One Fan's Opinion: Issue #77

Fri, June 22nd, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

"Detective Comics" #27
Okay, now people just think I've gone insane.

I've started buying random comics from the '40s when I go to comic book conventions. I'm not looking to fill in some collection or find some key character, I'm just looking for cool old comics with weird characters and those awesome gigantic logos from the Golden Age.

The thing that really appeals to me about these old books is that they were created at a time before the rules were figured out yet. As time passed, writers and artists would figure out a formula that they'd follow, but in the early days of comics, these guys were clearly making it up as they went along.

And that's not a bad thing.

Thing is, readers often get their knickers in a twist when they suspect that a given creator doesn't have a solid game plan. The whole notion of making it up as you go along really sticks in their craw. They presume that the creator in question isn't taking the kind of care they should when penning their tales or that the results of their efforts are more half-assed than those of other creators. But often those same readers seek out comics, which are more "realistic" than others as well - comics that don't insult their intelligence. Well, I've got news for those guys - reality is adlibbed.

It's true. Reality - the real world - is made up on the fly. Everything you say and do is made up on the spot. Sure, you may have long-term plans and a goal that you're working toward, but you can't say with absolute certainty how things will play out. There is no plot in reality. You know that a person is born and lives for a while and eventually dies, but beyond that all bets are off.

The wonderful thing about comics created by kids is the random acts that go on. Kids aren't necessarily thinking ahead and if they get the urge to wrap up a story on page one, they'll do it, and if they feel like drawing unicorns or robots or space monsters, they simply show up with no warning or foreshadowing.

An aside here - some years back I shared a studio with Al Gordon, Pete McDonnell and Chris Marrinan. At one point we were the judges of a cartooning contest sponsored by a local comic book store. The comics these kids created were awesome beyond belief. The great thing about them is that nobody had drummed into their heads what the rules were. They had pages clogged with captions and word balloons and sound effects and allkinds of cool characters. One of the more memorable ones involved a person turning into a giant radioactive monster and opting to "live with it" and watch TV instead of going on a rampage. The end of that story was both refreshing and hilarious, with the hulking monster sitting in an easy chair pressing a remote!

A lot of the fun is gone from most modern comics.

"I Shall-Destroy All Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks"
There are rules and expectations and readers have come to expect certain things from their Batman comics and Daredevil comics and you can't just have aliens show up on page four. Readers will throw a hissy fit. There are certain rules for Daredevil stories and Batman stories and those rules say "no aliens" at the top of the page.

But it didn't used to be that way.

In comics of old, aliens showed up all the time and they'd be dispatched in stories seldom longer than 15 pages.

Old comics had a variety of features in them. One of the comics I bought ("All-Great Comics") boasted "30 great features" on its cover. It was an extra-long 128-page comic, which featured a variety of characters from straight superhero to wacky humor. One particularly perplexing character was a Captain America clone with a similar red, white and blue outfit, with a cape and all the rest. This character had a giant letter "V" on his chest and he fought crime with all the gusto you'd expect from a red-blooded American hero during wartime! His name was, inexplicably, "The Puppeteer." I suspect that some similarly garbed patriot from a competing company beat them to the punch on the name they had in mind for this character but sixty years after the fact, I really can't say for sure.

Another thing missing from modern comics is all of the bad science. There are far too few characters whose hidden lair is in a giant star out there somewhere - Fletcher Hanks' Stardust from the pages of "Fantastic Comics" was one who dared have such a hideout. Fantagraphics recently released a collection of cartoons called, "I Shall-Destroy All Civilized Planets: The Comics of Fletcher Hanks." This book is a veritable treasure trove of truly bizarre and nonsensical comics from the Golden Age.

And that's really the sort of thing I'm talking about.

In the early days, superheroes sprang to the comics pages fully-formed with no hint of an origin in sight. When Batman showed up in "Detective Comics" #27 he was solving crimes - not filling you in on how he came to be and with other Golden Age characters the reader was left with all kinds of questions. Why did "meek little Johnny Green" magically transform into the heroic Green Mask when confronted by injustice? Beats me! Why did certain notes played on an organ transform Alan Hale into the patriotic Puppeteer? Who knew? But it was not uncommon for comic book creations to have little to no back-story when they first appeared.

There's something really fun about these old comics - something charming and innocent and oddly fascinating. And, somehow, they lose something when they're cleaned up and re-colored and collected and reprinted on glossy paper. There's a warmth that gets lost when the colors are all in register and everything is clear and clean and beautiful. Sure, I'll snap up some of those DC Archive books or Marvel Masterworks that collect comics from the Golden Age because they're far less expensive than actual books from the '40s, but there's something missing there.

"Dynamic Comics" #1
Another prize I picked up was "Dynamic Comics" #1.

What made "Dynamic Comics" #1 interesting to me was that, from the cover, it looked like a crime comic. A gangster, holed up in a room with an attractive girl at his side is shooting it out with cops in the street on its cover. The insides of "Dynamic Comics" #1 tells a far different tale.

"Dynamic Comics" #1 begins with a story of Dynamic Man, a costumed character with a similarly garbed sidekick named Dynamic Boy! Dynamic Man is a high school coach and his sidekick is a student that attends the school. Their costumes put the old Robin outfit to shame (it's astounding how many nearly-naked men in comics fought crime) and the story is a laughable bit of fluff. The final panel of the two leads hitting the showers must have had "Seduction of the Innocent" author Frederick Wortham sprinting to his typewriter. Successive stories in the issue are equally inane. Yankee Girl captures a couple guys out to rig a cat show in the span of six pages. And there's a "Crime on the Run" story, which is the only feature that even remotely goes along with the illustration on the cover. Most baffling of all is a two-page sequence that is the end of some story that wasn't included in the rest of the book. Since the previous page is on the same physical piece of paper as the last page of the previous yarn, I know it's not a case of a few pages missing from my copy, but rather a genuine screw up on the part of the people that put together this periodical. This gives the book the kind of feel that the movie "Grindhouse" shot for. It made it that much more of an authentic, crappy funnybook experience. Following that, there's a Timothy Trent story (a detective yarn) and a page of funnies that wrap up the issue.

What a mag!

I just like the utter lack of pretense and the sheer incompetence that accompanied it.

But it couldn't last.

Even a few years made a difference. The truly awful comics were run off the racks by more competent ones. By the late '40s, the art was vastly more realistic, the adventures far more down-to-earth and the plots far more formulaic. It was no longer the amateur hour. Comics didn't look and feel and read like outsider art - they were perpetrated by comic book professional that knew what they were doing and who had learned from those who had come before them.

In some cases, those later comics were really good. The later issues of "Captain Marvel Adventures" were legitimately entertaining comics books and not for that nonsensically naďve quality of many of the Golden Age books, but rather because the stories were well crafted and entertaining by design.

I certainly would not want all comics to be like those random comics that I picked up at the last couple of conventions that I attended, but I wouldn't mind getting some of that feel back again. It's kind of refreshing to not know what to expect on the following page of a comic book.

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