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 REVISITEDBack 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.
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 HANDAnother 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.
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.
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.
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 BIRDMENOK 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.
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-RISESWho 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.
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 TACTICSOne 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 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.|
|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.|
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.
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).|
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).|
CAGED INAnother 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.|
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.|
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 ITIf 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