The common subtitle for my Lesser Heroes stories is, “Original stories inspired by appalling tales from the Silver Age of Comics.” But why do I say these stories are “appalling”? And why, amongst many contenders, is the Space Ranger arguably the most deplorable? Well, there’s a story that goes with the answer to those questions.
Legend has it that DC comics editorial director, Irwin Donenfeld, asked editors Jack Schiff and Julius Schwartz to create two new science-fiction based heroes, one of whose adventures would be set in the present, and the other’s would be set in the future. Given first choice, Schiff chose the hero based in the future. Poor Julie Schwartz had to settle for the present (which forced him to ultimately create the cool, award-winning, quick-witted greater hero, Adam Strange).
And although I don’t know it for a fact, but can only judge from the final result, Donenfeld might have added, “By the way, Jack, don’t spend too much time and effort dreaming up this new character. Tell you what. Why don’t you take an already popular hero from TV, radio, or the newspaper comic strips and, shall we say, ’adapt’ him to your new title? I know! You can take the Lone Ranger; put him in the future; in outer space; with a rocket ship, and a spacesuit, and some sort of ray-gun that can do practically anything; and call him… call him…let’s come up with something original here…I’ve got it!…The Space Ranger.”
In the comic book industry of the time, just like the jokes stolen again and again by vaudeville comedians, the idea of plagiarism was just a highfalutin notion.
The writers and artists who created Space Ranger had excellent reputations and long strings of previous successes. But something went bizarrely off-kilter with the Space Ranger from the very beginning, in my opinion. Their costume and character designs were barely passable. Some character illustrations were incongruously cartoonish; while others had amateurish anatomy and stock fearful expressions and poses; and the remainder were sometimes drawn in blotchy, blocky chiaroscuro.
The stories were ridiculously melodramatic, even by a little kid’s standards, and the cultural stereotypes of humans and aliens alike were insulting in a way that uniquely branded the DC comics of the time.
I don’t think most creators intentionally do bad work, and I have consciously considered giving the Space Ranger’s artists and writers the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know what kind of pressure they were under in those days. Perhaps they were trying to put food on their family’s table and they couldn’t afford to displease their bosses by spending more time doing better work. Perhaps they resented being forced to plagiarize a well-known idea and conspired to do mediocre work in hopes of ruining sales and coaxing DC to cancel the series.
Arguably, it might be unfair to judge the work of those creators then, by my standards today. But it’s still hard to excuse them when, in an already unbelievable and clichéd depiction of green-skinned aliens with bird-beaked faces living on a moon of Saturn, they go on to culturally misappropriate the worst parts of old-fashioned, black-and-white cowboy movies by depicting the aliens as wearing Native American feathered bonnets, loin cloths, and fringed buckskin pants while threatening the hero with vaguely futuristic tomahawks and bows and arrows. I realize the incongruity of that image is supposed to draw the reader in; but it, like so many aspects of this and other Lesser Heroes, is so appalling that it sabotages the intent.
Despite all of the above, there’s still a faint spark of something fun and worthwhile in the Space Ranger that possibly could be fanned into a flame, if only we try. Let’s see if the following story can do better.