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Flashback 1956!

Longbox Graveyard #41

Reviewing comics over half a century old doesn’t qualify as breaking news.

But here’s a news Flash, anyways.

The modern incarnation of the Flash burst to life in Showcase #4, with a cover date of October 1956.

Let’s think about 1956 for a minute.

Doris Day was singing Que Sera Sera, and Elvis Presley released his first gold album. Ike was in the White House, the Soviets were in Hungary, the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, and playwright Arthur Miller was in Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn must have found brains REALLY sexy

Frank Miller hadn’t been born yet. Humphrey Bogart hadn’t died yet. It’s was a year before Sputnik, three years before the Barbie doll, and maybe most important, five years before Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny rode that rocket into space and changed everything about comic books.

There wasn’t a lot going on in comic books at the time (the smart guys were doing newspaper comic strips). Will Eisner had already wrapped up the Spirit, EC Comics was a smoking crater in the ground, and the superheroes of the day were golden age relics like Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman, with the Last Son of Krypton more familiar as a paunchy black & white TV star than a comic book hero. The cool kids were more interested in science fiction anyway — Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, and B-movie classic Earth vs. The Flying Saucers all bowed in 1956.

It was to reach these saucer-watching, Elvis-listening, distracted youths of 1956 that DC Comics reimagined the Flash. They ditched the old Golden Age geezer in the air raid helmet and introduced a sleek new character design — The Scarlet Speedster! — and made their hero a chemist and “police scientist” who was a thoroughly modern man. With hindsight our beloved Barry Allen seems remote, square, and worse than your dad, but if you’re a kid in 1956, he was a vision of carefree adult freedom. Respectable, single, doing something cool for a living … yeah, sure, you wear a tie all the time and you’re whipped by your nagging girlfriend for arriving late for one tedious dinner date after another but it’s 1956, man! Beatlemania is still eight years away.

More to the point, your correspondent is still six years away. I was born in 1962, and came of comic book age in 1974, which makes me … really old. But not old enough to remember 1956. Not even old enough to imagine what 1956 might have been like. And because of that I can’t really review Flash. This “new” kind of superhero is half a century old and there’s no real way for me to appreciate what a fresh take Flash must have seemed smack dab in the middle of the button-down 1950s. If I’m reviewing a later Silver Age Marvel book like the Silver Surfer or the Avengers I can kind of get in the neighborhood — those books and those times weren’t so terribly far removed from my own youth. I feel like I can give them a fair shake from a then-and-now perspective. But the 1950s might as well be another planet, culturally, from the times I really knew and understood.

1956 also brought us Flash-Matic tuning (absolutely harmless to humans!)

So this review is a little different.

Reviewing the hero. As a superhero, the Flash is in the Hall of Fame, comfortably at the bottom of the top tier, or the top of the second tier, depending on your point of view. The story of the scientist bathed with chemicals and gifted with super-speed is part of our popular culture. He’s been in print forever, he’s had his cartoons, you could find him on pajamas and a lunch box (at least once upon a time), and your mom could probably pick him out of a lineup. He’ll get a movie when Warners shakes off their Green Lantern hangover. Yeah, DC has screwed up his comic a bunch of times (most notably sacrificing Barry Allen to the Moloch of Continuity in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths), but the modern Flash mythos is pretty strong and the character is nothing if not resilient. The Flash is going to be fine. He’s plenty of people’s favorite hero. I like him well enough but haven’t read a new Flash book in twenty years.

I have no idea who most of these guys are

Reviewing the comics for their own day. Well, see above, as regards my inability to truly understand the 1950s. About the best I can do is infer the impact of the comic by looking at the world around it — like detecting the presence of a black hole by looking for wobbles or distortion elsewhere in space. And to judge by the romance books, sanitized horror books, war books, westerns, and funny animals on the rack those days, then, heck yeah! The Flash must have been like someone spiked the lemonade.

Reviewing the comics for our day. Showcase #4 is a museum piece and a precious cultural artifact. The price guides say you could ask six figures for a top graded copy (good luck getting that, though!). As the herald of the Silver Age of comics and the introduction of a classic character, this is an Important Comic.

It is also a goofy comic. A very goofy comic.

The stories will melt your mind, so I won’t bother to summarize them. Suffice to say they are from that blissful pre-continuity era when the creators were clearly making things up as they went along. Aliens who grow every second! Ancient conquering robots buried beneath the earth! Spring-heeled supervillains who leave birthday presents all around town. And super-intelligent gorillas hailing from a secret African city.

(yes, that’s Gorilla Grodd)

That same sense of wonder is harnessed to create the modern world of comic books. You can see the story conventions of later books take root on seemingly every page. I was particularly struck by how “Science!” (exclamation point is mandatory) is invoked to justify everything. It’s like some bizarre inversion of Clarke’s Law, where any magic, however outrageous, will be accepted as science if sold as such to 1950s tweeners.

For instance, because heat causes mirages, then the same must be true of cold. Science!

And of course the Flash’s uniform expands on contact with air. It’s just like one of those Navy life rafts. SCIENCE!

In this last bit we see another common storytelling trick from this series that has lasted into the present age — using multiple panels in a kind of slow-motion to show us Barry’s various speed tricks. This triptych storytelling style is additionally notable because it is possibly unique to the comic book form.

It is first seen when Barry is discovering he’s received the gift of super-speed …

(and this was half a century before Toby Maguire pulled the same stunt in the cafeteria scene from Sam Raimi’s delightful 2002 movie, Spider-Man, by the way)

… then the technique is used to show how Barry thinks faster than the rest of us …

… and finally as a means for the audience to keep up with Barry as races through the sound barrier and beyond.

As well as emerging storytelling conventions, all the assumptions of old time comics are on display in The Flash, such as when Barry gets his obligatory teen sidekick in Flash #110.

Yep, that’s Wally West in the miniature Flash costume. In our current century, where all the subtext is on the outside, you can read all sorts of improprieties into Barry’s interest in young Wally, but for 1950s readers it was innocent, wish-fulfilling fun.

It really is treacherous to read too much into these Silver Age comics, but the relationship between Barry Allen and Iris West deserves special consideration. I understand the tropes. Lois Lane was an oblivious pain-in-the-butt for Clark Kent, so they went to the same playbook for Barry and Iris. But Iris is a genuine harpy. The way she picks on Barry … well, I’m tempted to believe there’s some kind of sadistic power exchange going on here. Barry is so whipped in this relationship that the only explanation is that he likes it this way.

Being “the fastest man alive,” the series wrings a lot of irony out of Barry being late all the time, and having Barry arrive late for another dinner or lunch with Iris is the go-to, wink-at-the-camera formula for concluding several stories in this series. But the hectoring Barry absorbs from Iris goes beyond an adolescent sense of dating (it must be like dressing up and going out with your mom!) and into a realm where it’s genuinely hard to understand why Barry puts up with it. Carmine Infantino draws elegant and fashionable women (and no one fills an evening gown like Iris West), but there’s a limit.

Consider this sequence from Flash #111, where Barry first puts up with Iris complaining that she’s being dragged to a lecture …

… then gets blasted by Iris becase she was bored, and thinks the lecturer was a crackpot (and to be fair, who could believe those lame-ass cloud monsters?) …

… but then, abruptly, Iris throws Barry over for this doctor she wouldn’t have known existed if Barry hadn’t introduced her to him. Mee-OW!

It’s probably nothing. Or maybe writer John Broome was working through issues. Or maybe this is just another example of the weird sexuality (identified by Grant Morrison in Supergods) that characterized the Mort Weisinger era at DC.

I prefer to believe that Barry put up with it because he was a playa. The Fastest Man Alive usually plays it right down mainstreet, but in Showcase #13 he flirts with the continental rule, getting a kiss on behalf of the ladies of Paris …

… before racing across the Mediterranean for an Egyptian booty call.

Look, when your only weapon is super-speed and about the best you can do is race Superman to a tie, then you’ve got to strike a blow whenever you can. And if that means that the Flash is the Fastest Man Alive in more ways than one, then who am I to deny him?

But that’s another one of those modern reinterpretations of an innocent adventure strip from a lost age. There’s a certain charm to an era where a kiss was a grateful North African princess was just a kiss from a princess.

I’m not convinced we’re better off today, for all of our sophistication and more worldly entertainments. This is a fun and nostalgic run of Flash comics, full of character first introductions and history. It’s worth slowing down to enjoy the Flash.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #42 Panel Gallery: Jack Kirby’s Gadgets of S.H.I.E.L.D. (And HYDRA Too!)

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Top Ten DC Comics Characters

Longbox Graveyard #12

A couple weeks ago, Brian Cronin’sComics Should Be Good” column at Comic Book Resources ran a DC/Marvel Top Ten survey. The idea was to name your top ten favorite characters for both DC and Marvel comics. (And the results are starting to appear).

While this isn’t exactly a Marvel vs. DC thing, the effect is the same: blogging red meat! It’s more meaningless than even the average comic book blog, it fills up column space, and it gets fans riled up over all the distinctions-without-a-difference in voting for the different clowns who have worn the Flash costume through the years. It’s a cheap stunt: an easy-to-write column designed to drive clicks.

I find it appalling and I disapprove.

Here are my picks.

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You Might Also Like: Top 10 Marvel Comics Characters

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DC Comics Top Ten

#10 Dr. Fate

Just for the headgear. I don’t give a damn about the character, but I love the helmet. Put Dr. Strange in that helmet and I’m all-in.

huh, looks like Dr. Fate grew boobs when I wasn’t looking

#9  Mister Miracle

Yes, he’s ridiculous — an exiled god from an dysfunctional home who wears a red-and-yellow costume and masquerades as an escape artist? But he was the favorite character of a friend I lost to childhood leukemia and I don’t care what you say, the core of the New Gods mythos would make a dynamite motion picture.

(But no Funky Flashman!)

#8  Superman

Love the character — the iconic man of tomorrow standing guard over the ideal big city metropolis. I enjoy the Superman mythos with its bottled cities, science villains, and flying dogs in capes. The character and world are inherently optimistic and utopian, and ultimately, Superman is the only superhero that really matters.

I just never want to read his comics.

is that a rocket in your pants, or are you just happy to see me?

#7  Wildcat

Yes, Wildcat. Again, because of the headgear. And also because I think the character is ripe for revival. Wildcat is a prizefighter and you have to try like hell to mess up a boxing story. Stick to the boxing movie formula and even a story about Hugh Jackman fighting with robots looks like a good idea. Mix the sweet science with a fatal disease, the mob, a dame, an orphan, and a little bit of that Barton Fink feeling and I smell a winner!

Plus, Wildcat rides a Cat-O-Cycle.

#6  Aquaman

I don’t care about the comics character — no one cares about the comics character — but the version of Aquaman who frequently appears on the Batman: Brave And The Bold cartoon series is a scream.

Fast forward to 3:50 in this video to see the true Aquaman … the poor schmuck stuck on an RV vacation road trip with his undersea family.

#5  Hawkman

Headgear fetish, part three.

note preference for Golden Age “full beak” Hawkman (these things are important)

#4  Swamp Thing

Frankly you could throw out the first six names on this list. I’ve never been a DC guy and I had to grope around to come up with my ten names. That I put Wildcat on the list and passed up a chance to show Power Girl in her white t-shirt shows how much I am slipping.

Let me correct that.

there you go … Power Girl, plus Superman and Wildcat (yes, Wildcat)

With Swamp Thing we come to the first of the DC characters that I hold in truly high esteem, and not merely because he is the most successful of a host of muck monsters reaching all the way back to The Heap. This admittedly second-tier character has twice been touched by genius, first with Bernie Wrightson’s brilliant character design …

… and then by Alan Moore’s seminal run on the book, which changed the character (and comics) forever. (Moore’s Swamp Thing will eventually get a Longbox Graveyard column all it’s own).

Wrightson’s design is worth a closer look. Swamp Thing’s powerful, hulking build gives him a strong presence on the page, but the character sports subtle touches that lend him uncommon visual depth. Exposed roots on Swamp Thing’s back and shoulders offer highlight points where artists can add visual flourishes and kinks (following artists would have his body sprout moss, roots, and flowers to dramatic effect).

Swamp Thing is just on this side of uncanny valley, with a face that is recognizably human, but sporting craggy brows and a characteristic nose-and-face design than can by turns be human and warm or a mask of skull-faced terror. A classic comic book monster design.

#3  The Flash

My favorite of the Silver Age greats, though I will confess I liked him best as a cartoon character. The sunlit and nostalgic memory of my youth casts the Flash as a safe, colorful, reassuring science hero who was both the fastest man alive and the smartest guy in the room. I particularly loved the “swishing” sound effects deployed every time Flash went for a sprint.

In filling out the ballot over at CBR I probably invalidated my submission by just listing, “The Flash,” instead of “Barry Allen Flash.” But really, is there a greater single indictment of comics than having to identify which Flash you mean when you say, “The Flash?”

C’mon.

And apropos of nothing — instead of the turgid Green Lantern-style disaster that DC is bound to bring to the screen, the Flash movie should be lightly comedic (more The Mask than The Dark Knight) and should star Neil Patrick Harris as Barry Allen.

You’re welcome.

#2  The Joker

DC in general and Batman in particular have a pile of great villains, and I probably could have filled out this list with bad guys alone (and another cheap blog idea has just occurred to me) … but the Joker is clearly DC’s finest villain, and likely would be so even without his apotheosis through the talents of Heath Ledger a couple years ago.

The brilliance of the Joker is in his versatility. He started life as a knock-off of Conrad Veidt, and has survived Jokermobiles, Cesar Romero’s mustache, and Jack Nicholson’s check-cashing to emerge as everyone’s favorite mass-murdering mental patient. The Joker’s bizarre plots resonate more deeply than your run-of-the-mill megalomaniac bent on world conquest. He’s unpredictable and always a twisted delight, seemingly just as at home whether he’s stealing a kid’s report card or putting Batgirl in a wheelchair. You can’t keep a good clown down!

#1  Bat-Mite

No, my favorite DC character is Batman, of course, but where’s the fun in admitting that?

And since I’m tumbling to the blogging cheap trick of a top ten list, I might as well go balls deep and drag this thing out for a second column … so you’ll have to come back in a couple weeks to see my Top Ten Marvel Comics characters!

In the meantime, I’d be delighted to see a nerd skirmish break out in the comments section about YOUR favorite DC heroes along with excoriating indictments of why I was a Philistine to leave (insert character here) off my list!

UPDATE: Mars Will Send No More has posted a rebuttal over at his epononymous blog! Check it out!

NEXT WEEK: #13 The Stuff of Legends — Thor!

LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS

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