Friday, October 17, 2014

October is Spookey Month: How EC ruined America's pasttime in Haunt of Fear #19 (May-June 1953)

No, they didn't ruin baseball.  That's just me trying to have a little fun and shake things up a bit.  If anything, they made baseball better!  But EC did get itself into hot water with the government over "Foul Play," a story appearing in Haunt of Fear #19 (May-June 1953).  Dr. Frederic Wertham used it as an example of horror comic nastiness in his book Seduction of the Innocent and then did it again during his afternoon session testimony to the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearing on Juvenile Delinquency

The story is about Central City's Herb Satten, an unscrupulous pitcher who wants to help his team win the pennant by murdering the Bayville's star second baseman, Jerry Deegan.  After all, the Deegan led the league in home runs all season and he was up the next inning in a tight game.  It stretches credulity a bit.  Satten kills Deegan by poisoning his spikes, then allowing himself to get hit with an inside pitch so he can get on first, attempt a steal then slide spikes-high and slash his victim.  Who just happens to be up to bat the very next inning.  But it all works out. Satten kills his man and Central City wins.  This leads to the pitcher's grisly comeuppance the night before the next season's opening day.

And one of the all-time great gross-out scenes in horror comics history.  The murdered man's teammates literally rip Satten apart late one night and use his body parts to play a moonlit intrasquad game.  Complete with a complicit umpire.  That also stretches believability, but not so far as the poor pitcher's intestines, which serve as foul lines up the first and third base paths.  The grisliest detail is the catcher's using the Satten's chest as his own chest protector.  You wanna wear part of a human body even if he is a sorry murdering cheat?  What is this, the Ed Gein League?

They also incriminate themselves by burying him under the pitcher's mound and inscribing the rubber there with "Herbert Satten.  Pitcher.  Murderer.  R.I.P."

Rest in pieces, baby.  Rest in pieces.

Writer:  Al Feldstein/Artist: Jack Davis

Well, they were angry ballplayers and probably didn't think through the consequences.  The ironic thing about "Foul Play" is, it may have been notorious at the time but the guy who drew it is one of the nicest, most gentlemanly people you'll ever have the privilege of meeting.  If you're so lucky.  I had a chance to phone interview him way back in 1996 for a class project and I came away in such a good mood because he was so jolly and generous.  He answered even my stupidest questions with patience and good cheer.

Writer:  Al Feldstein/Artist: Jack Davis

I'm talking Jack Davis, the dean of American caricaturists.  This story is right in his wheelhouse, so to speak.  Davis is a master of sports cartooning, able to twist his loose-limbed figures into whatever pose necessary to show the physicality of sports.  Baseball, basketball, football, late night murder, these are things Davis visualizes so well.  Obviously made a huge impact on Dr. Wertham and the guys up on Capitol Hill, huh?

Writer:  Al Feldstein/Artist: Jack Davis

I loved Davis' work before I ever read this story (although I'd heard rumors of it for years and they always chilled me to the bone).  He drew magazine covers, movie posters.  His art came into our house on television in the form of character designs for the Jackson 5ive Saturday morning cartoon.  As a University of Georgia graduate, I've seen dozens, if not hundreds, of Davis-drawn Bulldog athletes in motion, with his characteristic lanky body language and large, articulated hands.  Gorgeously rendered in loose, appealing brushstrokes and then watercolored to pop from the page of whatever book, calendar or postcard they adorn.  His 1950s horror work benefits from the Davis approach, one that exaggerates reality for comic effect.  So when you see a Davis severed head, it's not grotesque no matter how decayed it might be.  It's sick... but in a tasteful way.

Writer:  Al Feldstein/Artist: Jack Davis

The Senate Subcommittee Hearing people must not have felt that way, although I believe William Gaines explained it quite well in his testimony.  This is gore in just the right amount.  There's nothing gratuitous about it, but it has to have impact.  If you'll notice, too, colorist Marie Severin gives those panels a blue-yellow complementary color scheme rather than one that emphasizes its fleshy or bloody qualities.  This makes it explicit without going over the top.  Not for the squeamish, certainly.  But it's right in my wheelhouse, too.  Jack Davis is an American treasure, baby.  No doubt about that. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

October is Spookey Month: Batman #319 (January 1980)

Batman #319 (January 1980) sees Batman and Gentleman Ghost battling once again.  This mean we get a Halloween treat in the form of a spectacular Joe Kubert cover with Batman in pulpy danger, suspended over a bubbling vat of wholesome Campbell's Tomato Soup with milk added.  Just like my dad loved to do!  Dick Giordano inks and the result is as rich and creamy as the soup Gentleman Ghost plans to dip Batman into.  Eerie underlighting and a line quality that's recognizably Kubert but somewhat cleaner and not as expressionistic.

The story starts in mid-action, just like the previous Gentleman Ghost appearance.  Batman once again interrupts the Ghost and his henchpeople in mid-heist and ends up hoisted by his own cape.  While starting stories like this instantly ups the energy level and leads us to expect something rapid-fire and thrilling, there's a danger of this approach devolving into formula.  But Batman's dilemma-- which writer Len Wein points out is self-inflicted due to Batman's cape being rip-resistant, a helpful quality in most situations but not when you need it to tear so you can free yourself from a dangling hook-- proves startling and original in its details.  Wein also uses it to show that Batman, while fallibly human, is also resourceful and dangerous even when apparently helpless.  Never count out the Caped Crusader, as Gentleman Ghost finds before cleverly making his own escape.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

From there we find Batman setting a trap for the Ghost, with a Halloween-appropriate setting.  He plans a costume ball at Wayne Manor with jewels on display as bait.  Gentleman Ghost finds this irresistible, and once again Batman ends up dangling from a hook.  This time over boiling soup.  I mean acid.  It's not tomato soup.  It's a vat of acid, a wicked comic book convention.  This time Wein shows us the mechanics of a Batman escape.  The story has the feel of someone working through all those classic Batman tropes.  The death traps, the fist fights, goofy henchpeople (somehow the very British Gentleman Ghost has found a couple of very British oafs to help him, one named, fittingly enough, Alfie) and another ambiguous ending.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

We still never learn if Gentleman Ghost is a real ghost or not.  His lackies disguise themselves as the Ghost as a distraction and Wein suggests the headless quality is mere fakery when one of them is revealed to be merely hunching down.  That doesn't explain the floating top hats or monacles.  Later there's a bit with a convenient hologram projector which also seems to tell us the Ghost is more technological trick than supernatural treat, but Wein leaves the truth of the matter hanging, kind of like his Batman this issue.  You can have it either way.  He's a clever illusionist with a creepy gimmick or he's a creepy ghost with a penchant for high-tech chicanery.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

It's up to you!

Irv Novick once again pencils, but this time Bob Smith inks.  Smith's line is thinner, sharper, more angular than Giordano's.  Well-defined figures and clarity of action make this issue very appealing throughout.  Batman is almost always on the left side of the panels, inciting things in the proper reading order so you get this forward thrust and momentum that carries through all the way to the end.  With Novick and Smith the crowded costume party has focus and detail, with one wide panel that's a treat to linger on.  Batman comes as Henry VIII, Selina Kyle as Catherine of Aragon ("Please... call me Cat," she quips) and Lucius Fox is Abraham Lincoln.  You can make out a plethora of other historical personages surrounding them and even when the Gentleman Ghost and friends gate-crash, Novick and Smith maintain a clear sense of where everyone is relative to each other.  Even when Selina Kyle and Lucius Fox abruptly switch sides so Fox can occupy the foreground with his thoughtful countenance you're not likely to freak out with the change and fall out of the story.  Good, solid stuff.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Bob Smith

The issues I've read of this Wein run are sleekly enjoyable reads.  He drops exposition into dialogue and gives us meaty narrative captions to chew on while we enjoy the visual banquet Novick and Smith provide.  Very tasty stuff, the kind that satisfies.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

October is Spookey Month: Batman #310 (April 1979)

Batman #310 (April 1979) is a comic I bought solely for its cover.  Even back then I was a big Joe Kubert fan, and I believed the cover artist always did the interior art.  I was wrong.

Choosing Kubert as cover artist makes perfect sense because he and Robert Kanigher co-created Gentleman Ghost as a Hawkman/Hawkgirl adversary.  Gentleman Ghost debuted in Flash Comics #88 (August or October 1947, take your pick) but I’d never heard of him.  Why?  Because I never read any Hawkman comics.  Never had anything against Hawkman, just wasn’t my thing. 

Joe Kubert, on the other hand, certainly was and still is very much my thing.  Being 11 years old when this comic book came out I had no idea he’d ever done anything other than war comics and Tarzan.  A chance to see him draw a Batman story piqued my interest, but I can’t say the Irv Novick-Dick Giordano team that actually did the inside art disappoints.  They do a bang-up job.  Theirs is my ideal visual representation of Batman.  He has human proportions and he's not always gritting and grinding his teeth to the point where his molars must be just about gone.  He's a serious guy, but he has recognizably human emotions!
Here we are 35 years later and I’m still not particularly into Hawkman and my knowledge of Joe Kubert’s long comics career remains spotty at best.  I love his art and still adore this attractive, exciting cover, though.  I just find it odd I’d have an Irv Novick comic and never have it click with me despite coming to appreciate his solid Bat-work from all the reprints I’ve read over the years.  Maybe it’s not so odd.  I once had a Russ Heath Sgt. Rock and didn’t realize it until much later.  Same with a Rich Buckler-Bernie Wrightson Batman book.  I’m kind of an idiot.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Dick Giordano

The story, titled "The Ghost Who Haunted Batman," is a jaunty, assured effort by all involved.  It would have made an excellent episode of the 1990s Batman: the Animated Adventures TV series.  Len Wein's script sets up a neat double mystery and wraps it all up in a single issue.  One one hand we want to know why is Gentleman Ghost, known for stealing jewels, suddenly after things like antique lanterns and furniture?  And on the other, where did Bruce Wayne's loyal butler Alfred Pennyworth disappear to?  Wein also plays the whole "is Gentleman Ghost a real ghost, or is he just some clever illustionist with a gimmick?" routine to great effect.  Batman remains pretty skeptical of the supernatural throughout, and when his bat-rope falls ineffectively between Gentleman Ghost's cuffs and gloves, he's disturbed.  But not enough to stop scoffing, as when he sneers, "Mister, you're about as supernatural as my shoe."

No doubt like Batman himself, I distinctly remember expecting some kind of prosaic explanation at story's end.  A special effects artist or magician revealed in an unmasking...

What I admire about this book is how every moment moves the story forward or reinforces the then-current Batman status quo.  There's no waste.  Even for a reader like me, who bought books based on whim and might go months between Batman purchases, could pick this issue up and learn all its players and how Batman relates to each of them.  There's a quick bit of Catwoman romance, a Lucius Fox appearance and even a return visit to Wayne Manor, and yet the central plot remains at the fore.  It's a quick read and certainly no gyp for being self-contained and short.

One of my favorite scenes in this book comes when Batman disguises himself as a portly fellow butler to infiltrate a UK-themed bar where Alfred likes to hang out on his nights off and brag to anyone who will listen and buy him a pint about his awesome job with the Waynes.  In the interest of blending in, Batman goes for the old school stereotype complete with bowler and crooked little pipe.  He kind of goes from one panel in his Batman jammies staring down at the pub to the next walking-- the caption tells us it's a mere few minutes later-- in all dressed up with a waistcoat and padded suit.  I'm not sure how Batman pulls this off so quickly when he doesn't even have his Batmobile around to carry things for him, but Wein doesn't let a little detail like this slow the story's pace.

Script: Len Wein/Pencils: Irv Novick/Inks: Dick Giordano

I like to imagine Batman spouting off with a Dick Van Dyke-quality accent and all the ex-pat Brits mocking him after he leaves.  For the story's purposes, Batman probably puts on an accent not only dead-perfect for some particular region of the UK, but also a specific neighborhood.  Came up with a complete biography for this one-off character and everything.  He is a master of disguise, after all.  He's right that it would be odd for Batman to go around asking about Bruce Wayne's butler-- but why doesn't he go in as Wayne?  Because subterfuge is fun!
Novick and Giordano lovingly create a creepy, fog-bound mood throughout, turning Gotham City into a vast haunted house.  The atmosphere compares favorably with that ultimate night-bound comic, Marvel's Tomb of Dracula.  And Gentleman Ghost makes an excellent Batman foil.  I’ve always enjoyed Batman stories where he comes up against the supernatural and he’s left a bit befuddled in the end.  Batman benefits from being depicted as vulnerable and not as hyper-competent.  Nowadays he’d anticipate Gentleman Ghost’s every move and have some kind of pre-built anti-ghost device.  In 1979, a hypnotized Alfred could sneak up behind him and knock him out with a heavy gold lamp and he could be deked by an empty suit, then try and fail to save Gentleman Ghost from a carriage crash.  The final scene certainly lives up to the story's title as Batman is left there with the Ghost’s mocking laughter ringing in his ears in one of those ambiguous “just what the heck was that guy?” endings. 
Batman and Gentleman Ghost would tangle again shortly and we'll talk about that one when I get the time to read it and react to it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It's October is Spookey Month time again!

I know, I know, you're excited about this annual tradition here at When Comic Books Ruled the Earth where we take all of October and examine various horror comics.  We're going to take a break from Marvel movies and spend some time chilling with some chillers.  The eccentric spelling of "spookey" is in tribute to a local rock band called SpookeyThey once did a Halloween-themed live show-- a video of which you can find on YouTube-- and I bought one of their albums after watching it.  The album features a fun cover of a fun cover of the Banana Splits Adventure Hour theme song and some other feel-good pop-punk rockers.  They don't seem to be very active at the moment but that doesn't mean we have to stop being fans of cool local music and cool local musicians.

And it has nothing to do with mylove for horror comics, but this is my blog and I can do whatever I want with it.  I haven't decided on an itinerary for this month's journey through the darker realms of four-color fantasy.  I imagine it will lean heavily on Creepy, Eerie and EC once again.  A smattering of Batman, my go-to Halloween superhero.  In fact, I have a certain issue of Batman in mind for my first Spookey Month post.  Or maybe it's an issue of Detective Comics.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A little bit on the Disney/Marvel-Jack Kirby settlement...

I spent a great deal of time over the weekend on Facebook reading Kurt Busiek's responses to another Jack Kirby fan's skepticism over the Disney/Marvel-Jack Kirby family amicable settlement.  I couldn't read the fan's comments (he earned a block for excessive negativity a while back), only Busiek's replies.  Which were lengthy and not in the least combative.  He just explained-- much more patiently than I ever could, and certainly more cogently-- why the fan was badly mistaken this is somehow a bad thing.  Or at the very least why someone with zero stakes involved would get upset about it when both Disney/Marvel and the Kirby family, with major stakes involved, both seem so pleased with the outcome.

Late in the game another fan added some commentary.  Busiek jousted with him as well and knocked him off his horse more than once.  Each time the game fan remounted and took up his lance, only to have it blunted and knocked aside no matter what attack he chose.  Greedy heirs*.  WHACK.  Stick to a contract, even a lousy one.  WHOMP.  Copyright law was meant to do something else.  KRACK.  If I pay you to build a house...  THUMP.

The last I saw before averting my eyes the fan was hurtling himself down the tilting lane, this time without even a horse.  The horse had long since retired to the clubhouse for some hot toddies and a massage.  I believe the fan had armed himself with the only weapon he had left in his arsenal, a wet noodle, which he was waving around while shouting, "Now we'll never have a New Gods movie!" 

I just couldn't watch any longer.

So I started drawing.  I drew all day and into the night.  I drew that lousy Hulk you see below.  That version is number four of four.  The first three suffered fates more ignominious than the naysaying arguments in the Facebook thread.  When you consider how many outright shitty drawings I've posted here over the last few months or even years, you can imagine just how bad something must be if I don't even try to post it.  Pretty bad.

But what's pretty good is this settlement between Disney/Marvel and Jack Kirby's family.  I can't see anything negative about it for either party, cannot fathom why anyone would naysay it.  I see it as a major win-win situation for both the big corporation and the little family that could.  The Kirbys get to enjoy some of the fruits of Jack Kirby's decades-long labor, Disney/Marvel can add the Kirbys to their marketing plans for all their future movie and multi-media extravaganzas along with Stan Lee. 

After all, Kirby's fantastic creations aren't the only things marketable here.  The man himself is an amazing story of unrelenting creativity and hard work spanning generations.  The guy co-created Captain America with Joe Simon then went off and fought in the last good war, for Thor's sake.  You want to show him off, and Stan, too:  "Look at what these plucky, grandfatherly guys did for all of us.  Enjoy their work and buy a lot of our licensed stuff, which we will produce at a record-breaking pace, relatively guilt-free for a change."

Disney/Marvel may be paying out to his family, but they're going to cash in on this, too.  I've never been opposed to that.  I just wanted the guy who made that possible for them to get a little more than the kick in the pants he got way back when.  Since he's not around anymore, giving it to his children and grandchildren is the best of all possible things.  If you can't grasp that, you are an alien to me.  Or I am to you.  Norin Radd, at your service.

Settling like this makes good business sense.  And it feels good to this fan, too.  Thanks to this and the things I've heard about Marvel's relationship with Bill Mantlo (the guy who made that little Guardians of the Galaxy movie possible in the first place), I have warm, gooshy feelings about Disney/Marvel I've never had before!

*In the interest of accuracy, if not engaging storytelling and myth-making, this point may have come from someone else, in another thread or even on another site entirely.


I did this crappy drawing yesterday to celebrate the best comic book-related news story to come our way in decades.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Remember back in the old days, during the Cold War, when there weren't so many nuclear-armed superpowers?  Things have gotten way out of hand with the proliferation of mass destruction.  I'm pretty sure there's plenty of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium circulating around out there thanks to the Soviet Union's collapse.  But back when they were the other potential driver of human extinction, we Americans had our atomic secrets and people like Colonel Steve Canyon of the USAF to keep them safe.

This was back when we atom-bombed the shit out of the Nevada desert and all those Pacific atolls we had lying around after beating Japan, when all those old school European imperialists were licking their wounds and going soft on the commie menace.  Or else turning Red themselves.  Nothing like a balmy tropical paradise for testing hydrogen bombs.  Or T-bombs, whatever those are.  Canyon could tell you, but he's not talking because you might be a mole or a fellow traveler and a guy can't be too careful.

Looking back, I have no idea what we were thinking.  Sure, you'd find magazine articles on how the domino theory would lead to Southeast Asia becoming a Marxist staging point for invading Japan, then Hawaii and then Boise, Idaho.  But there had to be a better way to protect and preserve our way of life than blasting our obsolete battle fleets with nuclear bombs and polluting the atmosphere with fallout.  I wonder why these damned things had to be tested so often anyway.  Once you have a trigger mechanism that works, why do you need another?  And if it's the fissile material that's in doubt, you can't un-blow a proven sample and use it again.  I think all these Pentagon brass hats and physicist types were more or less like kids with really big firecrackers-- the largest-- and some really super keen model ships they couldn't help blowing up for kicks.

These happy images with their subtext of promised global apocalypse are from Dell Four Color Comics #641 (October 1955), reprinted in Hermes Press' new-to-digital offering Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon: The Complete Series Volume 1.  This one stands out for me because I find myself reading accounts of weapons testing in my downtime.

And who would dare argue with that swanky painted cover, which has a "Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew meets James Bond" charm about it?  I'm not a big proponent of painted interior art because it tends to look more like a collage of pretty still images rather than a sequence of events, but give me painted covers anytime.  One of this book's strengths is its full-page reproduction of these beautiful paintings.  The front cover itself features a dramatic image of Canyon and his enlisted driver gritting out a rocket launchpad fire that's too close for comfort.  You can almost feel the heat and the frenzied background action gives the scene a sense of urgency that's only helped by Canyon's raised arm and grimace-creased face.  The interior art may have a few Caniff touches, but it's largely by Ray Bailey and William Overgard, two names with which I'm not familiar.  I will be getting acquainted as I dig into this book.

The point is, here's some sweet 1950s espionage action that falls right in my wheelhouse.  My dad and I used to follow the daily Steve Canyon strip in its latter years, but I've neglected Caniff and people like Noel Sickles for far too long.  I'm not just a student of comic book art filling in the gaps in my education, I'm a student of this historical era, and comics like these give us a feel for time, when we Americans felt ourselves surrounded by danger and locked in a death struggle with a diametrically opposed ideology.  Our good guys sometimes wore white cowboy hats and sometimes they wore blue service caps with eagles pinned to them.