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Boppin'

THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Red Tornado

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

In 1968, the world seemed like it could shatter. Assassinations and protests, an increasingly unpopular war, conflicts between races and generations, and a general feeling of unease and ugliness permeated the year. I was eight years old. I was oblivious to much of what was happening, but even I could tell that things weren’t quite right in the world.

This was not necessarily reflected much, if at all, in the comic books I read.

Comic books were safe, stable. Even within the occasional soap opera mishigas of Marvel Comics, justice could be expected to triumph. This was even more true in the relatively staid and conservative world of DC Comics, the home of familiar, comforting do-gooders like SupermanBatman, and The Justice League of America. In the pages of a comic book, an eight-year-old could be in his heaven, and all could be right with the world. Even in 1968.

In comics, one symbol of stability was the annual two-part crossover of the JLAand their parallel Earth counterparts The Justice Society of America, the original super-team from the 1940s. The first issue of JLA I remember seeing was the second part of the 1966 JLA/JSA team-up, though it remained on the spinner rack unpurchased (I bought an issue of Batman instead). Just shy of a year later, my first issue of JLA was part one of the ’67 crossover, cover-featuring an adult Robin taking his older mentor Batman’s place in the Justice Society. I was hooked, and dutifully (and gleefully!) purchased part two the next month. A cumulative twenty-four cents well spent.

By the time the summer of ’67 became the summer of ’68, I’d somehow figured out that these team-ups were an annual occurrence, and I was right primed for the 1968 two-parter while on vacation in Missouri. Justice League Of America # 64 only featured the JSA, with only Hourman returning from the ’67 team-up. I sort of knew Starman and Black Canary from seeing house ads for their co-starring appearances in The Brave And The Bold, and I remembered Dr. Fate from the cover of that JLA/JSA comic book I didn’t buy in 1966. This may have been my introduction to The Flash of the JSA’s Earth (Earth-Two), but I immediately dug his costume, with its helmet inspired by the Roman god Mercury.

That left one more new character: The Red Tornado. Over the course of these annual JLA/JSA crossovers from 1963 though ’67, writer Gardner Fox had reintroduced all of the original JSA members except the Earth-Two Batman and Superman, both of whom had been reserve members of the team in the ’40s; Batman had been represented by the above-mentioned adult Robin in ’67, and the original Superman would finally reappear in 1969. The original Red Tornado–nicknamed  “The Red Tomato,” in reality a muscular housewife named Ma Hunkel, who donned costume to beat on neighborhood nogoodniks in Sheldon Mayer‘s comedy strip Scribbly–hadn’t ever been a member of the JSA, nor even a reserve member; she’d stumbled into a one-page cameo in the Justice Society’s first meeting in 1940’s All Star Comics # 3, and was never referenced in that context again.

Although Fox and editor Julie Schwartz weren’t averse to using goofball JSA member Johnny Thunder for comic relief, they plainly had no interest in reviving Ma Hunkel (whom Starman recalled as “all brawn and no brain” in the ’68 story). Like ol’ Ma Hunkel, this new Red Tornado barged into a JSA meeting uninvited, but that and the name were the only things our two Tornadoes had in common.

Unlike the tough street fighter Ma Hunkel, the 1968 model Red Tornado had super powers, basically the ability to create powerful whirlwinds of force. The new Tornado believed himself to be the original Red Tornado from the ’40s, but he wasn’t; he was an android, created by the evil T. O. Morrow to infiltrate and help destroy the Justice Society, all as part of Morrow’s scheme to kill his real arch-enemies, the Justice League. Morrow didn’t even bother to give The Red Tornado a face; there were no eyes, nose, mouth, ears, nor any features at all beneath the mask of The Red Tornado. Nonetheless, The Red Tornado refused to be Morrow’s pawn, and instead helped our heroes defeat the villain. The Red Tornado joined the JSA, and later migrated to Earth-One to join the JLA. He perished saving both Earths in the climax of my favorite JLA/JSA crossover, Justice League Of America # 100-102 in 1971. He was resurrected again within a few years.

The Red Tornado’s 1968 debut roughly coincided with Marvel Comics’ introduction of The Vision in the super-team book The Avengers. These two characters had notable similarities. Both were androids, created by sinister masterminds (Ultron in The Vision’s case) as weapons against the good guys, and both rebelled against their evil overloads and went on to join the teams they were supposed to snuff. Both, incidentally, were also Silver Age remake/remodels of lesser-known ’40s characters. Even visually, both had red faces and wore collared capes. Mere coincidence? Yeah, almost certainly. But remarkable coincidences just the same.

I liked the new ‘n’ (supposedly) improved Red Tornado at the time, but looking back, I’ve come to prefer original Red Tornado Ma Hunkel to her android counterpart. For one thing, those Scribbly And The Red Tornado strips that Sheldon Mayer did for All-American Comics in the ’40s were a hoot, energetic stuff just loaded with sheer personality, more interesting to me than the modern-day miasma of a square-peg android wishing he could fit in. Great, a superhero from the island of misfit toys. I first read a teasing sample of Mayer’s Red Tornado in the ’70s, in DC’s oversized reprint of the JSA’s first appearance. I later read a few months’ worth of Scribbly And The Red Tornado stories when they were reprinted in the hardcover book A Smithsonian Collection Of Comic-Book Comics. I would love to read the entire series. Writer Geoff Johns finally brought Ma Hunkel back in the pages of JSA around 2004.

(Although Ma Hunkel never appeared in any of the old JLA/JSA meetings, I would have definitely wanted to include her if I’d had an opportunity to write such a story. I picture a scene of a group of non-powered JLA and JSA members, huddled in hiding while surveying an enemy army, Batman urging caution as he comes up with a plan of attack, only to see ol’ Red Tomato break ranks and dive-bomb headfirst into battle. Green Arrow joins the fight, saying “I like this dame!,” and Wildcat replying, “Told ya so!”)

In 1968, the world was in a fragile state, a state of frightening change. There were even changes in the comics, changes too subtle for a clueless eight-year-old to discern. Justice League Of America # 63, the issue before “The Stormy Return Of The Red Tornado!,” had been the final issue of JLA penciled by Mike Sekowsky. Sekowsky had been the League’s regular penciler since the team’s debut in The Brave And The Bold in 1960, but he was now moving on to other projects (including Wonder Woman). His replacement Dick Dillin debuted with The Red Tornado’s debut, and remained at the job until his death in 1980.

The Red Tornado two-parter was the JLA finale for Gardner Fox. Fox had created the Justice Society in 1940, and the JLA in 1960, and he’d been the only writer the League ever had. Until he wasn’t anymore. In 1968, DC wanted fresh blood, younger blood, to help it compete with those pesky upstarts at Marvel Comics. Thank you for your service, Fox; you know the way out. The winds of change were approaching storm velocity. Batten down the hatches, heroes; it’s gonna be a rough one out there.

WHEN THE EVERLASTING FIRST RETURNS: R is for

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Boppin'

He THOUGHT He Was An Artist! (Memoirs From Back At The Drawing Board), Chapter 2: Hero

Dark and gritty, 1976. Eat your heart out, Frank Miller!

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an artist almost as much as I wanted to be a writer. I kept writing, and I got better at it; I didn’t really stick with the art to the extent that would have been necessary, so those skills never improved. 

I think that Hero, my 1976 attempt at dark ‘n’ gritty superhero storytelling, slightly predates Agent 690: Man Of Action!, the over-the-top action hero comedy detailed in this spot last time. Both were done for Mr. DeAngelo’s art class when I was 16, in my junior year at North Syracuse Central High School. They may have even been related assignments, like, “Do something serious, then do something funny.” Maybe not. That specific memory is not gonna repair itself, so we’re stuck with guessing. Whatever path its origin tripped over, let’s have a look at my oh-so-dramatic, tortured superhero called…um, Hero.

Looking back, I am reasonably certain that no one working at Marvel or DC was worried about competition from me. Actually, this would have been around the time DC rejected a Batman script I had submitted, a tone-deaf story called “Nightmare Resurrection.” “Nightmare Resurrection” was an inept attempt to slap together–the word “craft” would be inappropriate here–a tense and mature take on The Batman, and the attempt failed miserably. It was self-conscious, it was violent, and it–what’s the word?–sucked. I am not being too hard on myself in this assessment. Seriously, I’m a big fan of me. I’ve done a lot of work that’s pretty good, and I’m not shy about putting that stuff out there. But “Nightmare Resurrection” wasn’t good, and DC was right to reject it.

Hero was perhaps similarly misguided, but I think it kinda works as a one-off art project. I don’t think I ever had any intent or interest in expanding it into a complete story; it was meant to be a conceptual snapshot, a snippet of a tale already in progress, no beginning, no end. I like it in that limited context.

That said, Hero was obviously created by someone whose talent did not match his vision. That’s okay; I was 16, and trying things out is how you improve. The writing is stiff and pretentious, but I think it shows promise. The artwork is even stiffer, clunkier, but I view it now without shame. Well, other than the clumsy application of Wite-Out. That’s a little embarrassing. 

And sure, the faults are glaring: no backgrounds, not even an attempt at creating a scene for the characters to frolic and fight within; the tacit admission that backgrounds and scenes were well beyond my ability to execute; no evidence of a working knowledge of anatomy; shaky use of panel structure, inhibiting the flow of visual storytelling; the sloppiness of a would-be artist lacking any discernible finesse. But the effort’s there, the experiments with lighting and shading, the attempt to vary perspective. It was all mine. I wish I’d thrown in some swipes to make it look better, but if I did this work in the classroom, I probably wouldn’t have gotten away with propping open a comic book so I could try to copy some Neal Adams figures, nor an anatomy book so I could try to get some plausible feel for how human beings should look in various poses and positions.

But again: it was mine. 

I was not a particularly good art student. Mr. DeAngelo didn’t discourage me, but I clearly lacked the motivation, dedication, and work ethic to hone whatever skill I may have had. Although I’ve never stopped drawing, I realized in high school that art could never be my primary creative endeavor. I could write, and I could improve as a writer. That possibility was potentially within my reach. I could never be great as an artist.

The package I submitted to DC also included art samples by my friend Mike DeAngelo, Mr. DeAngelo’s son, who was a far more accomplished art student than I ever was. Alas, those few pages weren’t sufficient to catch an editor’s interest, and they were rejected right along with the mistake I called “Nightmare Resurrection.” 

As noted in our previous chapter, Mike and I worked together on a few comic strips for the high school literary magazine The NorthCaster. I wrote, Mike drew. I think the depiction of The Shadow shown above was the only artwork I ever did for The NorthCaster. The Cafarelli-DeAngelo collaborations were all humor; I don’t think we ever tried to do any adventure or science-fiction for The NorthCaster. The closest we came was a one-page pirate story called “The Jolly Roger,” about a masked pirate who plundered other pirates, but it all built to a gag ending. It was also the impetus for Mike and I being kicked off the paper in ’75, when a dirty word made its clandestine way to the bottom of the published page. It was a stupid stunt, and I regretted it immediately. The editor wouldn’t even speak to me again after that, and I don’t blame her. Karmen, wherever you are, I am sorry. I was sorry then, and I still am. You were right to be pissed at me.

We were allowed to return to The NorthCaster the following year, chastened and humbled. We did a little more work together, but the new editor definitely preferred for me to concentrate on prose humor rather than comics. Mike graduated in ’76, and I did the same in ’77. We remained friends, though our paths eventually diverged, as paths tend to do. Those paths did merge a time or two in subsequent decades. That’s a story for another day. I have great fondness for the DeAngelo family, for Mr. and Mrs. DeAngelo, for Mike, for his sister Lissa (who became one of my closest friends after Mike graduated), and for their younger brother Mark, whom I barely knew, and who left this world at an ungodly young age. That’s a story I’m not qualified to tell. Its memory saddens me anyway. I caught up a bit with Lissa at Mr. DeAngelo’s wake in 2007, and Mike was one of the dedicated caregivers helping my Dad in hospice at the VA in 2012. Mike and I had a short conversation via Facebook just yesterday. The connection remains.

As years went by, as I wrote more and drew less, I continued to doodle, usually pictures of Batman. Go figure, and that still hasn’t changed. In the ’80s, I bought myself a sketch book. We’ll talk about that sketch book when He THOUGHT He Was An Artist! returns.

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Birthdays

George Reeves

Reeves, pictured with co-star Noel Neill (a.k.a. Lois Lane)

Born on this day in 1914, in Woolstock, Iowa, actor George Reeves. Reeves is remembered for portraying Superman in the early 1950’s, though he previously had a solid film career. He appeared in Gone With The Wind, The Strawberry Blonde and From Here To Eternity.

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Boppin'

The Everlating First: E-Man

The Everlasting First: Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

The late Nicola Cuti is one of six posthumous recipients of the 2020 Bill Finger Award, honoring comic book writers who created a body of work that has not received the recognition it deserves. The award is named for Bill Finger, the long-uncredited co-creator of Batman. Cuti joins Virginia Hubbell BlockLeo Dorfman, Gaylord DuBoisJoe Gill, and France Edward Herron as this year’s slate of honorees. My favorite Cuti work was a superhero called E-Man, originally published by Charlton Comics in the ’70s.The Charlton Comics line eschewed superheroes after the demise of its Action-Hero line in the late ’60s. By the early-to-mid ’70s, Charlton’s only superhero book was The Phantom, plus Popeye if you wanna stretch the superhero tag to broader parameters. Revivals of Blue BeetleCaptain AtomThe PeacemakerJudo Master, and Peter Cannon…Thunderbolt were unlikely, and it was equally unlikely that Charlton would create any new costumed heroes to take their place. Charlton editor George Wildman was amiable, but firm: superhero books did not sell for Charlton.
So the 1973 appearance of two new action series from Charlton was, to say the least, unexpected. Yang was a martial arts series, so that made commercial sense amidst the frenzy of the kung fu craze. But there was also a new superhero book–a quirky, energetic, unique superhero book, drawing more inherent inspiration from the Golden Age charm of Plastic Man or the original Captain Marvel than from anything else DC or Marvel was doing at the time–but it was undeniably a superhero book, a bona fide Charlton superhero book. It was E-Man, created by writer Nicola Cuti and artist Joe Staton.

For most of these entries in The Everlasting First, I’ve been able to call to mind some specifics about when, where, and how I first became aware of the pop subject at hand. But my initiation into E-Man fandom is a jumble of tangled, thorny, conflicting memories. E-Man debuted at a time when I was become ever more active in seeking out new comic-book superhero thrills; it was a little before the short-lived Atlas Comics line, so Charlton’s return to the superhero wars stood out even more. I think I remember purchasing an issue of E-Man (and definitely an issue of Yang) at a convenience store in Clifton Park. I remember a coverless E-Man scored at Van Patten’s Grocery in North Syracuse. Later on (1974? ’75?), while traveling with family from Southwest Missouri to the Florida panhandle, I know I bought an issue of E-Man during a pit stop somewhere in Arkansas. How did I first hear of E-Man? What was the first issue I saw, and/or the first I read? That memory is lost. All I can tell you is this: however I came on board, I was an E-Man fan instantly. I tracked down all the back issues, bought each new issue, and was crushed when it was cancelled. Superhero books did not sell for Charlton.
E-Man deserved a much, much better fate. This book was simply unlike anything else on the stands at the time. Jim Hanley‘s Captain Marvel pastiche Goodguy came closest, but that was a black-and-white strip that appeared sporadically in fanzines (and I would really love to see that stuff collected in book form!); DC’s Shazam! (starring the actual Captain Marvel hisself) never quite gelled, and Simon & Kirby‘s The Sandman was weird and kinda fun, but still more weird than fun. By contrast, E-Man sparkled with the positive energy promised by its hero’s insignia:

(And E-Man’s constant companion Nova Kane was the sexiest character in mainstream comics in the mid-’70s. I mean, sure, she was an exotic dancer, and that reinforced her pulchritudinous appeal. But her comic book appearances somehow avoided pandering for the most part. Nova was never, ever portrayed as any kind of bimbo or sexpot, and was usually the smartest and most sensible person in the room at any given moment. She was capable, and in control, simultaneously good-natured and wordly. Nova was the heart of E-Man.)

E-Man lasted for a mere ten issues at Charlton. Hard-boiled private eye Michael Mauser was introduced in E-Man # 3; presumably intended as a one-off character, Mauser eventually became a key member of the E-Man cast, and has appeared in solo adventures as well (initially as a back-up strip in Charlton’s Vengeance Squad). Nova acquired super-powers in E-Man # 8; I thought this detracted from the engaging interplay of the grounded, sensible, street-wise Nova and the cosmically naive E-Man, but I grew accustomed to the idea over time.
And I did have time to grow accustomed to the idea; First Comics purchased the rights to E-Man from Charlton in the early ’80s, and began a new series of E-Man adventures. Joe Staton returned to the art chores, but Cuti was unavailable; his replacement, Marty Pasko, had done some fine work for DC (including a delightfully goofy run on The Metal Men, with art by Staton), but his E-Man didn’t seem quite right to me. Cuti returned to his co-creation with First’s E-Man # 24. First Comics withdrew from the comics biz years ago, but E-Man, Nova, and Mauser have continued to pop up from time to time from various publishers. One of these days, I need to go back and re-read the lot of ’em. And I’m delighted that there were a few new latter-day adventures of E-Man by Cuti and Staton published within the past few years in the Charlton Neo series The Charlton Arrow
Nicola Cuti passed away in 2020. The work lives on. You can’t destroy energy.

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