Comic book showcase: Steve Ditko’s career and contribution to comics

So we lost one of the greats this week, legendary comic book writer and artist Steve Ditko.

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Ditko was an interesting character in his own right.  In an industry that thrives on creators being in direct contact with their fans through things like letter pages,

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and comic conventions,

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Ditko was a recluse who rarely made appearances and almost never gave interviews.

So how did Steve Ditko become such an icon in the comic book community, despite choosing to adopt a public persona that many would have considered career suicide?  Well, let’s take a brief look at his career and some of his more famous creations.

Ditko was part of the great revitalization of comic books in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  This time period was known as the Silver Age of Comics and was known for its focus on science fiction aesthetic and themes,

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and for a little known writer named Stan Lee and a cigar chomping artist known as Jack Kirby creating the juggernaut known as Marvel Comics.

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This was also a time when many of the heroes that we know and love today were either created, such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four,

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or received a make over that would define them for the next fifty years such as Carmine Infantino’s re interpretation of The Flash.

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So where was Ditko in all of this?

Well, he got his start drawing for a small company called Charleton Comics after serving in the Army after World War 2, but moved to Atlas Comics in the mid 1950’s after recovering from a bout of tuberculosis.

Ditko would frequently collaborate with Stan Lee in creating short stories for Atlas publications such as Strange Tales,

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These stories were a huge success, and in 1962 Lee was given permission to create a story about a teenage superhero with spider themed powers.  Lee’s first choice for an artist on the project was…Jack Kirby.

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Kirby was an industry veteran and a very good artist, but in interviews Lee recalled that he didn’t like the way Kirby drew Spider Man.  It was good but it was just too heroic.

So Lee turned to Ditko and together they would go on to create one of the most iconic and popular superheroes ever: Spider Man.

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The hero would debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 on August 10th, 1962.  While the interior artwork was done by Ditko, the cover was drawn by Kirby.

Lee and Ditko’s creation was a massive hit and helped usher in a new era of superheroes who weren’t gods or paragons of virtue, they were creatures with fantastic powers and very human emotions and problems.  Spider Man may have had amazing powers, but he always suffered because of it.  Everything from the death of his Uncle Ben,

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to the death of Gwen Stacy,

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was his fault.

But if you ask me, one of the most iconic moments in the early Spider Man comics was a scene where he’s trapped under rubble, buried alive by the Green Goblin and he has to get himself out.

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Ditko helped make superheroes vulnerable, twisting Spider Man’s body into brutal and uncomfortable poses that made the reader feel the effort and pain he was going through.  It’s fantastic stuff.

A few years later Lee and Ditko would go on to create Dr. Strange, who debuted in Strange Tales #110 in July of 1963.

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Strange allowed Ditko to unleash some of the most surreal and fantastic artwork ever seen as the human Dr. Strange battled creatures of the mind who wielded black magic.

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It’s worth remembering this was the 1960’s, a time when counter culture and New Age religions were starting to make their way into pop culture.  It’s also worth remembering that Dr. Strange became really popular with college kids at the time.

Unfortunately, Steve’s relationship with Marvel and Stan Lee wouldn’t last.  See, Marvel Comics in the 1960’s pioneered a style of comic creation known as “The Marvel Method”.  Long story short, what would happen is that the writer would send an artist a rough idea of a story, the artist would draw the story as they interpreted it, and then the writer would write out the dialogue afterwards.

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It was a great way for a writer like Lee to produce a metric crap ton of work while maintaining his public image, but it wasn’t without problems.  Sadly, there is a lot of debate to this day over who created what at Marvel and whether or not Stan Lee deserves the level of credit and respect he is enjoying in popular culture while artists like Kirby and Ditko were relatively sidelined in the public eye.

But that’s a debate for another day.  What we do know is that Ditko was frustrated with Marvel and Lee enough to leave them and go work for his old collaborator Charlton Comics.

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While Charlton didn’t pay as much as Marvel, they did allow their creators more freedom in their work.  Ditko thrived at Charlton, helping to create some of their most iconic heroes such as Captain Atom,

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and The Question.

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The Question was probably Ditko’s most personal work.  He was a big fan of Ayn Rand and objectivism, the idea that morality must be realized through individuals seeking to act in their own self interest.  The Question was Ditko’s way to express his personal philosophy to the world, something that hadn’t really been done in a medium that was originally more concerned with simple stories for children.

The Question was uncharacteristically brutal for the time period.  There was a scene where he let a pair of criminals get swept away in a sewer than save them.

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Ditko also did some work for DC in the 1970’s creating heroes like Hawk and Dove and Shade the Changing Man along with a whole host of others.

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During the 1980’s and 90’s Ditko would become even more reclusive, working for small presses and often taking bigger work simply for the paycheck.  He would eventually retire from mainstream comics in 1998, although he did work with former Charlton editor Robin Snyder in publishing bits of solo work.

While Steve Ditko became more and more of a recluse, his work and characters continued to have a lasting effect on comics and popular culture.  While Spiderman is his most famous work,

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and Doctor Strange is currently enjoying higher status thanks to the Marvel movies,

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I think a lot of his work at Charlton and DC comics deserves special mention.

In 1983, most of the Charlton characters were bought by DC comics when Charlton was suffering financially.  They were approached by Alan Moore, who wanted to write a 12 issue series that was a dark and gritty deconstruction of the superhero genre called Watchmen and he wanted to use Charlton characters to do it.  Two of them were Ditko creations, The Question and Captain Atom.  When DC said no, Moore used the idea of The Question to create his own character: Rorschach.

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and the idea of Captain Atom to create Dr. Manhattan.

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Most of the Charlton characters would go on to have successful careers in the DC universe on their own accords.  I can specifically remember the Justice League cartoon making fantastic use of The Question in its later seasons.

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So, how do we process the legacy of Steve Ditko?  He helped elevate the medium of comic books by introducing deeper and more meaningful themes and ideas into his work, he stood by his beliefs and preferred to let his work speak for him, and he helped to create two of the most iconic superheroes in modern history.

All in all, as far as legacies go, his position as one of the greatest comic book creators of all time is well deserved.

Thank you Mr. Ditko, you will be missed.

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Comic book showcase: Black Lightning

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

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

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

Origin and Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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racial violence,

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and there was a general sense of doom and gloom.

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

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

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

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not shying away from violence,

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

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

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

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

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Yeah, this was probably not a good idea.

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

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

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to create Black Lightning.

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

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

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I think this CW show is going to be awesome.

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Golden Age Showcase: Blackhawk

So I saw the Dunkirk movie yesterday.

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I liked it, it was very well directed, and it’s probably the most British movie since Chariots of Fire.

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The movie got me thinking about this blog.  The simple truth of the matter is that this blog deals with heroes that were created in a time when the world needed a bit of escapist fantasy and the comic book industry responded by creating a whole bunch of heroes who could do the fighting for them.

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While there was a time and a place for these types of stories it’s important to remember that the fantastical violence shown in World War 2 era comics was very real for a lot of people and many of those people didn’t make it out alive.

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Now, we’ve covered some of the more “realistic” war comics with characters like Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos,

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but this week I thought it might be fun to talk about another war comic that was actually published during World War 2 with Quality Comics’ fighter squadron/expertly dressed hero Blackhawk.

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Origin and Career

Blackhawk made his first appearance in Quality Comics’ Military Comics #1 in August of 1941.

Comic Book Cover For Military Comics #1

Right off the bat the main character made the cover and looks good doing it.

There is some debate as to who created the character in the first place.  While many credit comic book legend Will Eisner with the character’s creation,

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Eisner himself gave most of the credit to artist Charles Cuidera and writer Bob Powell.

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For a time when the United States hadn’t entered the war in Europe, this comic was certainly very much for it.  In the very first page the comic shows the Nazis steamrolling through Poland and introducing the main villain of Captain von Tepp, who is the very definition of a bastard.

Comic Book Cover For Military Comics #1

Seriously, even kicking puppies seems a bit tame for this guy.

Von Tepp and his Butcher Squadron discover a mysterious black plane that they shoot down.  The Captain makes the unknown pilot’s life even more hellish by destroying a farmhouse with innocent people in it.

Comic Book Cover For Military Comics #1

The pilot is revealed to be a man named Blackhawk, who vows revenge against the Nazis and gets his wish a few months later when he confronts Von Tepp and kidnaps him.

Comic Book Cover For Military Comics #1

Blackhawk takes the Captain back to his island base where they decide to settle their grievances with an honorable duel using airplanes.

Comic Book Cover For Military Comics #1

Naturally the Nazi cheats by sabotaging Blackhawk’s plane and the two crash to the ground, where the grudge is settled when Blackhawk shoots the Captain.

Comic Book Cover For Military Comics #1

In later issues it was revealed that the Blackhawks were actually a squadron of fighter pilots made up of men whose nations had been captured by the Nazis.

Comic Book Cover For Military Comics #2

Side note: this actually has a basis in real history.  Feel free to look up the exploits of groups like the Polish 303 Squadron if you want some real life heroics.

In Issue #3 the group would also get a Chinese cook, who was unfortunately named “Chop Chop”.

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…well they can’t all be good.

Sales wise the Blackhawks were a massive hit for Quality Comics.  They were so successful that they received their own comic in 1944.

Blackhawk #9

In 1950 it was revealed that the leader of the Blackhawks was actually an American volunteer fighter pilot who had joined the Polish air force and decided to form the squadron as a way to fight back against the Nazis, even though he and his comrades had no country.

Some of the most talented writers and artists of the Golden Age worked on the Blackhawk title and it was actually so popular that Quality continued to publish the title right up until they went out of business in 1956 with Blackhawk #107 being the last issue.

Blackhawk #107

So what happened?

Quality couldn’t make it past the comic book slump of the 1950’s and sold off the rights to most of their characters to DC comics in 1956.

Interestingly enough, the Blackhawks had been so popular that DC actually decided to continue publishing the title after they bought it,

Blackhawk #108

they even kept most of the original art team on the title ensuring that the only thing that changed with the comic was the logo.

Now that the Blackhawks had new life they wound up being one of the few superhero teams to transition into the Silver Age of Comics.  This time in comic book history saw the squadron face fewer Nazis and more science fiction themed villains and things got a little…weird.

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Also, in 1959 they added a lady to the team as an on and off supporting character.  She was given the rather unimaginative name of Lady Blackhawk.

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She would remain one of the biggest members of the supporting cast and even became a villain named Queen Lady Shark.

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I don’t know what’s funnier, the skis or that hat.

Ironically, the rise of superhero comics in the 1960’s hurt the Blackhawk Squadron and while DC attempted to revamp the group in 1967 by giving them new names and costumes,

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it only lasted 14 issues before the title was cancelled.

The Blackhawks would make a brief comeback in 1976 as a group of mercenaries,

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but they were cancelled again until the 1980’s when they were sent back to their familiar stomping grounds of World War 2.

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The 1980’s series reworked the Blackhawks and gave their older stories a more modern update in terms of storytelling, including a much more dignified appearance and backstory for poor Chop Chop.

In 1988 DC reworked its entire history with the mega event Crisis on Infinite Earths 

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and the Blackhawks made the cut.  They were given another reworking and this time the squadron was led by a man named Janos Prohaska, an actual Polish national who was forced to flee his home after the Soviets kicked him out.

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The Blackhawks continue to be a part of the DC universe.  One of their more noticeable appearances was in the excellent Justice League animated show where they played a major part in the episode “The Savage Time”.

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and in the show Arrow the “Blackhawk Squad Protection Group” made an appearance as the place of employment for John Diggle’s commanding officer Ted Gaynor.

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Also, a group calling themselves the Blackhawks got their own title in DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch,

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but they have yet to show up in DC’s more recent “Rebirth” relaunch.

The Blackhawks are a team with a long and fantastic history.  What I find really fascinating is just how well they were able to survive so much while so many of their contemporaries fell through the cracks, never to be seen again and if it wasn’t for characters like Plastic Man,

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I would go as far as to say that the Blackhawks were the best and most notable comic to ever be published by Quality Comics.

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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.

Comparing the two greatest father figures in comics

Happy post Father’s Day Monday everyone!

For our international readers, Father’s Day is an American holiday where we celebrate the role and achievements fathers play in all our lives.

Some would say it’s a chance to give dads the recognition they deserve after Mother’s Day (Mother’s Day was a federally recognized holiday before Father’s Day) and some would say that it’s a cynical attempt for the card companies and power tool companies to sell more stuff.

Whatever you believe in it’s important to recognize that fathers have a huge impact on our personal lives and world view and comic books are a medium that is filled with fatherly influence.

Now, being a dad in a comic book can be rather difficult.  It’s even more difficult when you realize that in mainstream American comic books fathers either wind up dead or have to go through hell for their children.

But whether we like it or not, comic book dads fulfill an important role in comic book story telling: they help the main character become the person he/she needs to be in order to become a superhero, and what’s really interesting is that more often than not there are many different ways fathers can teach their biological/surrogate offspring to become a hero.

So today we are going to look at two of the greatest father figures in comic book history: Pa Kent and Uncle Ben.

Pa Kent

Within the Superman mythology Ma Kent is usually the one that’s portrayed as the principal caretaker of Clark considering that Pa Kent winds up dead in quite a few variations of the story.

With that being said, while Ma Kent is usually the one who gets to be the principal caretaker and moral compass for her adopted son, Pa Kent has the honor of being the wise old man that the world’s most powerful being looks up to.

The Kent family has been by Superman’s side since the very beginning.

What I find most impressive is just how capable these two are.  In fact, if it wasn’t for this guy

I’d say they were the most capable parents in all of comics.

They are kind, dedicated, and somehow they took the strongest being on Earth and not only managed to keep his existence a secret for a very long time, but they managed to install a moral compass on kid who was practically immune to all forms of punishment.  After all, a spanking seems kind of pointless when you have a son who can deflect bullets.

The results speak for themselves and Superman grew up to become one of the most selfless beings on the entire planet instead of the ruler and dictator that so many would expect from a being who possesses such power.

One of the things I like about the Kents is how they’ve managed to go through so much and still remain the kindly couple they are today.  They have no trouble hosting aliens who actually look like aliens,

to helping their son learn how to fly.

By the way, the page above is from a series called Superman: American Alien by Max Landis.  It is an amazing series and I cannot recommend it enough.

Whether it’s dealing with the emotional loss of Jonathan Kent

or dealing with yet another alien invasion that decides to take place on their front doorstep.

The Kents have remained one of the most steadfast and loyal families in all of comics.

Uncle Ben

You know him or more specifically you know his line.

Say it, say it now.

There used to be a famous saying in the comic book industry: “Nobody dies in comics except Jason Todd, Bucky Barnes, and Uncle Ben”.

Then 2005 happened.

and it just became “Nobody dies in comics except Uncle Ben.”

Uncle Ben has taken a more relaxed attitude towards instilling heroic ideals in his children.  Granted, it’s mostly because he’s been dead all this time but the results speak for themselves.

In the brief time we get to see Uncle Ben alive in the comics he comes off as a kind, caring, and compassionate person who only wants the best for his adopted son.  In fact, he’s so nice and so good that after he dies Peter is wracked with so much guilt that he decides to dedicate the rest of his life to being one of the most helpful and dedicated superheroes in the Marvel Universe.

Which is saying something considering the amount of pain and suffering Peter has gone through over the years.

So which father figure is better?  Honestly I don’t think it matters.  Both men provide their adopted sons with the necessary moral guidelines that are needed for being a superhero and both are great father figures.

While Father’s Day may be over it is important to recognize the roll that fathers have in our lives and even though we may not live in a comic book universe, they can help all of us become superheroes.

Silver Age Showcase: Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos

Happy Memorial Day everyone!

For the non American readers of this blog Memorial Day is a day where Americans recognize and celebrate the lives of those who served and died in military service, usually by eating a lot of meat and drinking a lot of booze.

The reason I bring this up is because comic books have a pretty long and storied history when in comes to honoring and talking about American men and women in uniform.  After all, the early days of the modern comic book industry were smack dab in the middle of the biggest conflict in human history and it shows.

Books like these were fantastic wish fulfillment, where writers and artists could end the war with a stroke of a pen and make sure that the Axis powers got what was coming to them.

But comic books didn’t just tell stories about impossible men and women with amazing powers and flashy costumes, they told stories about the actual men and women in uniform as well, and a lot of them weren’t so happy and carefree with their subject matter.

This fascination with actual military exploits and stories about real life soldiers make sense when you consider that some of the greatest comic book creators who ever lived served in the military, including the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Author’s note: It should be noted that while Stan Lee served in the Army Signal Corps and din’t see much combat, Kirby was a Private in the U.S Third Army and was awarded the Regimental Bronze Star.

While I don’t know how their military experience influenced their later work I do know that Lee and Kirby would go on to create one of the greatest groups of ordinary soldiers who would go toe to toe with some of the greatest villains the budding Marvel Universe had to offer: Sargent Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos.

Origin and Career

According to Stan Lee himself the idea for the Howling Commandos came about on a bet that Lee and Kirby couldn’t create a successful comic book title with a terrible name.  Lee would go on to state that the inspiration for the name “Howling Commandos” would come from the real life 101st Airborne Division, which called itself the “Screaming Eagles”.

Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos first premiered in May 1963, making it a Silver Age comic book created at the height of Lee and Kirby’s creative partnership.

Lee and Kirby would go on to write and pencil the first seven issues until the series was taken over by writer Roy Tomas (who would go on to introduce Conan the Barbarian to the comic book world)

and artist Dick Ayers, who would go on to pencil and ink 95 issues of Sgt. Fury and his squad.

Now, the Howling Commandos would go on to have a pretty successful run.  They appeared in over 150 issues so it’s somewhat difficult to describe everything they did.  So instead, we’re going to have a quick list of some of the most important exploits of the team and some of their biggest contributions to Marvel and comics as a whole.

The group was a multi cultural and multi ethnic.  It even included an Asian American during a time when Japanese Americans were being interned in camps and an African American during a war where the United States Army was still segregated (the U.S Army wouldn’t fully integrate until 1948).  It fact, this was so rare in the 1960’s that Lee had to remind the colorist that one of the Commandos named Gabriel Jones was actually black.

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Besides their commitment to diversity the writers weren’t afraid to kill people off in a time when comic book characters just didn’t die.  Nick Fury joined the US Army with his best friend Red Hardgrove, who would later perish in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Fury would go on to form the Howling Commandos and be stationed in Britain where he fell in love with a nurse named Pamela Hawley in Issue #4

only to have her die in a bombing raid before he could propose to her in Issue #18.

Also, despite being a “kid’s book” the adventures of Sgt. Fury and his squad did not shy away from dealing with some pretty complex themes.  Issue #51 was called The Assassin and told the tragic story of a man who was forced to become an assassin when the Gestapo held his family hostage.

And issue #75, titled The Deserter, was an allusion to the real life trial and execution of an American G.I named Eddie Slovik.

And then there are the cameo appearances by other famous Marvel characters.  During their time in the second World War the Howling Commandos would work with the likes of Reed Richards, the future Mr. Fantastic,

and their most famous partner, Captain America and his side kick Bucky.

During their adventures they would also face several of Marvel’s greatest villains, including Baron Strucker,

Helmut Zemo (before his unfortunate accident gave him his trademark mask),

and the Red Skull himself.

So what happened?

The Howling Commandos would have a successful career in the 1960’s and early 70’s, producing 167 individual issues and reprints which started in 1974.  While the group would reunite to carry out missions in Korea and Vietnam the series was cancelled in 1981.

Nick Fury would go on to become a Colonel and a James Bond type spy in 1965’s Strange Tales #135 for a little known organization called S.H.I.E.L.D.

An artist named Jim Steranko would make his name working on Nick Fury’s comics and become one of the greatest artists of the 1960’s and a pioneer in what a comic book could do.

Fury would later undergo a pretty dramatic change in appearance in Marvel’s Ultimate series, an alternate universe continuity to Marvel comics designed to allow new readers to jump on board without having to worry about decades of continuity.

Ironically, this Nick Fury would go on to become the more famous one.

As for the Howling Commandos themselves, they’re still kicking around as a group.  While they’re probably too old to do much in the modern day they’re still very much a part of the Marvel mythology.  They made an appearance in the first Captain America movie,

and they had a cameo appearance in the Agent Carter tv show.

While Nick Fury and his squad of badass commandos performed nearly impossible feats of bravery and valor and were soldiers of mythic skill and ability they were still ordinary humans thrust into a chaotic world of death and destruction.  They are a reminder that sometimes you don’t need a hero, you just need group of ordinary men and women to perform the impossible and can rise to the occasion to be heroes.

Happy Memorial Day everyone.

 

 

Golden Age Showcase: Namor the Submariner

Today I would like to talk about the original super hero trinity.

No, not that one.

Back when Marvel Comics was known as Timely Comics the company had their own Trinity of superheroes: Captain America, the robotic Human Torch, and the hero we’re going to talk about today: Namor the Submariner.

Origin and Career

Namor was supposed to premiere in a magazine called Motion Pictures Funny Weekly in April of 1939.

It was supposed to be a giveaway promotional project that would be handed out to movie theater owners.  Unfortunately the idea fell through so Namor’s creator, the legendary Bill Everett,

decided to send the project to another client, Timely Comics.  Timely liked the idea and in December of 1939 they published Namor as a part of their first ever comic book Marvel Comics #1

Fun side note: Bill Everett would later go on to help create the modern day Daredevil for Marvel Comics so…there’s that.

Namor is an important part of comic book history due to the fact that he was the industry’s first anti hero.  In his very first appearance Namor was actually a bad guy who had a short temper and decided to declare war on the surface world of man.

Namor was the child of a human father named Leonard Mckenzie and a princess named Fen who was the daughter of the king of Atlantis.

the man grew up as the heir to the throne of Atlantis and had a rather nasty temper.  Things would come to a head when he battled the Golden Age Human Torch in 1940 while threatening to sink New York under a tidal wave.

In another historical first this was the first fight between superheroes in all of comic books.

Despite his hostility towards the surface world and his seemingly villainous behavior Namor was well received by comic book fans in the 1940’s.

Despite everything Namor did, no matter how cruel or vicious, he did it in the name of protecting his people.  He was viewed as less of a savage villain and more as a noble anti hero and in February of 1940 he made his first cover appearance in Marvel Mystery Comics #3.

I think it’s pretty obvious whose side Namor was on during the Second World War.

From 1941 to 1949 Namor would remain one of the biggest heroes in Timely Comics’ lineup.  He kicked his fair share of Nazi butt during WW2 (it should be noted that during the Golden Age he was much more of a solo act and only during the 1970’s was it revealed that he had worked with Captain America and the Human Torch),

and like all superheroes he suffered from a lack of interest after the war had ended.

However, unlike many superheroes Namor actually survived the 195o’s and experienced something of a revival.  However, his home would be destroyed and his family killed when a villain named Paul Destiny,

used a magical helmet to destroy Atlantis and give Namor amnesia.

So what happened?

Namor was too popular and too important to the Timely Comics Universe to disappear for long.  After Stan Lee revived the superhero genre for the newly named Marvel Comics with his 1961 comic The Fantastic Four,

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the new Human Torch discovered Namor the Submariner living as a homeless man in the middle of New York.

Namor would regain his memory and return to his home of Atlantis, only to discover that it had been destroyed by nuclear testing.  Naturally the man was a bit…upset and attempted to conquer the surface world with a giant worm named Giganto.

Thankfully the Fantastic Four were able to defeat him and it even turned out that Atlantis hadn’t been completely destroyed.

Over the next several decades Namor would continue to play a major role in the Marvel Comics Universe.  Despite the attempts of his people to bring him back as their king Namor would continue to wage war on the surface.  This led him to several team ups with some pretty shady characters like Doctor Doom, Magneto, and the early Hulk.  All of them ended poorly.

In a rather interesting bit of history, Namor’s adventure with the Hulk led him to discovering the frozen body of Captain America, who was being worshiped as a god by a group of Inuit.

Over time the Submariner would abandon his villainous ways and become a true hero, using his vast wealth and power to help create the superhero team The Defenders,

and became heavily involved in the business of superheroics with his self funded company Oracle Inc.

Namor is still going strong as a superhero and is an integral part of the Marvel Comic Book Universe.  He’s so prolific that to describe his entire history would take way more space and time than we have here.

Namor is one of the most fascinating and enduring characters in all of comic books.  As the industry’s first anti hero and literal King of the Seas he is interesting, complex, and a definite force to be reckoned with.

President’s Day special: The Fighting American

Happy President’s Day everyone!  For anyone who doesn’t know about the holiday President’s Day started off as a day to honor America’s first president, George Washington.

Today it is a day for Americans to look back and honor the men who have led our country over its 240 year history, although currently it is often associated with taking a day off from school and going out to take advantage of the many President’s Day sales available.

So naturally in keeping with the patriotic theme of today let’s talk about some old school patriotic comic book heroes.

Too easy, how about someone else.

Already talked about him.  You know what?  I’m feeling a bit cynical today, what with an erstwhile holiday being devalued by rampant consumerism and an excuse to try to sell you more cars and a new mattress, is there a hero we can talk about that didn’t take his patriotism so seriously?

Okay, this could work.  Ladies and gentlemen….the Fighting American.

Origin and career

This is going to require a bit of context.  The Fighting American was created in 1954, near the tail end of the Golden Age.  World War 2 was over,

the Cold War was getting underway as the Soviet Union and America started acting like two married people who hated each other and were fighting to see who got ownership of the condo,

and the comic book business was undergoing a massive upheaval.  Between the decline in readership, the Senate hearings, and the new censorship rules, the industry was in trouble.

A lot of Golden Age heroes didn’t survive and the ones that did changed to the point where once edgy and socially conscious heroes like Superman and Batman became safe and non threatening characters who were tasked with upholding the status quo.  Needless to say, a lot of the stories suffered.

One of the few characters to make it through the 50’s relatively intact was Captain America, because what red blooded American parent wouldn’t trust a man who uses the flag as a shield?

However, even Captain America wasn’t safe from change in the 1950’s.  See, while the 1950’s are remembered as a pretty good time in American history (assuming you were white and middle class) there was this guy

That’s Senator Joseph McCarthy and in the 1950’s he took full advantage of the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union to launch a massive publicity stunt known as “The Red Scare”.

The Red Scare was a smear campaign led by Senator McCarthy against political opponents which he branded as Communists or sympathizers to the Soviet Union.

It is not remembered fondly by most historians but that didn’t stop America from going nuts with anti communist sentiment.

Needless to say, Captain America was the perfect superhero to take full advantage of this growing paranoia and in the 1950’s Atlas Comics (Timely Comic’s successor) had Captain America fighting Communists with just as much subtlety as he had fought the Nazis.

However, it turned out that while Atlas had relaunched Captain America as an enemy to Communists everywhere they had done so without the input or permission from the character’s original creators: comic book legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

Sadly, these types of stories were par for the course in the early days of the comic book industry.  So instead of complaining or taking it to court Simon and Kirby created a new patriotic superhero: The Fighting American.

His story goes like this.  Mild mannered and ordinary Nelson Flagg (no really) was serving as the writer for his brother Johnny Flagg, who was not only a war hero and star athlete but a popular television commentator and an outspoken anti-Communist.  Sadly, Johnny was killed by communist sympathizers and Nelson vowed revenge.  He volunteered for the U.S military’s “Project: Fighting American” and had his mind and thoughts transferred into his brother’s physically augmented corpse.

Ew.

He was also given a kid sidekick named Speedboy, an unnamed page who tried to help the Fighting American chase down one of the bad guys.

The comic was published by a company called Crestwood Publications, a publishing company noted for publishing the first romance comic and one of the first ongoing horror comic books.

 

However, while The Fighting American was all geared up to become one of the premier anti Communist American heroes of the 1950’s things took a rather dramatic change.

It turned out that while anti Communist paranoia was a pretty big deal in the 1950’s a lot of people quickly realized that Senator McCarthy was actually full of crap.

Simon and Kirby saw that the Red Scare was actually hurting a lot of people and became uncomfortable with the rantings of a man who was destroying lives and careers with little to no evidence to support his accusations.  So they decided to relax and have some fun with the Fighting American and by its second issue it had turned into a superhero parody.  To give you an idea of the comic’s sense of humor, one of his first villains was a two headed Communist named “Doubleheader”.

The Fighting American and Speedboy would continue for a seven issue run fighting such colorful enemies such as the bouncing bank robber Round Robin.

a villain named Invisible Irving  known as the Great Nothing (a play on the unfounded early Cold War paranoia perhaps?)

and my personal favorite: Rhode Island Red.

It should be noted that a Rhode Island Red just so happens to be the name of Rhode Island’s state bird.

So what happened?

The Fighting American lasted for seven issues ending in 1955.  However, he got a re release in 1994 with a six issue mini series published by DC.

and there was a two issue miniseries published by Awesome Entertainment in 1997.

It should be noted that Awesome Entertainment was a company owned and operated by  Rob Liefeld

and the Fighting American mini series was marked by a massive legal mess involving Liefeld, Simon, and Kirby’s estate which resulted in a horrific legal mess that we don’t have the time to get into here.

The Fighting American was a hero whose existence seems like a joke.  He was created by two men who had been screwed out of their original work, he underwent a tremendous change in character and tone in only one issue, and he was the target of several reboots and re interpretations by some of the more notorious elements of the comic book industry in the 1990’s.  Despite all that I like this guy.  In a way he is one of the most patriotic superheroes out there because not only did he fight Communists he shed light on just how ridiculous most of the early Cold War paranoia really was.

From the Golden Age into the Silver Age

Happy Holidays everybody.  After a fairly long hiatus we’re back!  Ready to talk about all the crazy and glorious moments and characters that make up the history of comic books.  Now since we’re at the end of the holiday season and into a new year is there a comic book character can we talk about that incorporates both Christmas and New Year’s into his/her mythology? Is there any super hero or super villain we can talk abou…Calendar Man, we’re going to talk about Calendar Man.

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Now the Calendar Man is an…odd super villain to say the least.  First and foremost he is absolutely NOT a Golden Age villain.  His first appearance was in Detective Comics #259 in September of 1958 and he looked like this.

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He was a gimmick villain, someone who committed crimes based around a certain theme or strange line of reasoning and in his case Calendar Man committed crimes based around the seasons of the year.  You’ll notice that I’m not talking that much about his backstory or motivation.  That’s because Calendar Man only had one appearance in the 1950’s and wouldn’t appear in another comic book issue until 1979.

So why are we talking about this one off gimmicky comic book villain that disappeared for over 20 years after his first appearance?  Because Calendar Man is actually a pretty good case study into the history of comic book superheroes after their Golden Age debut.

Calendar Man first appeared in 1958 and it’s important to understand that comic books, and comic book superheroes in particular, did not do well in the 1950’s.  After the Second World War ended and the various heroes were done kicking Nazi butt

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superheroes began to fade from the public image they had previously enjoyed.  Instead people turned towards more mature and grown up comic book subjects and comic book companies obliged with an outpouring of other comic book genres like Westerns

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crime and noir comics

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and horror titles.

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In a move that will probably surprise nobody reading this, the parents of the children reading these titles weren’t all too thrilled to have their precious innocent children risk being corrupted by such filth (certainly puts a lot of more modern talk about how things like video games and rap music is corrupting our youth today doesn’t it?) and things came to a head in 1954 with the Senate subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held a hearing on whether or not comic books were responsible for an apparent rise in delinquent behavior in American children.  You can read the full text of the hearing here.

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The hearings, coupled with the publication of the now infamous book Seduction of the Innocent by child psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham,

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who just so happened to be the star witness in the Committee hearings, led to a slew of bad press for the comic book industry.

This led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority.  The CCA was an industry created organization that was designed as the main censorship body for comic books for the following decades.  Rules dictating how much blood could be shown, how the main characters could behave, and what was considered to be “in good taste” were strictly enforced through CCA approved stamps.

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Any comic book not carrying this stamp wouldn’t be able to find a distributor and therefore wouldn’t sell.

So what does all this have to do with Calendar Man.  Well as I said before, the 1950’s weren’t a very good time for superheroes.  A lot of the early superheroes were morally dubious, emotionally complex, and even had no qualms about killing people.  All of this went out the window with the advent of the Comics Code Authority.  Superman survived, he even became the first super hero with a live action tv show,

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but he became an incredibly watered down version of his former self.  Instead of taking care of criminals as a pretty violent vigilante

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There was…this

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Batman was the same way too.  While the early Batman had few qualms about killing people

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The Batman of the 1950’s became this…

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(kinda puts the Adam West Batman into perspective now doesn’t it?).  While Batman and Superman were hit with some pretty dramatic changes in the 50’s it’s only because they were the ones that were able to really survive.  Dozens of hero titles were abandoned because they either didn’t sell well enough or were far too violent and dark for the Comic Code Authority.

Back to Calendar Man.  If the new wave of censorship hit heroes hard it was even worse for the villains.  Not only were the bad guys unable to kill people or enact some sort of crazy scheme that could destroy half the city, they were now forced to always loose by the end of the comic.  This led to a stream of strange and often pathetic bad guys during this time period.  Some of them…kind of worked like Bat Mite who was introduced in 1959

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And the late 1950’s saw the introduction of most of the Flash’s current Rogues Gallery, so there was that.

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But you have a lot of very safe, non threatening bad guys who use some sort of gimmick as their trademark and wind up committing crimes that really aren’t that serious, and a villain like Calendar Man is a perfect example of this.

The Calendar Man would appear in the 1970’s looking like this.

He was reworked from committing crimes based around a season to basing crimes around the days of the week (his real life name was Julian Gregory Day, a play on the Julian and Gregorian calendars) and here’s just a taste of some of the costumes he used throughout his career.

like I said, he was a gimmick.  However, all that would change in the 1990’s.  Up until the 1990’s the old Comics Code had slowly been waning in power and publishers started paying less attention to it.  This would result in all the glorious sex, violence, and drug use pouring back into the medium and culminated in 1986 with the publication of two of the greatest comic book stories ever told: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

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and Alan Moore’s Watchmen

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Quick note: there is much more to the death of the Comics Code Authority than these two books but for the sake of time I’m using these two titles to show the return of the “dark” comic book to mainstream media.

So again, what does this have to do with Calendar Man?  Well the boom of mature material in comics during the 1980’s left the floodgates open for more dark re imaginings in the 1990’s, and boy did the industry deliver.  Although Calendar Man was still treated as a joke during the early 90’s, he was part of a team of second string super villains called the Misfits in 1992,

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Everything about the character would change in the 1996 limited series The Long Halloween.

Calendar Man went from a flashy, non threatening, and pretty pointless character to looking like this

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It’s a pretty marked difference.  Going from a lighthearted gag character that nobody took very seriously to a full blown psychopathic mastermind the Calendar Man became an integral part in one of the definitive Batman stories of the 90’s.  This marked a revival for the villain.  In one of his most recent he had an appearance in the Arkham game series

Calendar Man is a strange case in comic book history.  He got his start as a one off super villain that probably wasn’t expected to go very far.  He had a strange power set, a strange gimmick, and an even stranger costume.  However, due to the changing nature of the industry, especially into the more modern era, he was re invented and turned into a capable villain who could hold his own against some of Batman’s lesser villains.  He’s an interesting case study and the perfect bad guy to kick off the new year.

 

 

Golden Age Showcase: The Turtle

So let’s get back to the Golden Age villains and to start off the week I’d like to talk about rouges galleries.

It think it’s safe to say that a hero is really only as good as the villain he or he fights.  A good villain can provide the perfect foil for the hero, confronting the main character and by extension the reader with challenging questions like what is the true nature of evil?  Can a hero always be “good” or is he corruptible?  Or just how difficult is it to get rid of a bomb?

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To that extent it is safe to say that Batman has one of the greatest collection of super villains in comic book history.

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Each of the characters is unique, interesting, and provides their own special challenge to the Dark Knight.  But I’m not here to talk about Batman, I want to talk about another rogues gallery that is just as interesting and almost as famous as the caped crusader’s: the rogues gallery of Batman’s friend and everyone’s favorite speedster The Flash.

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While the Flash’s Rogues Gallery has gone through several variations over the years villains like Gorilla Grodd, the Pied Piper, and Captain Cold (my personal favorite and what I think is the best thing about the Flash TV show on the CW) have made sure that the Flash has remained a popular and enduring superhero.

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With that being said, characters and ideas like this take time to develop and the Flash’s current Rogues Gallery didn’t just spring up over night.  Like everything good there was a lot of trial and error before getting the right collection of super villains together and today I’d like to talk about one of Flash’s stranger and less practical villains: The Turtle.

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Origin and career:

The original Turtle super villain first appeared in All Flash #21 in 1945.  This is the cover.

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As you can probably guess he isn’t the most menacing super villain on the planet.

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His gimmick was simple.  While the Flash was the fastest man alive the Turtle decided that the best way to defeat the Flash was to…slow down.  That was it, he was a super villain who thought the best way to defeat a speedster was to move and act very, very slowly.  It turned out there was a very good reason for this, the Turtle was a smoker and couldn’t move very fast since all those cigarettes had damaged his lungs.

To be fair his logic was somewhat sound (for a comic book) and be believed that since the Flash was moving so fast it would be easy to trick him into making mistakes, especially with enough prior planning.  However, his planning went about as well as you’d expect and the Turtle was captured by the Flash with little to no difficulty.

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He would later adopt a turtle themed costume to fight the Flash and was able to give a semi decent account of himself in the 1940’s by tricking the Flash into running into things.

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However, by this time the Golden Age was coming to an end and the original Turtle decided to fade into the background of the Flash’s city and slowly build up a criminal empire.

So what happened?

Apparently the idea that a person who was slow and methodical could beat a man who possessed super speed was such a good one that when it came time to replace the Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick with the Silver Age Flash Barry Allen

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It was decided that the Turtle, or in this case a criminal inspired by the Turtle, would be the first costumed gimmick super villain the new Flash would face.

Since the original Turtle was still in hiding a bank robber who admired the previous exploits of the original Golden Age Turtle decided to adopt the identity and gimmick of his idol and call himself…Turtle Man.

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While it may seem confusing at first this new villain was quite a bit more competent than his predecessor.  Like his idol Turtle Man was known for slow and methodical planning and for using the Flash’s speed against him.  For example, he painted his silhouette on a wall and tricked the Flash into running into it (and yes it’s exactly like this)

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or he once used the Flash’s speed against him by forcing the Flash to run on water and using the shock waves to propel his own boat forward at the same speed.

However, this Turtle Man’s greatest difference is that he decided to apply some Silver Age comic book science to his crimes and used a vast personal fortune and scientific know how to create gadgets that could slow down others around him.  It’s also worth mentioning that in later appearances he adopted at more turtle themed appearance as well.

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Interestingly enough, Turtle Man would actually go on to meet his Golden Age idol and the two would be come partners in crime.

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The two attempted to take over the Golden Age’s home of Keystone city but were foiled when their underground lab was destroyed with the Turtle seemingly dying underneath the rubble and Turtle Man being taken into custody.

It would later be revealed that the Turtle survived the explosion and in his last appearance it was revealed that he had the ability to steal speed from others and make it look like they were moving in slow motion.

So that’s the Turtle, a lesson in that no matter how strange or inadequate a character can be all you need is time, and a seemingly endless number of re vamps and re writes, to turn that character into a competent super villain.

By the way, I also think that the modern Turtle would make an excellent addition to the Flash tv show on the CW.  Who’s with me?