Saturday, July 31, 2010

Volume Four, Number Fourteen

As well as being a fan of comics and pulps of the 30s to the 50s I am also a fan of the old movie serials.

For those of you who are familiar with movie serials (also known as chapter plays), what they are basically is low budget movies divided into 12 or more chapters or episodes with each chapter ending with a cliffhanger (called this because quite often the hero, his or her aid, or some damsel in distress is hanging from a cliff).

Movie serials have been around since the early 20th Century with the first appearing in Europe. They were quite popular there and the American film industry quickly began producing them with the first being "What Happened To Mary" which appeared in 1912.

During the silent film era there were dozens and dozens of serials including The Perils of Pauline, The Son of Tarzan, Tarzan the Tiger and an endless number of westerns. All were made on the cheap and were one of the main attractions that drew people to the theatres week after week.

When the sound era came in many of the companies that produced the silent serials were not able to make the transition to producing chapter plays that worked with sound. Eventually there were only three main studios that produced serials; Columbia, Republic and Universal. There were minor studios that also dabbled in serials but these three produced the bulk of them.

Westerns continued to be big as did police yarns and jungle tales. As time went on though comics became a major subject of the serials. Comics series that were featured over the years include The Vigilante (DC), Congo Bill (DC), Captain Marvel (Fawcett), Captain America (Timely/Marvel), Superman (DC), Batman (DC), Spy Smasher (Fawcett), Blackhawk (Quality at the time of its release) and Hop Harrigan (DC). Comic strips and radio programs were also the subject of chapter plays including Flash Gordon (comic strip), Brick Bradford (comic strip), The Lone Ranger (radio), Green Hornet (radio), Dick Tracy (comic strip) and Buck Rogers (comic strip). And last but not least there were the pulps including The Shadow and The Spider.

Some of the serials were well done while others, well, had problems. The biggest problems were the very low budgets that were allocated to each serial. In some cases the studios would use footage from previous serials to cut corners and in the case of Superman whenever the Man of Tomorrow went into flight the shot cut to one of the Fletcher Superman cartoon scenes of Superman flying.

Depending on who you talk the general belief is that movie serials began to lose audiences when television came on the scene in the late 40s, early fifties. At one point to draw audiences in producers would even use characters from TV shows in their serials; the most notable being Captain Video.

But it didn't help and the last movie serial came out in 1956 from Columbia and was a western titled "Blazing the Overland". Don't think though that was the end of the serials. While the studios were no longer producing them fans of this film genre began making their own. Writer, movie and comic fan Don Glut fpr example used to make his own "backyard films" in the 1960s including The Aventures of the Spirit (featuring Will Eisner's Spirit), Captain America Battles The Red Skull and he even revived the serial superhero Rocketman in a serial entitled Rocket Man Flies Again.

Of all the amateur movie serials that have been produced most agree that the best one is a superhero chapter play titled Wildcat that was released in 2006 by Lamb4 Productions. And while only fans of the format have been releasing serials since 1956 chapter plays have still had an influence on other mediums; particular television. The chapter format has been used in cartoons since their earliest days on TV with the best known user of it being Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. On the original Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1958) original serials used to appear and on Walt Disney Presents movies were divided into episodes and were aired over a series of weeks.

The best known serialized TV series are probably Dr. Who and the 1960s Batman and in 1979 NBC aired a series called Cliffhanger which aired new serials. While Doctor Who is still popular today Cliffhanger was a flop lasting only half a season.

The movie serials had other influences too such as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises who made use of the fast paced action and cliffhanger formulas in their stories.

My first encounter with movie serials was in 1967; April 8th to be exact as it was on my birthday. Back then some theatres were still airing movie serials from the past and some friends of mine and I went to a theatre in London Ontario called The Hyland Theatre which continued that practice. I don't remember what the main feature or the cartoon or the movie short was but I do recall the serial; it was Nyoka and I immediately fell in love with the format due to its fast paced action and adventure.

During the 70s I used to watch a show on TVO-the province of Ontario's provincially run publicly owned television network-called Magic Shadows which every Friday night would run a chapter of a movie serial. Over the years I got to see more Nyoka, westerns-lots and lots of westerns-and Captain Marvel just to name a few. And when I couldn't watch an episode because I had to work my mother would watch it for me, take notes and then tell me all about it the next day.

One doesn't get to see many-if any-movie serials these days on television. There are dvds available featuring many of the old serials and I have a couple of video tapes with serials (Green Hornet and Batman). Movie serials probably won't catch on today but one never knows. In this fast paced age maybe they might just be what the viewing audience is looking for. Tons of action, sharp and snappy dialogue and a cliffhanger ending; all in fifteen minutes. What do you think?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Volume Four, Number Thirteen

As this is the thirteenth installment of volume four, my original plan was to either talk about some of my favourite supernatural characters such as MLJ's Mister Justice, The Spectre and Phantom Stranger or discuss comics titles and series that had the number thirteen in them like Dr. 13 and John Stanley's teen humour comic, Thirteen.

Then my buddy Groovy Agent emailed me to say that this is also the fiftieth post to appear at this site. So to commemorate both events I've decided to present thirteen comics covers that had the cover date July 1960 (fifty years go) and wrap up with a video that stars a character from one of those comics. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Volume Four, Number Twelve

If anyone one was wondering where I've been this past week it was some place I haven't been since 1992; on vacation.

Yes, that's right. The Jazzy One has not taken a vacation for eighteen years so this one was long overdue. I used to take vacations each summer with my parents back in the 1960s; most of them to Port Stanley Ontario Canada
( ) where I eventually lived from 2000 to 2009.

Summer was always a fun time back in the 60s (these days all it usually means is more work preparing for fall and winter releases of my work). I spent a lot of time on the beach in Port Stanley and splashing in the waters of Lake Erie pretending to be either Aquaman or The Sub-Mariner; depending on my mood that day. I also spent a lot of time reading comics as summer time comics were full of really neat stuff.

From DC (the National Periodical Publications) summer meant the annual team-up of the Justice Society of America and the Justice League of America in the JLA's title. These team ups began in 1963 and each year not only re-introduced members of the Justice Society (my favourite JSA member back then by the way was Starman) but also expanded on the DC/National multiverse concept.

The team-ups also brought characters from comics publishers other than DC/National into the multiverse including the Quality characters (Dollman, The Ray, Uncle Sam, The Human Bomb and Phantom Lady) and the Fawcett heroes (most notably Captain Marvel).

Summer comics fun also meant Marvel annuals which featured 72 pages for a quarter (the DC/National giants were 80 pages for the same price in the 60s). I didn't buy every annual from Marvel in those days-I had other more important things to spend money on such as the Archie Adventure Series titles, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, the Doom Patrol and The Challengers of the Unknown just to name a few-but those that I did definitely stick out in my mind even today.

One annual was The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4 (1967) where Spidey and the Torch teamed up to battle Mysterio and The Wizard. Another annual I remember fondly was Avengers Annual #2 (1968) where Cap, Goliath, Wasp, Hawkeye and Black Panther get stuck in an alternate timeline in which the original Avengers were tricked by The Scarlet Centurion (another version of Kang) into getting rid of the super-heroes and super-villains (along with Nick Fury and a few others).

So did I read any exciting comics while on this vacation? Not per say but I did read a really neat book on the history of the Warner Bros. cartoons and a book on the history of Iron Man. Does that count?

I will still have a chance to read comics on vacation though as I am going away again for a week this coming August. Right now though I have a comic that came in the mail while I was away to read and hope to review at a later date here in E-Dispatches (along with another comic I got a month or so back).

So that's where I have been folks. But I am back now and getting to work once more. Take care and be safe.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Volume Four, Number Eleven

Each time I am interviewed about my comics career the one question I can always count on being asked is "Who are my main influences as a comics writer?". While Roy Thomas has admittedly had a big influence when it comes to my interests in golden age comics as a writer specifically my reply without hesitation is Steve Skeates.

For those of you who don't know who Steve is he has worked in the comics industry since the mid-1960s and has written for DC, Marvel, Charlton, Gold Key, Warren and just about everyone else. His credits are legion and include Lightning (TOWER COMICS), Aquaman, The Teen Titans, Plastic Man, Hawk & Dove, Supergirl and Challengers of The Unknown (DC). And if you think he is just limited to super-heroes think again. He has also written westerns, mystery tales and funny animals including Underdog for Charlton where he added the Mutt of Wonder's Shack of Solitude to his series.

The reason Steve is such an influence on me creatively is because of his unique writing style. He is not what I would call a "pretty writer" but rather takes a subject and puts a unique twist on it that no one else had even considered. He can make the old look new again which is a rare talent in our business.

I actually know Steve on a personal level. We first met at Torcon 2, a comic book convention held at York University in Toronto in 1974. Also in attendance was Bill Gaines and Will Eisner; both of whom I also met. For a short while after the convention Steve and I kept in touch-maybe two letters-but as often happens life got in the way and we lost contact until the late 1990s when my buddy The Groovy Agent reconnected us at Blue Moon Comics Group. Since then we have kept contact on a regular basis and have even worked together on a project or two including a short story called "Tepeth-Tet" (with pencils by another comics legend, Dick Ayers) that is supposed to be published by CE Publishing Group later this year ( ).And if all goes according to plan I will be publishing Steve's Stateside Mouse at the end of this year under my Red Lion Publications imprint ( ).

If I were asked what of Steve's work I liked best I would be pretty hard-pressed to pick any one thing. His work on Aquaman in the late 60s and early 70s is still one of the best examples of quality comics writing going and his Supergirl stories in DC's Adventure Comics actually made The Maid of Steel an interesting character.

But if I had to chose one body of work I would have to say that it was his run on DC's Blackhawk series (#244-250) that appeared Jan-Feb. 1976 to Jan-Feb. 1977. Even though the revival of this legendary title was for one year Steve did his best to put new energy and excitement into a concept that had been suffering during the last days of its earlier run.

As I said though I would be pretty hard pressed to pick any one body of work. Steve Skeates is one of the few comics writers that I have read over the decades who have never let me down. He does good stuff.

Jonathan "A" Gilbert is a comics writer, columnist, comics reviewer, comics editor, comics publisher and t-shirt designer. He can be contacted at .

Friday, July 9, 2010

Volume Four, Number Ten

My first true love is comics but I also have a love for the pulps. I have been aware of them for as long as I can remember; "Doc Savage", "The Shadow", "The Avenger", "Conan", these were the kinds of things my father read as a kid-along with the long gone British publication CHUMS-and when I was a kid he used to tell me all about his childhood love for them.

I didn't really, really start to fall in love with the pulps though until the 1970s when some of the old stories started to appear in paperback and Ron Goulart's excellent "Cheap Thrills: An Informal History of Pulp Magazines" came out.

That was also around the same time that I started to learn about the origins of comics and what a big influence pulps played on the creation of some of the heroes and how even some of the publishing companies-Fiction House, Timely, National Periodicals and Nedor just to name a few-were originally publishers of pulp magazines.

This was around the time when I began to use the pulps and pulp-influenced comics characters as my inspiration. My "Snow-Man" character for example was strongly influence by the original Sandman and "Mister Chameleon" ( ) was influenced by "Cosmo The Phantom of Disguise", one of the early characters of Detective Comics.

Cosmo also got me interested in another type of pulp genre;the yellow peril tales. Now if you aren't familiar with that term you can check it out at . The best known of the yellow peril characters was and still is of course Dr. Fu Manchu but there were others including Doctor Yen Sin, Wu Fang, Doctor Zeng Tse-Lin are just a few of them. And just about every pulp hero around battled a yellow peril inspired villain back in the 30s from The Shadow to The Spider to The Phantom Detective. The list goes on and on.

Now the tales were clearly racist and jingoistic but they did reflect the events of the day. And the fears of the yellow peril in fact continued into the fifties and sixties with The Yellow Claw (from Atlas) and The Mandarin, Iron Man's enemy.

An excellent subject on the yellow peril genre in the pulps is IT'S RAINING MORE CORPSES IN CHINA TOWN' that is edited by Don Hutchison. As well as packaging some great tales from that period he wrote an excellent, brief history on the genre. Mr. Hutchison also wrote an excellent book on the history of pulp heroes called THE GREAT PULP HEROES. Both are still available and might even be in your local library. Check them out.

Now I still love comics first and foremost. Never doubt that. But the pulps definitely are worth reading, too. Check some out when you get the chance.
Jonathan "A" Gilbert is a writer, editor, small press publisher and t-shirt designer. He can be contacted at .

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Volume Four, Number Nine

There have been a heck of a lot of short-run comics series since the 1930s. Some of them really stand out in the minds of comics fans-"Brother Power, The Geek", the original run of "The New Gods", "It, The Colossus" and, believe it or not, "Night Nurse" just to name a few-while others quickly faded from the minds of everyone...and for darn good reasons, too. DELL's 1960s "Dracula", "Frankenstein" and "Werewolf" immediately come to mind.

For me there is one comic series that came out in the 1970s that I loved at the time and love to this day. It is/was "Rima The Jungle Girl".

Published by DC Comics it was written by Robert Kanigher with art by the very talented Filipino Nestor Redondo and ran for seven issues from May 1974 to May 1975 (cover dates).

Now I am embarrassed to admit this today but at the time "Rima The Jungle Girl" came out I was first attracted to it as the title character had the same colour hair as Sharon Thompson, my first serious public school crush from many years earlier.

There was of course much more the comic than that and I realized it very quickly as I began reading the first issue. "Rima The Jungle Girl" was actually a comic book adaptation of the 1904 novel by W.H. Hudson called "Green Mansions: Romance of The Tropical Forest". Hudson was an Argentine-British writer and ecologist who not only wrote a whole bunch of really great books doing his career but did a lot of important ecological work in South America. CBC Radio-1 did an excellent overview of his exploits a couple of years back on its IDEAS program.

Hudson based Rima on a South American legend about a lost tribe of white people who lived in the mountains. The novel itself is an accurate portrayal for the most part of South America and it also has some excellent ecological messages in a time when such things were not in vogue.

The DC comic was not the first adaptation of Hudson's novel. CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED did one in 1951-which was reprinted numerous times before the company went out of business-and Rima herself has appeared in AMERICA'S BEST COMICS' "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" Vol. 2 No. 3.

Rima has also appeared in three episodes of THE ALL NEW ADVENTURES OF THE SUPER FRIENDS (the 1977-1978 season) plus in 1959 MGM made a movie very loosely based on Hudson's novel called THE GREEN MANSIONS (starring Audrey Hepburn as Rima).

"Rima The Jungle Girl" still stands out in my mind to this very day as one of the better short-lived comics titles. I'd recommend if you see it in the comics bargain bin to pick up all seven issues. But read the book first. You won't regret it.

Take care and be safe.