Friday, June 27, 2014
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 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 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.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Like a few other crossovers mentioned here, the two long stories in which the cast of the SIMPSONS meets the crew of FUTURAMA are not the greatest stories in either mythos. For that matter, I've never thought the humor of these Matt Groening concepts translated well to the comics page. In the animated TV shows, if a joke doesn't work, you just move on to the next one, a la the example of vaudeville. If a joke doesn't work on the comics page, it just there, silently reminding the reader of its failure.
Still, the first of the two Simpsons- Futurama crossovers, written by Ian Boothby and drawn in the Groening style, has some decent SF/comics-related in-jokes, like the one above, in which SIMPSONS character Waylon Smithers dons the outfit of classic anime character Captain Harlock. Similarly, the planet Nerdicus looks like Jack Kirby's "living planet" Ego crossed with the face of Jerry Lewis. Most of the interactions of the protagonists from the respective series are at best fair: Lisa gets along well with Leela, but nothing catches fire between Homer and Bender, Bart and Fry, or Marge and Maggie with Nibbler. The best joke appears when the universes of the respective characters are interconnected by a cosmic rift that looks just like a tear in a comic book page.
But though the first Groening-fest is reasonably enjoyable, Boothby's second trip to the well comes up with an empty bucket. The Simpsons cast-members, who are fictional characters to the world of Futurama, accidentally plunge into the "real" world. Because they have no legal status, the evil tyrant "Mom" subjects them to slavery-- an idea which sounds promising but doesn't go anywhere. All things considered, it's not the "worst crossover ever," but even the good jokes would have worked better had the same project been undertaken in the form of an animated special.
Saturday, June 7, 2014
I had a real jones for the works of Michael Moorcock in the early 1970s after the 1972 crossover between Elric and Conan in CONAN THE BARBARIAN #14-15. However, over time I don't know that I was quite as enthused about Moorcock's own crossover-concept: the Eternal Champion.
I've long thought that Moorcock formalized a facet of heroic-fantasy authorship that usually appears by instinct. Most of Robert E. Howard's heroes mirror one another in character, as do those of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jerry Siegel, and many others. In Moorcock the author's tendency to make most heroes conform to a "type" becomes a characteristic of an entire "multiverse." Though Moorcock's celebrated fantasy-heroes-- Elric, Corum, Dorian Hawkmoon, etc.-- inhabit many different planes of being, most of them shared the same mental outlook. Most are usually gloomy misfits tormented by their own misdeeds and by a sense of cosmic injustice.
Trouble is, while such heroes are interesting individually, they're not quite as interesting when they meet each other. In the 1972 "novel" THE SLEEPING SORCERESS-- actually a collection of three separate novellas featuring Moorcock's most popular character, Elric of Melnibone-- the albino-skinned protagonist encounters two other heroes. Both are, like Elric, aspects of the "Eternal Champion," a sort of archetype that remains constant in many multiversal domains. One is "Prince Corum," who had his own series of adventures around the same time as Elric. The other calls himself "Erekose," though he's not entirely identical with the character from the one-shot 1970 novel THE ETERNAL CHAMPION. For one thing, the Erekose-warrior in this story is explicitly black-skinned. I have not recently reread ETERNAL CHAMPION, but as I recall no reference is made to the race of the original Erekose. I assume Moorcock was having a bit of fun playing around with the racial identities of his heroes in different incarnations.
The crossover-novel brings the three heroes together in the equally eternal city Tanelorn, where they battle the magic of an evil sorcerer. It's a decent enough story, but loses some punch given that all three heroes sound and act pretty much the same. Further, this sequence of SLEEPING SORCERESS was originally derived from a similar section in the 1971 Corum novel THE KING OF THE SWORDS. Since they're pretty much the same story, I decided to count the Elric version as "best crossover," simply because it stands upon its own better as a crossover-tale. Further, it's a good basic representation of Moorcock's "Eternal Champion" concept, though perhaps not its most complex manifestation.
Monday, June 2, 2014
Technically, seven Golden Age heroes appeared here. Editor Schwartz had re-introduced the Golden Age Flash in the classic "Flash of Two Worlds" story in FLASH #123, and a follow-up in FLASH #137 strongly intimated the possibility of re-introducing other members of the Justice Society, though they only appeared more-or-less off-panel. Both Golden and Silver Age versions of the Flash are also in this JLA story, but the villains capture both of the super-speedsters and keep them sequestered for the majority of the tale.
The selection of "older heroes" is interesting; apparently Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox weren't worried about taxing any young brains by bringing in the 1940s versions of Hawkman, the Atom and Green Lantern as well as the earlier Flash. The Silver Age Hawkman doesn't meet his predecessor, but the Atom and Green Lantern of the 1960s do. Oddly, on the first page of the story where the Society appears together, Doctor Fate notes that other members of their august group have sent their good wishes even though JSA rules prevented their attending. Among the names of the non-attending is the Golden Age Wonder Woman. Perhaps Fox merely wanted to suggest that the other Wonder Woman had a distinct history with the JSA that did not impinge the career of the heroine currently appearing in JLA, but as I recall the Earth-II version of the Amazon Princess never appears in a Gardner Fox tale. No mention is made, though, of the existence of an Earth-II Batman and Superman, though the 1940s versions of those characters also made occasional JSA appearances.
The story is essentially a chess-game involving the two teams of heroes against two teams of villains from each of the two Earths: Chronos, Felix Faust and Doctor Alchemy from Earth-I; the Fiddler, the Wizard and the Icicle from Earth-II. First the villains challenge the heroes to prevent assorted robberies, and the heroes of both worlds are temporarily flummoxed. The villains then attempt to elude pursuit by going to one another's worlds with their ill-gotten gains. However, in the narrative's most amusing moment, at least some of the villains can't help wanting to plunder the rich again, even though they don't need money. This leads to an involved plot to confine the Justice League to their own HQ with a magic spell, a plot which can only be circumvented when the heroes of two worlds switch worlds to combat their regular foes. It's a typical Gardner Fox story, with nearly no character-moments but lots of heavy verbiage and rapid transformations of characters and things.
I find it unlikely that Schwartz had any plans to reviving either the Justice Society as a whole or any of the members who already had Silver Age doppelgangers being published by DC. However, Schwartz did feature four of the JSA heroes in "tryout" episodes of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD feature, teaming up Black Canary with Starman (mentioned as one of the no-shows), and Doctor Fate with Hourman. However, none of the 1940s characters received an ongoing series until the Justice Society itself was revived in 1976.