Golden Age Showcase: Unknown Soldier

This Saturday is Veteran’s Day.

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For our non American readers, this is a holiday where America honors those who have served in the armed forces in conflicts past and present.  It’s also an exciting time for this blog because it’s a great time to talk about war comics!

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When looking at the time period, it’s easy to see why war comics became so popular.  America found itself at war and sent thousands of young men and boys to go off and fight in Europe and the Pacific.

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However, America had the advantage of being separated from the conflict by two massive oceans and it’s people didn’t have to come face to face with the true horrors of war.  With that being said, the United States became a military industrial powerhouse during the war and almost the entirety of American culture became obsessed with doing their part for the war effort and protecting the home front.

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Comic books took advantage of this shift in popular culture, and stories about ordinary soldiers fighting against the forces of evil were quite popular during the Golden Age of Comics both during and after the war.  Many of the greatest artists and writers of the Golden Age of Comics made a living writing and drawing war stories which resulted in some of the most complex and interesting stories of the time, along with some absolutely breathtaking artwork.

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The intent and purpose of the war stories that were written during this time was also pretty varied.  War and combat stories ranged from fantastical adventure stories for young boys staring ordinary soldiers fighting in fantastic situations,

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to very thinly veiled propaganda stories promoting American patriotism and fighting spirit.

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It’s worth noting that most of these adventure and propaganda stories were created and published during the Second World War.  After that war was over and the Korean War began a lot of comics became much more realistic and brutal in their depictions of war.

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So there’s a brief rundown of the early history of war comics.  Unfortunately, since most of the early stories have so much talent behind them and were published by the big important publishers of the day, there isn’t a whole lot of material out there for free reading.  However, today’s comic is available in the public domain and is a pretty interesting look at the early days of the war comic genre.

Today we’re going to talk about the thinly veiled propaganda hero The Unknown Soldier.

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Origin and Career

The Unknown Soldier made his first appearance in Our Flag Comics in 1941.  He was published by a company called Ace Comics and was the title character of the series.

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The funny thing is, despite the fact that he was popular enough to appear on the cover of his debut issue, I can’t find any information on who created him or drew his story.

The hero himself has an interesting backstory, mostly because he really doesn’t have one.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

He’s just a super being who appears out of nowhere firing explosive bullets and using his superpowers to defeat injustice and oppressive “gangster nations”.

What makes this kind of interesting is that this has some pretty close ties to real world American military culture.  In Washington D.C you can visit a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery that honors the unnamed American soldiers who died in every war America has ever fought.

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It’s called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and while the comic doesn’t tie the hero to the memorial, I like to think the creators of the story had this monument in mind when they wrote it.

Anyway, in his debut issue the Unknown Soldier helps defeat the Nazi invasion of Britain.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

It’s worth mentioning that in 1941 this was actually a scenario that was terrifyingly plausible.

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However, in this comic the Nazis don’t succeed because of superior tactics or planning, in fact their kind of idiots, but because of English traitors willing to betray their country to the Nazis known as Fifth Columnists.  We actually get to meet one and learn about his motives.  His name is John Jennings and he has made the classic mistake of believing that his country would be better under the rule of Nazism.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

The Nazi war machine starts rolling and crushes everyone in its wake.

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Thankfully the Unknown Soldier arrives just in time to murder every Nazi he can lay his hands on.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

Naturally, the invasion is turned back but not before the story does something really unique and interesting.  Remember the British fifth columnist John from the beginning?  He has a change of heart when he and his gang of saboteurs attempt to blow up a hospital.

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He actually redeems himself and dies a hero’s death while protecting his mother.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

All while the superhero stands by and does nothing.

So the story isn’t actually about the Unknown Soldier, it’s actually a story of redemption for a man who was once blinded by ideology and hatred and sacrificed himself for a noble cause.

Pretty good stuff for a Golden Age Comic.

After that first adventure the Unknown Soldier continued in a similar capacity.  While the stories were actually about ordinary people doing their part for the war effort, the Unknown Soldier would show up when it was time to knock heads or save someone from dying.

He wasn’t a hero with a secret identity, he was a representation of America’s fighting spirit.

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Also, he got a costume change.

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Despite all the murder done by our hero the creators were quick to make sure that the Nazis were just as bad if not worse.  Case in point, they invade Manhattan and use flamethrowers on civilians.

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So what happened?

Our Flag Comics only lasted five issues, but The Unknown Soldier was popular enough to be moved to another title called Four Favorites where he did pretty much the same thing.

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He lasted for over 16 issues until November of 1945 when he fell into the public domain.

While this Unknown Soldier would fade from the public eye, the idea and name would continue when DC comics published another character called The Unknown Soldier in Our Army at War #168 in 1966.

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The comic was created by DC legends Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, two men who knew how to create a really good war comic.

This version of the Unknown Soldier was a lot more tangible and slightly more realistic.  Instead of a real superhero, the Unknown Soldier was an intelligence operative who was so disfigured that he had to bandage his face.

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He was actually a master of disguise and in his final appearance, he kills Hitler and disguises himself as the dictator to end the war without further loss of life.

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This iteration proved to be a bit more popular and he got a new limited series in 1997 under the Vertigo imprint at DC.

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As for the original Unknown Soldier, he would make a slight comeback in 2008 when Dynamite Entertainment launched their Project Superpowers title to bring many of the Golden Age public domain heroes back into the mainstream.

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He was renamed “Soldier Unknown” to avoid copyright issues with DC.

As a superhero the Unknown Soldier is not a very good one.  He’s bland, he has no backstory or secret identity, and he’s even more overpowered than Superman.  But that’s not really important.  The Unknown Soldier isn’t a hero, he’s a symbol of something much greater than himself, the creators who made him, and any single person.  He is the personification of the fighting spirit that rises up against tyranny and oppression, and while it would be nice to have known his name, it’s important that we know that he did his job so we could live.

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Happy Veteran’s Day everyone.

Golden Age Showcase: Eerie Comics

It’s nearly Halloween, and if I had a better sense of timing and theme I would have done what lots of other comic book journalists and writers do and dedicated the entire month of October to horror comics.

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The horror genre is an incredibly popular genre for comic books with plenty of opportunities for fantastic art with strange and shocking story material that is perfect for grabbing the readers attention and persuading them to buy the book. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if wasn’t for superheroes, horror comics would be the most popular comic book genre today.

We’ve talked about how the post World War II comic book scene saw a boom in horror titles, particularly the rise of EC Comics with their shocking and grotesque morality tales such as Tales from the Crypt.

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But the history behind the horror genre goes back a little farther.  These creepy and horrific stories have their roots in the pulp magazines and penny dreadful novels that were the ancestors of comic books and the first horror comics were simple adaptations of those works.  Many people consider Classic Comics’ The Tale of Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde to be the first horror comic published in August of 1943.

But the first standalone horror comic, the one that would lay the ground work for the genre’s explosion of popularity, would come four years later in 1947 and today we’re going to talk about it.  It’s title was Eerie Comics and it was the first standalone horror comic book ever published.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

Origin

Avon Publishing was created in 1941 as part of the American News Company.  It was originally intended to be the publisher of a type of book known as “dime novels” which were cheap, exploitative works that enthralled readers with anything from lurid romance to exciting adventure.

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These were the kinds of magazines that H.P Lovecraft published his stories in.

Naturally, Avon was the right kind of publisher for comic books, although they shied away from superheroes and stuck to the material that kept them in business, which led to the creation of Eerie in 1947.

Despite the inherent cheapness in the publisher and the medium it was created for, the comic actually had some pretty solid talent behind it.  While the writer was a relative unknown named Edward Bellin, the artistic team was amazing.  There was Fred Kida,

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who created a Golden Age superhero named Air Boy and would go on to find steady work in comic strips, particularly in Marvel’s Spider Man comic strip in the 1980’s.

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There was George Roussos,

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who worked for Marvel as an inker and helped Jack Kirby create some of the most iconic stories in Marvel,

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(yes he inked that one)

and the whole thing was overseen and pencilled by comic book legend Joe Kubert.

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While he is famous for his artwork, perhaps Mr. Kubert’s greatest legacy is the school of  comic book art that bears his name.

Anyway, the book itself was an anthology series containing six stories of strange events and horrific consequences for the wicked.  The stories themselves are pretty tame, with such an amazing team of artists on this book it was only natural for the artwork to be gorgeous.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

My personal favorite is the first story called The Eyes of the Tiger.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

It follows a man who tries to get a life insurance policy but is rejected because of his poor health.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

Apparently he wants to leave his policy to his cats, but the best part?  He threatens the doctor with a live tiger.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

The man wakes up in the middle of the night to find himself being chased by a tiger and winds up suffering from a heart attack and dying.

Comic Book Cover For Eerie Comics Issue #1 Avon Periodicals

I love this story for just how absolutely ridiculous it is.  Never mind that a man wants to leave all his money to his tigers, never mind that he hallucinates a tiger attack, the insane part of the story is that it treats an insurance company like they’re the good guys.

So what happened?

For some reason the first issue of Eerie was pulled from newsstands after it was published.  However, as the horror genre continued to gain in popularity the series was brought back in 1951.

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The title ceased publication in August of 1954, probably because of the backlash against comics in the 1950’s.

Eerie would continue life as a science fiction anthology series called Strange Worlds,

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and that lasted until 1955.

While audience’s appetites for lurid and suggestive comic books would wane, Avon would do just fine.  They discontinued their comic book line in the mid 1950’s and spent the rest of the century staying true to form, especially in the romance novel market.  Currently, they’re operating as an imprint of Harper Collins and specialize in romance novels.

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Eerie was a strange little comic.  On one hand, the writing was kind of crappy and it only had one issue for several years before someone decided it was popular enough to be rebooted.  On the other hand, it deserves its place in history as the first original horror comic ever published and the grandfather of all the horror comics that came after it.

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Plus, it’s amazing how something that old can look that good.

Modern film, the Golden Age of Comics, and Wonder Woman

So this little movie is in theaters now.

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I haven’t seen it, although it is currently on my list of films to see, but I have seen the trailer and a good portion of the promotional media for the film.

A quick summary: the movie follows the real life journey and exploits of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman.

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In real life, Marston was a respected psychologist and the inventor of the lie detector,

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he was also engaged in an unconventional relationship with his wife Elizabeth and his partner Olive Byrne.

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As for the exact nature of their relationship, all you have to do is take a look at the comics that Marston wrote to get some idea of what was going on.

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Frankly, I’m glad this became a movie and I would love to see more films like this since the story behind the creation of some of our most beloved superheroes is often just as interesting as the characters themselves.

Personally, I would love to see a movie about the trials and tribulations of Supmerman’s creators Siegel and Shuster,

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and we’re probably getting a Stan Lee film soon.

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but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

There’s a scene in the trailer for Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman where a group of people are burning a pile of comic books.

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While I don’t like seeing anyone burning books this actually got me pretty excited.  This is the first time I’ve seen any movie talk about the decline and fall of the Golden Age of Comics and while it is presented as a backdrop for the story the movie wants to tell, it’s an important time in American pop culture where the nature and effect that art has on our minds and souls was being hotly debated.

So today I’m going to give a brief history of the comic book industry in the late 1940’s and 50’s and in order to do that we have to talk about:

The post war comic industry

After the Allies won the Second World War Americans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated by coming home, starting a family, and giving up on superhero comics.

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Yes, the infamous “superhero fatigue” that so many people say is  coming with this current glut of superhero movies is actually nothing new.

Naturally, the comic book industry reacted to this shift by switching to different genres and trying new things.  Post war America saw a boom in non superhero comics, especially romance,

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humor,

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and horror comics.

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Post war America was actually a pretty good time for comics.  More people were spending money on entertainment, readers were getting older and more mature, and some of the greatest artists of the time were doing some of their best work.

Unfortunately comic books were confronted with a force more powerful than any super villain doomsday device: concerned parents.

You know how concerned parents thought violent video games were turning kids into mass murdering psychopaths?

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Well, it turns out that that isn’t all that new either.  In the 1950’s comic books went through the same process and things would come to a head with,

Backlash, Dr. Wertham, and Seduction of the Innocent

Maybe it was the soldiers coming home from the war trying to process the violence and destruction they saw, maybe it was the Red Scare and the rise of anti Communist sentiment in America, or maybe comic books have a bigger place in our psyche than we think, but for some reason these hearings swept the American people into an anti comic fervor that saw a tremendous backlash against the art form.  This resulted in crazy events like mass comic book burnings as early as 1948,

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but sadly the real destruction would come in the form of a well meaning man in a suit and tie.

Every art form, at some point in its early history, has had a vocal opponent who claims that said art form is destroying our children’s minds and must be censored before it’s too late.

Rap music had Tipper Gore,

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video games had Jack Thompson,

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and comic books had Dr. Fredric Wertham.

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Now, I don’t think Dr. Wertham did what he did because he hated comics or because he was an uneducated hack who was simply making wild accusations because he wanted the attention.  He was actually a highly respected psychologist who did a lot of good work, including providing cheap psychiatric care to under privileged children.

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Unfortunately, he noticed that a lot of the children under his care read a lot of comic books and he started to believe that it wasn’t societal woes or a poor home life that turned kids bad, but violent and disturbing imagery in the media the kids consumed.

Things would come to a head in 1954 when Wertham published his most famous work Seduction of the Innocent

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where he blamed comic books for the rise of “juvenile delinquency” in American youth.

The book was a hit and led to a Congressional hearing on the effects of comic books on children’s minds, and Wertham was the star witness.

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The hearings were incredibly destructive for the comic book industry and effectively brought mass censorship to the medium.  Companies that depended on risque and controversial content to stay afloat, such as the horror and comedy powerhouse EC Comics were the hardest hit and were forced out of business.  The industry underwent a massive contraction and thousands of people lost their jobs as publishers went out of business left and right.

The Fallout

In an attempt to save themselves from excessive censorship the remaining comic book publishers formed an organization known as the Comics Code Authority.  It was an organization that reviewed comics before they could be published and made sure they followed a certain set of rules in order to ensure that they were suitable for children.

The most famous and notable legacy of the Comics Code was the stamp that appeared on the far right corner of almost every comic for the next forty years.

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While the Comics Code didn’t kill the comics industry it did cripple it so badly that it’s still recovering today.  Since comic book writers weren’t allowed to tell complex and morally ambiguous stories if they wanted to get their book published comics became simple and almost boring in their predictable story lines and basic morality tales.  Sure, mature and grown up comics existed, but they could only be found in small press, out of the way places such as the “comix” scene of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

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Eventually cracks in the Comics Code would start to show and historians widely believe that it lost its power after Amazing Spider Man #96 told a story where Spiderman helped a friend who was addicted to drugs and was published without the stamp.

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But if you ask me, the damage had already been done.  The Golden Age of Comics was a time where characters like Wonder Woman could talk about deep and meaningful issues like man’s tendency towards hatred and how women could bring about a more peaceful world, whereas the immediate post Comics Code publishing industry decided to celebrate its newfound freedom by throwing all subtlety out the window and indulging in a lot of violence for violence’s sake.  This,

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is downright childish in comparison to the early issues of Wonder Woman.

Now, I firmly believe that we as a society have gotten better in dealing with art and the effects that it may or may not have on our minds, and I also think that the comic book industry telling better stories today than it did twenty years ago, but it is vitally important that we never forget why heroes like Wonder Woman were created and how important it is that we apply the same passion and thought into our stories today.

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Golden Age Showcase: Sun Girl

It’s October folks!

The days are getting shorter, the leaves are changing, and the weather is getting cooler.

Normally, most forms of entertainment start churning out the horror and scary stuff around this time, and in the near future we won’t be so different.  However, I thought it might be nice to give the sun one last hurrah and talk about a bright and colorful superhero from days of yore.

She’s also a lady so here’s another chance to showcase a hero that didn’t get a whole lot of attention back then.

This is Sun Girl.

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Origin and Career

Sun Girl made her first appearance in her self titled series Sun Girl #1 in August of 1948.

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While the writer of the comic is uncredited, the art was done by a man named Ken Bald.

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Ken Bald was actually one of the more prolific and successful artists of the Golden Age and did a lot of work as a staff artist at Timely Comics where he drew many of Timely’s most popular heroes.  He is also known for his comic strip work, such as a strip based off of the 1970’s tv show Dark Shadows.

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A couple things of note.  First, hooray we actually managed to tie in some horror into an October post!  Second, if the name Dark Shadows isn’t familiar to younger readers all you need to know is that they tried making a modern movie based off it starring Johnny Depp.

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It wasn’t well received.

Anyway, in an age where comic book super heroines were surprisingly independent and capable Sun Girl…was not.  Her civilian name was Mary Mitchell and she started life as the secretary and love interest of the original Human Torch.  When the Human Torch’s original sidekick Toro takes a leave of absence she insisted that she becomes Torch’s sidekick despite having no superpowers.  The Torch is not pleased and responds with stereotypical 1940’s male talk.

But…she knows judo so that fixes everything I guess?  Also, she had a “sun beam” gun that shot bright flashes of light.  Honestly, there were better superheroines out there at this time.

Her lack of powers and crazy weapons didn’t stop her from having something of a career.  After her three issue solo series she appeared in the Human Torch series for three issues,

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and she guest starred in Captain America and Submariner books.

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Thankfully, during her short career she wasn’t entirely useless.  She would often bring a more human and compassionate side to her superhero work and was able to make an impact on the Human Torch’s career.  Perhaps her biggest achievement was helping the Torch prove a wrongfully accused man innocent.

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So what happened?

Toro came back from his leave of absence and Mary went back to being the Human Torch’s secretary.  Then the comic book industry went kaput and Timely Comics re branded to eventually become Marvel Comics and the Human Torch became a character who didn’t need a secretary.

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However, Sun Girl didn’t just fade away into obscurity and become a tiny little footnote in comic book history.  She had enough fans and people who remembered her to bring her into the modern era.  The first appearance of the new and improved Sun Girl was in Superior Spider Man Team Up #1 in June of 2013.

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Right off the bat the new Sun Girl has a more independent and interesting origin.  She’s an engineer named Selah Burke who developed a suit that gives her the ability to fly and two light blasting pistols.  Also, she’s the daughter of Edward Lanksey, an out of work college professor who became a super villain.

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Her next appearance would be as part of the Marvel Comics team called the New Warriors in 2014.

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Sun Girl is an interesting comic book super heroine, but not for the reasons you might expect.  She didn’t have any extraordinary powers, she didn’t have a very long career, and she didn’t have the impact on popular culture that many of her other female colleagues had.  With that being said, she was smart, courageous, always willing to do the right thing, and has one of the most comprehensive and fulfilling post Golden Age careers of any female superhero.

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Golden Age Showcase: Doll Man

In the entire library of superpowers, the ability to shrink is one of the more esoteric powers.  It doesn’t get used that much, but there are a pretty select core of superheroes who are known for their ability to change their size.

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That’s not to say that it’s a bad superpower.  After all, the Marvel Ant Man movie showed that it wasn’t just useful, it could tell a great story as well.

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Plus, one of my favorite episodes of the Justice League cartoon centered around the Atom destroying an alien hive mind from within using his powers.

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But where did the idea of a shrinking hero come from and who was the first hero to use this power?  Well, the answer can be found in a fairly obscure Golden Age hero from Quality Comics called Doll Man.

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Origin and Career

Doll Man made his first appearance in the Quality Comics’ anthology Feature Comics #27 in December of 1939.

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While the name of creator was given as “William Erwin Maxwell” it was really a pseudonym for Will “I literally wrote the book on comics as an art form” Eisner.

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As for origins, Doll Man goes the scientific route with the heroic scientist Darrel Dane (alliteration for the win) developing a special serum that will allow a human to shrink down to the size of a doll.  Why he wants to do this I have no idea.  Also, his fiancee Martha Roberts is being blackmailed by a man named Falco and she’s keeping this a secret for some reason.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #27

Since this is the early days of comic book science, Darrel must have not gotten the memo on lab safety and self experimentation and decides to test the serum on himself.  This act also makes Darrell one of the first comic book scientists to go crazy after said self experimentation.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #27

I like to think that Eisner wanted to take Doll Man and turn him into a tortured villain driven mad by the result of his experiment, which would have made for a very interesting story.  However, I’m willing to bet that some editor in the Quality Comics offices squashed that idea because in the very next page Darrell is okay and decides to become a superhero.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #27

It’s a good thing that Darrell decided to be a good guy, because he uses his powers to save his fiancee from the blackmailer to end the story.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #27

Doll Man would later become a fixture of Standard Comics and would often appear on the covers as well.

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His stories were all over the place.  In one issue he would be fighting gangsters trying to rob ships on the docks, in the next issue he would be helping rancher friends in a land dispute.  In all of them he would use his size and relative strength to his advantage.

His stories must have made an impact because Doll Man would later become a pretty popular hero.  He appeared in over 200 comic book issues and was even given his own quarterly title.

Comic Book Cover For Doll Man #1

Some fun facts: his fiancee Martha would eventually become a super heroine known as Doll Girl, who had the same powers as her fiancee.

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Also, several of Doll Man’s covers had him tied up and placed in a position of helplessness.

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It’s nothing special, just an interesting idea during a time when male heroes generally didn’t show that kind of weakness.

So what happened?

The Feature Comics title stopped publication in 1950 and Doll Man’s solo issues stopped publication in 1953.  Quality would go out of business three years later and Doll Man wasn’t seen for two decades.

It was probably Will Eisner’s reputation that kept the memory of Doll Man alive because he wasn’t really used that often.  During the middle of the 20th century DC decided to create a “multiverse” for their characters to avoid continuity mix ups.  Doll Man was placed on “Earth X”, a universe where the Nazis won the Second World War, and made an appearance in the comic title Freedom Fighters.

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He’s at the bottom of the page.

He was also a guest character in the All Star Squadron on “Earth-2”, the place where DC put most of its old Golden Age heroes.

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The separation of these two groups would be erased in the DC comic event Crisis on Infinite Earths where the entire DC continuity was streamlined and simplified for new readers.

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The Freedom Fighters would be relaunched in 2006 by writer Jimmy Palmiotti.

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The team got a modern makeover, including Doll Man.  The new hero was named Lester Colt and he was a more hard ass, military minded, “end justifies the means” kind of hero who proves this in the first issue after he disguises himself as an action figure and kills a drug lord in front of his son.

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Darrel Dane still existed, but it was revealed that he was suffering from mental problems due to shrinking so often and was committed to an unnamed mental institution.

Doll Man would have his most recent reworking in 2012.  This time it was part of another company wide reboot event known as “The New 52”.  The hero was a scientist named Dane Maxwell who was the romantic partner and scientist friend of the heroine Phantom Lady.  He was shrunk to the size of an action figure during a lab accident and became her partner in crime fighting as well.

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In many ways Doll Man’s impact on the superhero world was a lot like his power set.  Sure, it was relatively small and often unseen by many fans and readers, but he was the first hero to use the ability to change his size as a superpower which made him a trailblazer for some of the most popular and well known heroes today.

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Golden Age Showcase: Bozo the Iron Man

Have you ever noticed that bookstores tend to put fantasy and science fiction books on the same shelves?

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I mean, I can understand why.  Both genres talk about the human condition using fantastical elements and worlds.  The difference is that while science fiction tends to focus on how technology changes society, fantasy tends to focus on how people change society.  The point is that while they share quite a few similarities, they are just different enough to warrant their separation.

Comic books are interesting because the medium has no trouble combining the two genres together and it’s gotten really good at it.  In fact, it’s gotten so good at it that not only is it possible to combine aspects of fantasy and science fiction together, it’s possible to spawn a billion dollar franchise out of it.

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While the Golden Age of Comics did have a heavy focus on supernatural and fantasy elements, it also had its fair share of science fiction heroes.

One of these heroes was a creature called Bozo the Iron Man and before you laugh at his name and appearance, you may be shocked to learn that he was actually a pretty interesting hero.

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Origin and Career

Bozo the Iron Man made his first appearance in Quality Comics’ Smash Comics #1 published on August of 1939.

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While that is Bozo on the cover, he doesn’t fight a gorilla in his story.

He was created and drawn by an editor at Quality Comics called George Brenner,

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Brenner is also known for creating what is arguably the first masked superhero in all of comics in 1936 as well as the hero 711, who is actually one of this site’s favorite heroes.

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The origin of our titular hero actually bucks Golden Age tradition and gives us something that this blog hasn’t really seen: a morally ambiguous and surprisingly deep origin.

The comic starts with a mysterious robot terrorizing the citizens of the unnamed city.

Comic Book Cover For Smash Comics #1

It turns out that the robot is actually under the control of evil scientist cliche #421 and despite the police trying their best they don’t want to go near the giant killer robot.  In order to put an end to this case the Commissioner calls in a special consultant named Hugh Hazzard, who winds up being the actual main character of the story.

Comic Book Cover For Smash Comics #1

The comic then goes through the standard motions.  The good guy finds the bad guy, defeats him, and the robot is scrapped.  However, in an interesting twist, Hugh decides to find the robot and use it to fight crime without the knowledge of the police.

Comic Book Cover For Smash Comics #1

Sure, the design of the robot doesn’t exactly inspire feelings of dread and terror, but the ending of the first issue actually sets up a surprisingly nuanced and interesting premise for a superhero story.  Seriously, in a time where comics weren’t known for a whole lot of creative complexity, the creative team behind Bozo had the main robot hated and feared by those he was trying to protect.

Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the bottom of a page from the second issue below.

Comic Book Cover For Smash Comics #2

Sure, titles like the X-Men would make the idea of heroes protecting the very people who feared them a comic book staple, but considering that this was being written in 1939 it’s a pretty interesting setup.

Unfortunately, they really didn’t do anything interesting with this setup and the rest of Bozo’s adventures were pretty typical “villain of the week” affairs.

So what happened?

Usually the old Golden Age heroes would either be revived by one of the major comic book companies further down the line or find their way into the works of writers and creators who were fans of the original but sadly, that isn’t the case for Bozo.  This is going to be one of the shortest “What happened?” sections ever written.

Quality Comics folded in 1956 when the comic book market contracted.  They were eventually acquired by DC and many of Quality’s heroes would survive in reprints, but sadly Bozo didn’t make it into any of them.

The only legacy Bozo would have is a brief re imagining by comic book legend Grant Morrison.

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For those who don’t know, Grant Morrison is considered to be one of the great modern wizards of comic books and is responsible for some of the greatest modern comics ever written, including the greatest Superman story of the past 20 years.

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Sadly, Bozo didn’t make it into any of Grant’s works, although another creator by the name of Justin Grey said in an interview that his creation of a robot named “Gonzo the Mechanical Bastard” was inspired by Morrison’s redesign.

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I would go into more detail into Gonzo’s origin but for the casual fans all I am going to say is that he’s nothing like the source material and for the more hardcore fans I’ll say that the Anti Life Equation was involved.

Bozo the Iron Man was a pretty goofy hero with a well thought out backstory and an interesting hook to his character.  Instead of being loved (or at the very least tolerated) by the police and the public at large, he was feared and mistrusted so much that his existence had to be kept a secret.  He was one of the more complex characters of his time and should be remembered as such, even if he looked a bit ridiculous.

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Golden Age Showcase: Stardust the Super Wizard.

You know what I really like about comics?  The scope and scale of the medium.

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Sure, in any artistic medium you can tell big stories, but in comics?  Comics are the new mythology, giving us larger than life characters that serve as brightly colored allegories for the larger world.

The Golden Age of Comics had their myths and legends but let’s be honest with ourselves…they were somewhat limited.

It makes sense I guess.  After all, a lot of people were pressuring creators to churn out new superheroes as quickly as possible and there are only so many ways you can copy heroes like Superman or Batman.  Plus, our country was faced with an actual larger than life event known as World War 2 so those heroes were tasked with winning the war, but surely there had to be some way to inject a little grandiosity into the comic book scene.

Where’s the magic?  Where’s the ridiculousness?  Where’s the cosmic scale of it all?

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Oh, this’ll be interesting.

Origin and Career

Stardust the Super Wizard, a giant space magician with super strength and a tiny head,

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was first published in Fantastic Comics #1 in December of 1939.

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The title was published by Fox Features Syndicate, who published the first Blue Beetle, and created by writer and artist Fletcher Hanks.

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Hanks is also responsible for creating one of the first female characters in comics, a woman named Fantomah.

Fantomah, Mystery Woman

Hanks was something of an elder statesman for a comic book industry that was dominated by teenagers.  He specialized in creating supernatural characters who had no qualms about wrecking terrible revenge against their antagonists and Stardust was no exception.

His origins are simple.  He’s a mysterious super being who descends from the stars to wreck terrible retribution on criminals everywhere.  Everyone knows this this due to a strange radio broadcast that tells them everything.

Comic Book Cover For Fantastic Comics #1

What’s his backstory?  Where does he come from?  Nobody knows.

What we do know is that his powers are seemingly limitless, and he demonstrates his power against two thugs who are just about to assassinate the President.

Comic Book Cover For Fantastic Comics #1

It’s pretty clear that our hero is a giant and has more powers than Superman did at his height.

It’s worth mentioning that Stardust also partakes in one of the hallmarks of the Golden Age of comics: the hero murdering hoards of criminals and evil doers in brutal fashion.

Comic Book Cover For Fantastic Comics #1

The first story sets the tone for most of the Stardust stories as the hero defeats a series of increasingly over the top and surprisingly well equipped enemies with unimaginable violence.  While he would only last for 16 issues, each one of them is pretty epic and worth checking out.

It’s worth mentioning that Stardust didn’t just police Earth, he dedicated his life to busting crime all across the solar system from his private star base.

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He had enemies with creative names like Kaos of Venus, the Brain Men of Mars, and Yew Bee.

My personal favorite is the story where our hero faces the evil machinations of an arch criminal named De Structo, who plans to use an oxygen destroying ray to suffocate the political leadership of the United States.

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No I’m not making any of that up.

Stardust captures De Structo and punishes him by removing the villain’s head, keeping it alive, and throwing it to an alien beast known as a “giant headhunter”.

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Funny how the headhunter alien looks suspiciously human.  Also, that is not a good way to go.

So what happened?

As I stated above, Stardust only lasted for 16 issues.  I have no idea why he didn’t last longer and can only assume that people were allergic to fun and epicness.

Thankfully, all was not lost and it turned out that Fletcher Hanks had developed something of a cult following.  All of his Golden Age stories were collected into anthologies and are currently published by Fantagraphics Books.

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Also, it turns out that Stardust is a superhero that has greatly benefited from being in the public domain since he has actually appeared in a lot of other independent projects.

Some of his more notable appearances have been in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,

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He also had a cameo in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon #141.

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He’s also been used in a genre that we don’t talk a lot about on this blog: table top games.  His name was used as an example of how power corrupts in The Super Villain Handbook by Fainting Goat Games.

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Stardust the Super Wizard may have had a short career in the Golden Age, but it was a career filled with memorable events and villains.  He’s remembered fondly today and his reputation is well deserved.

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Golden Age Showcase: Spy Smasher

Sigh, so we can all agree that these last couple of months have been pretty crappy right?

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I’m not going to go into any great detail on this matter, you can watch the news for that, but I will say that if the heroes that I write about in this blog were alive and around today…I’d think they would be very disappointed.

I thought this would be a good place to put the picture of Captain America punching Hitler, but I thought this one would be more apropos.

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Thank you Superman.

The sad truth is that the reality of the situation is, and always has been, complicated.  While these comic books were created to provide a morale boost to the men and women fighting against fascism,

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fascism had a very real presence in America since it became a thing.

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Yes, those are swastikas next to the American flag and a picture of George Washington.  This is a picture from 1938 at a Nazi rally in New York.  This was a thing right up to the point where we started fighting the Nazis.

One of the things that we’ve been seeing in a lot of these Golden Age comics are superheroes who don’t go off to Europe to fight the Nazis, they find plenty of them here.  While there was a war to fight across the ocean a comic book hero could always find a spy ring, saboteurs, or enemy agents hiding around with plans to disable the war effort.

Maybe the heroes saw that there were other threats that were much closer to home, or maybe they just wanted to save money on air travel.

Either way, let’s dive into some escapism and talk about a hero who held down the home front against the scourge of Nazi spies: the eloquently named Spy Smasher.

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Origin and Career

Spy Smasher was first published by Fawcett Comics and was created by Bill Parker and C.C Beck, the two men who originally created Captain Marvel.

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The hero made his first appearance in Whiz Comics #2 in February of 1940, an issue that was actually the first issue of the Whiz Comics title and has one of the most iconic covers in comic book history.

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The story starts off with a literal bang, someone is sabotaging American military vessels.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

Wait, $20 million dollars for an aircraft carrier?  What a bargain!

Naturally this worries a lot of very powerful men in Washington, and one man decides to share potentially dangerous information with his daughter and fiancee.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

Nazi spies in America?  Preposterous!

Meanwhile, the spies themselves have been busy and decide to steal plans for a mine laying ship, only to be foiled by the timely arrival of the Spy Smasher.  They are led by a fairly creepy individual known as “The Mask”.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

The hero manages to pursue the villains in his Gyrosub.  This is a vehicle that serves as a helicopter, an airplane, speedboat, a submarine, and a completely ridiculous looking vehicle.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

Eat your heart out Batmobile!

Long story short, the hero winds up defeating the spies, even though the main villain escapes.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

The day is saved and the plans are returned.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #2

In a fairly ballsy move, the creators didn’t reveal the identity of the Spy Smasher in the first issue.  In fact, they didn’t reveal the secret identity of the Spy Smasher for most of his stories.  Sure, it may have been a clever marketing ploy, but even children would have thought it was weird that Spy Smasher and Alan Armstrong were never in the same panel together, and how Alan disappeared whenever there was trouble, or how Spy Smasher had a strange fascination with the woman who was Alan’s fiancee.

Spy Smasher was Alan Armstrong is what I’m trying to say.

It turned out that Spy Smasher’s battles with his arch nemesis the Mask turned him into a pretty popular hero.  He was so popular that he actually had a crossover with Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics #16 where he turned evil and tries to hypnotize the hero into doing his bidding.

Comic Book Cover For Whiz Comics #16

But it’s okay because it turned out that it had all been a ploy by the Mask to hypnotize and brainwash the now dead Mask to do his bidding.

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Spy Smasher continued to have a career after the war, although he did change his name to Crime Smasher to fit with the times.

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So what happened?

Alan Armstrong remained a popular staple of Fawcett Comics, right up to the point where they were forced to stop publishing comics in 1953 after losing a lawsuit to DC Comics that claimed they had ripped off Superman.

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While Captain Marvel would go on to have a pretty successful career (he’s called Shazam! now due to copyright issues) Spy Smasher fell by the wayside.  I guess when there are just no more spies to smash you don’t really have a future.  Why they didn’t decide to use him to hunt Soviet spies is beyond me.

Spy Smasher would go on to have a limited career, barely used but not forgotten.  One of his most notable appearances was in the excellent tv show Justice League Unlimited where he appeared in the opening of the episode “Patriot Act”,

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and in Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey series she introduced a character named Katarina Armstrong, a highly skilled global anti terrorism agent with a costume that was heavily inspired by the original Spy Smasher.

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While she looks like Spy Smasher and has his last name, any potential relationship the two may have had is not revealed.

In many ways Spy Smasher had the same career trajectory that a lot of Golden Age superheroes had.  He was popular in the 1940’s and while he fell by the wayside after the comics industry crashed, he was fondly remembered by those who knew and would go on to be an influence for the superheroes of the future.

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If you ask me it’s a crying shame that nobody uses him any more, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind coming out of retirement to fight a few more Nazi spies on American soil.

Golden Age Showcase: Atomic Tot

So I just discovered Rick and Morty last night.

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It’s a good show, a bit dark, bleak, and incredibly pessimistic.

I bring this up because it provides a direct contrast with my love of superheroes.

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Yes they’re bright, colorful, and probably have no place in modern society but that’s not the point.

Superheroes are supposed to be titans of morality and/or walking metaphors that can solve all their problems by punching them or blasting them with energy rays.  Sure, sometimes they may a bit more complicated and complex, but in the end that’s what they are.

Superheroes did the right thing, ate their vegetables, said their prayers, and told little Timmy that doing the right thing came first, no matter what.  They were uncomplicated lessons in morality for kids in an uncertain and dangerous time and that is something that the Golden Age of Comics did better than almost anyone else.

So let’s talk about a superhero named Atomic Tot, who was a superhero that was unquestionably for the kids,

Tom Tot undergoes his amazing transformation. Artist: probably Ernie Hart.

and kind of dropped the ball in that regard.

Origin and Career

Atomic Tot made his first appearance in Quality Comics’ All Humor Comics #1 in September of 1946.

Comic Book Cover For All Humor Comics #1

That joke on the cover of the issue?  That’s as good as they would get.

He was created by comic book writer and artist, Ernie Hart.  While I can’t find a picture of him, I can tell you that his most famous creation was the famous Super Rabbit for Quality Comics.

Pssh, the idea of talking anthropomorphic animals is so lame.  Who could possibly make any money off of that?

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Anyway, before Atomic Tot got his name he was originally known as “Mitymite”, the weakling son of a poor peasant living in a land being terrorized by an evil giant.

Comic Book Cover For All Humor Comics #1

Yes the captions are in rhyme, to explain why I don’t have time.

Mitymite grows up wishing to meet this princess, but is blocked by the wicked giant.  Humiliated, he swears revenge.

Comic Book Cover For All Humor Comics #1

So what does he do?  Does he subject himself to strange experiments?  Find a magical artifact?  Nope!  He eats his cereal and works out.

Comic Book Cover For All Humor Comics #1

Wheaties would love this guy.

Naturally he defeats the giant, by tossing him out a window…presumably to his death.

Comic Book Cover For All Humor Comics #1

However, it turns out the princess isn’t all she cracks up to be and Mitymite acts like a total dick and abandons her.

It’s worth mentioning that he looks like he’s only six year old.

Mitymite was given a modern update in the very next issue.  His new name was Atomic Tot and he got an alter ego of Tom Tot.

Comic Book Cover For All Humor Comics #2

His second adventure saw him stopping an evil scientist that was kidnapping children and turning them into monkeys.  Why?  To sell them to the zoo of course.

Comic Book Cover For All Humor Comics #2

How does he do that and wouldn’t it make more sense to sell them to laboratories as test specimens?  I don’t know and the comic doesn’t care.

It’s worth mentioning that Atomic Tot could be incredibly cruel to his enemies.  He even threatened to turn the scientist into a monkey if he didn’t help return the kids.

Comic Book Cover For All Humor Comics #2

Atomic Tot would go on to have five more stories just like this one.  There really isn’t anything else to say.

So what happened?

For some strange reason, Atomic Tot did not survive past the 1940’s.

Why he didn’t last long is a real mystery.

For some bizarre reason, Atomic Tot wasn’t fondly remembered enough to get a reworking in modern comics either, although he did make an appearance in an anthology title called Not Forgotten which was successfully funded through Kickstarter a few months ago.

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The anthology has a website, it’s pretty interesting stuff and worth checking out.

Atomic Tot is a superhero boiled down to its most basic essence.  There is no complicated backstory, no surprising plot twist about his parents, not horrifying life event that inspired him to become a superhero.  He’s just a kid who has the ability to do great things and decides to use his talents for good.

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Huh, come to think of it…that is pretty boring.  Maybe all this straight laced morality isn’t quite for me than.

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Comics that deserve more attention: Valerian and Laureline

So I saw Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this week.

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Now, the reviews have been not that great and it looks like this movie is going to be a massive flop at the box office, but I thought it looked fantastic, it had some really cool ideas and set pieces, and I wouldn’t really mind seeing more of it.  In short, I thought it was basically a retread of director Luc Besson’s other science fiction movie that didn’t get the attention it deserved,

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Like most science fiction movies that are made today, the Valerian movie is based off of a comic book series.  The books in question are the Valerian et Laureline series, which was written by French writer Pierre Christin and drawn by Jean-Claude Mezieres.

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The series started as a comic strip in the French magazine Pilote  in 1967 and published its final series in 2010.  It was published by French comic book publisher Dargaud.

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The series is an epic space opera starring the titular character Valerian and his colleague and co agent Lauraline as special agents working for the Terran Empire across time and space.

To go into any sort of detail about the adventures of these two would take hours, long story short it’s good enough that you should go read it, like right now.  But if you’re still here and need more convincing the real treat of the comic is its art.  Now, I’ve never fancied myself as an art lover and I tend to focus on story over art in my comics but…

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Yeah, I can see why the director wanted to make this movie.

So the comic is a long running, absolutely gorgeous, and thought provoking epic that was good enough to inspire at least one famous movie director to adapt it but how did it get here?  How did it remain so popular and long lasting?  and why was it so unknown to most comic book reading Americans?

To answer that question I did some research and decided that today we’re going to run through a very, VERY brief description of

The history of Franco Belgian comics.

 What a lot of people may not understand is that the idea of using words and pictures to communicate ideas has been around for a pretty long time.  In an age where most people couldn’t read, it was easier to convey ideas or stories through pictures.  As a result, the first comics were strips or single page stories that were owned and published by newspapers.

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In the early 20th century comic strips started to separate themselves from the newspapers to create their own comic series.  Two of the most famous were, Pieds Nickeles 

and the very first female protagonist in comics: Becassine.

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What’s really interesting is that during the 1920’s and 1930’s even the Catholic Church was getting involved in telling stories with pictures with publications like the Belgian Zonneland creating morally upright and decent stories for the children to read.

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Side note: it’s worth mentioning that a lot of people lump France and Belgium together when talking about comics since French is spoken by a healthy chunk of the Belgian population and French and Belgian comics often share the same readers.

France and Belgium had a very strong tradition of graphic storytelling through the 1920’s and 1930’s the art form took off in popularity, and publishers such as Dargaud rose up to meet the demand.

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This time also saw Belgian artist Herge would create a comic series that remains one of my personal favorites in 1929 with the publication of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets.

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This particular title is a bit simplistic and has some really uncomfortable caricatures in it, but it was popular and provided a good jumping off point to one of Europe’s most beloved characters.

The art form was so popular that the French gave a name to it: bande dessinée.  A rough translation would be “drawn strips”.

Now, while the French and Belgian comic book industry did manage to produce some original work it was being rapidly overshadowed by a flood of American comics that could be bought and printed at a lower price.  After all, why spend all the time and money making your own stuff when you can just pay someone else to do the work for you.  However, in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s Europe had a bit of a problem.

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There was a war on and the Germans clamped down on American imports, including comics and animated films.  This cut off helped Europe develop its own stories and characters free from American influence and after Paris was liberated and the war was over, it was local artists and comic book creators who filled the gap.

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What’s really interesting is that even when the war was over, American comics never really came back in France.  This was epitomized by a law passed in 1949 that slowed the import of American literature, a law that was pushed by the French Communist Party who sought to limit American influence in Europe.

Free from the cultural behemoth of post war America, artists like Herge would go on to give Tintin his own comic magazine, and it remains incredibly popular to this day.

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Tintin’s success, coupled with the demand for more comics, resulted in a boom of magazines being published in post war France.  Eventually the market stabilized and Herge’s Tintin magazine and the French magazine Spirou became the dominant magazines throughout the 1950’s.

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It’s worth mentioning that France never had the backlash against comics that America went through in the 1950’s, so while American readers were doing this,

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French comics spent the fifties expanding, diversifying into different stories, and never lost their appeal as an art form.

Some of the highlights included the future 1980’s cartoon fodder The Smurfs, created by comic book artist Peyo and published in 1958 by Spirou,

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and another personal favorite of mine Asterix and Obelix, published by the Belgian magazine Pilote in 1959.

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The 1960’s and 70’s saw a more mature type of storytelling, with the debut of Valerian and Laureline in 1967,

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and tripy and far reaching sci fi art from artists like Jean Giraud (better known as Moebius) and Bilal making their way into a comic magazine called Metal Hurlant.  

That comic would eventually go out of business, but not before it was brought to America where it became the comic Heavy Metal, which is still around.

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The French and Belgian comic traditions have continued to this day.  They’re remarkably different from their American counterparts because while many Americans do tend to think of comics as reading material “for the kids” (no offense to the readers of this blog but come on, everyone knows at least one person who turns their noses up at comics) the French view it as a form of literature that is just as important as the novel or poem.

A modern example?  One of my favorite modern graphic novels created by the French-Iranian writer and artist Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

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Franco Belgian comics are also reknown for their artwork, with many of the older French artists divided into three distinct schools of comic art, including the realistic, which was popularized by artists such as Moebius,

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the “Linge claire” style, which favored more angular and simplistic character designs set against realistic backgrounds and was popularized by Herge and the Tintin books,

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the “comic dynamic style” which featured a more cartoonish emphasis on characters, movement, and action which was popularized by the Asterix books.

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So there you have it, a simplistic, generalized, and far too brief look at the comic book culture that inspired the movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  If this piqued your interest at all I highly recommend checking some of the titles out that I posted above and if you haven’t seen the movie yet…please go see it now.