Monday, July 30, 2007

You’ve Been Warned: 1st Issue Special #11 – Code Name: Assassin

1st Issue Special had its share of ‘So Bad It’s Good’ issues (see Dingbats of Danger Street), but this one is purely ‘So Bad I Can’t Even Begin to Look for the Ironic Humour’. It’s so bad that I’ve lost a degree of respect for everyone involved, especially Steve Skeates. Skeates wrote some of my favourite stories, but this one would make Charlie Droople reconsider his comic book obsession. This comic has the look and feel of something that was rejected at Marvel, and then later rejected at Atlas-Seaboard only to wind up at DC where someone must have had some very dirty pictures of their boss.

The real problem here is that the Assassin (or is his full name actually Code Name: Assassin?) is generic with a capital ‘G’. From his costume, to his powers, to his origin, it seems like no comic book cliché was left unturned. I can forgive much of this series as well intentioned kitsch, but this one is guilty of showing zero imagination. Let’s look at a few obvious prerequisites for a stale 70s superhero concept.

Revenge Motif
Yup, he wants to bring down the mob because it killed his sister. After the death of his parents, Assassin was raised by his caring and intelligent sister. I guess her intelligence had its limits, as she took a job working for the mob to help him through college. Bald men need to be screamed at because they simply do not understand the special bond between a sister and a brother.

Unspecified Powers
This is the lazy writer's way of coping with a half-baked idea. If you leave the whole ‘powers’ issue a bit open-ended, you can always throw in something new when necessity dictates. His very original origin reveals that as a college student, Assassin was strong-armed into volunteering for an experiment. An explosion at the lab gave him his power, man. As far as I can tell, his powers include reading minds, rapid healing, air walking (that’s what those ribbons of colour on the cover indicated) and some sort of death dealing mental blast.

Déjà vu Rogues Gallery
After Assassin takes out of some his underlings, the mob boss hires Cobra and Mr. Hyde… I’m sorry I meant to say Snake and Powerhouse. These two demonstrate their powers by making mince meat of some mod henchmen. Unfortunately (or perhaps mercifully) the issue ends just as Assassin is about to lock horns with these two baddies. It must have been quite the fight as none of them was heard from again.

Verdict: Luckily, it was a single issue special

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Comic Book Robot Design in the 70s

Here’s the thing; my thesis on 70s robots is a bit wonky as I believe that the first batch of 1970s robots appeared in 1965. I am talking about those mutant hunters known as the Sentinels. What sets them apart from earlier robots is a look that can be best described as ‘Sophisticated Evil’. 70s robots are well-made, sleek killing machines with a single purpose in life. They often have a very militaristic look to them and just reek of pure evil. These are not your father’s robots. These guys are all business.

Just one look at the Sentinels is enough to strike fear into the heart of a reader, never mind a mutant. The were fairly threatening when first introduced, but got really scary during the Thomas/Adams run at the tail end of the 60s. When the series was re-launched in the mid-70s, Dave Cockrum’s Sentinels kicked all kinds of ass. The Sentinels ushered in the most frightening period of comic book robotics, culminating in the Days of Future Past storyline. How cool was it to see those Danger Room Sentinels in X-Men: Last Stand?

Like the Sentinels, Ultron also first appeared in the 60s, but to me he is the perfect example of a 70s robot. Ultron is beautifully designed, very sleek and powerful. He’s got that frightening facial expression and he really just has one thing on his mind: destruction. Ultron is constantly undergoing upgrades, but keep the same basic design. He is a chrome killing machine. One of my most powerful memories of reading comics as a child was the battle sequence from Avengers #161, when Ultron dismantled the team with ease and Jarvis returns to see the mansion in shambles. I was so freaked out by Ultron back then. I still am a little.

The Construct’s Cannons are perhaps DC’s answers to the Sentinels, but the Construct is dedicated to wiping out all of humanity, not just muties. Their design borrows a bit from Ultron, but have some pretty cool features unique to them, especially their cannon blasting arms. These are designed for only one purpose: killing. In the 40s and 50s, many robots seemed to want to play checkers with Superboy. These guys would just want to destroy him. Of course, they might be more bark than bite as Willow makes pretty quick work of them were a pair of hooker boots. Justice League of America #142 remains one of my favourite comics of all time and the look of these Cannons, along with the Construct itself, is a big reason why.

Warren magazines featured some great robot designs, perhaps none better than this one from Creepy #104, which brings to mind Stormtroopers or Cylons. It has that military look, right down to the fact that it is wielding a weapon and the awesome gas mask. I would not want this guy chasing after me. We’ve obviously come a long way from Bozo the Robot. I love this cover sooooo much. I love this robot. I love Warren publications. Robots, Robots, Robots, indeed.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Comic Book Robot Design in the 60s

The 60s was a tumultuous time, and the realm of robot design was no exception. The only real rule about robot design was that there were no rules. We had everything from the (pretty clunky for the 30th century) Computo to the “I can’t believe that’s not Nick Fury” LMDs from SHIELD. Although the decade began with remnants of 50s robots spilling over into the 60s, robot design started going off in a variety of directions. From Iron Man’s armor to Doc Ock’s arms, many human characters also took on somewhat robotic aspects. We also saw robots (sorry – I am not going to get fussy about android or synthezoid categories here) such as the Vision and Red Tornado searching for their humanity. We were also bombarded with robots designed to replace their human counterparts (the aforementioned LMDs, the Doombots etc…).

Although it seemed as though a robot revolution was underway, many artists maintain the status quo, as there are plenty of straight-laced 50s robots in the 60s (see Strange Adventures #136). This lack of design consistency makes it hard to pinpoint a specific theme, but I thought it would be fun to put a few designs in the spotlight to see what sets them apart. If I could only use one word to describe some of the new robot designs introduced in that decade, I would have to use a terribly dated word from that era: ‘Trippy’.

The Metal Men are an interesting example of a 60s robot, as they are essentially an LSD laced version of a 50s robot. They've got the humanoid features, but the fluidity of movement (especially in Mercury and Tin) and their individual temperaments sets them apart from their brethren from the 50s. Many of their foes also have a looks that is a slightly warped version of what we have seen with 50s robots. Although this is mostly known as a fun and silly series, there are some fairly sophisticated sci-fi themes (Tina’s unrequited love for Doc Magus, Tin’s desire for a mate). This cover to Metal Men #7 demonstrates what a vivid imagination, such as that possessed by Ross Andru, can do to a 50s robot.

One of my all-time favourite robots is J. Jonah Jameson’s personal troublemaker, the Spider Slayer. While this particular robot has gone through more than a few changes (I don’t see them as upgrades) over the years, Steve Ditko's original version, as showcased on the classic cover to Amazing Spider-Man #25, represents a giant step beyond the typical robot design of the past. Spidey would likely make mincemeat out of a slower, less agile 40s or 50s robot, but the almost elastic Spider Slayer gives him all sorts of trouble. I’ve always preferred the Ditko designed Slayer, as Romita’s version later in the decade has always brought to mind a metal teddy bear. Ditko’s robot pushed the boundaries of what a comic book robot can be, as we'd see more of this 'loose' robot style when he took over the pencilling chores on Rom.

In the not-too-distant future, mankind will rely heavily on Magnus’ judo chop to fend off unruly, but very stylish robots. There is no real pattern to the robot designs in Magnus’ world, as it seems that Russ Manning & company were given carte blanche to come up with as many looks as possible. It would be hard to name a more consistently awesome cover gallery than the one from this Gold Key series. Magnus’ foes sometimes can fly, sometimes swim (like these guys from Magnus #27) and sometimes use their giant buzz saw hands. Like the Metal Men, many of the robots featured in this title are similar to those of the 50s, but the ‘loosed limbed’ effect Manning creates makes them even more threatening, even the robots that look like flying vacuum cleaners.

My final selection is the Mad Thinker’s Awesome Android (is that the longest robot name ever?), first introduced in Fantastic Four #15 who appears to be nothing more than a sculptor’s half finished masterpiece. He has a much more ‘organic’ look that his predecessors from the 40s and 50s as there is nary a right angle anywhere in the design. He has always seemed a little out of place in the realm of Marvel Silver Age villains. When compared to the likes of Doctor Doom and Galactus, he looks downright silly. That’s not to say that I don’t like the old hammerhead, it’s just that he’s proof that Stan and Jack weren’t taking robots too serious in the 60s.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Comic Book Robot Design in the 50s

By the time the 50s rolled around, robots had been streamlined considerably. Gone were the boxy behemoths that battled Golden Age heroes. Replacing them were slimmer, more agile successors. These robots seemed to take on a bit more of a human look. Here are some of my favourite examples in this next stage in the evolution of robot design:

When I think ‘50s robot’, I immediately think of Bob Powell’s cover to Avenger #3. This series may have been short-lived, but Powell’s Robot Robber had lasting impact. He has so many cool features, beginning with his size. He is no giant, but sufficiently larger than a human to be intimidating. His is somewhat humanoid in shape, but I like the fact that his torso is so large that his legs come out the sides. He looks like a prototype for the Go-Bots. Another cool design feature is how his arms and legs become much larger at the elbow and knee, respectively. This gives the robot a real Popeye effect. Finally, his head is beyond cool, as it looks almost as though he is wearing a helmet and visor to hide his features. Powell hit the ball out of the park with this one. Alter Ego recently featured an homage cover, with Daredevil taking on the robot.

The 'more than a little disturbing' cover to Amazing Adventures #4 looks more like a pulp cover than a comic book cover. That makes perfect sense, as the publisher, Ziff-Davis, was a much larger player in the pulp world than it ever was in comics. This rather amorous “Love Robot” has some great features, including metallic blue hair. Unlike many robots from the 40s, the facial features on this Romeo are quite human. It’s not the robot’s advances that I find to be disturbing, but that the woman seems to be pretty into it. If there’s a word for robot-human sex, I’ve never heard of it. It’s too bad that this robot can’t be controlled by remote because three’s a crowd.

Another one of my all-time 50s comic book robots is the Iron Emperor from Blackhawk #42. He’s quite human in detail, especially his facial features. He comes across like some sort of fully articulated action figure – with enhanced dexterity from his hands and fingers. Even with all of these advances, he still has the single radio antenna atop his chrome dome, giving him a bit of a retro look. The thing I like most about this particular robot is that instead of shooting guns out of his chest, or laser beams out his eyes, he carries a simple Morning Star Mace for protection. This damsel doesn’t seem to have Robo-Fever like the blonde from Amazing Adventures. Overall, this is just great work by Reed Crandall.

DC’s sci-fi and adventure books featured a ton of great robots, but these guys from My Greatest Adventure #26 really stand out as a strong example of 50s robots. I can see the influence of two outside sources on robots such as these. First, this type of skinny-legged destructive giant brings to mind the tripods from War of the Worlds. Secondly, the notion of a creator losing control of a ‘good’ robot shows the impact that the likes of Asimov had on comic book creators. So many of DC’s writers (Edmond Hamilton, Gardner Fox, Otto Binder) had pulp fiction backgrounds, that it was inevitable that many of the Creator vs. Creation themes were to find their way into the funny pages. These robots are certainly menacing but something about their bulging eyeballs and lantern jaws makes them look a little dense.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Comic Book Robot Design in the 40s

Robots have been a part of comic books from the beginning, but they certainly weren’t the sleek, adamantium-shelled menaces we have today. The best word to describe comic book robots in the 40s would be Clunky. That’s not to say that they didn’t kick ass, but they just look a little soft in the middle when compared to latter day bots. Here are a few prime examples.

Perhaps the Godfather of all comic book robots is Bozo the Robot (yup, that’s right) who was a major feature for Quality’s Smash Comics. The look is completely comical by today’s standards, but he was probably cutting edge at the time. He actually brings to mind the earliest Iron Man armor from Tales of Suspense #39. Perhaps Tony Stark had a stack of Smash Comics in his POW camp. Even without a streamlined look, Bozo was plenty agile as can be seen on this cover to Smash Comics #5. Those alligators don’t seem at all fazed by the fact that they are chewing on tin.

Another early example of 40s robot design can be found on the cover to Pep Comics #1, featuring a trio of Irv Novick designed robots. The thing I love about these guys is how much they look like movie gangsters. I guess it’s appropriate seeing how the Shield is a federal agent. My guess is that Novick was trying to design metallic Jimmy Cagneys, and he did a great job. The weakest part of the design is most definitely the ‘skirt’ look that would later haunt both 1950s Robotman and 1960s Iron Man. The thing I like most about these particular gangster bots is the chest gun design. It’s just so cool that back in the day robots weren’t equipped with lasers, but still have to pack heat like everyone else.

The Justice Society had to take on robot threats more than once during the 40s, but none quite as distinctive as this particular ‘Metal Menace’. As far as I understand, this is actually a living metal being from Jupiter, but in my world, if it looks and walks like a robot, it’s a robot. He looks as though he was cobbled together by a 12-year old using scrap metal. I am not sure what the heck those antennae do, but they do give the robot a bit of an insectoid look. It must be a very well oiled machine if nobody in the JSA can hear him coming. Maybe Hawkman heard the robot but can’t warn the others because he doesn’t have a mouth.

Our final example of 40s robot design is from later in the decade and represents a slightly sleeker and shinier look – something that would carry over into sci-fi comics, pulps and movies in the 50s. This ultra cool robot was drawn by Alex Schomburg during his airbrush Xela period. Matt Groening was obviously a fan of this design as he used it for Bender on Futurama. The thing I like about this robot is the fact that he’s not afraid of rust, as he’s wading his way through a pond. He must be made of new alloy. The weakest part of the design is the car radio antenna atop his head, but I’ll cut my man Alex some slack, as he’s created the ultimate 40s robot.

Let me know if you’ve got any favourite comic book robot designs from the 40s. In the not-too-distant future, I’ll be looking at robot design in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Single Issue Hall of Fame: Fantastic Four #233

Sometimes Fantastic Four comics give me a headache. They can be too large in scope, too ambitious and generally too loud. At the very beginning of John Byrne’s tenure with the Baxter Bunch, we are treated to a very subdued, very human story. In a nutshell, this is a Human Torch solo story that kicks off with a priest delivery a dead man’s last wish to Johnny. Johnny plays detective and ultimately winds up taking on Hammerhead.

While the plot and the pacing are quite strong, it’s the characterization of Johnny Storm that really impressed. Far too often, Johnny has been pigeonholed as the ‘hothead’ of the Marvel Universe, but Byrne pulls off a neat little trick here, allowing us to getting inside Johnny’s head as he gets in over it. At times, it has the look and feel of an early Spider-Man issue, especially when Johnny becomes aware of his overconfidence. It’s also a good primer for new readers as some of the aspects of the Torch’s powers are highlighted. In a single issue, John Byrne turned Johnny Storm him into a character I care about by focusing more on the ‘Human’ and less on the ‘Torch’.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bear Punch Covers

There are many covers out there featuring bear attacks or people being threatened by bears, but very rare is the cover where our hero actually has enough courage to take on a bear. Here are some examples:

Supersnipe Volume 4 #11
It seems that no matter what category I select, there’s a Supersnipe cover that fits the bill. This is actually one of two Supersnipe covers featuring some Man vs. Bear action. As I’ve stated before, I’ve never read one of these books buy you know they’ve got to be good (if a little repetitive). In the 1940s, the Arctic might as well have been Mars and publishers were obviously keen on tapping into their readers’ desire to adventure into the unknown. Nowadays, tourists pile into ATV to visit the huge beasts. Modernity is kind of sad.

Joe Palooka #48
If you’ve ever browsed a Joe Palooka Cover Gallery (and who here hasn’t?), you know that he’s punched just about everything in creation. It’s really nice of Joe to help out the young campers, but doesn’t he know that you are supposed to play dead when confronting by a grizzly bear? Or is that a black bear? I always get them mixed up. This is probably the friendliest looking killer bear that you are likely to see – looks more like a kangaroo on steroids.

Marvel Family #82
Is that the same bear that took on Supersnipe? Won’t he ever learn? I like how Cap and Cap Jr. have decided to sit back and let Mary do all of the heavy lifting. Judging from the look on the polar bear’s face, Mary got him right in the solar plexus. Either that or the reproductive organs are located fairly high. This was near the end of the line for the Fawcett line of Marvel titles, so they obviously had faith that a good old-fashioned Bear Punch cover would help spike sales.

Adventures Into the Unknown #148
I can tell what’s going through Nemesis’ mind on this cover. He’s thinking ‘What the hell am I doing on a Golden Age cover in the middle of the 60s?’ Well, my masked friend, the fact that this cover was drawn by Kurt Schaffenberger (as Jay Kafka), who also contributed to (you guessed it) Marvel Family #82, might have something to do with it. You’d think that after taking on various super-villains and a T-Rex, Nemesis wouldn’t be so worried about a grizzly bear but I guess everyone has their phobias.

You've Been Warned: Grim Ghost #3

I thought I'd try another new theme here, spotlighting the worst of the worst. It may not be a nice thing to do, but I might save you a buck or two.

Grim Ghost #3

This may be the worst comic book produced by Atlas-Seaboard (and that’s saying quite a bit). I found the first two issues to be some of the best comics produced by Atlas-Seaboard (and that’s not saying much at all), but this one was just brutal. Tony Isabella’s story was beyond nonsensical, as the reader is somehow forced to cheer for Satan, whose diminutive stature doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of readers. Normally I love Ernie Colon’s artwork, but I’d swear that this book has some panels drawn by Sanho Kim. It looks like bottom of the barrel fanzine art.

Atlas-Seaboard certainly came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, especially if that lamb was struck by a car and was left on the side of the road.

Verdict: For Completists Only

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Memoirs of a Bronze Age Baby: Star Trek (Gold Key) #39

Star Trek (Gold Key) #39

This is one of the very first comic books I ever owned as a small boy. I recall that it was purchased by my parents (potentially as part of a 3 pack) at a side of the highway shop somewhere in upstate New York while we were on a camping trip when I was 3 (turning 4). I have no idea what happened to my original copy, which I don’t think I’ve seen for 25 years. I was thrilled to see a copy at a local shop. $1.99 seemed liked a pretty small price to pay for a trip down memory lane, so I scooped it up.

I sat down to read it with a very deliberate goal in mind. I was going to take my time, and focus on each page (including ads) to see what memories were stirred. Right off the bat, the ad for old movie posters (Creature for Black Lagoon, Lauren & Hardy) brought very vivid feelings to mind. When I was little, I used to actually think the world had been black & white in the ‘olden days’ and snapped into colour at some point. It was this ad that made me dream up that whole concept. From there, each page brought new memories – the full splash of the crew on a spacewalk, the fairly homoerotic bacteria shower, and the ad for patches featuring various cartoon characters (of course, I knew Bugs Bunny and Casper back then – but who the heck was Snuffy Smith?).

The thing is, the story isn’t half bad either. The Star Trek crew revives a cryogenetically frozen Nobel Prize Winning Scientific Genius from the past. I can’t recall his name, but it might as well be Dr. Lennoneinsteinghandi. Kirk, Spock and & Company are the only ones who can save the Earth from lowering it defenses due to mass hypnosis. It’s quite a lot of fun, as much like the TV show, present day societal issues are explored. In this case, it seems that ‘Peace through Vigilance’ is actually the best route to follow. It’s pretty good stuff, and Alden McWilliams does a decent job making sense of a fairly off-the-wall story.

I won’t let this one get away again.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Shark Wrasslin' Part 2: The Revenge of Jaws

Over at Comic Book Resources BR, we got a good thread about Shark Wrasslin’ Covers going and the issue of the movie Jaws and its impact was raised by Kirk G. That got me thinking, all the way back to the mid-70s when I was still a pre-schooler (albeit one with a shark poster in my room). Bicentennial fever was high (and so were gas prices, and the Montreal Olympics were putting a great city into unfathomable debt. In the funnybook business, it seems that many editors decided that sharks should become the new gorilla. Here are some examples of how many comics tried to cash in on the success of Jaws.

An direct homage to the image from the Jaws poster was used for Spidey Super Stories #16 . This title always had some slightly subversive humour going on (much like the Electric Company TV show) as can also be seen from the Star Wars cover published a little later in the run. The only real difference between this cover and the poster is that Spidey is not in his birthday suit. Overall, it's a pretty snazzy cover, with Mr. Parker showing Olympic level form in the Freestyle. The only real negative for me is that they didn’t use a cover of Spidey waterskiing a few years later to celebrate the release of Jaws 2.

Over at DC, home of the gorilla cover, Mike Grell was commissioned to draw the cover to Action Comics #456 putting Supes right into the line of fire. Boy, are these sharks ever vertically inclined. My good pal Prince Hal commented that this is a very stiff looking action scene from Mr. Grell and I cannot disagree. A bit more fluidity is badly needed. Unless that shark has swallowed kryptonite, I am not sure why Supes is at all worried. Certainly not one of the more iconic Superman covers; so it’s probably best for us to simply move along.

A much more enjoyable (and believable cover) comes courtesy of the fine folks at Warren. Like the Action Comics cover, the word Jaws is highlighted on the cover to Creepy #101, but this time it’s to the point of dwarfing the actual title. Mr. Warren was never one for subtlety. Perhaps indicative of the organizational skills at Warren, this one was published 3 years after the release of the Spielberg movie – maybe they thought Jaws 2 would be the real moneymaker. IIRC, this one actually features a story involving sharks, drawn by the cover artist, Rich Corben, as well as some other waterlogged tales (reprints, I think). This one I liked a lot, especially since the colour scheme harkens back to Krigstein’s cover to Piracy #6.

Finally, we have Ghost Rider #16 and the absolute nadir of the cashing in on Jaws craze. When dealing with a comic book about a satanically possessed motorcycle stunt rider, it’s a good idea to suspend your disbelief, but the premise of this cover actually calls for the use of hallucinogens. I don’t actually own this comic, so I cannot explain to you exactly how Johnny Blaze got himself into this predicament – but knowing some of the scripts that were cranked out during this era at Marvel, you are probably better off coming up with your own story. The only thing that would make this book ‘in the gripping tradition of Jaws’ would be if GR said “I’m gonna need a bigger bike”.