Thursday, July 30, 2015

Little Nemo and the Imp

Winsor McCay is best remembered for his comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland; you may also know him for his cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur or the strip Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. You may possibly have heard of the strip Little Sammy Sneeze, or even perhaps A Pilgrim's Progress. It's less common to hear of his strip Tale of the Jungle Imps, a 1903 comic strip which preceded Little Nemo. And yet, it's an important work in his career if for no other reason because that strip introduced his African "imps," one of which would become a cast member in Little Nemo starting in 1907 (said imp is called "Imp," "Impi" or "Impie," but not with much consistency). By linking these two strips, was McCay perhaps the first person in comics to use the idea of a "shared universe?"

But Impie is, of course, a problem; the grass skirt, giant painted lips and unintelligble dialogue cause discomfort to 21st century sensibilities. The sequence which introduced Impie began inauspiciously with Nemo, his friend Flip and the Princess of Slumberland putting ashore from the Princess' yacht to an island inhabited by cannibals, who attempted to cook the three children for dinner; the Princess' guards arrived in time to save them. Matters brightened significantly the following week as the natives' adult chief (noticeably taller than the protagonist children) apologized and took them for a ride in his car. The chief spoke perfect English and his motorcar (with goats instead of wheels and a frog instead of a horn) was a very fun McCay visual.

At the end of the visit to the island, Flip was kidnapped by some of the young "imps," against the chief's wishes. Then, in the July 14, 1907 strip, we had the definitive first appearance of Impie; Flip escaped his captors and was reunited with the others at the yacht, lugging behind him a large crate. When the crate was opened, Flip proudly displayed one of the imps who had caught him: "Here's the party who tried to steal me! Now, he belongs to me!" This seems to be the one and only instance where Flip claimed "ownership" of Impie, but it's certainly problematic if you want to enjoy Little Nemo in Slumberland as anything other than a historical artifact. Very quickly, Impie displaced the Princess as Nemo's second-closest comrade (after Flip, of course). Although he seldom spoke, Impie would often cause mischief which Flip would frequently exacerbate; while the problems Flip caused for the other characters had a taste of malevolence in them, Impie usually made trouble seemingly without intending to.

Impie appeared throughout the publishing history of Little Nemo in Slumberland, although as the years wore on, he would at times vanish from the strip for several months at a time. Towards the end of the strip's run at the New York Herald, Impie's role was mostly replaced by a boy whom Flip took under his wing (said boy was sometimes called Splinters but like Impie used other names). After Winsor's passing, his son Bob McCay made use of Impie in his own strips and comic books in the 1940s. The Little Nemo cast of characters have seldom been seen in new material since the 40s, but recent years have seen a resurgence of interest through new collections and stories. These included last year's four-issue mini-series Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland by Eric Shanower & Gabriel Rodriguez. And yet, that mini-series did not feature Impie. It's noteworthy that Flip - who almost always smoked cigars in the original strips - was reintroduced with cigars, but very quickly gave them up in favour of candy canes, one way in which Shanower & Rodriguez bowed to changing standards. The other is Impie's absence; rather than revamp Impie into something a little less, well, racist, they simply replaced him with the Frunkus (seen above). Like Impie, the Frunkus did not speak English and existed to accompany Flip and cause mischief with him, but as a furry, colourful monster, he lacked the stigma surrounding Impie.

The dawn of the 20th century frequently depicted black children in popular culture as "imps" and "picaninnies." I'm kinda hoping the trend in the 21st century will prove itself to be "human beings." Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Behind the Scenes of Marvel Westerns: Outlaw Files and "The Captain from Texas"

Volunteering at the Grand Comics Database, I've recently come back to one of the comic books I myself oversaw: Marvel Westerns: Outlaw Files. It was one of the first books where I received the "head writer/coordinator" credit (which was essentially that of a junior editor). I selected the team of writers, I determined which characters would be featured and I judged how many pages each one should receive. This particular book was assembled as a sort of "scrapbook" which would give us some freedom in pushing against the borders of the Marvel Universe, enabling us to reveal new details about various Marvel characters - for instance, I decided to establish Tex Dawson had inspired a series of early Hollywood western films and lived long enough to see the rise of western pictures, just like Wyatt Earp. I'm not sure why I established that, but there it is.

In the spirit of behind-the-scenes data, since 10 years have passed I'm going to reveal the secrets of "The Captain from Texas," a 2-page text story of mine which appeared within.

The format

"The Captain from Texas" was an homage to the 2-page text stories which appeared in so many Marvel Comics up until the 1960s. Although originally they featured original artwork, by the late 1950s they would recycle an existing panel from a story and usually place it in the center of one page. Thus, "The Captain from Texas" features a recycled piece of artwork placed in the center of the page.

The image

The image is, of course, recycled from Captain America's Bicentennial Battles (1976) by Jack Kirby, where it appeared as one of several pin-ups by Kirby where he imagined how Captain America would appear in other time frames. For many decades these pin-ups were not considered to be more than flights of fancy, but in 1999, Roger Stern & Ron Frenz were inspired by the pin-up of a Revolutionary War Captain America and established him as part of Marvel continuity (Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #6-7). It was not my intent to do the same with this story (as I'll detail below), but my Official Handbook cohorts later used this story as a license to do just that.

Title: "The Captain from Texas"

The story's protagonist is, indeed, a former Captain who is now a Texas Ranger, but there were other reasons why I picked this title; in part, it was an homage to my friend "Texcap," an online friend of mine who was both Texan and a tremendous Captain America fan. However, the title was also intentionally chosen as a shout-out to 1950s Marvel western heroes such as the Kid from Texas and the Kid from Dodge City.

Byline: "Holly Martins"

Film buffs will recognize this as the name of the protagonist in the 1949 film the Third Man by director Carol Reed and author Graham Greene (it's my favourite film). In the picture, Holly was a pulp novelist who primarily wrote westerns. I chose the name not only as a shout-out to the film, but as a way of excusing my own prose; although by this time Marvel had published many of my character profiles or makeshift "diary and journal" type articles, this marked the first time I was being paid as true author of fiction - and obviously, I didn't have much confidence in my talents. The byline "Holly Martins" was a means of excusing any defects in the prose as an effort to create an "authentic" piece of hack writing. You must judge for yourself whether I succeeded.

paragraph 1, "Rawhide"

I chose the town "Rawhide" as an obvious reference to the Rawhide Kid; I'm not sure why I did that (see next comment).

paragraph 3, Sheriff Tally

Sheriff Tally first appeared as a character in the text story "The Law" from Kid Colt, Outlaw #73 (1957), where he was Deputy Sheriff Jim Tally of Graysville. I felt he should be promoted to sheriff so that he could play a senior role to my protagonist (implicitly setting this story years after the events of "the Law") but I'm not sure why I moved him to Rawhide. Anyway, Sheriff Tally is a character in this story because he's a Marvel character who had only ever appeared in a text story; by using him, I gave this story some bona fides within the history of Marvel text stories.

paragraph 4, Liberty

The Captain's horse is, of course, a play on the "Sentinel of Liberty" moniker often granted to Captain America.

paragraph 9, the Texas Rangers

Making the Captain a Texas Ranger was another gift to my friend Texcap, who had previously spoken very highly of the Texas Rangers. My knowledge was largely limited to the 1950s radio series Tales of the Texas Rangers, but as a tribute to him I made the Captain a ranger.

paragraph 20, Jack Rhett

Jack Rhett was not named after Gone With the Wind's Rhett Butler, but instead served as a double reference; "Jack" is a nickname for people named "John" and "John" is the Americanized named for Johann - as in Johann Shmidt, the Red Skull; "Rhett" simply sounds like "Red." Essentially, Jack Rhett is the story's stand-in for Captain America's traditional foe, the Red Skull.

The other reference is to "Wild Jack Rhett," a 1933 short story by Ernest Haycox which was adapted to the great radio series Escape, December 17, 1950 (can be downloaded from here). The plot concerns a town desperate for law & order who hire an outlaw to protect them, but as the situation improves they become quite ungrateful. It was an early example of radio seeking a more mature and adult tone for western stories and the show's director, Norman Macdonnell, cited it as a major influence on his later radio series Gunsmoke. My story's Jack Rhett has no connection to the character of the play outside of the name.

paragraph 22, "Grim Jack"

Having made a homonym of "Red," I wanted to indicate "Skull" somewhere. I decided to reference the "Death's Head Grin" which skulls are supposed to make. Somehow, "grin" became "grim," perhaps because I had been thinking of the Grim Reaper. Fortunately, I never stopped to think I was one spacebar away from John Ostrander & Tim Truman's Grimjack!

paragraph 23, "Sounds like a bad hombre."

My first draft read "bad dude," but someone in production thought it was an anachronism. I knew it wasn't (especially in the context of a hack pulp story), but rather than argue the point I changed it to "hombre." That was typical of my time at Marvel - I only seemed to pick fights when I couldn't win.

paragraph 33, milk

In western stories where the hero is a righteous, morally upstanding fellow, his choice of drink often says much about him. Those heroes who spurn alcohol for milk (as in the 1939 film Destry Rides Again) then find themselves bullied by would-be tough guys. It's a scenario which played out in many Marvel western comic books, although the specific one I thought of at the time was Rawhide Kid#28's "When a Gunslinger Gets Mad!" (1962) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, wherein the Kid ordering a glass of milk led to a chaotic bar brawl. In my story, the bartender's restrained reaction was my own concession to the typical "milk causes bar brawl" scene.

paragraph 47, the shield

Being a Captain America analogue, naturally he had to throw the shield eventually.

paragraph 52, Captain Roger Stephenson

The name I chose for the Captain is an exact match for the version of Captain America who appeared in Peter David, Ron Frenz & Mark Bagley's Marvels Comics: Captain America #1 (2000). That story was supposedly what a licensed Captain America comic book within the Marvel Universe looked like (as written by Cap's former sidekick Rick Jones!), and thus it gave the Captain a different secret identity to protect Steve Rogers' anonymity. Utilizing that same name here was my extremely subtle way of indicating that this story likewise existed as a piece of Marvel meta-fiction, rather than an event from the Marvel Universe proper. To my mind, Holly Martins hacked out this two-pager and sold it to Timely when they were trying to transition from super hero comic books to western books in the post-war environment.

A final observation: it's been ten years since I wrote this story. Last year I resumed writing fiction (for fun) and believed I had grown a lot as an author. Now that I've seen these pages again I realize my characters' delivery of dialogue and the paragraph structures haven't actually changed much at all. I'm still a hack, but I'm trying harder!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Thunderstrike, DeFalco and the mystery of numbers

I'm a follower of the internet critic SF Debris and he's recently been taking on a large project which is right in my wheelhouse - comic book history, notably the history of the 1990s boom & bust. He's doing a terrific job, but at point one of his anecdotes sounded a little off; he reported that writer Tom DeFalco had claimed his series Thunderstrike outsold both Thor and Avengers combined. I have seen DeFalco make this claim on many internet sites over the years, but only that Thunderstrike outsold Thor, not Avengers.

Before I answer that question, let me first ask you: who do you think Thunderstrike was?

If that image leads to a response which is anything like "grim & gritty Thor," then you certainly never read the book. Indeed, it's surprising how frequently I see people make that description considering how conservative creators (and frequent collaborators) Tom DeFalco & Ron Frenz were and are. They usually aim to fashion comics evocative of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, stories full of breezy, fun dialogue and dynamic, energetic layouts.

Eric Masterson was introduced during their Thor run as a new human counterpart for Thor, an everyman who became Thor's alternate identity and eventually was placed in command of Thor's power, something he never got the hang of. His story had been intended to run only in the pages of Thor, but the ever-expanding Marvel saw an opportunity to branch out, thus he took the identity of Thunderstrike in his own series (and soon found he had different powers he would fail to fully get the hang of).

As the covers proclaimed, Thunderstrike was the "Everyman Avenger," a fellow trying to hold down a career and make time for his son while facing a custody battle with his ex-wife (one Eric loses). As a hero, he had good intentions but despite his powers he could easily flummoxed by situations he wasn't prepared for. In one instance, his ex-wife's new husband Bobby had, while under the influence of drugs, locked himself in a room with Eric's son Kevin. Fearing the worst, Eric became Thunderstrike and came crashing in to save his son. However, Kevin (not knowing who Thunderstrike was) had already defused the situation with Bobby and chastised Thunderstrike for resorting to violence rather than trying to help someone who was, essentially, sick. Kevin summed up Thunderstrike as "a big bully."

But such bouts of anger were uncommon for Eric. Frequently, when faced with villains who could match his power (Juggernaut, Absorbing Man) he would seek a compromise rather than a confrontation, seeing little point in endangering peoples' lives in the mere hope he might win a fight. And ultimately, that was how Eric's story ended in Thunderstrike #24 - overcome by the dark power of the Bloodaxe and transformed into an enemy of the Avengers, Thunderstrike destroyed himself to eliminate the Bloodaxe's threat (essentially the Dark Phoenix Saga ending).

DeFalco has stated that at the time, Thunderstrike sold better than Thor. Even without looking at the numbers it's easy to believe! When DeFalco & Frenz left the title it fell first into the hands of Jim Starlin, who began a lengthy tale about Thor going insane. However, the art was lackluster and Starlin didn't stick around to finish the tale; the climax, a crossover event called "Blood & Thunder" was particularly loathed by Thor fans who, to this day, dub it "Thud & Blunder." Following that: Roy Thomas became the author, Thor became mentor to some uninspired characters called the God Pack, Thor donned what remains his worst costume in his entire publishing history and the art became even less appealing. Compared to the solid craftsmanship and dependability of Thunderstrike, Thor was serving some weak tea.

The decision to end Thunderstrike then seemed to be intended to help bolster Thor's flagging sales by eliminating what might have been a title competing for the same readership. However, the goal was not to interest readers in Thomas' run - he was let go as well. Instead, a young Warren Ellis came in with Mike Deodato, Jr. to tell a weird, off-beat story about Thor losing his powers due to a false Ragnarok. It's an interesting comic, but it's hard to imagine many fans who enjoyed the Lee & Kirby-style antics of Thunderstrike finding it to their liking.

Tom DeFalco probably has (or had) access to the most reliable data on what Thunderstrike had been selling. Back then, there were multiple comic book distributors and one would need access to all of their monthly estimates to have an idea of what was being sold, and even then you would only have an estimate. I don't have all of that data, so the fairest way seems to be to compare the Statement of Ownership data between the two books.

Thunderstrike published Statement of Ownership data only once, in issue #18 (March, 1995). Fortunately, Thor printed its data that same month in issue #484. Check it out:

Average number of copies of each issue during the preceding 12 months: 188,725 (Thor); 236,467 (Thunderstrike)

Single issue nearest to filing date: 59,600 (Thor); 56,300 (Thunderstrike)

Based on this they were running very close, with Thunderstrike posting a vastly superior average, but at the time Thor had taken a slight lead. DeFalco's statement seems to be authentic.

What definitely can't be right is the "more than Thor & Avengers combined" remark; the nearest data I could find for the Avengers put them at an average of 253,950 which placed them above Thunderstrike.

It's also interesting to note that a year earlier, Thor's average had been 259,383 and the nearest issue sold 225,600 - which shows how quickly numbers had fallen. No doubt it was the sudden free-fall in sales data across the line which led Marvel to think cancelling Thunderstrike would save Thor. Since DeFalco & Frenz had always maintained Thunderstrike had a set finale which they knew how to play out from the very start, it's probably for the best they ended the series while the fanbase was still engaged and without anyone taking control of the book away from them. Thunderstrike definitely had its rough patches - I try to be fair to Blackwulf but even I won't stand up for the Blackwulf issues - but in all, it was a very charming super hero book at a time when much of what was being published felt ugly and crass.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Curiously Familiar #10: Captain Marvel and Marvelman

If you haven't been reading "Curiously Familiar" then you've arrived just in time for the finale! This is a series of posts where I examine various comic book characters who were published by at least two different companies, but wore a different name at each one. This is not the same as characters who were created in homage - in this instances, the two characters were actually intended to be the same entities. Let's go out with some style!

Young reporter Billy Batson learns that by saying the word "Shazam" he can transform into Captain Marvel, a super-powerful figure who fights for justice alongside his Marvel Family.

Young reporter Micky Moran learns that by saying the word "Kimota" he can transform into Marvelman, a super-powerful figure who fights for justice alongside his Marvelman Family.

The Story Behind the Story: When Fawcett decided to get out of the serial comic book business it left one of their UK packagers in a bit of sticky wicket, wot? Captain Marvel had been immensely popular around the world, including the environs of the insatiable Brits; the solution was to simply dye the hero's hair, give him a new costume and otherwise keep calm and carry on internet memes. Marvelman did eventually fold up, only to fall into the lap of one Alan Moore in 1982; Moore used the character as a starting point for a deconstruction of the super hero genre and saw his work repurposed in the USA under the title Miracleman, owing to the tender sensibilities of Marvel Comics.

Thankfully, that was the last time there were any complications in the publishing history of Fawcett's Captain Marvel franchise.

Thank you for following "Curiously Familiar!" There were many other characters whom I might have featured, but these were the ten I found most interesting.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Curiously Familiar #9: Doctor Nemesis and Doctor Death

Here we meet again for "Curiously Familiar," a series of posts where I've been examining various comic book characters who were published by at least two different companies, but wore a different name at each one. This is not the same as characters who were created in homage - in this instances, the two characters were actually intended to be the same entities. Today we have an interesting tangle!

Doctor Nemesis was an ordinary physician named James Bradley with an extraordinary gift for fashioning drugs, such as his own truth serum. When his daily work led him to crimes, he donned his surgical mask to fight for justice!

Doctor Death was an ordinary physician named James Bradley with an extraordinary gift in multiple scientific disciplines. When his daily work led him to crimes, he would don his surgical mask to fight for justice - until the Nazis made him a better offer!

The Story Behind the Story: Doctor Nemesis fought criminals and Axis threats in a brief, undistinguished run of stories at Ace in the 1940s. He might have remained in the musty history of comics but for Roy Thomas, who wanted his 1993 Invaders mini-series to feature Golden Age heroes who switched sides to the Nazis. Mark Gruenwald objected to this idea, so instead of using Golden Age Marvel heroes, Thomas employed non-Marvel characters, such as Doctor Nemesis - renamed Doctor Death. In fact, Doctor Death was the principal leader of the book's Battle-Axis; he also turned out to be the creator of the android Volton (somewhat outside the providence of a medical practitioner) and ended the limited series quite dead, electrocuted by an upset Volton.

More than a decade later, something quite curious happened; X-Men scribe Matt Fraction got hold of the character and brought him into his book's cast, taking advantage of his previous Marvel appearance but otherwise completely ignoring it; he was alive, again called himself Doctor Nemesis and was staunchly anti-Axis (to the point where his anti-Nazi rhetoric was practically a running gag). The only thing Fraction kept from the Invaders appearance was the idea that Doctor Nemesis was a practitioner of comic book science - meaning, he could do anything (and thus repeat various tired "science!" internet memes). Doctor Nemesis has, surprisingly, become a useful member of the X-Men cast, with his misanthropic ravings proving quite popular. His time spent living and dying as a Nazi collaborator have been forgotten. Depending on how you regard these circumstances, he's been either two different characters or three!

Come back tomorrow for the final "Curiously Familiar."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Curiously Familiar #8: Doctor Occult and Doctor Mystic

We turn once again to "Curiously Familiar," a series of posts where I've been examining various comic book characters who were published by at least two different companies, but wore a different name at each one. This is not the same as characters who were created in homage - in this instances, the two characters were actually intended to be the same entities. Step aboard!

Doctor Occult, the Ghost Detective, faced down weird supernatural threats, but was certainly capable of rising to the challenge due to his own vast array of supernatural abilities, including astral projection.

Doctor Mystic, the Occult Detective, faced down weird supernatural threats, but was certainly capable of rising to the challenge due to his own vast array of supernatural abilities, including astral projection.

The Story Behind the Story: Doctor Occult was a very early series conceived of by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, one of the many rejected comic strip proposals they were able to retrofit into a recurring DC Comics feature beginning in 1936. However, for some reason, early in the character's publishing history one of their stories wound up at Centaur, along with various other (retitled) DC strips. This proved to be an anomaly as the rest of Doctor Occult continued to appear with DC.

Considering the troubles Siegel & Shuster's families have had with the Superman rights, I wonder where Doctor Occult fits into everything? Did they also trade him for pennies? The existence of the Doctor Mystic episode certainly points to Doctor Occult being a work-for-hire series. At the very least, one assumes the estates could publish their own Doctor Mystic comics and DC wouldn't be able to stop them. Boy, that would get their goat, stealing away both of Doctor Occult's fans!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Curiously Familiar #7: Demon-Hunter and Devil-Slayer and Bloodwing

Welcome back to "Curiously Familiar," a series of posts where I'm examining various comic book characters who turned up at at least two different publishers, but wore a different name at each one. This is not the same as characters who were created in homage - in this instances, the two characters were actually intended to be the same entities. Today we have three for the price of one!

Former mobster Gideon Cross became Demon-Hunter after joining the Cult of the Harvester of Eyes. Although benefiting from his new psychic powers and mystical shadow-cloak which opens a portal to an endless supply of weapons, Demon-Hunter turned against the cult and sought to prevent Xenogenesis, the demonic invasion of Earth.

Former mobster Eric Simon Payne became Devil-Slayer after joining the Cult of the Harvester of Eyes. Although benefiting from his new psychic powers and mystical shadow-cloak which opens a portal to an endless supply of weapons, Devil-Slayer turned against the cult and sought to prevent Xenogenesis, the demonic invasion of Earth.

Former mobster Gideon Cross became Bloodwing after joining the Crimson Cult. Although benefiting from his new psychic powers, Bloodwing turned against the cult and... [story incomplete]

The Story Behind the Story: To comic book fans of a certain age, Rich Buckler was their Rob Liefeld; an artist whose tracings (usually from Jack Kirby or Jim Steranko) frustrated some, and who would never let a decent concept die, no matter how many times it had to be restaged. The story began with Atlas Comics in 1975, where David Kraft & Rich Buckler introduced Demon-Hunter. Like yesterday's feature on Howard Victor Chaykin's Scorpion, Buckler was a hungry and dynamic artist who could have helped Atlas win over Marvel Comics fans. However, the book didn't last beyond a single issue; Atlas' loss proved to be Marvel's gain. Just like Chaykin, they continued their story at Marvel, bringing him into (of all things) a story starring Buckler's Deathlok, who time traveled to the present-day Marvel Universe in Marvel Spotlight #33 (1977) for the sole purpose of meeting the renamed Demon-Hunter, who bore the same powers and origin, simply wearing a redesigned costume.

Although Kraft continued to use Devil-Slayer in the Defenders, Buckler's involvement ended there; perhaps he regretted losing control of his co-creation, because in his self-published 1981 magazine Galaxia he revisited the concept again, this time using the name Bloodwing (but again with the same costume, powers and origin and restoring Demon-Hunter's real name). Unfortunately, Galaxia didn't take off and whatever hope Buckler had for continuing Bloodwing (or completing his origin) was scuttled.

Devil-Slayer is still out there, showing up when (and where) you least expect it.