The Secret Lives of Villains #293

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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Magic had been replaced by space science and monsters had been replaced by aliens.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: Amazing Man

Well, last week was fun but I think it’s time for a return to form.  Let’s talk about an obscure comic book hero from an obscure comic book publisher who had more of an impact on the world of comics than he had any right to have.

Today we’re talking about the aptly named Amazing Man.

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Origin and Career

Amazing Man was one of the greatest and most noteworthy heroes to come out of a small publisher called Centaur Publishing, mostly because he was created by comic book super creator Bill Everett.

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Centaur was a spin off company created by two former employees of National Allied Publications, the company that would eventually become DC Comics.

They were actually one of the first comic book publishing companies in American history and in 1939 they debuted Amazing Man in the creatively named Amazing Man Comics #5.

Comic Book Cover For Amazing Man Comics #5

Now, I’ve seen some covers created by some of the greatest comic book talent and while this one isn’t as colorful or as action packed as most of them, it certainly does a hell of a lot to pique my interest.

In traditional Golden Age fashion, his backstory is explained in one page.  When he was a baby he was adopted by a group of monks and trained to be their instrument.

Comic Book Cover For Amazing Man Comics #5

I love how they call him an “ultra man” and how a group of Tibetan monks look so pale and white.

The monks put him through a battery of tests, Comic Book Cover For Amazing Man Comics #5

Comic Book Cover For Amazing Man Comics #5

I honestly don’t know which one I think is more awesome.

Almost as a side note, one of the monks injects him with a serum that turns him into a green mist.

Comic Book Cover For Amazing Man Comics #5

Why? How?  Who cares!

He goes out into the world and stops his first crime by uncovering a conspiracy by a greedy railroad president to wreck his trains but not before our hero uses his unexplained powers of telepathy to boost a moving train over a washed out bridge.

Comic Book Cover For Amazing Man Comics #5

It’s like the movie Speed, only with trains instead of buses.

It’s presumed that the President of the railroad company did it for insurance money, but the reason is never given and the story ends with the criminal committing suicide rather than being captured.

Comic Book Cover For Amazing Man Comics #5

There was an interesting plot point revealed early on that actually managed to separate the Amazing Man from the competition.  Early in the series it was revealed that one of the monks from The Amazing Man’s home turned out to be evil.

The monk’s name was “The Great Question” and he had the ability to control Amazing Man telepathically,

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What’s really interesting is that Everett didn’t shy away from violence, showing people getting beaten and even shot.

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The battle between Amazing Man and the Great Question would become the defining conflict of the series until it was cancelled in 1942.  Most of the adventures were pretty run of the mill, if it weren’t for the glorious covers that were featured on almost all of the issues.

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So what happened?

One of the defining traits of comic book publishers during the Golden Age was that, with the exception of Marvel and Detective Comics, a lot of them wound up either going out of business or folded into other publications.

Centaur Publications is a rather unique story because it’s shelf life was even shorter than most of its competitors.

Thanks to a bad distribution deal the company went out of business in 1942, they didn’t even get to see the end of the war.

Someone must have remembered them, because in 1992 a good portion of their characters were revived by another comic book publisher called Malibu Comics.

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Amazing Man was part of the revival and he found himself part of a superhero group known as the Protectors,

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complete with all the trappings and glorious excess that was a hallmark of superheroes in the 1990’s.

In a sad twist of fate, Malibu Comics would suffer the same fate as Centaur.  They fell victim to the skulduggery surrounding the comic book industry of the 1990’s and were bought out by Marvel in 1994.

Amazing Man would make another appearance in Dynamite’s Project Superpowers title,

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but what’s really interesting is how his legacy managed to live on in Marvel Comics itself.

John Aman would make an appearance in the Invincible Iron Fist #12 in 2008.

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Marvel kept the name, the ability to change into a glowing green mist, and his mystical connections to Tibetan culture by having him become the “Prince of Orphans” and being charged with hunting down a character named Orson Randall, the man who was the Iron Fist superhero before Danny Rand took over.

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Long story short, Orson and Aman are originally enemies but wind up fighting for the same side when Aman learns that his employers lied to him about their plans for their city and Earth.

The Prince of Orphans would also make appearances in Secret Avengers,

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the Marvel event comic Fear Itself, where he had to fight a possessed Iron Fist in order to save the universe, and most recently as an antagonist in the 2012 Defenders series.

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So what we have here is a revamped Golden Age superhero with ties to Tibetan mysticism, who is a brilliant martial artist who can turn himself into a green mist, and who winds up being a sort of assassin for the same mystical city that created Iron Fist.  Now, I don’t want to put thoughts in anyone’s head, but don’t you think a guy with a cool power set would be perfect for a certain set of shows on a tiny little network like say…Netflix?

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All I’m saying is that there’s a lot of history to go back on here, and while I haven’t gotten around to watching the Iron Fist show on Netflix, everything I’ve heard tells me that they could use something a bit more…amazing.

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Golden Age Showcase: Alfred

Happy post Father’s Day everyone!

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For the non American readers of this blog, Father’s day is a holiday where we celebrate our fathers, and if marketing campaigns are to be believed it’s usually with MANLY gifts like ties and power tools.

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Last year I did an article comparing and contrasting two of comics’ greatest deceased father figures: Superman’s dad Jor-El and Spiderman’s Uncle Ben.

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This time I thought it would be time to break out the big guns and celebrate the career and achievements of the greatest living father figure in comic book history: Batman’s butler, Alfred.

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Side note: if you disagree with the above statement please write a well crafted and polite rebuttal in the comments.

Origin and Career

Alfred Thaddeus Crane Pennyworth made his first appearance in Batman #16 in April of 1943.

On the cover of the comic it says he was created by artist Bob Kane.

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Although it is much more likely that actual creator was writer, and the man who got royally screwed out of getting the credit that he justly deserves, Bill Finger.

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Artist Jerry Robinson was also heavily involved, since he was busy doing the actual drawing of the issues at this point in Batman’s career.

Jerry Robinson

Alfred made his first appearance on the cover of the issue, and he looked like this:

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The original Alfred was a bit of an idiot.  At this point in the story Batman and Robin had been doing their thing fighting crime in Gotham when Alfred showed up fresh off the boat and claiming that he was fulfilling the wish of his dying father Jarvis in serving the Wayne family as their butler.

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Naturally, Batman and Robin were not very keen on having a near total stranger snooping around the house with their secret identities at stake.

Despite his background as an intelligence officer Alfred was…kind of an idiot.

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I only say “kind of” because he was actually a very good butler.  He did his job, he was loyal to Bruce and Dick, and when it came time to defend the Manor he wound up discovering who he was really working for by pure accident.

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My favorite part of this scene is the dialogue that the two men exchange during the fight.

Of course Alfred reveals what he knows to Batman and Robin and the two gain a new ally in their fight against criminals.

You may notice that the original Alfred doesn’t look a thing like the way we normally picture Alfred.

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For that we can actually thank the silver screen.

See, the idea that comic books could be adapted to the silver screen is nothing new.  In fact, Hollywood was quick to jump on the wave of superhero popularity and started churning out short little movie serials staring the two most popular heroes at the time: Superman and Batman.

In 1943 Columbia Pictures began releasing short Batman serial movies with creative titles such as “Batman and the Electrical Brain”,

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The effects and costumes were…not the best.

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but one of its lasting impacts was hiring actor English character actor William Austin to play the Batman’s butler.

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The serials were so popular that the comics adapted and changed Alfred’s appearance to reflect the show.

So what happened?

Jesus, to describe everything that Alfred has done since his original appearance would take an entire book.

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Wherever Batman has gone, Alfred has followed.  He’s an integral part of the Batman mythos, and I would personally argue that he the most important supporting figure in any Batman story.  And yes, that includes figures like Robin and Batgirl.

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He has fulfilled the role of a caretaker, a guiding moral compass to a whole host of emotionally crippled children and warriors, and most importantly an eternally patient father figure.

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So, in an effort to keep this short, I’m going to break his long and storied career down into some of the more prominent highlights.

In 1964 Alfred was killed in Detective Comics #328 after heroically saving the Dynamic Duo from a falling boulder.

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He would be reborn as a mysterious villain known as “The Outsider” and fought the heroes off panel, usually using other villains as pawns and working behind the scenes.

His identity and appearance would be revealed two years later in Detective Comics #356.

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It…wasn’t the best look for him and I can see why they kept him out of the way.

In terms of backstory, Alfred’s has remained pretty consistent.  The comics have always given him some sort of military and/or intelligence background and in the 1960’s he worked as an intelligence agent during World War 2.  We know this because he had a daughter named Julia with a French co worker.

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In 1985 DC reorganized its comic books with the even “Crisis on Infinite Earths” and reworked the backstories of many of their most famous characters.

Alfred got a few minor tweaks but didn’t change that much.  He was an actor as well as an intelligence agent and instead of introducing himself to a much older Bruce, he became Bruce’s butler and confidant at a young age.

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The new Alfred had some pretty awesome moments as well and a lot of writers love giving him some really badass lines and small fight scenes.

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Seriously, the man’s gone toe to toe with Superman both in quips,

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and with fisticuffs.

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So he’s amazing in the comics but I would have to say that his film and television appearances deserve a special mention as well.

Alfred has appeared in every single movie, television, and cartoon adaptation of Batman since the beginning and has provided a steady stream of employment to classy senior British actors.

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All of them have been fantastic, but special mentions go to the Alfred from Batman: The Animated Series,

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where he was voiced by actor Clive Revill (who was actually the original voice of the Emperor from Star Wars)

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and the gloriously named Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

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Personally my favorite Alfred at the moment has to be the one from The Lego Batman Movie where he was voiced by Voldemort himself, Ray Finnes,

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but if you ask me the best Alfred of them all would have to be the late great Michael Gough from Tim Burton’s Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and the infamous Batman and Robin.

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I would actually go as far as to say that Michael Gough was so good that he actually made Batman and Robin halfway watchable.

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That’s right, I’m defending Batman and Robin, fight me.

Alfred is one of the greatest comic book characters ever created.  He is wise and talented beyond even his considerable years and has been at Bruce’s side through thick and thin.  Not only has he been a faithful and dutiful butler but he has been a kind, patient, and loving father to a boy who needed it most in order to become one of the greatest superheroes of all time.

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Golden Age Showcase: The Patriot

Happy post Super Bowl everyone!

Last night was one of the greatest games I have ever seen and I am so happy that my favorite team won their fifth championship.

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Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of the New England Patriots so I would like to apologize for anyone reading this who isn’t a football fan and has to put up with yet another half crazed fan talking about something that’s not that interesting.  As for anyone who was hoping for the Patriots to lose, I’m not sorry in the slightest.

The game was one of the greatest things I have ever seen, so I thought it might be fitting to talk about an old school hero named The Patriot.

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Look, it was either this guy or Sportsmaster and I chose him.

Origin and Career

The Patriot was a second string character created by writer Ray Gill and artist Bill Everett,

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who was also the man who created Namor the Submariner.

The character first appeared in The Human Torch #4 in April of 1941.

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Fun fact: the issue is rather famous for a printing error that stated it was issue #3 instead of #4.

Anyway, the Patriot’s actual name was Jeffery Mace and his first appearance was in a ten page backup story titled “The Yellowshirts turn Yellow!” where the Patriot defeated a group of people looking to subvert the United States war effort by overthrowing the United States government.

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The character proved to be pretty popular for a backup character and would go on to have a successful, if not a bit standard and cliche, career as a secondary character in The Human Torch comics and Marvel Mystery Comics as well.

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I like to think that if Captain America didn’t turn out to be as popular, the Patriot would have been able to become a much more established superhero.  He wasn’t flashy, he didn’t have any special powers or particularly noteworthy stories, but he did his job and was popular enough to have a pretty long and storied career in the 1940’s.

So what happened?

Life tip: if you want to survive through trying times, you have to be able to stand out so people notice you.  The Patriot did not have that chance and as a result died out with the superhero fad in the late 1940’s.

With that being said, his previous popularity gave him something that a lot of his colleagues never had: a second chance.

His first appearance was in The Avengers #97 along with his colleague in arms The Fin (the same guy we talked about last week) as a mental projection of Rick Jones in order to wage war on the Kree and Skrull.

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He wound up joining the retconned superhero group known as The Liberty Legion and was given a much more fleshed out backstory in the 1970’s.

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They gave the man a much more fleshed out backstory that gave him some much deeper connections to the Marvel Universe as a whole.

In the new reality Jeffery Mace was a reporter for the Daily Bugle (Spiderman!) who was inspired by his idol Captain America.

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He even got to BE Captain America for a little bit when Marvel published a “What if?” story where he got to don the uniform of Captain America for a bit in order to explain how the hero could have continued to work after being frozen in ice.

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He was actually the third person to don the costume.  That’s him carrying the previous Captain America stand in, a hero called “The Spirit of ’76”.

Jeffery had a couple of guest appearances after that and was killed off in main continuity in 1983.

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But for some wonderful reason, the Patriot still had some juice left in the tank.

In the modern day Jeffery’s story was retold in a comic book series called Captain America: Patriot that took a closer look at McCarthy era America and superheroes who wear the red, white, and blue.

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His legacy lives on with a kid named Eli Bradley (the son of Isaiah Bradley from the excellent Truth: Red, White, and Black) working with the Young Avengers.

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Also, for the first time in this entire blog, I can say that we have a superhero who actually made it outside of comics and into the movies!

Jeffery Mace made it onto the Marvel tv show Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D and was played by Jason O’Mara.

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I won’t go into any further details for fear of spoiling the show, but I can say that he is one of the good guys and a friend to Coulson.

The Patriot is as big, bright, and as dumb as they come.  He wasn’t meant to be all that interesting, he was written to punch Nazis and fight during the war.  What Marvel created was a patriotic mascot, what they got was one of the best and most sincere attempts to replicate Captain America, one of their greatest icons.

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Golden Age Comics: Chandu the Magician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So what happened?

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

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

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

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