Sunday, June 29, 2008

Planet Comics - The Vizigraph

Once upon a time, hundreds, if not thousands, of missives were sent off on a regular basis to a publisher by the readers of pulps and comic books. Other than sales figures, the letters a publisher would receive used to be the only good indicator of the mood and habits of the buying public.

The letters were with some exceptions representative of the consumer base.It was sort of a lottery, too, for the reader. There was a sort of fandom cache in the 1970s and 1980s if you had a letter printed in a comic book. Getting a letter printed meant you were a participant in the story of your favorite characters and became more than an observer peering in through that small window on the fourth wall. Among other ways related to talent and hard work, regular correspondence was also one way of breaking into the comic book business by being familiar to the editors and creators of a comic book company. Some letters to the Editor were a form of promotional advertising if not a resume or portfolio, much like some blogs are in this era. Today, the availability of feedback via the internet and the cost of the printed page has mostly done away with the letters page though it has been making a bit of a comeback in a few titles, namely The Walking Dead by Kirkman.

In issue #44 of Planet Comics the editors began to run a regular letters page named The Vizigraph. This is a decision that the publisher, or at least the poor intern assigned to read the letters, may have come to regret. The Vizigraph appeared regularly in Planet Comics until issue #56. What is interesting about the letters sent in by readers during the Golden Age of Comics is that they would not be out of place in internet forums.

As a reader of everything from old pulps to modern message boards it is clear that not much has changed in the way readers express themselves and their opinions. The sense of fan-entitlement, outrage, general bitching and generic, toadying praise of any given title is about the same in content and tone. The Editors even flame back in response to a few letters. One letter from a young girl in San Diego is kind of heart-warming even though she does take pains to assure the Editors she is not a "crack pot" in that she has an un-girly fascination with monsters.

Critiques, given the limitation of space in the Planet Comics pages, are usually in reference to how high on the "hubba-hubba" scale the female characters rate. A few letters are from fans who are really into role-playing and submerge themselves into the different characters by writing the letters from the viewpoint of a Martian or other alien. All in good fun though as it seems to be an attempt to be part of something enjoyable and not just a passive observer. A disproportionate number of fans really, really hate the floppy and impractical boots of The Lost World's character of Hunt Bowman. Loosely-fitting footwear may have been the Golden Age equivalent of superfluous belt pouches and gigantic shotguns to the serious comic book aficionado of the 1940s.

As for the the references to Futura in The Vizigraph most readers are positive about the feature, though a few dislike the character. One of the negative letters appears a month or so after the artwork and story became more economical in presentation so the feedback could be related to the creative direction.

The Vizigraph

Planet Comics #44 Planet Comics #45Planet Comics #46 Planet Comics #47 Planet Comics #48 Planet Comics #49Planet Comics #50 Planet Comics #51 Planet Comics #52 Planet Comics #53 Planet Comics #54 Planet Comics #55 Planet Comics #56

Comic Books vs. Real Life

In Military Comics #25 (January 1944) the leader of the Blackhawks is captured by enemy soldiers and placed in bondage. After knocking out the lone, incompetent guard who was assigned to watch him, Blackhawk frees himself by lighting on fire the wooden stocks keeping him immobile and burning himself free.

Since this is a comic book scene and not real life Blackhawk burns off his fetters, escapes the dungeon and goes on to blow up the Nazi castle or something and punches Mussolini in the face.

But what would really happen if someone really tried to light on fire a wooden stockade in which they are imprisoned in order to escape? I think it would go something like this:

In real life Blackhawk dies horribly in the escape attempt and all his compatriots later die by firing squad. With Blackhawk and his team not around to put a halt to the nefarious plans of the Fifth Column the world collapses under the armored fist of the Japanese Imperial Navy and pretty soon we all have to live in Switzerland and hope we don't get sold back to the Nazis by government officials for profit.

So there you go, kids. don't set yourself on fire.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Michael Turner - RIP

Creator, writer and artist Michael Turner passed away Friday, June 17th, 2008. CBR has more.

Secret Formulas

Drink, Drive, Kill.
The formula for human tragedy.

Kill, Drive, Drink.
The formula for crime fiction.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Futura - Chapter 2

In Chapter 1 of the Futura Saga, a secretary is kidnapped by aliens for use as breeding stock to repopulate their planet. Frightened, but not one to wait around for rescue, Futura breaks free from her captors and steals a spaceship, desperate to find her way home.

Unknown to Futura her escape was engineered as a test of her survival traits and superiority to the other test subjects and her every action is being observed and evaluated. If Futura's genetic material is truly worthy of being harvested and added to the line of the Brain-Men of Cymradia then her success or failure in the wild landscapes and untamed cultures of the galaxy will ultimately decide her fate.

Or will it? The masters of Pan-Cosmos may discover to their regret that their test-subject might not meekly run through their maze and may smash down the walls instead and choose her own path.

Planet Comics #44 is the second installment of Futura and was published in September of 1946. Issue #44 is one of the few covers that advertised Futura. None of the cover art during the run directly appeared to feature her. Most of the Planet Comics covers typically contained elements that could have been derived from all or none of the stories for that particular issue and seemed only to be tangentially representative of the contents. This is either by accident or design. Due to deadlines and scheduling of material, most comic book covers of the era were designed and created separate from the contents of the book. It was a common practice that a "house artist" would create a cover, usually from a description of what the publisher wanted for that issue, that would hopefully capture the attention of consumers on a crowded newsstand rack. This practice continues in the comics industry, most famously at the DC Comics company in the 1960s, where under the direction of Editor Julius Schwartz cover art would be designed the writing staff would use as a guide or inspiration for a story.

The art for the second chapter of Futura is on par with or superior to all the other entries in this issue, with the possible exception of the Mysta of the Moon story. As noted previously, it appears that only Futura suffered the more economical art direction that seemed to bypass the other, presumably more popular serials.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wot a girl wants

Much funnier in England.

From Heart Throbs #85 (August-September 1963).

Here's the Colonies version.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Futura vs. Futura

A commenter asked if the Futura Saga was ever collected in a trade. I could never find one and it doesn't mean it doesn't exist, but I doubt it was ever collected. The main problem with Futura ever being collected is because of the market. The comic book market for the most part is obviously fueled by the visuals and a good chunk of the Futura tale may not be appealing to readers. The less-appealing chapters would fill an entire first volume, turning off fans and making the likelihood of a second volume being printed unlikely.

While some comic book are collected and anticipated because of the writer it is usually the art, with some notable exceptions, that is the foundation of what makes a particular book a success. Perlin, Ditko, Kirby, Anderson, Swan, Trimpe and Heck were masters of artistic story-telling but in the 1980s the evolving tastes of fans led many books (and perhaps the aging talents of the artists or inability to adapt to the changing market) to be doomed to cancellation or obscurity.

What I am getting to is that I'm interested in posting the entire Futura run from Planet Comics but I'm torn about the work involved and what the results might be. After the first few chapters the art becomes quite simplistic. Nothing wrong with that as the story is just as important as the visuals. But I'm very disappointed in the direction the series went for about ten issues. It wasn't until about issue #54 of Planet Comics that the art changed for the better with artist Joe Cavello.

As a completist, I'm probably going to include the entire run but comic fans and blog readers (not to mention myself) are notoriously impatient and would lose interest because a portion of the Futura story is not as "cool" as some of the other entries.

A few examples in the contrasting art and story styles:

This panel is the start of the "Magic Sword" story arc. This example isn't too bad but it becomes progressively stiff and simplistic. The promising weirdness of the Insect Men quickly fades as by the next issue they appear as normal humans with ill-defined wing-shapes protruding from their shoulder-blades. The art became a rather average example of Golden Age comics. The plot is also uninspiring and the story appears to be filler supporting the other more established serials. This is lent credence by the Futura serial rarely being given any cover credits, if any, alongside the other serials. The entire arc is a long way from the Alex Raymond-inspired story-telling and fine art by Joe Cavello.

I really favor the "Citizen of the Galaxy" type of plot over the "Magic Sword of Destiny" storyline. So the question is: Should I skip the "Magic Sword" arc completly or make it available as links in one post and then rocket off at ludicrous-speed into the Awesome Galaxy for the rest of the Futura Saga?

Regardless, more Futura to come!

Space Police

As mentioned previously, Planet Comics by the publisher Fiction House featured several long-running adventure serials that in some instances lasted several decades. Likewise, in nearly every issue of Planet Comics alongside the usual stories were an "educational" feature that, like the adventuresome space opera, also successfully transferred from the pulp-era into the Golden Age of comics. In the Silver Age of DC this type of feature would continue as space-filler and various PSA's or informational text pages until the requirements in postage regulation changed and the Comics Code Authority relaxed. The PSA's were then dropped and precious space and heavy pages were quickly filled in favor of more story and advertisements.

The Life on Other Worlds and other installments shared many similarities with the pulps in the unlikely and fantastic. The science, while probable then went into bizarre territory and just ran with an idea, no matter how improbable the outcome. Each installment of Life on Other Worlds detailed the environment and native life of both real and imaginary planets. Mars was an arid scorching desert, Venus was a steaming jungle, etc. A few of the chapters focused on daily life and one even speculated what an interstellar police force would be like and what challenges they would face while maintaining the thin, fabulously-hued line.

While the features were not graced with the art of Frank R. Paul (with the exception of a few comic books) a few notable artists were regulars of the short series. Murphy Anderson was one of them. Murphy Anderson had a long and distinguished career in the comics and illustration fields and is considered by many to be the definitive artist for Superman. This honor was bestowed upon him long before the opus he created with Alan Moore in the modern classic "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" and he did some finely detailed work that those familiar with the more economical pencils and inks of the 1970s and 1980s may not be aware of.

Presented below is the two-page Space Police feature by Murphy Anderson. From Planet #58 (January 1958). Full of pulpy goodness.

In reading some comics I've often wondered why the uniforms of the future were so ostentatious and impractical. The lowliest privates in the Space Army dressed like the Czar of Russia and even the janitors wore sashes and sagged under the weight of a chest-full of medals. Such displays really smack of desperation and smells like totalitarianism peacockness. But then I thought about how great some of our spacemen would look in a cape. I could see some early pioneer of the stars climbing the gantry and turning to the newsreel cameras, raising his silver-gloved fist to the heavens and shouting "God Bless the USA!", whipping around and snapping his cape out with a flourish, velor material majestically billowing up, out and down as he seats himself in the cramped quarters of the Project Mercury capsule, busy technicians strapping him in and connecting hoses, stroking the cape with a lint brush...

It totally works.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sleestak's Rule of Jungle-Adventure Storytelling

"The longer a Jungle-Adventure series continues the probability of a dinosaur appearing approaches one."

Sheena #7 (December 1949).

Futura - Chapter 1

One of the better comic book magazines to come out of Fiction House was Planet Comics, a direct descendant of the wordy pulp magazines. Comic books were far easier to read, more accessible to an all-ages audience and the pages were filled with far more pulchritude than a regular text magazine could hope to contain.

The Planet Comics title ran from 1940 to 1953 and gave readers a steady exposure to impossible, fantastic science fiction and featured a few of the stories of Fletcher Hanks. While the contents of the book eventually changed near the end of its run into a one-shot anthology title it was through most of its life a book that hosted long-running serial adventures featuring a familiar stable of characters. It was a title a reader could grow up with.

Many of the characters were modeled with various successes after concepts that could be found in Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and John Carter along with stylistic elements popularly found in the super-hero comics of the Golden Age. Some of the longest running series such as The Lost World, Gale Allen, Mysta of the Moon, Space Rangers and Auro, Lord of Jupiter lasted a decade and longer.

Another series that had a multi-year life span with Planet Comics was Futura, which was serialized in that title starting in July 1946 with issue #43 and probably ending in Spring 1955 with issue #64. An over 20-issue run of nearly ten years!

Futura is the story of an office secretary named Marcia Reynolds who was shanghaied into space to serve as the test-subject of an alien seeking to repopulate his planet. In the beginning the tale of Futura, while eerily drawn, is very typical of what the market expected in a comic book story with the lead character being a female. Marcia Reynolds, as Futura, was gorgeous, scantily clad, threatened by amorous bug-eyed monsters and tied up a lot. In fact, the story could easily be interpreted as both a dream by the character and a power-fantasy for the reader, the caveat being that the typical audience for the book was male and Futura usually extricated herself from difficult situations and often lead the charge into battle herself.

The quality of the art and writing varied greatly over the next several chapters and much of the narrative added to the idea that Marcia Reynolds was in a dreaming state, in particular the story featuring forest sprites and a magic sword. But soon the creative team picked a direction that leaned more to classic Space Opera and with issue #53 began offering lush art and rich story-telling that were stylistically on par with the details that could be found in the Flash Gordon dailies. Over the course of her story Futura quickly becomes less of a victim and her journey from frightened breeding stock to strong, independent woman is a fun and interesting one.

The first chapter of Futura from Planet Comics #43 (July 1946) is presented below. As ever, click the pictures to make for easy reading. Enjoy!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Son of Hulk: Smash Jr.

I liked Skaar: Son of Hulk well enough as I'm one of those fans who couldn't get enough of World War Hulk. But I'm going to need more in terms of future characterization than that of him simply being "The Hulk Who Kills". When Skaar comes to Earth (and he will eventually, you can bet on that) it will be interesting to see how Daddy deals with him. I hope it has lots of Shatner-esque dialog. " must..LOVE. Not...HATE!"

Marvel has a few angry, young kiddies of heroes out there now. Maybe after Skaar is rejected Daddy he could join up with an all-new Runaways. It could co-star Kid Wolverine, Julie Power (who is calling for a violent revolution against "The Man" for denying her legal definition in marriage), Nocturne and Teen Tony Stark.

I don't know. I hate Teen Tony.