Monday, July 21, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #22




"He's good-- perhaps the deadliest I've ever fought! But he makes raw, insane courage replace true flying skill!"-- Enemy Ace's comment on his foe, the Balloon Buster.

DC Comics' war books from the 1950s onward might be deemed the first time the rather monolithic company invested in a genre with a reputation for maturity, as opposed to the company's better-known superheroes.

At their best, the DC war books flirted with a combination of "blood and thunder" and notes of existential despair, as seen to good effect in the fan-favorite series "Enemy Ace," created in 1965 by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, which focused on the exploits of Hans Von Hammer, a WWI German pilot continually haunted by the carnage he had to wreak upon his less skilled opponents. At the worst, the DC war books were sometimes indistinguishable from the superhero books, so that even a mature-seeming protagonist like the aforementioned ace might encounter (say) pilots garbed in skeleton costumes.  This was perhaps inevitable, since writer/editor Kanigher was working on books like BATMAN and WONDER WOMAN at the same he wrote the ENEMY ACE features.

The character's most notable crossover was also written by Kanigher, and co-featured a character created to be something of an antithesis to the moody German pilot: Lt. Steve Savage, aka "the Balloon Buster," an American pilot who specialized in shooting down German observation balloons. Over the years fan-favor has not looked quite as kindly on Savage's exploits as on those of Hans Von Hammer. It's possible that even in 1974, when Kanigher hurled the two opponents against one another in STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES #181-183, he may have "thrown the fight" somewhat toward the more popular Von Hammer.

Suffice to say, that though the American pilot is praised for his courage, the script gives slightly greater plaudits to Von Hammer for his sophistication and his "grace under pressure." In the initial encounter between the two pilots, Von Hammer forces Savage to land in German-held territory, so that the American is taken prisoner and doomed to sit out the war in a prison camp. Naturally, the spunky Wyoming-bred "cowboy American" won't sit still for this, and he makes a break for it, killing one of Von Hammer's subordinates in the process.  The inevitable final clash between the cool Von Hammer and the hot-headed, somewhat class-conscious Savage eventuates in one of the few times an American comic book concluded with an American character losing a fight with a German.



The characters met again in 1982, in a two-part tale extending across UNKNOWN SOLDIER #266-267, but aside from graceful John Severin art, it was a wholly inferior story. The three-part tale is blessed by exceptional Frank Thorne artwork, though, to be sure, no one ever did a better "Enemy Ace" than his artist-creator Joe Kubert.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #21





"The Indian" was one of two "back-door pilots" that appeared on the successful Old West teleseries THE RIFLEMAN. This Feb 1959 episode introduced the titular hero Lucas McCain to Sam Buckheart (Michael Ansara), a federal marshal who was also a full-blood Apache Indian. This episode, and a follow-up story that aired in June 1959, pilot led to a new series from THE RIFLEMAN's production company, entitled LAW OF THE PLAINSMAN. The new series debuted in October 1959 but enjoyed only a year before cancellation.

The follow-up story is all right but the first pilot, "The Indian," excels in its dramatic presentation of the travails of the guest hero, trying to make it in the white man's world of the 1880s without losing his identity as an Indian. The episode has the distinction of being directed by Arnold Laven, one of the collaborators responsible for creating THE RIFLEMAN, and being written by Cyril Hume, scripter for both 1932's TARZAN THE APE MAN and 1956's FORBIDDEN PLANET.

Lucas McCain is initially put off by the incongruity of seeing an Indian as a federal marshal-- as is his son Mark, who remarks, "What's this world coming to?" But given that he's a pretty liberal fellow despite the general prejudice of the nearby town of North Fork, Lucas does what he can to help the marshal. He's not too happy with Buckheart's arrogance; in the scene shown above, Buckheart enters the "whites only" saloon in North Fork and allows the locals to think he's one of them. This is a dangerous version of "passing," especially since Buckheart's got his telltale "long Indian hair" bunched up under his hat.

Though this is a tale with a liberal agenda, it's not uncritical of Buckheart. He has a complex history with the white man, in that he was adopted by an older cavalry officer after Sam spared the man's life in battle. He spares the officer upon realizing that "his white flesh was weaker than my Indian flesh;" however, the Apache apparently becomes acculturated very easily, and accepts the officer's largesse in order to attend Harvard, resulting in a "savage" who can quote from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. (One guess which famous line he quotes from it.) Lucas recognizes that Sam is baiting the white folks when he passes amongst them, and he criticizes Buckheart for his stubborness about going it alone against a town that won't stand for an Indian taking custody of a white prisoner.

Overall, it's a good drama, with a less violent conclusion than most episodes of the early RIFLEMAN show. I don't remember LAW OF THE PLAINSMAN very well, though I saw it in reruns years ago, but
Ansara and Chuck Connors play off one another very well as two western tough guys with essentially noble hearts.
 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #20



Among crossovers from the Golden Age of Comics, the meetings of the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner take pride of place. The closest runner-ups are the five issues in which publisher Lev Gleason pit their diabolical super-villain The Claw against the company's newly minted superhero, the original Daredevil. 

The Claw was a nightmarish take on the Yellow Peril menaces common in the pop culture of the time. Not only did the villain sport fangs, taloned hands and pointed ears as some Oriental fiends did, he could also will himself to grow to King Kong-like proportions, in addition to being a master of many mystical and scientific powers.  He was created by the famed Jack Cole for SILVER STREAK COMICS #1, where he at first engaged only ordinary mortals as his opponents,

Slightly later, the same anthology-title introduced a costumed hero named the Daredevil, who wielded an incredible boomerang-weapon and initially could not speak. Though the hero was created by Jack Binder, he's best remembered for the five stories in which Jack Cole pitted the athletic adventurer against the monstrous Claw.

The first story in SILVER STREAK COMICS #7 is a small masterpiece of Cole's busy, eccentric design,  The next three, also credited to Cole, were not quite so inventive, and the final part in the rambling tale was credited to Don Rico. Around this time Cole departed Lev Gleason for Quality Comics, where the artist would give birth to his most famous creation, Plastic Man. It may be that Cole simply expended most of his imagination on the opening bout between the titanic foes and was simply operating on autopilot thereafter.

Still, all five episodes have some inspired moments of superheroic lunacy in them, and Rico's final installment ends the ongoing battle imaginatively enough. The Claw, stymied at every turn, appeals for help to "Lucifer the Genii" against Daredevil. The Satanic-sounding being gives the villain an army of monsters, but Daredevil still defeats them. In a conclusion designed to allow the Claw to continue his weird series, his defeat forces him to remain in Asia for all time, so that he would never cross swords with the boomerang-tossing Daredevil again.


THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #19



The STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE episode "Trials and Tribble-ations" is something of a "crossover after the fact," but it satisfies my criteria for melding two separate series-concepts with different sources of appeal.

"The Trouble with Tribbles," the original "Star Trek Classic" episode on which the DS9 episode is based, has long been a favorite for fans of the series, as well as a touchstone that can be used to sum up one aspect of the show's appeal to outsiders.  However, "Tribbles" was not the DS9 producers' original choice for a salute to the classic series. Originally they envisioned a follow-up to the episode "A Piece of the Action," but a demonstration of the digital techniques used in 1994's FORREST GUMP convinced the producers to insert the DS9 characters into the "Classic" cast.

The result proved popular with fans, though the main plot of the DS9 additions-- selected crew-members must journey back to the era of the original Enterprise, to prevent Captain Kirk from being killed by a "tribble-bomb"-- is thin at best. It's largely an excuse to put the latter-day Trek epigoni in touch with their "ancestors." The DS9 crew generally express admiration for the Enterprise crew, though not without a touch of amusement at the indicators of a simpler time, as with the mini-skirted female yeomen.  Possibly the best "meeting of the generations" is one in which Bashir encounters a woman who may be his great-grandmother. In tune with the classic time-paradox, he wonders if he ought to sleep with her to make sure he's born in the future.

On the other hand, the DS9 producers weren't well advised to insert their characters into the one sequence of "Tribbles" that depended on precise choreography and an equally well-timed musical score. In order to put the DS9'ers into the big space-station brawl, the producers had to re-score the sequence, resulting in a pointless mishmash of new and old that does nothing for either. The only decent moment involves Worf's refusal to comment on the appearance of the "old style" Klingons, and this verbal exchange could have appeared any place in the storyline.

However, the best aspect of "Tribble-ations" is probably not just that it turned out as well as it did, but the fact that the producers happily did not make a second attempt at this sort of retcon-crossover, which could have turned out much less felicitously.




Friday, June 27, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #18




As a kid I was an inveterate reader of the Hardy Boys novel series. I was aware of the Nancy Drew series, but as it was said to be aimed at female readers, it never occured to me to read one of the Nancy novels. I didn't read widely in the "young detective" subgenre anyway: aside from the Hardys I might have read one "Bobbsey Twins," and that was about it.  Many years later I plowed my way through a Hardy adventure and was amazed at how bad it had become.

Later I would learn that the Hardys and Nancy were linked by their publisher, the Stratemyer syndicate, and that their respective novel-series had debuted within three years of one another. All of which may have caused the characters to become linked in the public mind to some extent.

I don't know what behind-the-scenes deals were made to launch ABC's 1977 "umbrella series," THE HARDY BOYS/NANCY DREW MYSTERIES. It was certainly a relatively "hip" take on the syndicate's perpetually goody-good detectives, though as I recall the stories were just as sanitized. I thought Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy were a little overly-groomed to play the Frank and Joe I'd grown up with, though I had to admit these Hardys got more action than their prose progenitors. Pamela Sue Martin, though, made a fine Nancy Drew, perhaps because I had no preconceptions of that character.

The first (and best) crossover of the characters on this series was announced in resonantly cheesy tones: "The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula." It seems that, as happened often in the novels, the boys' investigator father went missing, and they journey to Rumania in search of him. At the same time, Nancy Drew-- who regularly worked as an investigator for her attorney father-- also went to the land of Vlad Dracul to make contact with Fenton Hardy.  The brothers initially clash with Nancy and her girl-buddy Bess, but they eventually make common cause, and their trail eventually leads them to Rumania's signature tourist attraction, Dracula's Castle.

The story works in a rock-band playing at the castle, in part so that Shaun Cassidy has an excuse to warble. On the plus side, guest-star Paul Williams does a cute Halloween-themed vocal for a costume party, though it's not actually Halloween at the time.  Lorne Greene plays Rumanian police inspector Stalvin, who initially appears to be on the side of the angels-- or is he?  A mystery about possible vampire attacks ensues, with the expected rational explanation. However, one of the guest-stars gets made up like a Dracula-type, and without disclosing his identity, he looks pretty damn good in Lugosi-garb.

There's a hint of romance between Frank Hardy and Nancy Drew that pays off in a later episode. But possibly the high point of the episode is a scene in which Williams and Greene are in the midst of a confrontation, and Williams hums something that sounds very much like part of the BONANZA theme.

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #17

The two biggest reasons why American comic books became especially skilled in creating crossover fiction: (1) an artist's pencil could assemble casts of characters with far less expense than any other modern medium save prose, and that medium generally lacks a strong visual element, (2) the characters were almost unilaterally owned outright by the comics companies, and ageless ink-and-paper characters could be arranged into almost infinite combinations. 

I'm really trying not to let Marvel Comics dominate the choices here, but there can be little question that no prior comics company had ever promoted the crossover with such outstanding verve and inventiveness. There were some crossovers that were ploddingly ordinary, as with the FF/X-men meeting in FANTASTIC FOUR #28, and some that made you scratch your head in bewilderment, as when Iron Man met Angel doing a solo from the X-Men book in TALES OF SUSPENSE #49.

But if I had to choose just one to represent Marvel at its best, it would be the two-part crossover of the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the Incredible Hulk in FANTASTIC FOUR #25-26.



The first part of the story is the one that has gone down in comics-fan history. The super-foursome had encountered the Hulk in a previous issue of their magazine, but this meeting proved something less than stellar. Possibly both Lee and Kirby felt the same way, though one should not overlook the likelihood that the Hulk's peripatetic guest-appearances after his series' cancellation were aimed at drumming up fan-support for the character's next series.

Issue #25 has become legendary for one of Jack Kirby's most superlative scenes of two brutes tearing apart a city:



Yet Kirby never stints on the "ordinary human" elements in the mix. We see police frantically cordoning off the battle-areas, physicians battling to preserve lives-- among them, that of the gravely ill Reed Richards-- and the Thing's personal pest-brigade, the Yancy Street Boys, intefering with the big battle in comedic fashion. Kirby doesn't just tear down a generic cityscape: there's a definite sense of place to all of the boroughs through which the two monsters rampage.

The plot doesn't require much summation. In one of Marvel's early attempts to carry over parallel events in "real time," Lee and Kirby picked up on an ongoing plotline from the AVENGERS title-- the heroes are continually scouting about for their rogue member, the Hulk, to prevent the hostile behemoth from hurting anyone. While the Avengers are Hulk-hunting in the green giant's usual stomping-grounds down Arizona way, the Hulk happens to read about how he's been replaced in the group by the reborn Captain America. The monster gets a mad on to take on his old partners again, and heads for New York. Not only are the Fantastic Four the only heroes available to fight Old Greenskin, three of them are sidelined rather quickly for one reason or another, so that the Thing is free to take on his fellow muscle-bound monster for several pages of rousing chaos. Significantly, the Thing finally loses the fight against his larger opponent: an illustration of the classic aphorism: "a good big man can always beat a good little man." But Lee and Kirby don't allow the heroic Thing to throw in the towel despite his defeat, and the battle is renewed in #26.



If Part One was meant to push the Hulk closer toward a new series, Part Two spotlights the ongoing AVENGERS feature.  "The Avengers Take Over" doesn't have nearly the same pulse-pounding momentum as "The Thing vs. the Hulk," and there's a subtle shift in the storyline as apparently both Lee and Kirby forgot the Hulk's original mission. Initially the Hulk wanted to beat up/kill the Avengers for having replaced him in the group with a newcomer-- a motivation that didn't make any sense, given that Greenskin was the one who departed the group back in AVENGERS #2, of his own free will. In Part Two, the Hulk is suddenly irate at camp-follower Rick Jones because he used to be the Hulk's old sidekick, and now he's started hanging around Captain America. This didn't make much more sense as a rational motivation. But the idea of Hulk simply being jealous that his old buddy had a newer, handsomer friend resonates with the original fantasy behind the Hulk's literary predecessor, as the "Mister Hyde" in him sought to avenge wounds suffered by Bruce "Jekyll" Banner.

The inking by George Bell (aka George Roussos) is the story's greatest deficit: the former BATMAN inker never proved a good match to Kirby's pencils at the best of times. There are gaffes in continuity as well: during a scene that takes the two monster-opponents into the Hudson River, the Thing flees the Hulk in a motorboat-- and the Hulk chases after by leaping along the waves of the Hudson.  And even as a kid, I had to wonder at the ending: the Hulk falls into another body of water, transforms back to Bruce Banner, and simply floats away-- apparently protected by an authorial providence that made sure he didn't just drown.

Still, to repeat myself egregiously-- more than the Galactus Trilogy, the Master Planner saga, or any other touchstone, this is Sixties Marvel at its best, with or without crossovers.





Thursday, June 19, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #16



The spin-off/crossover of Supergirl from the Superman franchise in ACTION COMICS #252 (1959) after DC Comics had finally decided to take a page from their old rival, the "Captain Marvel" franchise. For roughly fifteen years, the only spin-off from Superman was Superboy, a character who provides an ideal example of a spin-off that is decidedly NOT also a crossover.  Then in 1954, DC published SUPERMAN'S PAL JIMMY OLSEN. In 1955, Krypto appeared in ADVENTURE COMICS #210, and in 1957 Lois Lane got a starring feature in SHOWCASE #9, which led to a long-running series. Supergirl, DC's answer to Mary Marvel, doesn't even show up before the Legion of Super-Heroes (April 1958), and for the remainder of the Silver Age (1955-1970), she's relegated to a backup feature in ACTION COMICS, though her stories were advertised on the cover.

Yet with the exception of the Legion-- which doesn't  seem to have been intended as a spin-off-- Supergirl is the only spin-off who sustains her own unique mythology. Krypto never gets a regular berth, or many adventures of consequence, despite some fans' enjoyment of the "Space Canine Patrol" stories. Lois and Jimmy occasionally meet weird characters or enjoyable villains, but the adventures are fairly repetitive, aimed at a young audience that would supposedly "turn over" every few years.

Supergirl, despite being aimed at the same audience, does eventually develop her own superhero mythology in her Silver Age stories.  After a slow start, the Girl of Steel takes on not only regular Superman villains like Luthor and Brainiac but a fair number of originals. These include the demonic looking Doctor Supernatural, the alien queen Ravenne, who revived famous evil females from the dead, and Lesla-Lar, Supergirl's evil twin from Kandor. In addition, a number of Supergirl's otherworldly adventures have a more exotic flair than the Superman stories of the time, possibly because the writers sought to aim the Supergirl backup series at young girl readers.  Supergirl continued to cross over into Superman's script on a semi-regular basis, and vice versa, but the introductory tale, with its imaginative concept of her origins in Argo City, may be considered representative of the period.