Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Showcase presents The Spectre Vol. 1 review:

 Collecting: Showcase #60, 61, and 64. The Spectre #1-10. Adventure Comics #431-440. Brave and the Bold #72, 75, 116, 180, 199. DC Comics presents #29. Ghosts #97-99.
 I’m just going to quote the homeless-looking man who had wandered into the comics shop when I was purchasing this thing:
 “Dayum! Thassa big motha’ right there! You gonna read all that?”
 Yes, at nearly two inches thick, Showcase presents The Spectre is one huge volume (spanning from the 60s to the 80s), and yes, I did indeed read all of it. Even the Fleischer/Aparo run from Adventure Comics that I’ve already re-read a million times since I was a kid.
 And I loved every bit of it.
 I’ve read bits and pieces of the 60s run (which is what kicks off this volume), and enjoyed them, but I never knew how well they all held up when read in sequence. Some people have criticized the 60’s Spectre revival for making him more of a cosmic superhero than a ghastly ghoul, but hey, it was the 60s, so Spec couldn’t exactly go around melting people’s skin off and crushing cars with his hands like he did in the 40s. Don’t worry though, the ace of shades has plenty of occult goings on to contend with in these stories, more than enough to whet the appetites of any horror fan.
 Yes, I just called Spectre the ace of shades. Don’t like it? Would you prefer the disembodied (or discarnate) detective? Ghostly guardian? Wonder wraith? The gallant ghost? The supernatural sleuth? Well get used to it, because when Gardner Fox is in Stan Lee wannabe mode like he is here, he comes up with more alliterative assaults on the effervescent English language than most humble humans can handle, and every one of them is brain blastingly, high-faultingly hilarious (eh, I’m not good at this).
 He does get in some great realistic dialogue though:
Hey, that's how I talk, according to most people.

 Okay, joking aside, these stories are quite good, with Murphy Anderson turning in some of the most atmospheric artwork of his career in the early Showcase issues. It seems influenced somewhat by Ditko’s Doctor Strange; with a hint of Bernard Baily’s style (could the demon named Shathan have looked any more like a Baily design?). Part of the appeal of these stories is the novelty of seeing Spec treated as a straight up hero, interacting with the police, befriending civilians, and making wisecracks. Yeah, it’s incredibly out of character, but it works simply because, well, seeing a light-hearted Spectre is…refreshing. Not something I’d want to read every day, but something needs to be said for doing it every once in a while.
 Another factor in these stories favor is how they manage to distill the best that the Golden Age stories had to offer without repeating their mistakes. Gardner Fox manages to faithfully retain the wild, surreal, making-it-up-as-you-go-along feel of the best Siegel & Baily stories, and in fact, there are a ton of shout-outs to the original stories (I’ll get to that in a minute). Fox knew that for this revival, stories pitting Spectre against fur hijackers just wouldn’t cut it.
 Granted, there is a certain level of sameness to the kind of villains that pop up, most of them tending to be ancient demons awakened from a long slumber, or some average crook that becomes an omnipotent supernatural menace (sometimes with little or no explanation as to why), but all of them manage to make worthy opponents for the Spectre, and more importantly, offer him chances to really show off his limitless powers in a way that often leaves you saying “Wow!”. Ask yourself, when was the last time a superhero’s powers really impressed you?
 There are some other minor problems as well, such as that Spectre doesn’t really a supporting cast. There’s an attempt in the first Showcase story to create one, but the characters in question never appear after that story. There’s also a love interest that gets set up as well, but she only lasts two stories (which makes sense, because she first falls in love with Jim Corrigan when he’s possessed by a villain!). Gardner Fox corrects the lack of a supporting cast ingeniously; rather than being a case of Jim Corrigan turning into the Spectre, here, the Spectre is a separate entity that splits off entirely from Jim Corrigan, making him a character who practically IS his own supporting cast (the explanation here is that the Spectre had gotten trapped inside Corrigan’s body and was unable to do anything for years). Spectre split off from Corrigan occasionally in the Golden Age stories, but never to the point that Corrigan and Spectre were two separate entities. This approach basically reduces Corrigan to being the sidekick who the Spectre has to rescue, and sometimes Corrigan barely appears for whole issues, but he still gets to kick ass and do the detective work. He never once becomes a liability; after all, he was a tough policeman and detective who had held his own for years without the Spectre.
 Also despite the inherent creepiness of the concept of having a separate being living in your own body and splitting off from you, Fox does manage to infuse the scenes of Corrigan and Spectre interacting with each other with a light touch that somehow doesn’t feel incongruous. It actually results in some funny and even touching moments. It’s like a bizarre, superhero version of the odd couple.

No comment.

 Also, oddly enough, this run briefly delves into religion. Not in any meaningful way, but it does predate the Ostrander/Mandrake stuff.
Sunday school class was never this much fun

 Oh, and here are some of the shout-outs to the original 40s stories (also including the All Star Comics stories):
 Cover homages:

 Skull-pupils: Used only occasionally in the Golden Age, but still effectively used here.

 A scene with a guy searching for water in the desert who has his request answered by a demonic entity:

 Ghosts who wear hooded robes regardless of what they wore in life:

 Spectre battling a goateed villain who is his evil counterpart, whose name has a “Z” in it, and whose weapon of choice is comets:

 Spectre having a battle in space with a huge, hulking half-nude monster:

 Living shadows:
 Space dragons:

 Someone did their homework.
 When Spectre enters his own title, the stories take a slightly darker turn with the second issue, with Neal Adams giving everything a grittier tone, but it’s still far from what the character would become. There’s even a rather moving story about an aging Wildcat/Ted Grant, where superhero action takes a backseat to human drama, but without becoming preachy. Man, Ted Grant is rapidly becoming one of my favorite minor characters.
 Neal Adams also gets to write a few stories as well, and he shows that back in the 60s, he was just as crazy as he is now on Batman: Odyssey. These stories aren’t bad by any chance, just bursting with so many weird ideas that things sometimes feel rushed and underdeveloped, especially the endings. I found one story more interesting for the subplot about the public becoming afraid of the Spectre (which reminded me of one of my favorite Batman/Scarecrow stories; Six Days of the Scarecrow) than I was about the main plot involving two mystery villains (even though one of the villains turned out to be none other than Gat Benson from the very first Spectre story!). I hate to say it, but like Jack Kirby, Neal Adams is his own worst enemy when he gives the writing chores to himself.
 While having a heroic, light-hearted Spectre who has adventures more of the Dr. Strange/Silver Surfer variety is fun and refreshing for a while, it just isn’t the Spectre. Someone must have recognized this, and with 1968 being THE year for horror films (Rosemary’s Baby, Witchfinder General, Targets and Night of the Living Dead pretty much killed the “kid friendliness” of the genre, but also made it more mainstream), Spec went back to his roots, with horror master Jerry Grandenetti giving the series a truly creepy, off-kilter look. This approach works well for creepy stories involving undead pilgrims (#6, easily my favorite), ghosts obsessed with money, and devil worshippers. Maybe I’m biased because I HAVE read these stories before, but these are definitely the high point of the Spectre’s 60s run.

 I really do love Grandenetti’s art, the Caligari-esque architecture of the background houses alone is incredible.
 I also love how, although Spectre himself is drawn mostly as muscular and heroic looking like Murphy Anderson and Neal Adams have drawn him, there are little design schemes that faintly suggest the ghoulish nature of the character, like these skull-like shadows on his face.
Yes it has Spec, yes it the nightmare fuel department.

 It’s the perfect look, really.
 Still, eerie as these stories are, they are still fairly straightforward hero stories for the most part, and still have time for light-hearted moments. That panel I posted earlier of Jim Corrigan falling asleep? That’s from the Grandenetti run.
 Then, things take a truly dark turn when the Spectre, already abusing his powers slightly because he’s been under duress, kills a man, and even Jim Corrigan and God himself turn their back on him. Spec is then stripped of his right to be god’s avenger, and is forced to read the “Book of judgement”. This basically results in Spec becoming a horror host (albeit one who sometimes appeared in the stories themselves) for the next two issues before the series was cancelled. Most of the stories are cliché and predictable, although one is notable as the debut of Bernie Wrightson, and while his style is extremely sketchy, it’s still the best drawn and written of these stories.
 After the 60’s series ends, we then skip to the legendary Fleischer/Aparo run, about which I’ve already said a lot (and which I plan to review separately someday). That said, I must say that re-reading these stories in context of the (mostly) light-hearted 60s run does make the violence all the more shocking. Spectre killing a single criminal was a tragic, career-ruining act in the 60s series, but is now old hat for the Spectre by the time these stories begin. One assumes that not only was he forcibly bonded again with Corrigan, but that god still disowned him. Joe Orlando has often claimed credit (after being mugged) for having Fleischer revive Spectre and return him to his grim roots, but part of me wonders if this wasn’t just a natural progression.
 Also I must say, while Jim Aparo’s art is always gorgeous, it really becomes more effective when seen in black and white with grey tones added. It certainly makes the stories moodier. I'd share an example, but there are too many to choose from.
 After that we get a few issues of the horror series Ghosts featuring occult debunker/investigator Dr. 13 where the Spectre guest-starred. Spectre plays the villain (more or less) in these issues. It sets up an interesting dynamic by questioning Spectre’s actions AND questioning Dr. 13’s actions as well, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. Interestingly, the Spectre’s original foil, reporter Earl Crawford from the Aparo run, also appears in these stories. In the 1980’s mini-series Wrath of the Spectre, which reprinted the Aparo run but also included some new stories based off of unpublished scripts, Earl Crawford’s fate was quite different. So which one should count as canon? Eh, it was all retconned out anyway in a few years with Crisis on Infinite Earths, and now that’s been wiped out too. Pick your poison.
 After that, we have various issues of Brave and the Bold and one issue of DC Comics Presents. These stories are interspersed throughout the collection and are quite hit or miss. The best two are #72’s “Phantom Flash, Cosmic Traitor” wherein the ghost of a WWI aviator seeks revenge on his own cowardly regiment. The Flash gets turned into a ghost or something, I dunno, it’s weird. Infantino really rushed the art on this, and both Flash and Spectre look awful. That said, the villain is fairly sympathetic, and Infantino manages to make him genuinely creepy.
 The other good B&B story is #199’s “The Body-Napping of Jim Corrigan”, which pairs Spectre and Batman against a woman who wants to place the soul of her dead lover into Jim Corrigan’s body. This manages to be both genuinely suspenseful and creepy, and the villains are surprisingly complex. Ross Andru drew this story, and while some of his figures are a little cramped-looking, it looks great for the most part. There’s a pretty cool two-page spread (for which the book includes an extra page so they can fit it in) and some great inking as well.
 All in all, Showcase presents The Spectre covers quite a range of hard to find material, and surprisingly enough, it all forms it’s own narrative. We see the series change from a light-hearted superhero series, to a gothic themed one, to a full-blown horror anthology, to a grossout series whose sole function was to showcase the Spectre’s killing prowess. Spectre himself changes too, from a saintly embodiment of all of mankind’s goodness, to a creepy but noble hero, to a flawed individual who carelessly kills a man and is forced to repent, to a sinister horror host, to a murderously sadistic vigilante who gets a shot at happiness, loses it, and then becomes a detached, increasingly inhuman “cosmic presence” who could be either friend or foe at the drop of a hat. Jim Corrigan goes from being the Spectre’s affable, somewhat befuddled host, to a man disgusted at the idea of having a ghost living in his body, to being a stone cold Dirty Harry-type whom even his co-workers fear, to being a corrupt accessory to his alter ego’s murders.
 Something must be said for a character who manages to continually grow over the course of 3 decades, with each series building off the other. Watching that evolution is fascinating.
 Besides, it’s a book with art by Murphy Anderson, Jerry Grandenetti, Bernie Wrightson, Carmine Infantino, Jim Aparo, Jim Starlin, Ross Andru, Neal Adams, Jack Sparling and Michael R. Adams. How could a sane comics fan resist this? I give it a 4.5/5. Recommended.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A tribute to Landor: Maker of Monsters!

No doubt about it, villains are one of the main reasons I read comics. Whether they’re corny, irredeemably evil or sympathetic, a good villain is always what makes for a good adventure. Comics have always been trying to top themselves when it comes to villains, and it’s a lot of fun examining these characters whether or not they caught on or not.
 In fact, even before superheroes caught on, the comics were already villain mad. Hordes of comic book stories were produced using the Fu Manchu-Dracula format of having a villain as the titular character but focusing on the exploits of the heroes who opposed him. To be fair, most series using that format in early comic books were lousy Fu Manchu rip-offs, and believe me, a full list of such series would be staggering. There were some standouts though, like The Claw, Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein and, yes, Sub-Mariner in his early stories, although he stood out by being the focal character.
 But there was one villain-focused series which fell into obscurity which I have come to find fascinating; Bob Powell’s Landor: Maker of Monsters, which ran in Speed Comics #1-11. Landor is one of my favorite Golden Age back up features. What made this series stand out was that, by 1940s comic book standards at least, Landor was a complex, occasionally sympathetic character with a weird sense of honor, and was sometimes more likeable than the strip’s ostensible heroes. Best of all, unlike other villains, Landor was never reduced to being a supporting villain for a superhero (like The Claw) or turned into a comical figure (like Frankenstein) or made into a superhero himself (like Sub-Mariner). Nope, Bob Powell kept his monster-maker close to his roots through thick and thin. As a big time horror fan, I have to admire his conviction.
 That doesn’t mean, of course, that Landor wasn’t an extremely silly and derivative strip reeking with early 40s cheese. This definitely wasn’t Eisner quality storytelling folks! That still doesn’t prevent it from being great fun for anyone who is a fan of vintage horror films, books and comics.
 It began, like any good horror story, on a Dark and Stormy Night ™….
 A young scientist named Landor was working in his lab late that night, when his eyes beheld an eerie sight busy putting the finishing touches on his latest monster, which resembled a cross between the Universal Frankenstein Monster and an ape, when his work was interrupted by a young couple whose names were Anthony Torrence and Marcia.
 Just at that minute, the monster let out a shriek, and Landor asked for Torrence’s aid in restraining his creation.
 However, the creature apparently took a “fancy” to Marcia, so Landor held both Marcia and Tony hostage; my guess is because he wanted to mate her with the creature.

 The creature didn’t take too kindly to seeing Marcia manhandled like that, and attacked Landor, before getting in a fight with Tony that apparently killed the creature. During the struggle, an oil lamp hit the floor and the whole castle caught fire (stones can catch fire?). Our heroes escaped and left Landor for dead.
 It was hardly an earth-shaking story, but it had some great art, a cool monster and a villain who broke the mold: He wasn’t a shameless Fu Manchu-rip off, he was a shameless Frankenstein rip-off! One could argue though, that since he predated any villainous depictions of Dr. Frankenstein on film, that he was a precursor to Hammer film’s Frankenstein series starring Peter Cushing, which portrayed ‘ol Victor F as a ruthless, misogynist maniac.
 Landor had also brought his creature to life with an injection rather than the usual electrical equipment, quite possibly a reference to HPL’s Herbert West stories. Or was it? More than likely it was because the story ran only 4 pages, and a big “creation” scene with lightning and electrical doodads would have wasted valuable panel space.

 But that was not the end!
 Landor returned in the next issue, wearing a reaper-like costume for some unspecified reason, and this time he created a beautiful female monster named Carda whom he sicced on Anthony and Marcia, who were both still living in the same vicinity for some reason.

That's some damn good use of perspective

 Poor Carda suffered a rather gruesome death for her troubles.
 Still, what I want to know is how Landor got the lab cleaned up in time. Eh, maybe his castle was insured.
 In the next issue, Landor created a giant mosquito, which could have made for a really creepy weapon for a world domination scheme, but instead he simply used it to abduct Marcia. Why he couldn’t have created another humanoid monster to do it is anybody’s guess, but hey, comics.
 Marcia awakened in Landor’s lair, where he sat playing an organ.
 She crept up behind him and whisked off his hood, revealing why he now wore it!
 No question what was being referenced here:
 Apparently Landor’s face was not only affected by the fire, but his grammar as well:
No buddy, it's "You shall BE killED for this".

 Reminds me of Captain America’s famous “and it won’t be me” line.
 Oh well, I’m not a disfigured mad scientist, so I can’t say I wouldn’t have made the same mistake.
 After three encounters with Landor, Tony and Marcia still hadn’t learned a thing:
 The next adventure would be the first to break the formula of Landor creating a new monster and sending it out to attack Tony and Marcia, and it would be a turning point for the strip in more ways than one. It began with a horde of madmen terrorizing America with bulletproof armor and disintegrator guns.
 However, this was NOT the work of Landor!
No, instead, Landor, who had somehow made his way to the United States (where Tony was apparently living now), offered the government a bargain; in return for Tony’s life, he would destroy the terrorists with a new robot he created:
                                                         Err, okay, not a robot. Whatever.
 Anyway, the robot worked like a charm, however it began to go rogue and attacked both Tony and it’s creator. Only Tony’s quick thinking allowed him and Landor to survive; he lured it into some power lines which short-circuited it.
 Landor thanked Tony, and released him from his debt.
 Tony then felt sorry that he and Landor were not on the same side, but the disfigured scientist would have none of his apologies:
 Well, at least he kept his word about letting Tony go this time. Either way, this story was odd in that Landor wasn’t the main villain, instead functioning as a sort of anti-hero. In fact, we never even got to see who or what was behind the terrorists. It was also the first time that Landor was treated with any ambivalence and pity from his enemy, a rare thing for a 1940s comic book villain to be shown. What was important was that Landor was shown to not be entirely evil.
 In the next two stories, Landor apparently was back to his old tricks; creating a “cat-man” and abducting Marcia again. I’m only going with GCD’s issues summaries, as I haven’t read those issues.
 But the next story I was able to find more than made up for it, as it made for a perfect companion to the last story in its “character development” for Landor.
 It began with famous surgeon Sina Zurat arriving at Landor’s castle on yet another dark and stormy night, which I assume from the captions, as it looks like broad daylight to me. I’ll chalk it up to one of Landor’s experiments.
 Landor was surprisingly welcoming of Sina (I love how he just answers the door like a normal person, you have to wonder if, looking like he does, he answers everyone who knocks on his door, be they Jehovah’s Witnesses or girl scouts) and took up her offer to assist him in his experiments. For a while they were happy.

 Together they created a female creature named Creeta (Landor must have had a thing for giving his female creations names that started with Cs and ended with As), and reacted almost like proud parents.
 Indeed, Landor and Sina felt very much like starting a family, and admitted their love for each other.
 Maybe they’d have continued their villainy, or maybe they’d have reformed, unfortunately, it was not to be.
 Seeing Landor and Sina together enraged Creeta (who was hot for daddy, I guess), who then attacked Sina.
 At that moment, Anthony Torrence (who now had a mustache) arrived for a final showdown with Landor (he had called the police, about damn time), but was frightened by Sina’s screams. Leaping to the rescue, Tony killed Creeta by unscrewing the bolt on her neck (So that’s what those bolts Frankenstein-type monsters are equipped with are for).
 Unfortunately, it was too late for Sina to be saved, she had been mortally wounded by Creeta.
 Landor was led away willingly, a “dejected figure, hating the world”. The typical blurb telling us to read next issue seemed almost like an afterthought.
 On one hand it was a fairly cliché story for serialized fiction; one where the hero finds true love, then loses it and walks away silently. Only this time, it wasn’t the hero in such a situation, it was the villain. For an early 40s comic book story, this was powerful stuff. Rarely would you find a villain this humanized in comics of the time. This wasn’t a story about a good guy battling the forces of evil, this was the sad story of a bitter, otherwise evil man who lost the one bright spot in his life. Landor was the story’s true protagonist, not Tony. Even Creeta, the real villain of the story, was not truly evil, merely jealous.
 The next story had Landor up to his old tricks again, creating a monster to kill Anthony Torrence. This monster had been created to be handsome, but was disfigured when the operating table fell. Landor promised the creature he would make him handsome by giving him Anthony Torrence’s face (wonder if this was the inspiration for the film I was a Teenage Frankenstein). Like all of Landor’s monsters, the creature failed, this time by kidnapping the wrong man (Hey, it’s not like he was supposed to know who Torrence was!) .
 This was a pretty typical episode, but it was interesting for two reasons; one was that the man who was kidnapped in Torrence’s place was an Asian named Kung Fu Tse, who was depicted as an old friend of Anthony’s. Obviously, he wasn’t going to win any praise from Asian groups with that name, but Kung Fu Tse was depicted sympathetically, drawn realistically (he was not colored with the same yellow skin as all other Asians in comics were) and shown to be competent and heroic. The other was that this story established that Landor had once attended the same university as Torrence and Kung Fu Tse (who had gotten Landor expelled), something that wouldn’t be brought up again. The story also set up Kung Fu Tse to be a recurring character as well, but he only returned once after this.
 The next story featured Landor creating a blindness “serum” and a fish-man. It was same old same old. Now Torrence and Landor’s fights with each other were becoming ridiculous. They seemed to be less like epic battles between a globe-trotting adventurer against a mysterious madman who could strike anywhere at any time, and more like disputes between two feuding neighbors, with Torrence marching down to Landor’s castle (why the hell was it still standing?) like an angry parent who had just found out his neighbor’s kid had gotten chosen for the football team instead of his.
 And get this, now Torrence’s name was ‘Jack” instead of Anthony. He also didn’t have the mustache any more.
 What a dick, telling his fiancée that he was glad she had regained her sight just so she could see his face. He also mocked Landor’s disfigurement in the story too.
 Like I said, what a dick.
 Hey wait a minute, JACK Torrance? 
Sweet dreams, Marcia.

  Landor’s next few schemes became increasingly less outlandish, such as framing Torrence for robberies, or just breaking into Torrence’s house like a common crook. Unfortunately, we never got to see him get his game up again, as issue #12 of Speed Comics introduced several new features, which crowded Landor out. Maybe the strip wasn’t very popular to begin with, or maybe those mediocre last few stories had done it in, or maybe there was very little left to do with Landor after the Sina story had humanized him so, or maybe it was all too scary for young readers. Whatever the case, Landor has never been seen again.
 I wouldn’t call the Landor stories classics, but they certainly stood out for the time. Combine that with some great artwork by Bob Powell, humanizing moments for it’s villain that were unusual for the era, and some enjoyably bizarre monsters, and it’s one of the few back-up series I would say are worth hunting down so that they can be read on their own.
 One also has to wonder, was Landor the inspiration for a more long-lasting comic book villain? Or is it just a coincidence that there have been two mad scientists in comics who live in gothic castles, dabble both in science and magic, wear green hoods, have disfigured faces, have occasionally had sympathetic moments and been shown to have a sense of honor, and are constantly at war with former college acquaintances who they blame for their disfigurement?
 Probably, but you never know…
 Anyway, ‘ol Landor is in the public domain, so anyone can do whatever they want with him. Is he worth a revival? Have at it folks!