The Secret Lives of Villains #307

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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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Crowdfunded Comics that deserve more attention: After the Gold Rush

Today we’re talking about a Kickstarter comic called “After the Gold Rush”.

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The book is about a scientist coming back to Earth after some mass exodus and seeks to bring back “optimistic sci fi and show that there is better living through science”.

The campaign is run by Miles Greb and has already passed its goal of $4,500 with 26 days left in the campaign.

Kickstarter link:  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/919052445/after-the-gold-rush-1-3-a-return-to-optimistic-sci?ref=category_newest

Why I like it

In order to understand why I like this project there are two things you have to understand about me.

First, I’m a sucker for cool artwork and this book has some really good art.

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The comic is primarily drawn by a gentleman named Issac La Russa and while it’s difficult for me to describe, I like to think that his art style would be perfect in everything from lighthearted kid’s books to grim and gritty superhero work.

The cover art is done by a guy named Barry Blakenship,

Cover art by Barry Blankenship

This is high caliber work that would be at home with Marvel or DC.  Instead we’re lucky enough to have this on a creator owned project.

The second reason I like this project is because I’m a massive history nerd.

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Now, it would seem strange for a science fiction book to have ties to the past, but hear me out.

A lot of people think that history is about single individuals or events but the reality is different.  Take something like the California Gold Rush of 1849,

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It wasn’t an event driven by a single individual within a set period of time.  It was a mass migration of ordinary people looking for a better life and wound up changing the future of California forever.

“After the Gold Rush” takes this idea and uses it to tell a fantastic story.

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I don’t know much about the plot, but it appears that the story takes place after some sort of human mass migration into space, most likely done by people who were looking for a better life.  This book takes a look at what happens after the people have left and what’s become of Earth.

It’s a book that understands that history isn’t just made up of individuals, it’s made up of masses of people who are trying to better themselves and that’s something special.

Why you should donate

The headline for the campaign states that this comic is “a return to optimistic sci fi”.  That alone should be something to celebrate.

The reason I say this is because it’s probably safe to say that science fiction has gotten pretty grim and gritty these days.

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If science fiction is how we view the future, than I would have to say that we’re being incredibly pessimistic.  Don’t get me wrong, I like grim and gritty stories, and there have been some pretty good ones over the years,

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but we live in an age where the greatest work of optimistic science fiction of our time,

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isn’t immune to being run through a couple of filters in an effort to provide a more realistic and morally questionable story.

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(holy crap, references to two beloved science fiction franchises in an article!)

Again, I have no problem with making science fiction more realistic, but at some point you just have to say “Enough with grim and depressing reality, give us something happy for once!”.

That’s the void that “After the Gold Rush” looks to fill and by God, I think it can actually pull it off.

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Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/919052445/after-the-gold-rush-1-3-a-return-to-optimistic-sci?ref=category_newest

 

Comic book showcase: Magnus, Robot Fighter.

So let’s close out the “Gold Key to Valiant Trilogy” (a name I just made up) with the final hero that was published by Gold Key Comics that made its way to Valiant Comics in the 1990’s: Magnus, Robot Fighter.

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Origin and Career

Magnus, Robot Fighter was first published by Gold Key Comics in February of 1963.

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He was created by comic book writer and artist Russ Manning.

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There are a couple things that should be noted about Russ Manning.  First, while Magnus, Robot Fighter was his single greatest creation, he rose to prominence in the comic book world with his work on Tarzan comics.

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You will also notice that his artwork is jaw droppingly amazing.

Magnus, Robot Fighter was a man born in the future society of North Am, a futuristic mega city that spans the entire continent of North America in the year 4000 A.D.

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While humans are nominally in charge of North Am, they have slowly become more and more dependent on a massive robot workforce.  One of their own, a robotic police chief named H-8, hates humanity to the point where he wants to take over North Am and rule over the humans.

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Into this story steps Robot 1-A, who appears to be a much older and wiser robot than his companions.  He raises a boy named Magnus to fight robots with his bare hands and protect humanity from evil robots and humans who seek to use robots for their own wicked plans.

The adventures of Magnus were pretty straight forward.  He would find a robot, or group of robots, that was doing something wrong or detrimental to humanity and beat the ever loving piss out of said evil doers with his bare hands.

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Magnus had a girlfriend who would assist him in his adventures named Leeja Clane.

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She was the daughter of a North Am senator and possessed telepathic powers that she used to help Magnus from time to time.

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Magnus, Robot Fighter was a success and I think there were three reasons why he sold as well as he did.

First, the early sixties were a heyday for some of the greatest science fiction ever written.  The scene was dominated by “The Big Three” of Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Issac Asimov.

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One of Asimov’s greatest contributions to the world of science fiction was his work on robotics, specifically one of his most famous books: 1950’s I, Robot.

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In the book he introduced his now famous Three Laws of Robotics,

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This was important to Magnus, Robot Fighter because Robot 1A, Magnus’ teacher and mentor, mentions the Three Laws and believes in them so strongly that it serves as Magnus’ origin.

The second cultural event in the early 1960’s was the introduction of karate to every day Americans.

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American soldiers who had been stationed in Japan and Okinawa had learned karate from Japanese/Okinawan masters and brought it back to the States.

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Since it looked cool and was just exotic enough to impress a lot of Americans it found a home in Hollywood where it was used by Frank Sinatra in 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate,

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and by Elvis.

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when you have a comic that combined popular science fiction with a martial art that was used by two of the coolest men to ever walk the Earth, you know you’ve got a hit.

Also, I mentioned at the top of the article that Magnus had been created by a man who made his mark in the comic book industry by drawing Tarzan stories.

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When you put Magnus side by side with Tarzan there are a lot of pretty striking similarities.  They were both raised by non human parents, they fight other worldly threats, and they both have a pretty lady friend they get to save and treat as arm candy.

Magnus was basically a futuristic version of Tarzan, and I’m okay with that.

So what happened?

Magnus may have been a popular Gold Key character (I guess people just really like robots and karate) but he fell victim to a force more powerful than any mindless robotic automaton: low sales figures.

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The series was cancelled when Gold Key started suffering in the 1970’s.

However, the rights were published by Jim Shooter’s Valiant Comics in the late 1980’s along with Turok and Doctor Solar.

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The Valiant version of Magnus was pretty faithful to the Gold Key version, although there was a pretty popular issue where Magnus fought the Predator in 1992.

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After Valiant’s parent company was bought by Acclaim in 1995, Magnus was rebooted two years later in 1997.

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The series was more of a self parody of the original creation and it was not very well received.  Acclaim would close its doors in 1999.  It was not sorely missed.

Magnus was picked up by Dark Horse Comics and his original stories were reprinted in 2002.

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A new original series was announced in 2010 with Jim Shooter writing which lasted four issues until it was cancelled in 2011.

Currently the series is owned by Dynamite Entertainment which bought the rights in 2013 and began publishing a new original series in 2014.

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I have the first volume on my phone.  It’s a good story, the artwork is fantastic, and I would highly recommend it.  In it’s own special way I think it’s come full circle.

Magnus, Robot Fighter was a silly idea with a silly name and only the most basic story lines and motivation.  However, the endearing nature of such a wonderfully simple concept (coupled with the fact that it borrowed heavily from established characters and jumped on the two major bandwagons of karate and 1960’s science fiction), made the comic a classic of the medium and ensured that it would be several times better than it had any right to be.

Next week we’re going to be talking about the little comic book publisher that became one of the great icons of horror but was squashed by the ever rolling tide of history.

Golden Age Showcase: Lance Lewis

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

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

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Okay, not that one.

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

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

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Origin and Career

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

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

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

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

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

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Anyway, back to Lance Lewis.

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

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

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

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

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Mystery Comics #3

Such were the times I guess.

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

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

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

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

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

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

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

Comic Book Cover For Startling Comics #53

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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