Thursday, November 02, 2017

Kirby on Unions and Efforts to Organize Comic Book Artists

Kirby was very much of his times in the post-War world. Although many of his heroes seek solutions in collective action, many of his early characters were individualists and his themes tended towards the little guy against vast conspiracies... 

From the Comics Journal interview with Gary Groth...

GROTH: Who did you deal with at DC? Did you have an editor that you dealt with directly?
KIRBY: They had several editors. I dealt with Mort Weisinger, Julie Schwartz, and Murray Boltinoff.
GROTH: Can you distinguish between the editors? Did they have different approaches?
KIRBY: They were different personalities certainly, but they were all great to get along with. We’re still good friends. Mort Weisinger is gone. When we first moved to California, Mort Weisinger came to visit us.
GROTH: What kind of man was he? I understand he was a tough taskmaster.
KIRBY: Everybody was a tough taskmaster. Mort Weisinger wasn’t a particularly tough taskmaster. He was trying to do an editor’s job. Comics have a caste system — an editor has to act in a certain way, an artist has to be humble, right? An artist has to be humble, an editor must be officious, and a publisher must be somewhere out in the galaxy enjoying godhood. It was a caste system, pure and simple. And it was accepted that way. Nobody thought of contracts, nobody thought of insisting on better deals.

GROTH: Did you assume when you did a book — any one of the many books you’ve done — did you assume that the publisher owned it? Or did you think about it a little later and think, wait a minute, I did this and I didn’t have a contract, and I don’t see why he should own it 100 percent.
KIRBY: No, I was growing up and becoming aware of those things. Joe Simon knew about those things.
GROTH: At the time you just assumed that the publisher owned it?
KIRBY: Yes. I assumed that he took it, OK? [Laughter.] I assumed that he took it, and I didn’t have the means to get it back. In other words, I didn’t save my money for a lawyer. I was a very young man, and saved my money for having a good time.
GROTH: I understand that sometime in the mid-’50s Bernie Krigstein tried to start a union among comic book creators. Were you aware of that?
KIRBY: I was aware of it. It was something that I knew would fail.
GROTH: But you didn’t go to any meetings?
KIRBY: No, no. Unions almost had the connotation of communism.
GROTH: You were wary?
KIRBY: Everybody was wary. Remember, this was a time when communists marched through the streets, waving flags and shouting. The unions did the same thing so you began to associate them. I’m speaking now as a human being, not as a businessman — the unions are great. The unions are great for the working people because they protect you, but I didn’t see them that way as a young man. First of all, the papers would connect them with thee communists — labor unions were communists.

And Joe Simon on Fighting American, from Wikipedia and the intro to a 1989 Marvel collection: 

Simon said in 1989 that he felt the anti-Communist fervor of the era would provide antagonists who, like the Nazis who fought Captain America during World War II, would be "colorful, outrageous and perfect foils for our hero." He went on to say,
The first stories were deadly serious. Fighting American was the first [C]ommie-basher in comics. We were all caught up in Senator McCarthy's vendetta against the 'red menace.' But soon it became evident that McCarthy ... had gone too far, damaging innocent Americans.... Then, the turnaround, [as] his side became talked of as the lunatic fringe.... Jack and I quickly became uncomfortable with Fighting American's cold war. Instead, we relaxed and had fun with the characters

Friday, October 27, 2017

Working Class Heroes: Humphrey Bogart and the Steel Fist

I have to thank Humphrey Bogart for helping me find out about another working class superhero. Here's Bogey reading a copy of Blue Circle Comics #3, published in the Summer of 1944. It is cover dated September and has a great image of the mermaid superhero Aquamarie punching an octopus who looks like Hitler. 
At the time, Bogey had just met Lauren Bacall on the set of To Have and Have Not and was starting his whirlwind affair with her. The movie came out in October 1944 and Bogey & Bacall were married in the Spring of '45. I'm assuming the photo was taken sometime around then, but I haven't been able to find a source or date for it. 
It's a great comic, published by one of the smaller comics publishers of the time, and only lasting for a handful of issues. The main draw for me today is a strip by HC  Kiefer featuring The Steel Fist, a crime-fighting factory worker . His secret origin is that Nazis try to blow up the steel plant where he works and when he gets in their way, they stick his hand in a vat of molten slag. The spirit of Justice appears (she looks like the Statue of Liberty) and magically makes his steel hand fully useable. Naturally, he puts on a dumb costume and goes around smashing spy rings and beating up saboteurs, and in this issue he gets a taxi driver side-kick who hits people with a thermos.
As I've discussed before, actual working class superheroes are pretty rare. Most superheroes are millionaires or royalty or work for the government. But not Tim Slade, the Steel Fist! Thanks Bogey!

Read the whole comic Bogart is reading here.

Read The Steel Fist's origin here.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Comic Fan Project: Don Heck era Avengers

A new entry in the Comic Fan Project, the search for early Canadian comic book fans!

This entry brings us a letter printed in Marvel's Avengers #31 from August 1966. The letter is a comment on the character and plot developments in the run of Avengers co-plotted and illustrated by cartoonist Don Heck who replaced Avengers co-creator Jack Kirby on the feature and was the other primary visual chronicler of the era before Big John Buscema and Neal Adams made their mark later in the "Silver Age":

Dear Stan and Don, 
No! No! You can't do this! You can't leave Henry Pym a ten-foot-tall freak!.You'll be rouing one of the most beautiful romances in comicdom. We Marvelites will never tolerate this man's being deprived of what he has needed most in life since the loss of his first wife --the love of Janet Van Dyne. On this we all stand firm. As a matter of fact I'm still amazed that he and the Wasp are not already married. They had plenty of time in which to be wed during their recent period of inactivity. Except for this weakness, the come-back of Giant-Man was rather spectacular. His new costume finally adds that last basic color that has been missing in the new Avengers, and that is yellow. Two things still puzzle me --one is his size. The 25-foot version is too big and too clumsy, as we frantic fans noticed as he struggled to squeeze through the corridors of the Collector's castle. In this state he more of a hindrance than a help to the Avengers. The ten-foot height is slightly undersized. Giant-Man always was and will ever be at his peak in mobility, strength, and power at his standard 12-foot combat height which is the height he displayed on the cover of issue #28. This is the way I and many other old-time Marvelites remember him and will always remember him. The other thing I find hard to accept is his new name. Somehow the name Goliath will never overshadow the glory tha was once in the name of he who we called Giant-Man, for this was how we grew to admire him. The old name sticks close to the heart of many of us. Should these few flaws be remedied, I am sure the new Avengers would reach a peak that might even surpass the glory of the old Avengers.
Claude Paquet5834 Molson St.Montreal 36Quebec, Canada

A great letter full of early fan entitlement and some size puns devoted to perennial nobody's favourite Hank Pym aka Ant-Man aka Giant-Man aka Goliath aka Yellowjacket. At this point in Marvel's development, it's interesting to read a reader self-identify as both a Giant-Man fan and as an "old-time Marvelite" --the Marvel U is at this point only 4 or 5 years old and the letter is written in response to Avengers #28! Also interesting that at this point, the Avengers was basically "The Adventures of Giant-Man"...

Thanks to Claude Paquet of Montreal!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Forgotten Comic Book Character: The Lepra-Duck

Panels from the first appearance of The Lepra-Duck from the story "The Battle at Hadrian's Wall", the cover-feature of Walt Disney's Donald Duck #107 (Gold Key, May 1966). The story was written by Vic Lockwood and drawn by Tony Strobl. In the story, Donald is given the Lepra-Duck's wishing stone, previously in the possession of Donald's lucky cousin Gladstone Gander, and, through a series of wishes, first travels to Uncle Scrooge's ancestral homeland of Scotland, and then back in time where he and his nephews meet Emperor Hadrian and some of his own "barbarian" ancestors who they teach to play baseball!

The Lepra-Duck is in the tradition of puckish magical interlopers like Superman's Mr. Mxyzptlk, Batman's Bat-Mite, Aquaman's Quisp and Quirk, Impy from The Fantastic Four, and Gazoo from The   Flintstones. Like these other characters, he magically appears to vex the main characters and introduce some sorcerous obstacle or faux-helpful spell. The Great Gazoo was introduced a year earlier on tv and is a likely influence on the Lepra-Duck, and ditto Lucky from the Lucky Charms cereal ads (first appearance 1963), although leprechauns are plentiful in fiction and popular culture, as is the idea of a magical token like the Wishing Stone (cf. Monkey's Paw) or the tradition of wishes that act as a form of hubris and backfire to punish greedy or prideful.

There are other magical characters in Donald Duck's world (Magicka de Spell) and the concept of luck is central to the characters of both Uncle Scrooge and Gladstone Gander, but we rarely see magic used as a form of time-travel. Rather, the characters in these stories interact with historical places and artifacts in the modern era.

As a kid I hated it when Bat-Mite would pop up in the Batman cartoon show. I wanted Batman to be a serious superhero and having this magical elf from another dimension constantly around getting into bumbling slapstick adventures while trying to help his "hero" Batman really put a damper on my suspension of disbelief, to say the very least. I was a little bit more forgiving of The Great Gazoo because the Flintstones was a comedy show and the wonderful droll voice acting of Harvey Korman really put the character over. As an adult, I love all of these magical characters and prefer the older superhero comic books with a sense of humour.

I came across this character in a really beat-up copy of Donald Duck comicthat I was actualy about to throw in the garbage and was surprised that a) this seems to be his only appearance and b) there isn't really anything online about him, even on websites run by ultra-nerdy Dinsey comics fanatics in Europe, like the Inducks wiki. The story he appears in has been reprinted at least once, so thousands of kids and older fans have read it. Obviously, the cliche magical deus ex machina nature of the character has left a sour taste in the mouth of fans who love the mostly well-plotted, logical stories of the Barks Ducks universe. Or maybe it's just not that memorable of a story and the character really only appears in a few panels at the beginning, popping back in for a few more panels at the end to take back his wishing stone.

Monday, October 16, 2017

I Want This Old Jack Kirby Thing T-Shirt

I'm currently loving this early 60s ad for a Thing sweatshirt with a ack Kirby signature. IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU'RE TOO DARN CLOSE!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Prole Art Threat: The Gong, Time, Work-Discipline, and the Revolt Against Industrial Capitalism in Batman #55

The Guides, the Wardens of our faculties, 
And Stewards of our labour, watchful men 

And skilful in the usury of time,
Sages, who in their prescience would controul 

All accidents and to the very road
Which they have fashion'd would confine us down
Like engines... (Wordsworth, The Prelude)

by BK Munn

The origin of Ed Peale, alias The Gong. He’s shaped like a bell! Comic book supervillains were originally working class rebels, of course. Let's see how millionaire Bruce Wayne teams up with the cops to discipline The Gong’s revolt in ‘The Bandit of the Bells!’ (Batman #55, reprinted in Batman #198) –art by Charles Paris, 1949.

I've written before about how the villains are the only truly revolutionary --or even proletarian-- figures in superhero comic books, and here is another great example.

Here we have a supervillain after my own heart, a rebel against the false industrial time-disciplines of the school and factory punch-clock; an autodidact scholar and historian who schemes to befuddle millionaire do-gooders, banks, and the forces of order. And here we see the delicious class conflict at work within the industrial structure of DC comic book sweatshop production as well. The uncredited writer (probably the great Bill Finger) and artist Charles Paris --both working as "ghosts" for Batman creator Bob Kane, who's signature is on the title page of the story but who had nothing to do with the day-to-day creation of the comics by his "studio"-- are clearly engaging in a bit of fun with their own deadline-controlled world. The ticking clock and figurative bells of all sorts make great villains and what young reader hasn't chafed against their restrictions as against Dickens' Gradgrind? 

But the battle between student/worker goes beyond the schoolyard. The Marxist historian E.P. Thompson wrote eloquently on this conflict, in an essay called "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capital":

In all these ways - by the division of labour; the supervision of labour; fines; bells and clocks; money incentives; preachings and schoolings; the suppression of fairs and sports —.new labour habits were formed, and a new time-discipline was imposed.) It sometimes took several generations (as in the Potteries), and we may doubt how far it was ever fully accomplished: irregular labour rhythms were perpetuated (and even institutionalized) into the present century, notably in London and in the great ports.
Throughout the nineteenth century the propaganda of time-thrift continued to be directed at the working people, the rhetoric becoming more debased, the apostrophes to eternity becoming more shop-soiled, the homilies more mean and banal. In early Victorian tracts and reading-matter aimed at the masses one is choked by the quantity of the stuff. But eternity has become those never-ending accounts of pious death-beds (or sinners struck by lightning), while the homilies have become little Smilesian snippets about humble men who by early rising and diligence made good. The leisured classes began to discover the "problem" (about which we hear a good deal today) of the leisure of the masses. A considerable proportion of manual workers (one moralist was alarmed to discover) after concluding their work were left with

"several hours in the day to be spent nearly as they please. And in what manner ... is this precious time expended by those of no mental cultivation . . . We shall often see them just simply annihilating those portions of time. They will for an hour, or for hours together ... sit on a bench, or lie down on a bank or hillock ... yielded up to utter vacancy and torpor ... or collected in groups by the road side, in readiness to find in whatever passes there occasions for gross jocularity; practising some impertinence, or uttering some jeering scurrility, at the expense of persons going by ... "
 This, clearly, was worse than Bingo: non-productivity, compounded with impertinence. In mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to "pass the time". 

These sound like some of the same critiques levelled by Wertham against the hooky clubs of juvenile delinquents who spent time away from school reading comics books!

Thompson wraps up with a glorious, utopian vision of so-called leisure time and the revolt aginst a puritan view of time-keeping:

And there is a sense, also, within the advanced industrial countries, in which this has ceased to be a problem placed in the past. For we are now at a point where sociologists are discuss- ing the "problem" of leisure And a part of the problem is: how did it come to be a problem ? Puritanism, in its marriage of convenience with industrial capitalism, was the agent which converted men to new valuations of time; which taught children even in their infancy to improve each shining hour; and which saturated men's minds with the equation, time is money.128. One recurrent form of revolt within Western industrial capitalism, whether bohemian or beatnik, has often taken the form of flouting the urgency of respectable time- values. And the interesting question arises: if Puritanism w a s a necessary part of the work-ethos which enabled the industrialized world to break out of the poverty-stricken economies of the past, will the Puritan valuation of time begin to decompose as the pressures of poverty relax ? Is it decomposing already ? Will men begin to lose that restless urgency, that desire to consume time purposively, which most people carry just as they carry a watch on their wrists ? 

If we are to have enlarged leisure, in an automated future, the problem is not "how are men going to be able to consume all these additional time-units of leisure ?" but "what will be the capacity for experience of the men who have this undirected time to live ?" If we maintain a Puritan time-valuation, a commodity-valuation, then it is a question of how this time is put to use, or how it is exploited by the leisure industries. But if the purposive notation of time-use becomes less compulsive, then men might have to re-learn some of the arts of living lost in the industrial revolution: how to fill the interstices of their days with enriched, more leisurely, personal and social relations; how to break down once more the barriers between work and life. And hence would stem a novel dialectic in which some of the old aggressive energies and disciplines migrate to the newly- industrializing nations, while the old industrialized nations seek to rediscover modes of experience forgotton before written history begins.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Umberto Eco On Fascism and His Introduction to U.S. Comics, or, "Is Dick Tracy Fascist or Not?"

Dick  Tracy on the cover of Super Comics #71, April 1944

by BK Munn

I recently came across this great concise summary of Umberto Eco's list of 14 characteristics of fascism. When you follow the links, you get the full original essay from The New York Review of Books, in which Eco talks a bit about growing up in Italy in the '40s under Mussolini and the liberation of his small town by partisan rebels and U.S. soldiers: 

"A few days later I saw the first American soldiers. They were African Americans. The first Yankee I met was a black man, Joseph, who introduced me to the marvels of Dick Tracy and Li’l Abner. His comic books were brightly colored and smelled good."

Chester Gould's Dick Tracy comic strip was translated to comic books many times. During the years of World War II it was reprinted in Dell's Super Comics alongside other funny pages cohorts like Little Orphan Annie. Perhaps this is how Eco first encountered the strip? Likewise, Al Capp's L'il Abner was a regular feature in Tip Top Comics during the same period. 

I wonder, by mentioning them here, is Eco hinting at the weird right-wing politics of Gould and Capp and their comic strip tough-guy counterparts? Or is he simply conflating his budding awareness of the wonders of U.S. pop culture with this primal example of the democratic nature of post-Fascist society?  As usual with Eco and his playful essays, there is probably a lot more going on than it seems on the surface. 

Is Tracy fascist? Eco starts his piece by wondering why the Italian "Fascist" became the default term for describing any and all varieties of totalitarian strongman, from dictator or president right on down the line to your friendly neighbourhood cop on the beat.   

"During World War II, the Americans who took part in the Spanish war were called “premature anti-fascists”—meaning that fighting against Hitler in the Forties was a moral duty for every good American, but fighting against Franco too early, in the Thirties, smelled sour because it was mainly done by Communists and other leftists. … Why was an expression like fascist pig used by American radicals thirty years later to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits? Why didn’t they say: Cagoulard pig, Falangist pig, Ustashe pig, Quisling pig, Nazi pig?"

Tracy is a cop, and his tough-guy, decades-long merciless war on crime was calcified and largely out of favour by the time the late-60s counter-culture was in full bloom (although it didn't stop Underground cartoonists like Jay Lynch and Robert Crumb from seeking an audience with Gould in his Herald-Tribune office in 1968). Cantankerous conservatives Gould and the acerbicly satiric Al Capp (think of Capp vs John Lennon and Yoko Ono), and the comics they created, were labeled fascist by 60s observers, just like 80% of the mainstream culture of the time. But it's a big leap from "asshole" to "fascist" and so much of this seeming cultural change can be explained away as adolescent posturing and inter-generational iconoclasm. But the shift in tenor on both right and left during the Cold War was also very much a reality. Outside of an increasing graphic/artistic weirdness, and the occasional patronising stab at "with-it" trendiness, Tracy and Gould were out of step with their surrounding culture. (This was true of the Underground vs Mainstream dialectic everywhere. For left-wing intellectuals like Art Speigelman in the 60s and 70s, it didn't matter that the Jewish creator of Captain America had personally shot Nazis during the War.  1960s Captain America had turned to fighting communism in the comics and in the era of Vietnam and the draft, that made Kirby and Marvel the enemy.)

This was not always the case. 1940s Tracy in the comic strips was a big supporter of the U.S. war effort and, as part of the frontline of comic strip propagandists, fought his fair share of Nazis, most notably in a well-known continuity begun in 1944 and featuring The Brow, an Axis spy who bedevils Tracy and the gang for months, escaping a variety of the usual Gould-ian deathtraps (and even a romance with Gravel Gertie!) before finally being impaled on a flagpole flying the U.S. flag.

Eco wraps up his famous essay with a plea for vigilance, noting that "Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes." What comics fan doesn't remember that the name of Gould's strip was originally "Plainclothes Tracy" until it was changed by the publisher Captain  Joseph Patterson to the tougher, slang-ier-sounding "Dick Tracy"? Certainly the past few years have seen a reassessment of our relationship with police of all stripes, in popular culture and in real life, and we can only wonder what having actual neo-Nazis (Bannon, et al) in the White House will mean for this horrible trend.

"We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task."

Anyway, here's the shortened list from the article mentioned above. Some of these track to Tracy, but there is more Trump here than Chester Gould:

While Eco is firm in claiming “There was only one Nazism,” he says, “the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change.” Eco reduces the qualities of what he calls “Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism” down to 14 “typical” features. “These features,” writes the novelist and semiotician, “cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”

1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
8. The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

(Super Comics #74, July 1944)

(Tip Top Comics #106, April 1945)