Saturday, 30 November 2019

Separated at Birth 3 - more comic cover cliches

I LOVE COMIC BOOK COVERS, especially those of the 1950s and 1960s. And because I look at so many, I can't help but notice trends, tropes and cliches in the cover concepts of the decade of my childhood. By far the worst offender was DC Comics, the company that was my introduction to American comic books. But as they were firmly aimed at 10-year-olds, they can be forgiven for assuming readers in 1958 wouldn't be readers in 1963. For my part, I began switching over to Marvel Comics around 1964, and later back-filled the issues I'd missed, so I probably only followed DC for about three years.

But here, then, another batch of oft-repeated comic cover idea from DC Comics, with the occasional offering from Marvel. Let's start with ...


LION'S-HEAD REVISITED

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, DC's dark overlord Mort Weisinger struggled to know what to do with the omnipotent character Superman had become. So he manufactured a whole supporting mythology around DC's superstar hero - Kandor, The Phantom Zone, Red Kryptonite, and so on - and made exposure of Superman's secret identity the single biggest threat to the character. Oh, and weird transformations. 

As weird transformations go, sticking a lion's head on Superman is up there ... so much so that five years later, DC published a sequel. Because weirder is better. In a kind of cockeyed variation, Action Comics 240 (May 1958) gave us a (stone) lion with Superman's head.
Of course there's only so many transformations Superman can undergo, so it's inevitable that occasionally we'd get repeats. Like having his head replaced with a lion's. 'Cos that really believable, right? Action Comics 243 (Aug 1958) presented a tale in which Superman turns down an impulsive marriage proposal from the descendent of Greek sorceress Circe and is punished by being transformed into a human lion. Turns out Circe's technology is Kryptonian and Otto Binder and Wayne Boring's tale tries, a little unsuccessfully, to mine a "Beauty and the Beast" theme. Five years later, DC offered a sequel, sort of, in Superman 165 (Nov 1963). This later story, by Robert Bernstein and Curt Swan, takes the core idea and reworks it. But some of the references to the earlier tale don't quite fit the facts, and it turns out to be another Mort Weisinger hoax tale and not an actual appearance by the real Circe at all. Such was the way of early 1960s Superman Family titles.


LET'S GIVE THEM A BIG HAND

Another widespread cover concept was the "Giant Hand from Nowhere". This oddball cliche turned up on many DC fantasy covers during the early Silver Age, but also - with a slightly different spin - on some later Silver Age Marvel covers.

The stories behind the covers: though they appear very similar, the tales in these comics are quite different. In My Greatest Adventure 32 (May 1959) the hand from another dimension is just trying to retrieve its property and the destruction is collateral. In Strange Adventures 110 (Nov 1959), the hand belongs to a benign alien obsessed with saving an Earthman and the hand in Batman 146 (Mar 1962) is a hoax.
Titles like My Greatest Adventure and Strange Adventures presented mild horror and science fiction tales in which square-jawed Earthmen combatted the oddest threats from inner space, outer space and other dimensions. More than once, these menaces were big hands from Elsewhere ... sometimes attached to a giant, sometimes not.

Sometimes the horror wasn't mild enough. Back in 1956, a year or two into the rule of the Comics Code Authority, Stan Lee tried his own take of the giant hand story. It was cover-featured on Astonishing 50 (Jun 1956). The Code deemed the cover too horrific for young impressionable minds and insisted that the giant arm be given a suit sleeve and a wristwatch ... because that's much less frightening, right? Even if the scene on the cover had appeared in the actual story, the Code revisions would have rendered even more nonsensical as this was supposed to the giant arm of a jungle native.

The people who live in the Fantastic City are way too scary for readers of 1950s comics, so the Atlas production department altered Carl Burgos' art to put a business suit on arm of this giant denizen of the asian jungles. Somehow, the Alan Class reprint of this cover used the original, unaltered version, so we lucky comics historians get to see both versions.
Later on in the 1960s, the giant hands showed no signs of going away. DC comics continued to feature the occasional giant hand and Marvel too used the idea, although in a more symbolic way.

The Action Comics cover fronts a Wayne Boring story about a giant robot, written by a young Jim Shooter. The Amazing Spider-Man cover scene is in the comic - they're also giant robotic hands. The Avengers cover is purely symbolic and isn't found in the story.
By the time we got to 1966, Superman was going through a bit of a rocky patch. Doubtless there were reasons why Weisinger brought back artists like Wayne Boring and Al Plastino to draw the lead Superman feature in Action Comics, but even to my 12 year eye, their respective drawing styles seemed to belong to the previous decade. The front cover image is almost certain to be a Weisinger idea that apprentice scripter Jim Shooter had to write a story around. It's not very good. The Spider-Man cover is deliberately misleading. The story would have us believe Spider-Man has been shrunk to six inches tall by Mysterio. But anyone who knows the villain would realise he's former special effects guy, so it's unlikely that Spider has really been miniaturised.

ALIEN BIRDMEN

OK this one's a bit of a cheat, because both examples are by the same artist ... the brilliant Gil Kane. No one typified the house style at DC better than Kane. Always at his best when paired with slick inkers, like Joe Giella and Murphy Anderson, Kane had a bit of a blind spot when it came to aliens.

The birdman alien on the cover of Strange Adventures 67 (Apr 1956) is by Gil Kane and Joe Giella and the birdman on the cover of Green Lantern 6 (May 1961) is by ... Gil Kane and Joe Giella. That's a pretty goofy background alien on the GL cover, too. But even though I was a confirmed Marvel fan by 1967, I still was able to admire Murphy Anderson's take on Hawkman.
These birdman examples are typical of Kane's goofiness. I thought the idea of giant hawks with human heads battling a man with a hawk's head in Hawkman 18 (Feb 1967) a far more intriguing idea.

HIKING HIGH-RISES

Who wouldn't be captured by the though of a building that just ups and strolls around? Certainly not comics readers. The idea must've worked for DC, because they used the concept more than once.

It seemed to be a pattern, didn't it? Julie Schwartz would come up with an outrageous science fiction concept for one of his fantasy titles, then a short time later Mort Weisinger would steal the idea for his line of Superman comics. I sure hope DC Publisher Irwin Donenfeld wasn't fooled by Weisinger's shenanigans. 
The first time was on the cover of Strange Adventures 72 (Sep 1956) in a story by John Broome and Sid Greene, in a story that has aliens giving a movie producer a preview of their invasion plans. So spectacularly daft was the idea that Mort Weisinger pilfered it a year later and reworked the whole Living Building thing into a Superman cover for Action Comics 234 (Nov 1957).

GORILLA TACTICS

One of DC Editor Julius Schwartz's favourite gimmicks was the intelligent gorilla. Obviously, he had some kind or research or intelligence that "proved" to him that gorillas on the covers of comics sold. Or maybe he just monitored the sales and drew that conclusion for himself. Whatever the reason, it seemed that every other Strange Adventures cover featured a smart ape.

Gorillas with human brains and intelligent gorillas would be a common concept in Schwartz's covers. In this series of three, the gorilla is restrained in a chair, which indicates to me that this is Julie recycling cover ideas.
The earliest appearance I could find was Strange Adventures 8 (May 1951). Legend has it that Schwartz put a gorilla on the cover and Publisher Irwin Donenfeld was delighted at the bump in sales. He asked Schwartz to repeat the idea. Pretty soon, all the DC editors wanted to put gorillas on their covers, and Donenfeld had to limit them to one gorilla per month. It's a great story, but the evidence doesn't really bear it out.

The idea of smart gorillas subjugating humans was a common trope in Strange Adventures, pre-dating 1963's Monkey Planet novel by Pierre Boulle, which would also form the basis for the cult 1960s movie, Planet of the Apes. 
There are a few gorilla covers on other DC comics of the early 1950s, but it was on Strange Adventures that the idea would crop up again and again, then abruptly stopped around 1960. The variations on a theme would include intelligent gorillas, criminal gorillas, intelligent criminal gorillas and technologically advanced gorillas. Had gorillas suddenly become old hat? Had they stopped selling comics? Or was Schwartz just fed up with them?

Criminal gorillas was another idea that would crop up more than once in Schwartz' fantasy titles, especially Strange Adventures. He liked the idea so much that he would use it in his later superhero titles as well.
Well, not quite ... Schwartz would give the idea another try in his revived superhero titles of the late 1950s, pitting The Flash against the super-intelligent gorilla, Grodd, but as the second half of the 1960s swung around, the idea seemed to completely fall out of favour and disappear.

One of the best of the early Flash villains was Gorilla Grodd, a renegade from a race of super-intelligent gorillas living in an advanced city in the African jungles. The character would enjoy a long career in various DC comics and appeared in the live action Flash TV show in 2014. 1964's Doom Patrol 86 also featured a gorilla foe.
Even if Julius Schartz was tired of gorillas, they did crop up in some of Mort Weisinger's titles right through into the late 1960s. Never really one for sophistication, Weisinger would often use gorillas, or people changing into gorillas, as comedy relief.

In Adventure Comics 219 (Dec 1955), a gorilla chances to drink water contaminated with kryptonite and develops x-ray vision. Those kinds of coincidences were commonplace in Otto Binder stories. Later in life, Superman encountered more than one super-powered gorilla.
We'd also see the occasional super-gorilla. The first super-ape was yet another survivor from Krypton, who'd landed on Earth as a baby and was brought up by kindly gorillas in the African jungle. As he grew up, Supergorilla became protector of the animals and was eventually relocated to a distant uninhabited world - along with other surviving supergorillas from Krypton ... then never heard from again. A couple of years later, Superman discovered another supergorilla, this one a giant about 15 feet tall. The creature turns out to be a Kryptonian scientist, accidentally turned into a gorilla. The cover scene - with the supergorilla dressed in Superman's costume makes for a great cover image, but doesn't actually appear in the story. 

If you think Otto Binder's Titano stories are daft, try reading the E. Nelson Bridwell tale of Superboy and Beppo the super-monkey trading physical forms in the above masterpiece, Superboy 147 (Oct 1967).
Not all super-powered gorillas disappeared into obscurity. One notable exception was the King Kong swipe Titano, who was twenty feet tall and had kryptonite vision. Not technically a gorilla, but a chimp grown to monstrous size by cosmic rays, Titano also (miraculously) had kryptonite vision, which of course he menaces Superman with. Superman renders him harmless and dumps him in the Jurassic era. A year and a half later, Titano is back and causing trouble in Metropolis again. Once more, Superman carts the ape back through the time barrier to live with the prehistoric monsters, just like King Kong.

The Wonder Woman issue above was before the Andru & Esposito makeover of the the late 1950s, and is just too silly to describe, not helped by very crude Harry Peter art. The tale in Batman 114 (Mar 1958) has Batman team up with a smart circus ape to defeat the gang who robbed the circus.
Gorillas also turned up in such unlikely titles as Wonder Woman, Batman, and even in a later Julie Schwartz-edited Detective Comics, issue 339 (May 1965). The Gardner Fox-Carmine Infantino story has an amateur scientist accidentally give a gorilla human intellect and the creature goes on a crime rampage in Gotham City.

Just what it was about gorillas that captured young reader's imagination, I couldn't really say. It wasn't a particular draw for me at that age ... though I have a nostalgic fondness for The Flash's several battles with Gorilla Grodd, and though Gorilla City was a pretty cool concept. But other than that, the over-use of the idea just seemed a bit silly to me.

Julie Schwartz comes up with a great idea - a winged gorilla - then milks it for all it's worth, having several of them as the antagonists in Hawkman 6 (Feb 1965) and 16 (Oct 1966).
However, just when you think it can't get any dafter, DC gave us ... flying gorillas. Yes, back in 1961, Julius Schwartz had a story in Strange Adventures 125 about gorillas that sport wings and are stealing Earth's atmosphere. As might be expected, the aliens are defeated by a plucky, pipe-smoking scientist. Schwartz would remember the idea and re-tool it to provide a suitable enemy for Hawkman later in the 1960s. 

CAGED IN

Another common image used in early Silver Age comics is that of a human in a cage. Again, the pioneer of this concept was DC editor Julius Schwartz. He'd visit this theme often in the fantasy comics of the mid-1950s, like Strange Adventures, then revive the concept for his early 1960s super-hero books.

The earliest example I found was this cover for Strange Adventures 23 (Aug 1952). It would appear eight years later on House of Mystery 102 (Sep 1960), and again on Mystery in Space 102 (Sep 1965), with Adam Strange locked up by hostile robots.
His friend and colleague Mort Weisinger would also exploit the idea on a number of Superman family titles, from Superman to Legion of Superheroes. Superman in particular  would frequently find himself locked in a cage.

It's probably a good idea to take Superman's powers away before you lock him in a cage. In the slightly daft Superboy story in issue 96, Pete Ross acquires superpowers and usurps Superboy's place in life. The much later Superman story has a double caged by Superman ... or is it the other way round?
Sometimes, it would be a kryptonite cage because, after all, no normal steel cage is going to hold the Man of Steel. And sometimes it would be some other kind of kryptonite-powered deathtrap. The early Legion story in Adventure Comics 267 (Dec 1959) exploits the common feeling of alienation, and has Superboy turned on by his friends, the Legion of Superheroes. Of course, it's all a misunderstanding, and Superboy hasn't really turned into a criminal.

The cover for Superman 160 (Apr 1963) and the very similar Action Comics 377 (Jun 1969) both have a caged Superman being executed by criminals.
Sometimes, it would be a kryptonite cage because, after all, no normal steel cage is going to hold the Man of Steel. I sort of assume the bars aren't actually fashioned out of kryptonite. Surely, they'd be steel coated with kryptonite paint, wouldn't they? Does anyone know how strong kryptonite is? Should it be indestructible like Superman and therefore completely impossible to carve? Do you actually care?

In Detective Comics 313 Batman is trapped in a cage by criminals when he steps onto a giant record player. Adventure Comics 321 (Jun 1964) shows Lightning Lad looked up in a cage for apprently betraying Legion secrets to their arch-enemy The Time Trapper, but the trap is Lightning Lad's. And The Hawk family are put in a cage by a well-meaning alien when it thinks the heroes are being hunted by criminals.
Of course, other DC heroes would find themselves in cages, too. Batman fell victim to a flying cage in Detective Comics 313 (Mar 1963), in a tale by veteran writer Dave Wood and mainstay Batman artist Sheldon Moldoff. These daft Batman tales would shortly give way to the sleek revamp by Schwartz and Infantino. The locking up of Lightning Lad in a cage is the result of another misunderstanding. In Hawkman 3 (Aug 1964), Hawkman and Hawkgirl are caged for their own protection by a "super-intelligent alien bird".

THAT ABOUT COVERS IT

If you think I've unfairly singled out DC Comics for this cornucopia of cannibalised covers, then I can only respond that they were by far the worst culprits of the practice. There's nothing wrong with recycling ideas, I guess, if you're convinced your audience turns over every few years, and you consider publishing comics a business rather than an artform.

But I think that goes to the heart of why DC saw their fortunes decline during the 1960s and upstart Marvel start upwards. Stan said at the time he was creating stories for Marvel that he would find entertaining himself. So he figured, Why abandon your readership every five years when you can just keep them and make the kind of comics they'll like just as much when they're 16 as they did when they were 11. 

But DC never quite grasped how they were going wrong and even tried to "DC-ise" Kirby's Fourth World books without even realising what they were doing. And that pretty much sums up why I stopped reading DC comics around 1965 when I was ten and switched almost exclusively to Marvels.

Next: Weird One-shots