Fates Worse Than Death: Atom Man vs. Superman

As Atom Man vs. Superman begins, a crime wave has overtaken Metropolis, the kind of multi-pronged gang assault on property and lives that frequently opens the first chapter of serials, even though the Depression-era violence that inspired it was long-gone by 1950. Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent* suspects that a single criminal mastermind is behind it, secretly organizing and coordinating the atrocities. But who? A bulbous, oversized helmet is superimposed over the montage of stock footage and spinning newspaper headlines, the “Atom Man” of the title, but Clark believes that to be merely a cover for Superman’s arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. In this very first chapter (“Superman Flies Again”), Superman uses his X-ray vision to locate Luthor’s hideout and capture him. Yet over the next year, the crimes continue! Was Clark Kent wrong about Luthor (who claims to have gone straight and is applying for parole)? Is the Atom Man an entirely different villain?

What’s notable here is the degree to which the characters and their relationship are already established at the outset: not only is it taken for granted that audiences will know Lex Luthor, but he is caught and imprisoned within the first episode in the manner of a modern action film’s “cold open.” (Of course, Luthor is up to something, but that’s beside the point.) The assumption that audiences wouldn’t need to have things explained to them was a safe one for the filmmakers, of course: Superman was widely read in comic book form and heard on his own radio show (from which the plot of this serial was adapted); as I mentioned in my review of the previous Superman serial, that familiarity kept the producers from making too many changes to the source material in adapting it, and the faithfulness to the original says as much about the popularity of Superman as it does about the fickleness of filmmakers. It’s worth noting, in fact, that serial adaptations from comic strips were generally more faithful than those from comic books, a reflection of the newspaper strips’ higher status in those days. (It’s possible that the subtle touches in Atom Man vs. Superman also reflect an awareness of the audience’s greater sophistication by 1950, as well.)

In any case, Atom Man vs. Superman is one of the few serials I’ve seen that takes its audience’s awareness of the characters and setup for granted, going so far as to subvert their expectations for suspense or comic relief. For example, more than once when Clark Kent ducks into a doorway to transform into his alter ego, fellow reporter Lois Lane follows him under the impression that Clark is trying to scoop her or keep himself out of danger. If he can’t turn into Superman, how will he save the day? Or will Lois learn his secret identity? Something always comes along to protect Clark’s secret and allow him to make the switch, but Lois’s growing suspicions are a major subplot: not only does she ask out loud, “Is Clark Superman?”, she has Daily Planet editor Perry White so convinced that he almost publishes a front page story saying so. Ultimately, the status quo is preserved, but rarely short of Superman II have I seen a Superman film in which the truth floats so close to the surface.

It makes a difference, as well, that Atom Man vs. Superman is the sequel to an earlier serial that does begin with the hero’s origin, and this particular story was adapted from a storyline from the radio show The Adventures of Superman. (And how odd is it that the title follows the familiar “______ vs. ______” format, but unusually puts the antagonist’s name first?) All of the major players from the first serial return (including leading man Kirk Alyn, credited as only “Superman,” maintaining the fiction that the man himself showed up to film his own adventures), with the addition of Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor. Talbot’s Luthor is just like we remember him: brilliant, egotistical, and bald; he is both the “mad scientist” of his earliest comic book incarnations and the smooth-talking public figure of later stories. Luthor has always been a complex and captivating foil for Superman, but his human strengths and failings are especially clear in comparison to the masked villains typical of the serials. (The serial hardly makes a secret of the fact that Atom Man is a convenient front for Luthor: while he “goes straight,” he receives threats from the Atom Man on behalf of the criminal underworld Luthor has supposedly turned his back on. But everyone knows that Atom Man’s plans and Luthor’s are one and the same.)

The main plot involves criminals, including one already in custody of the police, who mysteriously disappear whenever they flash a particular silver coin, making for some miraculous escapes and frustrating Superman’s attempts to connect their crimes to the Atom Man. As it turns out, these “activated coins” are signal beacons for a “space transporter,” a teleportation beam developed by Lex Luthor (and the solution to his continued leadership even while in solitary confinement: he just uses his own coin and has his henchmen beam him to his hideout for an hour or two, and then he goes back before the prison guards are any wiser). The coins and the transporter are significant devices throughout the serial, with Luthor using them to slip from one hiding place to another; help his underlings stay out of the grasp of Superman or the police; bait traps for Superman and the Daily Planet reporters; and even kidnap Lois Lane (Noel Neill) by sending her one of these medallions. The coins also further the plot when one of the coins is recovered and Luthor schemes to get it back before it can be analyzed.

But the technology underlying the space transporter is also capable of sending its target’s atoms into space, “where they will circle endlessly” without solidity, a fate Luthor refers to as “the Empty Doom.” At one point he uses it briefly on one of his underlings as punishment for failure, demonstrating its effectiveness but also revealing that the effects can be undone. Luthor’s ultimate plan is to consign Superman to the Empty Doom, ridding himself of his archenemy forever; he succeeds, but only for a chapter. While in this state, Superman is insubstantial and invisible (except to the audience, through the miracle of double exposure), as if on the astral plane, or like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. The scenes in which Superman, in double exposure against a background of planets and stars, struggles with a henchman sent to check on him (and here the Empty Doom functions more like the comics’ Phantom Zone), are great fun, and in some ways closer to the loopier sci-fi elements of the comics than we usually get when the character is adapted to film. Through great effort, he is able to communicate with Lois through her electric typewriter, and eventually his instructions to her help him break free.

The space transporter isn’t the only high-tech invention Luthor brings to bear in his war against Superman, but it does get the most screen time. Luthor also has an “atomic projectile” (a high-powered mortar shell that Superman simply catches and returns against its operator, exactly the same as when the Spider Lady tried the same thing in the last Superman serial); a remote control flying saucer; a robot (spoiler!); an earthquake machine; an atom bomb (there’s a lot of nuclear anxiety in this serial, from the title on down); and even a spaceship! At one point, Luthor synthesizes his own Kryptonite, a step up from the “synthetic radium” that so many serials feature; however, to make it work correctly, Luthor’s Kryptonite requires just one ingredient he must steal: radium! Oh, well. There is a clever sequence in which Luthor manipulates Superman into using his X-ray vision on a box of nails: Luthor has prepared an alloy that turns into plutonium when bombarded with X-rays, tricking Superman into generating the fuel that will be used against him.

And of course there’s television; at first, Luthor earns his parole by offering a new invention to the government, a “combination of radar and television.” Regular readers of this series will be aware of my interest in how television was presented in the serials, as an almost-magical scrying device that allowed remote viewing even of places inaccessible to cameras. By 1950, television was less a futuristic pipe-dream than a definite reality with a growing audience, and viewers and filmmakers alike were now aware of the medium’s limitations, so super-science was invoked to make it exciting (and useful to the plot) again. The only difference between the fantastical view of television common in the 1930s and its use in Atom Man is the gloss that presents Luthor’s device as a new spin on the now-familiar medium. At the same time, television is an everyday occurrence, with Luthor setting up a mundane television studio as a cover for his more esoteric spying. (Hilariously, the cover blurb on the DVD claims that Luthor “says he’s just a simple repairman for those new devices called televisions!”, a synopsis that is garbled at best.) At one point, Lois Lane goes to work for Luthor as an on-camera personality, mostly for tepid “man-on-the-street” interviews. Although regular broadcast television is shown in a decidedly unthrilling light, it wouldn’t be long before the new medium killed theatrical serials for good, or rather absorbed them, as low-budget storytelling-by-installment became the default mode of TV entertainment, even including the Man of Steel himself.

What I Watched: Atom Man vs. Superman (Columbia, 1950)

Where I Watched It: Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection DVD set

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Superman Saves the Universe” (Chapter Fifteen) Well, what else would we expect Superman to do?

Best Cliffhanger: Although there are more than a few classic perils here, Atom Man vs. Superman finds the filmmakers chafing at the formal restriction of the end-of-chapter cliffhanger. Some of the chapters end with one or more characters in a state of uncertainty rather than immediate peril: at the end of Chapter Seven (“At the Mercy of Atom Man!”), Superman, weakened by Luthor’s synthetic Kryptonite, is loaded unconscious onto an ambulance which the audience knows is being driven by Luthor’s henchmen. Not only does Superman not get out of trouble immediately in the next chapter by escaping or undoing the peril as in so many serials, he is forced to step into Luthor’s matter transporter and face the “empty doom,” from which he doesn’t escape until the next chapter after that!

In other cases, the cliffhangers are perfunctory: rather than being set up with the heavy-handed foreshadowing so common to the Republic formula, dangers are thrown up at the last minute, as when Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond), chasing an escaping henchman, gets his foot stuck in a railroad bed and can’t escape an oncoming train. The train has nothing to do with the events that have come before, but it’s the end of the chapter, so something has to happen. Both examples are probably extensions of the playful formula-tweaking mentioned above: by 1950, even kid audiences were ready for twists on familiar material. Fortunately, the awareness that cliffhangers alone weren’t enough to satisfy audiences pushed the filmmakers to create interest in other ways, through character and novel special effects. (As in the previous serial, animation is used to depict Superman’s flight as well as other effects too expensive to create otherwise.)

Having said that, there is at least one truly great cliffhanger in this serial: in Chapter Fourteen, “Rocket of Vengeance,” Lex Luthor sends a missile loaded with an atomic bomb to destroy Metropolis, his final act of defiance before taking off into space, leaving the Earth behind forever. Superman intercepts the missile, climbing on top and riding it, Dr. Strangelove-style, as it heads straight for the Daily Planet building and the office of Perry White (Pierre Watkin). The sequence, which cuts between close-ups of Superman riding the missile, shots of the city from the missile’s point of view, and White, Lois, and Jimmy watching its approach, is among the most exciting in this serial.

Sample Dialogue:

Lois: Let’s head back to the office.
Jimmy: What for, to be hit by that rocket?
Lois: We’ll write the story, even if it’s our last one.
Jimmy: I’d rather read about it.
–Chapter Fourteen, “Rocket of Vengeance”

What Others Have Said:Atom Man vs. Superman was far more gimmicky and gadget-prone than the first serial, Superman, but was flawed by the same [producer Sam] Katzman cheapness in production values, despite the cast and crew.” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

Well, I liked it.

What’s Next: Summer isn’t over yet! Join me next time as I explore Dick Tracy’s G-Men!

* (who is secretly Superman)

Advertisements

Fates Worse Than Death: Superman (1948)

Unlike many of the costumed heroes who made the leap to serials, not only does Superman not need an introduction, but the 1948 Columbia serial bearing his name is remarkably faithful to the comic books in which he regularly appeared. Any modern reader or viewer should recognize the character’s origin, set forth in the first chapter, “Superman Comes to Earth”: on the faraway planet Krypton, scientist Jor-El attempts to convince the ruling council that the planet is doomed, a victim of gravitational forces that will soon lead to its complete destruction. Unable to convince them, Jor-El places his infant son Kal-El in a test rocket and launches him to Earth, just before the planet explodes. After landing in a rural part of America (not yet “Smallville”) on Earth, baby Kal-El is adopted and raised by the Kents, a childless couple who instill in their adopted son “Clark” a sense of justice and fair play, even as he develops superhuman strength and incredible abilities. Chapter One ends with Clark Kent on his way to Metropolis to use his powers for the good of mankind.

Also unlike some other serial heroes, Superman wasn’t the character’s first representation outside of comics. Since the first publication of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation in Action Comics no. 1 in 1938, Superman had been a best-selling comic book and newspaper strip character; headlined a radio show (since 1940); and appeared in animated shorts (seventeen cartoons from Fleischer and Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943). It would have been hard to find even a casual follower of popular fiction who didn’t know who Superman was, and that above all may have encouraged producer Sam Katzman to stick to the established mythology. That meant not only keeping Superman’s origin the same, but keeping him at the Daily Planet with Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen (who first appeared as a named character on the radio show in 1940), rather than creating a new cast of characters. It also meant including Kryptonite (introduced on the radio in 1943 and the comics only in 1947), the fragments of Superman’s exploded home planet, the radiation of which was the one force on Earth that could weaken him.

There were still some differences, however, most notably the serial’s choice of villain: the Spider Lady, a blonde woman in a black evening gown and domino mask, is very much within the serial tradition: she has no origin or backstory, no powers of her own, and her persona is “criminal mastermind, but slightly vampier.” (Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor would appear in the following serial, 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman.) More importantly, she holds off on direct confrontations with Superman, prolonging the story by working through her agents, fedora-wearing henchmen with names like Driller and Brock. They may be caught, but she continues her evil work until the last chapter and her inevitable comeuppance. Like her namesake, she sits at the center of a web (literally–the web is an important backdrop of her scenes, and it proves to be electrified, a fitting method of punishing underlings who fail her), plotting and scheming.

Also true to the serial style is the macguffin, a sort of death ray called the Relativity Reducer Ray, developed for the government by Professor Graham, guarded by Superman (so it doesn’t “fall into the wrong hands”), and coveted by the Spider Lady. Described as more powerful than the atomic bomb, the Reducer Ray deals death by remote control: in Chapter Three, which introduces both the Ray and the Spider Lady, a test demonstrates its ability to destroy buildings at a distance by feeding coordinates into its internal computing mechanism. The Ray provides plenty of plot possibilities, whether it’s the Spider Lady’s attempts to stop the test; her attempts to steal, and later copy, the Ray; her kidnapping and later mind-control of the Ray’s inventor, Professor Graham; and her use of it to threaten the Daily Planet itself once she has a functioning copy.

Lois Lane: Poet of the Apocalypse

Finally, the Spider Lady has her own scientist, Dr. Hackett (Charles Quigley), described as “brilliant” but “with a warped mind,” whom she breaks out of jail to aid her; what his previous crimes were is never stated, but he proves to be an ambitious, treacherous character, and his alliance with his patroness an uneasy one. All of these elements serve to provide exciting, varied episodes of action and suspense, many of them based on classic serial premises (e.g., there are mine cave-ins and car chases, and Lois and Jimmy get tied up more than once), but each connected to the central threat of the Spider Lady and enlivened by clever plotting and witty dialogue.

Superman is played by Kirk Alyn (although not according to the title credits: Columbia’s marketers claimed that no actor could be found to convincingly portray the Man of Steel, so they simply got the real thing), who would go on to headline several more serials. Alyn mostly strikes a note of hearty good cheer and optimism as the hero (even when banging two gangsters’ heads together to knock them out he jokes “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength!”), and his Clark Kent is amusingly sketchy. In Chapter Two, Clark essentially gets his position on the Planet (with no prior experience or references) by scooping Lois, and throughout the serial she snipes at him for what she perceives as underhanded maneuvering (she gets her own back a few times as well). She rightly suspects that Clark is simply playing dumb when conversation turns to Superman and his tendency to show up when he’s gone, but she never suspects the truth.

Although Clark’s coworkers chide him for his tendency to duck out when trouble is brewing, Alyn makes this foible seem like the product of bumbling rather than cowardice (and of course, we in the audience know what he’s really up to). Through a variety of special effects, including undercranking (to depict Superman’s super-speed), double exposure (for X-ray vision), and hand-drawn animation for flying sequences, just about all of Superman’s established powers come into play during the story. And of course, the serial format guarantees that he’ll appear in costume at least once in every chapter, whether it’s to laugh off a gangster’s bullets (depicted bouncing off Superman’s chest, again with animation), stop a fire by blowing it out with his super breath, or to catch a flying shell and boomerang it back toward the gun that fired it. Superman even uses his X-ray vision to see through a disguise while looking at a photograph–quite a feat, even for him. Alyn distinguishes Clark from Superman with his voice as well, using a light, wishy-washy tone for Clark and a deeper chest voice for Superman, a transformation made audible (in imitation of the radio serial) every time Clark Kent in voice over says, “This looks like a job for [sudden drop to chest voice] SUPERMAN!”

Noel Neill (who passed away just last year) imbues Lois Lane with the brassy, no-nonsense quality the character had absorbed during the war years, inspired by His Girl Friday and the like (and which would largely be domesticated in the coming 1950s). The frequently-depicted romantic triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman is absent in the serial, but is replaced by a professional rivalry; as mentioned, Lois takes potshots at Clark mercilessly (“What now, little man?” is a typical gibe), but it’s an understandable attitude when she is frequently consigned to writing “women’s stories” about recipes or fashion while Clark gets the headlines.

In addition to driving the plot, the tension between the pair is a natural source of comedy, with Perry White (Pierre Watkin)and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond, formerly Butch in the Our Gang shorts) also contributing to the quippy, fast-paced scenes. (As an aside, it’s nice to have a humorous tone carried by dialogue and situation, rather than a single “comic relief” character, as in the Republic formula.)

As the Spider Lady, Carol Forman is a haughty, imperious villainess in the classic style. She doesn’t do much, but preening and pontificating are enough for this type of character: other than her electrified web, it appears to be the power of her will and ruthless pursuit of her goals alone that keep her underlings in line. There is one scene, however, probably meant as a throwaway, that deepens the character’s mystery: in Chapter Nine (“Irresistible Force!”), the only time in the serial that the Spider Lady leaves her lair, she goes to the airport disguised as Lois Lane to trick Professor Graham, the Reducer Ray’s inventor, into accompanying her. Throughout the serial, the Spider Lady has been a blonde, but in preparing to disguise herself, she removes a blonde wig to reveal a head of dark hair.

At no other time is it even suggested that she is wearing a disguise, and she’s a blonde for the rest of the serial. Visually, the Spider Lady (whom Harmon and Glut in The Great Movie Serials describe as “faintly foreign” in appearance) changes from a Veronica Lake type to a more fitting Myrna Loy type, perhaps revealing her true colors. (Or perhaps it’s nothing more than an inside joke: Forman was naturally a brunette, and had played another spider-themed villainess for Superman director Spencer Bennet the year before in The Black Widow. Forman didn’t want to be typecast as a villain, but she played several in the serials.) Serials didn’t generally go in for the duality of hero and villain, but when you have a blank slate of a character like the Spider Lady, any suggestion of depth, however subtle, makes an impression. As Clark Kent would be the first to acknowledge, sometimes it’s the appearance you wear every day that is the real disguise.

What I Watched: Superman (Columbia, 1948)

Where I Watched It: Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection, a 4-DVD set from DC/Warner Home Video

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Superman to the Rescue” (Chapter Eight)

Best Cliffhanger: Superman features many good cliffhangers, including some classics, such as the car speeding off a cliff, and an unconscious victim placed on a conveyor belt, headed toward doom, among others. Wisely, once Superman’s invulnerability is established in the first few chapters, the filmmakers don’t try to convince us that the Man of Steel is going to be killed by something as pedestrian as a gunshot or an explosion, and the only cliffhangers that leave his fate in doubt involve Kryptonite. Rather, it’s Superman’s friends who face peril at the end of each chapter, the question being whether Superman will get there in time to rescue them (a few chapters end with Superman entangled in some other problem that will presumably leave him unavailable) or if they will find their own way out of the danger. (In the examples I mentioned above, it’s Lois Lane in the speeding car and Jimmy Olsen on the conveyor belt; at the end of another chapter, Perry White is thrown out the window of his office, hanging onto the ledge by his fingertips.)

At the end of Chapter Fourteen (“Superman at Bay”), the Spider Lady has finally gotten Professor Graham’s Reducer Ray working, and to test it she has the Professor aim its destructive force at the corner of the jail in which her henchman Anton and Dr. Hackett are being held (she will demonstrate the ray’s power and eliminate some “useless people” at one stroke). Unbeknownst to her (not that it would make any difference), Lois Lane is visiting the two inmates at the jail in hopes of persuading them to talk, and she is present when the power of the ray manifests in the form of an intense glow. An explosion ends the chapter. (At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, Superman, having overheard the Spider Lady’s instructions, flies to the jail to swoop in and carry Lois to safety, leaving Hackett and the other inmates to suck eggs, I guess. A newspaper headline following the incident notes “Many Prisoners Killed.” They don’t get top billing, though.)

The Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: The resolution to the cliffhanger I described above involves a bit of a cheat, but the winner is the cliffhanger that ends Chapter Eleven (“Superman’s Dilemma”) and its resolution. Chapter Eleven focuses on “mono-chromite,” a secret ingredient needed for the Reducer Ray, and the lengths to which the Spider Lady’s henchmen go to obtain it. Two of the Spider Lady’s operatives show up at a chemical engineer’s office demanding mono-chromite. Since it’s a restricted material, the engineer puts the men off and contacts Perry White. Lois gets the jump on Clark by telling him to take her car and then reporting it stolen, so that Clark is picked up by the police and taken to jail: there may not be a jail built that can hold Superman, but he can’t afford to jeopardize his secret identity by breaking out or overpowering a policeman! In the mean time, Lois and Jimmy get to the engineer’s office and conceive a plan: Jimmy hides in a packing crate marked “mono-chromite” so that when the Spider Lady’s men pick it up, he’ll be taken straight to her lair! Unfortunately, when the crate comes open during the drive back, the drivers get suspicious and stop to check on it. One of the thugs sees Jimmy’s fingers closing the crate, so he and the other henchman open fire and shoot the crate full of holes.

But wait! As the next chapter begins, we see Clark Kent in his jail cell change into Superman. He bundles up Clark Kent’s clothing under the blanket on his bunk to hide his disappearance and, bending the bars on the window easily, flies off to rescue Jimmy. Not only does he know exactly where to find his pal (Jimmy doesn’t yet have his famous signal watch in this serial, but Superman finds him anyway), he has time to take his place in the crate, so that when the driver begins shooting (and it’s only one henchman shooting in this chapter, not both as in the previous cliffhanger), the bullets bounce harmlessly off him. After knocking out the gangsters and tying them up at super-speed, Superman flies back to the jail and resumes Clark Kent’s identity, just in time for the jailer to let him out, having confirmed his identity from Perry White. Whew! It’s all in a day’s work for (sudden basso profundo) Superman!

NOT a dream! NOT an imaginary story! “Clark Kent: Super-JAILBIRD!”

Sample Dialogue:

Lois (regaining consciousness): How did we get here?
Clark: Superman got us out through a hole he made in the side of that hill.
Lois: He’s wonderful isn’t he, Clark?
Clark: I guess so.
Lois: You guess so? . . . Say, weren’t these handcuffs on our other hands before?

–Chapter Thirteen, “Hurled to Destruction”

What Others Have Said: “As Superman, Kirk Alyn looks the part. He was a former Broadway chorus boy who’d worked his way up to become a Columbia day player, and his athletic form required little in the way of muscle padding. (If he doesn’t quite live up to the illustration on the serial’s movie poster–Superman as a downright steroidal mountain of muscle–few men of the day could.)”
–Glen Weldon, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography

What’s Next: Join me as I explore the second Dick Tracy serial, 1938’s Dick Tracy Returns!

The Political Fantasies of BrainDead and Vote Loki

from Vote Loki #2, art by Paul McCaffrey, colors by Chris Chuckry

from Vote Loki #2, art by Paul McCaffrey, colors by Chris Chuckry

In 2008, just days after the presidential election, South Park aired an episode exploring Barack Obama’s victory. In the episode, both Obama and his political opponents, including John McCain and Sarah Palin, were shown secretly working together, running an Ocean’s 11-style long con (including faking their identities: the “real” Palin had a posh British accent, for example) in order to steal the Hope Diamond from the Smithsonian via a tunnel hidden beneath the Oval Office. In the B-plot, the conservative residents of South Park holed up in a bunker, readying themselves for the collapse of society they felt sure would follow Obama’s election, while liberal Randy Marsh went on a celebratory spree, leading to telling off his boss and parading down the street naked, so convinced was he that Obama’s victory had changed everything and that things were going to be different now. For such a regularly cynical show, it was oddly reassuring, suggesting that erstwhile political foes could actually work together, even if it was to perpetrate a jewel heist, and the B-plot served to deflate both the apocalyptic and messianic rhetoric that had made the election so divisive. Things won’t change that much, it seemed to say.

Fast-forward to 2016, and such notions of cooperation seem downright quaint; the rise of Donald Trump, Presidential Contender, has raised questions as to whether satire is relevant or even possible anymore. No writer or cartoonist can top the bizarre reality that Trump has built up in his repeated lies, promises, and threats, and that we now find ourselves trapped in. No modern “A Modest Proposal” could be more shocking than some of Trump’s own statements, no discriminatory or unconstitutional policy proposal so disgusting that it won’t find support in at least some portion of the electorate, newly empowered by Trump to express their bigotry out in the open. I’m starting to understand how conservatives suffering from “Obama derangement syndrome” must have felt; recently I had a “step away from the computer” moment when I realized that for my own mental health I couldn’t spend all my time reading and relaying news stories and commentaries about Trump: with more than a month still to go before the election and a flood of ever-more-insane details trickling out every day, I needed to get some fresh air or else I’d go crazy.

So perhaps it’s fitting that two of my summer pleasures channeled this pervasive political anxiety into forms that are both more palatable and which provided the narrative closure that eludes us in real life: BrainDead, a thirteen-episode CBS series that ended two weeks ago, and Vote Loki, a four-issue Marvel comic book miniseries that wrapped up last Wednesday.

Vote Loki #4, cover art by Tradd Moore and Matthew Wilson

Vote Loki #4, cover art by Tradd Moore and Matthew Wilson

In Vote Loki, written by Christopher Hastings with art by Langdon Foss, the Norse god of mischief (and recovering supervillain) Loki manipulates his way into the presidential race, to the consternation of Nisa Contreras, a crusading journalist whose own drive to uncover the truth was fueled by the destruction of her childhood home during a battle between Loki and the Avengers. Contreras’s attempts to reveal Loki’s true purposes are continually co-opted by the candidate himself, spinning every new revelation into more proof that Loki is a “chess master,” an outsider working the system for his own ends. Loki’s ascent, which begins with him saving the two mainstream candidates from an attack by the terrorist group HYDRA, is driven by his celebrity status: at first a novelty, his “plainspoken” openness about his villainous character earns him the loyalty of supporters who feel left out of the process. “I’m going to lie to you right to your face and you’re gonna love it,” he says; his slipperiness is just part of his rakish appeal. (When Contreras provides proof that Loki’s political advisors are actually members of a Loki-worshipping cult, Loki laughs it off: he said he was a god, and doesn’t the First Amendment protect freedom of religion?)

Of course, this is a comic book world, so in addition to HYDRA, other threats to the republic include a destabilized Latveria (home of Doctor Doom, whose absence has created a dangerous power vacuum and a terrorist-supporting regime calling itself “Doom’s Children”) and issues surrounding superpowered mutants and Inhumans. Some of Loki’s Asgardian relatives make appearances, as well, including Thor, who as a member of the Avengers can’t get involved officially but who passes some critical information to Contreras.

Like most “outsider” candidacies, Loki’s first and most important platform is that the other guys, who represent the “system,” are worse, both equally compromised and too indebted to the establishment to change anything. (The two mainstream candidates are a man and a woman, but are unnamed, and there is little else to identify them as Trump or Hilary Clinton.) Again, that’s an argument frequently bandied about by Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein in this election (and by supporters of Bernie Sanders who aren’t ready to accept his concession to Clinton in the Democratic race); it’s complete baloney to say that there’s “no difference” between the Democratic and Republican candidates, especially this year, but it’s an easy sell when the two major candidates are seen so negatively and even members of their own parties are having trouble expressing much enthusiasm for them.

Absurd times call for absurd heroes: Loki joins fellow Marvel character Howard the Duck in mounting an insurgent campaign, and like Howard’s 1976 run, Loki’s campaign is in the tradition of courageous truth-tellers who say what they’re really thinking (and what is Trump if not “outspoken”?) and are loved by voters for daring to speak their mind. Of course, one man’s Man of the Year is another man’s A Face in the Crowd, and the flip side of all that honesty is a loose cannon shooting his mouth off, a demagogue who tells voters what they want to hear and gives them permission to exercise their basest passions.

Early in Loki’s campaign, J. Jonah Jameson challenges Loki during a television interview: “Everyone loves an electoral circus, and now you’re the sideshow! What fun! Until you get so big you get your own tent.” Sound familiar? Over months of mounting alarm over the possibility of a supervillain taking control of the United States through legal means, the American system of politics as reality programming is held up to a funhouse mirror, with Loki’s real intentions hidden (perhaps even from himself) until the eve of the election.

BrainDead, created by Robert and Michelle King (creators of The Good Wife), working with more narrative space and a larger cast of characters on television, takes a different approach, one in which the real action is in Congress. BrainDead explicitly takes place in our world, with frequent references to the Clinton/Trump race and clips of the candidates’ appearances on television screens, but in its own way it’s as far out as the gods and superheroes of Vote Loki, as if the Kings finally had somewhere to put all their ideas that were too crazy for The Good Wife.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy

As BrainDead begins, struggling documentarian Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has reluctantly returned home to Washington, D.C., and her political-dynasty family, to help her brother Luke (Danny Pino), a Senator. At the same time, a strange meteorite recovered from Russia turns out to be full of ant-like parasites that infect their victims by climbing into their ears and eating half of their brains. A few of the infected succumb to Scanners-like head explosions (or “catastrophic head injuries”), but the rest are taken over by the insects and undergo a personality change, becoming more rigid, aggressive, and ideologically-driven. Conservatives are pushed farther to the right, liberals to the left, with no ability to find common ground. Once the meteorite is taken to Washington and members of the political class are exposed to the bugs, the result is chaos and gridlock produced by the already-intense partisanship being thrown into overdrive. Laurel, working in her brother’s office as a constituent liaison, is one of the first to notice something strange is going on.

So BrainDead clearly follows in the footsteps of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, with strong shades of The X-Files. Who can you trust? How can you fight something that most people won’t even believe in without evidence? When even her longtime friends change overnight, Laurel is aided in uncovering the truth by a physician (Nikki M. James) and that standby of conspiracy thrillers, the paranoid loner: Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill), an eccentric autodidact who knows a little about everything and keeps his cell phone wrapped in tin foil so the NSA can’t track his location. The insider’s-view political satire (which is frequently very funny) is tightened and made queasy by its sci-fi/horror flourishes and even moreso by its obvious, if heightened, relationship to the real world.

As good as Winstead is in the lead, the cast’s MVP is Tony Shalhoub as Republican Senator Red Wheatus. Before being infected by the bugs, Wheatus was an unambitious, day-drinking good-ol’-boy politician, but after infection he becomes a laser-focused, uncompromising (even murderous) right-wing warrior (and a teetotaler: among other signs of infection is an aversion to alcohol) and Luke Healy’s nemesis. As the bugs spread to ordinary citizens, Wheatus turns their heightened political passion into a movement (the “One Wayers”) and begins engineering a war against Syria based on false evidence. Wheatus’s Democratic counterpart, the similarly bug-infected Minority Leader Ella Pollack (Jan Maxwell) plays along from her own side of the aisle. The reasoning behind the Syria plan takes a while to unravel, but it ultimately ties into the bugs’ plans to keep the humans divided and our government paralyzed by disagreement.

Tony Shalhoub as Sen. Red Wheatus

Tony Shalhoub as Sen. Red Wheatus

I’ve read criticism that BrainDead indulges in too much “both-sidesism,” a chronic complaint against American political satire that attempts to take on the “system” or politicians at large rather than having a specific point of view. As the old saying goes, the middle of the road is a good place to get run over from both directions. There’s a little bit of truth to that, particularly in light of Laurel’s romantic entanglement with Senator Wheatus’s Chief of Staff, Gareth (Aaron Tveit), an idealistic (and uninfected) Good Republican who couldn’t have been any more of a paragon if he were specifically written to counter charges of liberal partisanship. While Wheatus conducts his secret war plans, murders political enemies who get in his way, and makes a mockery of the political process (in one memorable episode, he holds up an entire committee over naming a kiosk in the Capitol Building after a slain police officer named Sharie because it sounds too close to “Sharia,” an idiotic idea that would be a lot funnier if it didn’t sound like something that could really happen), Gareth’s biggest flaw is that he’s stubbornly straight-arrow, and he can’t get over the possibility that Laurel might have slept with Michael Moore. Conservativism is more savagely satirized on BrainDead than liberalism, if only because the GOP is in such disarray and provides so much material, but it’s extremism, not conservatism itself, that comes in for the most criticism.

But that’s the point: that our democratic system depends on dialogue and compromise, and the real danger to it is a take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth attitude that would rather tear down the whole system than give an inch to the “enemy.” Cronyism and politics as usual make reliable targets, and there is much to decry in the horse-trading and back-scratching of pork-barrel politics, but this is an unusual moment. We are reaping the political landscape that comes from gerrymandering “safe” districts that allow primary challengers to push candidates to extreme positions; the normalization of inflammatory rhetoric; and the echo chambers that arise when every political viewpoint has its own news outlet and we are able to insulate our social media experience from opinions we disagree with. On BrainDead, it’s the politicians who are willing to compromise, to be seen drinking and socializing with their opponents, and who are willing to work the system rather than let it grind to a halt, that are portrayed as heroic–flawed, perhaps, but heroic. The Kings all but spell it out for us by having Laurel herself says as much in episode 11, in which she plays the bohemian artist card to explain her recent obsession with bugs: “I’m a filmmaker, and as a filmmaker, I use the language of metaphor. . . . So all the bug stuff you heard was just my way of talking about all the extremism in Washington. As an artist, I use metaphors a lot, probably too much. I love metaphors.”

In the end, things get back to normal, which is to say the inefficient, corrupt system continues: it’s “politics as usual,” and that’s a relief. Red Wheatus is back to his not-too-bright self, and it turns out that half a brain is plenty to function in Congress (cue laugh track). Similarly, in Vote Loki the title character observes the unrest and even violence that has erupted in response to his candidacy and finally deigns to face his supporters directly. Naturally, they all want different things from him, and when pinned down he finds that you really can’t fool all of the people all of the time. (Of course, maybe he never really wanted to be president, and had other goals in mind the whole time–something that has frequently been said of Donald Trump–but who can say?) As in the 2008 South Park episode, it’s a reassuring (if modest) vision. Both BrainDead and Vote Loki ultimately come down in favor of the status quo, imperfect as it is, and in so doing partake of the oldest myth in America: that as frequently as our system breaks down, as tested as it may be by the original sin of racism, the corruption of big money, and the easy answers of ideology and demagoguery, it is capable of renewal: that out of the chaos of the electoral process, we will pick ourselves up and rebuild, as we do every four or eight years. Can we pull it off one more time? I sure hope so.

Fates Worse Than Death: Captain America (1944)

CA44.title

A bizarre series of deaths, some accidental and some obvious suicides, strikes at wealthy and influential men. The only connection between them is their involvement in an expedition to Central America in search of Mayan ruins, and the jeweled scarabs found in the victims’ possession. The mastermind behind the deaths, revealed to the audience in the first chapter, is Dr. Maldor, a member of the expedition who feels cheated of the glory and wealth that others have claimed. As the Scarab, Maldor is determined to take down his rivals, one by one, all the while posing as the friendly and helpful director of the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences.

CA44.scarab

Maldor’s plan might very well succeed, but for the industrious District Attorney, Grant Gardner, and his assistant Gail Richards, who stand in Maldor’s way and get far too close to the truth in their investigations. Even worse, Maldor’s henchmen keep running afoul of the costumed crime fighter known only as Captain America. Could Gardner and Captain America be one and the same? The audience knows, but will the Scarab learn the truth, and what will he do with it?

CA44.Cap2

These days, when one reads about the 1944 Captain America serial, the focus is on its lack of fidelity to the comic books created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 and published by Timely (now Marvel) Comics. Instead of being Steve Rogers, a runty Army volunteer turned into a titan by the Super Soldier serum, the serial Captain America is Grant Gardner (played by Dick Purcell), a crusading district attorney who dons the costume to bring criminals to justice; no reference is made to his origin. Instead of wielding the iconic shield, Grant Gardner carries a gun, and he gets a lot of use out of it (in fact, considering how many bad guys Gardner kills in his civilian identity without anyone batting an eye, it’s not exactly clear why he needs to step outside of the law and put on a costume at all).

captainamerica1

This Captain America doesn’t even fight Nazis, all the more surprising considering the character’s explicitly patriotic concept and the serial’s wartime production. As in the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, Captain America’s foe follows the serial formula of a far-reaching (but apolitical) criminal mastermind: no Red Skull here, folks. Timely publisher Martin Goodman gave Republic the right to use the character for free (according to Marvel executive Tom Brevoort, speaking in the promotional documentary Captain America: 75 Heroic Years), likely expecting the film to boost sales of his comic books. Whether it had the desired effect, I don’t know, but one wonders what Simon and Kirby, not to mention their loyal readers, thought when they saw “Grant Gardner” going through the paces of a typical Republic adventure.

CA44.Gardner1

I was aware of all that before I watched the serial, but I tried to keep an open mind: although this is an extreme example, it wasn’t unusual for serial producers to change details of their source material to fit into their standard formula, and perhaps the serial would be a success on its own terms, even as it missed the mark as an adaptation. Unfortunately, I ultimately found it tedious and repetitive, even though it had some good performances and some individual chapters that worked well. Like many fifteen-chapter serials, Captain America can’t quite sustain its length, and might have been more effective cut down.

CA44.fight1

As both Gardner and Captain America, Dick Purcell has some personality and makes for an engaging central character, and there’s quite a bit of action (much of it supplied by longtime stunt man Dale van Sickel, who actually wore the costume for many of these sequences). He’s not really anything like what I think of as Captain America, being closer to a “cop who bends the rules” type rather than a boy scout, but free of other associations he held my attention. The sheer number of the Scarab’s henchmen that he blows away or throws out high windows, in either identity, would satisfy Charles Bronson.

CA44.Cap1

Even better is the supporting cast: played by Lorna Gray, Gail Richards is Grant Gardner’s capable assistant, and the only person who knows he’s Captain America. Although she sometimes ends up as the damsel in distress (the memorable cliffhanger in Chapter Five, “Blade of Wrath,” has her tied up and threatened with beheading by the guillotine-like blade of a paper-cutting machine), she also takes the initiative, and clearly takes after her boss. In one chapter, she catches someone tampering with Gardner’s car; when the man pulls a gun in an attempt to abduct her, she whips out her own heater and shoots him dead!

CA44.Gail1

As Dr. Maldor/The Scarab, Lionel Atwill is the very model of a plummy, cultured villain, complete with monocle. Using the “Purple Death,” he can make men do his bidding or drive them to suicide. Like most serial masterminds, he works through his disposable henchmen, keeping himself at a distance from the violence until the very end. His right-hand man (and also the most active in the field) is Matson (George Lewis), but John Davidson (whom we just saw in Tailspin Tommy) also lends his deep voice to the cause of evil as the henchman Gruber.

CA44.Maldor1

Maldor possesses a cutting wit, often directed at his bungling helpers. In one scene he sarcastically congratulates his henchmen: “You should be proud of yourself. Captain America has made a fool of you in every job you’ve attempted.” In a late chapter, when Maldor starts getting his hands dirty himself, he honest-to-God says “There are ways of making you talk” to the only man who knows how to decipher a Mayan treasure map, before flogging him with a cat-o-nine-tails.

CA44.Maldor2

Later in the same episode, when Maldor learns that Gardner is on his way to the Scarab’s farmhouse hideout, he uses an airplane to personally drop bombs on the house in the hopes of destroying evidence of his presence and (even better) killing his nemesis at the same time (it is in fact the fifth building destroyed directly or indirectly by the Scarab in this serial, a showcase of special effects masters Theodore and Howard Lydecker’s genius). It would be nit-picky to question the efficiency or timeliness of this method. Rather, it points to the ways in which Maldor exemplifies the criminal mastermind: the true master criminal works through others, keeping the dirty work at a distance, as long as necessary; he always has multiple escape routes and alibis; and most importantly, he has the resources and the will to do whatever it takes to remove any obstacle that keeps him from his goal. If that means getting in a plane and blowing up his own hideout, so be it.

CA44.explosion

The thread of Maldor’s vengeance against the members of the Mayan expedition is really the only thing that ties together the various episodes, giving the serial a somewhat choppy rhythm: in several chapters, Gardner/Captain America is charged with protecting or rescuing a scientist or executive whom the Scarab threatens. In some cases, that involves recovering or destroying a new invention that the Scarab wants for himself (a “vibrating engine” shakes apart a building in the first chapter; an “electronic fire bolt” allows the Scarab’s gang to cut open bank vaults to finance his operations in the next, and so on). Unfortunately, too much time is spent explaining and talking, or with anonymous henchmen setting up traps without much happening. When Purcell, Atwill, or Gray aren’t on screen, the film lags.

CA44.Firebolt

What I Watched: Captain America (Republic, 1944)

Where I Watched It: The serial is on YouTube in its entirety.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: All the bases are covered by Captain America‘s chapter titles: from the poetic (“Blade of Wrath”; “The Toll of Doom”) to the bluntly literal (“Skyscraper Plunge”), the alliterative (“Triple Tragedy”; “Horror on the Highway”) and the lurid (“The Dead Man Returns”). But before Captain America was “The First Avenger,” there was “The Avenging Corpse” (Chapter Ten), my pick for Best Chapter Title.

Best Cliffhanger: Sometimes simple misdirection makes for the most effective cliffhanger. At the end of Chapter Eleven (“The Dead Man Returns”), Captain America has tracked the Scarab to an electrical laboratory, where Dr. Lyman’s Life Restoring Machine is to be used to revive Matson. As he fights with one of the Scarab’s henchmen, the two of them end up inside of the generator room, which generates the million volts necessary to charge up the machine. Another of the Scarab’s men, Dirk, throws the switch to turn it on: we see a shower of sparks and then the camera cuts to Dirk’s horrified face and we hear a chilling scream. (Of course at the beginning of the next chapter we see our hero leap out of the generator room just in time: the scream belongs to the other guy.)

CA44.generator

Sample Dialogue: “Mister Gardner is a brave man; I’d feel much happier if Captain America were with him.” –Professor Dodge, Chapter Three, “Scarlet Shroud”

What Others Have Said: “Sadly, Purcell died of a heart attack shortly after completing this serial at the age of 35. It was a tragic end for the man who originated the role of a nearly immortal hero (in the comics, Captain America’s died and come back to life at least three different times). Purcell’s Cap isn’t the strongest or most physically fit, but there’s something to be said for the human dimension he brought to the role.” –Matt Singer, The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as we get medieval with The Adventures of Sir Galahad!

My 2014 in Books

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not usually one to keep a list of everything I read or watch, but in 2014 I kept a list of books I had read, in part because I was conscious that I wasn’t reading as much as I used to. Although the number this year is relatively small, I’d say the mixture of non-fiction and genre fiction is fairly typical of my reading in the last few years. The list includes some graphic novels and collections of comics, but not single comic book issues (which I’ve also fallen way behind on). It’s also influenced by subjects I was writing about; however, it only includes books I read from cover to cover, not those I dipped into for reference. Finally, all but one was a first-time read, although I had read parts of some of them in the past.

wpid-20140720_141419.jpg

January
Batman: Odyssey, Neal Adams
King City, Brandon Graham

February
The Look of the Old West, William Foster-Harris

March
Inventing Kindergarten, Norman Brosterman
Great American Folklore, Kemp P. Battle

April
The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux
The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut

May
Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial, Alan G. Barbour
Misery, Stephen King

June
The Lost Worlds of Power Vol. 0, ed. Philip J. Reed

July
Showcase Presents The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights, various

August
The American Book of the Dead, Stephen Billias (reread)

September
The Bloodhounds of Broadway, Damon Runyon
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Jacques Tardi

October
Showcase Presents Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew, various
All The Wrong Questions: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”, Lemony Snicket
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

December
The Lost Worlds of Power, ed. Philip J. Reed
All the Wrong Questions: “When Did You See Her Last?”, Lemony Snicket
Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie, Chris Nashawaty

Much of my thinking on what I read this year has already been included in the articles to which they are linked, and since most of what I read was published before 2014 and is in a diverse range of genres, ranking them seems pointless. I am struck, however, by how long ago some of the books I read in the spring seem to me; I might not have remembered that I read them this year at all without this list, instead consigning them to a hazy, indistinct “past,” even though I enjoyed many of them. To tell the truth, even September seems a long time ago from this vantage point. Such is the telescoping effect of the end-of-year holidays, I guess.

It strikes me, however, that I began and ended my year with two very different books that explored the rush of unbridled creativity in different formats. (Sorry, Batman: Odyssey, I don’t mean you, although you were memorable in many ways.) Brandon Graham’s King City is a graphic novel set in the futuristic metropolis of the title; its central character is a young man returning to his old stomping grounds after training with a mysterious group that uses multi-talented cats as weapons (yes, it is quite strange, but that description doesn’t even scratch the surface). In Graham’s notes (which I am paraphrasing, as I borrowed the book from the library and don’t have it in front of me), he said that King City‘s plot was guided by his desire to only draw things that were exciting to him: to not bore himself. Such an impulse could have led to disaster, but tied to a strong sense of craft, it makes for an immersive, invigorating read, with its weaponized cats, ultra-violent gangs, sexy girls, and graffiti-filled urban vistas that are part Moebius and part Mad magazine.

kingcity

At the other end (and just finished today, in fact) was Chris Nashawaty’s pictorial/oral history of influential director/producer Roger Corman’s career, from his days cranking out cheapies for the drive-in market to his nurturing of young (and affordable) talent, to his eventual recognition as a Hollywood elder statesman. The book includes reminiscences from such graduates of “Corman University” as Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and James Cameron, to name only a few. I was somewhat familiar with Corman’s career and working methods, and of course many of his films; Corman, and “mavericks” like him, continue to inspire because of their perseverance and determination to create in the face of low budgets, limited time, and (in many cases) lack of prestige. Corman and his crew made a virtue of such limitations, but the many anecdotes about making films show the value of committing to do one’s best work, whether on a pointed political statement like The Intruder or on the many monster, biker, and women-in-prison movies that Corman made on an assembly-line basis.

Tomorrow, I look back on the movies I watched this year.

In the Hall of Mirrors with Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew

Somewhere between “funny-animal” comics and cartoons for children and the evolved animals of Planet of the Apes and other adult science fiction lies the semi-serious talking animal trend in comic books of the 1970s and ‘80s. Howard the Duck is a familiar example of a walking, talking humanoid animal interacting with mainstream costumed superheroes, but he was neither the first nor the last character of his type. I’ve always been intrigued by anthropomorphic animal characters: years ago I wrote a lengthy analysis of Howard and his creator, Steve Gerber, and if I can find it I might post it here.

I was similarly drawn to Jack Kirby’s post-apocalyptic series Kamandi for its mixture of science fiction and talking animals. Last summer I wrote about DC’s Showcase Presents the Great Disaster, a “phone book” collection of material peripherally related to Kamandi and including a healthy selection of not-so-funny-animal stories; now DC has released another Showcase collecting the core run of another hybrid series, the superhero/funny-animal adventures of Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew. Like Great Disaster, this volume was announced several years ago but was held up (reportedly by disputes over royalties) until now. In any case, it comes out at an opportune moment, as Captain Carrot has returned to comics as a main character in Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity, and the renewed popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shows that there is still an audience for wise-cracking, butt-kicking humanoid animals.

CaptainCarrot

Most of the Captain Carrot stories were new to me, although the character has made brief appearances in DC books since his introduction in New Teen Titans no. 16 (included in this volume) in 1982. Created by prolific writer Roy Thomas and cartoonist/animator Scott Shaw! (yes, the exclamation point is part of his professional name), Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew was tagged from the beginning as “Not just another funny-animal comic!” The tone is light and full of verbal humor and animal puns (Roger starts out in “Gnu York” and the team later moves to “Follywood, Califurnia”), but the adventures and conflicts between characters are firmly within the tradition of superhero comics.

Captain Carrot is the leader of the group: super-strong, tough, and blessed with super-hearing, as well as the ability to leap great distances (as with Superman, who could similarly “leap tall buildings in a single bound” in his early appearances, Captain Carrot would later be depicted as flying outright). Unlike his team, whose powers are constant, Captain Carrot gains his power from eating “cosmic carrots,” irradiated by the meteor that accompanied Superman when he visited from his own dimension. When the carrots’ effect has worn off, he reverts to his scrawny alter ego, cartoonist Roger (later Rodney) Rabbit, a secret identity with some resemblance to Clark Kent and Golden Age hero Hourman.

Rounding out the Zoo Crew are Rubberduck, who can stretch his form like Plastic Man; Yankee Poodle, a patriotic-themed heroine who can repel and attract matter via the stars and stripes she projects from her hands; Fastback, a turtle with super-speed; Pig-Iron, the tough guy; and Alley-Kat-Abra, a martial artist with mastery of magic, focused through her “Magic Wanda.” Each of these characters is an established type, and Thomas and Shaw! have made clear in commentary that they were conscious of the balance of personalities and powers that made up a good super-team, but none are outright copies of extant characters.*

Zoo_Crew

Most critically, Captain Carrot and his cohort are clearly established as living in one of the DC multiverse’s many parallel earths, a planet much like ours but inhabited by Saturday-morning-cartoon-style talking animals. The team’s origin is explicitly tied to Superman, who crosses from his own dimension to the funny-animal world, where he is viewed as a terrifying pink monster (with five fingers!): in Captain Carrot’s world, “men” are creatures of myth and legend. Changeling (aka Beast Boy) of the Titans and animal-themed villains Starro the Conqueror and Gorilla Grodd would also make appearances in the book, and many of the team’s subsequent appearances have been crossovers of one kind or another. Despite its obvious kid appeal, this isn’t segregated from DC continuity, as one might expect for a children’s title.

As noted, Captain Carrot and the other members of the Zoo Crew aren’t direct parodies of established superheroes. Although there are many winking references to human history and pop culture (particularly celebrities: Rubberduck’s civilian identity is movie star “Byrd Rentals,” and Yankee Poodle is gossip columnist “Rova Barkitt”—will readers younger than 40 even recognize the reference to Rona Barrett?), the Zoo Crew are unique individuals rather than being modeled after any specific character. This distinguishes Captain Carrot from Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham, a similar parody of Marvel’s characters introduced in 1983 (a year after Captain Carrot’s first appearance).

In addition, master of minutia Roy Thomas built in many links to DC’s own funny-animal past: Pig-Iron was a transformed Peter Porkchops, a character who had appeared in DC’s Funny Stuff in the 1940s; Fastback was the nephew of another Golden Age funny-animal, McSnurtle the Turtle (who also moonlighted as a superhero, the “Terrific Whatzit”). Other characters from Funny Stuff were introduced as side characters, and in one story arc the team was split up and sent back in time to different eras, encountering characters such as Nero Fox (a jive-talking, jazz saxophone-playing funny-animal Roman emperor—in other words, a character who could only have been created during comics’ unselfconscious Golden Age) and the Three Mousketeers.

captain_carrot_009_full

Thomas’ obvious delight in making such connections and in capturing the essence of superheroic types brought to mind another creation of his: the Squadron Supreme, the analogue of DC’s Justice League of America that Thomas introduced in the pages of Avengers, and which has become a JLA stand-in in the Marvel multiverse. Intriguingly, while the Squadron very directly represents the JLA in the pages of Marvel Comics, the Zoo Crew actually strike me as a subtle reworking of Marvel’s character dynamic smuggled into a DC book. (Such are the differences between the two publishers that even parodying them requires a different approach: the Squadron Supreme is the JLA with a coat of paint, while the Zoo Crew mimics the contemporary soap opera feel of a Marvel book rather than specific characters.)

From the team’s first appearance, their stories are marked by squabbling and infighting, with the kind of character-based conflict that was a central ingredient in Fantastic Four, Avengers, and Uncanny X-Men. Captain Carrot is continually struggling to keep his allies focused on the mission, and nearly every issue includes one or more characters challenging his authority or the entire purpose of the group. Pig-Iron (most clearly modeled on FF’s Thing, pugnacious and blue-collar) wants to be left alone; Rubberduck and Yankee Poodle are accustomed to star treatment; Alley-Kat-Abra fights with Yankee Poodle over leadership roles and pines for the Captain’s affections. A great deal of the time, it’s not clear that the members of the team even like each other that much.

Consider another hero who is added later, the only member of the Zoo Crew to gain his powers through a source other than the meteor that entered their universe with Superman. Chester Cheese, a mouse, was a star basketball player whose father was a scientist working on the space program. Chester was approached by two goons working for a crime boss named Fatkat, who wanted him to throw a big game on which Fatkat had a lot of money riding. When Chester refused, his father was killed and Chester was locked in his laboratory. After eating a sample of lunar green cheese, he gained the power to shrink to small sizes, retaining his strength; calling himself “Little Cheese,” he enlists the Zoo Crew in an attempt to bring Fatkat to justice.

LittleCheese

On the surface, Little Cheese resembles other shrinking heroes like the Atom or Ant-Man, but his origin is a remix of Spider-Man’s, combining the drama of teenage life, super-science, and a parental figure whose tragic death leads him to use his powers for a higher purpose. (Not to mention that his nemesis, Fatkat, strongly resembles Marvel villain the Kingpin.) In short, Little Cheese’s story illustrates the Marvel habit of building stories around “little tragedies,” to borrow Chris Sims’ phrase. Tragic origins aren’t foreign to the DC universe, of course, but in combination with the personality conflicts and limitations placed on the Zoo Crew’s powers, it’s very much in line with Marvel’s modus operandi. In that light, Captain Carrot’s adventures are an overlooked example of what Sims calls “The Problem,” a decades-long desire on DC’s part to make itself more like Marvel.

It gets even more complicated when another funny-animal super-team is introduced, and this one is a direct parody: the Justa’ Lotta Animals, which starts out as the comic book that R. Rabbit illustrates as his day job, but which (naturally) turns out to be a real group from yet another parallel earth. The two-part crossover, “Crisis on Earth-C!” and “Crisis on Earth-C-Minus!”, parodies the annual Justice League/Justice Society crossovers in bringing the champions of two worlds together. This JLA consists of Super-Squirrel, Bat-Mouse, Wonder Wabbit, Green Lambkin, the Crash (a super-speedy turtle, showing there are only so many spins one can put on this kind of character, I guess), and Aquaduck (whom I almost forgot); when first encountered, only Captain Carrot is familiar with them, since he draws them for a living.

CptCt_14_GS

It’s a time-honored convention of comic books that when two or more superheroes meet for the first time, they fight each other (through confusion or a villain’s manipulation). The JLA/Zoo Crew match-up is no different, but even after getting the facts straight, inter-group rivalries persist. Captain Carrot has trouble adjusting to the idea that the fictional characters he draws are not only real, but have personalities and motives of their own, and both the Zoo Crew and JLA exhibit a territorial streak when it comes to another super-team in “their” world. A love triangle forms, as Super-Squirrel is immediately jealous and resentful of Wonder Wabbit’s interest in a fellow bunny (it’s really a love quadrangle, as Alley-Kat-Abra is also possessive of her Captain).

The “real” Superman and Wonder Woman weren’t romantically linked until recently, but this storyline uncovers subtext that was always present, if only in the minds of fans: just as Mark Gruenwald could have Hyperion and Power Princess consummate their love in the pages of Squadron Supreme, Super-Squirrel could give voice to feelings of jealousy and inadequacy that Superman would leave unspoken, if he felt them at all. (The Captain Carrot/Wonder Wabbit pairing can be read as a parody of all such “doomed romance” storylines, as they belong in two different worlds, but it isn’t treated as a joke: the story ends with Rodney drawing Wonder Wabbit for his comic book, ruefully acknowledging that he can’t even escape into his work to forget his loss.) As a fan of both funny-animals and pastiche characters, the whole thing is a fascinating chance to observe a diverse group of characters—some of whom stand in for entire mythologies**—bounce off each other. Captain Carrot isn’t just parody: it’s meta.

Jlanimals

* Behind-the-scenes commentary and information about the Zoo Crew’s creation is drawn from Alter Ego no. 72 (September 2007).

** Speaking of mythologies, I haven’t even gotten to the six-chapter Oz-Wonderland War, published as a three-issue miniseries in 1986, and a fitting culmination to the contents of the book, with more character development than most of the previous issues. The storyline draws the Zoo Crew into an interdimensional conflict based on the characters and settings of L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll (and includes a brief reunion with Wonder Wabbit), and includes some great artwork by Carol Lay, balancing the cartoon style of Shaw! with the illustrative styles of Denslow and Tenniel. It deserves a longer write-up, but as a blend of humor and reference (scripted by longtime DC writer and editor E. Nelson Bridwell, who had a reputation as a “continuity cop” himself) it’s a very pleasurable (if frequently downright weird) read.

Fates Worse Than Death: The Could-Have-Beens

In watching and researching motion picture serials over the past few months, I’ve run across many based on characters from other media: comics, radio, and literature. Allowing for the vagaries of art and commerce, I’ve been struck by the absence of several characters who one might expect to be adapted as source material. What follows is necessarily speculative, but I’ve compiled a list of characters, popular at the time, who could have appeared in a serial but didn’t, for whatever reason.

Perhaps arbitrarily, I’ve excluded characters who appeared in feature films or cartoons during the “Golden Age” of the serials: Sherlock Holmes and Dracula may not have appeared in serials, but they are well-represented on film. I’m more interested in characters whose film appearances are either limited to the modern era or who haven’t appeared on film at all (yet).

John Carter of Mars

From one perspective, it isn’t surprising that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ interplanetary hero didn’t make the leap to the big screen until 2012’s poorly-received adaptation. Although John Carter set the pattern for the early space heroes, appearing in print in 1912, both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were featured in serial adaptations during the Golden Age of science fiction (in 1936 and 1939 respectively). It was Gordon and Rogers who cemented the conventions and story beats of space opera for film audiences and became household names in the process. Later, Star Wars and other science fantasy epics would borrow elements of Carter’s adventures (what is Tatooine but Burroughs’ dying Mars?), further stealing the series’ thunder.

john-carter-poster

On the other hand, clearly there was a market for science fiction adventure, and Burroughs was aware of the power of licensing his creations: his other famous character, Tarzan, was featured in numerous film adaptations in the 1930s and ‘40s (continuing to this day), including one produced by Burroughs himself.

Perhaps it was the extravagant native fauna of Barsoom (the locals’ name for Mars) that made it prohibitive to film: in his adventures, Carter faces the four-armed giant Tharks (Green Martians), rides eight-legged thoats, and encounters other multi-limbed creatures that would have been compromised by the special effects of the 1930s, to say the least. (Flash Gordon tries manfully to create convincing space monsters, and is only intermittently successful.) In a similar vein, the fliers and radium guns of Burroughs’ novels might have seemed like a daunting proposition to film, but other science fiction serials and features found ways to create such effects or work around them.

Book-1-A-Princess-Of-Mars-1

Intriguingly, there was at least one attempt to produce a John Carter film during the Golden Age: in 1935, Warner Brothers animator Bob Clampett approached Burroughs with a proposal to put together an animated John Carter series that, had it been made, would have beaten both Snow White (the first animated feature) and the Flash Gordon serial to theaters. Clampett and Burroughs put together a deal with MGM, but ultimately the project was deemed too weird for audiences. Only a few minutes of test footage remain to show what might have been.


(Thanks to fellow fan Bruce Ross for alerting me to this aborted project, and check out Bruce’s blog to see his impressive custom action figures, including a certain Warlord of Mars.)

Jules de Grandin

The most popular author to appear in Weird Tales magazine wasn’t Robert E. Howard or H. P. Lovecraft: it was Seabury Quinn, a lawyer with a specialty in mortuary law and the funeral business. Quinn’s most popular creation was the feisty French physician Jules de Grandin, a prime example of the “occult detective” character type. With his sidekick/narrator Dr. Trowbridge (clearly modeled after the sturdy Holmes/Watson dynamic), de Grandin defended Harrisonville, New Jersey against supernatural, scientific, and just plain criminal threats in nearly a hundred stories.

DeGrandin

Although less well-remembered now, the de Grandin stories contain plenty of ideas that could have made for excellent serials—killer animals, vampires, cults, mad scientists, and more—and were formulaic and action-packed enough to provide what audiences of the time expected.  De Grandin, with his cod-French exclamations (not only the time-honored “Sacre bleu!”—de Grandin would frequently vary his patter with insertions of “Parbleu!”, “Mordieu!”, “Zut!”, and odd turns of phrase like “Horns of a little blue devil!”, “Name of a gun,” etc.), was likewise a character whose exaggerated national character would be right at home at Republic or Columbia. (His catch-phrases are no sillier than the “inscrutable” Orientalisms of Charlie Chan or the “By Jove!” English of Anthony Tupper in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.) More importantly, like all serial heroes, de Grandin favored the direct approach, and was as likely to defeat the forces of evil with a sword or automatic as with an incantation or clever trap.

WeirdTalesdeGrandin

Conan the Cimmerian, et al

Speaking of Robert E. Howard, it’s unlikely that a serial based on his famous creation Conan would have been anything like the 1982 feature Conan the Barbarian, influenced as it was by the success of special effects blockbusters like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the contributions of later authors (not to mention the Frazetta-esque physique of star Arnold Schwarzenegger). However, the ancient past had been represented in epics like Ben-Hur, and fantastical “lost worlds” were featured in serials such as The Undersea Kingdom and The Phantom Empire, so it wouldn’t have been out of the question. A Conan serial would have probably resembled those starring Tarzan or “jungle girl” Nyoka, with an emphasis on action and the lead’s physicality, toning down Howard’s often pessimistic philosophical digressions.

WeirdTalesConan

It’s worth noting, however, that Howard created several series characters, in a variety of genres, that could have headlined serials (and to this day, not all of them have been adapted for film). “Last king of the Picts” Bran Mak Morn and medieval Irishman Turlogh Dubh O’Brien represent Howard’s interest in the history and people of the British Isles; King Kull of Atlantis and swordswoman Red Sonja represent a strain of sword-and-sorcery similar to the Conan stories. Of all of Howard’s series characters, probably the closest in spirit to the serials is Steve Costigan, a modern-day merchant sailor and boxer whose stories combined action and wry humor. Although Conan remains Howard’s best-known creation, the author left behind a wealth of material yet to be mined for adaptation.

fightstoriesCostigan

The Spirit

thespirit

Cartoonist Will Eisner created the Spirit (the supposedly dead criminologist Denny Colt, going forth from his cemetery hideout to fight crime) in 1940 as the lead character in a series of comic books he produced for inclusion in newspapers owned by the Register and Tribune Syndicate. Ownership of his own character, with little editorial interference, gave Eisner the freedom to explore a variety of story-telling techniques, and due to his innovative approach to composition he is often compared to cinematic masters such as Hitchcock and Welles. (In Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the title characters are inspired by Citizen Kane to invigorate their own comic book stories with devices such as achronological narratives, alternating points of view, and dynamic, cinematic compositions applied not just to the panel but to the entire page. Although fictional, this is likely a reference to the leaps forward that Eisner made with The Spirit.)

Sometimes the title character was barely featured in stories, making cameo appearances in the stories of a range of urban characters both poignant and humorous; this approach would have fit perfectly with the serials, which often introduced audiences to original characters who had equal screen time with the licensed characters in the title (such as Linda Page and her uncle in the 1943 Batman serial). Quoted in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, Eisner explained,

I began to realize who I was writing for”—that is, an audience dominated by adults, rather than children—and “I suddenly found an opportunity to do what I had really always wanted to do, which was to write ‘seriously’ or write good material, and at the same time stay within the medium I knew and had developed skills for.

Ironically, as Eisner drew from film to develop his sophisticated visual language, the serials were increasingly geared toward children, dropping the nuances of the 1930s serials in favor of formula and non-stop action. Without Eisner’s ambitious style, the Spirit wasn’t superficially different from other masked pulp heroes like the Spider or the Green Hornet, and it is unlikely a Spirit serial would have been very distinguished. (However, many commentators have pointed out that the title character of the 1943 serial The Masked Marvel bears a strong resemblance to the Spirit; in that serial the central mystery of the story was the true identity of the hero, with four possible candidates.)

Tom Steele as the Masked Marvel

Tom Steele as the Masked Marvel

Wonder Woman

Seriously, what gives? Despite the news that DC’s premier superheroine—the female superhero in the mind of the public—will appear in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman is severely underrepresented on film. She has yet to headline her own theatrical feature film, and has only a single direct-to-video animated feature to her name. Considering that Wonder Woman spent World War II fighting Nazis alongside Captain Steve Trevor, a serial would seem to be a no-brainer. But it was not to be.

sensation-comics-13

Created in 1941 by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman reflected his desire to create a strong but loving role model for girls, an Amazon princess fighting for equality in “Man’s World;” in his words, she would be “a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Marston modeled his creation on both his wife Elizabeth and a woman named Olive Byrne who lived with the couple in a polyamorous relationship. Although Marston’s unconventional views on the sexes and Wonder Woman’s fetishistic overtones (including the “lasso of truth” and the notion of loving domination) raised eyebrows in later years, they don’t seem to have been considered problematic during the 1940s. (Certainly the serials had their share of questionable material, and anything objectionable would likely have been removed or changed anyway: some of the changes studios made to comic book characters could be quite drastic.)

Consider the screen presence of Wonder Woman’s fellow heroes: Columbia produced serials starring Batman (in 1943 and 1949) and Superman (1948); Republic brought Captain Marvel (1941) and Captain America (1944) to the screen, and there were numerous less-remembered costumed heroes in serials as well. (That’s not even mentioning the animated Superman shorts from Fleischer or the later Superman and Batman TV programs; as of this writing, Lynda Carter’s portrayal of Wonder Woman is still the only prominent, long-running live-action version of the character.)

Female-led serials weren’t unheard of: I’ve reviewed two this summer, The Perils of Pauline and Zorro’s Black Whip. The star of the latter, Linda Stirling, was actively groomed to be the next Pearl White, appearing in several jungle, Western, thriller, and science fiction serials for Republic. (In fact, it was reading about Stirling’s career that brought Wonder Woman to mind and inspired this article.)

Realworlds_Wonder_Woman

(Interestingly, an issue of DC: Realworlds, an out-of-continuity series in which DC’s heroes are expressly fictional but inspire ordinary people to take heroic action, features a hypothetical Wonder Woman serial. The story centers on an actress who finds the courage to stand up to a Red-baiting politician who combines features of Joseph McCarthy and Ronald Reagan. Perhaps in an alternate universe, audiences are thrilling to Wonder Woman vs. the Nazi Baroness or Wonder Woman vs. the Red Menace.)

What’s Next: In one week, I’ll conclude Fates Worse Than Death (for this summer, at least) with a look at Gang Busters. See you then!