Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Nine-plus lives of the Black Cat

As a massive heat wave blazes down on the country, the people's thoughts are as one. Everyone is looking up into the sky at the blazing, burning orb scorching the life out of us and wondering "Where is Superman? Where is Superman?"

Naw, I'm jus' kiddin' ya. What people are really thinking is "Turn up the air conditioner!" But the AC in my little Brooklyn apartment chugs and sputters, trying to operate on the low-level brownout rolling across Manhattan, as Con Ed desperately tries to provide us all the power we need to keep our lemonade icy-cold. Don't forget it's in the best interests of you, your neighbors, and your eventual electrical bill to turn off lights, adjust your thermostat, and do your part to conserve energy. Because Max Dillon aside, none of us are made of electricity.

Mighty Mike Sterling over at Progressive Ruin is doing his part! His blog is on a week-long "low-content mode," sucking up much less electricity as he coolly displays a series of comic covers in black-and-white that were originally in bright, brilliant, NBC-Peacock color.

Here's a color version of one of the b/w covers Mike posted, Black Cat #45 (Harvey, 1953):
Black Cat #45

Freaky! And I know when you looked at it you're thinking the same thing I am: I dunno how much they cost, but second-class postal mailing permits in the Golden and Silver Age of comics must have been very expensive.

An odd and dramatic change in subject from energy conservation to mailing regulations? Bear with me, Bully-fans!

We comics fans of the twenty-first century enjoy zipping to the Comicaporium on our jetpacks or in our flying cars, and there's no bigger treat than reading this week's 4D-comic books while chowing down on a big yummy block of Soylent Green. And one thing we're definitely used to in our post-Atomic Age is titles rebooting and starting numbering from scratch over again every few years: within recent years there's been new #1 numbering for such long-lasting legacy titles as Superman, The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, and Fantastic Four...only Detective, Batman, Uncanny X-Men and Action have entirely escaped the renumbering fever that accompanies the fanboy knee-jerk instinct of "we must buy issue number one!"

Tweren't always that way. Back in the Golden and Silver Age of comics, rather than start a series anew with a brand-spanking shiny #1 on the cover, it was easier, more cost-effective, and faster for comics publishers to simply rename a comic and keep the numbering. Why? Because of second-class postal regulations: in order to mail out subscription copies of a periodical, a publisher needed to purchase a second-mail mailing permit for each title they published. If a comic book title wasn't selling, of course, you could cancel the title—but why throw away that money invested in the second-class mailing permit? Simply keep the numbering and rename the comic, thus pulling the wool over Uncle Sam's eyes. Hah! Take that, Dwight D. Eisenhower!

As Wikipedia (aka "The Encyclopedia You Can Scribble In!") says, "In the early 1950s, comic book publishers, seeking to save money on second class postage permits, would frequently change titles of their comics rather than start new ones." Titles as diverse as EC's Gunfighter changing into The Haunt of Fear, Little Audrey morphing to Playful Little Audrey, and perhaps one of the most dramatic changes of title while keeping the same numbering, Moon Girl (a science fantasy series) becomes Moon Girl Fights Crime (a femme-fatale crimefighter) becomes A Moon, a Girl...Romance (a kissy-kissy love title). All while preserving the same numbering.

Even relatively new fans of comics can see that effect at work with Silver Age books like Thor, Captain America, and Doctor Strange: comic titles that didn't have true #1 debuts but took up the numbering of their immediate Marvel predecessors (Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense and Strange Tales, respectively), pre-FF mystery and monster titles that morphed into superheroes, all to save Stan a pretty penny on second-class postage fees. (Let's hope he invested it wisely and didn't blow it on that snazzy limo he's been tooling around in on Who Wants to Be a Superhero?)

How does this all tie into that nifty Black Cat "Colorama" book Mike posted? Simply that if Stan was a penny-pincher, then Harvey Comics' founder Alfred Harvey must have been the Scrooge McDuck of comics publishers, because Harvey published 65 issues of the Black Cat series from 1946 through 1963 and the book changed titles and sometimes genres with such alarming frequency that it'll make your head spin. In other words, not only did the Black Cat have nine lives, she pretty much had nine or more comic series in one over the years. There weren't as many abrupt title changes as, say, Wotalife changing to Phantom Lady; while the title always contained "Black Cat," it moved with the speed of a...well, a cat...from mystery to horror to western to superhero before finally ending with Harvey's last-ditch attempt in 1963 to leap aboard the Marvel Age superhero bandwagon.

Let's take a look at some of the more abrupt and weirder changes of the Black Cat comic, shall we?

Hollywood glamour girl Kathleen Linda Turner has a double life as the crimefighter Black Cat, so popular her stories in Speed Comics spun her off into a "because you demanded it" solo series with Black Cat #1 (6-7/46):
Black Cat #1

There's no title change with issue #12 (7/48), but Linda becomes a Western star on this cover...
Black Cat #12

...setting the stage(coach) for the book's first title change, the genre-shiftin'(but still Linda-starrin') Black Cat Western #16 (7/49):
Black Cat #16

But it's back to jus'; plain Black Cat with issue #20 (11/49), although the western action continues with bank-robbers and what looks like a good old-fashioned pre-Code injury-to-horse motif:
Black Cat #20

That horse-kickin' apparently didn't go unnoticed by Mother Nature, coz the animal kingdom strikes back and forces the title to change to Black Cat Mystery ("Strangest Tales of Fear and Terror!") with #30 (8/51). Say, is that mighty-morphin' Silver Age Jimmy Olsen on the bottom?:
Black Cat #30

The title remains Black Cat Mystery for many months, but shifts from the wholesome high-kickin' adventures of Linda Turner to an EC-style horror comic. The macabre-ness continues but the title reverts back to jus'-plain Black Cat with issue #44 (6/53), featuring the starling origin of J. R. Ewing:
Black Cat #44

No title change with #50 (6/54), but I wanted to include the cover just as a public service to remind you emo teens and filthy hippies out there of the dangers of smoking radium:
Black Cat #50

Whoa! You can't get more gruesome than that. Neither could Harvey, I guess, because by issue #54 (2/55), guess who's back in the re-retitled Black Cat Western? It may seem like a revival of Linda Turner was inevitable, but think again: these are just reprints of the earlier western stories in the series. But by gosh by golly! I know that Ben Grimm Totally Rocks, but Linda Turner is my new hero for preventing cruelty to cows!:
Black Cat #54

Cow-savin' adventure obviously wasn't payin' the bills, however, because the title shifts back to Black Cat Mystery two issues later with #57 (1-3/56). I spy with my little button eye some villains for Aquaman!:
Black Cat #57

One issue later in #58 (7-9/56), the title is so hurriedly changed to Black Cat Mystic that the cover logo is obviously a lopsided slapdash pasteover of the word "Mystery":
Black Cat #58

The next issue (#59) comes out more than a year later (9/57). That gave them plenty of time to center the logo...
Black Cat #59

...but the end is near. The series ends with issue #62 in March 1958. Except...four years later in 10/62, it reappears with a new design for #63 and what seems to possibly be a (post-FF, pre-Spider-Man) attempt to cash in on the early success of Marvel:
Black Cat #63

But that's about all the lives this Black Cat has: the series ends in April 1963 with issue #65. And that's all she wrote. it?:
Spider-Man/Black Cat #1

Nope! I pull your leg. That Black Cat has nothing to do with the original. And anyway, in this day and age, who would wait a year or more between issues of a Black Cat comic anyway? That could never happen to a modern Black Cat!

#65 wasn't truly the end of the Golden Age Black Cat, though. In the late 1980s Recollections published a reprint series of the Harvey Black Cat. I'm betting these reprints are easier to find than the ever-changing-titled originals, and while I've never seen 'em, now I have to search them out, not only for the artwork of the great Lee Elias, but also for early scripts by Zany Bob Haney. Plus, a heroine who saves cows from being branded? I am so on board for that.

To conclude, though, I repeat: those second-class mailing permits must have been as costly as gold.

(Images from the ever-invaluable Grand Comic Book Database. Visit their Black Cat cover gallery for a complete series of cover images: #31-53 are especially gorgeously gruesome and grotesque and well-worth the click-through for larger viewing.)

EDIT on 8/7/06: I musta looked at those covers all weekend, but not until Monday morning did I notice the teeny-tiny "Mystery" below the Black Cat title on issues 44-53...not to mention its microscopic inclusion on 54-56, making those issues actually Black Cat Western Mystery. Hoo boy! Talk about a smorgasbord of genres!

What the Sam Scratch is goin' on here?!? #4

Continuing the feature here at Comics Oughta Be Fun: comic book covers so wacky, so insane, so far out, that they're seemingly inspired by my Grampy Bull's fav'rite saying: "What the Sam Scratch is goin' on here?!?"


Coz, you know, this is the sort of Spidey-action-adventure the kids were just demanding, wasn't it? Can you just imagine how bad being encased in the Blob's fat folds smells?

Friday, August 04, 2006

Na na na na na na na na...Batfun!

Simpsons #120SIMPSONS COMICS #120: This comic is not fun. Vaguely off-model character designs and art are the first sign that this issue of Simpsons Comics, released in the heat of summer, isn't going to set the world on fire. The pencils by John Delaney actually have a lot of the energy, rubberyness and action of Scott Shaw!, but with the exception of the annual Halloween Treehouse of Horror comic, it's always a bit off-putting to see a slight off-model Simpsons world. But the real problem here is a Simpsons story that's just not that funny. An excellent Simpsons comic can be favorably compared to an episode of the TV show (see last month's Simpsons Comics #119). But this mild and sedate saga of Homer obsessed with the fame that a game-winning baseball brings him has no solid gags, guffaws, or laughs—it's silly more often than it is funny, and reads like water-diluted Simpsons. (Say, that reminds me...when is the Family Guy comic coming out?) Even the Todd McFarlane reference is a bit a stilted and self-aware. The good folks at Bongo generally produce a fun comic. But to continue the baseball metaphor of this issue, not every issue is a home run grand slam, and while this issue may be a great souvenir for some lucky fan, it's not going into my hall of fame.

Battler Britton #2BATTLER BRITTON #2: This comic is fun. War is heck, and this comic lets you know it with all guns a-blazing. I'm a sucker for a good war comic, and this one continues the promise of Ennis's strong first issue enlivened by Colin Wilson's beautiful art of both fliers and airplanes (although there's a weird violation of the 180-degree rule on the page one). There's not much of a plot: Britton shakes things up, speaks his mind, antagonizes his American allies, and survives a deadly air dogfight—but it's a good thing to see a straight-forward war comic that does justice to the genre.

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #11FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPIDER-MAN #11: This comic is fun. I'm on internet record as saying I'm enjoying the "Spider-Man Unmasked" storylines—it's giving the writers a dramatically different thing to do with a 43-year old character, so there's clever ideas and twists popping up in the various Spider-monthlies in almost every issue. This one continues the inevitable dramatic changes as Pete is forced by public pressure to resign from his teaching job, but it's done with such a light touch and fizzy dialogue by Peter David that it doesn't seem like just another "woe is me" Spider-Man story. The whole thing's a set-up of a Mysterio trilogy (while promising in the foreword that the Uncle Ben subplot of last month that had me a little ruffled is still a story where looks can be deceiving), but the big draw for me is a face-off...a dodgeball-off, to be precise...with one of my favorite Spidey supporting characters, Flash Thompson. Flash doesn't believe Pete's Spidey any more than a recent guest blogger of mine did, and for much the same reasons. I don't like seeing Flash as a big dumbass jock, but there's enough twists and turns and a new supporting character, all of which signal Flash may be on his way back again from being a...if you'll excuse the expression...bully. (But hey, I musta missed something not picking up New Avengers...just what the Sam Scratch is that Dr. Strange-lookin' TV antenna stickin' outta the top of Avengers Tower?!? Is it to get better reception on the Ditko Channel?)

52 Week 1352 WEEK 13: This comic is fun...sorta. It's one-quarter of the way through the maxiseries and a vague sense of ennui and dissatisfaction has set in for me on 52: I'm beginning to think if this trend of long-feature focus on storylines I'm less interested in than others continues, I might actually consider dropping the book. Which is a pity, because there's lots of fun moments to be found in the series as a whole so far, but I grew a little impatient with the lengthy Elongated Man/Superboy resurrection story in this issue, interrupted only by a Black Adam/Isis interlude that was the high point of the issue. I miss Booster, and Montoya, and Steel, and the Question, and while I know they'll be back in the book soon—maybe next week—week 13 only serves to confirm my suspicions that if there's only one or two plots summed up on the bottom-edge reading line of the cover, I might not be enjoying that issue as much. The camel-breakin' straw was the silly and unbelievable idea that Green Arrow, Zauriel and Green Lantern would infiltrate the Krypton Resurrection Cult's meetings still wearing their masks. Sure, they're hooded, but by golly, I can see their big masks as clear as day; why can't everyone else? And that Sue Dibny scarecrow is frankly scaring the heck out of this reader, and I usually don't have a problem with stuffed animals in comics. Sure, I want Ralph to come out of this series happy again...but if issues like this continue, I won't be stickin' 'round to see if it happens. (But I'm still enjoyin' the heck out of the two-page "Origins" backup series. Concise, to-the-point history that's ideal for both the new reader, those of us who've forgotten some of it, and useful for DC's growing marketing merchandise empire.)

JLU #24JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED #24: This comic is fun. As I said earlier, best splash-page of the week. It's got a fantastic cover, dynamic DCU-animated-style art, and a compelling done-in-one story—is there any doubt that Justice League Unlimited does the League more Justice than the last several years of the now-cancelled regular-DC Universe series? It's not quite up to the high, high standards of the late lamented Batman Adventures comic book, which was for years the finest Batman book being published in my little stuffed opinion. But while the upcoming JLoA looks fun and adventure-filled, don't ignore this book if you're longing for some solid big Justice League adventure. Furthermore, it's got one thing that the new series doesn't: J'onn J'onnz, in one of his strongest "solo" stories in years. If you're not pickin' up this book because it looks like a "kiddie" comic...well, you're missing out.

Detective #821-822.jpgDETECTIVE COMICS #821 & 822: These comics are fun. Speakin' of missin' out, I missed last month's Detective #821, featuring Batman: The Animated Series's Paul Dini debuting as scripter on a character he definitely can do justice to. Luckily I remembered to plunk down my dimes for it when this week's #822 came out, and the two together are a breath of fresh minty Bat-flavored air after many, many long years of being disappointed by not only Batman comics but Batman himself. Both issues are solid thrilling done-in-one mysteries that emphasize Batman's detective skills, and done right, Batman as detective is always a good thing. The first introduces a new villain; the second sets up an old one in a "why hasn't anyone thought of that before?" role: The Riddler as a private detective competing with Batman to solve a murder. It's such a logical, delightful, and outrageous role for Edward Nigma that I hope it continues in further issues—it might even support a Riddler miniseries. (For you pre-Infinite Crisis fans, there's a short but important throwaway note that the Riddler no longer...probably...knows Batman's secret identity.) Our pal Eddie even provides the best line of the week: "Nice car. First time I've been inside it conscious.". All this plus Roxy Rocket, whoo hoo! The only minor tarnish on this energetic repolishing of DC's Dark Knight is Batman's patient but pointed dismissal of Robin in the first story: Batman as sullen loner was a too-frequent theme and occurrence in the past few years, leading to the spoiling and deaths of some likeable characters, and I don't wanna see this trend continue now. But aside from that, DC's flagship is decked out like the Queen Mary. One of the most brilliant things DC's done post-IC is assign its icon characters to solid writers—Paul Dini joins James Robinson and Grant Morrison on the reimagining of Batman—who are capable not only of taking the characters back to their basics but at the same time create new and innovative stories. So it's not just that these are two jim-dandy issues, but more important, the promise of more fantastic issues to come that makes DETECTIVE #822 the most fun comic of the week.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Wildcat, I think I love you (but I wanna know for sure)

A busy, busy, week that's hot as the sun, so the usual "fun? no?" comic reviews will happen a little later this week, but I couldn't delay posting what is surely the finest comic book splash page of the week, from the always-fun Justice League Unlimited (#24):

Wildcat got BACK, baby!

He may be just a little too late for Look at my butt! Sunday, but Wildcat once again proves he's not only a feisty scrapper, but that he has the best buns of steel for a Golden Ager, ever.

This post is dedicated with respect for Dorian, of course, who challenges you to always remember that Wildcat loves you. Even with a starfish on his ruggedly handsome face.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Ten of a Kind: Look at my butt!

That sexy Swamp Thing cover is dedicated to Mike Sterling, by the way. Whoda thunk good ol' Mister Holland had such a fine planty posterior?

(More Ten of a Kind here.)