Trashed treasure: ‘Batman From The ’30s To The ’70s’

Some books are worth their weight in gold, even as they fall apart.

This treasured copy of “Batman: From The ‘30s to ‘70s” was given to me by my parents sometime around 1977 or so, and while it shows the wear and tear of 40+ years of avid re-reading, I’ll never part with it. The book needs regluing, there’s a few pages missing, the dust cover has been gone for decades, and for some reason I cut an interior page out and glued it on the front cover, but if there’s a single book I can blame for my lifelong comics addiction, it’s this one. 

This copy has been around the world with me, from California to Mississippi to Oregon to New Zealand. About 15 years ago or so I “loaned” it to my then-teenage nephew, and it eventually ended up on the shelf out at our family’s beach house here in New Zealand. There it sits, dusty but alive. 

Published as a “best of” collection celebrating Batman’s first 30 years or so, it’s a marvellous summing up of why Batman still works after all this time. You had the raw, primitive early Bob Kane stories – the debuts of The Joker and Doctor Death were dark, bloody stories with a high body count. Then Robin came along, and the tone started to get lighter – culminating in the great crazed sci-fi Bat of the 1950s, with Batwoman, Batgirl, Bat-Mite and Ace The Bathound all joining the crew. Batman traveled back in time and went to alien planets and yet this was the same Batman who once brooded in the shadows of Gotham, too. Over the pages of this thick tome, you could watch Batman progress from pulp hero to sci-fi star to the classic realistic Neal Adams-styled Batman who leapt off the page in the early 1970s. You could see how Batman could fit in almost anywhere and anytime.

There were several spreads of covers of various decades in Bat-history, going from the Gothic 1940s to the kitschy 60s to the lean, brooding Bat of the early 1970s. Pre-internet, pre-discovering fandom, this was the only window into the mysteries of comics history for me. It’s really hard to describe in our wired world what it felt like to discover hints of the past without being able to Google them up. At just age 8 or so, I began to understand the concept of history. All thanks to Batman.

 I long since bought another copy of the same book that’s less battered, just to be able to read it easily. I’ll still keep my original copy of “Batman From The ’30s to the ’70s” around somewhere until it disintegrates into crumbs, I imagine. It was the key to unlock a four-coloured world of heroes and villains I’ve never entirely left. 

You really can judge a comic book by its cover

Batman_184I’ve been hunting for the Batman issue above for a long time. It’s perhaps one of the best comic book covers ever – how can you NOT want to read the story inside? (Spoiler: It’s not actually all that great, but how could it measure up to that cover?) As a comic book cover alone, it’s a work of art.

The_Flash_Vol_1_163We live in weird times, when comic books dominate pop culture and box office receipts, yet the humble printed item itself still struggles for sales. They’re still out there, and I hope they’ll be out there a long time, but we’re a long way from when an X-Men comic sold 8 million issues in the ‘90s. But great comic book covers have pretty much died as an art form, despite their still being a lot of very good comic books published. It’s like everyone stopped caring about the covers. Maybe I’m just a design nut, but to me the cover is an integral part of the whole comics package.

Comic book covers slowly changed around the turn of the century, when kids stopped buying comic books at grocery store spinner racks and the art of selling comics rested less on a dynamic cover image and more on short-lived gimmicks (ah, for the chromium foil covers of the 1990s) or story-telling events (Crisis that, Crisis this, Marvel relaunching their comic titles over at #1 about every 15 minutes). Comics sell now to a fairly entrenched group of older fans like me, and the covers stopped trying to be about grabbing your attention. 

tumblr_pipexotLzg1vvfgwko1_400I don’t know why comic book covers have gotten so boring, really, but Christ almighty they sure have. Instead the kind of dazzling images you see here from the 1960s-1980s, sometime around 1999 comic book companies settled into publishing bland generic pin-up shots and chaotic battle scenes which vanish from your mind soon as you see them.

Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man comic was so bad at this for a while in the early 2000s that I honestly could never tell whether I’d read an issue or not from its cover, usually yet another generic shot of Spider-Man swinging through the city. The Alex Ross school of lush, artsy painted comic book covers also took over – and I like Alex Ross’s work, but painted comic covers in general don’t grab the eye like they first did. 

cleanComic books are at their heart a unique form of storytelling that combines words and pictures and have created some of the greatest fiction of the last century. There’s a reason Avengers movies and Aquaman movies rake in the big bucks, because there’s an iconic, mythological heft to these characters.

Yet for some reason the big brains putting out the comics stopped trying to showcase their storytelling on their covers. I don’t want yet another boring pin-up image of Batman.

I want you to tell me a story that makes me want to read that comic book, just like that battered Batman #184 from the 1960s that I finally tracked down a copy of. I’ll never forget that cover, because it told me a story and I had to know what happened next. 

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Wallace Wood, the best darn comic book artist there ever was

Image (17)Who’s my favourite comic book artist of all time?

It’s a hard choice to make. Of course, there’s Jack “King” Kirby, dynamic and passionate and the founding father of modern superheroes. There’s Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, nervy and intense and inventive, or the loose, energetic war and fantasy comics genius Joe Kubert, Robert Crumb’s neurotic creations, Herge’s elegant Tintin, and about a million more. 

But on most days, I’ll tell you that I think the best comic book artist of all time was WallaceWally’ Wood. 

Wood is one of the grand pillars of American comics – able to draw glorious science-fiction, chilling crime and horror and glamourous superheroes, all with a dense, classical sense of style that makes every panel of Wood at his peak seem like a museum piece.

I’ll look at a Wood panel for ages, drinking in the dense chiaroscuro of light and depth he created. Nobody drew gloopier, creepier aliens than Wood, more lantern-jawed spacemen, more gorgeous damsels. He’s one of the few comics artists whose work often looks best in the original black and white, without colouring.

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His greatest work was in the 1950s with the legendary EC Comics, on titles including Shock SuspensStories, Vault of Horror, and my personal favourites, the sci-fi duo of Weird Science and Weird Fantasy.

Wood illustrated many of the greatest science fiction comic stories of all time, singlehandedly crafting the images many of us think of when we imagine aliens and flying saucers (the creepy aliens of Mars Attacks? A Wood design). 

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He’d go on to projects like Marvel’s Daredevil (that iconic red costume? Wood), the Justice Society, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, his pioneering magazine witzend, classic war and horror comics for Creepy, his amazing Mad magazine strips and much more. 

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Wood lived a tragic life, working himself far too hard, embittered by the way the industry treated him, suffering alcoholism, poor health and diabetes. He shot himself in 1981 at just 54 years old. 

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But man, those dreams from Wally Wood’s pen. They live forever. 

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Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, a brief post to make it clear I am neither dead not maimed, but I have been working on a few other non-blog writing assignments of late I should plug here.

Did you know that yours truly was a 13-year-old American lad during the summer of 1985, the same time that the new season of “Stranger Things” is set in? Head on over to Radio New Zealand to read my take on “Stranger Things 3” and what it was really like in the far-off mystical ’80s. 

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Also over at the excellent website The Spinoff, I’ve crafted a somewhat expanded and possibly even improved version of my piece on the end of Mad magazine, and how it influenced the culture that’s all around us – even here in little ol’ New Zealand.

Go forth and read my extracurricular wordage, and new content shall appear here in another day or so!

MAD magazine: RIP to the biggest wise guy in the room

257What, me sorry? The rumours are flying fast and furious that MAD magazine, warping young minds ever since 1952, is closing up shop soon and ending its 67-year run. It’s reportedly going to switch to just reprint material to fulfil its subscription responsibilities and then end publication entirely soon.

While MAD has been past its peak for a while, it’s still truly the end of something great. MAD was once a cultural milestone that’s hard to put into context now. Pre-meme culture, pre-internet snark, hell, even pre-Seinfeld age of irony, MAD was a dissenting voice of doubt and disdain of prevailing institutions. It cracked the 1950s wide open and in some ways the world never looked back. It was never strident about it, but instead it was the voice of the wiseacre kid perched in the back of class interrupting the teacher’s lectures. Without MAD, there’d be no Bart Simpson. 

I first became “aware” of MAD in the early ‘80s toward the end of its heyday. I picked it up for the classic Mort Drucker-drawn movie parodies of stuff like “Rocky III” and “Superman II,” and stayed for the crazed cartooning and wit it was packed with – Sergio Aragones’ teeny-tiny toons, Dave Berger’s exploration of the creepy suburban underbelly in “The Lighter Side Of”, the kinetic “Spy Vs. Spy,” and much more. 

DIG007378_1._SX360_QL80_TTD_Soon I also discovered “classic” MAD, the Harvey Kurtzman-edited comic book that the magazine originally began as in 1952. It remained the last gasp of EC Comics itself after the great comics-will-warp-you scare of the ‘50s shut the rest of the line down. I got a massive volume collecting #1-6 of the series, packed with Kurtzman wit, Will Elder’s insanely detailed art, Wally Wood’s gorgeous spacemen and girls, and much more. I still have that somewhat battered gorgeous big volume of MAD’s first 6 issues, along with several other volumes collecting the original series, plus scattered around the house a battered stack of issues dating back to the ‘70s, all well-read and mangled as they should properly be. 

MAD carried on, and had a good run. One of the great joys of parenthood for me was my son discovering a huge stack of old MADs out at our beach house and becoming addicted to them. There’s nothing like seeing the next generation discover the pleasures of Don Martin’s FLAPPPS and THWITZZIPPTS, of Sergio Aragones’ amazing doodles, of the mysterious intricate pleasures of Al Jaffee’s fold-ins. I’d pick up the occasional “newer” MADs for the boy, too, and while I personally never found them quite as fresh or funny, I also knew that at 40-something I wasn’t quite the audience anymore. Unfortunately, people like me not buying MAD and younger folks not even knowing about it probably spelled the end a while ago. 

768711._SX360_QL80_TTD_MAD ended its 550-issue run and “relaunched” like pretty much every other long-running comic book publication about a year ago, and the writing was on the wall then. But to be honest, in the age of Trump, isn’t everything feeling a little satirical? When Trump himself made fun of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg by saying he ‘looked like Alfred E. Neuman,” nobody under 40 really seemed to get the the joke, including the candidate himself. 

For its 60 years of poking fun at sacred cows, of mocking everything from Star Wars to Nixon to John Travolta to Trump with an unblinking eye, MAD deserves a salute. I’m sad about its imminent end, but I also know the spirit of mockery – all the good and bad things about it – is still alive and scattered all over the internet and today’s pop culture. Alfred E. Neuman will never die. 

Batman mania revisited, 30 years on

2008_CSK_05425_0129_000()Thirty years ago today, I was standing in a line. A bunch of us were all queued up for what was then the biggest comic book movie of all time, Tim Burton’s Batman. Nobody quite knew what to expect.

There’s a lot of thinkpieces lately about what an event Batman was. You couldn’t escape that symbol, on T-shirts and lunchboxes and gum wrappers. It was the first superhero movie marketing event (the original Superman movies were a lot less pimped out by industry, to be honest). We’ve grown pretty used to that in the years since, but at the time it was dazzling. Good or bad, you HAD to see this movie.

As a kid who’d already been reading comic books for years before “Batman” hit the screen, I was hopeful. I remember painstakingly clipping out newspaper articles about the casting in the months before release – Jack Nicholson as the Joker, well, everybody knew that was perfect, but Michael Keaton as Batman was a bigger question mark. If there was an internet back then, casting “Mr Mom” as Bats would’ve cracked it in half. 

s3-BatmanWaikiki3It’s hard to explain to fans of today’s slick, streamlined and gorgeous Marvel Universe movies that seeing a comic book movie in the ‘80s and ‘90s was mostly a matter of lowering expectations, of accepting flaws and looking for the bits that worked.

Sure, Superman IV was godawful, but hey, the scene where Christopher Reeve tells the UN he’s taking away the world’s nukes was cool. Yeah, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey shred the screen as the most overacting villains of all time in Batman Forever, but I kinda dug Val Kilmer. OK, Howard The Duck might not have quite worked, but… well…. the puppet was interesting….

“Batman 1989” isn’t perfect either, but seen decades on, it’s still a remarkably intense, dynamic vision, one that shaped the portrayal of Batman in the comics for years to come. The late Anton Furst’s designs of a haunted, impressionist Gotham City are still remarkable – while the Marvel movies are pretty great, they’ve rarely created as bold a sense of place as Burton’s Gotham is. It’s a WEIRD town, explored further in the sequels, where gangs dress like clowns and oppressive architecture overwhelms humanity at every turn. 

Jack Nicholson’s Joker, which received the lion’s share of press going in, has dated a lot worse than Keaton’s Batman. It’s never a bad performance, but it’s hard not to just see it as “Jack doing his Jack thing”. Recently I’ve been rewatching a few of Nicholson’s classic ‘70s films like “The Last Detail” and “Five Easy Pieces,” where you see what a fiery talent he was, and compared to those years, his “Batman” role is more reminiscent of when actors like Vincent Price would appear on the old ‘60s Batman TV show – amusing, yet not all that deep. 

84-ogBut Keaton’s Batman has only grown in strength over the years. He never quite has the classic physical profile – seen in a tuxedo in an early scene, his Bruce Wayne’s shoulders would barely fill half the Bat-suit – but acting is often concentrated in the eyes, and Keaton’s eyes hold a balance of resolve and regret. His Bruce Wayne seems closer to the edge than some – look at the scene where he takes on the Joker in his civilian clothes: “You want nuts? Let’s get nuts!” In contrast, his Batman is more of a blank, grim slate, a mask that wipes out Wayne’s humanity and focuses his mission. 

I’d argue that Christian Bale and even Val Kilmer (who I think is kinda underrated in the Bat-acting pantheon) better represent the Batman character from the comics, but Keaton’s Batman still has a mysterious haunted power that makes him unforgettable. 

Standing in that line outside the theatre 30 years ago, I never would’ve imagined as a middle-aged dude I’d still be lining up for movies featuring characters like Ant-Man, Aquaman and Dr. Strange, but I’m glad I am. There’s a lot of movies given credit as ‘ground zero’ for the current superhero explosion, from “X-Men” to “Blade,” but as a phenomenon, there’s still no touching the craziness that Batman inspired three decades ago. 

It’s the end of the world and I like it: The Doom Patrol

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I didn’t have high hopes for a Doom Patrol TV series. We’re living in an age where comics as obscure as bloody Cloak And Dagger are getting a show, and I was afraid I’d see one of my favourite comic books of all time churned up and turned into mediocre, forgettable content for the masses.

I’m glad I gave it a shot, because so far Doom Patrol is living up to the surreal, crazed and humane comics it’s inspired by. It’s superheroes for those who are actually getting a little sick of superheroes. 

dp94Doom Patrol have always been weird, a team of misfits and outcasts kind of like the X-Men, but more so. Their original 1960s comic adventures are a bizarro Silver Age blast, but “my” Doom Patrol really burst into being with Grant Morrison’s seminal late 1980s reinvention of the concept. Morrison’s twin masterpieces of Doom Patrol and Animal Man back in the day blew my teenage mind. 

Drawing on dadaism, obscure German fairy tales, psychology, philosophy and mythology, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol was unlike any other comic book. Hermaphrodite superhero? Check. Sentient transvestite street? Check. Paintings that come to life and eat people? Check. Gorillas and disembodied human brains falling in love? Check!

The Doom Patrol are broken people – “Robotman” Cliff Steele (terrifically voiced by Brendan Fraser) is a human brain in a robot’s body, “Negative Man” Larry Trainor is a crash victim inhabited by a bizarre ‘negative spirit,’ “Elastic Girl” Rita Farr is a Hollywood star left trying to cover up her disfigured plastic flesh, “Crazy” Jane is an abuse victim split into multiple personalities, each with its own superpower. Even more than the X-Men, they’re freaks of nature. The “X-Men” movies long ago lost their primary theme of outcasts and prejudice in a muddle of tangled continuity and Magneto blowing shit up. 

The TV show doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and pathos of their conditions, and makes them the perfect foils for a world of escalating weirdness and threats. The TV show also adds the character Cyborg, last seen played with incredible dullness in the muddled “Justice League” movie a year or two back. Cyborg is far better here, a voice of relative normality, albeit still damaged, with Joivan Wade giving an excellent performance. 

53811008_402606643871269_5458107167754158080_nOne of the newer of the approximately 419 streaming services out there, DC Universe premiered last year with Titans, which was a mixed success for me – I dug seeing the “Teen Titans” come to life and there were some great parts, but the show had very scattered storytelling and a self-consciously adult tone that felt forced (Unless you really thought we needed to have a blood-soaked Robin muttering “F—- Batman” to make the character work better). Doom Patrol is more adult by nature, so the swearing and mature themes work better (I’ll never get tired of hearing Cliff Steele aka Robotman saying, “What the F—-!?!?” in response to Doom Patrol’s never-ending parade of weirdness). 

Doom Patrol stands out among a sea of super heroism because it embraces the comics’ fundamental strangeness rather than rejecting it with a veneer of gritty ‘realism’. No other big-budget superhero show this year will feature a donkey that doubles as a dimensional portal, unless Avengers: Endgame is hiding some major secrets.

Doom Patrol reminds us of how gloriously wacky comics can be, and how the most damaged and deformed of us can still find a way to save the world sometimes.