Friday, May 01, 2020

Comics in Film: Apache Kid in Cronenberg's The Dead Zone

by BK Munn

Comics in Film: The Dead Zone (1983). A copy of Apache Kid #53 in a serial killer's bedroom. The comic book appears in the childhood bedroom of Deputy Frank Dodd, the Castle Rock Killer. Dodd (played by Nicholas Campbell) retreats to the seemingly derelict home where he lives with his over-protective mother, pursued by his boss Sheriff George Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) and precog John Smith (Christopher Walken), after Smith correctly identifies Dodd as the man responsible for a series of rapes and murders in a small New England town. The killer's room is littered with many childish features, from its cowboy wallpaper to broken toys to a rocking horse, and is part of the film's obsession with rooms and childhood. The "Cowboys and Indians" theme is repeated in another room later, when Walken's character visits the home of a millionaire with a troubled son who needs tutoring. Apache Kid #53 (really #1) was published in 1950, and is a regular western-hero-with-secret-identity character typical of the period. The cover to this issue is drawn by Joe Maneely, the main artist for Atlas/Marvel during the 1950s before his untimely death in 1958 led to Jack Kirby returning to the company and starting the revival of superheroes. Other stories in the issue are drawn by Syd Shores and Mike Sekowsky. The appearance of the comic in the film is a nice touch, playing with the Wertham-esque idea of comics as junk culture responsible for juvenile delinquency and violent and sexually sadistic tendencies. The dual-identity nature of the Apache Kid (a white boy raised by Apaches after his family was slaughtered only to witness the slaughter of his adoptive family by whites) is also a call out to the way the film plays with its many dualities: cop/killer, villain/hero, adult/child, etc. Both director Cronenberg and Stephen King, the original author of The Dead Zone, were fans of comic books as kids, and Cronenberg has talked about his childhood obsessions, including "E.C. Comics, scary and bizarre and violent and nasty—the ones your mother didn’t want you to have." 

Friday, April 03, 2020

Comics in Film: Panic in Needle Park, Al Pacino and Bijou Funnies

by BK Munn

Comics in Film: Panic in Needle Park (1971). A heroin junkie reads a copy of Bijou Funnies #4 in a room full of addicts, including on the bed next to her, Bobby, played by Al Pacino. The film documents the doomed love affair between small-time hustler, dealer, and addict Bobby and struggling artist Helen (Kitty Winn). Panic was filmed on the streets of New York, with many glimpses into the culture of the day, including this comic, typical reading material for young people like Bobby and Helen, we are given to believe. Edited by cartoonist Jay Lynch, Bijou Funnies was one of the premiere Underground Comix anthologies of the early-70s. Lynch transformed his own Chicago Mirror newspaper into a MAD Magazine-styled comic after seeing Robert Crumb's Zap, and issues of Bijou included a Who's Who of comics, including Crumb. Bijou #4, published in June 1970 by the Berkeley-based Print Mint, featured a cover by Crumb and comics by Crumb, Lynch, Skip Williamson, Kim Deitch, Jay Kinney, Daniel Clyne, and Justin Green. There's not much drug-themed content, outside of the drug-fueled nature of the work itself: the hallucinogenic characters and plots, and the hip milieu of the stories. The cover feature is a classic Crumb 5-pager starring Projunior, in which the characters Honeybunch Kaminski and Mr. Man get stoned on dope for a few panels, flopping-out in a daze like the characters in Pacino's room. And like Bobby and Helen in the film, Projunior and Honeybunch will not be long-separated by "the Establishment." The back cover of the comic features another drug reference, a full-colour cut-out "Speed Freak Mask" by Lynch.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Comics in Film: Breathless

by BK Munn

Comics in Film: Jean-Paul Belmondo reads a September 1959 edition of the newspaper France-Soir while spying on his character's girlfriend (played by Jean Seberg) being questioned by the Paris police in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960). Belmondo is on the run for killing a cop, and his face is on the front page of every newspaper in town, so of course he goes straight to a newsstand and buys a paper. On view are two comics, the U.S. strip "The Heart of Juliette Jones" by Stan Drake, and "13 rue de l'Espoir" by writers Jacques and François Gall and cartoonist Paul Gillon. Both strips are soap operas with female, "career girl" leads. If you squint, it's possible to read the chic Seberg character, a young American woman trying to land a job as a reporter in France and torn between two boyfriends, as a combination of Juliette Jones and Françoise Morel, the star of the French strip.  "13 rue de l'Espoir" ran for 13 years in France-Soir and was collected in two albums by Les Humanoïdes in the 1980s. Gillon (1926-2011) had a long career in bande dessinée, collaborating with Jean-Claude Forest on several series and creating a multitude of other books, Including The History of Socialism in France.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Comics in Film: Dick Fulmine and Sophia Loren

by BK Munn

Comics in Film: Sophia Loren reads a 1940s comic book, "Fulmine in Nel Regno dei Pigmei", in the film A Special Day (Una giornata particolare, 1977). The film takes place on May 6, 1938, the day Hitler visits Mussolini in Rome, a national holiday in Italy. Loren's character, a housewife, stays home while the entire city is at a gaint rally and has a one-day affair with a gay radio announcer and anti-fascist, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who is about to be interned on the island of San Domino. The comic book, "Lightning in the Kingdom of the Pygmies", is slightly anachronistic, having been published two years after the date of the events of the film, on March 24, 1940. The character, Dick Fulmine, is apparently an Italian version of Dick Tracy, created in 1938 by the sports journalist Vincenzo Baggioli and cartoonist Carlo Cossio. Based in part on the Italian boxer Primo Carnera, his protruding jaw obviously is an homage to Mussolini. The comic was guided through the WWII years by the MinCulPop (the Fascist Ministry of Popular Culture) to make it more of a propaganda tool for the government. The omnipresent images of fascist propaganda in the film, as well as the film's soundtrack which is comprised exclusively of the live radio broadcast of the Hitler-Mussolini rally, underscore the oppressive existence of the two main characters.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Close Shaves in the Comics, Part 1: Shaving Subby!

by BK Munn

Now it can be told: the terrifying tale of talcum, tufts, and trimming that is shaving in the comics!

Let's talk about some of the most famous and important shaves in the history of comics.

1.  Fantastic Four #4, 1962. The Human Torch shaves The Submariner. 

This has got to be the most electrifying shave of them all! It's an historic shave. It's a shocking shave. It's a shave unique in the history of all media! This is the shave that launched the Silver Age of Comics in the USA! How was it done? What is the science of the thing? What kind of genius mind could invent such a shaving sequence that gives such delight? Only Jack Kirby, The King of Comics,  could have conceived of such a shave.

Just after Jack and Stan reinvigorated American superhero comics with their Fantastic Four, they reintroduced a character from Marvel's 1940s heyday, Prince Namor, The Submariner of Atlantis. Back in the Golden Age, The Submariner (created by Bill Everett) and The Human Torch (created by Carl Burgos) were arch-enemies, constantly fighting each other in the pages of each other's comic books throughout WWII. Fire and water don't mix, and the two characters were a perfect match. Jump forward almost 20 years, and both were almost forgotten. The Human Torch was revived as a totally new character, the teenage hothead Johnny Storm, kid brother of The Invisible Girl, and youngest member of The Fantastic Four. 

In this issue, Johnny wanders into the Bowery district of New York City and encounters a superstrong bearded hobo who looks vaguely familiar. After a quick shave and a dip in the East River, The Submariner is reborn! Having lost his memory, Prince Namor has been living as a Bowery Bum for years, among the other lost men. Once he regains his senses, the mutant Namor renews his war against the humans of the surface world, with a special hate-on for The Fantastic Four (partly because he falls in love with Johnny's sister, Sue, a big problem for her boyfriend and leader of the FF, Reed "Mr. Fantastic" Richards). This great story re-launches Namor as one of the major antiheroes of the comics, a key figure spanning two eras of Marvel history, a liminal figure with one foot in the past and another in the science fiction future.

And look at those panels! Kirby's superhero work is full of action and violence, with tons of jumping, flying and fighting figures zig-zagging at crazy angles, drawn with dynamic perspective, and most of his Fantastic Four work is just like that. Here we have a sequence of panels that are mesmerizing in their simplicity. The Human Torch, exhibiting great control of his flame power, methodically, almost tenderly, shaves off the beard of the nameless vagrant, revealing the regal, slightly alien face of his namesake's greatest enemy, The Submariner. Shocking! Beautiful! Eerie!

The reintroduction of Subby (and of the Torch, in a way) set a precedent for Marvel, leading to one of the most famous returns in comics when Jack Kirby repeated the trick a few years later and brought back his own character Captain America, found in a block of ice in Avengers #4 (1964). Marvel's competitors at DC had pioneered this sort of gimmick when they revamped some of their second-tier characters in the late-50s, kickstarting the so-called Silver Age of superheroes. These DC characters, while bearing the monickers and abilities of older characters, had new alter-egos and costumes, and were eventually explained as weird echoes of heroes from a parallel dimension, called Earth Two. The artists and writers at both companies had hit on a playful way to rejuvenate stale brands and old intellectual property for a new audience, injecting a bit of science fiction and youth into dusty comic books in a move I'm going to call "Shaving the Submariner"...

Monday, February 10, 2020

Pussy Katnip by Len Short

by BK Munn

Pussy Katnip was a super-powered nightclub singer and detective who appeared in over 20 comic book stories in the 1940s, mostly in anthology funny animal and humour titles published by Fox Feature Syndicate. Created and drawn by cartoonist Len Short (I know nothing about him), Pussy Katnip debuted in 1944. The owner of the Katnip Kafe nightclub, Pussy and her boyfriend, firefighter George the dog, would get involved in solving a mystery or crime in every short story. The villains of the series were local gangsters Boss and Mugsy. The thing that makes the series interesting, besides Len Short's weirdly wonderful art style, is that Pussy got her superpowers from an old family recipe (her family look like witches!) for "Katnip Fizz"!!

When confronted with a problem she cannot solve, she quickly runs to her secret pantry shelf where is concealed a bottle of Katnip Fizz ... brewed in Olden Times by Pussy's ancestors and passed on to each succeeding generation, this potent drink changes her usual shy self into a fighting fury and gives her an insight and intelligence unsurpassed in Feline History!

These two strips are from the comic book Ribtickler #1, 1945.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Burton Cummings, Comic Book Collector

Superstar rocker Burton Cummings is a big comic book collector, maybe the King of Canadian Comic Book Collectors. He has fond memories of everything from Jimmy Olsen to Little Lulu and Tubby, and doubled down on his pop culture collecting beginning in the 1980s, amassing a giant archive of vinyl records, cds, sports cards, etc. He writes often on the subject on his Facebook page. He also has written a weird fictional(?) story about an older collector living in California who gets ripped off by a femme fatale. I thought it would be interesting to share some of his reflections on collecting DC comics in the 1950s and 1960s when he was a kid in Winnipeg. Here he is writing on Facebook from November, 2019:


COMICS…for many of us of a certain age, comics were "that other world". Bear in mind, I'll be 72 on December 31st this year, so I clearly remember life before there was television. We were not an affluent household, so my Mother couldn't afford television immediately when it was first available. For a while, I would go to the Rosh Pina synagogue on Matheson avenue with my friend Arnold Silver or his younger brother Barry, and a bunch of us kids would sit cross legged on the floor, hypnotized by this new "magical" thing called television. The synagogue had one before most of the neighbourhood. Spellbound, we would sit on the floor and be whisked away by Roy Rogers, Range Rider, Lassie, Father Knows Best, Huckleberry Hound, maybe King of the Khyber Rifles, or a host of other early television shows. But before that, at least for me and many other kids, comics were the "release" into the world of fantasy.
There was always a choice between the Marvel family and the DC family. I ALWAYS preferred DC to MARVEL. Don't really know why, but I always did.
DC family included Superman, Batman, Superboy, Action, Adventure, World's Finest (which teamed up Superman with Batman and Robin), Lois Lane, and my personal favourite Jimmy Olsen.
For some reason, the Jimmy Olsen comics struck a chord with me. Maybe it was because he was Superman's pal, and a lot of us young boys could identify with how miraculous that would be if it were one of us.
And the Jimmy Olsen stories seemed more fantastic in many ways. Once in a while, DC would put out a special issue containing "errors" which were purposely placed throughout one of the stories. We were told to spot the errors and write in with our answers. I never "wrote in" but my friend Arnold Silver and I would sit on the steps inside his house on Lansdowne and try to spot all the purposely placed mistakes…(for example, the "S" on Superman's costume might be backward, or Jimmy Olsen's hair might be black instead of red, or the Daily Planet newspaper might have a different name, etc.) We always thought that was so special…
jimmy olsen 108

Pictured here are two comic covers…Action #240, featuring which is perhaps one of my all time favourite covers, with the sphinx having Kryptonite vision. This one was released in May of 1958, so I would have been 10 when it came out. The other one is Jimmy Olsen #108, released in January of 1968. I had just turned 20 at its release date, had been in the Guess Who for a year or so, but I still loved the comics. You'll notice that the price had risen from 10c to 12c, indicating a huge change in the world of "back then".
For me, when the price jumped up to 12c, things never seemed quite the same after that. We had all become so accustomed to 10c being the price, I don't think any of us really liked the change. It was an indication that our world was not immune to disruptive change.
These two covers illustrate the beauty that we all found in these thin paper books. The artwork was always superbly drawn and DC had quite a following on a world wide basis.
Much later in the 1980's, I began collecting comics obsessively, almost getting carried away at times, but I still held on to boxes full of the ones I had bought as a kid. Today, the comic collecting world has, in some ways, become tarnished and corrupted by the money. Recently some musician paid over 2 million dollars for an Action #1, which contains the first appearance ever of Superman. 2 million for a ten cent comic…astounding…but then again, think of it for a minute…people have been known to pay far more than that for a tiny postage stamp or a single coin. The old adage rings true…"something is genuinely worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it". How true. I would never succumb to the phrase that money is the root of all evil, but it certainly has changed things…sports is a good example.
The Huston Astros recently invested 500 million dollars to acquire three pitchers…500 million !!!
And it didn't even help them win the world series against the Washington Nationals…oh well…
Mickey Mantle made $100,000 a season from 1963 to 1968 and he was one hell of a player…when Rocket Richard first signed with the Montreal Canadiens, he was paid $5,000 for a season…today there are hockey players signing contracts for upwards of ten million and more…as Bob Dylan so eloquently put it
"for the times, they are a-changin'"...
Money certainly has changed through my lifetime. The Beatles sold out Shea Stadium and were paid a lump sum of $50,000…Taylor Swift did a stadium tour not long ago which grossed $266 Million…yikes…I'll bet she has her car and fridge paid off by now.
We live in a strange world now, compared to the world I was raised in, all those years ago on Lansdowne Ave. in the North end of Winnipeg. I'm seriously grateful still to be alive and fairly healthy, able to go out and do one man shows for seriously appreciative audiences.
But when I gaze at the two comic book covers pictured below, part of me yearns wholeheartedly for those days of yesteryear…
Hang on to your memories, folks. No one can ever take those away from you.
They're worth far more than all the money that's ever printed…
Luck and Health…