Golden Age Showcase: The Face

You know who everyone loves?  Batman.

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You know what one of his greatest lines is?

“Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot”.

I love that line because it sums up Batman perfectly.  So much of his character is about instilling fear and dread into his opponents and it’s an integral part of the costume, especially the mask.

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This is part of what made Batman so popular and as we all know, popularity breeds imitators.

Today we’re going to talk about one of Batman’s earliest, and least successful, imitators simply known as…The Face.

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Hold on to your seats ladies and gentlemen.

Origin and Career

The Face was one of the hallmark creations of a little known comic book publisher called Columbia Comics.

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The company was formed in 1940 through a partnership between a newspaper company called the McNaught Newspaper Syndicate and a man named Vin Sullivan.

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Interesting fact: Vin Sullivan was the man who bought the rights of a little known character named Superman from Siegel and Shuster for a company called National Allied Publications, although you know them better as DC comics.

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Anyway, Columbia’s biggest seller was an anthology comic called Big Shot Comics and the Face was in the very first issue published in May of 1940.

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He was created by an artist named Mart Bailey.

As for backstory, the Face was the superhero identity of humble radio station announcer Troy Trent who decided to fight crime just because he could.

Comic Book Cover For Big Shot Comics #1 - Version 1

In order to do this he decided to don a horrifying green mask with red hair, long fangs, and yellow eyes.  This disguise proved to be incredibly helpful since it struck enough fear into his enemies’ hearts that he could either get the jump on them or wrangle a confession from them quickly.

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In his first adventure the Face helped save a group of sick orphans who were being poisoned by food supplied by a greedy businessman who was pocketing government aid money and selling sub par supplies back to the people that needed them.

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No, I am not joking, this comic was absolutely serious.  I know that it may seem a bit much for our more developed brains to accept a story where the bad guy is just that evil and the good guy’s job is to save a bunch of orphans, but I thought it was sincere enough and just well written enough to make for a pretty good story.

Come to think of it, “pretty good” describes most of the Face’s stories.  The art work was pretty good, for Golden Age comic book standards, and while he never graduated past fighting crooks and gangsters his stories were either interesting enough or had some twist to them that made the writing a step above most of the crap that was being published at the time.

The character had a nice gimmick, with a good artist, and some good storytelling behind him.  He would wind up becoming one of Columbia Comic’s greatest heroes and I could easily see him making the leap into modern times along with more well known heroes like Batman and Superman.

So what happened?

The same thing that happened to Columbia Comics, he disappeared after they went out of business in 1949 due to declining sales.

Despite the fact that the Face was successful the sad fact of the matter was that superheroes just weren’t selling in the late 1940’s and by the early 1950’s the entire comic book industry would be on the ropes.

Sadly, the Face’s career was over.  However, a new hero who was heavily based off of him called “Mr. Face” did appear in Dynamite Comics’ Project Superpowers comic book series.

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His powers got a much needed update after being thrown into a mystic object known as the Urn of Pandora.  When he emerged he realized that people would see their worst fears come to life if they looked at his face and mask.

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Boy, this is a short section.  I wonder if there is anything I can do to add to this article?

How could he be remade?

What’s this?  A new section for long time readers in an attempt to remain fresh and interesting?  Well alright then.

In this section of the article I’m going to take a look at the character of the week and see if he/she/it could be remade and how it could be done.  Think of it like a pitch for a superhero revival only I’m not being paid for it.  Also, if anyone reading this should take a look at the article and be moved to turn it into a story of their own please feel free, I wouldn’t have put this on the internet if I didn’t want people to copy it.

Alright, so here’s what works.  The Face has a cool gimmick and costume.  Sure Batman has the whole “strike fear into criminals using the costume” deal but he also has decades of training and a bottomless bank account to help.  Our modern take on the Face would double down on the “using the mask to cause fear” idea and not rely on martial arts as much.

Maybe he could use the mask in conjunction with a fear inducing chemical like the Scarecrow,

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or maybe it could be some sort of mystic curse or ancient deity like a much more serious version of the Mask?

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What doesn’t work that much is the backstory and secret identity.  Having a superhero fight crime and have a life outside of crime may have been okay in the 1940’s but that just won’t fly here.  We need to give him a semi plausible backstory and motivation for fighting crime.

So, without further ado, here’s a short paragraph describing my idea for a revamped Face.

Tony Trent is a government scientist working on a top secret drug for the United States government.  He is a brilliant chemist working in conjunction with a psychologist named Tanya Ferguson (his love interest and helper) and they have been partnered together  in order to develop a drug for what they think is for crowd control purposes but is actually a powerful hallucinogenic drug for interrogation and discrediting enemies of America.  Tanya discovers the project’s true purpose and threatens to go to the press with the news.  Fearing reprisal the government shuts down the project and attempts to liquidate both Tony and Tanya.

The assassination attempt fails and both of them manage to flee.   The rest of the comic is the two of them trying to find the people responsible for trying to kill them and shutting the project down.  Tony is able to use the prototype fear gas, along with a plastic mask that he randomly picks up, as a weapon against anyone who would try to take them out.

Golden Age Comics: Chandu the Magician

If you’re like me you probably went to go see the new Marvel movie this weekend: Dr. Strange.

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If you haven’t seen it my spoiler free review is this: GO SEE IT NOW!!!

It’s trippy, mind warping, Benedict Cumberbatch is an awesome edition to the Marvel Universe, and it has some of the coolest fight scenes I’ve ever seen.

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Normally I would do a blog post about the history behind Dr. Strange but here’s the thing, the character really doesn’t belong to the Golden Age of Comics.

Dr. Strange was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the creative team behind Marvel’s greatest hero: Spider Man.

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Dr. Strange premiered in 1963 in the anthology series Strange Tales.  Since the character was a sorcerer and master of magic Ditko used the comic to create some of the coolest and most mind bending artwork ever seen.

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Sadly, while the art was fantastic, Dr. Strange didn’t really catch on as a solo character in his own series like Iron Man or the Hulk.  While he was popular with college kids who were experimenting with Eastern mysticism and psychedelic stimulants like LSD, the character was more at home as a supporting hero who was useful to other heroes whenever they were confronted with magical threats.

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Like I said before, Dr. Strange really doesn’t fit the bill for this blog.  However, while researching the character’s history I discovered that Stan Lee took a lot of influence for Dr. Strange from an old radio program called Chandu the Magician.

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After looking up Chandu on the internet I decided to write this week’s blog post on this instead.  Sure it’s a radio show turned into a movie series, but it’s got enough comic book elements in it to justify a place here.

Origin

Before there were comic books and comic book movies, there were radio shows and pulp novels.

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Chandu the Magician premiered in 1931 on the Los Angeles station KLR.  The show featured a man named Frank Chandler who was played by radio actor Gayne Whitman

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Frank was an American who had traveled to India to learn the mystic arts from the yogis.  Such skills included astral projection, hypnosis, and escape artistry.

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After he had learned everything he could he was sent into the world to fight evil in all its forms with the new identity of Chandu the Magician.

He would have various adventures every week, broadcast in 15 minute adventures, and sponsored by companies such as White King Soap and Beech Nut Gum.  He had several love interests such as the Egyptian princess Nadji who was played by actress Veola Vonn.

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The program was successful and lasted from 1932 to 1935, and was even revived in the late 1940’s.

On top of the radio show, they even made a movie about Chandu in 1932.

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Chandu the Magician stared actor Edmund Lowe as the title character,

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and horror movie icon and king of over the top epic performances, Bela Lugosi as the villain Roxor.  You probably know him better as Dracula.

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The movie was 71 minutes of glorious 1930’s cheese filled with magic, sappy romance, and death rays.  If you don’t believe me please watch this clip of Bela giving the best damn evil villain monologue I have ever heard.

The movie was successful enough to spawn sequels and I can assume the studios loved Lugosi because they cast him as Chandu in the sequel.

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So what happened?

Life and society moved on, leaving radio and old heroes like Chandu in the dust.

While I normally feel a pang of regret and nostalgic longing for the heroes that I write about in this blog I’m really not feeling a whole lot for this one.

Sure he was a cool magician and yes the adventures were creative and exotic, and we got one of the best Bela Lugosi performances I’ve ever seen out of it, but the character was definitely a product of his time.  There’s a pretty strong undercurrent of some of the more uncomfortable ideas that permeated American entertainment during the 1930’s.  Everything from blatant racism to casual sexism is on call here.  Granted, a lot of the early comics played with that as well, but I get the feeling that a lot of people won’t be lining up to see the Chandu reboot at the box office.

Still, it was a fun little story and it seemed to have enough of an effect on a young Stan Lee to create Doctor Strange, so it wasn’t all bad.

Silver Age Showcase: Baron Heinrich Zemo

WARNING: Mild spoilers for Captain America: Civil War.  This article doesn’t reveal any major plot points to the film, it just name drops the villain.

So this little movie just came out.

My opinion?  It’s pretty gosh darn awesome and you should totally go see it right now!

That being said if I were to be nit picky about it I would say there are two slight critiques of the film.  First, Civil War sacrifices a lot of the focus and plot that made Captain America: Winter Soldier so good in the name of world building and introducing new characters.

When you have that many characters who need a chance to have the spotlight you’re going to lose something, even if the movie is two and a half hours long.  It actually bears a striking resemblance to another very long super hero film that wasn’t as well received because it spent a lot of time setting things up for the future.

The difference is that Marvel has EARNED the right to spend so much time world building and setting up future events because it gave us twelve other films to get to know the characters so that’s not really a problem for me.

The second very small issue I had with Civil War is an issue that is more systemic to Marvel films as a whole: the villain.

The villain for this movie is a man named Helmut Zemo and here he is:

Without me getting into spoilers let me just say that Zemo is a good villain for the movie, he does his job and he sets up one of the most devastating emotional payoffs I’ve ever seen.  That being said, as a comic book villain Zemo is pretty boring, and in a cinematic universe that has only really managed to produce one great villain,

it’s unfortunately par for the course.

Don’t get me wrong, I still adore Civil War, but when the bad guy is changed to this,

from this,

then I feel the need to step in and talk about.

Today we are going to look at one of Captain America’s oldest and greatest foes and one of Marvel’s powerhouse villains: Baron Heinrich Zemo.

Origin and Career:

Within the Marvel Comics Universe, Baron Zemo was an old enemy of Captain America and made his first appearance as a flashback in The Avengers #4 in 1964.

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The issue was written and drawn by the legendary creator team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and was the issue where Captain America was thawed out of his ice nap and decides to join the Avengers, it’s a pretty important issue in comic book history.

Baron Heinrich Zemo was one of Nazi Germany’s greatest and most dangerous scientists.  It should be noted that while he knew Captain America’s other enemy the Red Skull, they didn’t get along very well and they were more allies of convenience against Captain America.

Baron Zemo was the twelfth person to carry that name.  He was brilliant scientist,

an expert combatant,

and a sadistic bastard who was so evil he was hated by everyone, even his fellow Germans.

During his first appearance it was revealed that he was actually the one who sabotaged the plane that would throw Captain America into the sea and place him into a state of suspended animation and apparently kill his sidekick Bucky Barnes.

When I said Zemo is an important part of Captain America’s history I meant it.

Now you’re probably wondering about the mask.  Well, there’s a pretty cool backstory behind it.

Back in WW2 Zemo decided to wear a purple face mask in order hide his identity.  It turns out that testing weapons on your own people insures you aren’t going to make a whole lot of friends.

Unfortunately for Zemo he was doused in one of his experiments, a super strong glue known as Adhesive X, by an errant throw from Captain America which permanently bonded his mask to his face.

Zemo would spend his post war years doing what a lot of real Nazis did after the war, hiding out in South America.  Zemo continued his super villain ways, at one point he attempted to spread Adhesive X over the island of Manhattan but was stopped, when he learned of Captain America’s revival.

Naturally Zemo was a bit upset and he attempted to lure the Captain into a trap to defeat him once and for all.  Unfortunately, Captain America was too good for him and Zemo was killed in a rock slide.

So what happened?

Heinrich had a son, a gifted and brilliant boy named Helmut Zemo, who would take his father’s place and become one of the most dangerous and well known villains in the entire Marvel cannon.

Like his father Helmut was a scientific genius and was soon capable of duplicating many of his father’s inventions and schemes.

Helmut idolized his father despite a shady and abusive past.  When Captain America tried to convince Helmut that his father was evil Helmut didn’t take it very well.

Also like his father, Helmut would fall victim to Adhesive X.  In 1973’s Captain America #168 Helmut disguised himself as a villain named the Phoenix, kidnapped Captain America, and attempted to drown him in a vat of the chemical.

Captain America Vol 1 168

Fortunately Cap was rescued by the Falcon and Zemo fell into the boiling vat and was presumed dead.  However, Zemo survived and while he was able to find a solvent that could dissolve Adhesive X he was permanently scarred.

I could go on to list the many schemes and accomplishments of Baron Zemo but there simply isn’t enough time.

Baron Helmut Zemo and his father were, and still are, two of the most dangerous super villains in the entire Marvel Universe.  Cunning, brilliant, and sadistic, the Zemo name is one that gives Captain America and the heroes of Marvel nightmares and while Zemoe is the most memorable villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he deserves a place as one of the most capable and tortured villains to face the Avengers.

The Primordial Soup: Let’s talk about the Fantastic Four

So this movie came out not too long ago.

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The reviews have been…not stellar.  Granted I haven’t seen the film yet but looking at this,

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I think it’s safe to say that it’s a pretty crappy movie.  But I want to do something different with the Fantastic Four.  They’ve had a massive streak of horrible luck when it comes to movies

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So instead of reverting back to the same angry outbursts and the same tired old jokes let’s talk about how we can make the Fantastic Four better.  Here are three ways we could put one of the greatest superhero teams into a movie that could actually be half way decent.

1. Embrace the insanity

The Fantastic Four was created by legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby.

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Jack Kirby was the artist who worked with Stan Lee to create such icons as the Hulk, The Black Panther, and Thor, who is especially interesting because Marvel’s Thor is probably the best representation of one of Jack Kirby’s favorite tropes/theories: The Ancient Astronaut Theory.

Basically the theory goes like this: A long time ago aliens visited Earth and had such advanced science and technology that the humans who observed them thought they were gods.  They preceded to tell everyone they saw about these gods and that is how beings like Zeus or Thor came into being.  Kirby was a big fan of this theory and it showed up in his work which is why Thor is a living being from another dimension.

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That’s the sort of thing that needs to be in a Fantastic Four movie.  The Marvel Universe is filled to the brim with strange and crazy alien races with all sorts of weird powers and abilities and would make for fantastic stories.  You have one of the Fantastic Four’s greatest foes, Galactus (who is NOT a goddamn cloud monster like the movies dammit!) who is a being of cosmic power that eats planets, not out of spite or malice, but simply because he’s hungry.  If the second Fantastic Four movie had this on screen with more time to explain his motivations.

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You’d have an amazing movie.  The point is that the Marvel universe is home to some of the strangest alien beings ever seen in literature and most of them became known through the Fantastic Four.

2. For the love of all that’s holy fix Dr. Doom!

Dr. Doom is one of the greatest comic book villains of all time.

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In the comics he is a mad scientist, a master of magic and the black arts (his mother sold her soul to the devil), and the leader of his own country.

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He is not, and never has been, a childhood friend to any member of the Fantastic Four who winds up being a whiny little pushover when it’s time to beat someone.

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Forget all the grand strange cosmic threats that the Four have faced over the years, just having someone as powerful as Dr. Doom threatening to take over the world and having a massive battle with armies of robots and black magic would be worth the price of admission alone.  Heck, you could probably make a better movie about the origins of Dr. Doom alone.

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In fact, holy crap why haven’t they made a movie about Dr. Doom yet?!

3. There should be more to a Fantastic Four movie than just the Fantastic Four.

It’s no small secret that Fox and Sony are engaged in something of a bitter feud with Disney over the fate of many of Marvel’s superheroes that is something tantamount to a four year old shoving match on school playground.  While Disney owns most of the Marvel Universe and is working on re introducing Spider Man after Sony borrowed him for a while, Fox is still bitterly clinging on to the two franchises it still has control over: X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

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This brings us to an uncomfortable fact about the Fantastic Four: their best and most memorable comic books usually involve appearances from other, better characters.  The simple truth is that the Fantastic Four haven’t been the kind of superhero team that can carry a comic on their own, what they are really good at is introducing and working with or against other characters.  Besides Dr. Doom here’s a sample of the other characters the Fantastic Four helped introduce.

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The Black Panther and the Inhumans are two movies that are going to be released by Marvel in the not too distant future and they owe their existence to the Fantastic Four.  Then there are the cameos and team up issues which are just too numerous to list here but here are some of the most noteworthy:

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Some of the team’s best stories were created with other characters which is a prospect that, between the long string of crummy movies and the current business climate, seems highly unlikely.  Maybe it’s time for Fox to throw in the towel and let the rights revert back to Marvel, or maybe they could have the Fantastic Four team up with Fox’s other property the X-Men (which could be cool) but either way it is important to remember that the oldest superhero team in comics usually works better with others.

What do you think?

The Primordial Soup: Art and Technology

Before the article can start I want you to watch this video.

If you can’t play the video or don’t want to watch it let me summarize it.  The video is a series of clips from a documentary called It Might Get Loud.  The entire movie is The Edge from U2, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and Jack White from the White Stripes talking about their music and their inspirations.  It is an amazing film and I highly recommend it.  The clip shown above is a set of clips with Jack White calling technology “the destroyer of emotion and truth.  Technology doesn’t do anything for creativity…that’s the disease you have to fight in any creative field, ease of use”.

Speaking purely as an artist myself I am inclined to agree with Jack on this one, in an attempt to make things easier you wind up losing something important, whether it’s some sort of tiny little imperfection that makes your creation special or nugget of truth that you just gloss over because it was easier not to.  For a perfect example of this look at something like the overuse of CGI in movies, mostly during the  1990’s where bad CGI and special effects were everywhere and the ability to fill seats in theaters with nothing more than that led to some really crappy movies.

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The thing is that while technology can be used a crutch for poor creative thought and has an annoying habit of turning a lot of creators lazy it is still useful.  Technology should be used as a companion to the creative thought process rather than its replacement and in my opinion there are three ways technology can do this.

Technology for storage and restoration 

Examples: The National Film Preservation Foundation, the Gutenberg Project, countless picture and art restoration efforts.

This is probably the most straightforward and distinct application of technology to creative works.  The fact of the matter is that things like books, famous works of art, and especially early film can be lost very easily.  By using modern appliances like computers, scanners, and digital storage works that would have previously lost to the ages can be cataloged, stored, and brought out for the enjoyment of future generations.

Technology for collaboration and publicity

Examples: Facebook, Dropbox, Itunes, the entire Internet.

The most useful and welcomed application of technology in the modern age. With a few simple clicks anyone from anywhere with access to a computer and a stable connection can connect with and collaborate with anyone else from around the world to create something.  Once that has been done it’s just a simple matter of sharing their work with their friends or anywhere large numbers of people congregate online.  Now anyone has the potential to be seen by millions of people when before it took giant companies with a long reach and deep pockets to get that kind of exposure.  Let me be clear, the technology on display here did nothing to create a work of art, it simply helps the work reach a bigger audience.

Technology for creative augmentation and discovery

Examples: Photoshop, Motion capture, CGI

Yes, I am fully aware that I just spend the majority of this article talking about how CGI ruined movies and how technology destroys creativity but hear me out.  Technology is destructive when used as a crutch but when it is used to augment and support an artist great things can happen.  Thinking “oh I can just use CGI to add a monster into my film and then it’ll be entertaining enough that I won’t have to do anything else” is bad but you still have design the monster, you still have to come up with rules for it and how it works within the story you’re telling, and you still have to make the monster have meaning.  You think that the fact that CGI was used to make these guys.

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and this guy

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made their movies worse?  Nope, by using CGI and computers to augment and support the creative vision of each of these films both films were able to realize their artistic vision much better then if they hadn’t used the tools available.

So the moral of this article is simple: technology isn’t necessarily a damper on creative thought and artistic production, the artist just has to be careful not to become too reliant on it and expect technology to do his/her job for them.