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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:

Joe Kubert Has Passed . . .

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I never met Joe Kubert in either of my stints in the comic-book world, but I spoke with him on the phone a few times. Mr. Kubert, a pioneering artist who worked mainly for DC Comics, had started a school for cartooning and graphic arts in Dover, New Jersey. There were two young friends and employees of mine in whom I saw great potential.

I spoke with Mr. Kubert about them both. These conversations were about ten years apart, but Mr. Kubert had the same two questions about the young men I was touting: “Are they good? Will they listen?”

Both young men attended his school to their decided benefit. He and his staff taught them what they needed to know to augment their talent with real-world chops. After a couple of years at the Kubert School, both these young men were not only pro-level cartoonists, but could handle any graphic assignment someone might throw at them. They not only knew the theory but how to get it done without a lot of floundering around. Both young men have done well in their careers, thanks to Joe Kubert. There are many others who can say the same thing.

When I first saw Joe Kubert’s work, in some of the DC war comics, I didn’t like it. It was gritty and a tad ugly to my eye.

Then I saw his work on the revamping of the Hawkman feature in the early 1960s. His work on Hawkman soared; it was lyrical and clearly showed the joy and freedom of flight.

Thus I began to realize that Joe Kubert was simply a better artist than I had encountered before. He was capable of creating more than pretty drawings; he was gifted enough to produce emotional drawings based upon realism. War was ugly, so he drew it ugly; flying was about grace in the air, and he drew it that way.

His composition skills were equal to his draftsmanship; he did tons of covers for DC where his covers were the best thing about the book and where the poor artist who did the interior pages just wasn’t Kubert’s equal.

He was a pioneer, yes, but he also was driven to teach what he had learned to new generations of artists. He gave back and provided leadership to many young people who will carry his legacy into the future.

Thanks, Mr. Kubert.

Sorry, Kid . . .

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Here’s the announcement DC Comics had on their inside front covers in December, 1961, announcing their 20-percent price increase to twelve cents an issue. I can clearly remember that, though I was only nine years old at the time. Notice the prices of other items DC mentions in this “letter” to the boys and girls who bought the comic:

Of course, the other comic publishers quickly jumped on the bandwagon; Dell Comics, who outsold everyone with their Disney/Warner Brothers-licensed comics and movie/TV-adaptations, went to fifteen cents for a 36-page comic earlier in 1961, at least for a while. From the sales figures I’ve seen, and some folks have published a lot of info on this, sales of comics went into a decided slump after this increase and the slump lasted for a long time. Marvel had just begun their superhero output with the Fantastic Four, but one of their pre-hero monster comics lost 30-percent of its sales.

Today, when a DC or Marvel Comic costs three or four dollars, a couple of pennies doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it was to a kid back then.

For our younger readers, here are some common prices and such from 1961, by way of comparison:

Average cost of new house: $12,500.00
Average income per year: $5,315.00
Cost of a gallon of gas: 27 cents
Average cost of a new car: $2,850.00
23″ black-and-white television: $219.99
Bacon, one pound: 67 cents
Loaf of bread: 20 cents
Eggs, per dozen: 30 cents
Ounce of gold: $35.25

Great Scott!

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As a kid, I loved comic books and the one I loved the most was DC’s World’s Finest Comics. It had originally started as New York World’s Fair Comics, in 1939. Then it became World’s Best Comics and finally World’s Finest Comics. Its early issues were 96-pagers, but soon settled in at 76 pages for fifteen cents for many years. Superman and Batman each had their own stories, along with a bunch of lesser characters.

The covers showed Superman and Batman together in a poster setting that had nothing to do with the contents of the books. All this was way before my time. The page count began slimming down by the late 1940s, as seen here, but the price stayed at fifteen cents. I have to wonder how many of these comics were sold at a dime, since that was the going rate for a comic book.

In 1954, when things got tough for comics publishers, DC changed the format to 36 pages (including the covers), cut a lot of the secondary features and reduced the price to ten cents, like most all other comics. They also combined Superman and Batman into one story, which seems an obvious move after all those previous covers showing them both together. Those are the comics I loved; they gave great value for your dime. The art was crisp and well-drawn; the stories were interesting with intriguing plots. And the idea of superheroes being friends was wonderful to a kid.

The Justice League of America, which came out a few years later, had most all the DC heroes, including Superman and Batman, but the art was lame and the stories confusing with seven or eight heroes bouncing around. World’s Finest was more to my liking. Now, too, the covers related to the stories found in the issue.

For about 50 issues, World’s Finest Comics were a real hoot, and there were two things about the covers I really liked. Usually, someone (Superman, Batman or Robin) would exclaim, “Great Scott!” at whatever was going on.

And Robin, being rather a fifth wheel, would often be stuck in the bottom corner of the cover.

My favorite covers had both the Great Scott! AND Robin in the corner.

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a real person say, “Great Scott!” but comic books were aimed at 12-year-olds, and the publishers had to be careful. The very early Superman used a lot of “What the–“ exclamations, and the reader could fill in the blank but that only lasted a couple of years. Thus, “Great Scott!” And see that “Still 10¢” in bold type on the pink cover? That was a hint that something was in the works at DC, and it wasn’t good.

After a while, someone at DC must have issued an order about these recurring items, and Great Scott! was replaced with a couple of Great Kryptons! or Great Guns! and once even with a Great Gosh! Robin, instead of being stuck in the corner, was just left off the cover entirely as often as not.

By then the comics had gone up in price to twelve cents each (that previously noted “Still 10¢” really meant “Not Yet 12¢”) and the art wasn’t as lively or well-drawn as it had once been. It was the end of an era.

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