Saturday, February 11, 2006

True Kufr Romance

COMIC BOOKS: Definitely an important part of my education:

Early comics were kid's comics, like Baby Huey (about a huge duck in a diaper), Richie Rich, Sugar and Spike (the last one was about a little red-headed boy and girl, twins, and it had some remarkable artwork for a kid's comic, with futuristic themes). But those kind of books were only introductions to REAL comic books, which were about Superheroes and War.

Comic books were extremely gloomy and dark in the early 70s, when I first started to read. Later, when I saw reprints of older comics from the 50s and early 60s, the contrast was incredible. (In the 70s, DC did lots of reprints of old comics). If the real world changed a lot in ten years, the comic book world changed completely - it went inside out.

In the 50s, Superhero comics were still crudely drawn (they were only for kids, after all). The advertisements said FUN and ADVENTURE! Figures were cartoony and poorly proportioned, anti-realistic, with artwork actually declining since the 40s. One guy drew Superman for years without ever learning how to draw Clark Kent's horn rim glasses (in the 40s, Clark wore tidy wire rims). When you saw Clark in profile, the arms of his glasses were an inch above his ears, as if they were glued to his temples. Superman had an enormous, bulky torso --- his waist was as big around as a tree trunk --- but his arms and legs were shrunken and frail-looking. He looked awful, like a steroid junkie. Batman was better, but not much. In the 50s, stories were all about science fiction and magic (pretty much the same thing in comics -- magic was just extra-dimensional science) and everything happened in the day time. Everything was upbeat and ended happily, with the heroes never doubting themselves, and usually overcoming "evil" with clever tricks rather than violence. This was appropriate, since "evil" was something that was mainly played for laughs. Villains no longer carried the huge Colt automatic pistols they used to have. The Joker was just a tricky clown, not the murdering fiend he had been back in the 30s and 40s, when he poisoned his victims with a toxin that left a gruesome rictus on their dead faces. The Joker never killed people in the 50s. Nobody did. People didn't even punch each other in the face anymore. They just played little pranks on each other, with the last laugh going to the hero. The last panel always showed the hero and his sidekicks with huge grins on their square-jawed faces. "Hmn. I wonder what trick Lex Luthor has in store for me next time? Ha ha ha!"

Then everything changed in comics, completely.

Artwork went from being clumsy to super-realistic, and the sun went down forever. Everything was dark and shadowy now. Heroes were suddenly moody and plagued with self-doubt, to the point of being neurotic (sometimes they actually described themselves as neurotic). The happy sunny world of locker-room pranks turned deadly as hell. The Joker rediscovered his lethal poison and started a regular massacre, practically slobbering with maniacal laughter over his grinning victims. In a way, everything was thrown back to the dark 30s, but with modern angst mixed in. [The violent heroes and villains of the 30's had cleaned up their act during WWII, when they became patriotic citizens] Only the really sinister super villains survived the transition to the late 60s: the Joker, Two-Face, the Scarecrow, Lex Luthor (who stopped being the over-bright class clown and became the kind of guy who threatened your immortal soul). The "fun" bad guys like the Riddler, the Penguin, and Mr Mzxpltk (or whatever) were out. More and more often, though, the bad guys looked like regular people.

Some 30s heroes who had been hopelessly out of style in the middle decades made comebacks in the early 70s. The Shadow (in a beautifully drawn DC comic) was back, with his sinister psychological warfare and his Colt automatic pistols. The Shadow was the Joker gone more or less straight. Then there was the Specter (DC again) who was first drawn in the 30s but had dropped out of sight for 20 years. Now he was back. The Specter was the ghost of a murdered police detective who used paranormal powers to KILL his enemies in gruesome ways, such as snipping them in half with (magically conjured) giant scissors. Magic was still around, but it was no longer alien science. It was Satanistic, even when it was used for good.

The Joker, the Shadow and the Specter were back in their element, but everybody else seemed hopelessly lost. Heroes were a mess. Robin went to college in 1969 ("I'm a man now! 'Least, that's what my draft card says") and Batman moved out of the Batcave into a modern office block, but that didn't help. (""We're in grave danger of becoming --- OUTMODED! Obsolete dodos of the mod world outside!") Superman got a new artist and a new world to live in, too --- the Daily Planet got bought out by a giant media corporation The covers of his books had titles like "Superman --- ENEMY OF EARTH!" and "Superman, You're Dead, Dead, DEAD". One showed Lois Lane being taken into Hell by demons (Help! Save me!) while Superman cowers helplessly. Because Superman was so super, it was a major effort for his writers to come up with ways to punish him: new kinds of kryptonite, magic, even Satan himself. That was his problem --- I never liked Superman, starting with his circus-suit costume.

Themes of death and rejection were very big. Heroes went from being colorful outlaws (in the 50s, they were model citizens who went to banquets and bridge dedications) to being despised outcasts. The Teen Titans (who included Robin the former Boy Wonder) were total disgraces who were forbidden by law to wear their costumes because they had screwed up something big, so they wandered dark streets in slacks and turtlenecks, resenting each other. I vividly recall opening a Green Lantern comic and seeing the hero, in his nice green and black costume, standing with his head hanging and saying "Well, I guess I'll recharge my ring and see if I can manage to do that without screwing it up." Failure, inadequacy, death. Lots of stories featured images of heroes actually dying, showing their coffins or their tombstones with mourners surrounding them --- the hero never actually bit the dust, but he was always hanging by a thread. Everybody was Sylvia Plath in tights. It was very, very common for the last panel of a story to show the Superhero, not smiling, but with his face in his hands, WEEPING.

The Green Lantern was extra notorious for his insecurities. That was too bad, because he had the best-looking costume of any Superhero, and he was probably the best-looking man, too. That was all for nothing, since girls didn't read the Superheroes and I doubt if gays did either.

There were two schools of Superhero fans --- kids who read DC comics and kids who read Marvel comics. I was a DC reader because DC comics did not have so many "To be continued ..." stories, and my favorite heroes were Batman and the Shadow (later I discovered an old-timer who was the greatest comic book hero ever - The Spirit. More about that later.) But I read Marvel books, too. Marvel's artwork was not as good (they had the famous Jack Kirby, who drew characters who looked like they made out of Lego blocks or something), and the stories were more upbeat, almost 50ish. But the depression and spirit of the times was there, as well. The Fantastic Four, you could tell, didn't really like each other very much. The Silver Surfer, who surfed through space, was constantly spouting metaphysical angst, he sounded like Pascal's "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread" etc. The Silver Surfer had something called the Power Cosmic, which was like "the Force" for semi-suicidal hippies. Worst of all was Spiderman (Marvel's top hero --- their financial equivalent of DC's Superman). Spiderman had a terrible time. His girlfriend Gwen got killed (top that!). He was always swinging around fuming about what a loser (his word) he was. Then there was Dr. Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Incredible Hulk, who was just plain crazy, just short of being the psycho killer that the Specter was. Bruce Bixby later played him on TV, always paranoid and stammering: "Don't ... make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

Another Marvel superhero was Prince Namor, the Submariner (Jules Ffeifer called him the "Black Muslim" of comic books, in attitude -- he was actually white, from Atlantis). The Submariner originated in the 30s, when he was a total sociopath who used his super powers to smash New York City, ripping up elevated trains, tearing the spire off the Empire State, and KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE in huge batches. How he ever made it into mainstream comics is a wonder. Then WWII came and he switched to beating up Nazis. He was still around in the 70s, a big sinister bully with pointed ears. In the 70s a Superhero was either a self-doubting whiner or an angry killer.

I didn't like the dismal, disturbing world of the 70s comic book, so I looked for older comics whenever I could. The greatest discovery was the Spirit, by Will Eisner, which was the best written and been drawn comic character I ever saw. But the Spirit was totally unknown to most comic book fans, because he'd never been in comic books. He was published in the Sunday supplements of major dailies in the 40s and 50s, in seven page black and white stories. So relatively few people ever saw or read him. I found him in 1974, when Warren comics reprinted his stories in book form, with some of the stories colorized. Warren comics were not like regular books: they published magazine-sized black and white comics like Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian --- aimed at teenagers and adults.

The Spirit's world was completely out of sync with the comic book world of the 50s. It had a lively sense of humor, but it was the dark 30s world of film noir, sinister and sometimes oppressive, but without the angst of the 70s. The Spirit wore a blue suit, gloves, and a wide-brimmed hat, with an eyemask that looked like it was painted on. He was a big man, the strongest looking man in comics, with a better build than Superman even if the Spirit didn't have any special powers. When he hit somebody, you could tell it really, really hurt. He was definitely better drawn than Superman. The artwork was as good or better as the 70s art, twenty years ahead of its time. The dialogue was superior, too. A Spirit story had lots of sound effects.

The Spirit's hometown was Central City, which was like an extra-seedy Chicago, not Gotham or Metropolis (the first realistic comic book setting for a major hero, until Spiderman, who lived in New York). Central City was grimy and rusty - a lot of loose paper blew through the streets. It had corrupt political parties instead of nice authority figures. Unlike other comic cities, Central City had weather -- lots of it. It rained and snowed like hell, the wind blew, and they had awful heat waves where everybody oozed sweat.

Bodily fluids: the Spirit comics didn't just have sweat and tears --- they had BLOOD, lots of it, huge gouts of blood, spreading in puddles. If someone got shot, you saw the impact ripping through their clothing, and then they bled. Blood spread over sidewalks and dribbled into the sewers. Other comics almost NEVER depicted blood, even in war comics, even in the 70s.

The Spirit wasn't the sunny, smiling politician type, like Superman and Batman were at that time. The Spirit got mad, really flew into rages. He got mad at his girlfriend Ellen (blond daughter of police chief, always plotting marriage). When he got mad at villains, he gritted his teeth and steam rose from his head, and then he would wallop the daylights out of them. Now these were the days when Superheroes in other books never hit people --- they just lectured them and outwitted them. The Spirit beat them senseless. Really awful beatings, where men would be flung end over end into a tangle of garbage cans. Their faces would squish up under his fist. They always bled, with blood streaming down their noses and chins, and their eyes would swell completely shut. At least he didn't use a gun. They used guns on him, though. The Spirit got shot more than any hero I ever heard of. He would topple down long flight of stairs and crawl away trailing blood. Later he would show up, blood running through his fingers as he covered the wound, sweat dripping from his face, and get somebody to "dig the slugs out" of him. He felt real pain; it hurt like hell to look at him.

But he was also a nice guy --- a believably nice guy, not the grinning cardboard goody two-shoes like Superman, but a real person that you actually believed cared about people, like juvenile delinquents that he tried to set straight. And when he was cool, he was very cool. He would ho-hum when they threatened to shoot him or cut him to pieces. He only got mad when they did something really bad.

The Spirit might get mad at himself when he made a mistake, but he was worlds away from the crybabies in other books. If the Spirit cried (and he had to have been the first comic hero ever to do that) he just got a little tear on one cheek, and there had better be damn good reason for that. He sure didn't rack himself with sobs, or go around blubbering about what a loser he was. He wasn't a loser, just human, and he knew it.

And he had the most incredible women --- besides Ellen, there was a whole harem of female semi-villains (the term was "adventuress") like Silk Satin, Sand Saref, P'Gell, Thorne Strand, and a cute doctor with librarian glasses and a killer body. They were the most beautifully drawn women you ever saw in a comic, and they were the only enemies who were allowed to run circles around a comic book hero indefinitely --- because of course they were all deeply in love with him, and always sneaking away in last few panels to sob over him with big fat tears rolling down their cheeks. The Spirit was perfect. The kids moping over Spiderman's personal problems never knew what they were missing.

Eisner was an exception to the kind of comic book art I usually liked. I liked realistic art, not "stylistic", and I wanted stories with NO KIDS in them. The idea that kids like to read comics about other kids so they can "identify" with the story is one of the stupidest and most persistent ideas in comics. That was where Batman got Robin, Captain America got "Bucky", etc. I hated Robin and all boy heroes. I wanted to read about grown-ups, period.

The Spirit had a lot of kids in it, and the kids were caricatures with big heads and eyes, not realistically drawn. Villains tended to be caricatures, too, with names like J. Sneever Squinch. But there were real villains, too, like the Octopus. And there were those fantastic women, who would come home from some criminal activity and find the Spirit lounging on their couch, complaining that the perfume in the closet had made him dopey (he was incredibly cool and laid-back with women - with everybody, in fact. He would break into the crook's hideout and take a nap on the sofa until they got home. If they got irate with him or pulled a gun, he beat the utter living crap out them). I put up with the "stylistic" elements, because the Spirit was such a great comic it more than made up for any defects. And when he went for straight realism, he was better at it than anybody.

Eisner was way ahead of his time, and he was the master of the "splash" panel, where the action busts out of the frame and flows across the page. He was also the master of the "opening shot". The first page was always spectacular, with creepy buildings and rain pouring down gutters. It was too bad that the newspaper format limited all Spirit stories to seven pages, which was way too short. But he told incredible stories in that limited space, some of them funny, some tragic, and some that were apocalyptically weird science fiction.

War comics were the other kind of comic book. Charleton comics published comics with historical themes, but the main war comics we read were by DC: Sgt. Rock, G.I. Combat, The Losers, The Unknown Soldier.

War comics were very big in the early 70s, during the last years of the Vietnam War. After '75 they went into decline. There had to be a sociological reason for that, but never mind. The Vietnam-era DC comics were not about Vietnam, but about WWII. And they were not nostalgic about it. All of them had off-beat themes, and they were as gloomy and death-tripping as Superhero comics, but seemed to have better reasons for it (being about war).

Sgt. Rock was the most straight-forward, about a tough top sergeant from "Easy Company". But the stories were some of the most depressing ever. Sgt. Rock was always in a funk. He never smiled and hardly ever cracked a joke. Instead he talked about "the bloody cobwebs in my brain" and such. The stories were all about infantry combat and about men being killed in combat, as if they were written for hard-boiled veterans, who would hardly have wanted to read them, anyway. They had a few touches of comic-book fantasy, like Little Sure Shot, an Indian GI who wore feathers on his helmet and who could knock out tanks by shooting arrows down their barrels, but mostly they were death-trips.

G.I. Combat was about a tank that was haunted by the ghost of Robert E. Lee. The Unknown Soldier was about a G.I. who'd had his face blown off by a grenade. He became an OSS agent and covered his mangled skull with rubber masks to disguise himself. The Losers were a group of four soldiers who were, well, losers. They survived, but the reader was always left with the impression that they'd blown it. That comic was definitely a cipher for Vietnam.

Marvel had war comics, also always about WWII, some in the same mold as DC's - one was War is Hell, starring a Polish character with an unpronounceable name who was the first man to be killed in WWII. His Hell was to be reincarnated over and over as a WWII soldier from various countries, where he would get killed again. In the one issue I saw, he was a Finnish soldier fighting the Soviets, a part of WWII I'd never heard of before (who says comics aren't educational?). The last panels of the story showed corpses of Russian soldiers frozen to death in the snow. Another Marvel war comic was about a Dirty Dozen-style group of misfits, led by an Irish sergeant named Kelly who lived in remorse because he'd once killed a man in the boxing ring, and had been court-martialed for it. In one story a civilian holds a weapon on the group and threatens to shoot them all down. Kelly says "Go ahead, the world would probably be better off." That summed up the whole comic hero philosophy of the time.

The sole exception to the anti-war War Comics of the time was Marvel's Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes. This book had a completely different attitude. Sergeant Nick Fury liked war. He led a group of Rangers who were a complete ethnic mix, as if they'd been designed for politically correct purposes. There was a Southerner named Reb and a black named Gabriel, who naturally were best friends. There was a Jewish mechanic from Flatbush named Izzy Cohen. There was an Irishman named Dum-Dum Dugan, who wore a steel-plated fedora with corporal's stripes on it, and an Englishman named Percival "Pinky" Pinkerton. They even had a German defector named Eric. The commanding officer who sent them on their missions was a mean-tempered captain who was ironically named "Happy Sam" Sawyer.

All of the Howling Commandoes were heavily muscle-bound, even the dainty Englishman Pinky. Sgt. Fury was a muscular comic, full of bulging biceps. The Nazis not only got shot, they got punched, beaten, picked up and thrown like rag dolls (though there was no depiction of blood in Sgt. Fury). All the while they were shooting, punching, and tossing Nazis, the Commandoes cracked wise. They were the biggest wise-crackers in comic book history, and unlike most smart-mouthed Superheroes, they were actually pretty funny. The humor was muscular, too. Sgt. Fury was hilarious to us when we were kids, and it was also the most thrilling book to read. No downers. The Commandoes were all true-blue patriots who believed in the war 100%, and who gave stirring denunciations of the Nazis (or "Ratzis") when they weren't cracking wise. Here was typical dialogue (after they parachute behind enemy lines):

FURY: Awright, Izzy, you got five minutes to steal us a Kraut staff car.
IZZY: Since yer givin' me so much time, Sarge, is there any partic'lar color you'd like?
FURY: SHADDAP! Yer down ta four minutes now, wise guy!

Even the text of Sgt Fury (the sub-panels where narrative background was supplied) was written in Brooklynese Wise Guy argot, using phrases like 'Natch! and 'Nuff said! Profanity was represented by "Ever-lovin'" and "Blazes" - the Commandoes never said #@%&%$! Grenades were always "pineapples" and Thompsons were "toy cannons". The cigars that Fury constantly smoked were "cheroots". You didn't carry things, you "toted" them. The comic book itself was referred to as a "battle-mag" (an issue was an "ish") and the reader was generally addressed as "true believer" (that was true of all Marvel comics). The editor was "Smilin'" Stan Lee, publisher of Marvel Comics. He would insert helpful notes into the text panels: "That's a Me-262, fer all you scissors-totin' scrapbook hounds out there! - SENTIMENTAL STAN". Marvel comics were actually footnoted (*SEE ISH #243!) as if reading comics was some kind of scholarship, where writers were required to cite references.

Stan Lee created Sgt Fury, along with the famous Jack Kirby. I didn't like Kirby's artwork at the time I was growing up, but he was considered maybe the greatest comic book man of all time. He invented the super-patriot Superhero when he created and drew Captain America all the way back in 1941. His old comics were great, but by the 1970s he was drawing the kind of anti-realistic style that I hated. He was doing comics for DC, too, like Kamandi, a muscle-bound teenager (with hair like Betty from Archie comics) whose shtick was that he was "the last boy on earth". It was awful. I wouldn't read him even if he was the last boy on earth. I was glad Kirby didn't draw Sgt. Fury. The artists were generally realists, even if the action wasn't. Jack Severin was on of the artists who drew him (he also drew some of Sgt Rock and The Losers.)

Although it flew over my head at the time, it's obvious in retrospect that Sgt. Fury was meant to make a political statement. In one story, a newspaper editor decides to send a "bleeding heart" pacifist reporter to the front to get a look at the war. (I had no idea what a "bleeding heart" was, I thought it was a medical condition). The reporter winds up with the Howling Commandoes ('Natch) who can't stand his anti-war guts. The reporter winds up killing a Nazi after he witnesses an atrocity, and so he is cured of his bleeding heart.

They went further than that. One of their stories was set in the present day (about 1970), with the Commandoes re-uniting to go to VIETNAM and sabotage a North Vietnamese atom bomb! This was absolutely unheard of. Other books, war or otherwise, never EVER so much as mentioned Vietnam. But Sgt. Fury actually went there and fought Viet Cong, just like they fought Nazis.

During the whole formative period up to age twelve or so, I don't remember hearing adults talk about the Vietnam war, and I remember very little about news broadcasts relating to Vietnam. I knew there was a war going on, but I assumed that we were still fighting WWII. That's what people in the comic books were doing, so it seemed a logical conclusion to me.