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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

SOLO AVENGERS, MIRACLE TEAMS PT. 4

In my examination of Golden Age hero-teams in Part 2, two facts should be evident:

(1) Most of the ongoing superhero teams are dominantly "co-ed." Miss America is an equal member of the All Winners Squad for its two paltry appearances, and Mary Marvel usually appears alongside her male counterparts in all or most MARVEL FAMILY teamups.  The use of Wonder Woman in JUSTICE SOCIETY was somewhat spottier, as she sometimes only appeared in a story to serve as the society's secretary. Some fan-critics have asserted, though, that the legal agreement between William Marson and DC Comics may have affected Wonder Woman's appearances in that august body.  It must be noted that when Black Canary was admitted, she was used without reservation, and to my knowledge never had to bring anyone their coffee. 

(2) In contrast, few other hero-teams-- some of which mixed together the "kid-gang" and "superhero" genres-- included girls in the mix.  Holyoke's "Little Leaders" feature was a necessary exception, in that it re-utilized "Kitten," sidekick to Catman, who was the star of the title in which the "leaders" appeared.  Generally, if female characters appeared at all in such teams, they were more like hangers-on than full-fleged members.  A possible model for this "hanger-on" type would be the character "Pat Savage" from the DOC SAVAGE pulps, who occasionally broke into her male cousin's "boys' club" but was never a regularly featured participant.  In pre-Code comics, one example of this was "Palomino Sue," who showed up in a few stories in the 1950 Simon & Kirby title BOYS' RANCH.



Why would the superhero teams, few as they were, of the 1940s have been dominantly "co-ed" when other types of teams were not?  The most likely reason is that the idea behind all three superhero teams was to form a "more perfect union" of costumed characters who had appeared separately in anthology-comics and occasionally met one another (Human Torch/Sub-Mariner, Captain Marvel/Spy Smasher).  In contrast, each of the non-superheroic teams was its own individual animal, created to play off a particular set of genre-trope, as well as being responsive to the perceived demands of reality.  That is to say: WWII adventurers like the Blackhawks, roughly based on the Foreign Legion, had no girls in their ranks because real-life combat troops were usually all-male.  Fictional kid-gangs occasionally allowed for female members, but they too were in part copied from real-life boys' clubs, whose raison d'etre was almost always "no girls allowed.  Oddly, one of the few teams that recycled a character from an earlier feature-- a practice that would become common following the Silver Age-- was that of the Girl Commandos, wherein a starring character named "War Nurse" decided to ally herself with a distaff band of "lady Blackhawks," and even dropped her superheroic name in order to blend in better.


But I said in the last essay that I would address the first hero-team of the post-Code era of American comics, which also begins the so-called Silver Age.  This was not a superhero team, but a close analogue: Jack Kirby's CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN. (Though Kirby was not the sole creator on this feature, he was the dominant force, so I will speak as if he alone created CHALLENGERS.)

Kirby's CHALLENGERS was in essence an adult version of the kid-gang concept, and probably owes something to an earlier Simon/Kirby work for Harvey Comics, THE BOY EXPLORERS (1946). This short-lived feature concept involved a band of kids, with one adult supervisor, traveling the world in search of bizarre phenomena.  It ptovides an illustration of the rather loosey-goosey way Golden Age comics generally approached their miracles: a heavy emphasis on the visceral elements and not much sustained examination of any fantasy-logic to support said wonders.

Kirby's CHALLENGERS is a different type of science-fiction adventure.  To be sure, just like Golden-Age Kirby, Silver Age Kirby was still oriented on providing a great deal of frenetic action, in contrast to many DC comics of the period.  But for whatever reason the stories also allowed for a small degree of contemplation of a given story's wonders.  In the second CHALLENGERS story, the group encounters a colossal intelligent robot named Ultivac.  Though there's a great deal of action, Kirby devotes more time here than he would have in a BOY EXPLORERS story to delineating the nature of Ultivac's self-generated intelligence and the robot's scornful opinion of humanity.



CHALLENGERS's tryout appearances in DC's SHOWCASE magazine were popular enough to spawn a regular magazine that lasted until 1971, though Kirby's last issue was #8.  Arguably CHALLENGERS also influenced a host of other non-superhero team-books at DC.  It may be noted that Quality's long-running Blackhawks were leased (later sold) to DC Comics in the same period, and that DC's first issue of BLACKHAWK, #108, was published in the same year as the debut of the Kirby work in SHOWCASE #6.  However, while BLACKHAWK soldiered on with an all-male crew until 1959, when the Hawks acquired a female hanger-on in the form of Lady Blackhawk, the Challengers acquired their female almost-member in their second appearance, the Ultivac story in SHOWCASE #7. Though at certain points during the story Kirby places new addition June Robbins into a position not unlike that of Fay Wray in 1933's KING KONG, June seems far more strongly patterned after the image of the female professional scientist familiar with giant-critter flicks like 1955's IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.



June was made an honorary member in that issue, and was thereafter used with a frequency I term "semi-regular" rather than merely occasional, and though in her earliest version she wasn't a combative type, it was clear that the Challenger guys respected her smarts and daring. 



This was rather a contrast to Lady Blackhawk, whom the Blackhawks couldn't even find time to nominate to the "honorary member" position



Even though the Challengers didn't have a regular gal-member for many issues, it would seem self-evident that their girl-friendly structure influenced DC to launch other adventure-teams in which girls were regular team-members, as with THE SEA DEVILS, the original SUICIDE SQUAD and the crews associated with RIP HUNTER and CAVE CARSON. 

As for how much this pattern in turn influenced the superhero teams-- stay tuned for the final installment of this series.

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