Saturday, November 22, 2008

Journey to the Sun

Looking back, comic books had less of an impact towards my fascination of science fiction than my reading material of today would indicate. It was traditional literature that kick-started my fascination with science fiction. Television and film certainly had an influence (2001 blew me away) but the parents were big on books and encouraged reading. One old folk tale in particular had a huge impact on me.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury was one of the first books I can recall reading that really got me interested in Science Fiction. The late 60s and early 70s were a boom time for publishers as they filled racks with inexpensive content collected from the pulps of decades past. A new generation of readers, particularly college kids, were exposed to authors, their ideas and work that had not been available since they were first published years prior in the Pulp and SF magazines. Much of the work was actually simplistic, cliched and reflected the era and market in which they were written, but fancy new pop-art covers helped sales and the wonderfully archaic stories seemed prescient in their descriptions of Utopian and Dystopian futures. But I didn't know all that and didn't care. I just thought it was cool there was so much "new" SF on the market.

I voraciously read any SF book I could find at the local library. Many of the books I found were old cloth-covered volumes from the 1940s and 10950s that in the early 1970s were still on library shelves, held in some sort of stasis waiting for a reader to thaw them out. Back before computerized systems library books were tracked by a card in an envelope found on the inside front cover. This card was stamped in ink letting the borrower know when it was due back. I often checked out a book based on how long it had been languishing on a shelf and enjoyed being the one who discovered a story that hadn't been read in twenty years.

Eventually the need for more input led to a more intense appreciation of television and film. Star Trek (in syndication at the time) was watched not because I thought it particularly brilliant or even good but because any science fiction was better than none at all. The same reasoning applied to the Irwin Allen shows that were were never missed, though their campy stories were often disappointing. The old monster, horror and SF movies on Los Angeles channel 5 and San Diego channel 6 always had me tuned in. Johnny Quest was the best science fiction-based cartoon ever.

But there is one comic book story that had turned me toward science fiction more than any other and was always remembered of fondly. That story was Journey to the Sun and it appeared in an anthology of funny animal tales published by Gold Key comics in 1970. From a notice on the title page of the story, Journey to the Sun was presumably originally published somewhere by the Whitman company sometime around 1961, though I can find no information for it actually being published anywhere prior to 1970. It may have been a "trunk" story, printed as educational school material or existed in some other form. Golden Comics Digest #12 could even be the first printing of the story. It is possible. The story is an odd inclusion along side the other tales of ducks, rabbits and boxing roosters.

Journey to the Sun was a tale about a scientific expedition to the center of the solar system. The story is of situational drama common to the the early Silver Age after the Comics Code Authority throttled most over-the-top creativity. During the trip to the Sun disaster strikes the expedition multiple times, threatening the mission. It is only through creative ingenuity and teamwork that the lives of the crew is spared and the mission is accomplished. Yet in spite of the questionable science, outdated characterization and educational message the story had me enthralled. A crew was sent into space on a trip to the Sun not to save the Earth from a supernova or keep Mercury from crashing into Venus thereby destabilizing planetary orbits but rather to get a close up look at the Sun and report home! Nothing but science! For a kid raised on the NASA missions it was a fascinating and fun story that I never forgot. When I saw that comic book digest on a rack with other periodicals at a local supermarket I had to have it, just because of the space station on the cover.

Interestingly the story contains one of the odd conceits of speculative space travel of the 1950s, that trips into the cosmos would be undertaken by the Average Joe. From a generation that grew up in a war time environment creators often applied what they new of group dynamics to their work. Often that dynamic reflected their military experience from World War Two and Korea. Space ship crews were often depicted as being similar to that of a military squadron common to the Army or Navy. An officer or two would lead the ship and the crew consisted of grunts who were supposedly highly-trained astronauts who nonetheless performed menial tasks that would be familiar to any camp-dweller and even pulled a form of KP when they misbehaved. This parallel can be observed in its most popular form in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet.

Journey to the Sun is uncredited and I have no idea who wrote, inked or colored the story and I am unable to locate much information concerning its publishing history. Since a lot of early comic book work was considered disposable (even by the creative teams) and many works remain unidentified it is possible that only the creators or their families will be able to fill in the blanks at this point. While my eye for identifying creators is not as good as it once was the panel layouts and style are familiar. As far as I can tell the pencil art in Journey to the Sun was accomplished by comic book and newspaper strip veteran Lee Elias but it could have been done by Milton Caniff or even Jim Aparo for all I know. Many of the panels appear to contain the work of different styles, particularly the facial expressions, though this could be the work of the inker. The similarities and differences to Elias' style can be seen in the example panels from All Star Comics and JttS. If someone could help confirm the artist or artists that would be groovy.

Golden Comics Digest #12 is one of those things from my childhood that I always keep an eye out for. Now that I am in the nostalgic phase of my life I managed to find a good copy and purchased it for myself. The story is exactly as I remember it and is a nice representation of the kind of tale that populated comic books of the era. It is a bit more realistic in execution than the other science fiction-oriented situational dramas like Space Museum that appeared in the DC anthology.

So enjoy a piece of my childhood and read Journey to the Sun from Golden Comics Digest #12 (August 1970). It is a slideshow, but a reader can make it larger and view individual pages at full size by clicking on the links.

8 comments:

  1. Friend, due to the inadequacy of standard written communication for conveying intense emotion, I must lapse into a combination of netspeak and all caps to more fully convey the full extent of my feelings at this time:

    OMG! THAT STORY! I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR THAT ONE FOR YEARS! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!

    I can only agree with, second, and heartily endorse everything you say above about the story's historical context and its place in my own personal mythos; in this we are of like mind. I have no more information than you about the story's creators; all I know is that for the past thirty-eight years I've never forgotten the solar sail that fails to retract (which turned out to be eerily prescient), the melting temperature of the different metals, and the odd reward claimed by the crew at the end. These were all seared in my memory.

    But I'd forgotten the exchange "Who was that man before trying to use the lifeboat?" "What man, sir?" I would have had a lot of trouble processing irony back then -- probably the reason it fascinates me so much even today -- and I can only guess at how hard I tried to wrap my head around what they were saying.

    Getting to see this again is a HUGE treat. I owe you big time!

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  2. What an amazing blend of real science and wacky science. I love how they snuck in little educational tidbits -- it melded with the plot better than I would have expected. Whoever wrote it did a beautiful job indeed.

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  3. Does this posting help?

    http://rocketshipvideo.com/features/feature4.html

    Maybe you could track down the site's owner and compare notes?

    The profiles in the panel you posted reminded me of Milton Caniff, but that's all I can say.

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  4. I will, thanks. I'm still torn between Elias and Caniff.

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  5. I was raised on Star Wars and whatnot, but this old stuff is a real treat. I got a bunch of old sci-fi radio shows a few months back, and they're similar to what you're saying. I gotta check into this more.

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  6. I know this is a very old topic but I just ran across it for the first time. I too was strongly influenced by Journey to the Sun, which I read in its first incarnation as March of Comics #219 (referenced by Rob, above), published on May 4, 1961 and distributed through shoe and department stores (I got my copy in the boys' department at Sakowitz in Houston). I remember writing to the publisher, K.K. Publications, an imprint of Western Printing and Lithographing Company, saying how much I liked the story and was told that the illustrator was a comic strip artist named Ray Bailey. In 1975, I read an obituary for Bailey, who was described as having been as assistant to Milton Caniff.

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  7. Well that's good to know. Consider that mystery solved! Thanks!

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