Tuesday, 13 November 2012

From The Justice Society To Howard The Duck: The Great Seventies Cancelled Superhero-ish Comicbook Cavelcade, Part 2

In which the blogger offers up the second part of a baker's dozen of much-missed, cruelly cancelled superhero - or should that be superheroesque? - comic-books from the Big Two in the Seventies. (The first part is here.) Other publishers and genres will appear in a later list. For the sake of brevity, what follows doesn't include tenures which came to their intended close, media tie-ins, or interrupted runs by creative teams who were bumped from continuing titles.  The list begins with the most recently-cancelled title, and ends with the most distant termination. There's no order of preference beyond that; 

        
1. Howard The Duck, by Steve Gerber, Gene Colan, Frank Brunner et al, cancelled 1979

Like so much of the very best of the era's finest pop-culture satire, Steve Gerber's Howard The Duck was both intermittently brilliant and wildly, thrillingly inconsistent. Re-reading it sparks the same brew of fascination, bafflement, energy and intelligence which catching a midnight repeat of Monty Python or prime-70's Saturday Night Live similarly evokes. So much of what made them all absolutely vital has dissolved with the passing of the years, and that's exactly as it should be. Satire that's written for the university lecturehall and exam syllabi of some distant future is - of course - unlikely to be saying anything that's challenging about its own day. And yet, many of Gerber's targets are still haunting post-Millennium America even as the man himself has tragically left the stage all too early. In the brave new 21st century, it's unthinkable that the Big Two would permit the equivalent of Gerber's fiercely mocking condemnation of the homophobic campaigner Anita Bryant in the pages of HTD#21. Sadly, the corporate emasculation of the comicbook mainstream which Gerber so feared and raged against has long since come to past. As such, the superhero book has seen little mention of the likes of the Wall Street-created global economic crash and the far right's shrill and devastating campaigns against anything but a nightwatchman state. (*1) It's not hard to imagine how Gerber might have felt about such astonishingly public and despicable abuses of power, but it's impossible to believe that he'd be lent a platform to express that as he once briefly had in Howard The Duck.

*1:- It can and has been done, of course. Hats in the air to Gail Simone, for example, for referencing aspects of Occupy's concerns in Batgirl, while Rob Williams and D'israelli are forcibly expressing both loathing and contempt for the effectively-psychopathic culture of today's corporate predators in 2000AD's current Low-Life.

In the wrong, if well-meaning hands, Howard is nothing but a generic cartoon animal spouting awkwardly hard-boiled dialogue. Gene Colan and Tom Palmer's take on the character, by contrast, was so heartbreakingly vulnerable and sympathetic that even his most splenetic outbursts only worked to emphasise how relatively - if not entirely - powerless he was.

With the born contrarian's enthusiasm for titling at the Republic's often absurd and even toxically pernicious culture, Gerber's stories in Howard jousted with the New Right, religious cults, corporate greed, prurience, Presidential politics, urban alienation and paranoia, media-driven obsessions, and - with a touch more fondness - the absurdities of the counter-culture. At the same time, he also tilted at both the intrinsic silliness of the superhero comic and the conscienceless corporate interests which it ultimately served.  At his best, Gerber and his collaborators stretched the taken-for-granted illogic of the Marvel Universe until the likes of vampire cows and duck masters of kung fu seemed far more believableand interesting than the inhabitants of the Baxter Building or Avengers Mansion.

     
More than thirty years after Marvel sacked Gerber from the character he'd co-created, his ambition, commitment, brilliance and indomitable good humour still radiates off the page. Best of all, there are moments when his work still brings his cast alive with an exquisitely empathetic concern for their ludicrous and yet all-too believable trials. Because of that, we care about the causes which Gerber espouses, because we care about the characters who he encourages us to sympathise with. And so, to take but one example, the sight of the kidnapped Howard forced to perform by the apparently sympathetic and yet entirely amoral members of the Circus Of Crime works not just as a description of the creator's plight in the comics industry. It's also a deeply human and moving moment in its own right, presenting a lonely and susceptible protagonist trapped in a world, as the tag-line went, that he never made.


2. The Invaders, by Roy Thomas, Frank Robbins, Vince Colletta, Paul Kupperberg, et al , c. 1979 

As odd as it might seem now, the Marvel of the mid-Seventies had very little of a coherent, well-worked continuity when it came to World War Two. Stories since the early Sixties had established the raw material for such backstory, but no-one had thought to weave them together along with aspects of the comics of the Golden Age themselves. Indeed, it had taken almost a dozen years after The Sub-Mariner's reintroduction in Fantastic Four #4 for he and Captain America to even exchange a few words about the war against the dictators. (*2) Such an opportunity was tailor-made for writer Roy Thomas, who'd long been fascinated both by the superhero comics of his childhood and the history of the war itself. He was similarly enticed by the prospect of carving out an area of the company's output where he might work without having to worry about what his fellow professionals were contributing to the common continuity. As a final incentive, Thomas also knew that he could call upon a huge range of pre-established characters, events and concepts in order to bring the Forties alive without having to create too much of his own that was entirely new. Unlike many of his fellows in the business during the period, Thomas was already well aware of how important it was not to hand over potentially valuable creations to Marvel without the guarantee of adequate compensation.

*2: Even then, it was remarkably vague business, with the Sub-Mariner declaring in Avengers #117 that the two of them were the only two surviving superhumans from the War. That in itself would soon be anything but the truth, and yet the reader coming to the story now may be amazed at the absence of intimacy and a common wartime history between the two.

        
The vehicle for this comics history of the War was The Invaders, in which the five most prominent of the Timely superheroes of the Forties would band together at Churchill's encouragement to battle the Axis. For a brief few months, the comic was an enjoyable distraction from the mass of super-books, with the fannish excitement generated by such an unprecendented and substantial continuity implant helping to captivate readers. The historical events used to frame the team's adventures added a touch of distinctiveness and character, while the charmingly anachronistic and Cannifesque art by Frank Robbins and Vince Colletta suggested work that had itself been appropriately stored away since the Last Good War itself.

Yet Thomas never solved the key problem of how to represent superheroes in a wartime setting without seeming to denigrate the folks who'd in one way or another actually contributed to the fight against Fascism. This was certainly a concern for some of the title's British readers. For them, the sight of the Invaders swatting the Luftwaffe out of London's nighttime skies, for example, only seemed to emphasise how little assistance the then-isolationist America had actually lent the UK during the first few years of the War. Andor all that the comic celebrated the nation's defenders as plucky and brave, it was the folks in the costumes who were mostly shown dominating the limelight and landing the blows. Squaring such a circle remains a problem in today's superhero books which portray the War, but Thomas' unintended insensitivities didn't end there. The addition of two aristocrats as the Invader's new British members - Union Jack and Spitfire - seemed as crass as it was ludicrous. World War Two might not have been the unalloyed People's War that British popular myth had come to regard it as being. But the suffering and achievements of the nation ought not to have been represented with reference to a stereotype of nobles, country houses and landed estates. But then, Marvel's predilection for representing Britain's heroic virtues with members - or at the least descendants - of the landed gentry had begun with The Black Knight and would continue with Captain Britain. Yet just as it wasn't America's superheroes who won the war for the Allies, it wasn't an elite force of hereditary aristocrats which saved the day for Britain either. Regretably, The Invaders all too often reduced events to a matter of costumes and super-powers and media stereotypes, and in that, it sacrificed a great deal of its distinctiveness while at times failing to emphasise how the war had really been fought, and to what cost.
  
        
Other aspects of Thomas' scripts were far more progressive and successful. He was, for example, the first writer of a superhero book to criticise the despicable wartime concentration camps which the Republic established for its Japanese American citizens on its west coast, and he did so with passion and clarity.  If his work lacked the rage and scope which a more radical writer might have expressed for America past and present, it was also admirably decent-hearted and unambiguous in its principles. Yet for all that laudable commitment, his stories rarely seemed to rise above the formulaic and, with Robbins' departure, the book lost even its endearingly anachronistic feel. What had initially promised to bring a greater measure of diversity to the even-then all-too-predictable and constricted superhero book ended up offering more of the same. The Invaders had at first suggested that the superhero comic could be used to tell a far broader range of stories than was typical. But in the end, it seemed to suggest that the sub-genre was simply swallowing up all of its rival forms and reducing them to homogenised playgrounds in which the same costumed types would play out the same thin melodramas over and over and over again. Despite that, the disappearance of the book was still a regrettable business. No matter how unadventurous it had finally proven, its presence on the stands still suggested that there were new possibilities for the sub-genre just waiting to be put to use. Even now, the superhero comicbook staged in anything other than a nominally present-day setting is a rare event indeed.
   
3. All-Star Comics, by Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, Wally Wood, Gerry Conway, Joe Staton et al, c 1978

As The Invaders was attempting to built an audience for the adventures of Marvel's superheroes in a comicbook version of the Forties, DC was taking its Golden Age characters and representing them in a contemporary setting. The spin, of course, was that these were the superheroes of a parallel Earth, who, while inspiring the next generation of super-crimefighters, had grown old with the passing of time. Here, for example, was a greying Superman of the Justice Society, who was gradually being succeeded by his decades-younger cousin Power Girl, and a soon-to-be murdered Batman, whose daughter would become the Huntress in order to honour him. With its characters free to age and change and even die in a way that those of the merchandise-spawning mainstream continuity couldn't, All-Star Comics promised to be a fundamentally less conservative superhero book.

Sadly, that promise was never fulfilled, although the comic itself was a perfectly pleasant if fundamentally typical product of the time. At moments, the alt-world setting sparked some intriguing divergences, such as Gerry Conway's mention of a South Africa freed from Apartheid and Paul Levitz's suggestion of an independent Quebec. But it was a world that was little explored, and even Levitz's ability to give each member of his cast a distinct and sympathetic personality couldn't rescue the book's plot from their fundamentally predicable nature. As with The Invaders, the sense was always of a comic whose creators either didn't fully recognise the opportunities before them, or who weren't allowed to pursue anything so unconventional. Both books contained the potential to explore the superhero sub-genre in an adventurous way, and yet both chose instead to stay paddling remarkably close to the shore.


          
As with Frank Robbins' idiosyncratically old-school work on The Invaders, a great deal of the pleasure that's still be taken from All-Star Comics is to be found in the book's art. In particular, the first six issues contain the last significant work by the great Wally Wood to appear in either of the Big Two's comics, and, whether alone or in collaboration with Keith Giffen, his pages still retain an impressive if fading measure of his old genius. They also - in the figure of Power Girl - contain an expression of his fascination for cheesecakery too. That distinctly Seventies fusion of stereotypically strident feminism and what would become seen as body-fascism would prove a considerable challenge to the creators of supposedly more liberal times. But then, Wood's work as a whole still stands as a challenge to those artists who've followed him. All too few of them seem to have understood what he achieved, let alone how he did so. Some, I fear to suspect, don't even know who Wally Wood was. His brief twilight time on All-Star Comics won't explain anything more than a fraction of that, and it certainly produced art which contained its own challenges and contradictions. Even so, it remains characteristically beautiful work, and well worth paying attention too.


to be concluded;

34 comments:

  1. Those are some incredibly fabulous books, Colin.

    God, but I miss Howard the Duck. My favorite villain, for no reason that I can actually articulate, was Doctor Bong.

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    1. Hello Sally:- I was watching a 1978 Saturday Night Live rerun just the other day and thinking how Steve Gerber was part of the same counter-culture. And I could just imagine Doctor Bong on the show. I thought he'd have fitted in perfectly.

      By which I mean, yep, I miss Howard - the real Howard - too, as well as Doctor Bong, and Beverley etc etc ..

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  2. I was actually excited about The Invaders early on -- it seemed like such a great concept, but eventually it feel apart, just like the contemporaneous Super-Villain Team-Up, where the '70s Subby spent some time after the cancellation of his solo series. Integrating super-powered fantasy figures into all too real and horrid historical events is always problematic. I really didn't like it that Thomas had the Torch killing Hitler, mainly because for some odd reason it just feels wrong to me to distort what really happened. And of course, with characters as powerful as the Torch, Subby, or, for the Distinguished Competition, Superman, how could they have been ignorant of and done nothing to stop the Holocaust before so many millions were murdered (to be honest, that was also a crack in my tenuous childhood belief in god).
    Howard the Duck on the other hand, as written by Gerber, remains brilliant in my estimation. My introduction to him was issue #4 and I can't even remember what prompted me to give a weird funny animal comic a try as my 14 year old self of the time was soooooo into superheroes, but after reading it I loved it and I even got my mom into reading it. Colan was by far my favorite HTD artist -- he seemed as natural a fit for it as he was for Tomb of Dracula. I could really empathise with Howard's dilemmas, his outrage at human absurdities and society's attempts to force us to conform. Heck, Gerber even made the Ringmaster into a rather sympathetic and interesting character, although I still cheered when Howard punched him in the nose. The last few issues, alas, petered out, and it just didn't work for me with Bill Mantlo (or anyone other than Gerber) writing the series. But for most of its run, Howard the Duck was a great series.
    Maybe what made Howard work for me over the Invaders was that in the latter Thomas was wallowing in nostalgia for a period of his very early childhood (he would have only been 5 years old when WWII ended, after all), trying to fit fantasy figures into real events, while in HTD, Gerber used a fantasy figure to express himself about troubling aspects of reality, from politics, trying to earn enough to pay the rent and buy food, or just trying to keep from going insane from all the pressures of life. The details were specific to the '70s, but overall the concerns are timeless.

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    1. Hello Fred:- You're right, the central problem in involving superheroes in any kind of real-world conflict is avoiding obscuring historical truth. Of course, to folks who don't care, that'd seem like an absurdly PC concern. Yet, as you say, Hitler wasn't done away with by a noble American android. He killed himself, his wife and his dog and his body was largely burned by an underlining. That the Torch - I believe - had been shown in comics killing him is irrelevant. History has its own meaning and it ought to trump the tropes of the superhero book every time. Representing the Holocaust as some comics have is reprehensible.

      The key difference, I'm glad to see we agree - :) - is that Howard was about the 70s and The Invaders was far more about superblokes than the 40s. And the same has been for everyone who's written Howard ever since. When we get to Howard The Duck, gun-toting zombie hunter, the sense that the point has been missed is hard to fight off. (And I speak as someone who still quite enjoys those later Marvel Zombies tales.)

      It's no coincidence that the super-books I most enjoy today are those which still seem to say something about the present day. The superbook about superbook couldn't be of less interest to me.

      "The details were specific to the '70s, but overall the concerns are timeless."

      Indeed. Hats in the air for Mr Gerber and his splendid collaborators!

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    2. > I really didn't like it that Thomas had the Torch killing Hitler, mainly because for some odd reason it just feels wrong to me to distort what really happened.

      Lay not the blame at Thomas' feet - this was established by Carl Burgos in 1953.

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    3. Hello Michael:- That's why I wrote, "That the Torch - I believe - had been shown in comics killing him is irrelevant". I couldn't remember the source - Thank You! - but that wasn't the issue which concerned me. After all, there's a huge degree of material from the comics of the 40s and 50s which Marvel owned the copyright to which wasn't co-opted into continuity. Your point that the Torch killed Hitler in a pre-Marvel comic is of course 100% correct. I wouldn't want to imply it isn't. But I do feel it was a mistake to incorporate it into Marvel's continuity. Indeed, even if it had been established in a Lee/Kirby tale from the FF's mid-60s pomp - or whatever - I'd still prefer that it was reworked so that the real Hitler had the miserable end in comics that he had in real life.

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    4. Colin, naturally you typed the above thinking of Lee & Kirby's Hate-Monger story from 1960s Fantastic Four, right?

      Is Lee & Kirby's Hate-Monger mitigated at all by the later retcons which established him as Hitler's clone?

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    5. Hello Michael:- Actually, my mind has been elsewhere, which is disgraceful, since it shows that the part of my memory that's "Dr Strange 1962-66" is QUITE separate from the part that stores the contents of the FF in the same period. Yep, you're right, AH does make an appearance in the FF, doesn't he? I rely on you to be thinking when I'm not.

      I could've taken your re-world continuity implant there and escaped the consequences of my own dull-headedness. But a good egg such as yourself deserves better.

      I think the idea of the Hitler clone - clones, really - is an excellent one. And that would have been especially so if each copy were shown suffering progressive genetic degradation, so that the whole business became a comment upon the inevitable consequences of Nazi eugenics.

      It's a long way from They Saved Hitler's Brain to They Cloned Hitler's Brain!!! :)

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    6. Personally, Colin, I'm not feeling it; I don't like the idea that Hitler has survived in any form and continues to plague mankind, or that Nazis are still one of the world's greatest threats whether you're following Marvel, DC or Hellboy. Like, when an army of Nazis in armour attacked the USA in Fear Itself, I could only wonder "where do they find these guys?

      Nazis - in our own world - exist mostly in the past and partially as a very pathetic, neutered entity. To imagine there are armies of Nazis waiting in hidden fortresses for someone to give them their marching orders is about as ludicrous as the Simpsons vignette where the Russian reveal the Soviet Union didn't actually break up, with armies emerging from parade floats and including a reanimated Lenin. It's comedy. Mocking Nazis is one thing, but I don't like the Nazisploitation of making them into unconquerable masters of technology and the black arts.

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    7. Hello Mike:- I've got a lot of fondness for Hitler clones et al surviving if - as in my example - they're used to show how pathetic and threadbare the Third Reich now is. And I agree with you that the problem is the use of that Third Reich model where comic villains are concerned. I don't agree with you that Nazis are of the past. I can't speak for America and Canada to the same degree, but Fascism IS a serious problem in Europe, and though it doesn't often adopt the form of the Third Reich, it's frequently directly influenced by it and deeply admiring of it too. It's not just the deeply disturbing hardcore groups of streetfighters and community terrorisers which can be found across the continent. (There was a fascist demonstration two weekends ago in Norwich, the nearest city to me.) And there's powerful neo-fascist groups right across Europe, significant communities of holocaust-deniers, racist attitudes and groups who've turned their ignorance and violence against any numbers of demonised communities; these are things which really OUGHT to be represented, and represented in a way which reflects the terrible things they do and threaten to. As you so rightly say, these are not SS elites and their faceless footsoldiers waiting out in mountain fortresses. No, they're far more worrying and powerful than that.

      What a great term "Nazisploitation" is! Three cheers for you. I'm with you on how pathetic these endless comic book Nazis are. But fascism is not just alive, but immensely powerful too. (There's a very good argument for saying that fascism has a home in elements of the US far right, though it's a particularly American form and not one which consciously evokes Hitler and his brutes.) As such, I'm against Nazisploitation and for a smart-minded, imaginative representation of fascism in today's comics.

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    8. Colin, I think we are on the same page. I think there's a hint of danger in assuming fascism's appeal lay mostly to Germans born a century ago (or Italians, Japanese, Spanish or Soviets of the same era). To me, Nazis are a "safe" choice (unless you want your comic or movie to be distributed in Germany, I suppose). It doesn't challenge the audience's presumed beliefs, because decades of popular culture have ascended the Nazis into comic book villains. As you say, fascism itself can still be found across this globe and it would be more challenging for today's creators to do what the young (mostly Jewish) creators of the 30s/40s did when they pit their heroes against Nazis (or thinly veiled Nazi stand-ins): pit today's heroes against today's maniacs. Which, of course, some books do (we have a mutual admiration for Gillen, for instance).

      It feels as though Nazis persist in comic books because our fandom loves continuity and Nazis were the original bad guys, but I'd really like to draw a line under them and consider it done. There was a brief glimmer of hope when DeMatteis killed off the Red Skull, but... no, he came back and adorned with more Nazi regalia and followers than ever before.

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    9. Hello Michael:- You make a series of points I can only wholeheartedly agree with. I in particular love the way that you point to the fact that the superhero was often a way of Jewish-American creators expressing their political views. I don't think that today's Corporate comics would allow too much of anything as outrageous as that, which is a terrible shame. The superhero has counter-intuitively always been associated with democracy, and yet the closer we get to the present day, the more explicit political positions have been bled out of the book.

      You're quite right to say that the comics take on Nazis in the 21st centurty is comforting and familiar. It's a backward looking smugness that suggests that the real battles are over and we can all relax and invite in the bogy men and women of the mid Twentieth century. And as comics does that - over and over again - today's equivilant of the Nazis are simply ignorant.

      There's also a strong argument for saying that modern-day abstraction of Nazism which appears in the super-book today is at heart misleading. There's no effort that I can see to discuss what the different fascisms meant. Why did those movements attract so much support - in the States as much as anywhere else, although I know nothing of Canadian fascism - and what does the fascism of that period have to do with our own?

      You're right to despair of the Red Skull in his more-of-the-same guise. Yet who has the courage to suggest that the Red Skull in today's America could find himself movements to control - both on a mass and niche basis - which espouse racism, anti-democratic ideals, anti-rational thinking and so on? The Nazis were once a way in which the new form of the superhero engaged - as you quite rightly said - with the horror of fascism. Now its a way in which the superhero book shies away from discussing the real anti-democractic dangers of today.

      We're as gutless a West as was that which stood back and permitted the rise of fascism. Yet they at least had no previous epoch of fascism to learn from. We have, but we mostly don't seem to give a toss.

      Sigh and pah. You're right, a Red Skull all done up in his Nazi uniform has no meaning today. But then, fascism doesn't have to wear a uniform, does it?

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  3. I agree with both you and Fred about Howard; I only read it all the way through the first time a few years ago in the Essentials volume (I avoided it when it was actually on the spinner racks - my young self just couldn't comprehend the concept of a Donald Ducksih character hanging around in the same universe as Spidey and the rest. It wasn't 'realistic'...), and I have to say, while it shows its age, the series does delve into matters that are timeless, as Fred says.
    As to the Invaders, I really liked it at the time, and although I couldn't stand Robbins' art elsewhere, it seemed to largely suit the series. I have to say, though, that these extended super-hero books set in WW2, whether the Invaders or that other Thomas venture, All Star Squadron, kind of lose their luster when you think about them too much - as Fred noted, they beg the question of why the super types did nothing to stop the Holocaust, or perhaps alternatively, why Superman, say, didn't deflect the A-bombs being dropped on Japan.
    By the way, I also found your perspective on Union Jack and Spitfire, as someone from the UK, fascinating. It's something that never occurred to me, but it certainly makes sense. Thanks also for underlining the fact that Thomas had no reservations about criticizing the internment of Japanese Americans. In fact, he did so rather early in his comics-writing career, in an issue of the Avengers in 1970 or 1971.

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    1. Hello Edo:- Firstly, you're right to mention Avengers #92 and Fury's mention of how pernicuous those camps were. I phrased my post poorly. I meant to say that Thomas used The Invaders to discuss that problem at length, but as you point out, that's not what I said. I'll amend it, and I'm grateful to you for the nudge :)

      It is the very fact that Gerber was engaged with the events of his day that makes parts of his work now seem outdated. I do wonder how hard it might be to make sense of the stories without a grounding in the period, and I know from my teaching days that the Nineties - let alone the Seventies - can seem to be ancient history to today's new readers. I suspect that the way "in" to his work is through the more touching scene, such as Howard wandering the dark NYC streets at night, or weeping with an unfamiliar sense of wonder in the Son Of Satan crossover.

      I absolutely share your concerns about most of the super-people-in-WW2 books. Thomas did have the out of the Spear Of Destiny in All Star Squadron, which prevented the more powerful of America's superheroes from invading Axis-held territory. But even then, it's an unconvincing business. There's too many improbabilities involved in such an exercise, and that's before considering the moral aspects of it all, which I won't repeat, having focused on them in the above.

      I know that Pat Mills has always felt profoundly unhappy with the idea of superheroes being shown fighting World War 2. I'd love to come across a version of the tradition which sidestepped the problems we've discussed - the best is probably Zenith Book I by Morrison & Yeowell - but until then, and for all my fondness for The Invaders and ASS, I think Mills has got the better case. It was something I thought a few years ago when reading a beautifully drawn Chris Weston story in The Twelve. A huge camp of superheroes had gathered outside Berlin - I believe - at the close of the War, and for all it was brilliantly drawn, and fascinating in itself, I couldn't help but feel that this was a victory which shouldn't ever be associated with anyone but the folks who actually won it.

      The same goes for jolly old Union Jack and Spitfire. There were many members of our aristocracy who contributed tremendously to the People's War. But it was a People's War and not theirs alone. That's what I'd like to see.

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    2. Colin, like you, I have a soft spot in my heart for both Invaders and All SS (ASS? C'mon, show some respect!), even though the misgivings remain. As for super-hero stories set in WW2 that sidestepped the problem, the only ones I can think of are a few Elseworlds titles, like Liberty File or perhaps Golden Age - although I guess that one avoided the problem by taking place after the war.

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    3. Hello Edo:- I just hadn't noticed how All Star Squadron's acronym might appear ... disrespectful. Mea culpa.

      I think you're right about The Golden Age, though it too had Hitler survive. True, the moment the reader realises how is a truly horrific one, a mix of B-Movie cliche and some thoroughly unpleasant implications. Nicely done, and yet ...

      Beyond that, I'm struggling too ....

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  4. Hello Colin: I regularly read and immensely enjoy your columns but rarely comment, and felt it only right to let you know your writing is appreciated. Your appraisal of Howard the Duck is wonderfully accurate: it failed as often as it succeeded, but was all the better for attempting too much, as opposed to pandering to the status quo. Gerber and the Duck (for the two are interchangeable, and the later cannot exist as anything but a faint impression of what it used to be without the former) are sincerely missed, at least by this reader.

    And secondly, I have a question to ask: will (The Power of) Warlock be getting two entries? Or am I being too cheeky:-)

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    1. Hello Carey:- Thank you for the kind words. And it's certainly always a pleasure to be able an ethusiasm for Howard and Steve Gerber. I entirely agree that Gerber's work was all the better for, as you put it, "attempting too much". Certainly in terms of my own taste, there are parts of Howard which don't work for me. The Star Wars parody is too broad for me, while the Dr Bong issues - despite my love for the character - never quite seemed to gell into a story rather than a series of daft, daft moments. But I still enjoy aspects of them, and I'm more than glad that he wrote them. After all, if there'd been Dr Bong and Star Wars stories, there'd never have been the brilliant scene of an exhausted Howard returning to New York after his misadventures.

      That's a good question about Warlock. Of course, I could attempt to pretend that I don't know what's coming, or that I've still to make my mind up, but the fact is, of course, that anyone who doesn't have Warlock on such a list is batting on an exceedingly sticky wicket.

      So, yes, Warlock is one of the 5 to come. Whether he's 2 or not is still up in the air. You're right, but how right I can't yet say ... :)

      No, seriously.

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  5. The big problem with superheroes in WW2 is that nobody seems to want to go "actually, they can't do much here" - that doesn't fit the superhero genre, if they can't defeat Luftwaffe groups and overpower platoons and normal people are dying all around them. Very few superhero writers could do that and not turn off most of the audience. The Captain America film managed it though, almost everything Cap does he's part of a group of normal soldiers and is reliant on them (and, in that great scene, real soldiers mock his "punch Hitler" propaganda show). Beyond that, I guess Jack Staff, the Freedom Fighters are always palling around with Captain Mainwaring's Home Guard unit or clearing up rubble. Or Ennis' The Shadow, where our 'hero' is working for US intelligence and most of what he does is normal spy work. Other than that, it's all "THE INVADERS LIBERATED BERLIN!".

    The X-Axis made a point years ago that it makes the real WW2 soldiers look rubbish if they need Cap to save them and he can do it so easily. The only thing worse is this bloody scene from an Avengers comic where Cap visits the Vietnam War memorial and says they died "in a war I missed" - what the HELL was he supposed to do in VIETNAM? (also, he didn't miss it, Marvel published his comic then and never sent him to 'Nam. Flash Thompson, he went to 'Nam. In the real world, Flash Thompsons across the US - and Australia, South Korea etc - went there) This stuff is why Garth Ennis has the Waffen-SS obliterate the "Golden Age" heroes in fifteen seconds over in The Boys.

    (It is only over WW2, isn't it? Mainstream superheroes are rarely in Vietnam, never in Korea, don't recall any sent to Bosnia or Kosovo, and they avoided Iraq & Afghanistan like the plague.)

    - Charles RB

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    1. Hello Charles:- You're right that the Cap movie did manage to pull it off! Good call, as always! And that was, as you say, because Steve Rogers was always placed in the context of a soldier who respects and relies upon his colleagues. Good call about Jack Staff too, in that he - and his allies - were introduced helping on the ground with the consequences of an air-raid, if memory serves. Even there, it's a fine line between an interesting situation and failing to credit the folks who did the real work. Thankfully, Paul Grist walked that line well.

      I didn't know that Garth Ennis had done that in the Boys! I must start that book again from the beginning. And what could Cap do in Vietnam? Vietnam was lost not because of military might, but because of a war of ideas, ideals and will. Would Cap somehow manage to reconstitute the SV regime in terms of effectiveness and ethics, redistribute power and wealth and opportunity so that the typical SV citizen became a stakeholder in their own society, reorganise American intel so it's capable of recognising the Tet Offensive or the real damage to its opponent that America caused in fighting it, and so on and on. The problem with the superhero book is it takes a huge amount of knowledge and guile as concerns the world beyond the Marvel Handbook to make it work. Oddly enough, there's a direct correlation between the writers who've got that and the present-day work I most admire/ignore.

      The solution, I guess, is to create parallel conflicts which only the superhumans can involve themselves in which (1) don't seem irrelevant compared to the real deal, and which (2) still manage to say IT WAS THE PEOPLE AND NOT THE COSTUMES WHO WON THIS.

      It's not just the foreign wars that the superbook has tended to avoid, is it? Even straight-forward issues which you suspect Stan Lee circa 1968 might have touched upon - no matter how much in passing - have typically been sidestepped in the modern era. If there's one obvious area where the superbook has most obviously declined, it's in its lack of interest in real-world issues. We tend to sneer now at the reports of editors and owners fearing Black faces in superhero books during the 60s and 70s in case that caused trouble in Southern States. Well, there's a heck of a lot of obvious social distress and inequity today which the superhero book doesn't touch now either.

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    2. Actually, Captain America visited Vietnam twice - Tales of Suspense#61 (1965) & Captain America#125 (1970).

      During Roger Stern & John Byrne's Cap, it led to an interesting moment when Bernie Rosenthal initially assumes Steve Rogers is a Vietnam vet when she hears he was in the Army; "I was there... briefly," he states, truthfully.

      Bringing this back to Roy Thomas, his own solution was to grant the Axis powers to match the superiority of the Allied heroes - notably by gifting Hitler with the Spear of Destiny. Similarly, when you look at super hero comics from the WW2 age, the Axis seemed to have a never-ending supply of giant submarines, sci-fi death weapons and supernatural assassins. The super hero version of World War 2 is not (and never was) a mirror to what was going on in the world and it's probably better for the WW2 heroes to be battling sci-fi/supernatural terrors rather than dredging up the problems of why they didn't end the war in about 24 hours. I thought Thomas' decision to have the All-Star Squadron be the protectors of the US borders to be a better solution to the problem.

      Similarly, back on 9/11 it was difficult for comic book fans to accept that such an attack could occur in the Marvel/DC universes due to the sheer number of defenders who spend each waking day stopping assaults just like it; in the Marvel Universe, the WTC would have been back in business within the week, courtesy of Damage Control (who presumably already fixed it once before when Liefeld had Juggernaut topple the WTC). It also becomes difficult to believe the WTC destruction could have an indelible effect on the psyche of the residents of super hero universes when they've already lived through, say, the deaths of millions in Genosha at the hands of Cassandra Nova's Sentinels, Kang completely demolishing Washington DC, the Leader blowing up an entire town with a Gamma Bomb or the Dominators conquering Australia. You shouldn't draw attention to these problems because either the real world's trauma - or the fictional world's trauma - will wind up trivialized.

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    3. Hello Mike:- I wasn't thinking of Cap's brief visits to Vietnam - or indeed his return as Nomad with the Avengers in or around - I think - #131 - but to the very idea of him fighting there. By which I mean, there's a difference between having a few fights in Vietnam and actually fighting there in any meaningful, I-could've-saved-all-these-soldiers sense. If Cap's imagining that he might have made a difference, we have to assume that he's not so daft as to imagine he could've turned things around with a punch-up or two :)

      The problem with Thomas' work in The Invaders was that it still didn't do away with the problems of (1) they're often shown fighting the ordinary soldier's war, as in several scenes fighting in the Blitz, and (2) there's still no convincing reason why the Invaders aren't doing a great deal more to intervene into the kind of horrors which we'd expect them to.

      I quite agree with you that the superhero WW2 isn't intended as a mirror to the real-world. That's what I struggle with. WW2 shouldn't be - in my entirely subjective opinion - a backdrop for fisti-cuffs with broad moral issues informing it all. In ignoring the real events, they're trivialised just as they would be through some cack-handed, deeply-meaningful approach.

      I can't recall the use of the Spear Of Destiny in the Invaders/Marvel Universe. I'll have to pull my TPBs and refresh the memory.

      "You shouldn't draw attention to these problems because either the real world's trauma - or the fictional world's trauma - will wind up trivialized."

      I do think it's the way that real-world events are represented that counts. Certainly the likes of JMS's weeping Dr Doom is a crass approach. I think that it would be possible to represent 9/11 without trivilising the matter, but the creators would have to be exceptionally informed and creative about doing so. Short of that, then it's very much best left alone.

      The problem with WW2 is that it has a historical reality. If you use that period and don't do so to celebrate and condemn the reality of events, then you're just using all that suffering and sacrifice as a backdrop for costume melodrama. I don't think that's on, though I fully accept that it's not a majority opinion. As such, it's not about either ignoring or engaging whole-heartedly with what happened. It's about approaching the war in such a way as to illuminate the events and the meaning of them using the superhero book to do so. And that's the kind of job which only the very best creators can do.

      So, I guess I disagree with you :) I think you should draw attention to real-world issues, and that's especially true when its an event such as the War. But the WAY in which that engagement is carried out .... Well, that's the point. Your use of examples to show that 9/11 wouldn't have had a similar impact - despite how terrible a business it would undoubtedly be - in the MU is extremely well done. Where current affairs are concerned, the challenge of how to represent them in the superhero book is even greater. Comics throw around disasters with so much abandon and so little care for meaning and conseuences that it's hard to discuss ethical issues at all. I'd like to think that the industry could approach these issues in a smarter way. There are moments when that happens. (Such as Uncanny X-Men #14 discussing the perniciousness of archaic right wing thinking without it ever seeming to be a sermon from the pulpit.)

      But if folks can't be smart, then trivilisation will result. And if that's going to happen, then, yes, I'd rather it was all left alone.

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    4. Colin, we're not so far apart; I do, however, feel as though WW2 is just one of many horrors in our past. Why is our culture ever-starved for more entertainments set in the Blitz or Holocaust camps (with appropriate pathos, mind you), but not particularly enthused about the Khmer Rouge, the Balkan Wars or the Rwandan Genocide? Is it the lack of "our side" having a presence in their resolutions, or the lack of what we'd consider a victory in each case?

      It feels as though WW2 is still, in a sense, the backdrop to a boy's adventure story. It's an all-in-one: everyone goes to war - but some are traitors! Real heroism - but real horror! Massive deployments - homefront heartaches! Spies, submarines & desert rats! It has a larger playing field than the Boer War, more toys than even Thermopylae and can suit any writer from the cynic (Ennis) to the optimist (Thomas).

      I feel like the years during & following the war have given us enough rich commentary (notably Krigstein's "Master Race") that we don't need to keep reliving the past, we can instead pay attention to today's problems. Today's problems don't involve millions of men in tanks and airplanes dueling each other, but (I hope) we have a sense of outrage at the world's injustices and a desire to help address and repair them.

      Regarding Captain America's service in Vietnam, I only mention it to note Stan Lee did take the conflict into account while writing the series, albeit not as deftly as he did with Flash Thompson.

      I don't believe Thomas worked the Spear of Destiny into his Marvel work - just in DC.

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    5. Hello Michael:- No, we're not far apart at all, though I appreciate swapping ideas with you and wouldn't mind if we were :)

      WW2 has always been a defining myth in the culture of the West, hasn't it? To say that isn't to suuggest that it wasn't both a necessary and a worthwhile endeavour. Of course it absolutely was. But as with all myths, its meaning shifts with time and expresses a great deal about its believers. I blogged once about the way in which Cap and his participation in WW2 had changed over time in the comics. In Cap's guest starring appearance in an early Sgt Fury, for example, he carries nothing of the sense of a democratic saint which he now has. Of course, Kirby had fought in the war, and he knew what the typical infantryman would have made of Cap. Compare that to the sickening outpouring of sentimentality which accompanied the "death" of Cap. The understanding of the war and the men who'd fought it had seemingly shifted entirely over the period between Kirby/Lee's Fury and the mass orgy of self-pity and faux-Americanism which marked Cap's funeral. Indeed, I'm not sure that many of Cap's writers beyond Mr Brubraker in the past few years know very much of the War at all, let alone the period in which it occured.

      I think the War has the double function of presenting a comforting myth of a victorious and noble West while suggesting that history is simply a matter of good and bad, us and them. Mix that with the worst tendencies of the superbook and an ugly over-simplified mess is churned out. As you say, WW2's an incredibly complex narrative reduced to boy's own adventure. But the wars before that now seem archaic, and those since are contaminated by the complexities of reality. The shame is that comics HAVE reduced WW2 to such cliche that it's actually boring. Without the personal touch of folks who fought it or heard about it as they grew up, or the knowledge of experts in the period, all we seem to get is the thinnest gruel. In the end, it's reduced to cool uniforms on evil soldiers, as you say.

      I would love to see the War dealt with more, actually. There are so few folks who've done so well. (Garth Ennis has, for my money, produced the best war stories of the century. As much as it would horrify purists, and perhaps horrify him too, I'd trust him to do something worthwhile with The Invaders.) Rather than leaving the period behind as a great many left-wing theorists have longed for, I'd love for the great cultural myth that's the War to be used in comics as it is in popular history, where it's of course used not just to discuss the past, but the present too. (I'm sorry to even say something so obvious to a librarian. Forgive me.) But then, since we're discussing this all in the context of the super-book, there's hardly a great deal of curiosity about anything in the modern era, let alone the past. (It's not the Marvel of the mid-70s anymore, is it?) Why can't the affairs of the modern-era appear be discussed? I'm absolutely with you. But then, somebody might get offended if a stand was taken. And we can't have that.

      The superhero at its best has been charged up with a sense of time, place and social conflict. Sometimes that's been forcibly basic and passionate - WW2 - and sometimes, as with the Marvel revolution, it's been almost an accident in which a burst of creativity seems to be informed by broader social changes. By contrast, political blandness and a lack of curiousity rarely inspires interesting, let alone great, art.

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    6. What did Cap do in Vietnam in those old stories? (I know there was a Thor comic where he fights a Vietcong cell, which is a very odd thing)

      You've got a good point, Michael, Marvel/DC/et al have gone on to throw in lots of super-Nazis for the Golden Age to fight so it doesn't need to fight the 'real' Nazis. (And all in a way that doesn't alter the shape of the real war...!) Though you can then run the risk of the war just being super-Nazis with a few tired war-story tropes. Getting the balance right seems too tricky for most to bother with when they can just go with something generic.

      re the World Trade Center problem, under the sliding timescales it now happened before the Fantastic Four/Superman turned up so that's no longer a problem. Now there's whole new problems! (Like, now Batman was logically inspired by Darkwing Duck and not vice versa...)

      - Charles RB

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    7. Hello Charles:- I'll see if I can find my Cap Essentials after work tonight. I have a vague memory of a superhero performing in Vietnam for the troops, though I think that was Daredevil. The very idea seems so absurd that my memory appears to be trying to delete it.

      Of course, it's just SO like you, Charles, to note that Batman is now inspired by Darkwing Duck. If that's so, it'll be the first thing about the New 52 Batman that I can find endearing. BUT THEY'LL NEVER OWN UP TO IT, WILL THEY?

      Try frightening the Rumpers with THAT, DC!

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    8. Colin, you are thinking of Daredevil; that was the legendary "Brother, Take My Hand" Lee/Colan joint from Daredevil#47. It does seem odd for Daredevil to perform in a USO show... that's the one element from the story which feels out of place, more at home with one of the Avengers than ol' hornhead.

      Charles, in the first story, Cap entered Vietnam to rescue a US pilot, Lt. Jim Baker (notable in that Baker was African-American). To do this, he fought the sumo wrestler General Wo because... well, Vietnam had many sumo wrestlers, I'm sure.

      In the latter story, Cap goes to rescue Dr. Robert Hoskins (no relation), an MD who's been aiding both sides. However, it seems the Mandarin has a base in Vietnam and he's the one who nabbed Hoskins (as Mandarin wants to decimate all the parties so he can have Vietnam to himself).

      "Flying past my window--! A duck! That's it! I shall become a creature of the night..."

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    9. Hello Michael:- Thank you for the information. I'd certainly agree with you that it seems odd for DD to be complimenting whoever was on that bill; Bob Hope or even James Brown ...

      (Yes, Sumo wrestling has ALWAYS been big in Vietnam ....)

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  6. I discovered Howard the Duck in the '90s, and thought most of it aged fine. The specific targets may have faded from cultural memory, but the general themes (alienation, absurdity of modern life) came through. By making Howard his mouthpiece, Gerber made him relatable. One of the reasons he doesn't work when other writers handle him is their lack of personal attachment. Howard lost his purpose when he lost his writer.

    I still love the comic and hope it continues to find readers for years to come. If only Gerber and Colan could have done more!

    - Mike Loughlin

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    1. Hello Mike:- That's tremendously reassuring, to hear that coming to Howard twenty years after the fact was no problem at all to enjoying it and engaging with the issues it represents. Huzzah!

      "Howard lost his purpose when he lost his writer."

      Yep, you're so right. Howard fights zombies now with a great big gun while often talking like Nick Fury. Now that may be a false reading based on just the few issues I've seen. I've the Zombies Omnibus and I'll sit down soon and read it through. But the very idea of Howard as the inter-dimensional undead hunter .... That's not character development, that's a terrible stupid misjudgment.

      (Pauses to make sure that he agrees with such a sweeping statement ...)

      Yes, it's wrong. The whole idea of Howard is that he doesn't fight Zombies with machine guns unless he's trapped and has no other choice at all. And then the point is what the gun does to Howard and how that reflects upon the use of the gun in the Republic's everyday affairs. Not whether Howard kills a Zombie and makes it back to base.

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  7. I'm curious.

    Did you ever read Gerber's Howard the Duck "Max?"
    What do you think of it?

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    1. Hello George:- You know, I didn't. It was published during one of the periods when I'd opted out of comics. But I have been encouraged to check the run out. I can't explain why I haven't. I'll go and hunt down an affordable copy of the run A.S..A.P.

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  8. I honestly haven't either. I've seen affordable copies of it many times, but I've always been afraid it would cast a shadow over the originals I love so much.

    One thing in particular troubles me. I'll write it down below so that you can opt out of reading it if it comes as a spoiler.

    I'd love to hear what you think of it if you do get around to it.

    Cheers































    Apparently Howard isn't even a duck in this book.
    Maybe that doesn't seem like much, but it makes me want to run and hide from this book.

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    1. Hello George:- Now you're reminding me of something that I've been told - and which I subsequently forgot - there may well be a justifiable reason for why I've stayed away from that series. I of course trust Gerber to provide a story that's well worth the reading, and I shall continue to keep it on my 'will read' list, but Howard with "The Duck" part of the equation is a problem for me too.

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