Monday, January 09, 2017

A Month of... Celebrities in Comics, Day 9: Comics are full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and they're all over much too quickly.

Showcase! The classic DC comic that began as a "you requested it" anthology with firefighters (#1) and frogmen (#3) until it hit on its successful formula with The Flash in #4, kicking off the entire Silver Age of Comics. From that point on Showcase was the four-color tryout home of characters and features to see if they could support their own books. Before they had regular comic books of their own, Lois Lane, Challengers of the Unknown, Green Lantern, Rip Hunter, Sea Devils, Atom, Metal Men, the Spectre, the Creeper, Anthro, Angel and the Ape, Bat Lash, and the Hawk and the Dove all had feature premieres in Showcase!

And then there were the other kind of Showcase features...the fugitive kind, who never developed into a series, altho' in some cases they're still a minor part of the DC Universe, trotted out every now an then for a Crisis or two. Top Gun! No, not Tom Cruise, but a western. Firehair, another western, was a white man raised by the Indians saga (by Joe Kubert). Nightmaster, who never got his own series but at least has popped up in Shadowpact. in recent years. Private eye Jonny Double! ("Born to Trouble!") And even Ian Fleming's James Bond's Doctor No's movie's adaptation reprinted from a UK issue of Classics Illustrated.

But then there were characters pretty much lost to history, doomed forever to The Land of Cancelled Heroes. For example, pretty much nobody remembers The Maniaks, a three-issue Showcase tryout right at the tail end of the hip, gear, and fab "Go-Go Checks" era of DC. This comedy feature starred a teen rock band which we'd now consider reminiscent of The Archies, but they premiered nearly a year before Arch, Jug, Ronnie, Bet and Reg got together with two guitars, a drum kit, and a tambourine. By Showcase #71, the Maniaks's third and final try-out issue, the Powers That Be The Distinguished Competition put in a special guest star, presumably to goose sales, much in the way beloved Maltese children's character Goosio would do. DC took a daring and offbeat approach and brought in what could probably be truthfully described as the most unexpected guest star of them all. Yes, it's everybody's favorite 1970s comedy nebbish, 1980s not-as-funny-as-he-used-to-be, and 1990s accused sex predator, Woody Allen! By kind permission of the City of New York, I guess.

Cover of Showcase (1956 series) #71 [The Maniaks] (November-December 1967), pencils by Mike Sekowsky, inks by Mike Esposito, letters by Ira Schnapp

Hey, hey, we're the Maniaks! Four crazy kids with exactly one defining characteristic each,, at least one of them kinda offensive for a female protagonist of a comic book. And then there's Woody Allen, fresh off his career-defining writing debut What's New, Pussycat and writer/director of What's New, Tiger Lily?, without which we probably wouldn't have Mystery Science Theater 3000. Also, for some reason, there's an expy (or "generic celebrity") of 1960s super-slim British supermodel Twiggy (here called "Twiggly"), so we won't be counting her. Also appearing: ladders, and the Maniaks's gimmick of singing their songs to the tune of another, so we can imagine what the melody would be. And they're all here on a stage that's tilted about thirty-five degrees up!

Splash page from Showcase (156 series) #71 [The Maniaks] (November-December 1967), script by E. Nelson Bridwell, pencils by Mike Sekowsky, inks by Mike Esposito

Woody has come to the kids with his new play, a can't-miss sure-hit never-fail musical set during the Civil War and threatening to do for Robert E. Lee what The Producers did for Adolph Hitler. Again, don't forget that the band's female singer Silver Shannon is only interested in money, because it only tells us twice on this page. Sheesh, lady, go hang out with The Green Team, why doncha!

Here's some other characters introduced and quickly forgotten until they have to appear as stock background characters in the musical. "Rock Hutsut" is not even a proper expy of Rock Hudson, but at least "Twiggly" looks like Twiggy. Is that visual foreshortening, is is Twiggly only twelve inches tall? Well, she's only twelve inches wide, at least.

I can't imagine that at the time, a Venn diagram of DC Comics readers and those who had seen Woody's 1960s nightclub stand-up routines would include many more people than E. Nelson Bridwell. Thanks to retrospective, of course, and my much-played copy of the re-release of his routines on LP in 1978, when I first read Showcase #71 as a back issue I immediately recognized the comic's flashback...

...was a repurposed routine from Woody's stand-up act.

Man, I sure hope Nelson Bridwell gave a small portion of his salary to Woody Allen for this page of plot, sadly the only genuinely humorous part of the comic.

Hey look, another generic celeb, this time one of Allen's admitteed comic infuences, Groucho Marx! There's lots of Marx expys in comics (most notably a running gag character in The Defenders and the lovingly-detailed Count Julius in Dave Sims's Cerebus, before he went completely off the rails (Dave, not Groucho Marx).

Oh Silver: big box offices, is that all you can think of? And here, for no added expense, is a panel I'll feature later this year on October 21 in "Today in Comics History!" It's the comic book that keeps on giving!

The second part of the comic is the musical itself, populated with songs sung to the tune of another. This was a frequent MAD magazine trick (I hold MAD #203's "The MAD Star Wars Musical" in great esteem), but the Maniaks treatment of the same tricky trope talls falls flat because the lyrics just aren't that funny. You can accuse Woody Allen of a lot, but being just not that funny in the late '60s isn't one of them.

There's nothing like a good tune. And that was nothing like a good tune! And here's two more!

Is the play a hit success? A failure? Will it do boffo at the box or mediocre in the mezzanine? Ehhh, the story tells us right out, that doesn't matter. And we won't find out! Instead it wraps up with the kids kickin' out fourth-wall and telling the readers to BUY MORE DC COMICS and write in with their opinions of The Maniaks. Did you dig it, hep cat, or is it the squarest thing since your Dad brought you home a Burl Ives album?

We never saw any of the letters pro- or con-Maniaks (Showcase of that era seldom printed letter columns), but I'm pretty sure the fan reaction to and sell-through of Showcase numbers 68, 69, and 71 was not so much manikial but more meh. The Maniaks didn't get their own comic book and didn't even show up during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Woody Allen also didn't get his own comic book...but he did star in a comic strip, Inside Woody Allen, syndicated from 1976 to 1984. The strip's recently been reprinted in a nice big volume Since Inside Woody Allen was distributed by King Features Syndicate, he must be in the Flash Gordon/Mandrake the Magician/The Phantom Extended Universe, and I expect Woody to make an appearance any day now in an issue of Dynamite Comics's King, teaming up with Dagwood Bumstead, Mark Trail, and terminal bring-down Funky Winkerbean.

But the Maniaks (established as existing in the DC Universe through a crossover character with The Inferior Five) were not completely least not by Kurt Busiek, who never forgets anything about comic books. Silver Shannon, cash-obsessed lead singer of the Maniaks, pops up in The Power Company as the secretary of team owner Josiah Power.

Panels from The Power Company #3 (June 2002), script by Kurt Busiek, pencils by Tom Grummett, inks by Prentis Rollins and Christian Alamy, colors by Alex Sinclair, letters by Comicraft

Note the poster for that Broadway show hung behind Silver's desk, and the photo of the other three Maniaks behind her (why wasn't she in that picture?). Also, and you can't say this often in comics: Silver has aged. This can only be explained by John Byrne's suggestion (about Timely's Blonde Phantom) that in comics you only age when you're not appearing in comics.

He rounded out her character, but Kurt Busiek didn't forget Silver's gold-digging propensities.

Panels from The Power Company #4 (July 2002), script by Kurt Busiek, pencils by Tom Grummett, inks by Prentis Rollins, colors by Alex Sinclair, letters by Comicraft

Busiek even let Silver save the day at the end of the series, a cancelled-too-soon #18.

In the end, we know what happened to Woody Allen, and enjoying his work can what we call these days "problematic" at best. But what of the Maniaks? Do they have any legacy in the DCU? Does anybody remember them? Well...yeah.

Panel from The Power of Shazam! #48 (March 2010), script by Eric Wallace, pencils by Don Kramer, inks by Michael Babinski, colors by Jonathan D. Smith, letters by Rob Leigh

The World's Greatest Band. Huh. They made it after all.


Matthew E said...

This is a particularly good article.

eric said...

Fantastic stuff Bully!

Erich said...

I can appreciate the cleverness it takes to make new lyrics fit an existing tune...but yes, it would definitely help if those new lyrics were actually FUNNY. It's especially egregious in that issue's parody of "To Keep My Love Alive" from "A Connecticut Yankee," because that was a comedy song to begin with! When you've got a spoof that's less humorous than the original, something's definitely wrong there...

Anonymous said...

Now I want to dig up my copy of Showcase #100 to see if Joe Staton included a Maniak or two!

Bully said...

Matthew E and eric: Why, thank you so much! I really appreciate it, and that means a lot!

Erich: I know, right! I'm kind of chalking it up to the usual "middle-aged writers being out of touch with the kids" trope, but hey, if the guys over at MAD are capable of doing it, and you're writing a comic book guesting Woody Allen — then again, the only genuine funny sequence is the one taken virtually verbatim from Woody's stand-up routine.

Ward Hill Terry: Whoa, that's a great suggestion, and it never even occurred to me. It's such a good suggestion I'm doing a post tonight about it! Stay tuned!

Bully said...

Okay, let's make that tomorrow, hopefully.

I'm having trouble with my FTP connectivity tonight. It's a bit difficult with hooves.

Dave said...

As someone who was a kid in the late 50s, let me state unequivocally that NO ONE wanted a comic about forest rangers or Boy Scouts. A TV actress? Maybe. The others? No.

Blam said...

As soon as I read Bully's remark about Crisis I thought to myself, "They weren't even in Showcase #100!" While I have both fond memories of that issue and the very copy I bought off a 7-Eleven spinner rack back in the day, I can't get to it right now to make absolutely sure, but the GCD doesn't list them as appearing there.

Bully said...

They don't appear in #100 at all! (Boo hiss!)

And I've got a post in the works about Showcase #100, but I haven't been able to finish it. Soon!