The Secret Lives of Villains #297

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Golden Age Showcase: A selection of comics about 9/11

So it’s September 11th today.

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They say everyone who is old enough to remember 9/11 remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news.  I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I remember being in middle school and being hurried into an auditorium by the entire staff and not really understanding what was going on until much later.

September 11th was an important event in American history and for American comics as well.  For starters, it was the deadliest attack on American soil by a foreign threat since Pearl Harbor.

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We all know that Pearl Harbor was the principal event that brought the United States into World War 2, but it was also the event that guided the direction of American comics towards superheroes,

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and war comics.

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If we take a step back this makes a lot of sense.  Comic book publishers saw that the American people needed escapist power fantasies where all their problems could be solved by walking metaphors that could punch their problems in the face and this trend would continue as America became a world wide military superpower that became increasingly involved in world affairs.

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Just like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 was an event that rekindled our interest in superheroes.

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and it even revitalized an interest in modern military narratives, although these tended to find their way into video games and other forms of media.

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Once again, it was a way for American culture to make sense of our place in the world and give a brightly colored metaphor to our problems.  The only differences were that our heroes fought in Afghanistan instead of Europe and a lot of creators had to deal with a more complex and morally grey fallout.

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In many ways post 9/11 America paralleled post Pearl Harbor America and comic books were there to document and process it.

I know it happened a long time ago, that it brings up painful memories that a lot of us would like to forget, and that many of us would like to keep the political and social fallout that the event caused out of our comic books, but stuff like this is important and needs to be talked about.

So today I’m going to give a brief overview of three comics that dealt with the events of 9/11 and a little bit about the background and influences of each one.

Amazing Spiderman #36

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This comic hit the stores on December of 2001, a mere two months after the attacks.  As a result, it is the closest out of the three comics to the actual attacks, during a time when it was still terrifyingly fresh in our minds and we were all still standing together against a threat that we really didn’t understand.

Out of all the superheroes in the modern pop culture cannon, Spiderman is probably the one who is most connected to New York, and one of the most hard hit by the events of 9/11.

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While New York has always had a special place in comic books as the birthplace of the American superhero industry, Spider Man has had a special relationship with the city.  He’s the city’s defender, the protector of the ordinary people living there, and I’m willing to bet that he’s incredibly grateful for all of the tall skyscrapers around that allow him to actually use his webs effectively.

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The attacks would even have an effect on the Sam Raimi Spiderman movie, forcing Sony to remove a shot of the Twin Towers from a trailer,

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and inspiring Sam Raimi to include a “this is New York!  If you mess with him you mess with all of us” scene into the movie.

The comic itself was written by the legendary writer J. Michael Straczynski and was drawn by Marvel stalwart John Romita Sr.  It isn’t part of a larger story, it’s just Spiderman wandering the wreckage of Ground Zero and trying to process it all.

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Now, I have seen some criticism over the years about this comic, and I can kind of see why.  There’s a page where some of the most violent and destructive villains in the Marvel Universe are just standing in the wreckage, doing nothing.
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Hell, this wasn’t even the first time that Marvel destroyed the Twin Towers in their version of New York.  Juggernaut did it in an issue of X-Force in 1991 and laughed about it.

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but this is not the kind of comic if you ask me this comic deserves our attention and respect as a way for a company that is so engrained into the culture of New York to come to terms with an event that shook the city and the country to its core.

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In the Shadow of No Towers

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In the Shadow of No Towers was published in 2004 and was written by indie comics legend Art Spiegelman, the author of the groundbreaking graphic novel Maus.

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Mr. Spiegelman is a native New Yorker and was there during the attacks.  He was a contributor to the New Yorker magazine at the time and is responsible for the cover of the magazine published on September 24th 2001.

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He’s also a big fan and advocate of comics and takes a lot of inspiration from a lot of the early comic book artists, and it shows in his work.  The book itself is much more personal than the Spiderman comic, but at the same time it has something more to say about the event and its impact.

On one hand it’s about the author himself and where he was during the attacks.  His daughter was attending school near the Twin Towers on that day and the author is not afraid to talk about the fear and terror of actually being up close and personal to an event like that was.

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On the other hand, this book was published in 2004 and while we had come to grips with the attack itself, we were neck deep in the consequences that the attack wrought on American culture and politics. Specifically we were at the beginning of what would become a long, drawn out military occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Spiegelman saw what was going on, how the attacks were being used to justify spending billions of dollars and killing thousands of American troops (along with Lord knows how many Iraqi and Afghani citizens), and he was not happy with what he saw.

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This book uses old school comic characters and techniques to talk about 9/11 and its aftermath and it is really worth checking out.

Ex Machina

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This comic came out the same time as In the Shadow of No Towers but instead of being a one off graphic novel, it was a 50 issue comic series that lasted six years and was published by DC Comics.

The series was created and written by Brian K. Vaughn,

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who has been doing a lot of great comic book work and is most well known for creating the indie mega hit Saga.

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Now, Vaughn is not a native New Yorker but he did go to New York University and got his start there and, according to the author himself, he created Ex Machina as a rant against the political leadership of the time.

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The comic presents an alternate history of New York and America.  It’s a future where there is a single superhero called “The Great Machine” and he manages to stop one of the planes from crashing into one of the towers.  In the aftermath he is elected to become mayor of New York City and the comic deals with his term in office.

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The comic is a political drama and out of the three titles we’ve talked about it is probably the most detached from the actual events of 9/11.  While it actually changes the events of that day, it uses the superhero story to tell a gripping and meaningful story that shines a light on American politics and how our country’s leaders used the Twin Towers to guide the American public towards the future we are living in now.  The comic is brilliant and it is definitely worth your time.

So there you have it, three different comics, by three different types of comic professionals, talking about the same event through different viewpoints and motivations.  And while it is important to acknowledge the fallout and changes to our culture and way of life, it is important to never forget what happened and how we can ensure it will never happen again.

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Golden Age Showcase: The Purple Zombie

So we lost one of the greats yesterday: George A. Romero.

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While he did create other films and was a fervent activist throughout his life, the man will always be remembered as the founding father of the zombie movie.

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Fun fact: after he made his first film Night of the Living Dead Romero screwed up some paper work with the copyright office and as a result, the film is now in the public domain.  You can watch it for free and I highly recommend it.

Yes, zombies are a pop culture staple nowadays.  While their time as the dominant force of pop culture has waned, they’re still around making boatloads of money, especially in the comic book world.

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So I thought it might be fun to talk about one of the earliest zombies in comic books, and how different a walking corpse from the 1940’s was from the present day walking corpse.

Today we’re talking about the Purple Zombie.

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Origin and Career

The Purple Zombie made his first appearance in Eastern Publishing’s Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1 in August of 1940.

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The character was created by Tarpe Mills, which was a pen name for Golden Age writer and artist June Mills.

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Mrs. Mills was actually the first lady to create a female superhero, a black cat costumed heroine named Miss Fury.

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Let it be said that the early comic book scene wasn’t entirely dominated by male New Yorkers, it was just mostly dominated by them.

When reading the Purple Zombie stories you can actually see a lot of tropes that plague (pun intended) the modern zombie.  He was created by a mad scientist named Dr. Malinsky who was seeking to create an unstoppable army in order to take over the world,

Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #1

However, it’s worth mentioning that there is no specific mention of how this zombie was created.

After establishing himself as an evil bastard, Dr. Malinsky realizes that he has the same problem Dr. Frankenstein had, that his creation realizes what it is and isn’t all that fond of his purpose.  The creation bypasses years of therapy and emotional issues by strangling his creator.

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You’ll notice three things that make this guy different.  First, he’s bulletproof and super strong, thus avoiding the trope of zombies that need to be shot in the head and who are only effective in large groups.  Second, he’s surprisingly articulate for a zombie and has no need or desire to consume the brains of the living.  Third, his skin looks more black than purple which…raises a lot of very icky moral questions that are a bit more unsavory today than they would have been seventy years ago.

Nevertheless, this zombie sets out to find the people who backed his creation and remove them from the face of the Earth.

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It’s never mentioned who the backers were working for, but with a name like Otto Von Heim it’s safe to assume they were working for the Nazis.

In a rather interesting twist, this zombie was actually captured and sentenced to death for the murders.

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This is where he gets his purple skin, and his jailers realize that he can’t be killed.

The zombie is released into the care of Malinsky’s former assistant and swears to do nothing bug good from here on out.

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Again, some kind of uncomfortable racial overtones here (it’s worth mentioning that pre Romero zombies were often associated with African or “voodoo” religions) but as origin stories go it’s pretty fleshed out and well done for the Golden Age.

Sadly, the zombie’s brush with organized crime wasn’t over.  Realizing that a large, bulletproof, super strong, nearly unkillable monster could be useful in committing crimes a gangster named Joe Coroza kidnapped the Purple Zombie in an attempt to use him as a weapon.

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His human friend tries to rescue him, but is forced to contend with an army of mechanized skeletons as well as the gangsters.

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However, it turns out that the man who created the moving skeletons was actually a good guy and the Purple Zombie decided to join forces with him and go off to fight in Europe for the forces of democracy.

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It’s nice to know that the idea of using creatures more often associated with horror to do good is older than a lot of people think.

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The plan is a success and the Zombie and his skeleton pals successfully stop the death ray from killing thousands more.  Their solution…cold blooded murder.

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After successfully defeating the death ray and single handily winning the war (I assume) the heroes find themselves forced to land in a mysterious lab.

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It turns out that the scientist forced them to land there so he could show them their time machine and in the very next page… Comic Book Cover For Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics #7

Jesus, this comic jumps around more than an over caffeinated toddler.

The two find themselves in 64 A.D in the middle of the Roman Empire.

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The Romans do the surprisingly sensible thing and declare these two strangers to be madmen.  They also understand modern English.

Thankfully, lions are no match for the two.

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Unfortunately, they now have to contend with the entire city of Rome burning.

Thankfully, they are saved by the actions of their colleagues in the present day who manage to transport them out of danger into the Medieval Ages.

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It turns out they’ve landed straight in the middle of the Crusades and wind up meeting King Richard I of England.

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They would have been on good terms if it wasn’t for their sudden transportation to the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

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Honestly, I don’t know if the author is trying to be educational, or if she’s just name dropping random historical figures who were popular at the time.

They meet up with Sir Francis Drake while he’s bowling,

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(fun side note: the story is that Sir Francis was supposedly bowling when he received news of the Armada so props for possible historical accuracy)

and the two men help him defeat the Spanish Armada until they’re whisked away to the French Revolution.

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I’m beginning to think the scientists controlling the time machine hate our protagonists.

The two suffer through one more trip into prehistoric times,

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and then they’re transported back to the modern day where it is revealed that the Purple Zombie wasn’t actually dead to begin with.  He was actually faking his death in order to escape and wound up becoming an unwitting participant in the original experiments.

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So I guess you could argue that the Purple Zombie wasn’t actually a zombie.

Goddammit.

So what happened?

The page above is the last page we would ever see of the Purple Zombie.

We’ve talked about Eastern Publishing before and how it was going through a rather turbulent time in the late 1940’s when it merged with a bunch of other publishers to become Standard Publishing and eventually stopped making comics in the 1950’s.

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But even if Eastern Publishing had survived, I think that the Purple Zombie would have been doomed anyway.  For starters there were companies in the 1940’s who were using zombies and monsters much more effectively and with much better artwork.

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And even if the Purple Zombie had managed to become more popular, it stood no chance against the backlash against comics in the 1950’s that wound up creating the Comics Code.

With that being said I actually like the Purple Zombie.  While he had a pretty average power set and wasn’t technically a zombie, he had a pretty good back story and enough heart and dedication to be a pretty good superhero.

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