Friday, January 30, 2009

Captain Marvel Annotated - Whiz Comics #3 - pt. 3

Note the ornate hinges on the trapped door. Another indication of Sivana’s old-fashioned-ness or a hint that the underground levels are old, perhaps older than the fortress?

Page 11: The panel where Captain Marvel is being bound with chains is masterfully done. Note how Captain Marvel’s face is turned away from us, dehumanizing him at the same time his captors subject him to humiliating subjugation.

We also know from this that, unlike some later superheroes with alter egos, Capt. Marvel does not turn back into Billy Batson when he loses consciousness.

This is the first time Sivana uses his token nervous laugh and he will not again for ten more issues. Later mad scientists in comics, notably Alan Moore’s Prof. Gromolko from Top Ten, will have a similar nervous laugh.

It is not clear from Captain Marvel’s face if he is looking defiant or groggy.

The close-up of Sivana is almost identical to the one on page 9 of the previous issue, only flipped around.

It is not clear how Sivana can “show Marvel his newest machine” only “when the others have gone.” Captain Marvel is chained to the same wall the whole time and the machine is too huge to have been missed! Either the machine was concealed behind a sliding panel or some such thing before, or the text means simply that Sivana is just now drawing Marvel’s attention to it.

The atom smasher, or particle accelerator, was invented in 1929 by Ernest Lawrence. The atom smasher built at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1937 was 37 inches long, replaced by one 60 inches long in 1939. Sivana’s seems to be larger, though much of the dome is probably radiation shielding.

Page 12: We have two clichés of the genre here, the first being the much lampooned one of the villain leaving the hero unattended in a deathtrap and the second being the henchmen turning on their leader and being instrumental in his defeat.

Sivana looking out the window is our first indication that Capt. Marvel has been brought above ground while knocked out.
The image of Capt. Marvel breaking his bonds is identical to the left half of the cover of the ashcan edition, or Whiz Comics #1.

Again, Capt. Marvel jumps instead of flies. He will not be shown flying until Whiz Comics #7, four months later.

Page 13: Although the deathtrap involved Sivana’s atom smasher, the explosion that destroys the fortress is probably not atomic. Of course, the first atomic bomb was tested July 16, 1945, so no one in 1940 knew what an atomic explosion looked like or what its effects were.

It is unclear how many people were in the fortress and died in the explosion. Both Capt. Marvel and Billy seem unconcerned. Hopefully, the fortress was not heavily manned, with most of Sivana’s hirelings surely serving in his army or air force. There was not much time for the returning air force to use the elevator to the underground hangar, so only some pilots would likely have died while the rest flew overhead in a holding pattern.

Billy reports that Sivana died “by his own hand”, a term most often implying suicide. It is true that Sivana’s scheme had clearly backfired, regardless of whether or not Sivana really died. Though Sivana survives the explosion, as revealed the following issue, he is somehow unable to contact both his ground forces in Washington, D.C. and his air force overhead before they surrender. If Sivana could have convinced them to continue their assault without their general, he might still have won. If anything did in Sivana, it was simply bad luck that his soldiers returned and stopped him from leaving the fortress at exactly the wrong moment.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Captain Marvel Annotated - Whiz Comics #3 - pt. 2

That Billy waits so long before calling on Captain Marvel could be a writer’s trick for ratcheting up suspense, but it could also speak of young Billy’s possibly naïve faith in adults to solve their own problems without Captain Marvel’s intervention.

Page 5: Sivana’s heavy tanks, being toppled here, are probably not the same as the lighter tanks that could be dropped from transport planes. The lighter, “streamlined” tanks probably only held the roads clear for the heavy tanks coming by land.

The U.S. was far behind other countries in developing tanks until at least mid-1940. Indeed, the U.S. Army had no new heavy tanks as of this battle and only 28 medium and light tanks supplemented by antique, and obsolete, heavy tanks. At this time, most tanks did not wield the heavy main guns common on WWII-era tanks and most turrets only held .50 caliber machine guns. In light of this, Sivana’s turrets do not seem to lack firepower compared to U.S. tanks. Sivana’s tanks seem to be firing light cannons instead of machine guns, as most U.S. tanks of the time favored, as Captain Marvel is not being sprayed with bullets, but by somewhat larger shells.

Since Sivana’s tanks do not closely resemble any nonfictional tanks, it is difficult to say how heavy they are. However, given their size compared to Captain Marvel standing next to them, it is possible that the heavy tanks weigh as much as 100 tons. Since Captain Marvel seems to be lifting them with difficulty – using both hands, crouching as he lifts, and preferring to tip them over to tossing them around – this could be the earliest indication of the limits of Captain Marvel’s strength.

Note the pink, puffy-shaped airships with four stabilizing fins. These must be some sort of blimps. Apart from their exotic design, it is impossible to say what role they serve in the battle other than making pretty targets. They clearly belong to Sivana’s air force.

Page 6: Note the dramatic silhouette of Captain Marvel lifting two machine gunners over his head. In addition to working artistically, perhaps the reader is being asked to shy away from picturing Captain Marvel getting too much into the gritty realities of fighting and warfare.

Again, it is impossible to specify where exactly the fighting is taking place. The lack of buildings suggests they are out in the country some distance from Washington, D.C., but this does not match how Billy described the situation two pages ago. We might be looking at a public park inside the city. There is no indication in the text that Sivana’s forces made it as far as the National Mall.

Page 7: Captain Marvel could have pursued the fleeing army and forced their surrender, but instead chooses the very un-military solution of capturing their leader. Even when given the chance of capturing Sivana’s general, Billy chooses to pursue Sivana instead – akin to enemy soldiers going after our President to stop a war.

Sivana’s two-way TV reappears here from the previous issue.

Sivana’s general is a decorated soldier, as evidenced by the two medals on his chest – but decorated by whom? Surely Sivana is not the type to hand out medals. Given the general’s blonde hair, the man was most likely a distinguished mercenary soldier in Europe or a colony of Europe – though he could also be a traitorous American!

Page 8: Billy shows no hesitation in changing into Captain Marvel in front of bad guys. Of course, when you deliver a right cross with up to 100 tons of force, your bad guy is unlikely to survive to tell anyone.

A lazier writer might have had Captain Marvel leap or fly onto the fleeing plane, but Bill Parker (and hence, Captain Marvel) wisely takes the stealthier approach of climbing up from the landing wheel, so as to not be heard or otherwise noticed en route. Bill Parker also correctly identifies the fuselage as the part of the plane Captain Marvel is standing on.

Page 9: Sivana’s underground hangar is not only underground, but “far beneath the earth’s surface.” To the modern Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast, that might suggest a huge, multi-level dungeon beneath Sivana’s fortress, though there were few literary precedents for these dungeons and fewer still dating back as far as circa 1938-40 (though one would be “Face in the Abyss”, written by A. Merritt and published in 1923, which also inspired at least one Superman/Luthor story for Jerry Siegel). But how deep could it be? The deepest hole dug by man by 1938 was almost three miles deep. The deepest mine still on record is the Western Deep Levels Mine of South Africa at 2.3 miles deep, but I cannot find when that mine reached that deep. So, it is feasible that Sivana’s underground hangar is at least 2 miles deep, though why it would need to be that deep defies further speculation.

The general must be pretty smart, or at least wily. He must know he’s being followed, but does not let on that he knows he is being followed until he rounds a corner and finds a guard or two more (it’s unclear if one of these was the pilot). Only then does he double back on Captain Marvel, once the odds seem more in his favor. Not that it helps.

Although Captain Marvel clearly does not need a swinging kick to overpower the general and his two guards, he still chooses to attack them with the dramatic flourish of swinging his feet while hanging from a rafter. Billy’s influence, or Captain Marvel’s character?

Page 10: Although the presence of the staircase suggests Captain Marvel is heading up, it is just as likely that he takes the tunnel under the stairs – particularly since, in his haste, he seems to have forgotten to question the general as to where Sivana is.

In a weak moment artistically, the silhouette of a bat is hovering over the stairwell for no apparent reason. Is it lost too?

Like many Golden Age superheroes, gas seems to be an early Achilles heel for the otherwise unbeatable Captain Marvel (though the “deadly” gas only knocks him out). That Golden Age comic book artists saw gas as a more fearsome threat than more conventional weapons, like bullets, is likely a holdover in the mindset of the times from the use of mustard gas as a horrifically effective weapon in WWI.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Captain Marvel Annotated - Whiz Comics #3 - pt. 1

[Continued from here ]

It has been 14 months since I last worked on this project, as after annotating Captain Marvel's origin story, I did not think there would be nearly as much to say about the following issue. Turns out, I found plenty.

Whiz Comics #3 (Mar. 1940)
Page 1: Billy would seem to be an overnight success, given millions of listeners, even if we assume a month has passed since the last issue a month ago. We can remember, though, the pervasiveness of radio in society circa 1940 (like TV and the Internet today) and the fact that being broadcast in New York City or Chicago alone would have netted him a potential audience of millions (seven and three respectively).

The most recent, in Billy’s time, example of a real-world, disastrous, inner-city fire was possibly the Terminal Hotel Fire in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1938.

There were no “sensational” prison breaks in Billy’s time, but the movie Prison Break came out in 1938 and could have been the inspiration for the one occurring here.

It was still too early in 1940 for hurricane season and 1939, in the real world, had been a weak hurricane season. The 1938 Hurricane, however, is still the third most intense tropical cyclone to ever strike the United States.

Instead of early 1940 or late 1939 – last issue’s story may have been as early as the summer of 1938. It is possible, then, that significantly more than one month had passed since Captain Marvel’s origin story, though the fact that Billy has not visibly aged suggests otherwise. Rather, there may well be a 19-month lag between Billy’s adventures and their eventual cover dates. This “time code” might have been generally understood by readers in 1940 and is further significant because of what else occurred in the summer of 1938 – the publication history of Superman began. This could have been intentional on Fawcett’s part, not just to produce a superhero similar to Superman, but to have their stories “begin” around the same time as well (though analysis of the early Superman stories show they actually took place at least as early as 1935).

Page 2: Sivana’s ultimatum to the President is not possible for him to do. Declaring an Emperor of the United States would require a change to the Constitution and that would require at least an act of Congress, if not a national convention. Note that, even if an acting President could do this, by following the order of the letter literally, the President would resign first and then not be able to declare anyone officially anything. Sivana very likely has no intention of not using his army and only sent the letter to gloat.

Although the last panel showed a letter to the President, we cannot necessarily presume that the man ordering the four G-Men is the President. The term “G-Men” refers to FBI agents. Since the FBI is a law enforcement agency and not a military one, Sivana’s threat about having an army must not have been taken seriously.

The caption does not specify how many miles away Sivana’s fortress is from Washington, D.C., but it must be both exceedingly remote and yet close enough for tanks to reach within miles of D.C. without being intercepted sooner. The mountains must be the Appalachian Mountains.

Page 3: It is not specified in what way Sivana’s soldiers are “super-soldiers.” The term is most famously used in conjunction with Captain America, who would not debut in comics for another year. The U.S.’s standing army before 1940 was only 175,000 men strong, but Sivana’s army is just “thousands” strong.

It is not unusual for field guns to be able to fire 75 miles. What would be unusual is if they fired accurately at that range. That the text makes no such assertion demonstrates that the narrator is engaging in no hyperbole while assessing the strength of Sivana’s army.

The land speed record in 1940 was 369 MPH, so it is not the speed of Sivana’s combat cars that make them special, but that he was able to make a vehicle essentially with the body of a pickup truck go 120 MPH, virtually impossible even for pickups today.

The “mightiest air fleet in history” means that Sivana intends to beat the U.S. primarily through aerial bombardment, particularly since his ground forces are so small. In 1938, the U.S. Army Air Corps had 2,500 planes. The planes pictured appear to be conventional 2- to 4-prop fighter planes, so his aerial superiority must come from numbers.

Note that Sivana has no navy.

Page 4: The last time another country had declared war on the U.S. was Austria-Hungary in 1917.

Contrary to my previous comment on the conventional appearance of Sivana’s planes, we now see them capable of dropping tanks. The bulk of the U.S. Air Corp’s transport planes were Douglas C-39s, capable of carrying less than 2 tons of cargo. Either Sivana’s “streamlined” tanks are extra light, or his planes are capable of hauling 50+ tons of cargo – which no 20th century planes could do.

It is interesting to note that some of the technology in Sivana’s army is about 60-70 years ahead of the technology of his time, while other things are relatively unchanged, like his use of prop planes instead of jet technology. Sivana’s greatest weakness might be his old-fashioned-ness.

That Sivana's paratroopers are wearing gas masks is inconclusive as to whether Sivana plans to use or is expecting chemical warfare.

The "American line" looks like trench warfare, which the U.S. was very familiar with from WWI.

That the battlefront is a vague “few” miles from the nation’s capitol gives us no clear way to map the location of the final battle. Further, Washington, D.C. is said to be surrounded and that Sivana’s tanks are almost in the city. It is not clear why Sivana does not simply land his tanks directly on the National Mall, though he probably felt he needed the tanks to hold the roads and bridges leading into the city so his ground troops could use them.

Note that Billy is in a biplane, an antique even by 1940. It could suggest that the good guys – and, by extension, the U.S. government – is sadly outmoded for modern warfare. In this regard, the whole story is a cautionary tale advocating the U.S.’s pre-War mobilization.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Silver Age Marvel Super Heroes Campaign

Around 1997, I had prepared a lot of material (mainly rules revisions) for a Marvel Super Heroes campaign I called The Silver Age Campaign. Set in Chicago during Marvel Comics' “silver age” -- 1967 specifically – and being a huge fan of Marvel's silver age comics myself, I had high expectations for this campaign...none of which survived the apathy of my four younger friends and our first three sessions. Having just barely missed the '60s myself, I have always viewed that time as a missed opportunity and a time full of amazing happenings and a wonderful spirit. My friends, more divorced from the '60s than I, saw it as a time to mock with derision.

To be fair, I had expected too much from them at the start. Centering the first plot around Vietnam War protests took one of the most divisive moments of the '60s and pushed it right in their faces. If I could do it all over again, I would start them off with a more traditional superheroes vs. supervillains story and then slowly work the time period in on them. Ah, but I was so eager...

The heroes were Winged Archer, sort of a cross between Angel and Hawkeye; Daemon, a weaker Martian Manhunter who uses fire instead of being afraid of it; Prodigy, a psychic; and Swashbuckler, pretty self-evident.

My schedule of plots was as follows:
1) Peace Lover's (new villain, emotion control) demonstrations lead to riots.
2) A doomsday cult worshiping Galactus is manipulated by the Miracle Man.
3) The Circus of Crime decides to make some quick bucks with mundane crimes.
4) Dr. Prometheus (new villain, chimp mad scientist – before Big Bang Comics did it!) starts a hi-tech crime spree.
5) AIM's line of computers come with parts not in the brochure.
6) Dr. Octopus is asked by AIM to deal with the heroes.
7) Puppet Master makes the heroes attack the Fantastic Four.
8) Peace Lover leads demonstrations against the heroes.
9) Radioactive Man tours the Midwest (guest-starring “The Man with the Power” from John Byrne's future run on the FF).
10) Firebug (new villain, similar to Daemon only a mutant instead of an alien) sets Chicago ablaze.
11) Dr. Prometheus starts a gang war with the Giovanni family (The Giovannis were the Chicago branch of the Maggia in my Wimpy Tales campaign).
12) The Wizard and the Sorceress (new villain, female mad scientist) have a reunion.
13) Egghead sends Destroyer and Hijacker to get a microfilm Rick Jones doesn't know he has.
14) Coyote (new villain, the Indian trickster god) comes to Chicago to make trouble.
15) Jack Frost (new villain using Blizzard's old name) intends to hold Chicago for ransom against winter.
16) The Space Men (from Untold Tales of Spider-Man) hope to trick the heroes into revealing AIM's secret base for them. John Jameson guest-stars.
17) Quickster (new villain, like a cross between Quicksilver and the Riddler) goes on crime spree.
18) Heroes in Michigan (Johnny Quick and Dr. Mid-Nite – some of DC's more obscure heroes work there) need help against the Black Pilgrim (new villain, mystic villain).
19) The last Incan priest abducts the heroes, intending to sacrifice them to Zzutak.

Other villains intended to be used: Madame X, Sub-Mariner, Mad Thinker, Paste-Pot Pete/Trapster, Baron Mordo, Eel (recurring), Porcupine (recurring), Plant Man (recurring), Cobra, Electro, Mr. Hyde, Vanisher (recurring), Mysterio, Kraven the Hunter, Beetle, Mastermind (recurring), Unicorn, Melter, Purple Man.

Other heroes intended to be used: Invisible Girl, Human Torch, Mr. Fantastic, Goliath/Yellowjacket, Wasp, Iron Man, X-Men, Daredevil, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Nick Fury, Hawkeye, Black Widow.

Silver Age Campaign Journal (summarizing the actual campaign)

May 17, 1967. Wednesday.

Brian Chalice (Prodigy) was interrupted twice from his painting. The first time, he consoled his maid who was concerned about her son's wild ways. The second time, he got a phone call from his agent who wanted him to meet Peace Lover.

Damian Khalas (Daemon) put in his time at the fire station. After some horsing around, his friend Gary told the tale of the haunted handprint on the firehouse window.

Steven Barnes (Swashbuckler) was behind in his construction work, but being union, was not too concerned about it. He was concerned enough to save his coworker, Harold Price, from a badly-installed elevator.

Brian met with Peace Lover at the Sheraton Hotel and was introduced to three artists. While Brian was impressed with none of their work, he was quite taken with Bridget Riley, one of the artists, and agreed to sponsor her work. A while later, he learned of a peace rally begun by Peace Lover and his followers in Grant Park and went to investigate.

Damian, having a knack for poker, walked away from the game at the firehouse early with $20. He wandered the city, looking for trouble. He encountered three Hispanic youths whom he scared out of committing arson. Later, he was drawn to the commotion of the peace rally and slipped in amongst the protesters.

Sam Morris (Winged Archer) was having a typical day in the antiquarian business when a routine purchase turned into a bidding contest with his rival, Gus Munsey. The encounter ended in a stalemate, with neither acquiring the 16th century tinderbox.

Brian managed to find Bridget at the protest, but could not convince her to leave. Instead, she convinced him to speak to Peace Lover. In his private trailer, Peace Lover delivered a hypnotic oration that compelled Brian to agree to finance the demonstration. Upon leaving the trailer, the two ran into Damian, who was confused by a great many things around him. Peace Lover evaded his questions and devised a diversion for the police so Brian and Bridget could sneak out of the park unobserved.

Damian saw the diversion, protesters throwing things at the police, and decided to stop it with a demonstration of his powers. When the police became interested, however, in him, Damian shape-shifted in order to escape.

Steven, who had been observing the protest from nearby Buckingham Fountain, observed the shape-shifting and confronted Damian. Unable to disprove what Steven saw, Damian decided to reveal his entire background. At Damian's boarding house, he also demonstrated his fire generation, as well as his lack of control when he set his coffeetable on fire. Steven suggested that they could help each other, and left promising to be in touch.

Meanwhile, Sam had closed up his shop, put on his costume, and decided to debut as the Winged Archer. He patrolled the north side on wing and found a home ablaze. Firefighters were already at work, and police at the scene tried to question Winged Archer. He tried to fly in the house, but was scared off by the flames. Finally, he convinced a fireman to give him his hose so he could spray the roof. With the fire out, Archer left his name, and flew off into the night.

Brian brought Bridget to his penthouse. He slept on the couch.

Steven returned to the rally at the same time that Archer first arrived. Thinking Steven looked suspicious, Archer shadowed him, but Steven spotted him and led him to a rooftop to confront him. The two circled each other with weapons drawn, exchanged pointed questions, and then parted.

May 18, 1967. Thursday.

When Brian woke up, his mind was free of Peace Lover's influence. Nevertheless, he gave Bridget $1,000 to buy supplies for the protest. Then, he snuck back into Grant Park and into Peace Lover's empty trailer. Brian had brought the costume with him which he planned to wear as a superhero, and put it on. However, before finding much evidence of wrong-doing, Peace Lover and a tough-looking stranger entered. The stranger drew a revolver from a shoulder holster, and a fierce struggle ensued. Brian was grazed in the shoulder before he sent the stranger flying out the doorway. Meanwhile, Peace Lover had fled out a window and gathered a huge mob of protesters. Brian managed to telekinetically lift Peace Lover out of the crowd. Before he could learn more, Peace Lover convinced the police to arrest him for drug possession. Instead of remaining to answer questions, Brian fled on foot.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Journey into College, Vol. 2, No. 7

[From the May 13, 1992 issue of the Aurora Borealis. Colors by Megan.]

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom Archives Vol. 1 Reviewed

Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #1(Oct. 1962).
“Solar's Secret.” Grade: A+. I can't say if this art was a house style at Gold Key or not, but the borderless panels, minimalist sound effects, and box-shaped word balloons definitely feel fresh and different even after 46 years! The art is gorgeous and dynamic. The characters are interesting and both written and drawn to be distinctive from each other. A sense of drama completes this compellingly science-based origin story.
“Atomic Inferno.” Grade: A+. This story, really part 2 of the origin, highlights the remarkable versatility of the Man of the Atom as a superhero, being both enormously powerful and very vulnerable. The action and danger is tense and realistic, particularly when Gail is in danger. Dr. Rasp is like Ivan in the Hulk's origin, the man inadvertently responsible for it all, but even more sympathetic.
Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #2 (Dec. 1962).
“Remote-Control Traitor.” Grade: A. In synopsis, as presented here, Solar's origin looks even more like the Hulk's, though instead of being a monster he's more of a ghost, like a sci fi-version of the Spectre. As such, it becomes increasingly clear that any real suspense will come from endangering Gail. That our expectations are reversed so quickly by making Gail a would-be assassin is very clever writing.
“Night of the Volcano.” Grade: B. A promising premise that makes a surprisingly slight story. It's hard to say if stories like this, where Solar needs Dr. Clarkson to literally ride to the rescue, are highlighting the supporting cast or undermining Solar's credentials as a superhero.
Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #3 (Mar. 1963).
“Hidden Hands.” Grade: A-. The mystery of an invisible man drags out a little long (didn’t we all know that’s how all those objects moved?) and Dr. Solar doesn’t so much solve it so much as he keeps coincidentally running into him, but once the President is in danger the drama really ratchets up. Magnetizing an invisible foe is a solution I’ve not seen done since then.

Nuro, the man behind the scenes, was probably intended to be like James Bond's Blofeld (or resembling the post-Crisis Lex Luthor). Here is a man capable of great scientific thought, yet he's not a scientist. Other scientists are employed by him like thugs, all tools for his manipulation.

“Solar’s Deadly Double.” Grade: B-. Dr. Solar’s “Superman red, Superman blue” story doesn’t create an evil duplicate so much as an annoying one that seems intent on messing with Solar for no reason. Just as the “Gail’s in danger” thing is starting to get old, Gail gets menaced by something new – hailstones! I like that, while the weather machine represents the “science is bad” trope, it is a cyclotron, another machine, that saves the day. This is nicely mirrored with the rainbows – the first indicating danger and the second, at the end, being a sign of hope.
Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #4 (Jun. 1963)
“Deadly Sea.” Grade: B+. This is a strong story, leading with a plot hook about dead fish and building to a climax where Nuro must be stopped from using radiation to mine gold out of the ocean. Perhaps because Nuro and Solar come so close to meeting in this story and Nuro is acting on his own instead of through underlings, Nuro finally begins to emerge as a threat to be taken seriously. The science seems stronger again this issue, with Nuro and Solar using their knowledge of chemistry to counter each other. And yet...the need to find new ways to get radiation to Solar when he's used up his energy is already starting to look like a cliché. At least Dr. Clarkson doesn't save him again, but the nuclear explosion just seems too convenient.
“Treacherous Trap.” Grade: A-. Here comes the soap opera! Thor Neilsen shows up in Atom Valley as a love interest for Gail and a rival for Solar. He's neither dashing nor evil; he's just a nice guy and a good scientist – which makes it all the more ironic when Thor's radiation-draining machine inadvertently becomes Solar's deadliest threat yet. Sadly, this is another “Dr. Clarkson saves the day” story. Also, the monitors that Solar uses to watch Gail and Thor are like the viewscreen on Star Trek – Solar can see anything on it. It raises privacy issues that are never addressed. Must science and surveillance go hand in hand?
Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #5 (Sep. 1963)
“Crystallized Killers.” Grade: B. There are some nice bits here, like the juxtaposed panels of two men unlocking doors, hinting at their parallel paths, the nice puzzle of being trapped in the expanding crystal (though it is too easily solved, and if force expands the crystal, then why not shoot it with the gun again rather than spend minutes hammering on it with fists?), and most interesting of all is the reversal of the costume trope – here, Solar is wearing a half-cape and gloves in his real identity, but, before using his powers, strips down to his T-shirt.

As an aside, it is interesting to note how pervasive, and diverse, is the use of duality as a meta-textual theme in the Solar stories. All superhero stories deal with duality to some degree, even if it's just good vs. evil. Here, though, we have the benefits vs. the drawbacks of science, life vs. death, one life path vs. another, two different versions of oneself, and choosing one man over another. We see more of this “rule of two” in “The Crystallized Killers”, where the crooks disguise themselves as twins. Those same crooks are, in the end, to be judged as either insane and innocent or lying and guilty. There is no room for third alternatives in stories running 16 or fewer pages long – the solution always has to be one or the other. And the penalty for the wrong choice is usually severe; the death penalty for the two crooks shows us how harsh life is to those who make the wrong choice.

“New Man of the Atom.” Grade: B+. It had to happen! Solar finally gets a superhero costume. The reason is a bit odd – a delayed side effect of the radiation keeping him alive is that his hair turns white with one black streak down the middle, making him look more distinctive and harder for him to act anonymously (apparently, no one thought about hair dye). The really important thing is that Gail notices and, instead of coming up with some elaborate scheme to trick Gail, Solar comes right out and tells her the truth finally (and many years before Clark would tell Lois!). The Superman parallels continue, with Solar ripping open his shirt ala Superman, revealing his costume underneath for the first time. When he does go into action, the threat is rather mundane – two guys with flame throwers – and it's not too credible when the author tries to up the ante by suggesting the fire they've started could accidentally trigger a nuclear missile in a nearby silo (what is THAT doing in a populated area??). Interestingly, Nuro calls the Man of the Atom a “supernatural creature with extraordinary powers”. It's an interesting choice of words, given the connotations with magic associated with the word “supernatural”, Nuro stops short of calling him magic and could just be ranting anyway.

Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #6 (Nov. 1963)
“Imposter.” Grade: B-. Deja vu? Nuro has forced a not-evil scientist to work for him again, ala “The Hidden Hands.” Then the android the scientist creates is disguised as – I hate to give it away, but we've already seen this in “The Remote-Control Traitor.” We even see Dr. Thor Neilsen and his de-radiation ray return from “The Treacherous Trap.” But what's going on here is a bit of continuity building, like Gold Key's own version of Marvel's tight sense of continuity (only without the editor's comments telling you which issue to go back and re-read).
“Android Against the Atom.” Grade: C. Maybe after all that build-up, it was too much to hope that an android with no superpowers would be able to believably hold its own against someone as powerful as the Man of the Atom for six whole pages. The android certainly gives it its all, basically just surviving except for when it has a raygun in hand, but Solar seems to be holding back just to give the android a sporting chance. He should be able to dodge as fast as he can turn into light and, knowing his opponent is not real, he could change into a drill of atomic force again, like he did to burrow into the ground in “The New Man of the Atom”, and pulverize the android. And then, as if the story was not slight enough, it ends in a “Scooby Doo moment” where everyone has a good laugh.
Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #7 (Mar. 1964)
“Vanishing Oceans.” Grade: A. Solar is back! The ante is genuinely bumped up this time, with aliens from outer space threatening to dry up Earth's oceans. Sharks keep turning up in the background of this aquatic adventure, as if to foreshadow the vicious intentions of the aliens, but it is a red herring. The plot twist is that they are not here for conquest at all, but to plunder our elements. Though their means of conveyance is the stereotypical flying saucer, the aliens are unique-looking, with bulbous faces and stomachs, but skinny limbs. There are some fantastic art moments in this story, from the flying saucer passing a submarine and sharks, to the stranded ships in a dry harbor, to a silhouetted Solar being bathed in radiation via speed lines, to Solar straining to lift a super-dense wafer, to the almost-a-splash page of a deluge of water falling out of space into the Atlantic Ocean. But more importantly, all the genuine emotion that draws us into the story come from good ol' Gail, at first sobbing over her missing brother and later gushing with joy at his return.
“Guided Comet.” Grade: A. Nuro is up to his “old” tricks, though we are not in danger of rote formula just yet. For one thing, there is an organically growing sense of menace to the Nuro stories, with Nuro becoming more of a threat the more he learns about Solar. For a change, the scientist working for Nuro is not being coerced into it this time. The meteor threat is a sci fi staple and would not make for much of a story alone, but it becomes clearer by page 5 that the comet is just bait in a trap. Nuro has somehow figured out how much energy Solar has (or is just a good guesser?) and has calculated that Solar will expend it all in orbit and be stranded there. Dr. Clarkson, perhaps realizing he saves Solar too often, almost looks to the reader and says, “If only we could help him!” Unfortunately, only a plot convenience saves Solar, as a satellite with rocket fuel just happens to float by. Compensating for this is the clever -- and visually spectacular – way the comet is ultimately stopped after Solar is recharged.

A satisfying ending to a volume that, at times, felt like one continuous story – quite a feat for a comic book that came out quarterly!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Journey into College, Vol. 2, No. 5

[From the April 10, 1992 issue of the Aurora Borealis. Color by Megan.]