Friday, March 29, 2013

My First Romance Comic

The other day, I read my first romance comic book. That's right.... I ramble on and on about different genre's and mediums and variety and content and decades of undervalued material, and I haven't even sampled every genre under my medium of choice.

It's because deep down I'm much less an intellectual and much more an eight year old boy still in love with super-heroes.

But I finally did it. I picked a couple and gave them a try. I was actually somewhat surprised at what I found.

In my first year of college at West Chester University, I took a couple of classes that really opened my eyes to a wider world of how to perceive literature. Of course, the classes dealt with LITERATURE... and that part was lost on me. But it toiled around in my brain until I began to understand different perspectives in criticism and different ways of looking at a particular work.

One class I took dealt with pop culture. It was a class that looked at how pop culture effected our every day lives and could be reflected in our entertainment and what we could learn about ourselves and our society. This is the class that influences this blog the most. One of the assignments I remember was to bring in advertisements from one particular magazine. We talked about discerning who the target audience was based on the advertisements and came up with some interesting observations. An indirect way of looking at the source material.

While I read Love Stories #149, published in 1973 by DC Comics, I was struck by how new it was. The stories were very 'dated' in the treatment of women and romance, the clothing styles were dated, and I was used to all that. It even featured artists that were familiar to me. But almost from the first page it was quite obvious I was not the target audience. The ads were for wigs and nails and weight control and books on how to get boys and be popular and I even found where I could send away for a book of pictures of dreamy 1970's actor, Chad Everett. Siiiigh.

Maureen McCormick was shilling a book about being popular on one page. The letters page read like a 'Dear Abby' column. And surprise of surprises... a house ad for DC super hero comics. But only DC super hero comics with female stars. I can honestly say I've never seen this house ad before and I've read comics from all over the seventies several times over. This particular ad was aimed at girls.

The experience wasn't altogether unpleasant. It was new. It wouldn't entertain me for long, but it was good to try it out.

After thinking a lot about this experience, I asked my eleven year old daughter Katie to bring me one of her One Direction magazines.

It. Was. So. Much. Worse.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Naming the Kids

How did you decide what to name your kids?

Some people give their kids family names. Some parents buy baby names book and agonize for awhile. Some families make up names and some take inspiration from celebrities of the day.

For Lorie and I, naming the kids was a dance of mystery and intrigue. Lorie knew that I wanted to name the kids after comic book super heroes, and she did NOT want that to happen. So there was a careful cat-and-mouse game constantly going on. One of us would suggest a name, the other would agree, then Lorie would try to do some research on the name and wonder why I suggested it or agreed to her suggestion so readily.

Our first kid was born before we had any kind of internet connection, so Lorie's powers of research were minimal. We agreed to name him Ashton Carter. Lorie suggested Ashton and I suggested Carter. I told her I got the idea from her favorite hunk on E.R.

It's Hawkman. Carter Hall. Second favorite character of the DC Universe. My first born is named after Hawkman.

Our second child popped out female. Kathryn Lynn. Lynn was Lorie's middle name, before she had it legally changed to her maiden name. We both liked Kathryn because of the utility of it. She could go by Katie, Kate, or Kathryn as an adult. But she'll always be Katie to me.

No plot twist to report on that one, folks. Although I pushed long and hard for 'Diana'. Diana has always been one of my favorite female names, probably because of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman show. But Lorie refused to budge on that one. Maybe in my next life.

Our third child was a boy. Alexander Emory. Emory was Lorie's grandfather's name. so there's the family connection. The name Alex came from Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon and incredibly influential artist of the 1930's and 1940's. His art is beautiful. I just didn't bother to tell Lorie where the name came from. And there aren't a whole lot of heroes named "Alex". (I can think of one off the top of my head. You?)

It's worth noting that Alex's "screamed through the house" name is different from his actual name. Most parents invoke the use of the full name when they mean business. I've gone beyond that. I'll thunder my voice through the house and call for:

"Alex Emory Ignatius Montague Thaddeus Boddog Dill the Third!"

You can imagine how he feels about that.


Monday, March 25, 2013

Hi and Lois in the 1950s

As you know from past blogs, I've taken to reading vintage comic strips not because they're entertaining, but because they can tell you about the culture during the time they were printed. Sometimes, that culture can seem alien to the one we have today. That's why I find the stuff endlessly fascinating. Sometimes the cultural/timeline gap can kill the joke.

I've been following Mort Walker's vintage Beetle Bailey for years. I don't read the current Beetle Bailey, as I don't find it entertaining. But the vintage strips have a certain charm and a clean line of art that I do find entertaining. The strip started with Beetle in college, which I was surprised to find out. Beetle didn't join the army until we got into the Korean War. The strip made it plain that Beetle and his classmates felt it was their duty to sign up for the war effort.

I'm currently in 1956 in the vintage Beetle Bailey strips and the character hasn't seen a lick of action outside of training and putting up with day-to-day army life.

Another Mort Walker strip that I never paid any current day attention to is Hi and Lois. The strip just started running vintage reprints on DailyInk a month or so ago. I do find the vintage strip fascinating, as it reflects the typical American family in the 1950's.

Case in point:

This strip ran in August of 1955. Walt Disney's movie Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier premiered in May of 1955 and cut together three successful TV movies. So kids were gripped with Crocket fever and 'coonskin caps' at the time.

Then there's this strip from September of 1955:

This one hits closer to home than most. The offending items are books, but they could just as easily be comic books. The reference to vampires and zombies could be a nod to the super-popular Tales from the Crypt series published by EC comics and cancelled in September of 1954 due to Dr Frederick Wertham whipping parents of the day into a frenzy over what would cause juvenile delinquency.

It's hard to tell where Mort Walker stood on that issue within the context of this one strip. But then again, he could very well have been going for a laugh and that's it.

As an amatuer comics historian, I find the strip unsettling as the 'idea of past culture' I'm getting is a mother who believes her son will turn out badly because of what he reads. I'm against that notion. Very much so.

As a parent, I want to go check under my teenager's bed.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Mandrake Knock-Offs of the 1940's

I've talked before about my love of vintage strips of Mandrake the Magician. But I just can't shake the feeling that you don't believe me. I feel that you don't believe a newspaper comic strip about a traditional tuxedo magician fighting crime could possibly be that popular.

Thankfully, we have the help of 1940's comic books to prove my point.

In today's entertainment, everyone's striving to find the next big breakthrough character while still keeping us placated with old favorites that we grew up with. Back in the forties, if something sold well, imitators popped up by the boatload. DC famously sued Fawcett comics because Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman, but this is a rare case of the publisher actually doing anything about the competition trying to ape the elements of a character that made it popular.

Here are a few examples of Mandrake knock-offs found in comic books. ALL of these examples came from comics from December of 1941. Please notice the amount of crime fighters choosing to practice their craft in a tuxedo or three piece suit as befits magician's of there era.

Action Comics #43 from DC had Zatara the Magician. This is probably the most well known of the knock off magicians, as his DC Comics heritage lasts into the present day with his daughter, DC comics character Zatanna. Zatara had the unique method of making magical things happen by speaking phrases backwards.

Whiz Comics #25 from Fawcett had Ibis the Invincible. Using his Ibis Stick, he could make just about anything happen.

All-American Comics #33 from DC had Sargon the Sorcerer. Thanks to the ruby in his turban, anything Sargon touched was completely under his control.

World's Finest Comics #4 from DC had Lando, Man of Magic. He didn't seem to have any constraints on his powers at all. But he did sport the standard turban-tux-cape combo of justice.

Top-Notch Comics #22 from MLJ had Kardak, the Mystic Magician. He was a master of illusion just like Mandrake. Again with the turban!

Wonderworld Comics #32 from Fox had Yarko, Master of Magic. Yarko made his magic not by using Zatara's speaking backwards method, but by employing pig latin.

Zip Comics #21 from MLJ had Zambini the Miracle Man. He could pretty much do anything.

National Comics #18 from Quality Comics had Merlin the Magician. This dude seemed to copy Zatara's schtick of making magic by speaking backwards.

Uncle Sam #2 from Quality Comics bucked the male-dominated trend and offered Margo the Magician. She didn't sport Mandrake's trademark tuxedo, but she did have his illusion casting powers down pat.

This is not even counting the characters popping up in More Fun Comics, All-Star Comics, Blue Ribbon Comics, Jackpot Comics, Shield-Wizard Comics and Jungle Comics which were magic based but not immediately recognizable as Mandrake knock-offs. Characters such as Dr. Fate, Spectre, Mr. Justice, Wizard, and even Tabu - Wizard of the Jungle.

Oddly enough, Mystic Comics #8 from Timely Comics didn't have any magicians. Plenty of supernatural themed stories, but just no turbans or top hats.

And Mandrake himself could be found in the pages of comic books. The December 1941 issue of King Comics published by David McKay Company, had Popeye on the cover and four pages of Mandrake reprints from his newspaper material.

I could be wrong about the source of the magician craze. Mandrake dominated the comics newspaper page and his strip began in 1934. But Blackstone the Magic Detective was a 1948 radio show based on popular stage magician Harry Blackstone, who began his career in the early twentieth century and was quite popular throughout World War II. Obviously Mandrake took a que from Blackstone and other stage magicians of the day. But I imagine very few of those actually fought crime.

Knock-offs and theme characters fill the pages of Golden Age comics. It's to the point where I can flip through one of these comics and say "Oh there's the patriotic hero, and here's the magician, and here's the fire-guy, and here's the super speed guy, and here's the aviator, and here's the army dude." The trick is enjoying the material for what it's worth. Which back then was ten cents for about ten stories and some humor pages. So... maybe it was about getting the most for your money? Anyways, one thing is for sure. There's nothing like it today.


P.S. See any nicknames you'd like to adopt at work? Combinations? Vicki Dill, the Invicible Sorcerer of Magic? Steve Lietuvnikas, the Master Mystic Magician of Magic? I say go for it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

HeroClix in the Sanctuary

A couple of week ago, I told you all about my new comic book sanctuary that's part of the huge house addition that we've been working on for six years. Once we pass the final inspection, I'll be able to start putting up the displays again.

Regardless of the fact that my stuff isn't fully unpacked, I love the room. It's got a nice, 'warm' feel to it, and it's pretty sizable. I want to use it. I want to be up here in the room. And yet, without a wi-fi signal that reaches up here, or displays to put up, I really don't have a regular reason to be in the room.

We used to play this game called HeroClix. It involves little super-hero game pieces and maps and dice and super powers and mega battles. Right up my alley, and Lorie would kick my butt in the game on a regular basis. If I resurrected the game, which is still being made today, set up a play space, and got the kids interested, we would have a reason to spend time here.

Not only that, but the games seem to take forever. Especially since I prefer the games with larger, comic-themed teams. It used to be a bear to break it down every evening and set it all back up the next time we played. With the room here, I can leave the game set up and it would bother no one, and no cats would bother it.

So I ordered a larger-than-normal card table to accommodate the maps, set up the game, taught the kids the rules, and we've been playing regularly ever since. Some nights we'll just shoot upstairs to play a single round, leaving the game for the next day.

My kids are six, eleven, and thirteen. We seem to have more than our fair share of arguments around here. One of the things I do in my professional life is work on the communication between team members. It appears that computer programmers are the type of people that would be pleased as punch to never have to talk to one another. I take pride in being able to bridge that gap. And I've been trying hard (unsuccessfully) to use those skills to teach the kids how to communicate with one another. To teach them why it's important. And to teach them how to use it in life.

Games are one of the things I've been doing to try to get them to talk. We have the DC Deck Building game, which the kids enjoy. And we have a game called Seven Wonders, and I found one called Forbidden Island. These games don't necessarily have the goal of defeating an opponent, but rather striving for individual goals. So the games are set up in such a way as to not attack one another.

The kids love the games. But success has been limited. They can't work together on the strategies without arguing. But they do like the games. Katie wrote about Seven Wonders on her blog. Ashton detailed Forbidden Island on his.

With HeroClix, the whole game is confrontational. There's a need to punch, kick, blast, and fight your way to victory. It's the whole point of the game. So I put them all on the same team... against me.

This seems to be proving more effective than the other methods. They'll call out a 'Conference time' and run off to huddle in a corner where I can't hear them and plot against me. They've been supporting each others efforts, working together, and celebrating each other's winning moves. It's not a perfect set up, arguments still persist, but we're getting there. And I plan to continue the efforts with one game or another for as long as I can.

So I'm sitting in my new sanctuary. Playing with tiny little plastic super heroes. Watching my kids band together to take me down. My oldest son, Ashton, managed to use his Aquaman pieces very strategically in a brilliant move that took down one of my more powerful characters. They were very very proud in that moment. And I was a little gleeful to see the Sea King rise to such victories.

It was bliss.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Jack Benny and Senator McCarthy

When I first started this blog, my rough, informal mission statement was to explore what we could learn about our history and culture by looking at pop culture from previous decades. It's probably what I love best about listening to radio shows, watching old movies, and reading old comics.

Today at the gym I almost fell off the treadmill when Jack Benny made a crack about Senator Joe McCarthy.

Senator McCarthy is famous for his witchhunt-style brand of exposing communists in the United States government. It was called 'McCarthyism'. I'm very familiar with McCarthy and his effect on the 1950's. Maybe not because of what he did directly, but what he did indirectly. It was suddenly okay to attack anything which was perceived as un-American. Without first clearly defining what being American was. I view it as a dark, ignorant time in our nation's past. It's because of McCarthyism that Dr. Frederick Wertham was able to attack and cripple the comic book industry with poorly researched facts and a poorly written book. And it's because of the influence of McCarthy that the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was able to attack Hollywood and get the practice of blacklisting started up again.

Which is one of the reasons I was surprised to hear Jack mention McCarthy.

It was the April 16th, 1950 episode. Jack was going down into his basement vault for some money. A reoccurring bit that involves Jack's security guard, Ed, who hasn't seen the light of day in decades. Jack asks Ed to turn around while he works the combination lock. Ed asks Jack if he'd like him to "recite an oath of loyalty". Jack says "No, Ed, Senator McCarthy hasn't listed you yet."

The studio audience loved it.

This struck me as odd for several reasons. My first thought was that it was just too close to home. Why poke the bear that's indirectly responsible for Hollywood blacklisting? My second thought was how odd it was to hear Jack Benny mention politics.

But this was me jumping to mid-treadmill-based conclusions. First, Jack wasn't getting political. Like comedians of today, he was merely being topical. Senator McCarthy made a speech in Wheeling, WV in February of 1950 that made reference to a list he had of employees in the State Department that were communist sympathizers. According to the minimal research I've done, that's what got the McCarthy witch hunt ball rolling. And it must have been a really big deal in the minds of the American public for Jack to make the joke in April of that same year and the audience to have such a big reaction to it.

As for HUAC, that madness wasn't to start until 1951. So at the time Jack made the joke, he didn't know he had anything to worry about. He wasn't "poking the bear", he was "referencing the public figure".

I obviously feel very strongly about Senator McCarthy and what happened back then. And I've read a lot about that particular time period. But this is the first time I've stumbled onto it through the pop culture of the time. I wasn't expecting it from Jack Benny. Hence my treadmill stumbling and recovery. Just thank goodness that this time I recovered.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Aquaman and Squinkies

A little while ago in this post here, I talked about reducing my collection and introducing focus rather than the idea of an overwhelming amount of comics and toys. I've been successful towards that goal. Steadily selling a few things on eBay once a week. Progress is slow, as planned. But to this date I've earned quite a lot by just selling off trade paperbacks. I try not to think about it too much.

While I don't actively collect toys anymore, there are some exceptions to that rule. The best way to stop toy collecting is to not go to Target or Walmart anymore. That way, I remain ignorant on what I'm missing out. But sometimes I find out about a product line, and then the brain rules come into play.

Is it Aquaman? Hawkman? Is it cheap? Will you display it or put it in a box? Is it an antique?

I like the idea of continuing to buy Aquaman things. It's a small, controllable subset of the collection. And it fills the uniqueness quality that being an Aquaman fan gives me. If I collected Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man, I would be drowning in merchandise. My Aquaman stuff will barely fill a bookcase when I'm ready to finally move into my new comic sanctuary.

Recently, I picked up a toy line called Squinkies. My six-year-old son, Alex, has some Squinkies. He has Marvel and Star Wars Squinkies. I think they also make Squinkies for generic animals and possibly a line of cute character Squinkies aimed at girls. For Christmas, Santa Claus brought Alex some Squinkies based on some DC Comics Characters. That's how they showed up on my radar.

I picked up four multi-packs of DC Comics Squinkies. They came in packs of 12. They're small, so they're easy to display. They're cheap, so the funds that paid for them came out of the collection selling that I've been doing. AND... best of all... Aquaman is featured. Twice.

Each multi-pack of Squinkies comes with three hidden figures. Packed in an opaque globe so you don't know what character they are until you open the package. One of the hidden figures is super-hipster super-obscure character Kamandi. I was thrilled. Another of the hidden figures was the Batmobile. I was ecstatic for this surprise, as Batmobiles are another sub-theme to my collection.

I saved the Justice League pack of Squinkies to open for last. This pack was interesting. First off, it was based on the new 52 versions of the characters. Only six of the seven Justice League members were visible. And the other characters represented were the mortal enemies of the League members. Joker, Cheetah, and Lex Luthor.

Would we see that seventh member? Yes. I breathed a sigh of relief as Cyborg popped out of his opaque globe. Another surge of excitement as the second hidden figure turned out to be Super Gorilla Grodd, enemy to the Flash.

Wouldn't it be nice if we got a Black Manta?

Wouldn't it be nice if this very last Squinkie, if the very last hidden character Squinkie, if this one in my hand right now.... were Black Manta?

Why yes. Yes that would be very nice indeed.

I'm so happy!