Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Complete Works of Dr. K, Part 3

This one... well, this one is a bit embarrassing.

I'm not embarrassed because I wrote a letter to Vigilante, a pretty bad series that spun out of The New Teen Titans and is only really notable for two issues that Alan Moore wrote and a pretty good costume designed by George Perez.

Instead, I'm embarrassed about the opinions I expressed in this letter--opinions that I can't believe I ever really held. In fact, I try to make myself feel better about this letter by convincing myself that I was taking on a persona here. I may have also just been carried away with the letter, trying to make it more dramatic while not really thinking through the ideas I was expressing. Anyway, I was 16 at the time, and this probably wasn't the most embarrassing thing I did that year.

The letter was written not as a response to anything that happened in the series, but to a recent news story about a "Subway Vigilante" who would later be identified as Bernard Goetz (the Wikipedia entry seems to be pretty extensive on the case). I wrote the letter the day after a Nightline report on the story, and my letter gives the details of that report, including some information that would later turn out to be false, about the four kids (whom I refer to so eloquently as "punks") being armed with sharpened screwdrivers.

(Click to make it even more embarrassing!)

If I ever run for president, this is the kind of thing that would surface in the media, raising questions about my consistency when it comes to issues of gun control and crime. However, on the plus side, I'd probably get the endorsement of the gun lobby.

I think that if I had stuck to the facts of the case, as they were known at the time I wrote the letter, I probably would have been okay, but it is in that second paragraph that my opinions and language get a little overzealous, and that's the part that makes me cringe. (It should be known, however, that "Reasonable Force Is a Joke" is actually the title of a rare Public Enemy b-side.) Associate Editor Barbara Randall, who began handling the letter page for this comic on this issue, claims that "the mail has brought its share of comments on the case," so I should feel proud that my letter got picked as the representative example.

I should also feel proud to share the page with the fantastic, prolific letterhack, "T. M. Maple." How great was T. M. Maple? Well, he does have his own Wikipedia page, where it states that he had more than 3,000 letters published in his 17-year letterhacking career. That beats the crap out of my measly half-dozen or so. There used to be at least two websites devoted to T. M. Maple, but both seem to have disappeared from the net.

Despite the fact that I once again included my home address with the letter, I didn't get a lot of mail from this--mainly catalogs and the like. That's probably for the best, and it may attest to the fact that not many people were reading Vigilante to begin with. (This particular issue does contain some awesome art by Denys Cowan, who is one of the great fight artists in comics.)

This wasn't, by the way, the SCIENCE!-related letter that I promised last time. I realized I was doing these out of sequence, and that one should come next.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Complete Works of Dr. K, Part 2

A couple of years after writing the letter to JLA, I was inspired to write a letter again, this time to Tales of the Teen Titans, the series that had previously been known as The New Teen Titans before DC launched a new series with that title for the burgeoning direct market. That change had caused me some consternation as a comic reader and a fan of the Titans because, living on a farm in North Dakota, I was a long drive from a comic shop where I could pick up the new Titans series, and I wasn't likely to get to one on a monthly basis. However, in 1985, I had just earned my driver's license (on the second try), so driving 30 miles to Fargo was within the realm of possibilities.

My complaint about the shift in comic sales from newstands to the direct market was not the inspiration for my letter, however. I was instead responding to a two-part story that ran in issues 51 and 52, focusing on the character Jericho and introducing his mother's detective agency, Searchers, Inc.

(Note that I got smart here and withheld my address to avoid the prison correspondence solicitations that the previous letter drew.)

The introduction of Searchers, Inc. had the feeling of a "backdoor pilot," to use the television term that makes me giggle--that is, we were being introduced to a group of characters only to have them spin off into their own series, the way Mork and Mindy spun out of Happy Days. However, Searchers, Inc. never did get their own series, and I don't even recall if the concept returned even in the Titans books. One of the Searchers operatives, Amber, seems little more than a Misty Knight knock-off:

Overall, this is really a nondescript letter where I'm, once again, trying to capture the typical voice of the comics letter page. At the end of the letter, though, I compare the story to a Robert Ludlum novel. At the time, I was voraciously reading Ludlum's spy thrillers, and I may have had a specific novel in mind when I was making this comparison, but I can't remember which, as most of them seem to run together in my memory nowadays (except for the Jason Bourne novels and The Holcroft Covenant, which remain my favorites). I do remember getting the sense, though, in this and other espionage-tinged stories that Marv Wolfman wrote, that they bore a striking resemblance to Ludlum's work, and I may have been implying a deeper connection in this comparison. Even the title of this story, "The Jericho Imbroglio," sounds like a bad Ludlum rip-off.

I also comment on the hints dropped that one of the Titans is Cheshire's baby daddy. In typical Marv Wolfman fashion, where subplots could be drawn out for years like a soap opera, the identity of the baby daddy wouldn't be revealed for a while, but we all know now that it's Speedy.

These issues also reveal how STAR Labs scientists uncovered a winged alien named Azrael under the Alaskan ice. Azrael had already debuted in the baxter Titans book, which was supposed to take place one year after the newsstand series:

(Cover image from The Grand Comics Database.)
My complaints about Azrael in my letter turned out to be completely justified. Azrael was a whiney emo alien, and his story simply petered out in the run-up to Crisis on Infinite Earths. This character was, for me at least, the point at which the series jumped the shark, and I soon quit buying what had once been my favorite series.

The revelation of Azrael, however, did provide this panel, which features a line that I try to work in to my daily conversation:

"I'll stake my doctorate on these tacos being delicious!"
"I'll stake my doctorate on the latest Bring It On movie being cheertastic!"

Up next: Dr. K uses SCIENCE!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I pledge allegiance to Hedley Lamarr...

Rest in peace, Harvey Korman, and thanks for the laughs.

Here's the famous dentist sketch from the Carol Burnett Show. Though Tim Conway is the star of this sketch, I love how Harvey Korman just loses it and gives up trying to have any sense of composure. That was a common occurence on that show.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Complete Works of Dr. K, Part 1

Recently, I wrote a book review of Charles Hatfield's scholarly book, Alternative Comics, for a special issue on graphic narratives in the journal MELUS (which stands for "Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States" and not "Massive Evil Liquidation and Ubiquitous Security," as I had hoped), and my pal Derek, who guest-edited the issue, asked for a short bio for the contributors page. After giving the usual academic information about place of employment and publications, I decided to do something a little playful but in keeping with the subject of the issue, and I included the following line:

"His very first publication, however, was a letter printed in the pages of DC Comics' Justice League of America when he was twelve years old."

The letter in question appeared in this particular issue of Justice League of America, dated May 1983 (which would have made me 14, and not 12, as I mistakenly wrote in the bio):

The letter was in regards to the recent JLA/JSA team-up that had crossed over with All-Star Squadron, appearing in JLA 207-209 and All-Star Squadron 14 and 15. I was, and still am, a big fan of those team-ups, but at this point, I was getting a bit tired of the repetition of characters that would appear in them, especially when these events would be the only occasion to see members of the Justice Society on any kind of regular basis.
(Note: Chris Sims once asked me to read this letter aloud in the voice of the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the voice fits. I'd suggest imagining that voice while reading it yourself.)

I was clearly trying very hard to write in the proper idiom of the comics letter page, with the pithy, casual tone of the first line, and the cliched closing, "See you in thirty!" I also could have used a thesaurus at the time to find an alternative adjective to "great." I might say I was trying too hard, but in truth, I was trying just hard enough, as the letter did get published, after all.

The response my letter got from Assistant Editor Tamsyn O'Flynn falls back on common editorial policy from this time in comics history: the idea that every comic is someone's first. As any current comic readers know, both DC and Marvel have pretty much given up on this policy nowadays.

This was the first of several letters I would write to comics while I was in my teens. And while I was by no means a "letterhack," I did have half a dozen or so letters published, while only three letters I wrote weren't printed (one was to Wonder Woman, another to Batman and the Outsiders, and the third to Alpha Flight. The reasons for the latter two letters failing to reach publication are fairly clear, and may be the subject of a future post).

As you will notice with this letter, I also included my address in the signature. That proved to be both a blessing and a curse. For one, the amount of mail I received at my rural North Dakota address increased tremendously, and getting mail was always something that excited me as a kid, for some reason. Much of it was catalogs and advertising for mail-order comic shops, which I appreciated. Some--like the requests to be pen pals with prisoners--understandably scared the crap out of 14-year-old Dr. K (and there were quite a few of these, including a kind of mimeographed catalog for prisoners seeking correspondences with teenagers).

The best piece of mail I received, however, was a letter from a fellow, like-minded comics reader:

Dear Mr. [K],
I just finished reading your letter regarding this year's JLA/JSA/AS team-up, and I couldn't agree more. Superman of Earth-One, Dr. Fate, Huntress, Power Girl, etc. have been appearing much to [sic] often. You are the first person who has voiced an opinion on the matter, and I thank you. It's nice to know I'm not alone in feeling this way.

I was pretty excited to get this letter, and I quickly wrote back to the writer, beginning a correspondence that would last throughout most of high school. Growing up on a farm in North Dakota, I didn't have any friends who were also comic book readers, so this became my first real friendship with a fellow fan.

The writer since went on to become a local public radio personality and popular storyteller in Louisville, Kentucky, and I've heard him do a couple of stories on NPR in recent years. We even reconnected through a couple of emails about six years ago, though we have since lost touch.

I'll be doing a series of posts in the coming days about the rest of the letters of mine that were published in the 1980s, some of which are a bit embarrassing after the cruel passage of time.

Also, I wanted to let readers know that I'll be at HeroesCon in Charlotte June 20-22, so any readers who are going and want to meet up, let me know in the comments. I will also be glad to sign copies of JLA 214 or any other comics with my letters in them.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

"Dad, Can I Get the Octopussy Video Game?"

(Click to Octopussy-size it!)

On the back covers of many DC Comics in late 1983, this ad appeared for a James Bond video game that tied into the film Octopussy. The game advertised here appears to be a simple side-scroller where the player has to jump from one train car to another while shooting bad guys. And although I did have an Atari 2600 at the time (the last video game system I would ever own) and I was a huge James Bond fan, I never got this game.

Turns out, the game being shown in the ad had nothing to do with the final game that was produced, as explained here. The actual game was more of a "Moon Patrol" knock off, with four adventures vaguely based on Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me, and For Your Eyes Only (for example, in the Diamonds Are Forever level, you had to drive your Bond car and shoot diamonds while dodging attacks from helicopters and satellites).

The ad also states that the Bond game was "Coming soon for Intellivision," though that version of the game never actually came out.

The ad features a rather specious use of fake pull quotes. The sources of these quotes are all parodied names of real publications and writers, but the quotes themselves don't seem that much different from what one might find in a normal review, so I'm not real sure what the joke is supposed to be here. In fact, everyone knows about the real Morley Safer's penchant for "karate kicks, jumps, lasers and more," so it shouldn't be that hard to find a real quote to that effect.

My favorite part of this ad, though, is the phrase in "Vincent Can'tbe's" quote: "Octopussy Circus Train." I am going to learn to play the guitar just so I can join a band and name it "Octopussy Circus Train."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Jack Kirby's Atlas

From the cover for the upcoming Superman 678, it looks like new Superman writer James Robinson is going to be reviving this Jack Kirby creation:

Atlas, from the very first issue of First Issue Special (April 1975). To my recollection, this will be the first time this character has been revived since his one-issue debut 33 years ago. First Issue Special was a series designed like DC's earlier Showcase to introduce new characters in the hope that they would prove popular enough to launch their own books. First Issue Special, however, proved to be a failure on this end, launching only Mike Grell's Warlord and a revival of Jack Kirby's New Gods (sans Kirby) as ongoing series and featuring the one and only appearance of many characters, like Codename: Assassin, The Dingbats of Danger Street, The Green Team, Lady Cop, and The Outsiders. Some of these characters have made brief appearances since their debuts--most notably, the version of Starman that James Robinson revived in his classic Starman series, and who is also returning in Robinson's Justice League spin-off.

With the revival of Atlas, the appearance of Beowulf in the most recent issue of Wonder Woman, and the return of Joe Kubert's Tor, DC is bringing back a lot of short-lived properties from the 70s, which is all right by me, since I fit squarely in the target audience for this kind of nostalgia.

Just looking at the cover, one can tell that this lone appearance of Jack Kirby's Atlas is a kick-ass comic. In the opening pages, Atlas takes a stage in the kingdom of "Hyssa, the place of the winged lizard," and offers to fight anyone who will stand against him. Kargin takes the challenge, claiming to be the strongest guy around, and the crowd backs him up. I think we can all guess what happens next:

In one punch, Atlas drives Kargin right through the stage, and the fight is over. That is one awesome Kirby splash page.

The people of Hyssa can't believe that their beloved Kargin could be so easily defeated, so they call shenanigans on Atlas. This draws the attention of a local nobleman, who sics his soldiers on Atlas.

"Try it ... and regret it!" is some kick-ass dialogue. And what happens next?

Trying it.

Regretting it.

Not taking the hint, the nobleman starts mouthing off to Atlas, causing Atlas to administer a lesson in Marxist dialectics by kicking over the nobleman's litter or, if you prefer, palanquin:

The local army soon arrives with a team of archers, and Atlas casually holds out the nobleman in front of himself to block the arrows.

And that's just the first few pages. While Atlas faces down the firing squad, a voice he hears serves as the madeleine cake that launches him into a Proustian reverie through his own past. However, like most stories in the First Issue Special series, this one ends with a cliffhanger, as Atlas faces down the king of Hyssa himself. Nonetheless, the inconclusiveness of the story should not detract from the fact that this is one kick-ass comic.

With the upcoming Omac and Demon collections and the recently completed Fourth World Omnibi, DC is doing a good job of reprinting Kirby's great work from the 1970s. Once the major work is completed, I'd like to see DC put together a nice anthology of the more random stuff Kirby did in the 70s, like this, Manhunter, Dingbats of Danger Street, Sandman, Kobra, and Justice Inc. (though the rights to the latter may be unavailable).

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mothers Against No Time for Law and Order

This mother only has time for law and order.

Mothers Against No Time for Law and Order endorse ROM, the greatest of Space Knights, for president in 2008.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Will Elder, RIP

The passing of Will Elder, one of the founding artists on Mad ("The Usual Gang of Idiots") and one of the greatest humorists in comics, at the age of 86 was reported earlier in the week.

Like a lot of kids growing up in the 70s, I was an avid reader of Mad magazine, even starting a subscription in 1976 for my seventh birthday (I remember sending, along with the subscription form, a handwritten letter that, unfortunately, never got printed on the letter page. I don't remember the exact story to which I was responding, but I do remember that the letter was one sentence long, structured on a gag common to Mad's letter page: "[Mad's parody] was funnier than [something with a similar theme that was not funny at all]." For example, "Your Godfather parody was funnier than the St. Valentine's Day Massacre." Whatever my joke was, it has been lost to time and memory, but I do know for a fact that it was painfully unfunny. My parents even told me so before I sent it off.).

I was especially fond of the large sized Mad Super Specials common at the time, which usually contained facsimile reprints of the early Mad comics, labelled "Nostalgic Mad." It was in these reprints that I got my first taste of Will Elder's humor, and the memory of his stories still linger long after most of those comics have gone from my collection.

I had been reminded of Elder's work recently while reading David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague, where Elder's work in the early days of Mad is detailed. Hajdu's description of Elder's technique helps explain why his art still stays with me even 30 years after I've read some of the stories:
[Mad editor Harvey] Kurtzman set his old friend loose at Mad, and Elder overran the pags with bits of lunatic business--unscripted little stories within stories, visual non sequiturs, kooky details. In the opening panel fo Elder's one contribution to the premiere issue of Mad ("Ganefs!"), Elder added no fewer than three dozen sight gags not in the script. (The number increases each time one counts.)

Here's a good example: the splash panel of Kurtzman and Elder's parody of The Shadow from the fourth issue of Mad:

This panel is worth studying carefully just for the sheer number of jokes and sight gags thrown into it. Every time I look at it, I find something else that I hadn't noticed. Of particular note, though, is the television on a shelf in the upper right corner of the panel, tuned into the "Kefauver Crime Committee." This minor gag was aimed at the popularity of the committee's telecasts, which were already more than a year old when this story was published (Elder would also take a shot at the Kefauver Committee in the very first issue of Mad as a magazine).

The gag takes on considerable historical and ironic significance today, however. The committee on juvenile deliquency that opened up the investigation which eventually caused Mad's publisher, William Gaines of EC Comics, to get out of the comic business was an offshoot of Kefauver's committee, this one led by Richard Clendenen, though Estes Kefauver was also a member. Kefauver famously confrontated Gaines over a Crime SuspenStories cover by Johnny Craig featuring a man holding an axe in one hand and a woman's head in the other--a moment that became a rallying point for the anti-comics movement in the mid-1950s.

This story is also a great example of the still-surprising black humor that came out of Kurtzman's and Elder's collaborations. Throughout most of the story, The Shadow remains invisible due to his ability to "cloud men's minds." One thug in the bar, however, gets the drop on The Shadow:

I only just noticed while scanning that the sound effects in the second panel are reflected in the mirror.

The appeal of this joke, and of Elder and Kurtzman's work in general, is it's transgressive nature. It's just plain wrong, and the dialogue and imagery celebrate that fact unashamedly.

On the next page, The Shadow's companion, Margo Pain (instead of Margo Lane), gets kicked down the stairs, and Elder even used the stairs themselves to throw in some non sequitur gags that parody contemporary ads.

When The Shadow does reveal himself to Margo on that same page, we get another classic example of Elder's style in Margo's facial reaction:

The jokes that run throughout this story, and in most of Elder's Mad material, are often violent and sexual in ways that still might surprise readers more than half a century later, and they are still laugh-out-loud funny. The story ends with a nice EC twist: The Shadow, who has been secretly trying but failing to kill Margo all along, succeeds with the an obvious death trap, and then celebrates her demise.

Like generations of readers over the last 50 years (I was, in fact, a second-generation Mad reader), I had my sense of humor warped by Will Elder's and others' work on Mad, and for that I am grateful.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

This just in...

Kittens are cute!

We're up to our necks right now in cute here at the Dr. K Home Office, so you'll have to excuse me while I go play some more with the new kitties, Zoe and Quincy.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In this post, I skew my Google hits for the foreseeable future...

In The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu cites a statistic that, during World War II, no fewer than 50 comics featured Hitler on their covers (and I think that Hajdu's number is low--50 covers in a single year would be more likely). He references the cover to Thrilling Comics 41 (1944), which features the Commando Cubs (clearly a knockoff of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Boy Commandos) rading Hitler's bedroom (Hajdu 55). Here's the cover, courtesy of the Grand Comics Database:

The goal here, obviously, is to present Hitler (and Mussolini, who is hiding under the bed) in a humiliating light, and such humiliation would take even more bizarre and extreme forms in comics and elsewhere. During World War II, there was almost a subgenre of propaganda materials involving anal violations of Hitler, and it was considered acceptible even to include such images in children's entertainment, as this cover to Supersnipe Comics indicates.

The most well-known of these materials was probably the Hitler Pin Cushion, which can be seen here. There is also this one , as well as this one, which was advertised in a 1944 novelty catalog. Clearly, such an item was popular enough to spawn several different versions.

A gag along these lines is also used twice in the 1942 propaganda film The Devil with Hitler, produced by Hal Roach, about which you can find more here, including many stills from the film. In this slapstick comedy, the Board of Directors in Hell decide that they are going to replace the Devil--known here as "Gesatan"--with Hitler unless the Devil can convince Hitler to do one good deed before he dies. By the end of the film, Hitler, along with his Axis cohorts Benito and Suki Yaki, is trapped in a munitions room that catches fire. As Hitler tries to escape, a rocket flies up his ass and explodes, sending him to Hell. While Hitler is in Hell, demons proceed to stab his ass with their pitchforks, continuing the violation.

Several of the actors, including Bobby Watson as Hitler and Joe Devlin as Benito, returned in Roach's follow-up, Nazty Nuisance (1943). This film concludes with Hitler, Benito, and Suki Yaki all getting shot out of a submarine's torpedo tube and landing face down in the sand, with their butts in the air in a pose resembling the pin cushions.

Though he did play other roles, Bobby Watson had a successful career appearing as Hitler in at least 10 films, all the way into the 1960s. Most notably, he played the dictator in Hitler--Dead or Alive, a crazy 1943 film in which 3 mobsters are sent to Germany to assassinate Hitler. Also, both Watson and Joe Devlin teamed up again as Hitler and Mussolini in Preston Sturges's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Dr. K's Guide to Pedagogy

As pedagogical strategies for teachers evolve over time, practices that were once considered standard now seem quaint and antiquated when compared to those of today. Teachers of today, however, would be well advised to revisit those old practices to determine whether or not some value could still be drawn from them. After all, they were considered effective at one time.

Here's a case in point, from the story "Insect Queen of Smallville," by Otto Binder and George Papp. This is the first story in which Superboy's girlfriend, Lana Lang, gains the ability to use temporarily the powers of various insects--an ability which would also allow her to become the teen heroine known as "Insect Queen."

In the story, Lana has written for her high school English class a comparative study of the influence of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover on the works of Henry Miller. While the topic itself was rather obvious, and the paper highly derivative of the large body of scholarship already available on this topic, the teacher chose instead to focus on the lower-order concern of spelling--specifically the spelling of the word "ecstasy."

Granted, such a word would have occurred repeatedly in Lana's paper on this particular subject, and she should have seen the word enough in her primary sources so that she should have been able to recognize its proper spelling. The measures the teacher takes in order to motivate Lana to correct her spelling error, however, seem a bit extreme by today's standards.

Such a pedagogical strategy would seem excessively punitive and out of balance with the significance of the error, no matter how important the word "ecstasy" is to the teacher. The goal, it would seem, is to engrain the correct spelling of the word in the student's memory through repetition.

However, when dealing with a student who can transform into an insect at will, that educational benefit is reduced signficantly.

Rarely, these days, is such punishment used to instruct something as simple as the spelling of a single word, and the time invested in this particular strategy might have been better put to use in, say, encouraging Lana to come up with more original paper topics.

Unless, of course, the teacher had some other motive in mind for this "after-school" work.

It should be noted that, today, any male teacher who would make a female student stay late after school in order to write the word "ecstasy" over and over could expect to wake up the next morning to find Nancy Grace camped out on his lawn.

"The Insect Queen of Smallville" reprinted in Superman Family 167 (1974)--a 100-Page Super-Spectacular!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Nancy sweeps the leg

Sometimes the universe conspires to combine two things I love in a combination that I couldn't possibly have imagined or wished for:

Click to awesomize it!

Karate Nancy is the comic strip equivalent of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

Thursday, May 1, 2008