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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...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

SOLO AVENGERS, MIRACLE TEAMS PT. 5

To recap a part of my thesis: the institution of the Comics Code reduced the degree to which American comic books could invoke the sort of head-bashing-- and headlight-fancying-- visceral thrills available to adventure-heroes.  Thus there may have been less of a tendency to portray post-Code superheroes exclusively along the lines of the "urban avenger" type.  Over time key figures in comics sought to invoke quasi-intellectual thrills to enhance whatever visceral thrills were still available.  Some of these comics-makers, like Julie Schwartz and Jack Kirby, were long-time fans of prose science fiction and might have sought to use its tropes had the Code never existed. But others, such as Stan Lee and Jack Schiff, seem to have been using such tropes primarily to appeal to readers, rather than to express their own personal inclinations.  An increasing emphasis on sci-fi and myth-fantasy tropes brought about a fusion of the "urban avenger" and "miracle hero" types.  A newly minted hero like the Silver Age Flash still had a certain quantity of adventures beating up ordinary crooks, but this was no longer his raison d'etre, as it had been for the Golden Age Flash.  Eventually Silver Age Flash's gallery of fantastic rogues were very close to being virtual co-stars of the feature, in that readers clamored to see new stories with the Mirror Master, Captain Boomerang and the Top.




A more mundane feature like DC's BATMAN maintained its roots in the urban avenger tropes to some extent.  At the same time Batman's own gallery of fantasy-rogues grew to phenomenal proportions during Jack Schiff's post-Code years (1955-1964) with the two Bat-titles.  Granted, only a few of these characters, like the Silver Age Clayface, became particularly celebrated by fandom.  Many of them were gimmicky throwaways with names like "Mister Polka-Dot."  In later interviews Schiff expressly said that against his will he was forced to inject more SF-themed stories into the Bat-books.  However, he also claimed that he tried to make more use of Golden Age villains like Joker and Penguin. I speculate that the appearance of increased quantities of costumed villains in the Bat-features was Schiff's own idea, though it sometimes looks like he and his writers were trying to build up the Batman rogue's gallery by the old "see what sticks to the wall" gambit.

 

In this brave new world of SF-dominated superheroes of the Silver Age, however, one sees a dearth of feminine "miracle heroes," except in the positions of sidekicks to a male hero (Hawkgirl with Hawkman, Fly Girl with the Fly) or within superhero-teams.  Why?

I should reiterate that the basic idea of the "urban avenger" type was to go around looking for wrongs to right in a very simplistic, visceral manner.  In this Golden Age comics emulated adventure pulp-magazines.  Unlike the prose pulps, though, Golden Age comic books made greater use of female heroes starring in their own features.  One may observe that only a handful of these-- Wonder Woman, Black Cat, Phantom Lady-- were popular enough to support their own titles.  Some fem-centric features lasted  several years as "backups" in titles built around more popular male heroes.


I should note that "exotic avenger" heroines, particularly jungle girls, usually had better luck in graduating to the position of "most valuable players.")  But even if characters like Miss Masque or Wildfire were never the stars of their respective magazines, the mere fact that their publishers kept them going suggests that they believed some of their customers liked them, for reasons I've discussed in more detail in Part 3



However, during the 1950s the forces of censorship weren't the only influences on the adumbration of comics' pulplike nature.  As this article by Michelle Nolan makes clear, the 1950s also saw the slow attrition of the "anthology-format" of early comics, which had originally been a compromise between the format of prose pulps and that of newspaper comic strips.  For over fifteen years, most comic books weighed in at anywhere from 52 to 64 pages, and with various exceptions most were chock-full of a variety of assorted features.  This principle had been old when vaudeville reigned: if the customer doesn't like one act, bring on another quickly and maybe he'll like that one.  The fat-anthology format made it possible for adventure-comics to offer a lot of characters who were diverse in their physical appearance, even if there wasn't that much diversity in terms of the characters or the fantastic worlds through which they moved. 


By the post-Code era, most comics had shrunk to 36 pages, including covers. During this turbulent era of the comics-business, heroines of any genre *may* have been perceived as risky because they could be too easily interpreted as, well, "risqué."  Did comics-publishers like DC remember that Wertham inveighed not only against hypersexual types like Phantom Lady and Wonder Woman, but also female crusaders like Nyoka, whose Fawcett incarnation was, at best, mildly glamorous?  I for one think it probable, though not provable. I find it significant that following the institution of the Code DC apparently exiled the Catwoman-- the only comic-book villainess mentioned by Wertham--for roughly twelve years. 

Only in 1959 does industry leader DC take a chance on two female characters.  Supergirl, obviously, remained in a backup position to Superman in ACTION COMICS. In notable contrast, DC's STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES, previously dominated by non-continuing anthology-characters, finds its first strong continuing character in Mademoiselle Marie, who actually snags the cover-feature for issues #84-89.  Then, as if in further testimony to the proliferation of SF-tropes, someone got the bright idea of mixing soldiers with dinosaurs in SSWS-- and soon Marie found herself relegated to second banana for the remainder of her run in the title.  The mere fact that dinosaurs would sell better to comics-fans of the time than sexy French girls may say something, but I hesitate to say just what.



I find no superheroines appearing solo in the years 1960-65 unless they were spin-offs, as when Archie Comics' "Fly Girl" appeared on her own a few times in the FLY comic.  Their best moments would appear in the team-books, with this book leading the pack:



In contrast to the template of the JUSTICE SOCIETY, JUSTICE LEAGUE made no attempt to situate every member in his or her own individual story; probably an impossibility given the reduced page-count.  Instead heroes frequently "doubled up," creating more of a sense of a team rather than a loose affiliation.



Every comics-fan worthy of the name knows how the success of JUSTICE LEAGUE influenced the creation of Marvel's flagship book, Lee and Kirby's THE FANTASTIC FOUR, though FF's template was more immediately drawn from the "scientific adventurer" genre suggested by Kirby's CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN.  And though Marvel was quick to capitalize on their early success by producing both a roster of individual heroes and combining many of them in the AVENGERS title, FANTASTIC FOUR seems to have been far more influential.  Golden Age superhero teams had always been assemblages of established features.  In the Silver Age such assemblages, like JLA, Avengers, and Teen Titans, were narrowly outnumbered by superhero teams created to be nothing but teams, as with the X-Men, the Doom Patrol, the Metal Men and the Legion of Super-Heroes. 

Marvel, however, didn't take many chances on superheroines.  The Wasp was the only female sidekick introduced during this period, and though I've noted that her character has been underrated, there's no indication that contemporary fans were dying to see her on her own, though she did get a couple of solo backup stories.  In 1968 Marvel gave the FF-derived character Medusa a one-shot tryout in MARVEL SUPER-HEROES #15, but that was about it for Marvel in the 1960s.



DC and Charlton just barely edge ahead of Marvel here, in that DC premiered a short-lived "magical superheroine" in STRANGE ADVENTURES #187 in 1966, while Charlton gave heroine Nightshade-- introduced in CAPTAIN ATOM #82-- a backup berth in issue #87 (1967).




Nevertheless, the dearth of solo heroines did not mean that the 1960s was a bad time for superheroines, which was my original argument. I would say that by roughly 1964 the comics-industry had shaken off its worst fears about another censorship-crackdown.  However, reduced page-count still mitigated against the sort of rapid-fire introduction of new franchises seen in the Golden Age.  Team-books, whether they were composed of original characters or characters from independent franchises, were a new strategy to offer the reader more bang for the buck.  Such books also offered heroines for those that wanted them, without the need to risk anything on heroine-centered features.  That the comics-makers felt some need to defend this strategy is testified by Reed Richards' testimony on behalf of his female partner in FF #11 . 



Fans will never know the true genesis of this supposed response to reader-complaints, but at the very least it strikes me as an attempt to mollify readers who would have preferred to focus on male heroes. 

Further, though many "miracle heroes" existed without any affiliation to teams, the superhero team was often more adept at journeying into all manner of strange SF-fantasy worlds than individual heroes rooted in particular places-- all of which served to promote the quasi-intellectual thrill of the "sense of wonder."  Obviously, not all teams were successful-- Silver Age X-MEN, despite its outre theme, never became a sales-winner in its original incarnation, while DC's FLASH lasted into the 1980s.  But historically speaking, the most important contribution of the team-books was to offer the publishers a strategy for proliferating their distaff characters.  The small quantity of successful solo heroines will doubtlessly remain a source of frustation for some comics-fans.  But to overlook the sheer creativity behind such characters simply because they showed up in team-books shows, as I originally argued, a major failure of critical imagination.

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