Friday, May 1, 2015

Superman's Pal, JFK

One of the Legendary Comic Books of the Silver Age featured a cameo by President John F. Kennedy.  Part of its legend comes from the fact that it hit the newsstands just a week after JFK was assassinated. 

ACTION COMICS #309  was already at the printers when the assassination occurred and it was too late for the company to cancel the issue.  They were afraid the public would consider the comic to be in bad taste under the circumstances.  I don't know if the public did, but in retrospect, the issue is a quirky piece of comics history, as well as a sad commentary on how times have changed.

It starts off as a typical Silver Age Superman story.  Superman is expected to attend a public ceremony in his honor.  All in the line of duty for a hero as beloved as Superman.  The problem is that Clark Kent has been selected as one of the people to share the stage with him.

Now normally this would be no biggie; Superman would just use one of his robot duplicates to impersonate him or maybe ask his buddy Bruce Wayne to pose as Clark Kent.  Except that Batman is also supposed to be at the event honoring him; and Lois Lane has set up metal detectors at all the entrances to the hall as one of her wacky schemes to prove that Clark is really Superman.  Dang that woman!

So what's a Man of Steel to do?

The story leaves the reader in suspense until the very last page.  Superman appears at the event, and shakes the hands of both Batman and Clark Kent.  Lois fails to detect any robot impostors.  How did Superman pull it off?

At the very end we see Superman going to thank his secret accomplice who helped by posing as Clark:  John F. Kennedy.

(Part of me has to wonder if that would really work, if Kennedy really could convincingly impersonate a 6-foot plus Midwestern farm-boy.  I have this mental image of Lois saying, “You can cut the phoney ‘Bahston accent’ any time now, Clark; no one is laughing!”)

In the last panel, Superman tells his super-confidant:  "I knew I wasn't risking my secret identity with you !  After all, if I can't trust the President of the United States, who can I trust?"

Comics guru Tony Isabella has cited this issue as his standard for a good president.  A good president, he says, is one to whom Superman can confidently divulge his Secret Identity.  Sadly, we have had very few in my lifetime whom I think Superman could trust.

But for the heck of it, let’s play that game.  Granted, this is going to be highly subjective and open to argument, but what the hey:  Which presidents could Superman trust.?

We’ll leave off Kennedy; I was barely a toddler when he died; besides, we’ve already established that Superman trusted him.  Next.

I don’t think he’d trust Johnson.  Although I think that Superman would approve of many of LBJ’s social programs, Johnson was also a shrewd horse-dealer.  Any president in whom Supes confided would face the temptation to take advantage of that confidence and use Superman to his own ends.  And I could see Johnson doing that.

I don’t see Supes trusting Tricky Dick at all.  Apart from Nixon’s antipathy towards reporters, trust is a two-way street and I don’t see Nixon bringing himself to trust Superman.  He’d be more likely to have the FBI investigate him to discover his Secret Identity.  Heck, Nixon might even put Lex Luthor on his payroll, and keep in mind that this was the era where Luthor was an Evil Scientist and not a Respected Zillionaire Industrialist.

I can’t really say about Ford.  He seemed to me like a decent enough guy, but he really wasn’t president long enough to give a good sense of what kind of person he was  He’s doomed to be a footnote of history, I’m afraid.

Jimmy Carter is one I think Superman could trust.  Carter always struck me as a man with a great deal of moral integrity, both as president and his career afterwards.  You can argue about how good a president he was, but I think he was and is a good man.

Reagan… not so much.  Don’t get me wrong; I liked Reagan.  I drew political cartoons for my college newspaper during his administration and he was fun to draw.  But whenever he talked about Values and Morality, I always had a sense that he was playing to the audience, giving them what they wanted to hear.  There’s an old saying in the Theater that the most important part of acting is Sincerity… and if you can fake that you’ve got it made.  Ronald Reagan was a very good actor.  I like to think that he did have a strong sense of decency, but I think he more often used it to justify his ideology rather than to inform it.

Unlike some of the previous presidents, Reagan appeared numerous times in the comic books himself.  (Even not counting REAGAN’S RAIDERS, an earnest fan comic of the ‘80s in which Ronald and his closest advisers gain super-powers and punch out the Foes of America).  I can think of two instances in which he is shown directly interacting with Superman.

In Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Superman is portrayed as the President’s lap dog, running errands for him and clandestinely fighting America’s enemies.  In Miller’s dystopian future, all super-heroes have been forced into retirement or hiding.  Superman’s arrangement with the President allows him to continue doing some good in the world, but he clearly resents it..

Another take on the idea was given in a FIRESTORM storyline by John Ostrander during the ‘80s in which Firestorm decides to use his powers to disarm both the US and the USSR.  There is a scene in one issue where President Reagan summons Superman to the Oval Office in order to ask him to take Firestorm down.  Superman respectfully declines, saying that he’s not entirely sure the boy is wrong, and that it’s an idea he’s though about himself; (a cute allusion to the well-intentioned but badly-executed SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE).

I do think, however, that Superman could trust George Bush père.  The elder Bush was a former director of the CIA, not to mention a Skull-and-Bonesman back in his Yale days.  I think he understands the importance of keeping a secret and would respect Superman’s.  Although I didn’t vote for him, I always felt Bush Sr. was a man of integrity.

Bill Clinton, less so.  It’s been said that Clinton regarded JFK as a role model; if so, he imitated Kennedy’s less admirable qualities.  I think he did all right as president… but not nearly as good as he might have had he not let his id get the better of him.  I don’t think he’s quite dependable enough for Superman to trust with his Secret Identity.  (Although in a curious coincidence, it has long been established – long before Bill Clinton was elected -- that Clark Kent’s home address in Metropolis is an apartment on Clinton Avenue).

I don’t think Bush fils is terribly reliable either.  Like Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush likes to speak of his religious faith, but unlike Carter, I’ve never felt the sense that this faith translated either into his policies, or (which is more relevant to this little game) his personal life.

Which brings us down to Barack Obama.  I suppose here my own political biases, as if they weren’t already obvious, are evident.  I like Obama, and I think he’s a decent man.  But even more than that, he is himself a comic book fan.  He is our first Presidential Geek-In-Chief.  Whether you like or hate his policies, you have to give him that.  Some of our previous presidents have seemed like comic book characters, but none of them have been fans.  Obama is.

If Superman ever met the President in person, as he occasionally has in the comics, he would doubtless say, “It is an honor to meet you, sir.”  That is because Ma and Pa Kent raised him right, and taught him to show respect.  Superman would show respect to the office regardless of his opinion of the office-holder and regardless of who Clark Kent voted for.  I think Obama alone, of the presidents I’ve listed, would reply, “No, Superman, the honor is all mine.”  He would certainly keep Superman’s secret, and would take pleasure in that responsibility.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

And just imagine, Lord Dunsany invades Wildside Press

As many friends and readers of my work know, I truly dig the work of Lord Dunsany.  He wrote poetry, prose and non fiction works in a fashion that was unique and is no longer the kind of work that you might find anywhere today in popular culture.  No one today writes at all like he did, in any format or genre.  I can't altogether describe his style, a number of people suggest it is wordy, but I think it is neither too wordy, nor under wordy.  It is lush, exquisite, and beautiful.  OK, I guess I could/did describe it.  But in this world I think it is considered archaic.  But, perhaps, maybe if you think of it as prose with an ear for epic poetry you have it right.  I love it.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Robert E. Howard Taking a Walk on the Wildside Press

This post is to tell readers about a wonderful publisher of great books.  Not just Robert E. Howard, mind you, but his works are the ones that I collect from the publisher.  I do collect Lord Dunsany as well, but, I collect those from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, and prior.  (Not that it matters, just saying.)  You can find every genre REH wrote from, you can find his obscure work, and the quality of work is well done.

"Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing."   Robert E. Howard

"Yonder in the unknown vastness"—his long finger stabbed at the black silent jungle which brooded beyond the firelight—"yonder lies mystery and adventure and nameless terror. Once I dared the jungle—once she nearly claimed my bones. Something entered into my blood, something stole into my soul like a whisper of unnamed sin. The jungle! Dark and brooding—over leagues of the blue salt sea she has drawn me and with the dawn I go to seek the heart of her. Mayhap I shall find curious adventure—mayhap my doom awaits me. But better death than the ceaseless and everlasting urge, the fire that has burned my veins with bitter longing."  Robert E. Howard 1930

"Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars - Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyberborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west."  Robert E. Howard 1932

"If this myth of the harpies were a reality, what of the other legends—the Hydra, the centaurs, the chimera, Medusa, Pan and the satyrs? All those myths of antiquity--behind them did there lie and lurk nightmare realities with slavering fangs and talons steeped in shuddersome evil? Africa, the Dark Continent, land of shadows and horror, of bewitchment and sorcery, into which all evil things had been banished before the growing light of the western world!" Robert E. Howard 1932

"The clangor of the swords had died away, the shouting of the slaughter was hushed; silence lay on the red-stained snow. The bleak pale sun that glittered so blindingly from the ice-fields and the snow- covered plains struck sheens of silver from rent corselet and broken blade, where the dead lay as they had fallen. The nerveless hand yet gripped the broken hilt; helmeted heads back-drawn in the death-throes, tilted red beards and golden beards grimly upward, as if in last invocation to Ymir the frost-giant, god of a warrior-race..."  Robert E. Howard (no date)

"You express amazement at my statement that 'civilized' men try to justify their looting, butchering and plundering by claiming that these things are done in the interests of art, progress and culture. That this simple statement of fact should cause surprize, amazes me in return. People claiming to possess superior civilization have always veneered their rapaciousness by such claims...  Your friend Mussolini is a striking modern-day example. In that speech of his I heard translated he spoke feelingly of the expansion of civilization. From time to time he has announced; 'The sword and civilization go hand in hand!' 'Wherever the Italian flag waves it will be as a symbol of civilization!' 'Africa must be brought into civilization!' It is not, of course, because of any selfish motive that he has invaded a helpless country, bombing, burning and gassing both combatants and non-combatants by the thousands. Oh, no, according to his own assertions it is all in the interests of art, culture and progress, just as the German war-lords were determined to confer the advantages of Teutonic Kultur on a benighted world, by fire and lead and steel. Civilized nations never, never have selfish motives for butchering, raping and looting; only horrid barbarians have those. "

 Robert E. Howard  1935

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Superman's Underpants

Several years ago, Nicholas Cage was signed to star in a Superman movie.  The movie never came through, (which is probably for the best, all things considered), but during the brief period when it looked possible, I saw Cage on a talk show discussing the project.  He said that he had initially been leery about wearing the traditional Superman costume, because he thought that red briefs over the blue tights looked, well, embarrassing.  The designers for the project made up some sketches of alternative Superman costumes, and he took the sketches home to show his son.  Cage’s son was unimpressed by them, and persuaded his father to stick with the traditional look, because the sleeker, trendier designs didn’t Look Like Superman.

Since then, the Superman movies which have come out, and the New 52’s Superman from the comic books, have chosen to disregard the wisdom of the young Mr. Cage.  Whether this is a good or a bad thing is a matter of taste; but it does bring up one of the enduring mysteries of comics:

Why DOES Superman wear his underwear on the outside?

Superman, of course, was the first.  The super-heroes who followed him also followed his precedent of briefs over tights, simply because Superman had set the model for what a super-hero ought to look like.  But even then, the convention received its share of good-natured ribbing.

Sheldon Meyer was arguably Superman’s very first fan.  According to his own story, when he was a young man working as editor for comics publishing pioneer M.C. Gaines, he persuaded his boss that Siegel and Schuster’s outlandish hero, who had been rejected by every newspaper syndicate in the country, could be a success.  But even he recognized the silliness of superhero costumes.  He created a super-hero parody of his own, The RED TORNADO, who wore a tablecloth cape and a helmet fashioned out of an old spaghetti pot along with – and this is the most important part -- red woolen long johns with a pair of boxer shorts over them.  Because that’s what those funnybook heroes wore.

The meta reason is that when Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created the character, they wanted to evoke the look of circus strongmen and aerialists, and so based his costume design on the tights worn by circus performers.  Another reason which occurs to me might have been that curved edge of the “briefs” show the contour of the figure’s torso and legs, giving it a sense of form and making it look less flat.

But those reasons don’t really serve as “in-world” explanations for why Clark Kent, upon embarking as a career as a costumed hero, would dress that way.

For much of Superman’s history, his writers have just ignored the subject.  Superman looks the way he looks because that’s the way he looks.  Some of the earlier comics depicting Krypton suggest that the briefs look was a Kryptonian fashion, but I don’t think it was intended that way.  I know of one fan who insists that the costume is peer-pressure; that the briefs are a 30th Century style that Superman picked up during his youthful adventures with the Legion of Super-Heroes.   More recently, it’s been established that Ma Kent made his costume, so perhaps Clark just never wanted to tell his mom that he thought it looked doofy.

A friend of mine who with his wife make costumes as a hobby gave me another perspective on this matter.  He was telling me about a really bad costume he once saw at a comic book convention.  It was of Cloak, from the Marvel comic book CLOAK & DAGGER, and it was essentially a dark hooded cape worn over a black body stocking.  Cloak did not wear Superman-style briefs, as the character was created in the ‘80s after super-hero fashions had shifted a bit.  Neither was the guy in the costume wearing a jock.  “You could tell,” my friend intoned somberly.  “Spandex is unforgiving.  It shows EVERYTHING.”

That seems like a practical explanation right there.  Superman has to wear something in addition to his tights for the sake of modesty; and he wears them on the outside, because if he wore them underneath, people could see his panty-lines which would look silly too.  At least on the outside, the briefs become a design element in the look of the costume.

But something else occurred to me too.  And here I’m afraid I’m going to have to allude to Unpleasant Bodily Functions.  I recently read a satirical piece pondering those questions which the movies never answer, such as: how do movie super-heroes go to the bathroom?  Their costumes certainly don’t appear to be designed for that contingency; which is even stranger when you consider that unlike the costumes worn by comic book characters, these have to be worn by actual flesh-and-blood humans.

I can only think of a couple instances I’ve seen where this issue has come up in the comics.  One of them was a bit from Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN in which Nite-Owl recalls a case where he had to heed a Call of Nature while out on a stakeout.  By the time he was able to get back, the criminal he wanted to tail had already left.  After that, he says, he re-designed his costume so he wouldn’t have that problem again.  Silk Spectre does not seem particularly anxious for him to elaborate; and frankly, neither does the reader.

But while musing on this, it all came together:  Super-Hero Bodily Functions, The Man of Steel’s Underpants, the Unforgiving Nature of Spandex; even Red Tornado’s Union Suit.  It was all connected.

The traditional red woolen long johns, such as those worn by Ma Hunkel in RED TORNADO and immortalized in the classic novelty song “Walking In My Winter Underwear” sported a flap in the back, secured by buttons, which could be unfastened to provide convenient access when the wearer had to Do His Business.  By necessity, Superman’s tights would need something similar.  Ma Kent is a practical woman; she would have thought of these things when she made the suit.

And when the woolen long johns were depicted in low-brow cartoons, the flap inevitably came undone, offering a glimpse of the wearer’s hinterlands.  I’m pretty sure that Supes would want to keep his privates… er, private; so in order to do that and still keep convenient access for moments of necessity, the obvious solution would be to cover up with something that can be easily removed.  Like his super-panties.

That is my theory, anyway.  If an explanation is really needed.  Perhaps it’s just better, though, to simply say that Superman dresses the way he does because he’s Superman and that’s what Superman looks like.

It works for me.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Nooses and Words


Recently throughout the United States there have been incidences of racist acts of defiance, vandalism and violence.

There are of course many reasons for these.  Amongst them is the raging wave of assholes that our society has created.  Another reason is anger by some over the perceived "special" rights some people get to overcome the legacies of the past.  But mostly, in my opinion, these are cases where people are being cooked up, by the media, to feel a rage against a system of untruth.  Whatever the case, the academic, law enforcement, military and government agency involved, all find ways to address whatever event without addressing the event, and without telling the truth.  I believe the rage of the youth comes from a sense of anger at being lied to, even passively.  When you throw in all the other shit, like racism, privilege, and classism, you end up creating a house of cards that will fall, because it is not founded upon truth.

Am I blaming anyone?  No.  I think the reason for the attempts to create a language where blame is removed was to make language clear and to make language not the issue when people discussed or debated issues.  What we have now, in my opinion, is a lot of well intentioned people saying nothing and wondering why people can't understand what they are trying to say.

This lack of clear and direct language and lack of blame or assessment of failure makes change almost impossible.  Since Poplitiko has been about considering culture and this is throughout culture, on every side of politics, race, and gender, I do not see how it will change.  Until a great disaster destroys cultures.  They will have to rebuild culture or start over when there is nothing, and then things will change.  But I don't look forward to then.

Our society may have reached its peak.  If so we are bound to face a collapse.  I hope not.