Showcase Sunday: The Atom

cover of Showcase Presents: The Atom Volume One


Showcase Presents: The Atom, Volume 1
Gardner Fox, Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson and friends
Reprints Showcase #34-36, The Atom #1-17
Get this for: Gorgeous Gil Kane art and more inventive than usual Gardner Fox scripts

Though it isn’t quite true that the sixties renaissance at Marvel was due to the work of three men: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, it is more true than false, in contradiction to DC. There the whole Silver Age revolution took place while the company as a whole went on with business as usual. The Batman and Superman titles would largely stay out of it until the mid-sixties and there wasn’t an equivalent to that core of Lee, Kirby and Ditko driving everything. Therefore there was much less of a house style to DC’s superhero titles, as we can see if we compare Carmine Infantine’s work on The Flash with Gil Kane’s work here, on The Atom. Both in their own way are emblemic of DC’s Silver Age, but even when both are inked by Murphy Anderson, you couldn’t mistake the one for the other.

Like the Flash, the Atom got his tryout in Showcase, which by the time he got his spot, had perfected its formula: three sequential issues, followed by another three if needed, or in the case of the Atom, directly into his own magazine. As with The Flash, most issues of The Atom had two stories, with the second often dedicated to the Atom’s adventures in time thanks to professor Hyatt’s time pool, introduced in issue three, which also saw the debut of Chronos the Time Thief. Of course, like the Flash, the Atom was a reworking of an existing DC superhero, in this case just a bruiser whose small stature and his girlfriend mocking him for it set him on a path to fight crime — in the Golden Age this was actually one of the more complicated origins.

Gil Kane showing of his sense of kinestics

Sixties Atom was much more interesting of course, based in a science fictional origin. A piece of white dwarf star matter had fallen to earth near Ivy Town, where scientist Ray Palmer (named after Amazing Stories editor Raymond A. Palmer) found it and experimented with it. Palmer was attempting to find a reliable way to shrink down objects for reasons and thought the white dwarf fragment could help. In the end it turned out he could use it to shrink himself down with, but nothing was stable. So enter the Atom, the world’s tiniest crime fighter. Having not just the ability to shrink, but also to regulate his weight, moving from feather light to his “full 180 pounds weight” while six inch heigh, means the Atom can move about quickly while giving him a concentrated punch when needed. It also means Gil Kane gets to do a lot of great action scenes, utilising his skills to the fullest. His Atom is constantly in motion, hopping, punching, using the environment to reach his opponents and knock them out.

The Atom gets bonked on his head more than Hal Jordan

Talking about getting knocked out, that’s something the Atom himself does a lot too, almost as much as Hal Jordan is over in Green Lantern. Almost every story when the writer feels the need to drag a fight out or slightly complicate matters, something accidently falls on the Atom’s head, or some crook flails wildly and just manages to hit him, or something else happens that makes it all slightly less one sided. Though hilariously dumb when taken out of context, it does make sense in the sort of fights he gets into, with thugs flying everywhere and crashing into furniture as the Atom yanks their legs out from under them. Nevertheless it’s a miracle he never suffered a concussion; he should’ve been as punch drunk as an ex-NFL player by now. But it’s perhaps only when reading so many of these stories one after the other that formulas like this become noticable. These are after all still stories meant to be discarded, with little attention paid from issue to issue to continuity; it also must’ve helped that The Atom appeared bimonthly. You wonder if the original readers noticed these things or not…

As said, there’s little in the way of continuity in these stories, bar the occasionally reappearance of certain villains or crooks. Like Barry Allen in The Flash, Ray Palmer shows up complete with a girlfriend and like Linda West, she’s a professional woman, working as a criminal lawyer, not wanting to marry until she’s proven herself as a lawyer. A hint of feminism there? Of course, in the Comics Code world of Silver Age DC, she’s the sort of criminal lawyer who only defends the innocent, usually her friends, so you wonder how busy she is…. But it is interesting to see how many of DC’s early Silver Age heroes had working girlfriends: Flash, the Atom, Green Lantern and of course Hawkman and Hawkgirl. A far cry from the childish antics of the Lois Lane/Superman “relationship”.

Gardner Fox was of course a veteran comics and pulp writer already when he wrote The Atom and what I like about his scripts is that he often bases them on some piece of scientific or historical or even legal knowledge, which is then dutifully footnoted, only for it to get all crazy as only a silver Age DC comic can. All done seriously, but in one story based on how lactic acid builds up in muscles, you have the crook ironing the Atom to give him precognosis because apparantly that buildup gives off “ato-energy” which in turn caused precognosis!

To be honest, in the end you rarely read these comics for the story, but rather for the great Gil Kane art, which comes out very well in black and white indeed.

Supergirl



I sort of see why people were mocking this when it first came out a couple of days ago, what with looking more rom-comy than superheroy in places, but really this looks fun. A superhero who actually wants to be a superhero and has fun doing it? Not to mention that it looks like this is basically the same way Superman was introduced all the way back in the first Christopher Reeves movie, with the wanting to be normal, the clumsiness and awkwardness, even the picking out a costume scene.

A bit more soap opera in your superhero adventure isn’t a bad thing; that’s how Marvel got so big after all, it keeps your heroes grounded and it makes it more interesting than just an endless stream of hero vs villain fights.

the only things I could’ve done without were the awkward gay joke in the middle and the inevitable secret government service keeping taps of superheroes being hostile without reason, especially not when it’s yet another Gruff Black Military Guy.

Sunday Showcase: The Flash

cover of Showcase Presents: The Flash Volume One


Showcase Presents: The Flash, Volume 1
Carmine Infantino, John Broome, Robert Kanigher, Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson, Frank Gaicoia, Joe Kubert and friends
Reprints Flash Comics #104, Showcase #4, #8, #13, #14, The Flash #105-119
Get this for: The comic that kickstarted the Silver Age

Once upon a time, in the cultural wasteland men call the nineties, getting to read Silver Age comics was actually kind of hard. Not as hard as it had been in the seventies or eighties, when it was basically getting the back issues themselves or hope for a reprint series to come out, but still the only really comprehensive reprint programmes were the Marvel Masterworks and their counterpart at DC, the DC Archive Editions. These were expensive, library quality hardcovers, fifty bucks for ten issues of a key Silver Age series, not very accessible for the average reader. That all changed when Marvel came up with their Marvel Essentials line, big black and white trade paperback slabs of comics, anywhere from twenty to twentyfive or more issues of a series, or comics featuring a particular character, from all parts of their history. As an idea it was of course ripped off from the way Manga publishers in Japan published their collections, by way of the Cerebus phonebooks, but it was still a great step forward in making comics history available. Longtime readers may remember I did a fifty Essentials in Fifty Days review series back in 2010.

Now DC only started its comparable reprint series in 2005 and unlike Marvel, they mostly focus on Silver Age titles. And until recently, I only had a few Showcase titles myself, not having run across them much here in the Netherlands. Comics retailers seem to dislike them for the same reasons I like them: they’re big and relatively cheap, hence less attractive to stock. However, I recently discovered a new source of cheap comics online and splurged out on a job lot of Essentials and Showcases, so I thought why not do a regular series of Showcase reviews like those earlier Essential ones? Not at the same insane rate, but why not a weekly series? Hence Showcase Sunday.

And what better title to start with than the one that kickstarted the whole Silver Age in the first place? The Flash’s appearances in Showcase, followed by his own series, numbered from the original Golden Age Flash Comics (which in fact only ended seven years before the S.A. Flash’s first appearance), is what sparked the interest in resurrecting other old DC heroes, culminating in the Justice League of America, which in turn made Marvel start a copycat title to which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put their own unique touches, The Fantastic Four. There are other candidates for first Silver Age superhero like the Martian Manhunter, but the Flash was the one that really lit the touchpaper. It took a couple of years though: his first appearance in Showcase was in October 1956, his last before he got his own title was in June 1958, with The Flash 105 coming out in February 1959. Guess things moved slower in those days.

Reading these stories more than sixty years after first publication it’s both easy to see why these strips were so successful back and realise they’ve aged badly, much more so than their Marvel equivalents. On the whole, these are simple stories: a criminal or supervillain causes havoc in Central City, has some gimmick that defeats Flash the first time they meet, but in the last two-three pages Flash has the upper hand and explains why. Inbetween the battles there’s some soap opera with Iris West, Barry Allen girlfriend, complaining that he’s never on time and comparing him unfavourably with his alter ego. Nothing really changes in these stories and reading them back to back in a day really shows that. It doesn’t help that each issue has two 11 to 12 page stories, rather than one story per issue, as in the early Marvel titles. There’s less room for characterisation and plotting in such a limited space, let alone proper continuity, though there is a rudimentary form of it here, with villains returning for a second shot at the Flash.

Mostly though these are standalone stories, reinforced by the fact that e.g. in this volume there are half a dozen or so stories in which Flash has to deal with undersea or subterrean invaders, that none of the villains know of each other yet, or the fact that many of them have roughly the same order: criminal with engineering bend tinkers his way into supervillainy by inventing some sort of superweapon. That’s Captain Boomerang, Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, Mr Element/Doctor Alchemy and Captain Cold. All already established criminals, all inventing their signature weapon in their first appearance.

Now these are actually enjoyable stories, for all their simplicity. None of the nonsense you’d associate with Silver Age DC like in the worst Superman/Superboy stories; they are actually remarkable modern save for their approach for continuity. And what I also found noticable is that Barry Allen and Iris West are clearly adults, with adult responsibilites even if those aren’t milked for soap opera like Marvel would do. John Broome has a knack both for creating villains and for creating scenarios in which to showcase their powers, without cheating.

As for the art, if there’s one artist who is synonymous with the Silver Age Flash, the penciler on all of the stories in this volume, it’s Carmine Infantino. Now I first encountered his artwork on a much later title of his, the Marvel Star Wars series, where his elongated, rubbery characters and blocky space machinery where actually the perfect match for the movies’ aesthetic. His version of Star Wars is still the one in my head when I think about it. Here however his style is much more realistic, missing the trademark elongations and perspectives he’d become infamous for. It is gorgeous though and you can see it evolve through the stories, as well as the influence his various inkers: Joe Kubert, Frank Gaicoia, Joe Giella and Murphy Anderson have on the finished art. Joe Giella especially seems to have a positive influence on his faces, much more expressive even than with Murphy Anderson inking, no slouch himself. The black and white printing shows up the line work beautifully. Though straitjacketed in a fairly conservative page layout there’s plenty of gorgeous work to keep your interest.

Eric Heuvel sketching

Eric Heuvel sketching

You may know that Ligne claire/Clear Line was a term coined by Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte to describe the artwork of Herge and E. P. Jacobs, a style that was enormously popular in Franco-Belgian comics up until the sixties, combining strong colours, an uniform thickness of line and cartoony characters with realistic, detailed depictions of things like cars, planes and other machinery. It was appropriated in the late seventies by Swarte and others like him (Theo van den Boogaart in the Netherlands, Yves Chaland, Ted Benoit, Serge Clerc et all in France) to provide an ironic contrast between the definately adult stories they wrote and the seemingly innocent, straight forward art style, long since coded as belonging to childrens’ comics.

In the Netherlands however this resurgence in Clear Line artwork went further than just as an ironic fad. New generations of artists in the late seventies and eighties rediscovered the style as perfectly suitable for straightforward action stories, the most successfull being Henk Kuijpers, who with his Franka series produced arguably the most popular Dutch comics series of the eighties, not hindered by his habit of getting his heroine to take her top off.

Eric Heuvel is another of these Clear Line cartoonists, perhaps the best one currently active in Dutch comics. He started his aero adventure strip January Jones together with Martin Lodewijk, veteran scenario writer, in the early nineties and restarted it a few years ago, when the biweekly comics zine Eppo was resurrected. He’s one of the magazine’s most popular writers and at normal comics cons in the Netherlands there’s a huge line waiting for his autograph or sketch. At the Dutch Comic Con though, the Eppo audience wasn’t quite there, which meant I only had to wait a short time to get the sketch below and got to talk to him about his love for aeroplanes. I love his work and I love the January Jones series for having a no-nonsense, capable woman as its protagonist without any of the bagage that sometimes brings with it.

Eric Heuvel Sketch

Marissa Delbressine’s sketch

Marissa Delbressine sketching

The Dutch Comic Con was partially sponsored by the publishers of Eppo magazine, the bi-weekly comics zine that seems largely aimed at nostalgic forty and thirty something people remembering its original incarnation. As such the audience at the comic con turned out to be slightly too young for them and the artists signing at their stand were not the busiest, shall we say? Where at a normal convention you’d expect long rows of people interested in autographs or sketches, here the artists outnumbered the fans when I came round with my sketch book. Which gave me the opportunity to talk to Marissa Delbressine for somewhat longer than I’d expected, which is always nice.

Marissa Delbressine is the artist on the action adventure comic Ward which has been running in Eppo and so far has been collected in two albums. Written by veteran scenarist Willem Ritsier, it is the sort of uncomplicated adventure comic that could’ve been published three decades ago too. What I like about is that it’s so family orientated: the series may be named after the mysterious loner Ward, but the real protagonists are the Kessel family: Frank, Isa and their two children, Lonneke and Tom. It’s rare to see any sort of happy but realistic family in a comic like this and especially since the two women graduated from their professional hostage status at the end of the first story, each of the characters has come alive.



Delbressine’s art is a huge part of the appeal of Ward to me. For the strip she draws in the realistic tradition of e.g. a William Vance, but she isn’t afraid to inject a bit of cartoonish exagerration in her figures, especially the faces. What I especially like is the way her characters are immediately recognisable, none of them quite the archetypical action figure or superheroine. I like the way she shows the difference in ages between e.g. Isa and Lonneke: it’s immediately clear that the one has a couple of decades on the other, without having to fall back on the stereotypical signifiers of age like greying hair or wrinkles. Below is the sketch she did of Isa, coloured in and all. More of her work can be found at her Tumblr art portfolio.

Marissa Delbressine sketch

Dutch Comic Con

Hawkeye and one of the numerous Deadpools squaring off

Coming back from Imagicon last week I was sat with some cosplayers discussing rumours about the Dutch Comic Con, being held this weekend. Apparantly the organiser had run into money troubles, various guests had cancelled or were supposed to threaten to cancel and it was all a shambles. Worrying news, as I’d just bought tickets for it, but on the other hand most of the guests were of little to no interest for me, various actors and such, some coasting on their appearances in a fondly remembered decades old SF classic, some being supporting actors in a current telvision fantasy hit. All great for those who like that sort of thing, but it’s not my fandom. For me therefore I didn’t matter too much as long as the con went ahead: worst case scenario it would just be another comics con, where the main attraction is the opportunity to buy loads of shit at reduced prices. Best case scenario it would be something special, more in line with English or American comic cons.

Red off Team Fortress 2 represents, but where was Blue?

The end result turned out to be somewhere in the middle. The con seems to have consciously modelled itself on the San Diego Comic Con and similar, with the main attraction being the media stars and the comics reduced to a supporting role. The disadvantage there being that if you’re not quite as interested in that sort of stuff, there was indeed little else to do but walk around and look at the various merchandise and retailing stands. Unlike Imagicon, there was no real programme other than the various Q&A sessions with the guests and the movie programme running in the cinema, no real room to sit down for a while otherwise. After a few hours of this, I really felt it.

Mortal Kombat cosplay courtesy of InuNeko Cosplay

What made this more than just another “stripbeurs” was the audience, which like at Imagicon was young and very much into cosplay, as the pictures here show. Jazzgul Some indeed, like Hawkeye in the first pic there, were at both cons. What I liked about the cosplayers was their enthusiasm, skill and generousity. People were more than happy to pose and some groups and people were very popular. There was some real creativity there as well: not just your Deadpools, Storm Troopers, Black Widows, Lokis and Thors (this time both in male and female versions), but I also saw a captain Haddock, a trio of Giffen era-JLA cosplayers doing Guy Gardner, Fire & Ice and an absolutely adorable father/baby combination dressed up as Where’s Wally. As always the cosplaying seemed to be roughly equally divided between immediately recognisable movie/tv superheroes, obscure to me but apparantly massively popular figures from anime/manga/videogames and the occassional sui generis character, like the frog man from Fables I saw.

Guy Gardner, Ice & Fire from the Giffen era JLA

Now I could’ve taken many more pictures of cosplayers, were it not for the pressures of the crowds. I’ve heard reports that at its peak the con had some 16,000 visitors and I can well believe it. At times getting through the crowd was … difficult… Doctor StrangeThe layout of the con didn’t help. There was a huge, largely empty hall for the Q&A/music sessions, there was the main hall where you came through which was badly lit and confusingly laid out with the main sponsors and retailers, as well as the space for the autograph sessions, which took up a huge chunk on the side of the hall with crowd barriers and such but where you could only see which person was signing once you skipped the barriers and walked to their table. The secondary hall, where all the smaller retailers and standholders were located, also had a lot of wasted space at the edges and at least one lane that was too narrow, leading to huge traffic jams. It didn’t help one of the ways to reach it was through one of the con center’s food outlets. What happened to the artist alley was even worse, a few picnic tables put together in a corner inbetween the main and secondary halls, easily overlooked. Not helping matters was the lack of sign posting everywhere.

artist alley, in a forgotten corner of the con

These are all typical first con growning pains and if the con is repeated next year, I hope they’ll go for a different layout. For my part, I had a blast visiting and talking to the people manning some of the smaller stalls, like the people at the new comics artist collective Taus Art, your archetypical indie comics makers. I also spent half an hour talking to Eelco Koper, whose Superhelden magazine is busy addicting a new generation of readers to the best of all ages superhero comics, including Paul Grist’s Mudman and Dave Sim’s Cerebus (!). And because the audience wasn’t quite in the Eppo range, I could also spent some time chatting to Eric Heuvel and Marissa Delbressine while they were sketching, which I’ll scan in and post separately.

Supergirl, Two Face and annattaZ yalpsoc in the middle

Considering it seems the con has been a success and assuming it will be repeated last year, what would I like to see done differently?

  • A better layout, with less wasted space, room for people to just sit and hang out that’s not part of a food court, better lighting in places, more room for cosplay and photographing of same outside the main traffic
  • Much better signposting as well as more announcements of what’s going on
  • A proper artist alley, preferably combined with all the fan organisations and others now lost in the crowds amongst the stand retailing overpriced statues
  • Multi track programming with more to do than just listen to Q&A sessions with actors or getting your picture taken with the Batmobile and a larger emphasis on the comics part of the con.
  • Less perhaps of the traditional Dutch comics con stuff, more of a focus on US and Japanese comics/fan culture.

That should do it.

Friday Funnies: Lighten Up

panel from Ronald Wimberlys Lighten Up

“Lighten Up” is a comic Ronald Wimberly created about his feelings when an editor asked him to lighten the skin tone of a character in a Wolverine comic. As told, it’s one of those incidents you could call micro aggressions, one of those moments where the (unconsciously) racist assumptions underpinning (American) society come to the fore. If you’re not subject to them they can be easily overlooked or dismissed, but as seen here, they do resonate.

What got me thinking is when Wimberly aks whether a black editor would’ve asked him to change that skin colour only to note that he’s never had a black editor in twelve years working in comics. Because Marvel has had black editors in the past; Christopher Priest and Dwayne McDuffie frex. But they’re still rare to non-existent enough at the big comics companies for somebody to be able to work for over a decade without ever encountering one. And that’s a worry, because without people of colour, black people in positions of power within comics, the concerns of their readers and creators of colour will always come second.

Apart from its message, I just like the comic itself. It can be hard not to make a non-fiction comic into a succession of talking heads and static shots with most information carried through the text but Wimberly succeeded admirably. If you just had the text to read you’d miss so much; the continuous juxtaposition with html colour codes frex, or his use of Manet’s Olympia, or that “pin the tail on the racist” panel, a great example of text and drawing contradicting each other.