Monday, June 29, 2015

Super-Heroine Number One!


Following her time as the "New Wonder Woman", Diana Prince returned to her Amazonian roots and her bathing suit all-American costume to fight super-villainy across the globe. A few issues after her return to classic form, she proposes an unusual challenge for herself. Having no memory of her time before her transformation, she is unaware that the Justice League have shifted operations to a satellite above the Earth. Rocked by this she suggests she needs to prove herself to the team by performing twelve labors which they will observe and grade to see if she deserves readmission to the ranks. That's the thematic thread which ties together the stories in Wonder Woman - The Twelve Labors.

The Leaguers are reluctant but agree and so we are presented with a few years of truly offbeat adventures in which the comics reads almost like a Justice League team-up book as each League member in turn reports, and sometimes takes a greater role in the story. These are wild stories, some vivid and lively and some just plain confusing. I've read that the stories were revisions of Golden Age tales which might account for the oddball nature of some of the plotting, but whatever the case this is an uneven batch.

To make things even more curious a gang of creators step in to make the series happen. Writers Cary Bates, Elliot S Maggin, Len Wein, and Marty Pasko shape the stories. Artists Curt Swan, Dick Giordano, John Rosenberger, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin, Jose Delbo, and others supply the visuals. This change of the guard so often adds to the team up nature of the stories which become increasing complicated as the series unravels.

She battles old foes Mars God of War, the Duke of Deception, as well as modern foes Felix Faust and Chronos. She saves the world several times from alien robots and ruthless magnates, and even takes on her old foe Doctor Cyber from her "Diana Prince" days as well as a carbon copy of herself. 

Needless to say, Wonder Woman does indeed win back her position in the Justice League of America. It's weird, and perhaps somewhat demeaning that this was the path chosen by the creators to get her back on board, but it did created a frame in which some entertaining stories were told.













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Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Diana Prince Adventures - Part Four!


The fourth and final volume of Diana Prince - Wonder Woman is a raucous collection of stories which seemingly every other installment try to find a new way forward to our heroine. The artwork is shared by two greats following in the shoes of Mike Sekowsky who stepped away - Dick Giordano and Don Heck. The writing is handled by Denny O'Neil, who is also now the editor. Jeff Jones supplies some very memorable covers for the first two issues.



The first adventure by O'Neil and Heck has Diana teaming up with Jonny Double, a private eye with a glum demeanor to act as bodyguard for Fellows Dill, a publishing magnate and raging sexist who has a bevy of beauties surrounding him he dubs "Milkmaids". Trying to kidnap Dill is a cult who appear to defy his treatment of women as mere sex objects who call themselves the"Tribunal of Fear". After a helter-skelter adventure drawn by Dick Giordano, who becomes the regular artist,  Double and Diana lose track of Dill and fall into the clutches of the Tribunal. But escape only to find Dill has gone mad. The Tribunal as it turns out is a cover for an old enemy of Diana's, Doctor Cyber who has a convoluted scheme to wreak revenge on Diana and recover her former beauty. Cyber now hides her face behind a metal mask. All that comes to naught and Diana and Double escape.

Then they, along with I Ching are drawn into a wild adventure concerning a gem which seems to have dimensional-transportational properties. Discovery of a hidden land in the mountains of Nepal is only the beginning of the story which co-stars Catwoman as the gang are transported to the land Nehwon, a distant land inhabited by Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser.


In a story written by science fiction maven Samuel R. Delany, Diana, Double, and I Ching journey far in that land and discover they have been lured there by I Ching's disaffected daughter who still seeks vengeance on her dad. Much hectic action later they return home, barely, ready for more. Fafhrd and the Mouser think they want to stay in the 20th century but a glimpse of NYC and whiff of the polluted air and they return to their old haunts.

Then Diana finds herself again fighting for women as she finds herself battling a reprehensible retail magnate named Grandee (who looks remarkably like Carmine Infantino, then publisher of DC Comics itself). After subduing this character and his cronies and making a mark for women's equality in the workplace Diana's world again is turned upside down.

Don Heck returns as does Denny O'Neil, as writer. The story summarily kills off I Ching, and before you can say "Suffering Sappho", Diana Prince loses her memory and is driven by a compulsion to steal a jet and fly to the location of the dimensional-lost Paradise Island. She is reunited with her sisters and given a memory reboot thanks to Amazon technology before battling Nubia for the right to be called Wonder Woman. Again fitted with her old costume and old mission to aid mankind in the service of the Amazons, Diana goes to New York City and gets a gig as a translator at the United Nations, ready once again to wage superheroic battle against evil in her "second life", one which seemingly has no memory of the last several years.

These stories shift and turn like a whipsaw. Apparently the changes brought to the "New Wonder Woman" did not jolt sales or perhaps the folks in marketing just wanted to see the old red, blue and gold Wonder Woman back. Whatever the case, she is returned and the Diana Prince adventures are over.








No more to come...until tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Ambassador Of Comics!


Jerry Robinson is one of the more influential figures in the history of comics, having by everyone's admission, even that of the notoriously  fame-grabbing Bob Kane, having created probably comics most infamous super-villain (and possibly the concept of "super-villainy" itself) The Joker. Robinson also was instrumental in the development of Two-Face, Clayface, Penguin, and others including one bright shining addition to the gloomy Bat-mythos, one Robin the Boy Wonder.  Later working apart from Bob Kane, he created Atoman for Spark/Crestwood.


All of that is detailed in Jerry Robinson - The Ambassador of Comics by N.C. Christopher Couch. But we learn that comic books were only a relatively small part of the legacy of  Robinson as he branched out into comic strips with Jet Scott in the 50's and the cartoon series Flubs and Fluffs, Still Life and Life with Robinson for various newspapers over the years. We see the fine art work of Robinson and read about his work as scholar pushing forward the idea that comics were a serious art form, often at a time when such ideas were rare.



Also here is the story of how Robinson was instrumental in forcing DC Comics to at long last give some credit and delayed remuneration to Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Jerry Robinson comes across in this tome as a self-confident artist who was lucky enough to have parents who supported him and who saw even in his earliest days that his artwork was material of merit. We meet a man who was important but who comes across as modest, affable and kind. We find glowing portraits of his friends such as his mentor Bill Finger, the painfully quiet Mort Meskin, and his best friend Bernie Klein who was tragically killed during WWII.

After reading so many comic creator biographies filled with angst and anger and resentment, the story of Jerry Robinson, a man who seems always to know who he was, is a refreshing change of pace.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

The Golden Derby - June 1965!






I'm starting up a new feature here at the Dojo, where one of its primary interests has always been the comics produced by the Connecticut publisher Charlton. Charlton was a long-standing company in the field beginning during the Golden Age and giving up the ghost finally in 1986 after decades of relentless comics production, following an array of trends which waxed and waned over the years. But fifty years ago or thereabouts, they began to make arguably their greatest and most memorable contribution to the field, the "Action Heroes".

Over the next few years, in a regular series of monthly posts I'd like to take a look at how that started. Each month will feature five or so striking covers from the array which was available on the stands exactly fifty years ago, and hopefully we'll see the splendid rise and sadly the lamentable fall of one of comics most fascinating experiments.

Since the traditional gift for a fiftieth anniversary is gold and since Charlton Publishing was located in Derby, Connecticut, I'm going to label these monthly posts "The Golden Derby", an homage to the classic Hollywood coffee shop The Brown Derby. (I've always liked that weirdo image and of course Bullwinkle and Rocky once searched tirelessly for the "The Kirwood Derby", but that's another story. It's a stretch I know, but it's the best I could come up with. Sigh.)

Action-Heroes House Ad from June, 1965

Let's begin with what was on the stands in June, 1965.

Fifty years ago at Charlton, Pat Masulli was the editor of the comics line and follow the usual pattern at the company, he had instructed his staff to make some superheroes. To that end they had created Son of Vulcan (not on sale in June) and revived and revised one of their long-held properties, inherited from the Golden Age, the Blue Beetle.  Both comics were produced by the team of Tony Tallarico and Bill Fracchio. But as charming as these products could be, they didn't seem to have the then-modern polish the fans were finding at the upstart Marvel who was setting the trend. Also available was Strange Suspense Stories which was reprinting choice Captain Atom reprints from the early 60's by Joe Gill and the great Steve Ditko.

Charlton was still producing westerns, this month featuring Billy the Kid and the Cheyenne Kid among others. As always romance was a steady reliable part of the Charlton game plan with titles like Sweethearts and Teen-Age Love. War also with several available with several titles including an issue of Battlefield Action which sported a very striking cover by Pat Masulli and  Rocke Mastroserio, the best cover of the month in my opinion. On the war front was the debut of American Eagle in Fightin' Air Force, a feature with an action hero feel and likely a Dick Giordano cover. The impressive Jungle Tales of Tarzan comic had just been abruptly cancelled the previous month after the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate raised a ruckus over the unofficial adaptation. One book which debuted was a titled called Special War Series, which showcased familiar war adventures, but which would in a few months time offer up something quite special indeed.

To see all of the Charlton offerings for June, 1965 check out this link to Mike's Amazing World.

More next month for another installment.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tomorrowland!


Somewhat on a whim, my daughter and I went to see Tomorrowland, a movie about which I knew almost nothing save that it starred George Clooney and featured a bunch of robots. I guessed it was some attempt to monetize for the theater goer another part of the Disney park experience as the highly profitable Pirates of the Caribbean had done, but that's all I thought I knew.


So I was very pleased to find an engaging movie, well told with original characters doing a number of things I found most entertaining. There was Clooney, playing a reticent hero named "Frank Walker" who alongside a bright, troublesome, but charming teen named "Casey" (Britt Robertson) and an unusually wise little girl named properly "Athena" (Raffey Cassidy) have to find a way to save us all, and the cool part is that they get to use jet packs and rocket ships and savvy and wits and courage to do it. It's a banging good flick, which is thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly brutal at times (given its Disney heritage).


The movie's theme is one that cuts to the heart of a yokel my age (50's). When I was ten I was one of many millions who basked in the uplifting glory of putting a man on the Moon, a great achievement for any culture. But alas since that day, because of the sobering reality of the energy crisis, the faltering of an economy which more and more seems about today and not tomorrow, the society has turned its back on that promise so long ago. We have rejected the utopian notions of a better society, filled with wonders and instead given into a grimmer more dystopic view of the future. We have traded in the antic thrill of Flash Gordon for the cautionary ruminations of the The Terminator.


The future became less about what we could achieve and more about what we could preserve. Our society has given in, preferring to anticipate the collapse of society with a passivity that passes for realism, but which is actually fatalism. As Hugh Laurie's character "Nix" put it, a belief in a ultimate destruction of our world is an easy fit because that belief requires "nothing of us" to accept it. We can merely sit back, watch, and wait with the calm reassurance we were right all the time. It's a potent theme, which many I see call naive and even reactionary, but it's truth is hurtful.  


Since I've seen the movie, I've been reading reviews and many are lukewarm or negative. I don't agree, but one thing many point to is that the actual city of "Tomorrowland" is not thoroughly realized. I got it and I'm pretty dim, so I'm not sure what the rub is.

If you're in my age cohort then you will get a special thrill from a movie which showcases a number of the toys and daydreams of our youth. If you, like me prefer a future more like The Jetsons than like Thundarr the Barbarian, more like Tommy Tomorrow than like Kamnadi, then you'll love this movie.

Highly recommended.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Man Hunt!


Took time a few weeks ago to watch Man Hunt, a 1941 film noir effort by director Fritz Lang, one with a fascinating premise. Walter Pidgeon plays a British subject named "Thorndyke" who is a world-famous African safari hunter. He finds himself on the European continent hunting and hiking when he comes across a villa inhabited by Adolph Hitler. This is just before the breaking out of hostilities outside the German border so despite the loathsome nature of the leader, Thorndyke seems torn as to what to do. He takes his rifle and pulls the trigger but his chamber is empty; next he loads a shell but guards stop him from firing the deadly shot. He is captured and tortured to sign a confession that he was in fact an assassin for his government, but refuses. Later he escapes the Nazi stronghold and makes his way to England where he discovers he is far from safe.


George Sanders plays an urbane but brutal Nazi and Joan Bennett is on hand as a feisty British dame (perhaps even a hooker, though the script is cagey on this point) who gives Thorndyke some essential help when he most needs it. John Carradine is on hand as a mysterious foreign agent who proves both somber and deadly. This movie does not end as I expected, but it is a rousing adventure with solid acting and some absolutely fantastic Fritz Lang imagery.


One reason I was eager to see this flick when it showed up on the Turner Classic schedule was that Joe Simon has stated it was an influence on the creation of his and Jack Kirby's "Manhunter" series for DC's Adventure Comics back in 1942. I cannot attribute the comment directly,  but it is reported here.


Of course Paul Kirk disappeared after his Golden Age career, only to be given new life in reprint form in the back pages of the twenty-five cent New Gods. These appearances apparently inspired the revival of the character (literally) as a back up feature in Detective Comics by Archie Goodwin and a young and upcoming talent Walt Simonson.

Having seen the movie Man Hunt now, it's odd how the ending of that movie did indeed put me in mind of the lonely mission of that great Bronze Age Manhunter as he battled the evil men who created him and threatened the peace of the world.

The flick is highly recommended.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Night Moves!


When I stumbled across the movie Night Moves on Turner Classic the other day, I was mostly attracted by the fact it was a detective movie from the middle 70's which I'd never seen nor heard of. I had no idea this movie had any kind of reputation at all, but it turns out it does indeed. Classed as a "film noir" this movie does offer up a gang of characters who are hard to like and even more difficult to pity.

The plot is at once simple and confusing. In a nutshell a has-been footballer named Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) operates a failing one-man detective agency and gets the job to locate a runaway sixteen-year-old (Melanie Griffith) at about the same time he learns that his wife (Susan Clark) is cheating on him. He finds the girl in the Florida Keys but also finds some trouble and some romance with a lady named Paula (Jennifer Warren). Then things get even stickier and even more dangerous.



That's the sum total, but believe me it's an ambling journey to cover that territory. The problem with this movie is that the mystery doesn't seem to be the center of the interest either of the director nor the characters. It mostly functions as a device to throw a bunch of disillusioned characters together so they can mope and share out how disappointing their lives seem to be.


Director Arthur Penn seems to want to say something about the dissolute nature of modern society, and the script by Alan Sharp gives him ample opportunity. Sharp wrote the script for one of my favorite westerns, a Burt Lancaster vehicle titled Ulzana's Raid. I took a close look at that movie here. Night Moves seems also to be a movie which uses its genre trappings to offer up commentary on then modern society, and a bleak outlook it is indeed.

I cannot recommend this movie really. It's a little bit duller than it ought to be but I do think for anyone who might want to watch a period film with some real distinctive flavor this one fits the bill nicely. Here is some more on the character Harry Moseby and here is a fascinating article on the writer Alan Sharp.

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