Monday, January 29, 2007

Number 87

The World's Worst Villain: The Claw

Even for an industry as short on subtlety as comics during the World War II era, The Claw feature in Daredevil, published by Lev Gleason under the Comic House imprint, was way over the top. And when I say way over, I mean it. The Claw could grow to fantastic heights, looking to be about 25' tall. A fairly good overview of The Claw in Daredevil is told here.

The Claw was created by Plastic Man creator, Jack Cole, but worked on by several artists during the time of its run. He also fought various heroes: Daredevil, Silver Streak and The Ghost. This particular episode, from Daredevil #11, June 1942, features The Ghost.

The Ghost shows up in a Colorado town because he has a hunch The Claw is somewhere close. I guess building a giant war machine as big as a building could be done without anyone knowing it, couldn't it? You'd think The Ghost might have seen it while he was flying around the area.  The Ghost, in his secret identity as Brad Hendricks, wearing a bright green suit and yellow fedora with bright red hat band, meets a saucy blonde counter gal in the local diner who gives him what-for because he's not in the Army. He says, "…well, someone has to stay home and take care of the girls…"

This was not only the character talking, but most likely the philosophy of Bob Wood, who gets the byline on the story. He was co-editor, with Charles Biro, of many Lev Gleason titles. Together they created Crime Does Not Pay, one of the most successful comics of all time. Reports by artists who knew them describe a couple of guys enjoying themselves on the town in wartime New York City. Biro was reported to be a ladies man who bragged about his conquests. Wood was described as being a mean drunk who beat women. His comeuppance came in 1958 when in an alcoholic rage he killed his girlfriend and went to prison. Wood’s artwork isn’t bad, but fun in that early forties style.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Number 86

Frankenstein Friday: Aurora Frankenstein Models!

In the late 1950s the Baby Boomer generation got to an age where they began to have buying power and the ability to sway popular culture. Entertainment like rock music and television felt the effect. On the TV side the Saturday late night monster movies took off, fueled by backlists of films from the 1930s and 1940s. They were most often the film catalogue of what are now called the Universal Monsters: Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman and the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

Concurrent with that exposure on TV, Jim Warren published Famous Monsters Of Filmland, edited and written in a pun-filled way by horror movie/sci-fi guru Forrest J. Ackerman. It found its audience almost immediately amongst pre-adolescent boys. I should know. I was one of them.

The Universal Monsters went on to licensing nirvana, including the Aurora Model Company, where pre-fab plastic dioramas featuring Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, etc., were put on the market and caught on in a big way. So much so that many years later, with the Baby Boomers all grown up, they were

At the time I missed out on the model kits. I was still buying comic books that had the Aurora ads on the back. I was aware they were available. I had by that time "outgrown" model making (but not reading comics), and the only models I was interested in making were real live girls. The plastic models were aimed more at the age group my brother was in at the time. He and his friends had a great time with their monster model kits, Rat Finks, and all of the other stuff I turned up my nose at. The kids thought they were cool, I thought they were juvenile. Now I'm at an age, my second pre-adolescence, where such things finally seem cool. Such is the circular motion our lives take.

The ads are all from the back covers of DC comics. Click on the picture for larger image. The models must've been extremely popular, because the ads I have range from 1963 to 1969 (Big Frankie!) Only one doesn't have the classic Universal Frankenstein, but has the classic Bride Of Frankenstein image, instead. I wonder if the Witch or Bride sold well to young boys? I can't see girls being that interested, and boys would shy away from anything with a female. Or would they? Maybe I underestimate the intended consumer.

The ads are colorful and fairly well drawn. The Big Frankie ad from 1969 is obviously done by a commercial artist, rendered in pen and ink by light-boxing a photo. The other ads have the style of comic art of the time.

Finally, did anyone ever win the contest to be in a monster movie? And if so, what movie was it?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Number 85

The Forbidden Drink

Hey, guys…ever really liked a girl and found out she didn't feel the same way? Of course you have. But I hope when you found out she didn't dig you it wasn't because she was laughing in your face. Poor Philip Sanderson, the hero of this story from Atlas Comics' Mystic #2, May, 1951, loved a girl and she spurned him in the most cruel way possible.

I've never figured out how men in comic book stories like this ever got married or got dates when the chicks are shooting them off the page with insults. (See Pappy's #10). Our hero, the actor, Philip, has always played the part of the great lover, but when he's old, he becomes a joke. His audience lets him know. Rosalie, the much younger woman he loves lets him know in no uncertain terms what a joke she thinks he is.

So why does he go back? Why does he still want her? The most obvious reason is that it serves the purpose of the story. It also sets up the Faustian deal that Philip gets for himself that leads to the last panel.

Philip could have spared himself some trouble. We've all known our Rosalies and being put through the tortures of the damned. Philip would be smarter to realize that he should be hanging around nursing homes looking for girlfriends. The rejections might not be so harsh.

Although the plot device of selling a soul to the devil qualifies it as horror, unlike horror comics stories from just a couple of years later there's no crime, no murder, no gore. The art is attributed to Pete Tumlinson by the Atlas Tales website.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Number 84

COVERING UP: Classic Covers of Golden Age Comics

Is Decapitation in Bad Taste?

On April 21, 1954, EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines took his place before a Senate subcommittee investigating the excesses of comic books. Gaines took a chance by testifying: No one who watched the U.S. Senate during the period after World War II would have failed to notice the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings by Senator Joe McCarthy, and the Senate's own excesses, ruining lives and careers of people who testified.

Comics had been under fire for many years--just about as many years as they had been popular--and Bill Gaines' father, Max Gaines, had been sensitive to such criticism. His own comic book lines, All-American Comics, with popular characters like The Flash, Wonder Woman, etc., and his new business, Educational Comics, were kept as clean as possible with some pretty strict self-censoring. It wasn't until he died and his son, Bill, took over that Educational Comics became Entertaining Comics and put their stamp on quality in art and story, if not in subject matter.

Crime and horror comics were successful, and were the target of PTA groups and parents. The comics were put under a public microscope and received much criticism.

So it's hard to tell why Bill Gaines put his own neck on the block (ho-ho), unless he had told himself that by dint of a calm testimony and his own sincerity he could convince some publicity-wise senators that as a publisher he felt he wasn't doing anyone any harm. When it came to whether his comics were in good taste, and a copy of Crime Suspenstories #22 was held up this exchange occurred:

Senator Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue [sic]. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?

Mr. Gaines: Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

Ah, poor Bill Gaines. He claimed later he was on dexedrines, a diet pill, and not really responsible for what he said, but when they held up that cover he must've felt his own head under a bloody ax. He knew then that he had been set up, not only by the Senate subcommittee, but by his own publishing practices. It wasn't long before the publication of Seduction Of The Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D., an anti-comics polemic and a very influential book. The comic book industry felt the heavy weight of public opinion finally crush them, and the Comics Code was born. Unlike the belief of some uninformed fans, the government did not censor comic books,nor were they ever likely to censor them. It would have been clearly unconstitutional to do so, but a self-regulation seemed at the time to be in everyone's (especially the publishers) interests.

I think Bill Gaines was a brilliant publisher by surrounding himself with so much talent. He did that throughout his publishing career and made a tidy living at it. If he had a problem during his EC Comics days it was pushing against public opinion. When the public starts book burnings of your product, when distributors return the boxes unopened because no seller wants to handle your product, then you have failed. You've made a point, but by doing so you have also hurt yourself.

EC is often held up as the benchmark of how good comic books could be, and I'm firmly in that camp. I own many of the original comics, I own the complete hardbound, slip-cased series' of New Trend issues, I own all of the comic-formatted reprints. I'm a solid EC fan, but even jaundiced by my own opinion of how good EC Comics were, I can see where they dug the pitfalls they later fell into.

Oh yeah…EC wasn't the only company to publish decapitation covers. In 1939 the pulp magazine, Strange Stories had a doozy of a decapitation cover by Norm Saunders.

In this cover the bad taste guidelines explained by Gaines are fully illustrated, with blood dripping from the neck of the female victim. But that was a pulp magazine, not usually associated with children, and that was the problem with comic books. Their readership was a little young — according to their parents — to be exposed to such things as headless bodies and bodiless heads, whether the publisher decided they were in good taste or not.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Number 83

Frankenstein Friday: Frankenstein and the Graveyard Blues!

More silliness from the brush of Dick Briefer. This is the final story from Frankenstein Comics #12, May-June, 1947. The splash panel is especially nice, something this story shares with the other stories in this issue. It looks like Briefer took his time on the lead-ins, then rushed the body of the stories.

This particular episode has some pretty funny stuff: Frankenstein eating the witch out of house and home, the mix up with the bear and bat brews. It's a sitcom plot, well handled.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Number 82

The Dead Who Walk

Comic book companies usually try to capture readers' attention and get them to keep coming back to ongoing titles. This comic, The Dead Who Walk, under the imprint Realistic Comics, is an unnumbered, one-shot title.

The Dead Who Walk was released in 1952 as part of the horror comics boom of the era. It must've sold pretty well because it's not an uncommon title to find.

The artwork for The Dead Who Walk is credited by the Grand Comics Database to Joe Orlando, pencils and inks.

The story moves at a breakneck pace. For such a short story there are a lot of characters: Kent, his fiancée, Anne, her brother Jack, Dr.French, a "man of cold, scientific logic," and the evil brothers who are stealing bodies, George and Walt Bacon. That isn't even counting the named corpses animated by the pair of body snatchers: Juan Fernandez, Foley the mechanic, Torelli the importer…talk about packing a lot into a small space! The story, which concerns "egos," (i.e., "souls") jumping from body to body, reads like a weird menace pulp magazine tale of the 1930s and '40s, where plots like this were common. A Realistic Comic it might have been, but realistic it wasn't.