Saturday, June 12, 2021

Not For Kids

My recent post about Mr. Mind's connection to serialization in comics storylines has made me realize something terribly obvious that I never noticed:

Golden Age comics were NOT written for kids, no matter what they tell you.  

When they began making comics, composed of part newspaper comic strip reproductions and new material, they were doing the same thing newspaper did with the comics page: trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.  So Golden Age heroes were just as bloodthirsty as newspaper adventures strips, like the Phantom or Dick Tracy.  

It really wasn't until the Silver Age that publishers suddenly realized: hey, most of our readers are CHILDREN.  We can, and should, start to use styles targeted toward them.  

This is why people think Comics Used To Be So Innocent; they are thinking ONLY of Silver Age comics.  Golden Age comics weren't like that at all. Case in point: two panels from a Rusty Ryan adventure story in early issue of Feature Comics:

There is simply next to no way to interpret "play with them" other than sexually.  That was NOT written for children.  

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Long Game

I believe I know who is responsible for decompression in DCU storytelling.

In recent conversation, a friend and I were marveling at a paradox in the creation and consumption of modern entertainment.  It's supposed to be common knowledge and  unquestioned wisdom that "our average attention span has grown shorter and shorter." TikTok, Twitter, and memes, those repositories of contemporary sententiae, are proof of our current desire for 'fun-sized' infotainment.  We consume popular culture byte by byte at a buffet, rather than ordering a several-course meal from a menu.

Yet, at the same time, our entertainment formats are increasingly long-form.  Television used to be primarily, if not entirely, episodic; shows were written to be watched in any order.  Nowadays series are much more, well, serialized.  Not only is there an order the episodes are to expected to be watched in, but there is one or many overarching storylines that will be ruined if you do otherwise.  Cinema, formerly composed of individual films, is now composed of franchises and universes.  

Once upon a time, television teemed with variety shows (like Sonny & Cher Hour of The Carol Burnett Show or the Ed Sullivan Show).  What kind of people watch AN HOUR of Sonny & Cher? EVERY WEEK?!

 I bet you can't last ten minutes.  

Trapped people, that's who; there were only three networks, after all; at any point in the evening you had only three choices of what to watch, and, boy, did the networks take advantage of that fact.  Late night shows still have embedded vestiges of that era; could anything be more objectively incongruous than the musical guest spots in sketch show Saturday Night Live?

Similarly, vignette shows (like Love, American Style, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island) used to rule the small screen, like on-air retirement communities for faded and secondary stars.  Whitman used to make SAMPLERS, for heaven's sake.

All those are gone (except for SNL); even Sabado Gigante was cancelled. 

I would have imagined such entertainment as immune to time.

So, too, comic books.  Originally, comic books were full of, um, comics. Comic strips, that is, reproduced from newspapers.  These books were also variety shows; one book would contain features with wildly different tones and styles.  Those were the days of broadcasting; entertainment was designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, since everyone was vying for the same audience (unlike today, where the world of on-demand entertainment fosters "narrowcasting" to niche audiences).  

Even the Justice Society was a variety show. Most modern comic books readers think of the Justice Society as a 'team', which shows only that they've never actually read a Golden Age Justice Society comic book, which was as anthology series of different heroes having different adventures in different styles of art and writing, with a wraparound plot summed up by Captain Stubing and Mister Rourke. 

Or something like that.

I've been reading the early adventures of Doll Man lately (as you may have noticed) and they take place in something literally called "Feature Comics".

This month's special guest star: DEATH.

Here's a SAMPLER of the kinds of co-stars in "Feature Comics":

At home activity: kids, arrange these characters in order of gay joke potential!

If you want to sleep tonight, do not think of Blimpy.

It's hard to believe those characters were in the same comic where Baby Groot tried to rape Doll Man.

Over time, the new longer-form features (usually costumed crimefighters) created to flesh out these anthology books started to push out the comic strip style features.  "Comics" became "superheroes", with a main story and maybe a back-up feature (of another, less popular, superhero, like Green Arrow), until back-up features were also pushed out.  

As mainstream superheroes expanded to squeeze out their smaller co-stars, they took over their original books (such as Action, Detective, and Sensation), then got their own titles (such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman), then started to take over other titles (such as Brave & The Bold) and sometimes generating their OWN PERSONAL anthology titles (such as Batman Family and Superman Family).  

After that, their STORYLINES expanded beyond one-and-dones, into two-parters, then three-parters, until "arcs" became a thing and that thing became the norm.  "Writing for the trade", as it was called. facilitated the 'binge-watching' habits of modern audiences. Thus, the average comic book evolves from being a bunch of appetizers to the world's longest hoagie.

And often just as stale and dry.

In truth, shrinking attention spans and lengthening pop-culture formats are related.  Increasingly impatient consumers, no longer trapped in a three-network world, are ready to bolt if you don't grab their attention immediately; as a result, content producers are increasingly desperate to keep that attention, and so drag out their storylines as long as possible to keep the audience hooked (by the sunk-cost fallacy, if nothing else).  

But where and when did this begin? Longer ago than I would have thought and in an unexpected place...

Fawcett City.

It's a little hard to imagine now, but there was a time in the early history of superhero comics that Shazam (then known as Captain Marvel) was more popular than Superman. A LOT more popular.  It's not surprising, in retrospect; Superman, after all, was just another adult adventure strip (except that the adventurer had superpowers).  Shazam was actually clearly written for kids, with a boy using a magic word to become the world's mightiest mortal, and talking tigers, and evil alien worms, and no child labor laws. 

Superman may be vulnerable to magic but
Shazam is vulnerable to lawsuits.

Shazam, in fact, was the star of one of the most popular movie serial of its day (1941) and one of the only ones considered remotely watchable by today's standards.  Inspired by its popularity at the cinema, the Fawcett comics publishers decide to try importing the 'serial' format into their books, as of Captain Marvel Adventures #22 (1943).

Just like Brad Meltzer!

It's the future of comics, Billy, and you're to blame.

Or, at least, your villains and publishers are.

This was the introduction of Mr. Mind and his formation of the Monster Society of Evil.

Oh, and "also the Nazis and Japs." 
One needs manpower, after all.

Mr. Mind didn't show his face because, of course, they were holding back for the eventual ironic reveal that he was just a tiny worm.  But the deeper reason is that Mr. Mind represented the perceived potential danger of the persuasive power of RADIO.  Mr. Mind's physical form wasn't important (as his very name implies).  Through the medium of radio he could be everywhere, direct a universal organization of evil, and safely effect spooky action at a distance.  It's no coincidence that Mr. Mind literally has a tiny radio hanging around his neck.

Even the later, post-Kingdom Come, interpretations of Mr. Mind preserve the idea that he control minds through invasive means (from inside their brains).  

As his taunt states, his long-game was to throw pawn after pawn at Shazam, eventually wearing him down to the point of cracking.

And, yes, this IS where Bane got the idea.
They still read Captain Marvel in Santa Prisca.

The key phrase here is "plot after plot".  The introduction of Mr. Mind teed up a serial format, where the plot of each segment was the "Monster of the Month" that Mr. Mind was throwing at our hero.  

Eventually, Mr Mind was caught;

This is what it sounds like
when worms cry.



and executed.

What did you expect? It's the Golden Age, of course they fried him, stuffed him, and put him on display.

This storyline had some 27ish chapters and took two years (as Billy Batson notes); now THAT is long-form.  And once it was over, the publishers asked for feedback about the character AND the format.

I am SO tempted to check yes/yes/NO, and mail it to that address, but I can't find a penny postcard any more.

There was an outpouring of support, according to writer Otto Binder (as quoted in the article linked above):
"We truly were amazed at the electrifying response...letters pouring in...and believe me, with a readership of over one million as we had in those days, the mail can become pretty imposing. A rousing consensus simply loved Mr. Mind! Why? We never figured it out.

As a result, the writers revivified Mr. Mind.

With a renewed joie de vivre.

Apparently, the readers loved not just Mr. Mind, but the serial format as well.  As much as they enjoyed the immediate fix of an exciting story, they also loved the payoff of longer-term commitment to a title.  

We are still paying the price of that discovery.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Understanding Doll Man, 2

 Doll Man sleeps on top of his bed canopy.

Much like Snoopy.

Doll Man does poppers.

"I couldn't possibly stop someone from doing with it what they please!"

Doll Man's hotel room comes with a complimentary hunchback.

But if you use the noose, it goes on your bill.

In Doll Man's city, local ordinances require all hunchbacks to dress like Quasimodo.

And the hotel rooms have idiosyncratic perspective and avant-garde decorating theory.

Doll Man is ever-ready for hot pursuit down a narrow black secret tunnel.

And dressed for it.

Doll Man can memorize his every step.

But only grimly.

Doll Man is vulnerable to steel doors.

Oh! Oh!

Doll Man has no trouble thinking in three dimensions.

Which is useful when you are six inches tall.

Doll Man's city has neighborhoods where diamond merchant hotels, recluse estates, and childhood homes are all adjacent.

P E R S P E C T I V E!

Doll Man can fly a plane.

Even one that, as a toy, cannot possibly contain interior control mechanisms.

Doll Man has NO idea what constitutes a fine runway.

Since, relative to him and the plane, the average grass lawn is the equivalent of three foot high, and fine runaways do not have three foot of grass.

Doll Man thinks the element of surprise is for wusses.

He can rely on simply having the strength of a normal-sized man.

Doll Man requires a desperate effort to break free of someone's grasp.

Even though he has the full strength of a normal-sized man and can fall the equivalent of sixty foot without harm.

Doll Man is perfectly capable of getting rough, if you like that sort of thing.

It's okay, though; he's only six inches.

Doll Man cannot distinguish between being unconscious and being peaceful.

 Because he has an idiosyncratic perspective.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Understanding Doll Man., 1.

Doll Man lives somewhere in the middle of an unknown city, with idiosyncratic perspective.

And bean people.  And orange grass.  And yellow skies.

A city where toy aeroplanes are the size of children.

Much bigger than the one that hit Hal Jordan's head.

Doll Man supports creativity in the youth.

As well as briefness in conversation.

Doll Man lives somewhere in the middle of an apartment with idiosyncratic perspective.

And avant garde decorating theory.

Doll Man's hat has a life of its own and defies physics.

Eat your heart out, Phantom Stranger.

Doll Man arranges his books by color, not subject or author.

All must be tidy in Doll Man's world, including word balloons.

Doll Man's city has ultra-specific boutique businesses.

And an exceedingly vibrant diamond exchange.

Doll Man's visitors can wilt your bouquets with harrowing exposition.

How often does "so often" mean in this context?

Doll Man's city conserves electricity.

And discourages Kryptonian tourists.

Doll Man contains within him multitudes.

All of them prepared to stay the night.

Doll Man puts out the light shortly.

Because that's how he does everything.