Archive for the ‘The World in a Golden Age’ Category
Hello, Readers! Jonny here.
In my many readings and explorings of the Information Super Highway (that’s the Internet to you “Web2.0” Kiddies) I discovered a Golden Age gem from January 1941 called “The Red Comet” that was published in Fiction House’s Planet Comics.
Planet Comics started in January of 1940 as a monthly magazine collecting, as did most comics of the time, several stories by many authors and artists. Though detectives and superheroes were all the rage in ‘41, Planet Comics catered to a slightly different niche with space odysseys. Known for stories with strong female characters and Good Girl Art, it seems Planet Comics was destined to become the sort of thing collectors drool over and popular culture forgets.
Anyone who follows my infrequent posts knows I have a soft spot for the Golden Age, but for all my love I cannot deny this stuff is crude. Imagine my surprise when I found “The Red Comet” by Arthur King (which may or may not be a pseudonym for Cy Thatcher, Rudy Pallais, and Alex Blum). All of the basic pitfalls of the Golden Age are here and yet there was something more. A lot more.
Within the pages of Planet Comics #10 I found a story that was probably intended to be heroic fantasy, yet ended up written and drawn as one of the most gorgeously Philip K. Dick-style dystopian stories I’ve read in a comic. I can only assume this wonderful transformation was due to the author’s own classist world-view and the three color limit placed on an artist with a remarkable eye for action. If you can, I strongly recommend finding your own copy of Planet Comics #10. If not, I will recap below.
Our story begins as the Red Comet himself bears witness to a landmark in science: the reanimation of a corpse. As a panel of probably-important-people and the Red Comet watch, the body of Tony Scaro is reanimated and “birthed” from the cold womb of a machine. The naked Tony awakes in a strange room. Confused, he asks for clothing.
Now, if I were the Red Comet or a scientist in Future Earth, this would be the part where I rush up to Tony Scaro and say something like, “Welcome to the future! It’s totally awesome here and you’re invited to join us in our perfect society! Enjoy this complementary Future Robe!” Instead this is where the comic starts to get effed up. Rather than addressing Tony directly and welcoming him to his new life in the future, the Red Comet towers above him in demigod-like form and announces Tony is a “low type” from the 20th century.
The scientists – still refraining from actually talking to Tony who has been dead for possibly hundreds of years and has no idea what the hell is happening – decide he will be permitted to “wander where he pleases” but will remain under close observation. For God only knows how long, Tony wanders Future Earth alone, all but naked, and under constant surveillance by unseen forces. Not surprisingly, this wears on Tony and he begins to long for his previous life and friends.
Coinciding with a break in surveillance, Tony commandeers a space ship and heads to Jupiter because, well, why the hell not? Apparently a good space-pilot, Tony lands on Jupiter and is brought before its dictator: a man most ominously named Kil. We can only assume that Tony is the first Earth person in ages to land on Jupiter, because Kil decides to inform Tony of his plans to go to war with Saturn. He then requests that Tony kill statesmen on Earth because that will get Earth to ally with Jupiter against Saturn for some reason. Tony jumps at the idea, and at this point I can’t say I blame him.
Back on Earth (and I’m guessing a few weeks later), the population starts to freak out as many prominent statesmen are murdered. Finally, the Red Comet shows up to announce that he’s discovered more info on Tony Scaro’s past and it turns out Tony was a notorious murderer in his day.
So far in the story I was totally on Team Tony in his rampage against the elitist Future Earth society that would so callously bring a man back to life and then send him naked into the wild after deeming him of inferior social status. Upon learning Tony’s brutal past I started to find him less sympathetic. Then I remembered: THEY DIDN’T KNOW HIS MURDEROUS PAST WHEN THEY FIRST CAST HIM OUT.
Damn, the future is full of dicks.
Receiving a tip from one of Kil’s inside men (wait, if he had insiders in the Earth government already why did he inform the random, naked mystery man from space of his plot? Anyway…) Tony steals another ship and makes for Jupiter with the Red Comet in hot pursuit. This time Kil is less enthusiastic and starts shooting at Tony, fearing that he’ll lead Earth’s forces to Saturn.
Crash landing on one of Saturn’s moons, a fierce battle ensues between Tony and the Red Comet.
Here is where my sympathy for Tony and my hatred for the Red Comet was nearly at full pitch. After winning the battle, Red Comet heads for Jupiter to find out why they were so quick to shoot at Tony. Please remember that Red Comet knows absolutely nothing of Kil’s plan. That becomes especially important when – without talking to anyone on the planet first – he grows to a giant size and single-handedly destroys Jupiter’s fleet that is sent to meet the invading Earth super-being.
Seriously, this guy is a twat.
Back on earth, Red Comet and the scientists decide that Tony Scaro’s violent 20th century ways are incompatible with the awesome Future ways and decide to put him in stasis forever. For this feat of heroism and benevolence the population of Earth praises the Red Comet.
As I said, I’m pretty sure all this horror and dystopia was unintentional. I think we were supposed to be cheering for Red Comet as he fought the murderous Tony Scaro and destroyed the fleets of wicked Kil. But as I read Planet Comics #10 all I felt was horror at the elitist disregard for humanity displayed by the supposedly advanced people of Future Earth. This was probably greatly assisted by the fact that we know and see so little of Red Comet. He only enters the story when somebody’s ass needs kicking which makes him come off as some sort of Gestapo henchmen for Fascists yet to come. This coupled with truly astounding artwork made for a supremely (if inadvertently) enjoyable read. I know I’ve made light of this comic, but again I must emphasize that I was totally enraptured as I read it and I must insist that anyone who enjoys Golden Age stories find a copy of Planet Comics.
Until next time, happy readings!
“Fans come to me asking how this works or that works, and I say, ‘It’s a comic book. It’s not real.’ We already have a real world, why do you want fiction to be like that too?”
- Grant Morrison, 2010
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Golden Age comics. I know there aren’t many of my generation who appreciate this stuff, and I’m positive I don’t “get it” the way my grandparents did, but the mixture of innocence, desperation, and humanity I find in these old stories is quite compelling.
When my generation imagines old comics we think of Super Friends, but for all its glitter the times of the Golden Age were rather bleak. Thanks to Captain America and Wonder Woman we think the heroes of that first era were framed against the backdrop of WWII. This is not true. While it is true that Superman, Batman, and others came to stand for the American Way their personae were not forged in flames of war, but in the embers of Depression.
“We can do it!” Rosie the Riveter said that for the first time in 1942. Superman debuted in 1938. We met Batman, Namor, and the Human Torch in 1939. Jay Garrick, Alan Scott, and the Spirit first appeared in 1940 alongside most of the Golden Age crew. Wonder Woman is the only major character to appear after Pearl Harbor, and she also joins Steve Rogers in color coordination. All of these heroes were born into an era scarred by record unemployment and rising crime as the country completed a full decade of economic depression.
People were starting to lose hope and this, my friends, is the world Superman needed to save.
Something I love about the early days of superheroes is the lack of super-villains. Oh, sure there were a few notable bad guys like the Joker and Wotan, but on the whole super-villains were exceptions to the norm of mob bosses, corrupt officials, and street thugs. This is what I meant when I said the Golden Age comics were desperate. America thought the problems of everyday life were bad enough to need heroes.
This reveals a real sense of hopelessness deep in the psyche of that generation. Rampant unemployment. Gang violence on the rise and crime organizing like never before. Times were desperate, and the Common Man felt he was quickly losing his place in the day-to-day life of America.
See, creators like Rob Kanigher and Len Wein saw comics as fantastical tales to thrill an audience with absurdity and bizarre scenarios. Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger, C. C. Beck, and Mart Dellon saw comics as a cathartic escape from the harsh reality of violence, corruption, and black-mail.
They saw comics as a weird mixture of hope and escape.
Never mind the crude drawings and clumsy dialogue. The heroes idolized by my grandfather didn’t need to fight aliens to have meaning. Superman was great because he could stop a lynching. We believed in the Green Lantern because he could expose a mob-boss who had framed an innocent man. These heroes didn’t protect us from the unknown; what they brought was hope in the face of something very real and immediate. Put another way, the Golden Age offered escape from reality simply by solving the problems of poor Americans. I cannot imagine anything sadder or more exhilarating. So, while 1938-1950 may not have produced the best art or the most clever prose, America has arguably never seen comics that had more meaning. And that is enough to make a Golden Age.
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“We view the world through our own eyes.” What an obvious statement, and yet not always so intuitive. We love comics, but rarely stop to think of the social and political canvass our beloved characters were painted against.
1941 may have been the most terrifying and uncertain year the Western World has ever seen. This was the year that the Axis Powers went to full scale war with Europe. Germany was invading all of her neighbors. ’41 saw Jews required to wear the Star of David arm bands and was the year Nazi Germany decided to institute concentration camps. Japan invaded French Indo-China and was amassing an army to fly across the Pacific. America was not in the war yet, but everywhere we looked it was becoming apparent we would not weather the storm without bloodshed.
It was in 1941 that Winston Churchill made his famous address to a joint session of congress urging full scale involvement in the European and Asian theatres of war. Winter was also claiming the lives of thousands of Germans as Hitler attempted to take Russia from Stalin. The whole world was realizing that yet another global war was at hand and dreading the long years they knew it would take to achieve peace.
The times also saw a vibrance in creativity in art, fashion, cinema, and music. In 1941 Citizen Kane was released and How Green Was My Valley was a box office hit. Glenn Miller was topping the charts with “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “A String of Pearls”.
Women’s fashion was conservative as the last dregs of 1920s fashion died out. Men were excited to wear baggy clothes and the zoot suit was returning. For obvious reasons men’s and women’s fashion made prominent use of shoulder pads modeled after military uniforms.
It had been about 15-20 years since cinema had become mainstream entertainment and with the advent of sound in pictures the 1940s began to see remakes of the popular silent films of the 1920s. With this we saw a second age of horror and science fiction at the theatre. Among these famous remakes in 1940 we saw renewed interest in a franchise called The Green Archer. Every week devoted fans would flock to their local theatre to watch a caped Robin Hood-esque man wield his bow and arrows for truth and justice as he diligently worked to stop a murderous band of jewel thieves.
It was in November of this world that the 73rd issue of More Fun Comics debuted the beloved Oliver Queen as The Green Arrow. It seems entirely reasonable in this extraordinarily uncertain time that Americans would reflect back to a percieved time of simplicity and take heart in a world where Truth and Justice were clear, easy, and absolute.
In the same issue America met another classic hero: Aquaman. While all Golden Age comics reflect a desire for simplicity and absolutes, Aquaman demonstrated a different appeal. Arthur Curry didn’t have to be on land with us. He could escape to the sea. His problems were his own. No need to be bogged down with the troubles of the world. Nothing but a vast, silent ocean and friendly sea creatures to entertain and befriend this hero. Despite this option, Aquaman chose to engage the dry land willingly. Perhaps this stemmed from America’s growing realization that Isolatioinsim was truly no longer an option.
Of all the Heroes to debut in 1941 perhaps the most poignant and iconic was Captain America. If Green Arrow and Aquaman demonstrated a desire to escape then it is no surprise the most successful character of 1941 hit the problems of the world head on. When faced with crisis it is only human to spend a few moments reflecting on what might have been, but a testament to the resolve of that generation was embodied in one of comic-doms most epic heroes. Captain America was more than just a simplified equation to solve right and wrong. He was more than escape. Steve Rogers WAS America. He was the strength, the resolve, and the character that Americans were striving to muster so they could persevere through the most difficult time in the history of the world.
Certainly the WWII generation achieved something close to the character we see in Steve Rogers. Whether subsequent generations have is less clear, but what is certain is that even in the 21st century America looks to Captain America and sees in him something noble and admirable. For this we salute the Cap with a raised glass. Most liquor was scarce during the war, but we did have an abundance of rum. Today’s recommended drink is The Hurricane Cocktail.