffered the same fate that befell most Golden Age superheroes in the fifties when the comic book industry was gutted by parents and lawmakers worried that comics were corrupting their children.

If I had to make an educated guess she was doomed from the start since her initial publication date of 1946 lines up with the decline of the superhero genre in American comics and it’s pretty safe to assume she was created as an attempt to boost sales.

However Miss Masque, along with most of the Standard Comics’ library of characters, would receive a reboot in the 1990’s when most of them entered the public domain.

She wound up becoming pretty popular at AC Comics, making a couple of cover appearances in their annual issues,

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A team member of groups like Femforce,

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and she even got her own solo series.

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In this new continuity she retained her identity of wealthy socialite Diana Adams only this time her costume is the source of her power and her will to do good, since it’s possessed by a “spirit of justice”.

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I’d also say it was possessed by the spirit of 90’s comic book cheese.

She also appeared in Alan Moore’s Terra Obscura series in the early 2000’s,

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where she was engaged in a romantic relationship with another character named Fighting Spirit.

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Most recently Miss Masque was part of Dynamite Comics Project Superpowers series from 2008 to 2010.  In this series she got another costume change where she looks even more like Carmen Sandiago,

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she also suffers from amnesia and has actual superpowers this time.  She can replicate other people’s appearances, although her powers seem to be a bit ill defined.

Dynamite even gave her a spinoff solo series in 2009 which lasted for four issues.

Maybe it’s the red and the artists’ fascination with her legs that makes her so popular.

Miss Masque is one of the best female superheroes to come out of the Golden Age of Comics.  While we tend to look back at that time as a place where men ruled and women were considered to be side props, it’s important to remember that there were people out there who thought much differently and were willing to put a lot of time and effort into creating capable and well written female comic book characters.

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Golden Age Showcase: The Grim Reaper

Before we begin, I just want to say thank you for two very big milestones.

First, last week’s blog post on Truth: Red, White, and Black was the single most successful blog post we’ve ever had on this site.

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I was absolutely blown away by the audience and the wonderful conversations that the article generated.

Second, yesterday was our two year anniversary as a blog and a website.  I’m not going to lie and say it’s been easy, but watching people enjoy everything we’ve worked so hard for has made this little venture worth it.

Anyway, let’s talk about a super hero that killed a whole bunch of Nazis and called himself the Grim Reaper.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #2

Origin and Career

The Grim Reaper first appeared in Standard Comics’ The Fighting Yank #7 in February of 1944.

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As you might be able to figure out from the cover, the entire issue had something of a military theme to it, especially since the United States was in the last full year of the war in Europe.

The Grim Reaper was published by Standard Comics and was created by comic book writer and editor Richard E. Hughes.

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The pictures above show Hughes’ many pseudonyms which he used since he was an incredibly prolific comic book creator in a career that spanned the 1940’s to the 1970’s.

It’s worth mentioning that the Grim Reaper is something of an oddity in Golden Age superhero comics.  While many of his fellow heroes started off fighting common criminals and spies, the Grim Reaper was thrust straight into the front lines of the war in Europe and got right down to kicking Nazi butt.

Comic Book Cover For The Fighting Yank #7 - Version 1

It’s also worth mentioning that Richard Hughes was actually a pretty good writer, because The Grim Reaper’s stories were pretty good.

In his first appearance our hero makes it very clear that he has no qualms about shedding German blood.

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Also, he manages to save a concentration camp full of prisoners and captured Allied pilots so the Allied war effort can destroy a Nazi aerodrome.

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Apparently, this story was so popular and well received that the Grim Reaper would be given his own title and cover appearances after his first story.

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To be perfectly honest, I think that this is one of the greatest Golden Age covers I’ve ever seen.

The Grim Reaper’s new adventures were more of the same deal with him fighting the good fight in Europe and killing Nazis left and right.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

What’s really interesting about these stories is just how human and normal they are. The Grim Reaper is actually more of a secondary character and the writer tends to focus on the plight and effort of normal humans actively fighting the Nazis across Europe.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

Sure, the first page has a large picture of the hero, but the story itself is about the Greek resistance movement that sprung up to fight the occupying Nazi force.

It’s also worth mentioning that while the first Grim Reaper story falls into the typical tropes of turning the hero’s Nazi enemies into monsters who don’t have a very keen grasp of English and like to talk “in ze stereotypical German akksent!”

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

The funny thing is that, during his first main story, the writer goes out of his way to actually humanize some of the Nazis by having a Gestapo officer actually save the Grim Reaper’s life and reveal himself to be a German working against the Nazis.

Comic Book Cover For Wonder Comics #1

They would eventually give the Grim Reaper an origin story in his second issue.

It was revealed that the Grim Reaper was actually an American student studying in France named Bill Norris who decided to stay behind in Paris in order to continue his studies.

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The Nazis, in a blatant disregard for human rights and the Rules of War, sent Bill to a concentration camp when he tried to protect an old man from being beaten by a group of soldiers.

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Sure, the soldiers had every right to arrest Bill for what he did, but you don’t sentence someone to slave labor when they assault your men without weapons.

While in the camp, Bill meets a leader in the French Resistance and manages to escape.

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He decides to help the French and dons the Grim Reaper costume to fight the Nazis out of patriotic duty.

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The Grim Reaper would go on to have a couple more adventures fighting the Axis powers, but then the war ended.

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The Grim Reaper was too popular to be cancelled, so he decided to go and fight gangsters and common criminals instead.

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Honestly, the new stories were nothing special and the Grim Reaper found himself playing second fiddle to other stories and characters that were becoming more and more popular in post war America.

So what happened?

History and bad business happened.

Standard comics went out of business in 1956 as the comic book market dried up and left many of the smaller publishers bankrupt.

The Grim Reaper would have remained forgotten if it wasn’t for the best beard in comics, the incredibly intimidating Alan Moore.

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Moore had created his own publishing company in the early 2000’s called America’s Best Comics 

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and he scooped up many of the Standard Comics’ characters that had slipped into public domain which he used in a spin off series called Tom Strong.

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The Grim Reaper would eventually be killed in the Tom Strong spin off series Terra Obscura.

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In the end The Grim Reaper was a pretty typical flash in the pan Golden Age superhero.  He existed, had a pretty short run, and faded into obscurity quickly and was only remembered by people who were truly interested in this particular time in comics.

With that being said, he was well drawn (for the time), had a pretty sensible backstory, and was surprisingly well written for the time.  Like many real life people who were fighting and dying in Europe and the Pacific during the war, the Grim Reaper did his part to beat back tyranny and evil and that is worth celebrating.

Golden Age Showcase: Lance Lewis

I love superhero stories, but every now and then I get tired of men and women with impossible powers and I want to read something else.

When I get tired of reading about superheroes like Superman and Spider Man I like to turn to the science fiction category.  Granted, while superheroes and sci fi do share a lot of similarities, some times it’s nice to just relax with a book about normal human beings using their intelligence, fists, and cool sci fi gadgets to solve all the world’s problems.

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Okay, not that one.

Thankfully, this was something that comic book publishers understood as far back as the 1940’s and the folks at Standard Comics were more than willing to accommodate the need for non superhero stories with strange and fascinating science fiction stories about space men and aliens from the future.

Let’s talk about the detective from the 22nd century: Lance Lewis.

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Origin and Career

Lance Lewis first appeared in Standard Comics’ Mystery Comics #3 in 1944 during the post war boom in non superhero comics.

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Although is first appearance didn’t credit the author or artist, later issues revealed that the character was written by Bob Oskner,

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who had done some early work for Timely Comics and made his name in humor comics but would later find steady work at DC in the 1970’s,

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and was drawn by Graham Ingels, a man who would become famous for his work on EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt.

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Anyway, back to Lance Lewis.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Our hero was a detective from the distant future tasked with keeping the solar system free from bandits, brigands, and other criminals.

In his first adventure Lance was tasked with overseeing a race between two space ships that belonged to two rival companies who were vying for a lucrative delivery contract.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Sadly, the race did not go well and Lance was tasked with solving the murder of one of the pilots.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

What’s rather interesting is that this story did present a genuine mystery for the reader, who was left with no idea how a pilot could have been killed in the middle of space without a mark on him or without any apparent sabotage to the ship.

It turned out that the ship was sabotaged by the competition.  The rival company hired a saboteur to drill microscopic holes into the ship’s engine which led to all the air escaping from the ship.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

There are a couple of things that are pretty noteworthy about this comic.  First, the art style is pure “ray gun gothic”, which was an art style that was very popular in early science fiction of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

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Image result for raygun gothic 1950'sWhat I’m saying here is that the art is awesome and I personally think there should be more of it.

Second, you’ll notice small lines of war time propaganda on the bottom of the page.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Such were the times I guess.

Lance would get a girlfriend named Marna in the following issue after rescuing her from a group of evil blobs from Saturn who were bent on total domination of the Solar System.

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Then he took a three year hiatus and would return as the cover character on Standard’s Startling Comics #44 in March of 1947 to capitalize on the boom of non superhero themed comic books.

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The rest of his appearances were pretty standard “sci fi detective” affairs, where he would solve a case that involved some strange technology or evil alien race with his girlfriend.

His last appearance was in Startling Mystery Comics #53 in September of 1948.

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

His last case deserves special mention because it is an honest to goodness clever bit of writing.

Lance and Marna are on Jupiter watching a broadcast of the Planetary Music Festival, a music competition that has a huge cash prize for the winner.  Lance brings Marna’s attention to a little boy who is incredibly skilled with the violin.

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

However, Lance is interrupted by his superiors ordering him to investigate a mysterious accident in space where a cargo ship was destroyed, which was strange considering that it wasn’t carrying explosives. Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

Things get weirder when Lance finds out that the boy’s manager, an evil looking Mr. Gorman and his associate Namar, placed a stack of greeting cards onto the ship that exploded.

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

Long story short, it turned out that Mr. Goman and Namar were blackmailing shipping companies into paying protection money and would blow up the ships of people who refused to pay with specially treated cards that were coated with an atomic explosive that was set off when a certain tone was played over the radio.  The person who set the tone off was the boy who was playing the violin.

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

The comic has a happy ending, in turned out they boy wasn’t in on the plot and was only playing to support his mother, and the criminals are all brought to justice in one of the best written Golden Age stories I have ever read.

So what happened?

Lance Lewis was actually published by one of Standard Comics’ imprints, Nedor Comics.  Nedor and its sister company Better Publications were folded into Standard Comics in 1949, a few months after Lance Lewis stories stopped being published.  While I can’t say for sure why these stories stopped being published (mostly because everyone involved either isn’t talking or is dead) I’d like to speculate and say that this merging was due to financial troubles at Standard Comics and Lance and company got lost in the shuffle.

That being said, Lance Lewis would have a brief revival in the early 2000’s thanks to one of the greatest modern comic book writers alive today: Alan Moore.

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Alan Moore started a company called America’s Best Comics in 1999.

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One of the series he created was about a “science hero” named Tom Strong,

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The series proved popular enough to warrant a spin off series known as Terra Obscura in 2003.  It was a series about an alternate Earth on the other side of the universe and utilized a lot of the old Standard Comics heroes that had fallen into public domain.

Lance Lewis made an appearance Tom Strong #12 as a time traveling scientist who sent himself back to World War 2 so he could fight in “The last good war”.

He would die three years later when he was killed by a villain named Mystico who needed to obtain the heart of a time traveler.

Lance Lewis was an interesting case study of the Golden Age.  While many people, including myself, dedicate most of our time and effort into studying the old superheroes we tend to forget that there were comic books that told other types of stories as ell.

Lance Lewis may not have had super powers, but he was definitely a hero using his brains, fists, and toys to deal out justice to the criminals of the future.

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Comic Book History: David Bowie and the British invasion of comics

Yesterday the world lost one of it’s most original and eccentric artists, David Bowie.

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I will admit that I am not personally a big fan of his music, although I do really like his song “Heroes”

 

And although I may not like his music all that much it is impossible to ignore the influence his voice, style, and sound had on modern music.   You do not sell over 100 million records and achieve tremendous commercial and critical success sustained over a career spanning three decades and change without doing something right.

So why am I talking about David Bowie on a blog series dedicated to comic book history?  Well, believe it or not you could actually make a strong case that David Bowie actually played a huge part in shaping how we view and think about comic books today.  But in order to do that we need a brief history lesson.

In the early 1980’s, right around the time David Bowie was undergoing a second career peak with songs like “Ashes to Ashes”

The comic book world decided to copy the music scene from the 1960’s with their own British Invasion.  Most people point to this guy paving the way.

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That is comic book legend and Lord of Snakes Alan Moore, who is responsible for creating some of the greatest comic book stories of all time.

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After Moore’s string of massive successes DC comics introduced even more British comic book writers and artists to American audiences such as Neil Gaiman

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Jamie Delano

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and Grant Morrison

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In order to accommodate these new writers and their penchant for deep, complex, and often mature themed works DC created an imprint called Vertigo that would go on to become one of the greatest names in modern comics.

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What’s interesting is that music, especially British pop music of the 70’s and 80’s, would play a huge part in influencing a lot of these writers.  Jamie Delano would become famous for his work on the long running Vertigo series Hellblazer which explored the life and exploits of the Alan Moore created occult magician John Constantine.

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What’s funny is that the character of Constantine was modeled after British singer/songwriter and front man for The Police: Sting.

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Grant Morrison had a more direct link to 1980’s British rock n’ roll, he was in a band called the Mixers who weren’t half bad.

 

As for Neil Gaiman, well he came out with a little known comic book series called Sandman which I have mentioned before is one of my favorite comic book series of all time.

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One of the most famous recurring characters in Gaiman’s epic was none other than Satan himself, Lucifer Morningstar the Fallen One.

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Gaiman made sure that this version of the prince of darkness was modeled after the appearance of David Bowie,

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which probably makes this David’s greatest contribution to comic books.

The fact that British comic book culture in the 1980’s took so many influences from British music at the time really isn’t that surprising.  They were both engaged in a period of tremendous change an upheaval.  The 1970’s and 80’s were a time when a lot of previously long standing conventions were being overthrown and new ideas were being brought to the forefront.  For music this meant the rise of countless genres like electronic music, glam rock (a genre that Bowie helped pioneer), soul, funk, disco, new wave, psychedelic, stadium rock, and so much more.  For comics it meant the final death of the long established Comics Code and the ability to tell meaningful and complex stories again.

The 1970’s and 1980’s were tremendous times for music and comic books and we were fortunate to have David Bowie in the middle of it.  Out of all the crazy and wonderful acts that came out of that time period Bowie was able to stand out as one of the most unique and longest lasting of them all.  His accomplishments and influence will be felt for generations and he will be sorely missed.

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If you would like to explore some comic books that are more directly about or influenced by Bowie there is a comic book series called Fame! which publishes comic books about the lives and works of famous musicians and Bowie’s book can be found here. Also, Bowie’s first hit and one of his most famous songs, Space Oddity, was made into a children’s book which you can read about here.

The Primordial Soup: American vs. British comics

The world is filled with rivalries: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, Pokemon Red vs. Pokemon Blue, Justice League vs. Avengers, butter side up vs. butter side down (you may laugh but they almost declared thermonuclear war in the book over this issue) and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Healthy rivalries give both sides something to work towards, the goal being to be better and more successful than the other.  It’s no small secret that the comic book industry is home to one of the biggest rivalries in entertainment, Marvel vs. DC, and talking about that little squabble and whether or not it really matters is an article all unto itself but today we are going to talk about something different.  Today we are going to talk about which country produces better comic books: America or Britain.

A quick explanation and a couple of ground rules.  The article will look at both sides of the debate and present the pros and cons of either side.  If you see something you disagree with or have a point to make please feel free to do so, just do it in a way that is constructive and beneficial to the conversation.  

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The Americans

Pro:

It’s no small secret that American comic books are kind of a big deal, in fact it’s pretty safe to say that the comic book as we know it (i.e a printed magazine with sequential art work designed to tell a story) is an American invention.

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And then we get to superheroes.  While superhero comics weren’t all that popular in the very early days of comics it didn’t take long for Action Comics #1 to change everything in 1938, introducing the man you all know so well that I don’t even have to say his name.

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In fact, there are so many famous characters that came out of American comics that to list them all would take months.

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Not only does the American scene have a superhero roster that dominates the comic book market but there is also a thriving independent scene with companies like Dark Horse and imprints like Vertigo delivering top notch non superhero comics.

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The way I see it, American comics are as varied as they are and as big as they because of what America is as a society.  While it may seem strange we have to understand that America is not a very old country.  We haven’t been around even 300 years which means we like to move forward and look to the future.  It’s that forward thinking attitude that lets us look at something like a cheap plup story and think “hey, that would make a really good multi million dollar movie” or “hey, why NOT write about a man who can bench press continents and stand for truth, justice, and the way of life our parents worked so hard for?”.  It’s that forward thinking, almost naive optimism that allowed America to create the genre and some of its most famous characters and it allowed the American comic book industry to flourish.

Con:

Just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you necessarily have the skill or the talent to pull it off and make it a success.  It’s a generally accepted rule that when something is successful there will be a host of imitators trying to cash in on its popularity and this is especially true with comic books.  While the American industry has produced some of the greatest ideas every conceived it has also produced a lot of crap.

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The British

Pro:

While you could be forgiven to think that this debate heavily favors the American side it is important to remember that Great Britain has its own comic culture and its own comic book icons that are some of the greatest in the business today.  British writers like Grant Morrison, Neil Gaimen, and Alan Moore (who I am going to affectionately dub “The Magic Bros.” on account of their shared fascination with the strange and the occult) have not only produced some of the greatest comic book stories of all time, but some of the greatest stories of the modern age period.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look.

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It’s also worth noting that Mark Millar, who is currently one of the most successful comic book movie creators, is Scottish and his violent and gory offerings are helping to shape what a comic book movie is.

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Now I’m not British so I really can’t explain why Britain produces such great writers but if I had to guess it’s because of Britain’s history and connection to their past.  Whether you miss it or hate it the British Isles once dominated a quarter of the globe and have turned out some of the greatest writers in human history.  When you’re part of a culture that once ruled the Earth and produced literary geniuses like Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, and Eliot AND authors that defined genres like Tolkein, Conan Doyle, Orwell, and Clarke you respect the history and traditions that made it great.  Great Britain has produced some of the greatest writers of all time and it only makes sense that this seemingly natural talent translates over to comics as well.

Cons:

Name one British comic book series that is even as remotely iconic as a hero like Superman or Batman.

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Okay maybe, but can you name another?

Britain’s history and culture is one of its greatest strengths it is also a crippling weakness as well.  When you become too wrapped up in tradition and the way things are supposed to be you wind up stifling a lot of creative potential for something new.  Sure these traditions helped create a writer like Gran Morrison but it is no coincidence that Grant Morrison has done some of his most famous and best known work for American comic books.

So what do you think?  Does skill and tradition trump the desire for something new and a willingness to try new things?  Is it better to move forward and push the boundaries of what’s possible or devote your energy into honing your skill on an established piece of work?  Let us know in the comments below and feel free to share.