Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Ten Comics That Changed My Life--Part 1

Until I ran out of time because of law school. I was a subscriber to Jim Kingman's old-school fanzine, Comic Effect. One continuing feature is a series of articles titled, "The Ten Comics That Changed My Life." In each article a different comic book fan described the ten comic books that, if not literally changing their lives, had some affect upon them.

In the summer of 2003, I submitted my contribution and it was accepted (though I cannot remember the issue number). Anyway, in keeping with my desire to present more comic-book-focused material, over the next ten days I'm going to present one of the ten comics (with some rewriting for clarity along the way).

I have always had trouble making lists of favorites. To pick just ten (ten!) comic books that have affected my life is, I think, as difficult a proposition as asking a maker of M&Ms to pick his ten individual favorite candy-coated chocolate pieces from the last year’s batch. Reviewing the memories of thousands of comic books looked at, read, even absorbed since I was about three years old is, as silly as it sounds, hard. I could have settled for the by now almost cliché choices of Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, or included more modern comics as Bone or Powers. In the end, I just made a list of the first ten titles that came to me, comics that really helped create the comic book fan I am today. Unfortunately, the list of ten contains sixteen titles, but I was able to categorize. I apologize for the lumping where it occurs, and ask for forgiveness.

1. Batman; Superman-Aquaman Hour of Adventure; and
The Marvel Super Heroes

And then, to make matters worse, the first items I list aren’t even comic books. Well, I guess Marvel Super Heroes was not far removed from the source material. (In case you did not know, panels from actual Marvel comic books comics were photocopied and cut up. Then a key character (or to truly keep costs down, a key body part of a key character) was manipulated to provide an illusion that there was actual animation going on. In comparison to the work produced by Grantray-Lawrence Animation, and Krantz Film Productions for the series, the concurrent cartoons produced by Hanna-Barbera were fully animated.) Still, I ask your indulgence.

For some reason, there never was a time in my life when there were not comics around. While that may have been a common occurrence back in the 1960s, in retrospect it seems strange because a) I was the first born so there were no hand-me-down comics and b) my parents never had an interest in them. Family legend has it that my father bought me my first comic book from one of those comic book vending machines to keep me occupied while my parents were shopping; however, they were so ubiquitous in my life, even before kindergarten, that it sometimes seems I was given a Casper, the Friendly Ghost comic in the hospital nursery.

So it was, aged four, that I knew of comic characters in January 1966, but I cannot say that I had strong feelings towards them one way or the other. However, I was in the perfect place at the perfect age when my life would actually change and I would start to pay attention to comic books. All it took to change my life was being lucky enough to watch a comic book come to life when on Wednesday, January 12, 1966 at 6:30 P.M. Batman premiered.

Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward).; Image from This Is Pop! at This Is Pop!: 02/25/2005

I cannot begin to find the words to tell you how the Batman show affected me. Be small minded if you must and mock the show for what you think it is or how you perceive today forty years later, but to me it was Batman and because of it, my life would never be the same again.

Batman was everything to me. There was no comedy in the show and surely no mocking of comic book conventions as I saw the program over the next few weeks. That Joker scared me more than Nicholson’s version ever could. The Batcave entranced me. When the Dynamic Duo fought on the show, I battled around the room (eventually getting so out of control that I my mother forbid to watch the show for a week—a truly horrible punishment!—is it not amazing those things that affect us enough as children to remember into adulthood). I was consumed by the show and from that, wanting anything with Batman on it, especially comic books.

Then, in quick succession, two more shows arrived that solidified my love of super heroes. First, The New Adventures of Superman on Saturdays and followed by the daily The Marvel Super Heroes.

Superman (left), Superboy and Krypto (right). Images from Rob's Superfriend's Fan Page! at The Filmation DC Heroes.
For my super-hero hungry self, the Superman show would peak in the fall of 1967 when it expanded into The Superman-Aquaman Hour of Adventure. With that permutation, every Saturday was the lottery and I was always a winner. Not only would I get two Superman cartoons, a Superboy, and an Aquaman, the middle of the program featured a rotating character. Which hero would get the call this Saturday? Would it be a Flash cartoon, or an Atom? Maybe I would hit the jackpot and they would show a Justice League cartoon the members being Superman, Hawkman, Flash, Atom, and Green Lantern (or Superman with the rotating characters).

Clockwise from upper left: Aquaman, Flash with the Atom, Hawkman, and Green Lantern. Images from Rob's Superfriend's Fan Page! at The Filmation DC Heroes.

As I child I never could reason why Batman was not a part of the JLA on television, or Robin shown to be one of the Teen Titans, but even at six years old, I thought it was strange that Aquaman wasn’t on the team. Even Aqualad was a member of the Titans. I kept hoping that a Metamorpho cartoon would show up, like the DC inside-the-front cover ads of the time promised, but that never happened. In the end, I did not care because all it really meant was there were super heroes on television.

Clockwise from upper left: Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy, and Aqualad. Images from Rob's Superfriend's Fan Page! at The Filmation DC Heroes.

The lottery I mentioned actually ran six days a week. Though I’ve since read that each of the five characters, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Sub-Mariner, and Iron Man, featured in The Marvel Super Heroes were each featured on their own day, when I watched the show three different characters were featured. For those who have never seen the show, each character’s story was broken into three parts, so when I watched the show on a random Monday, I might have been shown the first parts of a Hulk, an Iron Man, and a Thor cartoon. You never knew which characters would show up, hence the lottery. (The second and third parts were shown on the following Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday, the first parts of three new random cartoons would air with the conclusions on the following Monday.) I loved all these characters, though given a choice I would have watch a Captain America cartoon every day.
Clockwise from upper left: The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, and Captain America (Not shown, Sub-Mariner).; Image from The Big Cartoon DataBase at The Marvel Super Heroes Show.
It is easy to pick on the flaws in all three of these shows, but I think the harder thing to do is examine them less cynically and, dare I say, appreciate them for what they were, not denigrate them for what they are not. Did it matter so much that there was no real animation in The Marvel Super Heroesmovement or that art styles could change (Kirby to Tuska back to Kirby) with each cut in a scene? So what if Green Lantern had a blue-skinned alien friend in the Pieface role or that Hawkman had a bird for a partner like Birdman? Hearing his maniacal laugh, did it matter that Caesar Romero’s was plainly visible under the Joker’s whiteface or that the bat-shield was way too big to feasibly fit into Batman’s utility belt. Who cared that Fantastic Four #6, “Captives of the Deadly Duo,” was essentially rewritten into a Sub-Mariner story and the FF was replaced by the X-Men; the theme songs alone made up for any flaws. What mattered that I was five years old and super heroes were on television six days a week.

I had not yet developed the jaded eye of stereotypical comic fan, eager to find the problems when comics were transferred to other media so to be among the first to mock them and to complain about them. All I knew was that there were shows and characters on television that excited me, that made me happy and gave me something to look forward to every day. I wanted to feel like that all the time and the fastest route I could think of was through comic books. I wanted to have as many comic books as possible; I wanted to read them and, though at five I did not think in that term yet, I wanted to learn the mythology, the history of the characters.

These shows were what made me want to have comics in my life. I have stayed with comics long past the cancellation of these shows,; I have probably stayed long past the time when contemporary mainstream comics could make feel me the emotions I was seeking at four and five. I read many comics books still and, barring the marketing-driven, written-for-the-trade stories that come from the big two, I recognize the honest statement that the stuff of comics currently being published is better than anyone this side of Will Eisner could have ever conceded as a possibility.

I don’t feel that same excitement anymore, but I do, happily, remember it. Has there ever a time to be any happier and excited about the sheer adventuring fun of super heroes than 1966-1967?

(Addendum: Robby Reed at his Dial "B" for Blog site, recently had a six-part series covering the development of Batman before it went on the air. It is some interesting reading, especially if you are one of those people who are capable of loving the show without having to apologize for it. The first part is here, with a link to the next at the bottom of the page. Caution: It is very graphically intense.)