Kamandi Challenge no. 2

Cover by Neal Adams and Tim Shinn

Cover by Neal Adams and Tim Shinn

“Nuclear Roar!”
Story and Words:
Peter J. Tomasi
Artist: Neal Adams
Colorist: Hi-Fi
Letterer: Clem Robbins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

At the end of last month’s “K–is for ‘Kill’!”, King Caesar had triumphantly returned from battle with a “god” that he planned to awaken in order to add its power to that of the Tiger Empire. Only Kamandi, claimed as a “pet” by Prince Tuftan and guarded by Dr. Canus, recognized the “god” as a nuclear missile, left over from the times before the Great Disaster. As Caesar activated the missile’s computer system, it began a countdown, with Kamandi certain that the ancient device was going to blow up the entire city and everyone in it.

As this month’s continuation, “Nuclear Roar!”, begins, Kamandi struggles against his captor, attempting to reason with the tigers and halt the countdown, or escape, only to be put in his place. The last few seconds tick away, but instead of detonating, the missile opens a hatch, from which emerges a gorilla commando, guns blazing! “A giant ape hiding inside an old nuclear missile like it was a Trojan horse!” Kamandi exclaims, accurately summing up the situation. Indeed, the gorillas were able to track their inside man to the tigers’ hidden city, and a wave of gorilla soldiers begin invading.

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In the confusion, Kamandi escapes and heads back to the Museum of War seen last issue. There, the jackdaw guards that confronted him before are even more bloodthirsty, with one in particular sensing Kamandi’s presence and promising to shred him with his talons, among other graphic threats. After struggling against the jackdaw using the stockpiled weapons, Kamandi comes across a mysterious high-tech chair. Warned away from it, he naturally sits down in it out of spite, just in time for Prince Tuftan and Dr. Canus to arrive and try to pull him out of it (like many of the relics of the past, it is considered sacred, despite–or because of–the tigers’ inability to understand it).

Somehow Kamandi activates the chair, and he, Tuftan, and Canus are teleported a great distance: all the way to the ruins of San Diego, in fact, far outside the Tiger Empire. Canus, frightened, recognizes the place as the site of a “wild human reserve,” but before he can explain what that means to Kamandi, he and Tuftan are struck by robotic “Manhunters” who attempt to capture Kamandi. In a last-ditch effort to escape, even if it means death, Kamandi leaps from the ledge upon which he stands, into the unknown. To be continued . . .

I can’t say I was crazy about “Nuclear Roar!” After the fluid, expressive art of Dale Eaglesham last issue, Neal Adams’ treatment of the same characters looks stiff and, dare I say it, ugly. Adams is of course a giant in the comics world for his work on Batman, but in recent years his style has become stiff and over-rendered, with an emphasis on goggle-eyed, open-mouthed expressions of shock. It’s . . . distinctive, I’ll admit, but not something I care much for. Combined with Peter J. Tomasi’s dialogue (“Your new god’s a mushroom cloud, idiots!” is a typical bon mot), this chapter is functional but not very subtle as storytelling.

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The biggest development in the ongoing serial is getting the threesome of Kamandi, Tuftan, and Canus out of Tiger City and into a dangerous, remote area that can jumpstart the quest/journey elements central to most of Kamandi’s previous adventures, and will presumably force the three main characters to work together. As yet, we haven’t seen anything to indicate that they will be uneasy allies, much less friends, but I appreciate that the friendship angle is being given time to develop organically: for all of Kamandi’s pugnacious bluntness in Kirby’s original saga, he typically made friends quickly. One of the opportunities of revisiting or retelling this story is in decompressing and smoothing out some of the original story beats, or at least exploring them from a different angle. Or, who knows? Maybe they’ll all kill each other in this version of the story. But somehow I doubt it.

There are some nice touches, however, as well as more clues about the world Kamandi has been dropped into. We don’t learn any more about his search for his parents, but it is mentioned again, just to make sure we (and the next team to take over the story) don’t forget about it. I also got a good laugh out of the reveal of the gorilla hiding inside the missile: if you’re not going for subtlety, then this kind of audacious broad stroke is a good alternative, and saving it for a three-quarter page splash after a page turn maximized the element of surprise.

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There’s also the jackdaw guard who uses what are unmistakably explosive Batarangs against Kamandi during their fight in the Museum: this is obviously a tip of the hat to the artist’s most famous work, but could it be more? In Jack Kirby’s original series, it was established that Superman was a real person in the past, connecting Earth A.D. to DC’s mainstream continuity as an “alternate future.” In Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen’s prologue “The Rules” from issue no. 1, we see a glimpse of Superman and Batman posters on the wall of Kamandi’s bedroom; by itself that doesn’t prove anything, but the connection to other heroes’ continuity remains a tantalizing possibility. Maybe the Batarangs in the Museum were actually the Batman’s, salvaged from one of King Caesar’s excursions into a future Gotham City?

What about the Manhunters who confront our heroes in San Diego? These appear identical to the Manhunters who preceded the Green Lantern Corps as an interplanetary police force in past DC comics, even referencing their catch phrase “No man escapes the Manhunters,” but what their role here is remains to be seen.

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Finally, the most overtly meta moment in the chapter is the full-page illustration of the group in mid-teleportation. In addition to the dramatic image of Kamandi, seated in the chair and struggling to hold onto Tuftan and Canus, there are cameos of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman; Gorilla Grodd; the Sandman’s mask; a Mother Box; and most intriguingly, a stack of comic books. And they’re not just any comics: visible covers include Kamandi no. 1, an issue of Kirby’s New Gods, DiDio and Giffen’s New 52 OMAC, an issue of Green Lantern and Green Arrow (another landmark Neal Adams series), and Legion of Superheroes. Fragments of narration or speech dot the panel as well. In the spirit of an ongoing comics jam, these could be inside jokes, referring to some of the creators’ other work, or they could be clues to the mysteries of Kamandi’s parentage and destiny: depending on how future writers pick up on them, they could go either way.

Kamandi Challenge no. 1

Cover B by Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish

Cover B by Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish

“The Rules”
Story and Art: Dan DiDio, Keith Giffen, Scott Koblish
Colors: Hi-Fi
Lettering: Clem Robins
Editor: Brittany Holzherr

Kamandi Challenge no. 1 begins with a prologue: an ordinary teenage boy (as yet unnamed) is running late for school, gently encouraged by his grandmother. The set-up is classic, reminiscent of Peter Parker and his Aunt May, or any number of fairy tales. Threading his way through an idyllic small town after missing the bus, the boy encounters similarly benevolent townsfolk (including a couple named after Kamandi creator and “king of comics” Jack Kirby, and his longtime inker Mike Royer), all of whom know him and are watching out for him. Their solicitous treatment turns out to be more than mere small-town friendliness, however, when a piece of the sky cracks off and falls to the ground: the boy’s home is actually an enclosed dome, a Truman Show-style simulation of a normal life, and that shelter has finally been pierced by his (unknown, at least to him) enemies.

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The friends and neighbors who so recently were encouraging him to get to school are suddenly armed and ready to fight off the threat; they are, in fact, robots, programmed solely to protect the boy! Attacked by one of the invaders, the boy is horrified to come face to face with a humanoid, talking rat. There is so much about the outside world that he did not suspect! At home, “grandmother” shoves him into a mysterious glowing chamber, a sort of stasis capsule, before fighting off the intruders with one final explosion. In his artificial sleep, the boy receives more instruction, including an order to “remember Command D”–not, apparently, the name of the bunker in which he was raised, as in the original Kamandi stories, but perhaps a code or protocol.

After an indeterminate time in suspended animation (but long enough for the boy’s hair to grow long), the chamber is opened and the boy is reawakened by manlike tigers, scouts for the Tiger Empire ruled by King Caesar. The tigers assume that the phrase the boy keeps muttering, “Command D,” is his name, and thus Kamandi is christened, a new name for a new world. Taken for a savage animal, Kamandi is thrown in a paddy wagon and driven to Tiger City where he will fight in Caesar’s gladiatorial arena. His protests are interpreted as the unintelligent parroting of a wild beast who has learned to imitate speech–everyone knows “animals” can’t talk. Thrust into the arena, Kamandi is pitted against “Tiny,” a giant, Kong-like gorilla.

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On that cliffhanger the prologue ends, with Kamandi (and the reader) given a crash course in the premise of the series, both its story (Kamandi is referred to as “the last boy on earth” a couple of times, and one of the robot guardians insists that he is to be protected as if the fate of the world depends on it; and we get an introduction to the upside-down “animals ruling over humans” formula that was also essential to the series) and the test of the creators’ inventive powers: “What’s the matter, boy? Afraid of a little challenge?” one of the tigers jeers Kamandi as he throws him into the arena. Those might as well be Dan DiDio’s words to the next team to pick up the story: get him out of this, if you can, guys.

Dan DiDio is both the architect of this series and current Co-Publisher of DC Comics, so his influence is felt far beyond the stories on which he has writing credits, but I personally associate him with the New 52 version of OMAC that he and artist Keith Giffen collaborated on in 2011. OMAC, the “One-Man Army Corps,” was another creation of Jack Kirby’s, and the liberties “The Rules” takes with Kamandi’s origin story has some similarities to the way DiDio and Giffen expanded on OMAC, with an emphasis on mysterious conspiracies and secret identities, not to mention all those robots. Visually, Giffen and Koblish are in similar territory, with an updated Kirby-by-way-of-Kubert style that makes for a good introduction to this new version of the character.

DiDio writes in an afterword to Kamandi Challenge no. 1 that one of the rules of the series is that not only is each writer-artist team to end their chapter on a cliffhanger, leaving it for the next team to resolve, but they must write a note indicating how they would have continued their story, to be included in the letters page. As an example, he states that he would have resolved the cliffhanger at the end of “The Rules” by having Kamandi trick Tiny into throwing him into the audience of the arena, where he would meet and befriend Prince Tuftan. In addition to the window this opens into the writers’ creative process, I imagine it also guarantees that the cliffhangers play fair: there has to be some way out for our heroes. (I also like the implicit invitation to play along: “Can you solve it before they do?” a blurb on the cover asks.)

“K–is for ‘Kill’!”
Writer: Dan Abnett
Artist: Dale Eaglesham
Colorist: Hi-Fi
Lettering: Clem Robbins
Editors: Brittany Holzherr and Dan DiDio

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In the next chapter, Tiny attacks Kamandi; the tiger people in the stands cheer on the fighters and assume that the puny human will be no match for the champion ape. Instead of tricking Tiny into throwing him into the stands, as DiDio had suggested, Kamandi lures Tiny into an electrified wall surrounding the arena, knocking him out and proving himself more clever than the tigers had originally thought. Suddenly the “wild animal” has value, and Prince Tuftan turns Kamandi over to Dr. Canus, a humanoid dog, for training as a full-time gladiator.

Canus at first assumes that Kamandi’s speech is just parroting, as before, but he is soon shocked to realize that Kamandi is intelligent and can fully understand him. Kamandi tries to remember his home, but is only able to recall the dreams from his long sleep (a montage of images suggests that his “dream” consisted of events from the original Kamandi series), and the mission his “grandmother” gave him: “find your parents, save the world.”

To Canus, however, Kamandi is still an animal and the boy is kept on a leash as he is shown around the tigers’ city. Kamandi and Canus witness the return of King Caesar, back from a victorious campaign against the leopards, and bearing with him military weapons taken as the spoils of war, including a giant missile. Kamandi breaks away from Canus and investigates the forbidden Hall of War, an enormous stockpile of weapons from the old, human world. (Is the eye-shaped insignia seen above the Hall entrance and elsewhere a reference to OMAC’s Brother Eye, a seed for later writers to pick up on, or just coincidence?) Attacked by flying jackdaw guards, Kamandi almost escapes but is recaptured by Canus, who emphasizes that he’ll pay with his own life if Kamandi escapes on his watch.

They return to the main square to witness King Caesar attempting to “awaken” the recovered nuclear missile, taking it for a god of the ancients. Kamandi recognizes the missile for what it is and tries to warn the tigers about the danger it poses, but he is too late: King Caesar has armed the warhead and set it on a countdown for detonation! Unless Kamandi can halt the countdown, he–and everyone else–has only five minutes to live!

“K–is for ‘Kill’!” (gotta love comic book titles) continues the remix spirit of “The Rules,” hitting the beats of the original classic stories but combining elements in different ways in the interest of telling a new story: “Tiny,” introduced in “The Rules,” appeared in the original series (Kamandi no. 7, where the similarity to King Kong was both more explicit and more tragic); likewise, in the original series Kamandi’s first stop after escaping his bunker was the Tiger Empire, where he was forced to fight as a gladiator (the orange and blue tunic he wears in this chapter is a nod to his costume in that episode), and Dr. Canus was one of the first friends he made in the post-human world.

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In “K–is for ‘Kill’!,” Canus is more skeptical of Kamandi than in the original stories, and the political realities of the Tiger Empire are more explicitly drawn: not only does Canus’ life depend on serving Caesar, he openly admires Caesar’s strength and has wholeheartedly adopted the tigers’ martial ethos. “War is our way of life and our salvation,” he tells Kamandi. Elsewhere it is made clear that the arena serves to keep the people occupied and happy, and that Prince Tuftan, who runs the city in his father’s frequent absence, is eager to prove himself.

This chapter also highlights the series’ similarities (never far from the surface) to the Planet of the Apes movies: examining Kamandi’s backpack, Canus asks, “Why would an animal have books?”, echoing Charlton Heston’s famous question, “Doctor, would an ape make a human doll that talks?” King Caesar’s attempt to commune with the godlike nuclear missile (an element present in Kirby’s original) echoes the underground cult in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Of course, the motifs of captivity, barbarism ascendant, and the worship of ancient weapons and relics are common in post-apocalyptic stories, so this observation is intended in the spirit of comparison rather than criticism: Prince Tuftan’s assumption that Kamandi simply stole his books illustrates just how far down the evolutionary ladder humanity has fallen, especially for a first-time reader who is exploring Kamandi’s world alongside him.

Finally, Dale Eaglesham’s art in this chapter is particularly appropriate, capturing the classic sense of adventure and exoticism like an old-school Sunday comic strip. Tiger City is a richly-realized environment, full of stone temples, statues, and walkways, thick with vines and palms. The characters, including the animals, are expressively rendered and fluid in a way that’s not very Kirby-like at all but is quite beautiful; it’s a great fit for the material.

Introducing the Kamandi Challenge!

kamandi-challenge-special

I’ve written before about my interest in Kamandi, “The Last Boy on Earth,” the futuristic adventure series Jack Kirby created for DC Comics in 1972. So when I learned about DC’s upcoming Kamandi Challenge, described as a “round-robin, no-holds-barred storytelling extravaganza told in 12 issues,” with a separate writer/artist team picking up the thread in each installment, I knew I would be adding it to my pull list at my local comics store (shout-out to Prairie Dog Comics in Wichita). The book will apparently be more than just a showcase for talent: running up to the 100th anniversary of Kirby’s birth (1917-1994), the teams are invited to make things tough for those who follow them: “Each issue will end with an unimaginable cliffhanger, and it’s up to the next creative team to resolve it before creating their own. It’s a challenge worthy of ‘The King’ himself!” They already had me at “Kamandi,” but when cliffhangers are involved, how could I resist?

kamandi

To recap, Kamandi (named for “Command D,” the military bunker in which he was raised by his grandfather) is the last ordinary human in a post-apocalyptic world that has been taken over by intelligent animals: not just apes, but tigers, dogs, reptiles, and more. Other humans have been reduced to nonverbal animalism or have developed mutant powers themselves. Monstrous creatures roam the earth, and new animal societies have developed in the ruins of the old world, patterned on the Romans, pirates, or Chicago gangsters. Kirby had been tinkering with Kamandi as a concept for several years (his original idea was to be a newspaper strip called “Kamandi of the Caves”), but the final version owes a clear debt to the popular Planet of the Apes movies while remaining pure Kirby. It’s a set-up ripe for adventure and wonder, and after Kirby’s run on the original series it continued to inspire comics creators (not to mention the influence it had on cartoons such as Thundarr the Barbarian, for which Kirby contributed concepts and designs, and more recently Adventure Time).

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Perhaps to prime the pump for the upcoming series and get new readers caught up on the character and his setting, DC released the Kamandi Challenge Special this week, reprinting the double-sized Kamandi no. 32 (which included a reprint of the series’ first issue) from 1975 and including a pair of “lost” stories. Other than a full-page ad for the Kamandi Challenge, there’s no editorial hand-holding, and even the first issue, which introduces Kamandi and sets his feet on the path of adventure, is printed after the story from Kamandi no. 32, which begins in the middle of the action (just as it was in the original double issue–the reprint is always the backup in such cases). I guess they assume that fans can look up all the context on the internet, or perhaps the real audience is fans like me who’ve ready everything at least once already.

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Of most interest is a pair of stories that were intended for Kamandi nos. 60 and 61, but which were abandoned when Kamandi was a victim of the “DC Implosion,” when rising production costs and a slump in sales led to DC management cutting a third of the publisher’s titles without warning. Finished but unused stories from all the cancelled titles were printed in-house in ashcan editions (low-quality, low-circulation black and white copies); in addition to piecemeal reprints, scans of those stories have circulated online for years, but this is the first time the Kamandi stories have seen print in an official publication.

I’m not sure what a new reader will make of these “rediscovered” stories, to be honest: Kirby had left the book he created some time before its cancellation, leaving it in other writers’ and artists’ hands. In typical Kirby fashion, he had breathlessly filled his issues with ideas and characters, leaving many loose threads and never dwelling on any one idea for longer than a few issues. Writers who followed (including Gerry Conway, Dennis O’Neil, and Jack C. Harris) introduced some ideas of their own, but also revisited and fleshed out many of Kirby’s original concepts, using Kirby’s map of “Earth After Disaster” (also included in the Special) and tying the continuity together (for example identifying Kamandi’s grandfather as OMAC, the “One Man Army Corps,” another orphaned Kirby creation) while crafting some longer, less episodic arcs.

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The “new” stories form the end of one of those arcs, the quest of Kamandi and his friends to help stranded space alien Pyra (the final form of the energy being encountered in the first story reprinted in the Special) power up her spaceship by opening a “vortex” in a mysterious giant energy field in Australia, guarded by the “Kangarat Murder Club.” Kamandi, sucked into the Vortex by a mysterious voice, witnesses the infinite possibilities of the multiverse, and comes to understand that there are many versions of himself living different lives, including some in worlds that did not suffer the “Great Disaster.”

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Given a choice, Kamandi ultimately decides that he owes a duty to his friends, still in danger; before coming back, however, he is picked up by servants of the Sandman, the master of dreams, who mistake him for the Sandman’s friend Jed. (You see, Jed is one of the many alternate lives that Kamandi could have lived, had circumstances been different.) Kamandi’s encounter with the Sandman mostly serves to tee up an unused Kirby Sandman story in which Jed enlists the Sandman’s aid in proving to a miser that Santa Claus is real (this involves a trip through dreamland to the North Pole and a battle with a band of “Seal Men” who are unhappy about the Christmas presents they’ve received in the past). No, it doesn’t fit very well in the (admittedly fantastical) world of Kamandi, but the reprint was mostly to buy time as Harris and company geared up to take the book in a new direction, with Kamandi traveling into space and having yet more bizarre encounters. It was never to be. Nevertheless, it isn’t every day that a story sees the light of day (officially) nearly forty years after it was first meant to run.

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In any case, this is all preamble: the real action starts next week, with the release of Kamandi Challenge no. 1, written by Dan DiDio and Dan Abnett with art by Dale Eaglesham, Keith Giffen, and Scott Koblish. I’m so excited, I’ve decided to accept this challenge: I’m going to review and discuss each issue as it comes out. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you’ll join me.

Purple Prose, Purple Death

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In watching the 1944 Captain America serial (for which I’ll have a full write-up next week), I was struck by the title of the first chapter, “The Purple Death,” a title shared by the first chapter of the 1940 serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In Captain America, the Purple Death refers to the extract of a rare orchid that makes its victims susceptible to hypnotic control (the “death” part comes when the victims are ordered to kill themselves, helpless to resist); in Flash Gordon, it’s a mysterious, fatal disease spread from Mongo to Earth that leaves its victims marked by a purple spot.

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The pulps (as well as comic strips and serials) were known for lurid, vividly-drawn stories with larger-than-life heroes and impossibly wicked villains to match. Purple is an attention-getting color, to the point that we speak of “purple prose.” I was also reminded of the Purple Empire, one of the enemy nations that Operator #5 fought against in the 1930s. (I thought there might be some significance to that, but the Operator series included a rainbow of enemy nations, possibly influenced by the color-coded War Plans developed by the U. S. military during the 1920s and ’30s.)

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In reading and watching stories from the 1930s and ’40s, I’ve encountered the phrase “purple death,” or uses of purple as a dangerous and dramatic color, enough times that I wondered if there was an underlying connection. So, in the spirit of Philip J. Reed’s Pop Questions, I’m asking: what’s the significance of the color purple in the pulps, and why particularly is death purple? Does it refer to the livid color of a bruise or the marks left by strangulation? Is it the association with royalty, by extension gaudy and powerful? I have a few leads that seem likely, but if anyone reading this has a specific answer, I’d love to hear it.

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Purple is associated with death and mourning in many cultures, including the Victorians of the nineteenth century, for whom purple was the color of “demi-mourning,” to be worn after a period of wearing black. It was also the color of royalty, originally due to the rarity and high cost of purple dyes in the ancient world. It would certainly match both the dramatic style and frequent (if shallow) references to history and classic literature in the pulps if that were the reason. I don’t have statistics at hand, but my hunch is that as comic books became the dominant medium for pulp storytelling, more villains than heroes had purple uniforms or color schemes.

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However, the most likely answer goes back to the 1918 influenza epidemic: the disease killed quickly, and often left its victims purple in color as their lungs filled with blood and starved the body of oxygen. One book on the subject is even titled Purple Death. According to some estimates, as many as 50 million people worldwide died during from the disease. Just as pulp heroes were often veterans of the Great War, so the memory of the epidemic would have resonated with writers and readers in the decades that followed. In Flash Gordon, the Purple Death was also a disease, and the scenes of public panic and the scramble to find a cure hearken directly to the 1918 epidemic; by comparison, the use of the phrase in Captain America is almost poetic, but would likely have still induce a twinge of fear for those who remembered it. Even today, with no direct memory of the influenza epidemic, it sounds ominous.

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So perhaps that’s the answer. If any readers have more details to offer, or facts to contradict my speculations, I’d love to hear them. Any other examples of purple as a color marking death or danger are, of course, welcome.

Fates Worse Than Death: Batman (1943)

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Industrialist Martin Warren, after serving his sentence for an unnamed crime, is about to be released from prison; his niece, Linda Page, asks (her boyfriend? fiancée?) playboy Bruce Wayne to accompany her to pick him up.  Although Wayne’s life of leisure doesn’t allow him to get out very early in the morning, he promises to accompany her.  But before they arrive, Warren is picked up by some other old acquaintances, who coerce him to meet their boss, Dr. Daka.  Daka is a Japanese spy striking at the United States from within, and if Warren doesn’t join Daka’s ring of “dishonored” engineers, bankers, and other professionals and agree to serve his “League of the New Order,” he’ll be turned into a mindless zombie by one of Daka’s inventions.  In the mean time, the costumed crimefighter known only as the Batman, with his sidekick Robin, leave a pair of crooks (complete with the “mark of the Bat” on their foreheads) for the police to pick up.  Who are Batman and Robin, and what do they have to do with Bruce Wayne and his young ward, Dick Grayson?

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There can be hardly anyone reading this who isn’t aware that Bruce Wayne and the Batman are one and the same, of course, and the 1943 Batman serial wastes no time in letting the audience in on that information.  In making the leap from the comics to the screen, only the core trio of Bruce/Batman, Dick/Robin, and Alfred the butler were retained (Batman’s police contact is Captain Arnold, not Commissioner Gordon), but their characters and identities are recognizable to readers of the comic book (for the most part: Alfred is relegated to comic relief, skittish and easily flustered, but he still comes through when his services are needed).  None of Batman’s usual enemies like the Joker or Penguin are present (many of the most familiar villains weren’t created until later anyway); Batman was made during wartime, and the enemy he faces in Dr. Daka is a nationalistic one.

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Even allowing for its wartime origin, it saddens me to report that Batman is incredibly racist.  As a cringe-inducing caricature of the effete, treacherous Oriental, Daka is grossly offensive, but if the serial stopped there Daka would fit in with the pseudo-exotic threats I’ve mentioned before (and he is, after all, supposed to be a villain).  But that isn’t enough: Daka’s lair is located on a street in “Little Tokyo,” which according to the enthusiastic narrator has been nearly empty “since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.”  That’s in the first chapter and it doesn’t get any better: even Daka’s own henchmen despise him and throw around racial slurs behind his back.  “I’m not afraid of him or any other squint-eye,” says one named Forrester before rebelling.  Forcing Daka to surrender, Forrester tells him “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin,” when he (briefly) has the advantage over him.  Subtle it is not. (Unsurprisingly, Daka was played by a heavily made-up white actor, J. Carrol Naish, a common practice in 1940’s Hollywood.)

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The wartime angle is also apparent in constant references to America’s fighting spirit and the important work being done by the armed forces and munitions manufacturers.  In a twist from the comics, Batman and Robin undertake secret missions for the U. S. government, receiving coded messages from contacts about threats to America’s intelligence and infrastructure.  (According to Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut in The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, rigid censorship ensured that serial heroes were never shown taking the law into their own hands.  Since being a vigilante is central to Batman’s identity, in the serial he remains independent from the police, taunting an exasperated Captain Arnold who nonetheless depends on the cases his “best agent” wraps up for him, but ultimately Batman gets his orders from Uncle Sam.)

After the generic “spy ring” of Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, Batman has a refreshing specificity: Daka plots to steal radium (both to fuel a superpowered “radium gun” and to build an even larger one), blow up a supply train, steal an experimental plane, jump a claim on a radium mine (truly a magical element that allowed screen writers to add a contemporary touch to the hoariest plots), and more.  The political context may have brought out some ugly, jingoistic racism, but there is also never a question of the time and place and what the stakes of the conflict are.

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The oddest aspect of this propagandistic impulse is in the setup of Daka’s Little Tokyo hideout: the League of the New Order has its headquarters hidden in a “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” a wax museum primarily containing tableaux of Japanese war atrocities.  Every time the front of the business is shown, a carnival barker is pitching its importance to the war effort: “See the life-size models of the victims of our savage enemies! . . . See how they treat their prisoners. It’ll make your blood turn cold!”  It almost seems as if the filmmakers intend the barker’s words to represent the serial itself: “Come on in here and spend a dime, my friends, and wise yourself up. It’s not a circus, it’s not a carnival—this is a serious proposition!”  Yet the carnival barker is in league with Daka, sending his henchmen to the secret entrance and selecting victims to be brainwashed.  It’s either brilliantly self-referential, a commentary on the bottomless duplicity of the enemy, or just goofy.  Daka believes in hiding in plain sight, apparently.

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The seriousness of Japan’s Imperial ambition isn’t necessarily foreign to either the serial format or Batman as a character—both have featured their share of would-be world conquerors—but it is an odd fit with the tone of the 1943 production, which is frequently light, even whimsical.  Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin appear to be having a ball whether in costume or out: this isn’t the grim, tortured Batman of Christian Bale, or even the reclusive weirdo Michael Keaton portrayed.  Even Naish as Daka gets to rub his hands gleefully and display a few moments of humor, like when he feeds raw meat to his pet alligators and briefly considers throwing a zombie to them as “something special.”  The actors and narrator embrace even the most absurd contrivances with gusto, and I’m not convinced this is entirely a case of straight-faced material only appearing funny in hindsight: comic relief was an essential component of the serial, and I daresay the funny parts are fresher and more entertaining than the repetitive fistfights and formulaic cliffhangers.  (It became very easy to predict what the cliffhanger would be in each episode, as the same beats were employed to set the stage each time. When, as in Chapter Six, a thug says, “Let’s get out of here before that chemical reaches those wires!” you know exactly what’s going to happen next.)

The 1943 Batman serial is likely to be of interest primarily to Batman completists, but I doubt it will satisfy any fan who would describe themselves as such.  It was rereleased to theaters in the 1960s as a camp film, where it influenced the next wave of Batman adaptations. Fans of the 1966 Adam West Batman TV show will recognize many elements: the deadpan acceptance of ridiculous situations, enthusiastic narrator, and even the two-part episodes with cliffhangers very much in the serial style.

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So what works?  For all the fistfights, Batman engages in quite a bit of detective work in this serial: not only does he find and analyze clues, he goes undercover (he disguises himself as a thug named “Chuck White,” and sends Alfred out in disguise a couple of times), gets information out of Daka’s henchmen through a variety of means, and even manages to turn their traps around on them, all while maintaining his secret identity.  Batman also delegates responsibility to Robin and Alfred, who several times come to the rescue.  The complexity of the puzzles is laughable and the level of thought isn’t that deep, but within the bounds established by the script, it’s easy to believe that Batman and Daka are waging a high-stakes chess game against each other, striking and counter-striking until the big confrontation.

I also liked Lewis Wilson as the title character more than I expected: to cover his real purposes, his Bruce Wayne is vapid and silly, and his excuses for not being around—he took Dick to a polo match or an amusement park; he doesn’t get moving until around noon—are amusingly flip.  He expects Linda to believe him, because what red-blooded man would use such indolence as an excuse unless it were the truth?  When one of Daka’s henchmen suggest that Wayne might be the costumed troublemaker, Daka sneers, “Don’t be absurd—that simpering idiot could never be the Batman!”

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What I Watched: Batman (1943, Columbia)

Where I Saw It: I watched a Columbia Pictures DVD set, but it is on YouTube (in many parts) starting here.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Almost all the chapter titles are pretty great, with the kind of snappy immediacy and hint of exciting developments that all the best pulp titles have.  If forced to choose, I’ll go with Chapter Four, “Slaves of the Rising Sun” (balanced out by the fifteenth and final chapter, “The Doom of the Rising Sun”).

Best Cliffhanger: Chapter Thirteen, “Eight Steps Down,” ends with a double cliffhanger: Batman, trying to sneak into Daka’s lair, is threatened by the classic spiked-walls-closing-in trap, while at the same time, Linda Page is about to be turned into a zombie by Daka’s mind control device.  However will they escape?

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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Many of the escapes in Batman are of the kind that would infuriate Annie Wilkes: a train bears down on the hero, or an armored car plummets off a cliff and explodes, only to be revealed in the next chapter that Robin pushed Batman off the railroad trestle or Batman leapt from the armored car just in time, all shown from a different angle.  If any of those are cheats, then they all are.  However, I can’t say any of them explicitly undo the setup of the cliffhanger.

Actually, my favorite is the resolution to the cliffhanger of Chapter Fourteen (“The Executioner Strikes”), in which Batman, knocked out and placed in a coffin-sized wooden crate, is carried to Daka’s lair; the box, unopened, is dropped into Daka’s alligator pit.  At the beginning of Chapter Fifteen, it’s revealed that Batman had escaped before the crate was even brought to Daka’s lair, and it was Daka’s henchman Wallace in the box.  You can bet he didn’t get the benefit of a last-minute cheat.

Sample dialogue:

Bruce: “Well, we never got to the cave.  It was so hot out, we laid down by the side of the road and took a nap.”

Linda: “Asleep! Just when I needed you both so much.  If it hadn’t have been for the Batman I’d be dead in the cave!”

(Chapter Nine, “The Sign of the Sphinx”)

What Others Have Said: “Where could even a Japanese spy get enough ration stamps for all that meat?” Harmon and Glut, referring to the fodder for Daka’s pet alligators

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as I vicariously travel the Western frontier through Fighting with Kit Carson.

Afterlife with Archie: “Escape from Riverdale”

“Sometimes dead is better,” witches Hilda and Zelda Spellman tell Jughead Jones after their magic is unable to save his dog Hot Dog from a fatal injury.  If only he had listened!  Struck by his obvious pain, their niece Sabrina (i.e., the Teenage Witch) uses forbidden magic from the Necronomicon to bring Hot Dog back to life.  Like the resurrections in “The Monkey’s Paw” and Pet Sematary, it doesn’t work out as planned: Hot Dog returns, but as a horrible undead monster with a bite that spreads a terrible infection.  Soon, the town of Riverdale (home of Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the rest) is at the center of a zombie epidemic straight out of Night of the Living Dead.

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Since last fall, the first comic I read when I get it home from the store has been Afterlife with Archie, an unlikely hit from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla.  The bimonthly book recently finished its first five-issue arc, “Escape from Riverdale,” and with the promise of big changes starting in the next issue, this seemed as good a time as any to examine the series (and encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it to give it a look: the first arc was just released in a collection last week).

As its name implies, Afterlife with Archie is a spin-off of Archie and the series with which it shares a universe (including Sabrina, Josie and the Pussycats, and more), with the familiar kid-friendly characters run through a George Romero- and Stephen King-style wringer.  As I wrote in my series on doppelgangers and copycat characters, writers often use thinly-veiled pastiches of familiar characters when they want to explore their darker sides; however, it is increasingly common for publishers to give writers free rein with out-of-continuity or alternate-universe stories starring their name-brand characters (Marvel has had a Marvel Zombies series for several years now, as an obvious example).

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At least since the late 1980s, following the success of the dark, adult-themed comics work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, it’s been known that “grim and gritty” sell.  Fashions change, but it seems like every few years there’s another round of “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” stories and another slew of comic anti-heroes committing rape, murder, or whatever transgression it takes to get the spotlight in a competitive field.  (I don’t have a problem with comics tackling adult themes, of course, but it’s often the titles that loudly insist on their “adult” status that seem the most adolescent.)  Even without resorting to graphic sex or violence, “going dark” is a giant cliché, and obviously zombies have been trendy for years now, so it would be easy to dismiss Afterlife with Archie as just another fad book.  Yet it’s become one of my favorites: what gives?

Why does Afterlife with Archie succeed where others fail?  For one thing, the affection the creators have for both the horror genre and Archie Comics is obvious and infectious.  Aguirre-Sacasa knows the characters of the Archie universe and respects them; the darkness isn’t something laid on top of the characters, it’s an artful drawing out of themes already present in their usual, more cartoonish depiction.  Archie Andrews is still good-hearted and willing to go out on a limb for his friends and family; Reggie Mantle is still a selfish snob; Betty and Veronica still fight over Archie while trying to remain “BFFs.”  Francavilla’s semi-realistic art, filled with expressionistic shadows and dramatic, off-kilter angles, is matched by dialogue that is by turns naturalistic—the teens don’t sound like overly-cool caricatures of high-schoolers—and appropriately heightened for the gothic excess of the book.  (Veronica’s father Hiram Lodge probably wouldn’t call Archie an “insolent whelp” in one of his regular appearances, but the dynamic of overbearing patriarch to a young, unwanted suitor isn’t a stretch.)

Even the more ghoulish elements are incorporated in ways that play with well-known character traits: it might seem like a cheap joke that the voracious Jughead is the first infected and becomes a flesh-devouring zombie, but it’s just as equally the kind of twist associated with the EC Comics that are another point of reference.  His first teen victim: “Big” Ethel Muggs, a character who has always made me cringe in the original comics with her slow-witted “hick” speech pattern and unrequited crush on Jughead.  (Ironically, as horrible as her death is in Afterlife, her brief appearance has more dignity than the regular version of the character has ever had.)

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Flashbacks fill in the characters’ history, making them three-dimensional: in issue no. 4, the most emotional of the five, Archie is saved from the undead Hot Dog by his own dog Vegas, and then is confronted by his own father, now an infected zombie.  In both cases, the memories of happier times are intercut with the current struggle. (It’s the rare horror comic for which you’ll need a tissue!) Memory also weighs heavily on Hiram Lodge and his butler Smithers; it’s implied that Hiram was unfaithful to Veronica’s mother, and Smithers, as a second-generation servant of the Lodge family, is a discreet repository of all the town’s secrets.  Along with the incestuous relationship of Jason and Cheryl Blossom and the down-low lesbianism of Ginger Lopez and Nancy Woods (both interpretations that are original to this series, obviously), the constant web of secrets and lies make Afterlife’s version of Riverdale resemble Peyton Place, even before the supernatural elements are introduced.  The tone is very much like a contemporary teen soap opera.

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The “Escape from Riverdale” arc ends with Archie leading the town’s survivors from the dwindling safety of Lodge Manor out of town.  Sabrina, who was banished to another dimension for her actions in the first issue, is scheduled to return to Riverdale in issue 6, presumably introducing a more cosmic angle to the ongoing horror, but who knows what other characters will show up?  Josie and the Pussycats are still out there, somewhere, so far unused, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla indulge in some deep cuts from the world of Archie: most of the weirdest Archie concepts are technically alternate universes, but so is Afterlife, and it’s clear the creative team know their stuff, so who knows? I’m hoping for Jughead’s Time Police, myself.

Or maybe they’ll take some inspiration from Spire Christian Comics (which licensed Archie characters to spread the Good News), and we’ll get the gritty reboot of The Gospel Blimp the world has been crying out for.  Or a grown-up Hansi, the Girl Who Loved the Swastika?  After the real-life horrors of that story, zombies should be no problem.

Hansi

All kidding aside, I do give Archie Comics a lot of credit for remaining a comics company first instead of a “media” company: although many of the attention-grabbing developments of recent years, such as Archie’s marriage and impending death in Life with Archie (the series which Afterlife with Archie sprang from, initially as a joke) and the introduction of openly gay character Kevin Keller, could be seen as publicity stunts, they’ve remained dedicated to a medium that the Big Two comics companies have increasingly turned into ancillaries of big budget movies and little else.  On the other hand: an Afterlife with Archie movie?  I can think of less likely properties to adapt for film.  In the mean time, I look forward to seeing what else Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla come up with.  (And I just found out that Sabrina will be appearing in another, “much darker” ongoing series following the success of Afterlife; “much darker” than what we’ve seen so far? Wow.)

Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon (1936)

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A strange planet is moving through the Solar system on a collision course with Earth, Velikovsky-style, bringing meteor showers and global panic with it.  Professor Gordon, stationed at an observatory, receives word that his son, Flash, has postponed his polo game so that he can take a transcontinental flight to return home before (presumably) the end of the world.  While on that flight, Flash (Buster Crabbe) and a female stranger (Jean Rogers) bail out at the same time, just before meteors cause the plane to crash.  They’ve landed near the rocket ship of Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), a scientist (and former colleague of old Professor Gordon) whose plan is to fly to the invading planet and redirect it away from earth.  Needing an assistant, Zarkov coerces Gordon and the young woman, Dale Arden, into the ship.  The three blast off and soon arrive on the mysterious planet.

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The planet Mongo, as it turns out to be, is ruled by Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton), to whom the three are taken as prisoners.  Upon seeing the beautiful Dale, Ming desires to take her for his bride; upon learning that Zarkov built the rocket ship that brought them there, Ming puts him to work in his own laboratory, in order to conquer the Earth instead of destroying it.  As for Flash, his attempts to free his friends awaken Ming’s ire; he has him thrown into the arena to battle three beast men.  Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), however, has other ideas, and schemes to keep Flash alive for herself.

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Thus begins the epic, thirteen-episode Flash Gordon, which puts Flash and company into cliffhanging perils that include a flooding underwater palace, fights with fearsome beasts, torture, and even a machine that makes Flash disappear completely.  And did I mention the rays?  In addition to ray guns, there are gravity rays, melting rays, rays that restore health, and an invisibility ray (the explanation for Flash’s previous disappearance, of course).  Throughout the serial, our heroes encounter Shark Men, Lion Men, and Hawk Men, all with their own leaders and complex political relationships with Ming.  (Whatever its crimes against realism may be, you can’t accuse Mongo of being a monocultural “Planet of Hats” in the Star Trek vein.)  Beyond the physical threats, there are shifting alliances and treachery, and all the while Princess Aura plays both sides, helping Flash escape but working to keep him separate from Dale.

Alex Raymond’s comic strip had only been running for two years when Universal Pictures released its serial adaptation in 1936, scripted by Frederick Stephani, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Ella O’Neill, and directed by Stephani.  The producer was Henry MacRae, who had been a director of serials since the silent era and knew how to get the most bang for the buck. Although serials were known for their low budgets, Flash Gordon was lavish by comparison (the claim that it cost a million dollars has been disputed, but it is still easy to believe that it was more expensive than the average chapter play); it was the first serial to play in a Broadway movie theater and set the tone for much of the cinematic science fiction that followed.

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It would be damning with faint praise to say Flash Gordon looks good “for its time;” many of the shortcuts taken in its production—the use of stock footage, recycled sets and costumes, and a score cobbled together from previous Universal horror and adventure films—would have been more obvious to viewers at the time than they are now.  Three years after Willis O’Brien wowed audiences with the stop-motion in King Kong, the many monsters that Flash battles are either familiar animals with some outer space bling attached, or small animals filmed against miniature sets to make them appear gigantic—or both, like the dragon-sized finned iguanas that prowl the valley where Flash and his compatriots first land.  The exception is the bipedal papier-mâché dragon with lobster claws that inhabits the “Tunnel of Terror” in Chapter Two; with the addition of horns and a wall of flame, it doubles as the “Sacred Fire Dragon” in Chapter Nine.

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None of that matters, however, as the story unfolds with a swiftness that encourages suspension of disbelief, and a game cast that takes the material only as seriously as it needs to be, but no more.  First among them is Buster Crabbe as the title character, and I think it’s fair to say that Crabbe is ideal for the part.  Like Tarzan (whom Crabbe had also played), Flash Gordon isn’t a role to be acted: it’s a role to be embodied, and Crabbe has the physique (he had been a champion Olympic swimmer, winning a Gold Medal in 1932) and movie-star looks (with hair bleached to match Gordon’s comic-strip appearance) to pull it off.  That’s not to impugn Crabbe’s acting: while he isn’t called on to chew the scenery like Middleton as Ming or John Lipson as the Hawk Men’s King Vultan, he has a natural, unaffected screen presence, perfect for the kind of all-American hero who finds himself at the center of all this craziness.  Crabbe is engaged with the material and never sounds like he’s reciting lines from a cue card (more than can be said of James Pierce as Prince Thun of the Lion Men).

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Flash’s adversary, Ming the Merciless, is played by Charles Middleton, who long specialized in “heavies,” and brings a prickly grandiloquence to the role.  He’s the kind of seasoned actor who can deliver lines like, “Why did not the sacred gong sound the final note which completes the marriage ceremony?” and make it sound perfectly natural.  Ming is one of the great pulp villains, of course, and with his arched eyebrows, pointed beard and mustache, bald head, and long fingernails, he shares a great deal of DNA with that poster child of Yellow Peril racism, Fu Manchu. Like Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind, Ming is an invasive force, the perfect stand-in for overseas threats from Europe or Asia (before Pearl Harbor, the pulps and comics often replaced Japan and Germany with their own invented enemies, such as the “Purple Empire” that Operator #5 battled; sometimes such threats were even described as “Eurasian,” covering all the bases).  Hailing from outer space instead of a foreign country, however, Ming has a veneer of plausible deniability that has made it easier to keep him around in later decades. Opposing him, Flash Gordon is the ideal American of the 1930s who doesn’t start fights but isn’t afraid to finish them.

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Beyond his name and visual appearance, Ming embodies the stereotype of the “Oriental potentate,” cruel, decadent, and treacherous.  In the Universal production, Ming entertains himself watching combat in the arena and gaudy choreographic displays (courtesy of Universal’s library of stock footage); the costume of his empire is a mix of spage-age tunics, medieval robes, and Roman centurion armor for the men, and harem outfits for the women. The costumes (and most of the set dressing) are straight from Universal’s warehouses, but the mixture of styles isn’t that far off from Raymond’s comic strip design, which also borrowed freely from distant times and places from Earth’s history.  The question of how people on other planets might dress hadn’t really been settled: when Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan) sent John Carter to the planet Mars, he described the inhabitants as nude, or nearly so.  Artists illustrating his books preserved Earth standards of modesty by draping Dejah Thoris in Roman togas and other stylized garb.  While the comic strip Buck Rogers, which premiered in 1929, gave a more fantastical, futuristic appearance to its space travelers, Flash Gordon was mostly content to be Prince Valiant in space; despite the rocket ships and ray guns, Gordon was often shown fighting with a sword like John Carter.  It’s not for nothing that this genre became known as “space opera.”

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No character in the 1936 production illustrates this better than King Vultan of the Hawk Men.  All the Hawk Men (there are no Hawk Women, near as I can tell) have enormous, feathery wings sprouting from their backs, and wear Viking horned helmets and armor.  With his boisterous laugh and enormous appetites, Vultan is clearly modeled after Henry VIII (he’s even shown feasting on the drumsticks of what I assume is some kind of space chicken, and mention is made of his numerous wives).  However, with his truly over-the-top headdress and the exaggerated pectorals of his breastplate, he looks like Luciano Pavarotti as Brünnhilde in a drag production of Die Walküre.

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I like Vultan, though: unlike the humorless Ming and colorless Kala (King of the Shark Men, who can’t breathe water—I mean, where to even start?), Vultan is the only one who seems to really enjoy his villainy.  He is, however, a strong argument against those who feel that the 1980 feature version of Flash Gordon was too campy compared to the original.  Upon capturing Dale and (inevitably) deciding to wed her himself, he courts her by first terrifying her with his pet “Urso” (a bear painted with badger stripes) and then tries to entertain her by making shadow puppets on the wall.  This guy is all over the place; naturally, he becomes Flash’s ally by the end of the serial.

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And who is Dale Arden but a classic “damsel in distress?”  She mostly screams and faints and exists to be rescued (interestingly, only one cliffhanger actually puts her in danger); she is subjected to mind games by Princess Aura, who convinces her that she must make Vultan believe she loves him, or else he will kill Flash.  The role isn’t the fault of Jean Rogers, who does as much as she can with it and looks great in the part.  In fact, between Rogers as Dale and Lawson as Aura fighting over Flash, it’s not hard to imagine a Depression-era boy at a Saturday matinee developing a sudden, unexpected interest in polo.

An amnesiac Flash Gordon tries to decide between Dale Arden and Princess Aura, the Betty and Veronica of outer space.

An amnesiac Flash Gordon tries to decide between Dale Arden and Princess Aura, the Betty and Veronica of outer space.

And it’s not only for the boys (and their dads): I mentioned Buster Crabbe’s physique, but I didn’t get to how often he appears without his shirt, slick with sweat or bound and tortured.  The sensuality and overt (but still PG) eroticism of the 1980 version weren’t invented from whole cloth.

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When the plot isn’t being moved forward by Ming or one of the other rulers of Mongo, it’s often one of Princess Aura’s schemes that does the trick.  To my mind, she’s the real hero of the story, resourceful, determined, and intense.  No wonder she ends up on the throne at the end, paired up not with Flash but the loyal Prince Barin, who is so exciting and interesting that I didn’t even think to bring him up until now.

What I Watched: Flash Gordon (1936, Universal)

Where I Saw It: It’s on YouTube.  The first chapter is here.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “The Unseen Peril” (Chapter Ten)

Best Cliffhanger: “Shattering Doom” (Chapter Seven): Flash, enslaved in King Vultan’s atomic furnace room, has an electric wire attached to his wrist, to kill him instantly if he rebels.  Doctor Zarkov surreptitiously attaches the wire to the handle of Flash’s shovel and instructs him to throw the shovel into the furnace when the time for escape is right.  Flash orders the other slaves to duck behind the safety wall and makes his move, triggering a massive explosion.  Will he get to safety in time?

Sample Dialogue: “Is there no way a man can conquer the sacred orangopoid?” –Princess Aura, Chapter Nine

With a Dry, Cool Wit Like That: “Scared, huh?” –Flash, as he grabs Dale and pushes her out of the airplane in Chapter One

Cheapest Special Effect: As much as I’d like to, I can’t count King Vultan’s shadow puppets, which are certainly odd but aren’t meant to be taken for anything else. Instead, I choose this fellow, the terrifying giant lizard of Mongo:

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Most Embarrassing Costume: I’ve already addressed the costumes in some detail, and while King Vultan’s appearance is certainly memorable, I think I’m going to award this honor to the Hawk Man servant who briefly makes an appearance in a full chef’s uniform in Chapter Six:

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Biggest Cop-Out: Does anyone believe Ming is dead at the end of Flash Gordon?  Even without the knowledge that there would be two sequels, did anyone believe it in 1936?

What Others Have Said: “They were flying over and they were forced down where there was a rocket ready to take off—I mean, if you accept that, you have no problem with anything. If it bothers you that they happened to be flying over a rocket made by Dr. Zarkov, why then, this movie isn’t for you.” –Lorenzo Semple, Jr., screenwriter of the 1980 Flash Gordon feature film

What’s next: In two weeks, join me again for a look at Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.

Fates Worse Than Death: Exploring the Motion Picture Serials

Several years ago I was sitting in Century II Concert Hall before a Wichita Symphony pops concert; the day’s program was to include film music excerpts (some accompanying silent film clips), including selections from John Williams’ Star Wars score.  I don’t remember quite how the conversation started, but an older lady sitting next to me was blunt in her assessment: “People don’t realize it now,” she told me, “but Star Wars was a comedy.  The first time I saw it, I just laughed, because I had seen it all before.  Luke Skywalker swinging across the chasm on a rope? That’s Douglas Fairbanks.”

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I already knew that in a general way before this conversation, of course: not only had George Lucas acknowledged the inspiration he had taken from the adventure and science fiction movies of his youth, Star Wars’ debt to the weekly serials was a big point of discussion among fans and critics of the Star Wars saga.  Between 1913 and 1956, serials, or “chapter plays,” were a unique genre of motion picture: episodic, with a week-to-week continuity and boldly drawn, easy to follow stories that kept audiences coming back for more.  The serials developed in parallel with pulp magazines and comic books and shared many of the same story-telling conventions (and specific characters).  They were best known for the “cliffhangers” that ended each chapter with a character in peril, waiting until the beginning of the next chapter to show their escape.

Although the serials of the silent era were produced with an adult audience in mind, from the mid-‘30s onward, sound serials were increasingly geared to children.  Almost all were livened up with spectacular stunts: fist- and gunfights, chases, natural and man-made disasters.  Whether the story took place in the Old West, outer space, or the jungle, whether it was an adaptation of a classic novel or a story of (purportedly) true crime, the storytelling mode was the same, emphasizing action, adventure, and suspense.

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Serials of the sound era generally included between ten and fifteen chapters (by contrast, one silent serial, The Hazards of Helen, boasted over one hundred; it appears to have been an open-ended “continuing adventure” rather than a single narrative, however).  The first episode introduced the characters and set up future conflict (ending on a good cliffhanger to get the audience hooked!); episodes were around twenty minutes in length (with exceptions: sometimes the first episode would be a little longer, like the pilot of a television show).  Serial chapters were shown in conjunction with full-length features (along with newsreels, cartoons and other “shorts”), part of a weekly moviegoing experience that had little to do with the specific film being shown.

Although I tend to see Star Wars as more homage than parody, there’s no denying that it draws heavily on the language of the serials that were popular from the 1930s to the 1950s, before their thunder was stolen by television. Indeed, watching the 1977 original today with an awareness of serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, it’s easy to see just how much the characters and situations were based on very specific models: how, in Terry Gilliam’s words, Darth Vader is just “the cowboy with the black hat”—the “spearhead villain” in the terminology of the serials.

I had seen clips from the original serials, sometimes in conjunction with material from Star Wars (or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s other homage to the format).  As I mentioned in a previous essay, the pop culture of my childhood was marked by a major resurgence of the characters and formats popular in the 1930s and ‘40s: not just the movies, but also the comics, pulp magazines, and radio shows of the Depression and war years.  During the 1970s and 1980s, there were new movies, comics, and television shows based on characters such as Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage, the Lone Ranger, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and many others.  Some were revived in response to the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones; others had been brought back as part of the “adult fantasy” wave that had also swept J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons to cultural prominence in the early 1970s, and of which Star Wars was partially a product.  And some had never really gone away.

Still, it was rare for serials to be shown in their entirety on television when I was a kid: there had been a serial revival in the mid-1960s, coinciding with the popularity of the Batman TV series, but that was before I was born.  Many of the serials had been “featurized”—edited down to hundred-minute movies—for television broadcast, so I might have seen some without even realizing it, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to get the full, multi-chapter experience.  As much as I love the pulpy aesthetic of old movie posters and the juicy, crackling dialogue of the old-time villains, the serials themselves were something of a blind spot for me.

The goal of this series is to explore some of the classic serials, not necessarily as they were originally seen, but at least uncut and at full length.  Of the hundreds of serials that were made, not all have survived, but many are available on DVD and a large number can be seen on YouTube.  Without trying to be comprehensive, I will have plenty of material to examine.

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In reading about the history of the serials, many names pop up frequently: the serials had their own stars, such as leading men Buster Crabbe, Tom Tyler, and Kirk Alyn; and leading ladies Pearl White (“Pauline” of The Perils of Pauline, the archetypal silent serial) and Linda Stirling.  (Stars such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff also made appearances in serials, as did future star John Wayne and television’s Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore.)  Behind-the-scenes personnel made long careers out of the serials, such as stuntmen Tom Steele and Yakima Canutt, and directors Spencer G. Bennet and the team of William Witney and John English.  One also sees the name Sam Katzman frequently: the corner-cutting producer who, despite the tight budgets with which serials were typically made, was said to have never lost money on a production.

Finally, the name of Republic Pictures is nearly synonymous with the serial.  While other studios made serials as part of their output, Republic specialized in them, and one can hardly discuss the subject without acknowledging them.  After forming through the merger of Mascot (an established producer of serials) with Consolidated Film Laboratories and Monogram in 1933, Republic made sixty-six serials over the next two decades, almost to the end of the serial era.  Republic, along with Columbia, Universal, and a number of smaller studios, brought superheroes like Captain Marvel and the Phantom to the screen for the first time, and eventually created some of their own, such as Rocket Man.  In examining the serials, I intend to examine both the source material from which these characters were drawn and the serials’ lasting influence on the TV shows and movies that followed.

So much for the preliminaries.  I’ve decided to start with one of the most successful serials of all time: in two weeks, I’ll examine Universal’s 1936 production of Flash GordonI hope you’ll join me.

FlashGordon

The Force in Four Colors: Revisiting Marvel’s Star Wars

Recent news that the license to publish Star Wars comics would shift from Dark Horse to Marvel in 2015 probably didn’t come as a surprise to anyone: now that both Lucasfilm and Marvel are under the umbrella of Disney, it was only a matter of time before corporate synergy asserted itself.  Already, Disney-owned properties such as the Muppets, Darkwing Duck, and the Pixar characters have been withdrawn from licensee Kaboom! (not all of them to reappear at Marvel, at least so far).  It’s too bad: Kaboom! publishes some of the best comics for children around, and their books were clearly being written and drawn by creators with knowledge of and affection for the characters.  Still, it makes business sense for Disney to consolidate its holdings, now that it has film, animation, and comic book outlets at its disposal.  I don’t blame them at all; I’m sure it was part of their plan in acquiring those companies in the first place.

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The news has stirred up memories of the often-wacky Marvel Star Wars line that ran from 1977 to 1986, and there have been a lot of jokes at Marvel’s expense.  Heck, I’ve sprinkled Twitter and WordPress with my share of comments about the Zeltrons, a race of pink-skinned empaths whose sexual openness was often a source of comic relief (and pinup-worthy cheesecake) in the series.  No one would deny that Marvel’s version of George Lucas’ science fantasy epic is more remembered for six-foot tall green rabbits, horny pink-skinned aliens, and a seriously off-model Jabba the Hutt than for its merits, especially in comparison to the more straight-faced Dark Horse run.

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Although some of Marvel’s contributions to the Star Wars canon have been picked up and used by others (including the Zeltrons, actually), its run was compromised by its publication alongside and in between the release of the original trilogy’s films.  Before Star Wars (sorry, A New Hope) was released, Marvel was already publishing its six-issue adaptation, including scenes that were cut from the final film: most notably Luke’s conversation with Biggs on Tatooine and Han Solo’s confrontation with a very different-looking Jabba the Hutt in Mos Eisley.  The yellow-skinned, humanoid version of Jabba would appear a couple of times in the comics, until he officially disappeared from existence, replaced by the slug-like Jabba of Return of the Jedi.

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To be fair, it can’t have been easy for the writers (including Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, and Mary Jo Duffy, among others) to spin stories out of a saga that wasn’t completed yet: the challenge was to give readers more of what they loved in the movies without deviating too far from formula or accidentally contradicting or giving away plot twists planned for the sequels (plot twists that were generally secret–Marvel’s editors wouldn’t always know they had crossed the line until it was too late).  Particularly between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, writers were tasked with providing the illusion of change so familiar to readers of superhero comics: Han Solo could not be freed from his carbonite imprisonment, although many issues were dedicated to attempts to rescue him; Darth Vader was off the table, so there could be no answer to the question: was he Luke’s father?

Some of the weirdness in Marvel’s version was also due to the relationship between licensor and licensee at the time.  In those days there was simply not the expectation that film and comics be a seamless continuity: comics were exercises in brand extension, ancillary revenue streams, not sacred texts.  To a large degree, the comics’ writers and artists treated the Star Wars universe as just another sci-fi/fantasy playground to be filled with weird landscapes and monsters (one story arc was repurposed from unused John Carter, Warlord of Mars artwork).  Remember, this was from the same decade as Jack Kirby’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Whitman’s adaptation and continuation of The Black Hole.  Making up and adding material was thought of as giving good value to the reader.  Star Wars and its Expanded Universe would be a major influence in shaping fans’ expectations of continuity across all media, but that tighter approach didn’t emerge overnight.

Still, before I was a Marvel kid I was a Star Wars kid, and the latter was a big reason for the former.  I remember vividly the discovery that piqued my interest: in the box of comics I shared with my sister (about which I’ve written previously), I discovered a copy of Star Wars number 18, missing its cover.  This was the first issue of a major story arc in the early days of the series, the “Wheel” saga, named after a huge space station-bound casino that is the setting of the action.  I didn’t know that at the time (1982 or ’83, I would guess), and it would be a few years before I was able to read the “Wheel” arc in its entirety.  What captivated me was the idea that the characters I knew from the movies were having entirely separate adventures in these comics.  I tended to accept anything official-looking as gospel, so I had no trouble accepting the legitimacy of Marvel’s version (although Carmine Infantino’s square-jawed rendition of Luke Skywalker looked more like He-Man than Mark Hamill).

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For the first time, I became a regular comic buyer, actively looking for new issues on the stands and seeking out back issues to fill in my collection.  Jumping into the series, there were many unfamiliar characters and references to previous adventures from the comics.  I had a lot of catching up to do.  I didn’t live anywhere near a dedicated comic book store, so I relied on trading with friends and mail order: the biggest comic book purchase of my childhood, in fact, was an order for all the Star Wars issues that were available from one of Mile High Comics’ summer sales. Mile High’s yellow two-page ads were once a common sight, and the summer sales were the best, unloading comics for 25 or 50 cents apiece.  It helped that, aside from the first few issues, Star Wars had never been terribly sought-after or valuable, and at most they were only a few years old.  The day the box arrived in the mail with forty issues or so—far from a complete run, but more than I had ever read at once and including many gems—I holed up in my room and immersed myself in “a galaxy far, far away.”  It would be the first of many long afternoons delving into another world through comics.

One of the things I liked about the comics, and which still holds up today, was the focus they were able to bring to individual characters.  Many issues were solo adventures, or featured groups of only two or three characters working together in ways that the epic scope of the films didn’t always have time for.  In the comics you could observe Princess Leia as a diplomat waging high-stakes games of cat-and-mouse with Darth Vader and the Empire (in “The Third Law”); Luke Skywalker’s role in the Rebellion’s space fleet could receive more attention; Han Solo, and later Lando Calrissian, could be shown in their element as smugglers, gamblers, and “scoundrels” (in flashback, of course).  In essence, the Star Wars universe could support stories of action-adventure, espionage, horror, romance, and even comedy, much as the Expanded Universe still does today.  It made sense: the movies were themselves indebted to many different genres, including the science fiction serials of the 1930s and ’40s; Westerns; World War II aerial dogfights; and the samurai films of Kurosawa.  It was only natural for the comic book adaptations to continue in that spirit and flesh out elements that could only be implied on film.  Not all of the stories worked, and not all of the original characters fit into the Star Wars aesthetic, but I still remember them fondly, from the “Wheel” saga to the the twisty, long-running story of Shira Brie, to the many, many attempts to rescue Han Solo.

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After Return of the Jedi, the Marvel series continued without much apparent purpose, introducing its own villains (the Nagai) and tying up threads from the comics.  The writing was on the wall.  I was a faithful reader until the end, but I couldn’t disagree with the decision to cancel the series after 107 issues: it had become a shadow of its former self, and by that time I had gotten hooked on Marvel’s superhero offerings.

I didn’t spend much time reading the Dark Horse series–I guess I was still a Marvel kid at heart–but from what I could see the quality was good, and they made a lot of smart decisions.  Unlike the Marvel series’ focus on the main characters of the film trilogy (understandable, but ultimately limiting), Dark Horse was able to flesh out the Old Republic and other settings within the Star Wars universe.  They even obtained the rights to the Marvel run and released it in a handsome series of trade paperbacks, a fitting tribute to an imperfect but often richly entertaining saga, and a challenge to the assumption that everyone involved would rather forget it existed.  With the distance of time, new and old readers alike can approach these adaptations, see that there was more to it than green rabbits, and make up their own minds.

(Images from Wookieepedia, the Star Wars Wiki)

Points of Connection, Part Two: A is A . . . or is it?

What can one say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said?  Since its initial publication in 1986-87, more ink has been spilled about the graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons than probably any other modern comic book narrative. It’s been named as one of the greatest (defined as most artistically accomplished, most influential, or most successful—take your pick) comic book projects in history, and even one of Time magazine’s Top 100 Novels, period.  Since the release of Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation and DC’s decision to publish the Before Watchmen prequel books in 2012, there has been even more commentary and debate. I don’t intend to add more to the pile of Watchmen verbiage outside of the narrow scope I established in my last Medleyana post: the use of doppelganger characters.* Alan Moore’s influence on the mainstream has lessened as his projects have become increasingly idiosyncratic in recent years, but it is impossible to discuss the reworking of characters and the exploration of archetypes without bringing him up.

Watchmen is probably the best-known use of pastiche on a grand scale in comics. Originally, Moore meant to write his story about characters from the Charlton publishing company, which had been acquired by DC; after DC decided those characters could be profitably relaunched within DC’s established continuity, they were off the table, and Moore chose to create new characters along similar lines: the Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, the Question became Rorschach, and so forth.

Here’s where it gets interesting: as established previously, an intertextual double (a misprision, in poetic terms) follows the same broad outlines as the original, but is a character in itself, independent of its source.  Points of connection between the two are also points of departure: in other words, the double is only beholden to the original up to the threshold of reader recognition (for purposes of commentary) or satisfying the needs of a given character type (for narrative purposes); after that, they are effectively a blank slate, just like any other original character.  The difference between an effective analogue and a ripoff, then, has nothing to do with “originality” (a much overestimated quality, and especially meaningless in such a codified genre as the superhero), and everything to do with the creator’s success in infusing him or her with convincing motives and actions.  If a character would live, it must have the spark of life: nothing else matters.  (I’ve alluded to the writer’s role in crafting a convincing character, and that is just as true for “original” characters as doppelgangers, of course.)  For Moore, whose entire purpose was to establish a psychological realism to a degree that had only been spottily attempted in the superhero narrative previously, the inner life was a given, but for the achievement to have impact, the characters would also have to resonate as plausible superheroes.**  The Charlton stable were important models, but Moore and Gibbons also drew on the broader common property of superhero archetypes and the visual tropes of costume, accessories, and even the illustration styles of pulp novels, comic books, and advertising art in order to create a convincing, lifelike world, divergent from ours but believable nonetheless.

To cite an example from Watchmen, I had little familiarity with Steve Ditko’s severely moralistic vigilante the Question, or his follow-up character, the even more stringent Mr. A (whose uncompromising slogan, “A is A!” was taken directly from Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), when I first read the graphic novel.  Still, Rorschach is a clear enough character type: a vigilante with a moral code so strict that no one can live up to it, with equal contempt for criminals, their victims, and even other heroes if they aren’t willing to go as far as him.  The details that Moore invents for Walter Kovacs, Rorschach’s alter ego, speak to Watchmen’s interest in both the social problems and individual psychoses involved with superheroics: childhood sexual trauma, a connection to the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, and of course the horrific crimes that sped along Kovacs’ psychotic break.  One doesn’t need to know Ditko’s original characters to appreciate the drama, but it adds some intertextual depth (if anything, reading some of Mr. A’s cases show how little Moore had to exaggerate Rorschach’s ruthlessness and black-and-white morality).

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

Origin of Rorschach's mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Origin of Rorschach’s mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Likewise, I was familiar with the Blue Beetle from his introduction into DC continuity rather than his original Charlton adventures, but I didn’t immediately connect him to Nite Owl when reading Watchmen: he too is a familiar type, a “gadget hero” like Batman (or, to a lesser degree, Iron Man).  Within the narrative, Dan Dreiberg is actually the second Nite Owl, borrowing his name and persona from a Golden Age model, Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl, representing both the ideals and the institutional memory of the original costumed heroes).  This pattern was true of the Blue Beetle, but also of characters such as Green Lantern and Hawkman who had very different Golden and Silver Age incarnations.

Watchmen also benefits from an important opportunity afforded by pastiche: the ability to replace the ad hoc jumble of origins and histories typical of established continuity with a streamlined history that both gives all the characters a common point of reference and allows for meaningful points of connection between them that goes beyond the simple “team-up.”  Although, as Geoff Klock points out, Moore has in many cases deliberately introduced the kind of contradictory history that plagues long-running comic book series into his original stories, in Watchmen he plays it straight, with his “real-life” costumed heroes taking inspiration from fictional comic book characters, and eventually supplanting them.  As for points of contact, in addition to the obvious shared history between them, there are subtle connections: the shape-shifting cloth which Rorschach wears as a mask, and from which he takes his name, is referred to as a spin-off of technologies introduced by Dr. Manhattan, the only truly superhuman character in the novel; other technologies and businesses mentioned are part of the empire of Adrian Veidt, the “self-made” superhero Ozymandias (and a major driver of the plot).

Film adaptations of superheroes often make connections where none exist in the comics in order to tighten up the plot, as for example the Joker/Jack Napier being identified as the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Batman, or Ra’s al Ghul serving as both Wayne’s mentor and eventual antagonist in Batman Begins. Such circularity is more dramatically satisfying, and easier to establish, in a two-hour film or self-contained novel, although asserting such symmetries can be one function of rebooting or “retconning” an established series.  As an example from another narrative, when J. Michael Straczynski rebooted the Squadron Supreme for his 2003 series Supreme Power, he started from the ground up, effectively creating a “trope of a trope:” in Straczynski’s version, the escape pod that brought “Mark Milton” (Hyperion) to earth as an infant was part of an alien battle, the shrapnel from which also gave powers to the Blur (a trope of the Flash, replacing the original Squadron Supreme’s Whizzer, because really: the Whizzer?) and provided the “Power Prism” to Doctor Spectrum (a trope of Green Lantern, here reconceived as a special ops pilot nicknamed “Doctor” because of the surgical precision with which he executes his missions); some of the villains Hyperion faced were created through government experimentation with his own DNA.***  The reboot/misprision allowed Straczynski to focus on the elements that most concerned him: instead of the Squadron imposing its rule in the name of the greater good, as in Mark Gruenwald’s narrative, the Squadron are tools of a shadowy, not always benevolent government that doesn’t reveal its purposes to its super-military (as exemplified by Mark Milton’s upbringing by government operatives instead of Ma and Pa Kent), the expression of a twenty-first century anxiety that remains as relevant as ever.

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

Next time, I’ll examine a few examples from movies and television.

* But for the record, I liked Moore’s original “space squid” ending, and I think it could have worked on film if it had been reconceived in cinematic terms by a director more concerned with duplicating the feel than the look of the book.  How terrifying—and believable—could Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi have made that ending?

** Interestingly, Moore and Gibbons have stated that Mad‘s parody “Superduperman” was an influence on their approach, revealing depravity and greed beneath the slick costumes.  It’s not uncommon for transgressions that are comical to one generation to be taken seriously and developed in earnest by the next.

*** Marvel attempted something similar with its “New Universe” line in 1986, sort of the flip side of DC’s unification of its universe, and showing that it isn’t easy to build a compelling narrative world from scratch.