Comic Books Blog

The purpose of this blog is to provide fresh content as it applies to comic illustration, comic collecting, and updates for Amalgae. I will begin these pages with a little background about the earliest form of comics. About once a month, I plan to post a range of subjects relating to the comic book. I may occasionally include images found on the web. I will use them only for non-profit educational purposes. However, if there are any copyright issues, please contact me and I will promptly remove the images in question.

 

Still Ten Cents - 8/17/2011

Superman Hero ImageI was going through my collections of Superman DC comics and re-lived the many feelings that attracted me to the Superman character of the 50s and 60s.  There were many reasons I particularly enjoyed that era.  The first thing that comes to mind was the vibrant magazine graphics, such as the colorful costume, the bigger than life Superman title across the top of the comic. I had a great time laying out my entire collection and arranging the colorful titles like they were displayed in the drugstore rack.   Maybe the most outstanding memory was the writing.  The simple stories had to say a lot in very few pages.  They were arranged with an introduction, plot, and ending, and very few, "to be continued."  These often paralleled episodes of the 1950’s, Adventures of Superman, TV series, that ranged from human interest to very fantastical plots.  There were also storylines like the mad genius criminal element, which Superman had to either overpower, or out trick.  We saw a good share of aliens, robots, gadgets, and some interesting characters.  The charcters were perhaps not developed by today's standard, but they usually had memorable roles. The ones I enjoyed the most were Prof. Pepperwinkle (Phillips Tead), and Inspecter Henderson (Robert Shayne).


Like the TV series, the comic books also followed some basic themes.  One was the concept of the imaginary story and the hoax story.  These evoke a peculiar idea that fictional stories and characters could also have imaginary or alternate realities.  The viewer is made to believe the story’s premise, only to discover it was a dream or some convoluted fabrication. These could also fall under the guise that it all happened on a parallel world; what is read is not really happening to the real comic characters. Often the writer was upfront and referred to it as an imaginary story, warning the reader in advance that this was only a hypothetical exercise.

Another beautifully crafted theme revolved around secret identity plots.  In the early DC era, a great deal of creative energy went into tricking and counter-tricking Superman into revealing his secret identity.  This task most often fell to Lois Lane or Lana Lang, probably because female curiosity was a prominent stereotype in the 50s.  Essentially the writers would develop stories around all the many ways Clark Kent could be outwitted into displaying either his costume or his superhuman powers. These could have become marvelous Daily Planet exclusives, if it weren’t for the fact that DC comics needed Clark Kent to remain in character.  This no doubt provided a greater dimension to an otherwise invulnerable character.  Even though Kryptonite was a powerful weakness to Superman, I believe the writers still required this human element to keep the stories interesting, and connect the super character with the normal world and the average reader.

 

Upon retrospect, there were a few questions I had concerning the Clark Kent and Superman relationship.  Most admire Superman because of his extraordinary powers, handsome looks, physique, and bright costume. For all these reasons, I have been a big follower for many years. However, contemporary media has explored the more human aspects of the character, specifically, what really makes him super. This was touched upon in the movie, Superman II, where Clark Kent had to rediscover who he was after he lost his powers. In one scene, after losing his powers, Clark Kent was assaulted by a bully in a diner. What seemed disturbing to me was that the powerless Superman was no longer respected as a hero. Only after he regained his powers did he finally recover his respect, as seen in a later confrontation with the same bully. This leads to my next question. If the average person had Superman's good looks, physique, and powers, could he/she also be a Superman? Is it difficult to be brave if very little could harm you? So, what really makes Superman a hero? To paraphrase a post on the "Comic Vine" forum, Superman is heroic because he is a boy scout, idealistic, and incorruptible, he just happens to be super. A good assessment of Superman was given in Lex Luthor’s speech in Superman/Doomsday story, “Just look at him. So sleek. So powerful. So... beautiful, like some great golden god made flesh. Of course, any sensible god would demand absolute obedience in return for his favor. But, no, our Man of Steel protects us, with no strings attached. The people? Hmph. They practically worship him anyway. Enjoy your reign while you may, Superman. For surely as night follows day, there comes a time when even gods must die.”

 

I suppose this question was never broached in the comics of the 50s and 60s. A child of that era knew without a doubt that Superman was a hero and would never question his weaker side or denounce his allegiance to the American way. Perhaps these themes are considered tame or even boring by today's expectations.  However, memories of those stories will always rekindle feelings of youth, and a sense of security, regardless of how dark were the world events.  Even though comic art and stories have matured and some would argue have reached a high level of fine arts, I still prefer comics that were perhaps less sophisticated, printed on acidic pulp, and had the assurance of the “Still 10 Cents” label. These were designed for children, to read by children, and eventually destroyed by children. They were read until they fell apart or ended up in a cardboard box, stored in the attic, or in some damp crawl space. Maybe that’s what makes them so valuable today.    

 

Ancient Roots of Comic Books - 8/17/2011

Han Xizai's Night BanquetVery early semblances of the comic format were seen in ancient Chinese art. One such example is the Chinese painting entitled, "Han Xizai's Night Banquet," (10th century). It was divided in five sections, depicting the nightlife of a Chinese government official named, Han Xizai. The sequential use of scenes loosely define it as an early comic strip. These sequential divisions represent the basic structure we consider in the modern notion of comic books. We also see a narrative, told as a sequential story. It was believed to be painted by Gu Hongzhong, as a satirical rebuke of Minister, Han Xizai, who allowed the excesses of banquets and women to interfere with his duties as an official. The emperor commissioned this piece as a tactful admonishment. Despite the rebuke, Minister Han Xizai continued his revelry and loose lifestyle until the fall of the Southern Tang. Although it is not a comic strip by the strictest definition, it does maintain some of the basic and earliest format that now defines sequential art. For a picture of the complete scroll, please see the following link at Columbia University Media Center.

Gu Hongzhong, The Night Revels of Han Xizai, ca. 970; Hand scroll, ink and color on silk, 11 1/4 x 132 in. (28.7 x 335.5 cm) Palace Museum, Beijing.

 

From the book, "Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels A History of Comic Art," 1996, Phaidon Press Ltd., Roger Sabin gives an excellent overview of the earliest use of the comic book format. Much like the explosive effects of the internet on our modern day mass communication, so did the invention of the printing press change communications in the middle ages. Images for the mass audience were now distributed directly to the people, instead of through museums or monuments. Woodcuts were sold on the streets and brought to the people news, political satire, or religious information, all in pictorial form. The graphic story best communicated these ideas because they were quickly grasped visually, and relied less on the written word.

 

Below, we see a London woman sending her husband off to war. (c. 1644). Notice how an early from of dialogue is used, where the lady says, "Go to War." To the right of that image is advertised the beheading of Lord William Russell for committing treason in London in 1683. These are characteristically like the panels of a comic book, in the way it is created through pictorial narrative and dialogue.

 

Go to Warchopping block

 

Below is one of my favorites, called, "Kissing Hand," by H Heath. It was a satire for the pretentious conduct of the Court of Queen Caroline, 1827. This type of image was enjoyed by the middle-class as a satire against the privileged aristocracy. This has an excellent use of the word balloon, a precursor of those used in modern comics.

 

Kissing Hands