The Secret Lives of Villains #289

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Comic book showcase: Black Lightning

So I just watched the season premiere of CW’s Black Lightning yesterday.

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It’s pretty good.  The effects were great, the character dynamics were well thought out and have a lot of potential, and it pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to dealing with the…well let’s be polite and say “strained” relationship between black Americans and the police.

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By all accounts the CW has another hit on their hands and it looks like Black Lightning is here to stay, so let’s look at his origins and see what’s changed and if the show can learn anything from the comics.

Origin and Career

Black Lightning was created in 1977, a few decades after the Golden Age of Comics and the favorite time period of this blog.  This is going to require a little explanation.

It’s widely believed that the Golden Age of Comics ended in 1956 with the publication of Showcase #4 and the introduction of Barry Allen as the Flash.

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This brought along the Silver Age of Comics, a time period that was known for comics that focused on a more sci fi and technological oriented appeal.

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Magic had been replaced by space science and monsters had been replaced by aliens.

This was also the time when Marvel Comics came into the world as the comic book company we all know and love today.  A little known creator named Stan Lee decided to create a super hero family that traveled across time and space to defeat strange and fantastic threats.

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It did pretty well and helped kick off the Marvel Universe that we all know and love today.

However, by the 1970’s things were changing again, and comics were moving out of the high concept science fantasy of the Silver Age.  Times were changing.  There were protests,

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racial violence,

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and there was a general sense of doom and gloom.

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Yes, the 1970’s were a unique and special time that we will never have to live through again.

The great thing about these changing times was that in the comic book industry restrictions on what comic books could be talk about were becoming looser and looser, and in 1970 we entered a time that comic book historians called “The Bronze Age of Comics”.

This was a time where comic books got darker and edgier, talking about issues like drugs,

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not shying away from violence,

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and launching an explosion of black superheroes.  Luke Cage is probably the most famous and successful of these heroes.

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Anyway, DC had a problem in the 1970’s, Marvel was growing too fast and taking away a huge portion of their business.  So DC decided to try and beat Marvel by flooding the market with a slew of new titles.  One of these titles was going to be DC’s first black superhero and they eventually decided to publish….the Black Bomber.

The Black Bomber was supposed to be a white bigot who hated black people, but thanks to an accident he gained the ability to turn into a black superhero when under duress.

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This is the only picture I could find of him.  The only other reference he got in a comic book was a small reference in a Justice League of America comic written by Dwayne McDuffie.

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Yeah, this was probably not a good idea.

So what convinced the editors at DC to change their mind?  Why one of the writers of Luke Cage of course!

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The guy on the right is Tony Isabella, one of the early writers of Luke Cage.  DC had hired Tony to create their first black superhero and in 1977 he partnered with artist Trevor Von Eden,

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to create Black Lightning.

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Black Lightning’s real name is Jefferson Pierce.  He actually grew up in the poorest part of Metropolis known as Suicide Slum.  After becoming a highly successful athlete an scholar he returned home and he used a newly created power belt that helped him shoot bolts of electricity to clean up the streets of drug dealers and gang members.

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Where was Superman in all of this?  Probably saving Earth from aliens but whatever.

Black Lightning did initially play up a lot of stereotypes that were prevalent among the black community in the 1970’s.  His costume and accent were over the top and almost comical but his intentions were good and he proved himself to be a respectable hero in his own right, gaining the trust of Superman and several other figures in the city in his battle against the gang that had made Suicide Slum their home, a group called The 100 and led by a large man known as Tobias Whale.

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Aside from changing the location, the show appears to be pretty loyal to the comics.  Granted, in his early appearances Black Lightning isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, but that would come later.

So what happened?

Unfortunately the individual series for the character only lasted 11 issues.  While DC had high hopes in regaining its market share by flooding the market with new comics, it didn’t work out so well due to rising printing costs, the 1977 blizzard, and an awful economic recession.  A year later the company cancelled 40% of its titles in an event known as the “DC Implosion”.

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Black Lightning survived, although he would only show up in other books for the next couple of years.  In 1983, he joined a group called the Outsiders, a group of superheroes led by Batman and featured mostly new characters like Katana and Geo-Force.

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So yes, the idea that Batman is everything is nothing new.

In 1989 it was revealed that his powers weren’t the result of his power belt, but they were actually derived from a genetic abnormality known as the “Metagene”, a plot point that has been used throughout the DC universe as the source of power for a large number of their heroes.

DC’s first black superhero would get another crack at a solo series in 1995, and they even brought back Tony Isabella to do the writing.

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Unfortunately, history has a nasty way of repeating itself and the series was cancelled after 13 issues.

Black Lightning has continued to exist in the DC universe as a hero making appearances in other books.  At one point, Lex Luthor actually made him Secretary of Education when he was elected President of the United States.

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But let’s not delve too much into the fact that a comic book company had a corrupt businessman elected to the Presidency, that’s just too unrealistic.

He would also get a family and two children to look after.  Their names were Anissa and Jennifer Pierce and they have been a staple of Black Lightning’s identity ever since.

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Even though he’s never had much of a solo career, Black Lightning is a capable and talented hero with a great backstory and plenty of potential.

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He is a teacher, a mentor, and a very capable role model for everyone in the DC universe but most importantly of all…he has the respect and attention of Batman.

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I think this CW show is going to be awesome.

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Golden Age Showcase: Lobo

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. day everyone!

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Today is the birthday of one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders and in honor of the day I’m also going to post the video to his famous “I have a Dream” speech, which I highly encourage you to watch since it is one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century.

Fun fact: the man was also a huge Star Trek fan.

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He was such a huge fan that he personally begged Nichelle Nichols to keep her iconic role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the show.

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Don’t believe me?  The Washington Post can do a better job of explaining it than I can.

Anyway, another tradition that this blog has for Martin Luther King Jr. Day is talking about black representation in the comic book industry.  Today I thought it would be nice to talk about the first black comic book character to star in his own solo comic book series: Lobo.

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Origin and Career

The character made his debut in his own self titled series in December of 1965.

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The comic was published by a company called Dell Comics, which had survived the comic book crash of the 1950’s by publishing Disney licensed comics and grew to become the largest comic book publisher of the 1960’s.

He was created by writer and Dell Comics editor Don Arneson and artist Tony Tallarico.  Both of them were white men from Minneapolis and Brooklyn respectively and thought that having a black cowboy as the main character of a series might be a good sales hook to lure interested readers.

Since the comic was published two years after King’s famous speech and in the middle of the American Civil Rights movement  I can see the logic.

The story itself starts off at the very end of the Civil War, where it is revealed that the main character fought for the Union and is happy to finally be free.

Unfortunately, the unit is attacked by a bunch of Confederate soldiers who haven’t heard that the war is over.  The main character is fed up with the violence and decides to move West to start a new life for himself.  He becomes a cattle drover on a ranch where he is framed for murder and decides to become a vigilante and hunt down other criminals.  His trademark is a gold coin with a wolf’s head on it, which is where he gets his name since “Lobo” is Spanish for wolf.

His name is never revealed and his race is never brought up as a point of contention.  He’s a good and capable man who just happens to be black.

Now, believe it or not, this story does have some basis in historical fact.  There were black soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War,

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many people did move out west in an attempt to start a new life after the war and there were black cowboys such as Nat Love who worked in the West as cattle drivers.

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So we have a publishing company at the height of its power, with a character based in a genre that was doing really well at the time and steeped in historical fact, coupled with a good creative team telling a story about a black man in the middle of one of the most progressive and forward looking eras in American history.

What could possibly go wrong?

So what happened?

The series was cancelled due to poor sales numbers.  Basically, how the industry worked back then was that publishers would print a certain number of copies of a book and sell it to retailers who would mark up the price and sell it to the public.  Any copies that weren’t sold would have their covers cut off and returned to the publisher.

After publishing the first issue of Lobo comic book retailers returned over 90% of the copies that Dell Comics had shipped out.

It’s worth mentioning that this is not the case with comic book distribution today since the distribution industry doesn’t allow returns and is dominated by a singe company called Diamond Distributors,

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but that is another story.

While there is not official explanation for the crappy sales numbers it’s probably safe to assume that a comic book with a gun wielding black man on the cover in 1960’s America probably didn’t go over very well with the majority of the American comic book buying public, who just so happened to be white.
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Still, it was a well written, well drawn character with some serious and well meaning effort behind his creation and while we may never grace the cover of another comic book ever again, his position in the annuls of comic book history is assured as the first African American solo comic book character.

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Golden Age Showcase: Alias X

We’re back!

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After a nice relaxing Christmas break, and a nasty cold, we’re back to deliver more strange and interesting superheroes of the early days of comics.

2017 was a great year for this blog and we look forward to more of the same this year.  In fact, let’s get started with a good one.

Here’s a hero that never made it past 1943, but could actually be a perfect hero for the modern day: Alias X.

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He even has a cool name.

Origin and Career

Alias X made his first appearance in Captain Fearless #1 in August of 1941.

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We are definitely going to cover the guy on the cover later.

Alias himself was created by Ray Allen and Al Ulmer, two men who will remain mysterious since I can’t find their pictures.

The cover of the book says that it’s published by a company called Holyoke Publishing, but that isn’t true.  It was actually created by a company called Hellnit Publishing, which was owned by this man: Frank Z. Temerson.

Remember this, it becomes important later.

The character himself was created by Ray Allen and Al Ulmer, two people who are so obscure that I can’t find any photos of them anywhere.

The hero’s story starts in the middle.  A mysterious costumed hero who goes by the name of “X” has been terrorizing the criminal underworld and the police commissioner and a newspaper editor are talking about him.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

The hero makes an unexpected appearance and decides to tell the two men his backstory.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

He refuses to give his name, but mentions that he was a small time taxi operator who was charged with the murder of a cop.

The man decides to do the right thing…by escaping prison and bringing those responsible to justice.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

A man on trial for a crime he didn’t commit?  Being forced to answer questions without a lawyer?  Making his escape in order to clear his name?  Yep, sounds like a comic book character to me!

The man doesn’t have any superpowers, but he does use his time in hiding to become a master of disguise.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

The comic says his home was only ten miles away from the prison.  He’s either the smartest man in the world or these cops are idiots.

The new hero manages to foil a robbery using his powers of disguise, and tells the commissioner and newspaper editor that if he manages to complete his mission, someday he will reveal who he really is.

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

The rest of Alias’ adventures would follow a similar pattern where he would find and catch a group of criminals using his powers of disguise.  Sadly, he didn’t have a whole lot of time or enough attention to give him an established super villain, although he did appear in a comic called Captain Aero where he fought a Nazi spy ring.

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Alias X would only have a handful of appearances and ceased to exist after 1942, a much shorter lifespan than his contemporaries.  Why?  Well…

So what happened?

So you remember the start of the article, where I said the character was originally published under Helnit Publishing under the control of Frank Z. Temerson?

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Well, get ready for legal shenanigans because here’s where it gets weird.

Holyoke Publishing wasn’t a book publisher, it was a newspaper business.

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The company decided to enter the comic book business by taking books created by Helnit Publishing, along with the bankrupt Fox Publications, and repackage them under the Holyoke name.

This was how Holyoke became the publisher of the Blue Beetle, a Golden Age hero with a much longer history than Alias X.

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If this sounds sketchy than you’ve got good instincts.  Documentation over who owned what was pretty poor back then and the owner of Fox Publications would wind up suing Holyoke and winning.

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Temerson, being the original owner of Alias X, would also reclaim what he lost and Holyoke would cease publishing comics in 1944.

Alias X is an interesting case as far as Golden Age superheroes go.  Since he was published by a company that had a small audience and a troubled history he didn’t get a whole lot of attention and respect.  Also, unlike most of the heroes we talk about on this blog he fell off the map at the height of popularity for super heroes in American culture.

Could he have survived the post war years?  Would he have gone on to become one of the great heroes of the modern age?

Comic Book Cover For Captain Fearless Comics #1

Probably not, but I think it would have been interesting to try.