Saturday, March 28, 2015

Mainlining Four - Bulls Eye!

Bulls Eye, a raucous western comic was the fourth and final offering from Joe Simon's and Jack Kirby's Mainline Comics. Ostensibly the flagship title for the little company, Bulls Eye Western Scout lasted a whopping five whole issues. To read a few stories check this out.

The fifth and final Mainline issue of Bulls Eye was published in early 1955.

Charlton Comics took over the title and much of the unpublished material with the sixth issue later in 1955 and published two more issues.

With the eighth issue the title was changed to Cody of the Pony Express. Like the other Mainline books, the series would continue inside the original genre for many years.

The last issue of Cody of the Pony Express was the tenth.

Then the with the eleventh issue of the run the title was changed again to Outlaws of the West in 1957 which proved to be a very successful alteration.

Outlaws of the West, which went on to feature such notorious Charlton anti-heroes such as Kid Montana and Captain Doom lasted until 1970 when the eighty-first issue hit the stands.

The title was revived again with its numbering intact in 1979.

It lasted until the summer of 1980 when the last issue of the venerable run, the eighty-eighth and final issue landed with little fanfare.

Bulls Eye (sometimes spelled Bullseye in its Charlton listings) was a typical Simon and Kirby offering, full of energy and punch. The western as a genre was powerful during the 50's and early 60's but lost its footing as the Bronze Age appoached. By the time of the final issues of Outlaws of the West only a few western comic titles were being published, a few by Charlton and several by DC.

I first ran across Bulls Eye in an issue of AC Comic's Bill Black's Fun Comics. The character appears to be in the public domain these days, though I see very little of him. A good set of trades reprinting the Mainline Comics are certainly in order.

Mainline Comics was sadly at once atypical and all too typical of comic book companies in the waning days of the Golden Age and the onset of the Atomic Age of Comics. Public pressure on the form had been gearing up for some time and the onslaught brought by Dr.Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and the public hearings which followed remain a blight on the industry even after all these decades since.

Comics thrived during the early days of World War II because they offered man, woman, and child alike an escape from the tribulations of the day. Brightly clad heroes battled grim-faced villains and good won, a dandy distraction from a more complicated reality. But the advent of the 50's brought a new dynamic with attempts to bring other kinds of stories to the masses. Simon and Kirby had produced hits for other publishers such as Timely, DC, Harvey, and Crestwood, among others and now they wanted to create something better for themselves.

With some of the profits they made from Crestwood Publishing (which they knew was holding out on them in spite of the huge success of the romance comics) they began their own company called "Mainline" in 1953 or thereabouts, the goal to create comics for a broader range of readers. But they had to keep a lot of that quiet from Crestwood who was still their major client. They rented space from Harvey Comics and began their little start up. But the timing was awful.

The debut of Bulls Eye was just a few weeks after the Senate started looking into what the upright considered the grimy world of comic books. EC Comics was a top target for those looking for comic book boogey men and the collapse of EC in the face of wide criticism, took down Leader News, their distributor. Leader News was also the distributor for Mainline. Sadly a proposed title from the company called Night Fighter never saw the light of day. (See the ad above.)

Without a means to get comics to the stands, Mainline Comics Inc. fell apart and the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, arguably the most successful duo in the history of comics to that time, went their separate ways. Joe Simon went into advertising, though it wouldn't be long before he returned to comics when things cooled off. Jack Kirby went to work for DC, taking with him a concept which some say was originally intended for Mainline, the Challengers of the Unknown. After a few years at DC, he found his way across town to Marvel and the rest (as they say) is history.

For more details on Mainline check out this article which appeared in The Jack Kirby Collector many years ago.

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Bravo For Adventure!

Bravo for Adventure is an obscure Alex Toth project which evoked the best Toth had to give to the comics page. A period setting, a dashing hero, and a wild adventure. The story was developed for overseas, but found publication in the United States tucked away in two issues of Warren's The Rook. The adventure was collected several years later by Dragon Lady Press, but after that nothing.

Go here to read the first part.

And go here to read the second part.

Soon IDW Publishing will be coming out with a new printing of the Toth classic, bringing some great vintage work about the olden day into the light of the modern world.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fear Itself!

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it best in his first inaugural address after his election as United States President in 1933 - "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.". He was attempting to calm a nation which had been ransacked by a near total collapse of an economy too insecurely strapped to markets which were very good at short term gain but lousy at long term prosperity. Sadly we have in many ways returned to those dangerous ways, but that's not my main point today.

I sometimes feel sorry for the folks who day in and day out only get their news from FOX "News". They certainly have a choice and broad assortment of other venues, but sadly all too often in these times folks like to get their updates on the daily proceedings digested and already filed into comfortable categories.  Without sampling from an array of sources one can very quickly imagine the whole of the universe fits neatly into a narrative which conveniently meets the needs of some political power seeker or other. It's true of both sides, but to be fair and balanced, it's really really true of FOX folks.

That said, I do sometimes feel a touch of pity because they must live lives absolutely filled with terror. For years now they've imagined their government (which they have a shaky and limited understanding of sadly) has been taken away and now serves the purposes of those disrespectful dusky folks who steadily fill in the spaces all around them in stores and parks and even at work. They imagine women have escaped the proper confines of Biblical heterodoxy and now gambol day and night with little regard to the men they trample on or the children they abort weekly. They think that the United States military is weak despite its budget which dwarfs any other single nation on the planet, and that reducing that budget a fraction puts the whole nation at risk of invasion from Cuba perhaps, or maybe even North Korea or some other tiny country with a population which is a fraction of that in the U.S.

But mostly they live in terror of terror, or as they clamber to call it "Muslin Extremism". Despite statistics which prove that most of the terrorism in the world is not committed by Muslims or that the chances that any single person will ever fall victim to it are miniscule, folks nonetheless are scared witless that some bearded malcontent is just around the corner waiting to drive a knife into their heart while they shop at the local mall.

As the mongers begin the terrible drumbeats to begin the next great war we have to be especially careful to make decisions not based on fear, it is fear itself which is our greatest enemy. 

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Sticking It To The Man!

Believe it or not until a few weeks ago I had never seen Super Fly, the infamous 1972 "Blaxploitation" movie which is mostly famous for its infectious soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield. I well remember the songs, because I was an inveterate AM listener back in those days (it's all I had). Curtis Mayfield defined a big part of the pop culture sound of the 70's in which I grew up. But for whatever reason, I had never seen the movie which first launched that effect.

Now I have, and it's a real time capsule for sure. At this remote time it's easy to judge the film making, but frankly I really find these verite' movies of the 70's a lot of fun because of the big city reality they show, since production value was mostly achieved by just being on the streets of NYC and letting reality fill in the gaps. For a Kentucky country boy New York City was the "Sodom and/or Gommorah" of the day, a place where sex, crime, and mostly drugs ruled the day while the "establishment" tried to simultaneously profit from and attempt to eradicate the activity. Mostly they wanted to keep it out of the news and off the minds of those who might want to visit the greatest city in the world.

The story of Super Fly is that successful drug dealer named Priest wants to leave his life of crime now that he has profited sufficiently and seek a regular law-abiding life outside the rigors of drug culture. But being a black man he is confronted by the stark reality that he is successful purely because he has found his success outside the laws controlled by the white majority. Played by Ron Neal, Priest is cool, handsome, and seems to be the ideal for any black boy who aspires to "matter" in his community. The movie for all its moralism mostly makes drug culture out to be rather cool and attractive. Priest snorts cocaine several times a day and even smokes some weed on top of that but seems for all that only a little bleary eyed from time to time. While clearly a junkie, he is high functioning and so gives something of a lie to the notion that drugs are a one-way street to degradation. He certainly is not degraded, if from time to time he is disrespected.

We never see really the folks who buy the drugs save in a fascinating photo montage which showcases that the drugs penetrate all parts of the society from the working class to the highest echelons of big business. Never are we presented with anyone who doesn't seem to be at some level benefiting from their drug use in some fashion. And certainly political action is presented as a limited option with the de rigueur activists who show up for a single scene are presented as ineffectual and in many ways as demanding of Priest as his drug bosses.

The criminal clans that control the drugs are black to a point when corrupt and all white police officials enter the scene and are shown to be effectively in control of their black agents. Perhaps that's the point of the ending when Priest is able to finally extricate himself somewhat from the life, but at great cost and we get the sense perhaps not for very long. But his victory does suggest he is exerting control over his life on his terms and not the terms routinely dictated to him by almost everyone in the movie that being a drug lord is the only out for a man of color.

Nonetheless as a young boy seeing this flick, I'd have been less impressed by the morality play than the fact that Priest is always the most fascinating figure in every scene, his glamor far exceeding any sense of remorse he might express for the way he lives.

Super Fly is an oddly fascinating movie, at once a neat peek back to a time when "cool" was rather distinctly defined and when drugs were not automatically a bane, but presented as a managed facet of a complicated world. As the United States begins to extricate itself from decades of drug hysteria and move into a more subtle and complex understanding of how such substances effect the whole of society, it's an oddly refreshing presentation.

And the music was boss.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fly Papers!

Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
I doubt any superhero has a more convoluted  publishing history than the Blue Beetle. Beginning in the Golden Age with the notoriously erratic Fox publishing group he slipped over to Holyoke and  back before falling at the end of the Golden Age along with most other superheroes. In the middle 50's Charlton picked up the rights and published four issues of Blue Beetle before the character lapsed again.

Carl Burgos
Then in 1958 the exceedingly erratic I.W. Publishing put out The Human Fly featuring the adventures of The Blue Beetle and sporting a new cover by Carl Burgos. It was a one-off issue until the group then published the tenth issue in 1963 (no issues appeared in between the first and the tenth).

That tenth issue is a real winner, at least in terms of cover art which features a really intriguing image by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito who were at the time supplying some very sleek modern artwork to disguise the rather generally humdrum interiors the I.W. Publishing company was foisting off on the reading public. I really like how Andru and Esposito present Beetle's armored suit, it works quite well on that cover.

But why the lapse?

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
Maybe because Archie Comics came out with The Fly by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1959 which ran until 1964. But that really doesn't solve anything.

Whatever the case there never was another issue of any comic called "The Human Fly" until 1977 when Marvel Comics began a run of books celebrating a real-life character named Rick Rojat, who dubbed himself The Human Fly. It was not a half-bad comic for fans of Lee Elias who gave the book a real vigorous art sense.

Of course Blue Beetle stayed with Charlton for several more years in a few different guises before venturing to AC Comics in the early 80's and then to DC Comics for where he has more or less thrived post-Crisis since. That's six U.S. based companies (Fox, Holyoke, Charlton, I.W.Publishing, AC, and DC) I can think of which have published him in comic form. Is there a hero with more different company logos on the cover?

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Peyton Space!

At the last moment I was gulled into putting Syfy's Ascenion onto my DVR last December. And I've only just now gotten around to watching all of the six hours which make up this saga of a generation spaceship which is headed to Alpha Centauri but has a long way to go still when we meet the crew fifty-one years along the way.

That's fantastic high concept, but sadly it mostly devolves into a soap opera, or I suppose most appropriately it could be called "space opera". The characters are the progeny of Americans who started their mission with the moral and ethical attitudes prevalent in the early 1960's and this exceedingly sexist and  mildly racist hierarchy is played out before our eyes. There's lots and lots of hanky panky with nearly every character finding themselves a little something clandestine to while away the hours. The story alas is too much about these fouled up relationships and not enough about the mission and the pursuit of it.

But there's more. Proceed only if you have already seen the show or have no intention of doing so. Major spoilers ahead.

It's a hoax. The ship "Ascension" never left Earth, but is instead is a massive super top secret project handed down from father to son intended not to get people from here to the nearest star, at least not by spaceship. It seems they are breeding for certain human traits, traits which are actually developing as we enter the story.

The political intrigue which develops as some want to expose the massive undertaking and others fight viciously for control of it, make for a clever side story. I actually loved the reveal which comes in the second episode.

But not enough is done with this and the fact this was geared to become an ongoing series, hurts the ability of the storytellers to create a fully effective finale to the whole affair.

End of spoilers.

Ascension is a good enough show, but it could have been a great one if it had not succumb to too many storytelling cliches.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

The Town That Dreaded Sundown!

1977's The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a prototype slasher movie which pre-dates Halloween and also lays claim to be based on true events. As it turns out (no surprise) that claim is somewhat suspect, but who really believes that palaver anyway in post-Kardashian America. This movie is another directorial effort by the guy who brought us The Legend of Boggy Creek a few years earlier.

The story is in fact based on a real crime spree during the late winter and early spring of 1946 dubbed the "Texarcana Moonlight Murders". Couples were attacked and in many instances sadistically killed while spooning in sundry lovers lanes around the area and later an attack is made on a local home. The killer was dubbed "The Phantom Killer" and he was never captured nor identified.

The movie sets up a similar scenario, but is limited early on and later with the casting of amateurs in not only bit parts but key roles. Andrew Prine plays a deputy sheriff who comes close to capturing the killer early on, but he appears in some scenes to be the only professional on set. Later he is joined by Ben Johnson who plays a version of real-life Texas Ranger M.T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas. The pair move the flick along briskly when they are together, but again whole affair is shackled by amateurism in key sequences. Later Dawn Wells appears as one of the victims, but that's about it for name talent for this movie.

The Phantom Killer is though reasonably scary and made more so because the movie smartly doesn't allow much if any speculation about his identity and we are left with an enigmatic sadist who seems to derive weird excitement from stabbing, shooting, and gnawing his victims. We always wears a gunny sack over his head evoking a dreaded reminder of the Klan and also making it seem bizarre as his quickened breathing makes the sack quiver. The actor (Bud Davis) and the director get an amazing amount of expression from a guy with a bag on his head, to their credit.

One thing about this low-budget affair produced and directed by Charles B. Pierce, is that Pierce himself plays the character A.C. "Sparkplug" Benson, a hapless cop who adds amazingly inappropriate comedy relief to a movie which desperately does not require it. The decision to add lighter scenes baffles me, as any tension built up in very detailed murder sequences which do have a sense of dread to them is demolished by this character who does inane things accompanied by a soundtrack which diddle along with him.

In the final analysis The Town That Dreaded Sundown is not nearly as compelling as it ought to be, but memorable it truly is.

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