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)

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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!

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.

Strange Games: Comic Books Confront the Apocalypse

Recently, DC Comics published a trade paperback collection under the unwieldy title Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights. I don’t intend this essay to be a review, but I will say up front that if mid-century visions of nuclear war are your bag, there’s no reason not to pick this up.  If you’ve read any volumes of Showcase (or Marvel’s similar Essential series) before, you know what to expect: more than 500 pages of black-and-white reprints (of stories from the 1960s through the 1980s in this case) on cheap paper at a low price.  They don’t call ‘em “phone books” for nothing.

GreatDisaster.cover

I was eager to get this volume (it had been previously announced several years ago and then delayed) for a few reasons.  First, I was a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction when I was younger, and comic books were no different from other media in exploring that theme.  Second, although I had read some of the stories included, many were unfamiliar to me, and this would be a good way to fill in some gaps.  Finally, the focus on a central event (and one which had been interpreted many different ways by writers over the course of decades) makes this volume a little different from the typical Showcase that either follows a single character or collects completely unconnected stories (like the anthology title House of Mystery).  Some effort was made to arrange contradictory material into a single chronology, and that kind of editorial undertaking is always of interest to me.

Does it succeed?  Eh, sort of.  On one hand, the title tells you a lot about what’s in the volume: several cycles of stories centered on the destruction of civilization as we know it.  The Atomic Knights, in a series of stories by writer John Broome and artist Murphy Anderson that began in 1960, travel the wastes of post-World War III America, surviving with the help of their suits of medieval armor (discovered in a museum and possessed of miraculous radiation-shielding properties).  The only other continuous series represented in this volume is Hercules Unbound, but there are a number of stand-alone stories (many under the umbrella title “The Day After Doomsday”) as well.

On the other hand, the Great Disaster doesn’t have the instant name recognition of a superhero, nor was it the title of an ongoing book (the Atomic Knights, for example, were found in the pages of Strange Adventures; I wouldn’t be surprised if they were added to the title of this book so that at least some character would be named on the front cover).  In fact, the Great Disaster isn’t even synonymous with World War III in DC continuity, but you have to dig pretty deeply into the book to figure that out.  The Great Disaster is (or was, pre-Crisis) a conveniently vague apocalypse in the background of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, involving weapons of mass destruction as well as natural disasters, taking place at some point after WWIII.

(Not included in this volume)

(Not included in this volume)

The most distinctive legacy of the Great Disaster in the world “A.D.: After Disaster” was the release of a mind-altering chemical (“cortexin”) that caused ordinary animals to become intelligent, as well as gaining upright posture and opposable thumbs.  In the wake of the Great Disaster, most humans had become mute and animalistic.  Essentially, Kamandi’s world is one of reversed roles like Planet of the Apes, but with anthropomorphic dogs, tigers, and rats in addition to gorillas and other species (not to mention numerous mutant monsters and space aliens that defy categorization), all mixed up together in the ruins of a futuristic civilization.  The last point varied pretty widely: sometimes it seemed like the Great Disaster hit America in the 1970s, but it never stopped Kirby and his successors from throwing in robots, spaceships, and other high-tech devices left behind by the “ancients” if a story called for it.  (Eventually, Kamandi’s world was linked to “The World That’s Coming,” the setting of OMAC, a short-lived—and even weirder, but definitely futuristic—science fiction series Kirby had also created.)

Aside from Planet of the Apes, the world of Kamandi bears a close resemblance to the campaign setting of Gamma World, a role-playing game from TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons.  In transposing the adventuring-party model to a post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting, the game designers gave players the option of playing as a “pure strain” human, (humanoid) mutant, or mutated animal.  From one angle, the title character of Kamandi (“the last boy on Earth”) and his companions, the superhuman Ben Boxer and dog-man Dr. Canus, could be player characters in a Gamma World game, and their travels from one wonder to another, piecing together the fragmented history of their world and facing down monsters and villains, are not unlike an ongoing RPG campaign.

GammaWorld

Alas, Kamandi does not appear in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster. The material reprinted from Kamandi #43-46 is a backup story focused on Urgall, a gorilla whose liberal ideas (extending respect not only to non-gorillas but to humans, and even female gorillas!) put him at odds with his tribe. (Another “tale of the Great Disaster” that appeared in Weird War Tales #51-52, featuring warring English and Scottish dog-men, is not included, which is too bad, as it is superior to the story of Urgall.)  I’ve gone into detail about Kamandi because I’m a fan, and having collected (I believe) all the pre-Crisis appearances of Kamandi and OMAC, it’s hard for me to not bring that context to the present book.  As of this writing, the only collected reprints of Kamandi are more lavish and expensive than the Showcase series, but the title is worth seeking out and is really more essential than anything in this book (but if you’re reading this, you already knew that, right?).

When I first read the Atomic Knights stories (about fifteen years ago), they struck me as more than a little silly: in addition to the conceit of medieval armor protecting against radiation, the stories were burdened with outdated gender roles (the “littlest knight,” Marene Herald, mostly stays out of the way, awaiting the day that team leader Gardner Grayle will propose to her) and too many convenient “scientific” solutions to problems.  Although the war is said to have occurred in October, 1986, the Atomic Knights’ roots in the early 1960s remain obvious.

Reading them again, however, I’m more sympathetic to the earnest tone: the Knights are at the vanguard of rebuilding democracy, and the stories often end on a didactic note, preaching the need for cooperation, compassion, and emphasizing reason and the rule of law.  Many of the menaces they face will be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction: problems of supplying food and energy when nothing will grow; human populations regressed to caveman-like savagery; would-be dictators such as the fascist “organizer” Kadey and the self-proclaimed King of New Orleans; and non-human threats either produced by radiation (a Triffid-like strain of mobile, intelligent plants) or opportunistically filling the void left by the collapse of humanity (a race of underground mole people who plan to permanently darken the sky so that they can take over the surface world; scavenging space aliens searching for precious metals).  That the Atomic Knights continue striving and are able to keep their humanity as they do so is, in its own way, optimistic.

strange_adventures#144

In fact, the suits of armor the Atomic Knights wear aren’t an anomalous detail: sometimes the comparison to knights of old is made explicit.  In the first story in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, “The Year 700 After the Bomb,” the post-war society resembles feudal Europe, right down to the Robin Hood-style costumes, royal titles, and pseudo-Old English dialect.  One could attribute these details to lazy writing, but it also reflects a view of history with definite evolutionary stages: just as civilization climbs upward over generations, it can also slide downward, and in such stories the image of a new “Dark Ages” is made literal.  (This can probably be laid at the doorstep of H. G. Wells, whose view was long enough to envision a day when humanity, too, is extinct, and whose film Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies, portrayed a post-war English village ruled by a petty medieval warlord.)

It was when the Atomic Knights encountered warriors from the legendary island of Atlantis, time-warped into the future by their own scientific catastrophe, that I was able to put my finger on the story-telling mode. Replace “radiation” with “magic,” and a story in which armored knights battle Romanesque soldiers from an ancient island could be part of any fantasy novel from the last hundred years.  Specifically, the discovery of “Atlantides” (as the islanders are called in this story) fits neatly into the “lost world” genre: as practiced by H. Rider Haggard, A. Merritt, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, there was always the possibility of a remote valley, cave, or island that history and evolution had passed by, leaving a population of dinosaurs, ancient Romans, or other living relics to be discovered.  The lost world genre was mostly finished off by World War II, as the empty, unknown spaces on the map were filled in; wiping the slate clean with a global catastrophe allowed writers to open those spaces up again, and fill them with mystery and adventure.  In these stories, the lost world was our own.

Perhaps that is one reason they continue to be popular: although seemingly pessimistic, this strain of post-apocalyptic fantasy, showing places and objects of the present through the eyes of later generations, provides for a kind of reenchantment of the everyday.  We gain perspective when we imagine a bustling city full of skyscrapers as empty and crumbling; more importantly, we can appreciate how marvelous our technology is when we picture later generations trying to make sense of it.  In the Gamma World game, there was a mechanism for player characters to puzzle out the use and meaning of “artifacts,” meant to prevent players from using out-of-game knowledge to identify, say, a rifle as a weapon rather than an emblem of office.  Similar misinterpretations are a staple of the genre: picture the subterranean mutants of Beneath the Planet of the Apes worshipping a nuclear missile as a god, or a young shaman trying to divine omens with a vinyl record in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Likely inspired by real-life cargo cults, the projection of superstitious beliefs onto modern goods allows writers to remix old and new cultural symbols, comment on our relationship to technology, and—that standby of science fiction—map contemporary political concerns onto fantastical stories.

AtomicKnights

It should go without saying that the stories of Kamandi and the Atomic Knights don’t have anything to do with the likely horrors of a real nuclear war (or whatever the Great Disaster was supposed to be), and the longer their stories continued, the more fantastical and obviously escapist they became.  In the final story included in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, no less a DC eminence than Superman himself encounters the Atomic Knights, only to discover that their entire history is the dream of Gardner Grayle, placed in a sensory deprivation tank as part of a military experiment.  Grayle’s unconscious mind has taken over the computers running the simulation and threatens to launch an actual nuclear strike in order to make real the fantasies in which Grayle has played the hero for years.

The premise, and the lesson that Grayle imparts after awakening at the last minute (“The task before mankind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!”), owe much to WarGames and the similar lesson the supercomputer WOPR (“Joshua”) learns in that film (“A strange game: the only winning move is not to play”). “It was all a dream!” is obviously the king of lame cop-outs and, in cases like this, the last refuge of a writer whose story has gotten away from him.  I think it actually works, though: in 1983 the “survivable” nuclear war was an increasingly untenable premise, and the quaint early stories of the Atomic Knights had become hopelessly snarled with the continuity of Hercules and the world of the Great Disaster in the pages of Hercules Unbound.  (I haven’t commented on that series, but suffice to say that even the titular demigod couldn’t bear the burden of reconciling the combined histories of the Atomic Knights, Kamandi, and OMAC and telling his own story in an intelligible manner.)

I think it’s a little much to criticize escapism, however, when the target audience has so little power to change the situation from which they are escaping.  It’s one thing to indict military planners running simulations with potential real world consequences, another to criticize something as obviously fanciful as the Atomic Knights or Gamma World.  Speaking as a cold war baby who was ten years old in 1983 and absolutely terrified of nuclear war, the only other alternative was denial: I could hardly watch the news without having a panic attack, and I had no desire to subject myself to The Day After when it aired (I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the even grimmer Testament and Threads at the time).

Nuclear war was also frequently on Superman’s mind in the 1980s: most fans today remember Superman IV and the Man of Steel’s quest to rid Earth of nuclear weapons, but in the comics Superman often stood aside as an observer, willing to admonish mankind but not make the hard decisions for us.  Visions of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction haunt him: a Superman who does nothing to prevent a holocaust is not super in any way, but were he to take the choice out of our hands he would become a god rather than a man.  This version of Superman as advocate and guardian challenges the view of comic book readers as naïve simpletons waiting to be rescued.

(Also not included in this book)

(Also not included in this volume)

As I said initially, I eventually became an avid consumer of comics, games, books and movies that explored life after the bomb.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? I don’t recall thinking it was realistic to expect survival in the event of a war, much less high adventure, but it was a comforting daydream. Certainly there was plenty to choose from, and I know there were a lot of guys in my generation who shared the same fantasy.  (One of the most believable details of last year’s The World’s End was that arrested adolescent Gary King would end up as a wandering gunslinger in the wasteland, loving every minute of it: for me it was a striking moment of recognition.)  Just about everything you need to know about this phase of 1980s masculinity can be found in the video for Tom Petty’s song “You Got Lucky.” It’s all there: guns, guitars, cowboy-chic dusters, and a sweet arcade in the middle of the desert.  (Petty obviously liked the milieu enough to make an appearance as himself in the 1997 film adaptation of David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman.)

TomPetty

The focus in popular culture changed after the passing of the Cold War; although the apocalypse has never been far from our entertainment, the end of the world can come from almost any direction nowadays: terrorism, climate change, pandemic, just to name the more realistic possibilities.  Free-floating dread has replaced the pointed terror of “Mutually Assured Destruction;” chaos is more feared than ideology, and it’s reflected in the zombie hordes and rampaging kaiju of current film.  Still, the stories I grew up with haven’t been forgotten: perhaps it’s driven by ‘80s nostalgia, but remakes or reboots of Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, and even WarGames have either been made or are in production.  Gamma World has been through seven editions, the last in 2010, although I haven’t played in years.  The intoxicating cocktail of sword-and-sorcery among the ruins of modern civilization is still with us in such programs as Adventure Time.  Earth A. D. is still a place that many of us like to visit, even if we wouldn’t want to live there.

AdventureTime

Five Favorite Images of 2013

First of all, I don’t do Pinterest.  Or Tumblr.  (Never say never, but not right now, at any rate.)  But I do like to keep track of pictures I enjoy.  The end of the year is a time for solemn list-making by critics and fans alike.  By its very nature, this blog isn’t focused on movies, music, or books alone, so I won’t pretend to sum up the year in depth.  Making lists is fun, however, so here is a (hopefully) fun list: some of my favorite images from 2013.  Some of these have been around for a while, but they were new to me in the last year.

5.  Super Lil Bub!

A_SUPER

Everyone knows Lil Bub, the google-eyed cat that has taken the Internet by storm.  This 8-bit style retro design by Drew Wise was available as a tee shirt earlier this year.  I didn’t get one–I have a lot of tee shirts already–but this needs to be commemorated.  Even if it was just Lil Bub flying her saucer around space, who wouldn’t want to play this game?

4. Cookie Monster Cupcakes: Nailed It

Cookie-Monster-Cupcakes..-Nailed-It

Yes, these are everywhere.  But so help me, I laugh at this one every time I see it.  Never not funny.

3.  Injustice: Gods Among Us: shocked Batman

supes-kills-joker

I haven’t read Injustice: Gods Among Us, and frankly I doubt I’ll bother.  Although I have a documented interest in stories that put familiar characters in extreme situations, a graphic novel tied into a video game (from the makers of Mortal Kombat, in case that wasn’t obvious), and in which Superman is tricked into killing Lois Lane–and then goes on a rampage and kills pretty much everyone else–doesn’t grab me.  I’ll grant that Injustice has been polarizing: depending on whom you ask, it’s either the best or worst thing to happen to comics in years.  But what I like about the above illustration (from artist Jheremy Raapack) isn’t Superman disemboweling the Joker with his bare hands, but the look on Batman’s face in the background:

Injustice-Gods-Among-Us-Batman

If someone wanted to put this on a tee shirt, I’d seriously consider it.

2.  Platypus Venn Diagram

platypus.venn

This one has apparently been around for some time as well–as far as I can tell it’s the creation of Tenso Graphics, but I first saw it on this They Might Be Giants Tumblr.

1.  Sleeping Tyrannosaurus Rex

sleeping.trex

This illustration, by artist John Conway, just tickles me.  It’s from the excellent book All Yesterdays by Conway, C. M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish, which I may write about in more detail in the future.  The book is subtitled “Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals,” and the artists are deliberately trying to avoid the clichés that often define paleoart.  As Naish writes in the accompanying text,

Most hunting animals spend long days resting, either in order to conserve energy, or while digesting the food acquired from a fresh kill.  Like most warm-blooded predators, the fearsome T. Rex may have spent most of its time asleep.

Fearsome, yes, but just look at it: it’s almost as cute as Lil Bub.

Points of Connection, Part Three: Invasion of the TV Doppelgangers

Of course, sometimes less is more: a few carefully selected details can tell us everything we need to know about a character, especially in the visual media of comics or film.  At the very least, putting a familiar character in a new uniform with a new name can work wonders, creating a “reskinned” version of the known character, to borrow a metaphor from video games.  The Justice League are suggested visually in Planetary and The Authority; numerous pulp and comics figures are recognizable in Planetary, and entire worlds where costumed heroes are the norm are presented in works such as Astro City, Top 10, and The Venture Bros.: our escapist fantasy is their day-to-day, and naturally there are connections to familiar characters, sometimes played straight and sometimes distorted like the reflections in a funhouse mirror.

Unnamed Justice League doubles, from Planetary No. 1; art by John Cassaday

Unnamed Justice League doubles, from Planetary No. 1; art by John Cassaday

It can be most fascinating when only a hint is given: Berthold, Albrecht, Adolphus, and Gustavus, the companions of Baron Munchausen (themselves a sort of 18th century superhero team) have little backstory or individuality beyond their extraordinary abilities, but I was captivated by them after seeing Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film. Berthold is the fastest man alive (literally faster than a speeding bullet), to the point that he is shackled to a pair of iron balls to keep him in place; Albrecht is a gentle giant, possessed of great strength; Adolphus is the hawkeyed marksman; Gustavus has incredible hearing and can exhale gale-force winds (two abilities that don’t appear related on the surface, but there is a poetic rightness to their pairing). The simplicity of their characterization is tied into their superlative abilities: comic book and fairy tale narratives alike depend on simple, clearly defined characters, who are often boiled down to the pure essence of whatever they are.  Being well-rounded isn’t required, particularly for those in supporting roles.  Munchausen’s companions compare well to Doc Savage’s team of experts or any other team where diverse abilities and personalities are subordinated to a strong leader who can bind them together.

The best example of the power of suggestion is probably the bounty hunter Boba Fett, a “gadget antihero,” whose cool uniform and badass swagger (as has been pointed out many times before, his bona fides were instantly established with two words from Darth Vader: “No disintegrations”) sparked the imagination of Star Wars fans everywhere when he appeared in The Empire Strikes Back.  Even his ironic, thoroughly non-badass fall into the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi took little shine off his reputation.  Sadly, his origin, as established in the prequel trilogy, has only served to deflate his mythic status (along with everything else in the Star Wars universe).  Sometimes it is really better not to reveal too much.

I mean, just look at him.

I mean, just look at him.

Television has developed its own conventions for doubles, for reasons unique to the medium.  It’s very common for procedurals like Law & Order and political dramas like The West Wing to fictionalize real-life individuals, with L & O especially prone to using cases that are “ripped from the headlines.”  In addition to the changes of names and inessential details involved, the casting of actors signals the added layer of unreality to the audience: like the use of superhero pastiches, it allows the writer the freedom to embroider or change facts (especially important considering the need to wrap up a criminal case every week, as opposed to the sometimes murky and prolonged real-life cases they’re based on).  Indeed, it’s only one step removed from casting a role in a biopic or docudrama, or impersonating a public figure on Saturday Night Live.  In an era where celebrities, politicians, and other public figures are familiar to audiences through their television appearances, the replacement of one heavily mediated figure with another can be accepted without batting an eye.

Animation is fertile ground for the kind of doubling seen in the comics: it is a visual medium limited only by the imagination of the artists, and most animated shows draw on genres and conventions related to the comics: superheroes, fantasy/science fiction, adventure, and humor, all of which benefit from bold designs and clear characterization based on stock types—in other words, the domain of the archetype and the doppelganger.  Animation does add a layer unavailable to the comic book, however: voice acting.  Just as in the thinly fictionalized cases of L & O, the presence of a familiar actor (even if in voice only) can cue the audience to similarities between characters.  For example, TV’s longtime Batman Adam West lent his voice to the Squadron Supreme’s Nighthawk on an episode of Super Hero Squad Show (“Whom Continuity Would Destroy!”), a not-so-subtle nod to Nighthawk’s model (and one in a long string of self-deprecating turns by West).  Likewise, Kevin Conroy (the voice of the title character on Batman: The Animated Series) appeared as  Captain Sunshine (a character superficially resembling Superman, but whose mansion and relationship with his “ward,” Wonder Boy, clearly parodies the homoerotic subtext often attributed to Batman’s relationship with Robin, the “Boy Wonder”) on The Venture Bros. (“Handsome Ransom”).

Shelbyvillelimit

Comedies, however, have really taken the doppelganger concept and run with it in the last decade: it fits perfectly with the self-referential, metatextual idiom that took hold in the 1990s with The Simpsons and Seinfeld, and came to fruition with programs such as Spaced, Arrested Development, and CommunityThe Simpsons had its Shelbyville, a mirror version of hometown Springfield, complete with doppelgangers of the main cast (in the episode “Lemon of Troy”).  On Seinfeld, when Elaine started hanging out with Kevin, referred to as “Bizarro Jerry” in the episode of the same name (a reference, of course, borrowed from Superman’s mythos), she found herself at a different coffee shop and with a group that resembled Jerry, George, and Kramer.  (The fact that Bizarro Jerry and his friends were generous and considerate, of course, ultimately excluded Elaine from their company: she didn’t fit in with them.)  Since then, there is hardly a single TV comedy from the last ten years that hasn’t played with the idea of a character or group that mirrors one or more of the main characters.

bizarro

A theme that runs through many of the examples I’ve cited is one of maturity, even senescence, looking back and reevaluating the follies of youth (the youth of a medium, its characters, or its audience, it makes no difference), what Geoff Klock calls the revisionary narrative. In Gilliam’s film, Baron Munchausen revisits the scenes of his youthful adventures, getting his servants together and confronting the results of his earlier decisions.  The screwed-up lives of professional adventurers and the way their dysfunction is passed from generation to generation is a primary theme of The Venture Bros. (In Gilliam’s film, Berthold was stranded in a cage on the Moon for twenty years after being abandoned by the Baron; Dr. Jonas Venture similarly left trusted companions, experimental subjects, and dangerous inventions behind in the Venture Compound, messes his son Rusty has had to deal with throughout the series.)  And of course, the characters in Watchmen are dominated by the past, ruminating on it, trying to get past it or relive it, digging up skeletons that are better left buried.  Nostalgia, regret, and loss of potency figure in all three narratives.  (Still, I don’t want to overlook the enormous pleasure I get from these stories: even Watchmen, which I wouldn’t exactly describe as “fun,” is exhilarating on account of its ambition and technical achievement.  It has the uplifting quality of a great tragedy instead of just being a giant bummer.)

Special thanks to Matthew Grenier and Adam Byers for helping me sharpen some of my arguments and pointing me toward some examples I hadn’t thought of.  Of course, my wrong-headed conclusions are all my own, and the only blame they deserve is for encouraging me.

Next, I’ll examine pastiche writ large, and a counterexample: Galaxy Quest and Escape From Tomorrow.

Points of Connection, Part One: the Many Children of Krypton

Hyperion.  Supreme.  The Sentry.  What do these characters have in common?  All are doppelgängers, or doubles, of Superman, and not just in the sense that all costumed heroes descend from the Big S, or in the debt they all owe to Philip Wylie’s Gladiator and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, nor even in their monomythic relation to Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Rather, they are thinly veiled copies, different enough in detail to escape litigation (or avoid confusing readers) but readily recognized by key elements of their persona, history, and/or supporting cast.

The double, or pastiche, is a powerful fictional technique, in which an established character is effectively remade (and frequently repurposed); it’s especially common in comic books, where “copycatting” is an established (if not especially reputable) practice.  As an example, the core members of DC’s Justice League of America—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al—have been copied numerous times, individually and as a team.  It should be noted that I’m not speaking so much of identical twins or copies of the same characters inhabiting parallel universes, although those are equally common story-telling tropes. The doubling to which I refer is almost always intertextual, allowing a writer to tell a story including (a version of) a character owned by another publisher, or including story elements that would be unacceptable for a well-established (and ongoing) character.

Adhering to genre conventions is not enough: recall that National (DC’s parent company) sued Fawcett over alleged similarities between Superman and Captain Marvel, yet the elements the two characters have in common—super strength and other powers, colorful costumes, secret identities, and an ethos of doing good—are practically universal among Golden Age heroes, and in other specifics the characters are quite different.  Superman, orphaned son of the doomed planet Krypton, doesn’t have much in common with Billy Batson, who is given his powers by the wizard Shazam.  It is precisely those details that a writer can exploit, filling in the pastiche character’s backstory with variations that are functionally the same; sometimes it is as simple as changing a few names (Superman’s Krypton becomes Hyperion’s Argon), at other times a more thorough reworking is undertaken, but the connections are still apparent because of the overall dynamic of the story.  This goes beyond parody, although the line can be fuzzy: Mad’s “Superduperman” and “Captain Marbles” are clearly a joke, but one intended to reveal, among other things, the venality and absurdity hidden beneath the costumed hero’s civic-minded facade (“Once a creep, always a creep!”). Hyperion (from Marvel’s Squadron Supreme) and Alan Moore’s take on Marvelman/Miracleman (instantly recognizable as Superman and Captain Marvel, respectively) are largely dramatic in their treatment, but just as flawed.

The value of the double is summed up by Geoff Klock in his How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, a study that looks at the evolution of superhero narratives through the lens of Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence:

The current character, though obviously in debt to its source, can often act as a powerful misprision [a reflection, or reinterpretation] of that original character, while the fact that it is not actually the original frees the writer from the constraints of copyright and continuity.

For example, earlier in his book, Klock argues that “Warren Ellis’s Four Voyagers [from the pages of Planetary] are a trope of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, which is to say that while the Four Voyagers are characters in themselves, they are also an interpretation/metaphor of characters that have come before” (emphasis added).

Such misprision is most useful when the writer has something to say beyond aping an already successful character: in Klock’s scheme, informed by Bloom’s statement that “the meaning of a poem can only be another poem,” well-known characters stand in for their creators, so that one generation of writers can exorcise or assimilate the influence of the preceding generation.  (And obviously, the technique of parody allows the writer to zero in on whatever element of the original character they wish to critique, exaggerating it, sometimes to the point of absurdity–see above.)  One doesn’t have to agree with all of Klock’s conclusions to see the value of this dialectic approach, and in fact the finest realization of a pastiche character isn’t always written by the person who first created it.  Alan Moore took over Supreme, a character created by Rob Liefeld, and transformed him into a meditation on Superman; the resemblance was already present, but Moore brought it into focus.  As another example, Mark Gruenwald used the Squadron Supreme, Marvel’s trope of the JLA (originally introduced by Roy Thomas), to examine the relationships of the characters to each other, bringing out unspoken subtext or real-world concerns (such as the tendency toward paternalistic fascism inherent in the concept of super-protectors; the alienation of super-beings’ human friends and family; and the finality of death, as opposed to comic book characters’ typical return from the grave for shock value, marketing purposes, or narrative convenience) that would halt an ongoing series in its tracks if acknowledged. (Another version of the Squadron, effectively a trope of a trope, was launched in 2003; more about that later.)

Such concerns, when addressed at all, used to be the domain of the parallel universe or “imaginary story:” What if the Justice League used their power to oppress humanity instead of protecting it?  One answer was Earth-3’s Crime Syndicate of America; another was the Squadron Sinister, created as part of an unofficial “Avengers vs. JLA” crossover (since by Comic Book Law, when two characters meet for the first time, they must test their powers against each other in battle; the Squadron Sinister later, of course, became the Squadron Supreme). Later, such projects as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, and Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier would address many of these subjects using flagship characters in speculative settings outside regular continuity, but Squadron Supreme (1985) predates the more critical approach to characterization kicked off by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and by Miller himself, and the aforementioned projects benefited from the more fluid approach to continuity that became fashionable after the high water mark of Crisis on Infinite Earths’ obsessive attempt to keep things in fixed positions.

Time is short tonight, so I’ll save a discussion of Watchmen, one of the most prominent and influential reinventions of this type, for next time.