Monday, January 31, 2022

Showcase Corner - Martian Manhunter!

Martian Manhunter is the first Silver Age superhero. His earliest adventures as a Martian trapped on Earth are contained in Showcase Presents Martian Manhunter Volume One. Most comics historians mark the beginning of the Silver Age of Comics with the publication of Showcase #4 which debuted a brand-new version of the Golden Age hero The Flash in the summer of 1956.

But I'd have to give the nod to the Martian Manhunter's debut in the back pages of the venerable Detective Comics #225 nearly a year before. With only a small cover blurb to announce his coming we get a brand-spanking-new superhero with science fiction roots who also just happens to operate pretty well in the crime genre which was a dominant one in the decade. J'onn J'onzz was from Mars, brought to the planet Earth against his will by a well-meaning but short-sighted scientist named Erdel who promptly died taking with him the possibility of returning J'onn to his Martian home. So he became "John Jones" and took up sleuthing for the local police department in his unnamed city. 

The Manhunter was first written by Joe Samachson and drawn for the entirety of his epic run in Detective and elsewhere by Joe Certa. Jack Miller took over the writing chores with the second adventure and stayed on the strip for many years. Now tucked away in the pages of Detective Comics, hidden from the eyes of only those who already wanted to read a Batman story, the Martian Manhunter proved an able back up. He battled mostly regular criminals in his guise as John Jones a detective working under Chief Harding. He surreptitiously used his myriad Martian superpowers to help his goal of stopping crime. But often he was undone by his singular weakness, one shared by all Martians, an inability to abide fire. A single match could render the Manhunter helpless.

The series plugged along with its comfortable format which often had Jones trying to stop crime and keep his secret at the same time. The stories at first were more crime than science fiction tales but as the series progressed the science fiction and superhero elements became more and more pronounced. And the Manhunter's Martian visage softened with time, becoming less and less alien and more human until he was essentially rendered as a bald human being albeit a bright green one. He had a vast array of powers such as invisibility, x-ray vision, super breath, shape-changing, super strength, and the ability to fly. Essentially if Superman could do it, the Martian Manhunter could do it, everything save have a barbecue for his buddies. 

Policewoman Diane Meade (the Commissioner's daughter we are always reminded) joined the case in 1957 and was supposed to be a minor love interest for Jones, though precious little is made of that. With just six and later seven pages to tell their stories Miller and Certa had little time for too much soap opera. A typical story had Jones get his assignment from Harding and quickly find that he needed to use his secret powers to accomplish it. He'd do so with some alacrity but almost always had to deal with fire in some way, but would overcome that and get his kudos by story's end at which point he'd often break the fourth wall and give the reader who shared his secret a wink. 

But in Detective Comics #273 in 1957 the premise was altered when Martian Manhunter was forced to reveal himself to the public. He'd operated in secret but now the world knew a heroic Martian was among them, but they did not know he was also John Jones. I suppose this change had to happen since a few years later he'd join the Justice League of America, serving nobly in the august team through most of the Silver Age. Showcase Presents Martian Manhunter Volume One gives the reader the first eighty MM adventures in its hefty five hundred and forty-two pages. Also included is weird precusor of a story from Batman #78 in which the Dynamic Duo meet a different Martian entirely. Reading these tales is not unlike eating potato chips, they well-made and go down easily and it's hard to stop at just one. 

Showcase Presents Martian Manhunter Volume Two gives us the rest of J'onn J'onnz's detective adventures and follows him into the House of Mystery. But there were attempts to change up the Martian Manhunter dynamic and among those was to introduce a partner in the form of the interdimensional imp named Zook. Zook could generate extreme heat and extreme cold and was quite pliable and so he and Manhunter took to staying in a hidden cave with only a tiny slot for an opening for Zoot to slither out of. Manhunter just walked through the walls. More and more the focus shifted from his work as John Jones and more onto his work as a superhero against bizarre menaces. Before shifting from Detective Comics to House of Mystery, the identity of John Jones (the actual detective side of Manhunter) was seemingly killed off and the Martian Manhunter eschewed a civilian life for the most part leaving behind his old cast save for Zook. (Save us all.) At the same time the incredible menace of the Idol-Head of Diabolu was introduced. 

It should be noted that just prior to the change of location Martian Manhunter made two appearances in the pre-Batman team-up The Brave and the Bold, once alongside Green Arrow (another hero needing a shove) and again with the Flash. The former drawn neatly by Paul Reinman and written by Bob Haney, I've read thanks to its inclusion in Showcase Presents Green Arrow, but I've never landed a copy of the latter tale. 

When Manhunter debuted in House of Mystery he was the lead feature and he waged a seemingly endless battle against the Idol-Head of Diabolu, an ancient artifact which had magical powers and on the first full Moon of every month unleashed a weird and deadly menace on Earth. Manhunter and Zook became sentinels of sort waiting month by month for the next weird threat to emerge. And they were some doozies as the covers above and below amply demonstrate. Martian Manhunter's feature was expanded to its largest size to give him space and time to battle the peculiar magical menaces. It seemed a genuine push to give the Martian Manhunter something he'd never had, a legitimate chance to win an audience on the newsstand by the power of his image. Alas it was unsuccessful. 

After some truly bizarre covers, the mavens at DC must have crunched the numbers and decided that poor old Manhunter wasn't drawing enough readers, so he began to lose his cover slot. 

Not all at once, but now and again. Sadly the Martian Manhunter who had been hidden from the world in which he lived for so many years and from the us readers on Earth-Prime was about to return to obscurity. 

Three more covers and it was over. The great experiment to give Martian Manhunter a push was done. He continued to battle the Idol-Head of Diabolu and other occasional menaces. He picked up a regular baddie named Professor Arnold Hugo, a former enemy of Batman but one who became a regular foe for Manhunter. 

Aside from a blurb or two the Manhunter's drift into the recesses of back-up limbo continued unabated. Jack Miller and Joe Certa kept the series rolling, with Certa's artwork getting more and more unrefined. He also seemed to be exploring new zanier page layouts in an effort to make the strip feel less old-fashioned. 

With the arrival of Robby Reed and Dial H for Hero, Martian Manhunter was right back where he started so many years before, a steady reliable back-up for another regular feature. He was now just as invisible as he often became in his adventures. Those adventures did switch gears a bit as the Idol-Head of Diabolu was at long last destroyed. In its place was Vulture, an international crime syndicate headed by Mr. V who because of his opaque white mask Manhunter called "Faceless". Manhunter moved to Europe and assumed the identity of Marco Xavier, a jet-set playboy who dabbled in crime. With this identity he waged a new war against the schemes of Vulture with a few stops here and there to remind us all of Zook's existence and to handle an alien menace or three. 

But with House of Mystery #173 it was over. Both Dial H for Hero and Martian Manhunter appeared for the last time. The next month would bring on new editor Joe Orlando and the House of Mystery would welcome its longtime host Cain. On an up note the Martian Manhunter did finally bring Mr.V to justice of sorts thought it came with a twist that didn't really make that much sense. 

That same month of January 1968 the Martian Manhunter made his final regular appearance in Justice League of America. (This is just about the time yours truly started reading some DC comics.) In one of Mike Sekowsky's final issues Gardner Fox cooked up a seriously zany issue which had the League pretending to be Green Arrow and battling a gaggle of their old foes. Manhunter does get several pages when takes on Dr. Light. But his last appearance is in a bold two-page spread as the League put the smackdown on the villains. Manhunter disappeared without comment from the final panels and is not seen again in the pages of the book for ten issues, over a year later in March 1969. 

In what became a farewell to J'onn J'onzz Martian Manhunter, Denny O'Neil and Dick Dillin cobbled together a story which tried to explain Manhunter's sudden disappearance. That it muddled his back story is unfortunate but at least they gave the old green fellow a send-off. It turns out he'd gone back to Mars at long last only to find his people having suffered a catastrophe that dwindled their numbers. He battle the villain responsible named Commander Blanx, but needed help so he went back to Earth to scare up his old teammates. The promptly go to Mars and handle the baddie but it's too late for the Martians who need a new planet and J'onn J'onzz joins his people to search for a new home. He doesn't turn up again until Justice League of America #100 which promised all the past leaguers but he's limited to a single panel on a planet far away regretting he cannot be with his mates. 

We all know now that Martian Manhunter would pop up now and again over the years but it was not until many years later when he and Aquaman gave the world the Detroit Justice League that he'd again be prominent. He's had a few series since then and his look and back story have changed a few times I guess since then as well. 

He even showed up at the end of Zack Snyder's Justice League movie. I was pleasantly surprised to see one of my favorite heroes in the flesh (sort of) though I was a little bummed when I read he only the got the nod because they could not use Green Lantern. Sigh, it's just the Martian Manhunter's luck. But he's still with us and that's grand. Fortunately for humanity, Zook didn't make the cut...yet. 

And that's a wrap on "Mars Month" here at the Dojo. Tomorrow something completely different. 

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Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Sunday Funnies - Tarzan Of The Apes 1935-1937!

Tarzan The Sunday Comics 1935-1937 by Hal Foster brings to the modern reader the last of the acclaimed artist's work on ERB's most famous character. The comics were written as all of the run was to this point by Don Garden. Foster was well regarded by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself as an ideal artist for the strip, but alas no arrangements were made on his part nor of others in the mix to see to it that Foster was remunerated adequately. Simply put it made more financial sense for Foster to create his own strip and make all the money as opposed to continuing as part of big team. 

On his way out the door Foster had the chance to draw Vikings in "Tarzan and the Lost Vikings", a yarn begun in the second volume. Tarzan had rescued a Viking warrior and was taking him home and then that warrior's beloved Siegrida was kidnapped. Much of the stories here deal with how Tarzan was able to save her and later fend off her affections when she became the queen of her people. Women in this strip always seemed a fickle lot and Tarzan was either saving them from grave harm or trying to save himself from their jealous natures when he ultimately rejected them. Although Jane never appears in these strips after very beginning, she is nonetheless always present since Tarzan will have nothing to do with some beautiful women. Tarzan acts like a certain young Prince from Thule in many of the sea-going battle sequences. 

After he is able to get free of the Vikings he gets back to the jungle in "Tarzan and the Killers", and has to rescue yet another damsel named Gloria from a gang of avaricious white hunters led by two villains named Gorrey and Flint. They have come to the deep of Africa with a map pointing to vast gold deposits and the girl is the daughter of the man who made the map. There is intrigue and counter-intrigue as Tarzan always to do the right thing but often finding his efforts result in more trouble. There is a sense of repetition in this storyline a bit as Tarzan, who is always on the move often has to keep doing things he'd presumably taken care of before. His benevolence is almost never rewarded. 

And this leads us to the final story Foster worked on dubbed "Tarzan in the City of Gold". Yet another princess is on hand, this one named Nakonia, as Tarzan and the gang of criminals he'd been fighting before entering this lost land which is filled with gold and lions. Tarzan is seen as an enemy in the early days and is thrown to the lions, but his jungle breeding wins the day. The criminals take over the city and there then begins an odd extended storyline in which Tarzan becomes the leader of the opposition forces fighting to free the city from its new masters. We are treated to large battle scenes and extended sequences of ariel dogfights as modern war and technology comes to the depths of Africa. Tarzan almost gets lost in the melee and seems to be another hero altogether at times. There is a constant and frankly repetitive back and forth between Tarzan's forces and the villains and as Foster wraps up his run the baddies are in the ascendancy. It will be up to Burne Hogarth to finish this already too long saga. But more on that at a later date. 

There is an excellent essay fronting this collection by Tom Yeates talking about the influence of Foster on adventure comic strips and on Tarzan illustration as well. Nifty examples of work by such notables as Joe Kubert and Roy Krenkel help to illustrate the points Yeates seeks to make. We are treated to an explanation of where these strips have come from and as it turns out Mike Richardson, the big kahuna of Dark Horse used his own private set of Foster's Tarzan strips to supply the work. This explains why much of the stuff is at times muddy and even suffering minor damage in a few places. But any port in a storm and it's better to have the historically important strips in somewhat less than perfect form than not at all. 

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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Marvel's John Carter Of Mars!

Of all the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars novels comic book adaptations I have to say that Marvel's John Carter, Warlord of Mars is the best. I say that because the series lasted long enough and was written in such a way as to suggest the adventures were a new adventure about the heroes of Mars. But the most critical detail is the use of first-person narration from the perspective of John Carter himself, just like the first three novels. It gave the novels an immediacy and perspective and it does the same for the comics. 

Clearly the writer Marv Wolfman was a fan of the character and had already written adventures for him at DC though that proved in the end a frustrating situation. Here one gets the sense he's been given a chance to do it all over again and better. He's helped enormously by the artist Gil Kane who handles the first major storyline of the series and gives it all the wild energy and movement one associates with the ERB original. Rarely does John Carter stop in the stories and he does precious little of it in this series. 

Artistically the series is an easy slow descent from exquisite to good enough. The debut issue is penciled by Gil Kane and inked by Dave Cockrum, probably the best team to do work together on the character in comics. Kane's raw dynamics are ideal for the never-still John Carter as he battles warriors from all sorts of Martian societies. 

The first story reads like a lost John Carter novel and is set in the years between Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars, during the ten years that Carter was still on the red planet but before he returned ten years after that. So much of the planet which is revealed in Gods of Mars and later novels is unknown and must be dealt with gingerly, though aspects of Martian society are revealed. 

Under some powerful Gil Kane covers Rudy Nebres joins the art team bringing his lush textures to the saga. Nebres can at times be a bit stifling of Kane's powerful pencils, but I suspect he's working from layouts at times and must finish the art in his style, which ain't bad at all. 

"The Air Pirates of Mars" is the over-arching title to the first saga and in the early stages Carter is forced to work for a villain working for a mysterious group called the Council of Five. To save his beloved Dejah Thoris Carter takes part in some raids of Martian towns. 

But eventually Carter is able to change up the scenario and in a ferocious battle kills his enemy though that doesn't end the threat to Helium nor does it end the threat of the Council of Five. 

Rudy Nebres has a large part to play in the early issues of the series, embellishing Kane's inks and giving the whole book a cohesive look. 

The only weakness in these early issues that I can see is that the covers by Kane and Nebres begin to look a bit alike. They depict different scenes of course but they all seem to be battle scenes shown from approximately the same distance. No one cover is weak but the run of them begin to lose effect. 

The weirdness of Tars Tarkus is key to the success of any Mars series, I think. Otherwise, there's little to distinguish them. The extra arms on the Tharks and the White Apes and other creatures is an important detail and should always be emphasized. 

The blurbs on the covers emphasize the action and with a master like Gil Kane that's an easy thing to guarantee to the reader. Kane's pages are among the most wildly kinetic in the history of the genre. 

Eventually in the finale of the story in the tenth issue he confronts the Great One, the giant leader of the Council of Five, a giant creature new to the planet Mars who wishes to destroy almost all life on Mars in order to save the planet from the stress on its resources. The Council of Five is made up of representatives from the five races of Mars -- the Red, White, Yellow and Black men along with the Tharks. So Wolfman does introduce details which haven't become canon to Carter at this time in the saga but he does it with some care. 

There's a break in the series with a one-off story which largely retells the events of Princess of Mars from the point of Carter's capture by the Tharks and his first meeting with Dejah Thoris. The very first parts of the story had been told in the debut issue, so most of the novel is adapted in this way. Dave Cockrum pencils this story and it's a stunner. 

We are then treated to a trilogy with artwork by Carmine Infantino, a sturdy and logical selection. The change in art is given some cohesion since Nebres remains as embellisher. Infantino's style at this time was much more opern and broad than his early DC work and is well suited to the wild story he is assigned about John Carter and Tars Tarkus batting and madman named Zhuvan D'Ark and zombies and skeletons in a lost City of Skulls. The threat the undead pose to Helium ultimately is of course defeated but it's a ferocious fight. 

We then get another one-shot story with art by Walt Simonson in which a Martian scientist tries to snuff out Carter by subjecting him to a machine but only succeeds in having our hero relive (possibly) previous lives he'd led on Earth when he confronted the likes of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. This is Marv Wolfman's last issue of the run. 

Chris Claremont comes aboard as the new writer and he is joined by new regular artist Ernie Colon, yet another excellent choice for the series. Alas Colon's tenure will not be a long one. We begin a new long storyline called "Master Assassins of Mars" and this one will have many twists and turns before it's over. It begins with John Carter's death scene but as you'd suspect he gets better. It should be noted that Marv Wolfman had been editing the series and now Roger Stern took the reins. 

He and Dejah Thoris become aware of a threat to all Helium, but they then are stranded in the bottom of the great valley on Mars, miles deep and are effectively captive of his geography. They are also captive in Karanthor, a strange society of winged warriors who cotton to Carter since his skin is white like theirs but put Dejah into slavery since that's what they traditionally do to red Martians. This is a sprawling society inside vast caverns art the bottom of the world of Mars. 

The series does take time to tell a different tale about Tars Tarkus facing a challenge from his own people, but as we'll see this story will eventually tie up with the larger saga. Tars does battle in one of the myriad Martian abandoned cities and he survives but just barely. This story was illustrated by Frank Miller who also does the cover. 

Ernie Colon is an artist who is best with his own inks and there is some of that in this run, but he also gets some decent inks first from Nebres who leaves the interiors and Frank Springer who handles a few issues. 

John Carter becomes a doughty warrior for the society at the bottom of the canyon, but all the time he is scheming for a way for he and his wife to escape. 

After the pair are nearly killed by Banths in the arena he becomes more desperate to escape and they make their attempt. 

It is a harrowing tale which follows the pair as they scale the sides of the canyon, a journey which takes many days to finish. It's a highlight of the series which had become just a tiny bit repetitive. This issue also marks another change in art teams. 

The new duo who will handle most all the remaining issues of the series is Mike Vosburg and inker Ric Villamonte. Both are sturdy reliable talents but there's no doubt that some energy leaves the series. Vosburg is still an up-and-coming talent at this time and not the mature artist he will become. 

It will come as little surprise to fans of Claremont that he gives Dejah Thoris a larger role in the series. This is not really in keeping with classic ERB in which she was capable but most often treated as a damsel in distress. Under Claremont's care she becomes a tad more ferocious. 

The series gets itself back to Helium and the battle against the secret cabal of assassins gets hot as many traitors are revealed in the ranks of the Helium mighty. 

It's a bit repetitive that the expressed motive of the villains is to change the course of Barsoomian society in such a way as to make the culture more sustainable in the dwindling environment. It rings a bit hollow this time, as power seems its own motivation. 

The long battle ends at the place where Tars had battled his duel so long before and the villain finds a proper and suitable end to his shenanigans and once more Carter and Dejah are reunited. It would've been a great place to end the series if that were necessary but there's one more issue alas. 

Writer Peter B. Gillis steps in for the last regular issue of series run and he is joined by Larry Hama on pencils. It's a one-off tale about yet another lost city filled with deadly illusions. It's fine and perhaps was made as a filler, but it's an odd way to wrap up the run. 

The Dark Horse collection decides to gather the three John Carter Warlord of Mars annuals at the back and that works fine since none of them are in continuity of the other tales. In fact the first one featuring another Wolfman story with very nice Sal Buscema and Ernie Chan art is set after Carter's second journey to Barsoom long after the events of the series. It's a harrowing tale based on an ERB short story titled "The Ancient Dead". It's another lost city but this one is filled with ghosts of all makes and models, even living ones if that makes any sense. 

The second annual was written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Erni Chan and offers up a wild and wooly John Carter adventure as he comes up against the Kaldanes who are amublatory heads that use other bodies called Rykors to ride around on. It mighty creepy and the idea was developed by ERB in Chessmen of Mars which was a post-Carter Mars novel. 

The final annual was plotted by Wolfman and Alan Weiss and scripted by Claremont. Weiss and Tony DeZuniga do the art chores and it's a weak effort I must admit. Carter gets separated from his allies and falls into the clutches of a society of amazons who make sacrifice to a mysterious deity. Dejah does get some attention as she and Tars reverse the usual roles and rescue Carter this time. 

The expansive Dark Horse collection I read this time is wonderful in all respects save perhaps that it's in black and white. That's a mixed blessing as that does allow the finished art to shine a bit absent the mask of color but of course is slightly less desirable than full color. Still, it was a bracing way to read these quite outstanding adaptations of as classic character. 

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