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Today’s Mission: Save This Planet!

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Don’t worry; today’s entry has nothing to do with Al Gore. It’s all about something much more compelling, realistic and important: Comic-book covers!

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Mystery in Space, a DC-published comic that ran for 110 issues from 1951 to 1966, was one of my favorites. Edited by the amazing Julius Schwartz, it featured art by some of my favorite artists: Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, and Murphy Anderson.

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When I tippytoed into the world of professional comic-book production for a couple of summers while in high school, the first thing I learned was that the covers sold the books. It was no accident that the covers of comic books were printed on glossy coated stock using high-resolution screens while the interiors were tossed off on newsprint with coarse screens and muted color reproduction. The art on the covers was almost always much better than what was found in the interiors of the book. So what? It was a stricture of the art form, and covers were what sold the books.

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One of the leitmotivs of DC-comics covers, along with purple gorillas, Jimmy Olsen turning into something weird and Lois Lane in trouble, was perils to Earth. In the Mystery in Space books, editor Schwartz took this to a high level in the early days of the series. For pre- and early-teen American boys, this had resonance: we were just beginning the American space program, and who knew whether this might set off some trip-wire arranged long ago by aliens? It was worth staying up at night to worry about!!! Also, and even more unsettling, these covers indicated that it was the Northern hemisphere that these evil aliens were focusing on. They could care less about Europe, Asia, Africa; their eyes were on the U.S.A!!!

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Were aliens watching our every move? Probably! Were they thinking “Hmm; the primitive Earthlings have now reached the stage where they have both atomic weapons and the ability to rocket into space. We’d better smush them like bugs before they prove troublesome to us!!!”? What a burner for our species, huh?

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So we kids would look for, buy, read and re-read these comics. So what if this clarion cry came from a funny book? The guys who wrote and drew them were obviously smart; look at all the scientific facts crammed into these stories!

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Here are, for your enjoyment and amusement and so you can prepare for our destruction, some of the great Mystery in Space covers showing Earth in peril.

BE WARNED! THE ALIENS ARE OUT THERE AND THEY’RE WATCHING US!!!

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Batmobiles and Me . . .

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TV Batmobile

Today’s sale of the original TV-show Batmobile reminded me of my slight brush with the history of the various versions of the car.

A kid in the 1950s and ’60s could be a fan of both Superman and Batman, and I was, but Batman had a couple of extra things going for him: he had a cave and he had a cool car. The primary Batmobile of the 1940s was a good-looking unit, and no other comic-book character had anything remotely as cool as this:

1940s Batmobile

In 1950, the editors of the Batman comics decided it was time to update the Batmobile, and this one was born:

1950 Batmobile b

This 1950 Batmobile had a crime lab built into the back seat and still had the spooky and amazing front bat-face thingie and the neat swooping rear fin. Not a thing wrong with this baby:

1950 Batmobile a

But by the mid-1960s, even I had to admit that 1950s Batmobile, still used in the comic books, was dated-looking.

We had just moved down to Marathon, Florida, and I had time on my hands. So, I decided to create a more modern Batmobile. I chose the front end of a Pontiac of the era and the back end of a Chrysler; combining those was easy; then I added a couple of canopy bubbles like fighter planes had. And, to top it all off, I added a couple of hood and side scoops like Corvettes had. I made sure it had a bat face on the front and two bat-fins on the back!

I drew a really clean version of the design and sent it to Mr. Julius Schwartz, an editor at DC Comics who seemed to encourage kids to become involved in the books.

I promptly forgot about the whole thing until a few months later, when a postcard came from Mr. Schwartz; he always wrote on postcards. He was going to use my Batmobile in the comic books! And– WOW– I would get a free one-year subscription to all the comics he edited. He edited a bunch of good ones, too: Batman, Atom, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Flash, Justice League of America!

Here’s what my version of the Batmobile looked like when it appeared in the comic books:

JBP Batmobile b

JBP Batmobile c

JBP Batmobile a

I was so proud! Then the TV show came out, and the Batmobile on the show made mine look like crap.

Here are a couple of photos of the TV-show Batmobile taken before it even had its glossy paint job; it’s still wearing its flat-black primer:

Original Primered TV Show Batmobile

Rear, Primered Batmobile

I was devastated at first, but then figured, “Okay; they have pro guys designing TV-show cars and I’m just a kid! No wonder their’s looks so much better!!!”

One problem was that I could no longer tell my pals I had designed the Batmobile, because the first thing they’d say would be, “THE TV-SHOW ONE?!?!?!” And I’d have to reply, “No; the lame one they use in the comic books and comic strip.”

Eventually– and we’re talking over a year; maybe more– I grew sick of seeing my Batmobile in the books and strips and wrote to Mr. Schwartz again: “Why do you keep using my Batmobile design when the TV-show one is ten times better looking?!?!?!” And a few weeks later, a DC Comics postcard came with his response: “Yours is easier to draw.”

Oh, well. They’ve come out with a 1:43-scale Corgi die-cast version of my Batmobile, which is one of the rarest and costliest Batmobile die-cast models because it is lame-looking compared to the TV-show one and not much sought after. A very generous Batmobile historian and enthusiast in England was nice enough to send me one a couple of years ago; I darn sure wasn’t going to spend over $250 for it on eBay!!! Too bad they used a baby-blue paint for the color:

JBP Batmobile Corgi Die-Cast

Yes; I’m proud of my lame creation, but, to me, there is only one Batmobile, and it isn’t the one I dreamed up sitting on the side of my bed in Marathon, Florida, and it isn’t the ones in the comic books and strips and it sure isn’t any of the recent Batman movie Batmobiles; it’s this:

Batmobile On Set

Hawkaaaaaaaaaa!

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In the 1960s, there were a number of great superhero or adventure comic books featuring groups. There was the Justice League of America, the Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Avengers, The Legion of Superheroes, The Doom Patrol, The Teen Titans, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, The Mighty Crusaders and others. I enjoyed all of them, but my favorite was Blackhawk.

Mighty Blackhawk

The Blackhawks first appeared as the lead feature in Military Comics in the the summer of 1941, before the attack on Pearl Harbor started World War II. They soon had their own comic book. The legendary Will Eisner had a hand in their beginnings; he was either editor or creator, depending on who tells the story. “Hawkaaaa” was their battle cry and they usually ended an adventure flying off the bottom panel of the comic-book page while singing a victory song.

If you want to learn much more about the origin of the Blackhawks, here’s a blog by a fellow Maryland WordPress blogger that is well worth your attention:

http://fourcolorglasses.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/the-origin-of-blackhawk-military-comics-1-august-1941/

Here are the first Military Comics and Blackhawk covers; the first Blackhawk comic was #9 because Quality Comics used their U.S. Postal permit from their cancelled Uncle Sam Quarterly:

First Blackhawk Appearance

First Quality Comics Blackhawk

After WWII ended, Military Comics changed its name to Modern Comics. Here’s the first cover with the new name:

First Issue Modern Comics

All these were issued by the Quality Comics company and the artwork was just wonderful. It was realistic, gritty and the Blackhawks had great uniforms and equipment. The airplanes alone were enough to draw one’s interest, though the stories were compelling; full of nasty men and women who were all defeated by the Blackhawks. The women were unfailingly attractive; and nearly all of them fell in love with Blackhawk, who was the Polish-born leader of the seven-man team.

Please know that the Quality-era Blackhawks weren’t politically correct if viewed with a 21st-century mindset; one of my buddies on a Lincoln history forum has a great quote worth remembering:

The Past is a foreign country . . . they do things differently there”

— L. P. Hartley

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In the panel above, the earnest young lady’s dad, who was making earthquakes and avalanches in South America for the benefit of the commie empire, is going to prison for life, but all she can think of is how cool Blackhawk is! Hawkaaaaaaaaaaa!!!

In 1956, Quality Comics sold the rights to their characters to DC Comics, and DC continued Blackhawk. Here’s the first DC issue:

First DC Blackhawk

Note that the comic-book title is singular but the team name is plural. The DC Blackhawk had the same artists and some of the same writers, but instead of fighting Nazis and commies, the Blackhawks were often fighting super villains and monsters. No matter; they were still a great read.

After a couple of years, DC decided to fiddle with the formula and the Blackhawks were clothed in what one commentator has described as uniforms better suiting valet parking attendants:

Blackhawk 199

The stories and art were still okay, but a couple of years later, during a strange comic-book interlude that began with the campy Batman TV show and the James Bond/Man from U.N.C.L.E. fads, the Blackhawks were turned into an embarrassingly inept group of semi-superheroes, with silly names and even sillier costumes. It didn’t last long and to make things worse, some of the big-time DC comics heroes introduced this horrible concept on the front cover!!!

Blackhawk 228

I refuse to show you the new uniforms the Blackhawks wore during this period. They are painful to behold.

After several terrible issues, the decision was made by the DC honchos to cancel the title.  At the same time, a talented artist and editor, Dick Giordano, came to DC from the Charlton Comics company. He loved the original Blackhawks and when he took over the comic, he tried for two issues to bring back the original concept, including the black leather uniforms. It was too little too late. Blackhawk was cancelled in 1968.

DC has had a few revivals of Blackhawk since then but they never seemed to catch on, for whatever reason.

So why am I telling you all this?

Because for several years I have had an idea for a great Blackhawks revival! It would be composed of a group of young black men and women, and I think the concept would be interesting and fun. I’ve given this a lot of thought and may well put it all down on paper one day and send it off to DC Comics.

Hawkaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!

Robots I Have Known

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My grand-daughter, Maddie, is fascinated by robots. Considering that she’s just over three years old, that’s a good indication, to me at least, of the prevalence of robots in our culture.

The word “robot” was created by a Czech painter in 1920 for his brother to use in a play to describe the machines who did drudge work. It’s a spinoff of the Slovak word for “serf.” Here’s a photo of three robots from that play, Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which debuted in 1920:

So from the beginning, robots had to have some resemblance to humans and be capable of movement. There are many robotic machines in use today but few are what we think of as robots. They’re just machines designed for repetitive tasks.

This cute stamped-metal toy from the 1950s is what a robot looked like to kids of my generation, though not all of them carried little red lanterns:

In the movies, one of the most iconic robots was Robby in The Forbidden Planet from 1956:

Robby was created by the prop makers at MGM and appeared in later TV shows and movies under other names. His best feature was the gears moving inside the transparent dome on his head.

The most famous film robot was probably R2D2 from Star Wars:

His buddy, C-3PO, was more of an android, I guess, but here he is:

Television had had many great robots. The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening, had a robot named Bender on a show called Futurama:

Here’s the 1948 comic book cover that Bender was based upon:

My favorite television robots were the wisecracking Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo from Mystery Science Theater 3000; here they are with their creator, Joel:

In comic books, unrestrained by having to be a physical object, robots were everywhere and of all shapes and sizes. A 1941 Action Comic shows Superman smashing a couple of crude robots:

On the early ’50s television show, The Adventures of Superman, there were a couple of robots. You can see they, too, were crude, reflecting the cheap budget of that truly wonderful show. Superman, as portrayed by George Reeves, was much kinder to this robot than his comic-book counterpart had been a few years earlier:

Side comment: In my opinion, George Reeves’ portrayal of Superman was flat-out the most successful by any actor. We now return to the robots.

In the later 1950s, DC editor Mort Weisinger created a Superman ethos that included a ton of great robots. Superman made an entire platoon of robots to cover for him in emergencies, and, as this Action Comics cover from 1961 shows, he had a few Clark Kent robots, too:

I love the expression on the face of that Clark Kent robot! He is really confounded by his predicament. And how do you like that expository dialog? Weisinger was famous for that and I find it one of the coolest things about the comics he edited; it was so over-the-top. One of his assistants once argued with Weisinger over the editor’s insistence on having a sign over a crook’s secret hideout that said, “Secret Hideout!”

These later Superman comic-book robots looked so much like humans that even close friends of the original subject couldn’t tell they were artificial. These high-end robots often had emotions, and, to my way of thinking, started crossing into what are more properly called androids. An android is a synthetic human being, and folks are busily creating them nowadays!

Here’s one called DER 01, made by the Intelligent Robotics Lab in Japan:

Spooky, huh?!?!?

How many robots and androids do you know?

I Can’t Wait!!!

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Christmas isn’t that far away, my friends, and this cover from a December, 1937 issue of The Modern Boy promises us great things are coming our way!

The Modern Boy was a weekly magazine that had exciting stories and pictures aimed at ten-year-olds in England. This cover showed a Dad and his son deciding on which toy they preferred.

All joking aside, this is a fairly accurate forecasting of us ordering stuff via the internet. The microphone sticking out of the set is a trifle alarming but remember that when this cover illustration was created, television in the home was at least ten or twelve years away. The artist based his TV set of the future on the large radios of the day and scored pretty near the mark. I like what appears to be a rotary telephone dial on the set; I guess that’s how you connect with the toy store.

Of course, two-way television communication was further off but it’s still a cool guess by folks 75 years ago at what our world would be like today.

Here’s another cover from an old publication; this one’s a dust-jacket cover from the 1912 book, Tom Swift and his Photo Telephone. Tom clearly anticipates iChat.

The form factor isn’t as accurate on this vision of the future, but it must have been a mind-blower to kids 100 years ago. Here’s some dialog where Tom and his dad discuss Tom’s amazing idea:

All right, Dad. Go ahead, laugh.'”

“‘Well, Tom, I’m not exactly laughing at you … it’s more at the idea than anything else. The idea of talking over a wire and, at the same time, having light waves, as well as electrical waves passing over the same conductors!'”

“‘All right, Dad. Go ahead and laugh. I don’t mind,’ said Tom, good-naturedly. “‘Folks laughed at Bell, when he said he could send a human voice over a copper string …”

One senses Tom’s frustration at his dad’s attitude, but we all know who came out looking foolish at the end of the book, don’t we?

There was another series of Tom Swift books when I was a kid; these were the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr, and he also had nifty ideas like space stations and solar batteries and a host of different metal alloys which were considered far-out at the time.

Great Spirit Comic Books!

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I first encountered Will (or Bill, as the old comics guys called him) Eisner’s Spirit comics when I got a copy of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. This stunning book, which I got for Christmas in 1966, was a chance for a 1960s kid to see for the first time what comic books had been like in the 1940s. Living in the Florida Keys, where we had moved earlier in the year, I had few chances to find old comic books for sale.

Oddly enough, while snorkeling one day, I discovered a stash of old comics that someone had evidently thrown overboard long ago in and around the marina outside our home in Marathon Shores. These comics were coverless and half-buried in the sand and silt about 15 feet deep on the salt-water side of the island where we then lived, but I’d dive for them and leave them to dry on the dock outside our house. Once dried, they were perfectly readable, if rather crinkly, and I was able over the summer to get 20 or 30 old DC comics in this fashion.

So I was primed to learn more, and Feiffer’s superb book was right up my alley. I then sent a letter to the Miami Herald asking where old comic books could be found, and they printed my letter and listed some shops in Miami that sold them. Armed with that info, I bugged my dad until he finally agreed to fly me the 107 miles to Miami!

One odd thing my dad did was keep $50 cars at a few airports he flew in and out of a lot. He’d never pay more than $50 for the cars, so they weren’t too spiffy, but they saved him the trouble of renting cars. We drove in whatever clunker Dad had stowed in Miami to several of the stores that the Herald had listed, and I was finally able to get a copy of a 1940s Spirit comic book. The Spirit feature had originally been part of a 16-page Sunday newspaper comic supplement from about 1940 to 1952, and Quality Comics had printed a magazine in the mid- to late-1940s showcasing the character. Eisner, being nobody’s fool, was smart enough to keep the copyrights and that was unheard of in comics at that time.

Will Eisner was a solid pro not only at writing and drawing comics, but in print production. He, by the time we’re discussing here, had moved on from newsstand comics to producing preventive maintenance monthlies for the U.S. Army. One of my uncles had given me some of those, as they had a ton of great Eisner artwork in them, and they were unsurpassed in explaining technical issues in a simple and understandable way. I still have a stack of these P.M. magazines somewhere in the basement, much to Patty’s dismay.

Eisner’s Spirit stories, and there are about 250 of them, I guess, were way above the norm for a comic book. They weren’t aimed at nine-year-olds, for one thing, and Eisner had a tight group of amazingly talented assistants who helped write and draw the stuff. Jules Feiffer had been one of these ghosts for Eisner.

Nowadays, Eisner’s Spirits are easily found in both comic-book form and in hardback, and much of the work is also available in digital form, if you know where to look. In the late 1960s, it was very different and Spirit comic books were few and hard to find.

There had been a couple of 64-page color reprints by Harvey Comics in 1966 and ’67 and those were comic books to be treasured; beautifully printed and colored. My next Spirit encounter was in what were called Spirit Bags in the early 1970s. These were 6″ x 9″ black-and-white reprints of the 8-page Spirit stories and had a typed commentary by Eisner on the last page. Still have all those, too.

Over the years I snagged a ton of other Spirit reprints, both in hard copies and in digital form. I recently learned that Fiction House, a second-tier comic-book publisher, had issued five Spirit comics in the early 1950s. I had never heard of them before, but Fiction House really did a nice job on these reprints of the newspaper Spirits. The coloring is amazing, especially when you consider that they only had 64 colors and tints to work with in those old days.

I now have these in digital form and they are a treat. If you have an interest in Eisner’s work, I encourage you to download them; here’s a site:
http://digitalcomicmuseum.com/index.php?cid=932

These are in the public domain. You’ll need a PC, Mac or iOS reader for the files; they’re easy to find. I particularly enjoy the Comic Zeal iPad app; it makes organizing the hundreds of comics on my iPad a snap.

Thank me later!!! Enjoy!!!

Side Note:

A couple of years later, when we started a student newspaper at Naples High, I made damned sure that the newspaper was called The Spirit, and I worked for days on a masthead for it; my crude homage to Will Eisner. Of course, Eisner, who was so gifted that he came up with a different and stunning masthead for each and every Spirit story, was in a much different league than I was and I cringe to look at my crude Spirit newspaper masthead now!

So it goes!

John Buscema: Giant Artist, Giant Heart

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As a high-school kid, I’d fly up from Naples to New York City in the summers to do what I could at the comic-book publishers there. DC and Marvel were the biggies. DC was at 575 Lexington Avenue, and they wouldn’t give me the time of day; they were corporate. Marvel, over at 635 Madison Avenue, was more welcoming.

The wonderful man who took me under his wing, for some reason, was John Buscema. He was big, bearded and a bit scary at first to a green kid. And, man was I green. Within a few minutes, though, I realized that Mr. Buscema, in spite of his being a “real” comics artist– and one of the very best– was also a sweetheart and remembered what being green felt like. I worshiped him. I don’t know if he usually worked at the Marvel office, or was just there hanging out, but I was glad he was around!

He didn’t give me a lot to do and what I did do I probably did to excess. I bought an electric eraser and some various eraser sticks for it and reported in every day. I remember cringing whenever I saw a Jack Kirby page ready for erasing after being inked. Mr. Kirby drew with the softest pencil imaginable on a plate-finish board and it was all a smudgy grey-graphite mess for me to clean up!

The prime memory I have of that time was the day artist Gil Kane came to the “Marvel Bullpen,” which wasn’t a bullpen at all. I worked in a crowded closet using a cardboard box for a drawing table. Mr. Kane sat at one of the real drafting tables in the bigger room and started roughing out something in pencil. I sneaked over to watch, and was stunned. Kane could draw faster than I could think. It shattered me. I slunk back to my little closet and burst into tears. Here’s one of Kane’s rough sketches found on the Web:

Mr. Buscema found me and sat me down for a lecture: “Jimmy, we get paid by the page, not by the hour; no salary in this business. Gil’s fast and good because he’s smart and talented, but also because he’s been doing this for 25 years. Don’t over-react; you’ll get there.”

But I knew in my heart that no; I would never get there. I didn’t want it bad enough. As I went back to Newark that evening I knew my comic-book career was over before it really started. But I also knew that I had gained a friend who was a rare person; a giant with a giant heart.

John Buscema was called the Michelangelo of comics and take a look at some of his work to see why. His anatomy’s as good as Kubert’s and his ability to frame a scene is almost scary. He also had some of Jack Kirby’s ability to convey power and force:

A wonderful man; best known today, I guess, for his work on the early Silver Surfer and Conan the Barbarian.

The wonderful coloring on this Buscema Conan drawing is by a fellow in Morocco who goes by the name of bekkouri, and he did a stunning job:

And I still have my old electric eraser:

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