Science-fiction, fantasy, and other stories

Tag: old comic books

The Last Lesser Hero / Aquaman

Foreword

The Last (for now) Lesser Hero

Aquaman and the Sea Devils is the last installment of a trilogy of original, non-graphic novel stories inspired by interesting—but flawed—characters from the Silver Age of comics. Characters whom I call Lesser Heroes. 

Unlike most Lesser Heroes who were created in the Golden Age of comics and then reimagined and updated as essentially new characters in the Silver Age, Aquaman has been published without interruption in one magazine or another since its debut in More Fun Comics #73 (1941), one of the ancestors of DC Comics. According to Wikipedia, Aquaman’s creators, editor Mort Weisinger and artist Paul Norris, were inspired by Marvel Comic’s Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who was introduced in Marvel Comics #1 (1939)

Since his introduction, Aquaman received incremental changes to his backstory, powers, and supporting characters until he received a more thorough revision in the Silver Age Adventure Comics #260 (1959). Since then, Aquaman has received additional or short-term changes, such as new powers, weapons, and even two teenaged sidekicks both named Aqualad. 

The Silver Age Aquaman is a merman, the hybrid offspring of his human father, Tom Curry, and his humanlike, water-breathing mother, Atlanna, an outcast from the lost underwater city of Atlantis. His parents named their child Arthur Curry, who is frequently referred to by the sobriquet, “Sea King,” or occasionally when traveling incognito, the alias, “C. King.” 

Arthur appears to be Caucasian with short, blonde hair and the DC Comics-patented perpetual, wide, ivory smile. His original costume was a shirt of gold scale mail, forearm-length green gloves, a thin belt with a stylized letter “A” for a buckle, and waist-to-foot green leggings with a cool fin on the back of each calf. Aquaman can breathe underwater; swim at incredible speeds and in crushing depths; has moderate super-strength; and most dramatically, can telepathically communicate with and control marine life. 

Although Aquaman has superpowers, his abilities have long been considered impractical, weak, and almost laughable when compared to other superheroes. This character has been the butt of many jokes and comedy bits, including skits on TV’s Saturday Night Live, and a long-running gag and comedic plot line on cable’s Entourage. This is the version of the character that I grew up with.

In recent years, DC Comics has sought to revamp Aquaman into a darker, moodier, and edgier character, but at the price of immensely complicating and confusing his backstory. DC has given him new costumes; a beard and short or moderate or long hair that trails in the water like seagrass; a mystical trident with immense powers over the sea; and even cut off his left hand to replace it in turn with two types of harpoon, and then a magical watery hand, until his flesh-and-blood hand was finally restored to normal. Fortunately, Jason Momoa’s virile portrayal of this Lesser Hero in the Aquaman (2018) superhero adventure movie has gone a long way toward earning the character newfound respect.

The Sea Devils are a team of ordinary, human, scuba divers and undersea adventurers. They debuted in Showcase #27 (1960), and were created by writer Robert Kanigher and artist Russ Heath. There have been a few other ordinary seafaring adventurers in comics, but TV’s Sea Hunt (1958) starring Lloyd Bridges as former Navy diver Mike Nelson, greatly popularized the idea of frogmen as heroes. 

Despite having no superpowers, other than extreme bravery and being excellent swimmers who dressed in spiffy, wine-red drysuits, the Sea Devils somehow managed in each issue to confront terrifying foes including gargantuan eels, octopuses, and sea-horses; giant mythological sea gods; and colossal aquatic aliens from outer space. (You may notice a theme going on here: Judging by each issue’s cover, every threat in the ocean is either huge, immense, or gigantic. I suspect that for each issue of the Sea Devils, Kanigher wrote a fantastical story that required the depiction of a gigantic oversized threat on the cover. However, Heath’s extraordinary draftsmanship guaranteed it was always a beautifully drawn gigantic oversized threat.)

I don’t recall any noteworthy or memorable stories in either Aquaman or the Sea Devils (as opposed to, let’s say, the Challengers of the Unknown in Showcase #11 (1957), “The Day the Earth Blew Up!”). Like most comics, the heroes and villains looked astonishing and their perils were extraordinary, but their stories became lackluster and repetitive. 

Well, Tim Allen Stories is about trying to be a better storyteller, so there are no astonishing drawings of extraordinary peril. Instead, I’ll try to create an astonishing tale; and while I’m at it, provide an extraordinary peril too.

My influences for this story are the original Aquaman and Sea Devils comic books; my What-Little-Girls-Are-Made-Of universe; Arthur C. Clarke’s science-fiction novel, Childhood’s End (1953); TV’s seaQuest DSV (1993) ; and perhaps surprisingly, the comedy film, Auntie Mame (1958).


Why are the Lesser Heroes “Appalling”? / Ranger

Why…?

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.


Lesser Heroes / Tomorrow

Series Introduction: Who are the “Lesser Heroes”?

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I’m a longtime comic book fan. My fondness for comics isn’t really so surprising when you consider how I voraciously read through the science-fiction, fantasy, and art collection at my local public library branch. As a young kid, or so I remember, I even stretched out on my belly on the living room rug, pushed my near-sighted eyes up close to the pages, and in one long sitting read all of Jules Verne’s Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

When I was a littler older, I reveled in the four-color Sunday newspaper comics strips. I was delighted by everything from the highly stylized, now quaint, adventures of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, to the droll and eerily prescient political satire of Walt Kelly’s Pogo. In the meantime, I was peeking at and coveting my brother’s collection of comic books, many of which were offbeat and long out of print. 

My adolescence ranged partly from 1956 to circa 1970. During that time, National Periodicals-Detective Comics, which later became DC Comics, bought out or outsold its rivals and ultimately monopolized the comics trade. DC had many “great” heroes and longtime best-sellers like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. But by the 1950s, even DC’s sales were starting to falter. As a remedy, DC started one of my favorite, but now nearly forgotten titles: Showcase magazine. 

Showcase, and its occasional sister titles such as The Brave and the Bold, was a low risk way of introducing trial versions of new superheroes without the danger of putting them in their own ongoing title, only to discover that readers rejected them and gave their title the cold shoulder. Furthermore, Showcase pioneered reimagining and reinventing old, outdated, and defunct titles from the 1940s, and giving current readers new, updated, and exciting versions of those heroes. 

Showcase introduced modern versions of “great” characters such as The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, and many more. These characters ushered in what is called The Silver Age of Comic Books, which coincided with my adolescence. Summarizing the lessons of expert writing teachers, the Silver Age books had relatable, more than one-dimensional characters; origin stories grounded in reasonably credible science-fiction instead of the ludicrous magical or pseudo-scientific creation myths of the 1940s; and modern plots with an interesting antagonist, conflict, and climax. 

More than anything else, though, Showcase was great fun! It was fun because after showing us the way, we readers could also dream of reimagining and reinventing great heroes of our own. And trust me, there were many DC Comics heroes to fix! Heroes who didn’t have a credible origin; who didn’t have engaging plots; whose premise wasn’t diverse or inclusive, or was just plain too insulting to be stomached by modern readers who had already witnessed too much of the world’s inequities. 

So, what do I call those heroes who weren’t great? How about…”Lesser Heroes”?

Tim Allen Stories is my way of experimenting with how to tell a good yarn. I intend to post three short-to-novella-length stories based on one or more Lesser Heroes that I’ve reimagined and reinvented as my own character. If all goes well, each story will be better than the last.

The rules of my game are these: (1) I can take inspiration from, but will make every effort not to infringe on, copyrighted intellectual property as defined by the U. S. Copyright Office. That is, I’m free to use series titles, character names, and any special powers or abilities a character might have. (2) I can take inspiration from a Lesser Hero’s appearance in any media, such as movies or TV, but of course, not the copyrighted expression of that character in the medium. (3) I can embellish my stories with real-world science, history, myth, and media. And (4), I can freely use ideas from original story I’ve already written and own, such as the What-Little-Girls-Are-Made-Of universe, being careful not to mix my ideas with copyrighted intellectual property. 

Hopefully, I’ll learn something about writing a good story in the process. Hopefully, I’ll reimagine and reinvent something new, entertaining, and better. And hopefully, I’ll redeem one more…Lesser Hero.


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