Monday, February 17, 2014

Showcase Presents: Supergirl, Vol. 1

Showcase Presents: Supergirl, Vol. 1 cover

Showcase Presents: Supergirl, Vol. 1 reprints the character's initial installments in her ongoing series within Action Comics, as well as her earliest appearances in various other concurrent titles. Included are stories from Action Comics #252 (May 1959) through #282 (Nov 1961), Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #40 (Oct 1959), #46 (Jul 1960) and #51 (Mar 1961), Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #14 (Jan 1960), Superboy #80 (Apr 1960), and Superman #139 (Aug 1960), #140 (Oct 1960) and #144 (Apr 1961), as well as the earlier Superman #123 (Aug 1958), which presented a story involving a "Girl of Steel" named "Super-Girl" conjured up by Jimmy Olsen using a "magic totem," whose hairstyle is curiously completely different on the cover than in the actual story:

I won't spoil why she never makes another appearance after that issue, but she doesn't. The story was used to gauge reader interest in stories about a female counterpart to Superman, and 9 months later, Supergirl was born. It should be noted that that story, as well as several others in this volume, also appear in the Showcase Presents: Superman volumes.

First, a brief intro on the character: Supergirl is Superman's teenage cousin Kara.

How can that be, you ask? Krypton exploded when Kal-El was but a babe, did it not? How can it be that Kara is a teenager, while Kal-El is fully grown? What be this filth?! I shall read not one blasphemous word farther! Such garbage be not for the likes of me! 'Tis naught but a load of shit!

Well, calm down. Despite DC having a tradition of blatantly disregarding continuity, this seeming inconsistency is indeed rectified, albeit in typically absurd DC Silver Age style:

However, like other pieces of the planet outflung by the explosion, the chunk turns to Kryptonite. Luckily, Zor-El has a rolled up sheet of lead in his lab (for some reason), that they (somehow) use to cover the entire area, blocking out the harmful radiations.

Meanwhile, Zor-El sticks it to his unnamed wife, resulting in the birth of Kara. When a meteorite swarm destroys the lead barrier, exposing the deadly Kryptonite, the now teenage Kara is sent off in a rocket to Earth, where she and her parents had previously observed Superman via "Super-Space Telescope" (a normal telescope wasn't good enough, I guess).

Superman decides she needs to keep her powers secret until she gets enough practice with them, and that she will live in an orphanage. I know it wasn't intentional, but a lot of the time it seems like Superman is cruelly taunting Supergirl. He brags to her, "In my youth in Smallville, I was honored as Superboy!" and says "You too can gain fame as Super-Girl [sic], the girl of steel!" But then he tells her she has to wait to use her powers in public until he says it's okay, and that she has to live in an orphanage instead of living with him. Then he goes on and makes her do something that makes no sense:

If she's not allowed to let anyone see her using her powers anyway, what in hell is the point of her wearing a wig? Did she not look like an Earth girl to him before? And doesn't he think it would increase the chances of people suspecting something about her if she always had to be worrying about her wig?

She chooses the name Linda Lee, and Superman muses, "Lana Lang was my girl friend when I was Superboy, and Lois Lane replaced her when I became Superman! By sheer coincidence, she picked the initials…L.L.!" As I mentioned in my review of Showcase Presents: Superman, Vol. 2, the pattern with the initials "L.L." is directly addressed often, but never explained.

Superman then sets her up in Midvale Orphanage, explaining to them that she "lost her parents in a big disaster that wiped out her whole community."

From there, the stories involve Linda getting into lots of situations that require her to use her powers in secret, while still changing into her Supergirl outfit when she does so for no particular reason. She often has adventures in the past or future, where she "doesn't have to hide her powers." Of course not hiding her powers makes no sense for the past, as she finds out:

Not that she learns anything from that, judging by later stories. Here she is helping to commit genocide:

I'm kidding, she doesn't actually kill anybody.

Her arch-nemesis is Getting Adopted, and she often has to come up with ridiculous ways to avoid it, such as:

So not only does she have to live in an orphanage, but she can't even get adopted because people might find out who she is. And of course she also has to deal with other kids at the orphanage suspecting who she is. My favorite scene comes when she tries to throw off suspicion at one point:

I don't know if even Superman could have pulled that much craziness off. The whole turning-coal-into-a-diamond thing does come up all the time in both these stories and the Superman ones though.

Partway through, Linda gets a robot of herself that hides in a tree near the orphanage and comes out to take her place when she has to go off to use her powers elsewhere. That seems like it would only cause more problems, but whatever.

Apart from Linda and Superman, there are a few other recurring characters, none of them people at the orphanage oddly enough.

First up is Streaky, the Super Cat, who gets powers from, depending on the story, either the radiations or the fumes given off by X-Kryptonite, a variation of Kryptonite accidentally created by Supergirl when she was experimenting to find an antidote. His powers are only temporary, but he keeps managing to find the piece of X-Kryptonite that Supergirl "super-tossed" into the woods. Neither she nor Streaky realize that that is the source of his powers, despite him getting powers over and over. I will also note here that the thought-voices given to Streaky and other animals, like Krypto, are usually painful to read.

Next, there's Jerro, the mer-boy from Atlantis. 

There isn't much to say about him, other than that he has a fish tail for legs.

There are a few adventures with the Legion of Super-Heroes here, one of which introduces another love interest for Supergirl in the form of Brainiac 5.

He actually only shows up once in this volume, but it's worth noting as his first appearance.

Supergirl has one more "boy friend" here: Dick Wilson, the boy from the orphanage who suspected her identity in those panels with the diamond silliness above. He only shows up that one time at the orphanage though. She doesn't see him again until both of them are adopted (I'll get to her adoption in a bit), when his name is now Dick Malverne.

There's nothing to say about Dick either. These are some boring characters. Just look at that panel, they even look the same.

Throughout the book, Supergirl's introduction to the world keeps getting teased, but something always comes up to stop it. It's pretty frustrating to be honest. The best instance is when Supergirl loses her memory due to red Kryptonite and exposes herself in Smallville. Superman goes to extreme lengths to keep his "secret emergency weapon" a secret:

Finally, Superman decides it's time to reveal her existence to the world, and…she loses her powers. It turns out that an evil scientist living in the bottle city of Kandor named Lesla-Lar, who just happens to look exactly like Linda (and also has the initials "L.L."), stole her powers:

She then takes Linda's place and strikes up a deal with Lex Luthor, leaving Linda in Kandor thinking she is Lesla-Lar (if my 'L' key still works at the end of this review, I'll be surprised). It doesn't make a lot of sense and goes on way too long, but that's actually part of what's interesting about it.

Until then, almost all DC superhero stories were one-and-done tales with no permanent effect on future stories. Apart from some 2-part Superman stories in Action Comics, this is the first instance I know of from the era where a story continued across multiple issues. If only it had been a better story. In fact, it doesn't even feel like an ongoing story so much as a temporary change in the status quo. Instead of Linda going back to the orphanage at the end of each story, she goes to her room in her foster parents' home (Superman lets her get adopted after she loses her powers), while Lesla-Lar schemes and points:

After treading water for what feels like forever, the situation is resolved via an unsatisfying deus ex machina, because why should we expect anything more?

There is another particularly interesting story here called "Mighty Maid!" but I already covered it in my review of Showcase Presents: Superman, Vol. 2, so I won't talk about it again.

The stories are written by Otto Binder and Jerry Siegel, with Siegel eventually taking over as the sole writer of the Action Comics Supergirl segments. As usual for the time, there is no discernible difference in their writing styles.

Jim Mooney is the artist for all the Supergirl stories from Action Comics. I'm used to his later work in Amazing Spider-Man at Marvel in the '60s, and his style here is recognizable . He seems to use more blacks and shadows than most artists at DC at the time and avoids the stiffness of artists like Wayne Boring. I would guess he was put on these stories because he can draw pretty girls. I don't really have any complaints with his work, but he does reuse some of the same stock images/positions a lot, like the aforementioned Lesla-Lar evil pointing: 

There's also Linda on her bed: 

Despite a couple of important issues, this volume just isn't that interesting on the whole. And as those particular issues are also included in the Superman and Legion of Super-Heroes volumes anyway, I'd say that this book, while demonstrating a sign of changes in storytelling to come, ends up being pretty skippable.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Them! (1954)

A series of mysterious events in New Mexico, including several deaths, is investigated by the local police and the FBI, eventually leading to the discovery of a nest of giant ants, mutated by atomic bomb tests.

I like the fact that this movie starts out as a mystery, even though the poster and trailer give everything away. It's still interesting from the beginning, although they drag it out too much once the requisite scientist is called in, who of course already knows what is behind everything but won't tell anyone until he is 'absolutely sure.'

At the beginning, we have a little girl who is found wandering in the desert in a state of mute shock (Aliens, anyone?). The investigating cops find a destroyed trailer home and a weird print in the sand nearby, then a wrecked store, its owner dead and later found to have "enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men".

The cops hear a weird sound--almost like a squeaky siren, with what sounds like bird sounds behind it--and the one left behind to guard the store is killed by something strong enough to take four bullets from his gun and still get away.

The FBI send in agent Robert Graham (James Arness, the title character in The Thing [1951]), and a cast of the print found by the cops attracts the attention of an entomologist (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter (Joan Weldon, who, in a pleasant surprise, is also a scientist, and not the typical woman-in-peril or love interest).

The scientist uses the smell of formic acid to bring the little girl out of her stupor, causing her to begin screaming "THEM! THEM!" over and over. (Inexplicably, they leave right after that instead of trying to get her to tell what she saw--maybe because they couldn't stand her screaming?)

"THEM!! THEM!!!!" "We heard you the first time, now SHUT UP!!!"

When the dead cop's former partner and Agent Graham accompany the scientists to the location of the print, they hear the weird sound again. This time, a giant ant pops up from over a ridge. The elder entomologist tells them to go for the annentae, which slows the ant down long enough for it to be pumped full of bullets from a machine gun.

Whatever happened to 'short, controlled bursts'?

From there, the team track down the nest and destroy it, but discover that a pair of newborn queens have escaped and must search out the new colonies before more queens are born.

The acting, above-average for this type of film, and foreboding atmosphere make what could be a boring start interesting. The visual of the strong winds blowing across the desert gives those scenes a uniquely eerie quality. Unfortunately, apart from a tiny scene with the second nest, which ends up being no more than a footnote, the film drags after the destruction of the first nest and doesn't really pick up again until the very end. It just takes too long to find the last nest.

The investigative techniques of the FBI agent in trying to find the new nest don't make a lot of sense either. He interrogates people who have been arrested/received speeding tickets recently with the hope that their actions may have been a result of seeing giant ants...yeah... I suppose it's true that he didn't have any leads to go on, but I would think physically going out and searching for them would be the best course of action, right? But hey, I'm not an FBI agent, so what do I know?

[Insert Wilhelm Scream here.]

At least the ants are cool, surprising for a giant bug movie of the time--or ever, really. It probably helped that this was actually the first movie about giant bugs, as well as one of the first movies to blame nuclear weapons for attacks by monsters (I believe the first was The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms from 1953).

The film was actually nominated for a Special Effects Oscar. The full size ant puppets are mostly effective, although they are a little stiff, and sometimes look like they have pupils for some reason. It's the way they are shot that really makes them work; you see just enough to know what is happening without the camera lingering on the ants long enough for you to pick out any bad movements or physical imperfections.

Burning the egg chamber. Aliens, anyone?

The scenes with flamethrowers being used against them are just plain awesome. I was not at all expecting that real flamethrowers would be employed, much less that they would actually burn the ant puppets.

Interestingly, the film was originally to be in color and 3-D, but problems with the 3-D cameras led to the producers abandoning the idea and trying to ape the success of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms by making everything (except the title card) black and white; it must have worked--Them! was supposedly Warner Bros.' highest grossing film that year.

Soldiers in a dark tunnel under attack by giant bugs that seem to appear out of nowhere--seriously, it's just like Aliens.

Despite losing some steam in the middle and having a pretty standard '50s monster story, the cool ant effects, realistic/serious tone, above average acting, and good direction/camerawork make this one of the best movies of its type.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Showcase Presents: Superman, Vol. 2

Showcase Presents: Superman, Vol. 2 moves into the early '60s, collecting Superman #134 (Jan 1960) through #145 (May 1961) and the Superman stories from Action Comics #258 (Nov 1959) through #275 (Apr 1961). Many of the covers for the Action Comics issues in this volume feature Supergirl, but only the stories focusing on Superman are included here.

For the most part, this feels like more of the same from vol. 1. The stories are still really goofy, with basically the same rotating writers--Jerry Siegel, Jerry Coleman, Otto Binder, Robert Bernstein, and Bill Finger--and artists--Wayne Boring, Al Plastino, Kurt Schaffenberger, and Curt Swan--telling stories involving time travel or Superman trying to keep his secret identity a secret. There are a few new trends in this volume though.

For one thing, although most of the stories are still isolated and have nothing to do with each other, there is more of a sense of continuity here overall, with more stories that carry over into subsequent issues, and with characters that were introduced in the previous volume being followed up on with surprising regularity.

Bizarro shows up every few issues, usually with a recap of his previous appearances each time. Bizarro world, populated by Bizarro Supermen and Bizarro Loises is created here, and we get the first Bizarro offspring, as well as a Bizarro Supergirl and the revelation that the Bizarros are susceptible to blue Kryptonite.

Lori Lemaris, Superman's mermaid love interest from Atlantis pops up a lot too, and she gets a new love interest of her own in Ronal, a merman from another planet.

Titano, Luthor, and Mr. Mxyzptlk also make more frequent appearances in this volume. Red Kryptonite, which has unpredictable effects on Kryptonians, seems to pop up in every other story.

Speaking of stories reusing elements over and over, a somewhat strange recurring story idea is that of other characters that look like Superman. They inevitably end up being suspected as Superman's secret identity, or posing as him. I could accept it happening once, and the idea of Lois suspecting someone other than Clark of being Superman is interesting, but it just ends up being another go-to plot device.

Another recurring plot is that of other characters trying to make Superman fall in love with Lois. We get Lois's sister Lucy Lane, Supergirl, and even Krypto giving it a shot, but my favorite is the one with Lori Lemaris, which gives us these great moments:

Then there were a ton of stories here that involved dream sequences, or where the entire story turned out to be a dream. That happened a couple of times in vol. 1, but it happens all the time here. Ironically, the stories that don't turn out to really happen are often more interesting than the 'real' ones, at least until you find out they didn't happen.

In particular, there is a story near the beginning of the volume called "The Revenge of Luthor!" It starts with Superman encountering a red Kryptonite meteor. The red Kryptonite causes Superboy (Superman's younger self) to appear in the present. In the process of proving to each other that they are who they claim to be, Superboy makes some "dumb boners," while Superman is uncharacteristically short-tempered.

Eventually, Luthor finds out, and captures Lois, Lana Lang, and Superboy.

I have no words.

He sets up a trap where Superman has to choose one of two lead doors to open. Behind one door is a Kryptonite meteor, which will kill him. If he opens the other door, Luthor will let him go, but kill Superboy with the meteor.

Yes, super-ventriloquism is really one of his powers in these stories.

So what does he do?

I cannot accurately convey how angry I was when I read those last two panels without killing lots of things. The story had been surprisingly engaging up to that point--in fact I remember thinking as I was reading that it was by far the most engaging Superman story I'd read so far. Then at the end it dissolves into a big middle finger pointed right at the reader.

It's so frustrating. So many of the stories already back Superman into a seemingly inescapable corner, only to have him pull a ridiculously far fetched solution out of his ass at the last second--why couldn't this one have done that?

The dream stories tend to go one of two ways. The first involves a concept so ridiculous that it would never actually get explored in the comics of the time, like what it would be like for Lois to be married to Superman, or to have Superman elected President, both stories from vol. 1. The other type of dream stories explore ideas that are sometimes actually interesting, but would be too 'extreme' to have them actually take place, like the one where Superman accidentally goes to the future and finds that he has been forgotten now that Supergirl has grown into Superwoman, or the one where he accidentally blows up the Earth (!), both from this volume.

One of my favorite stories here kind of straddles the line of did-it-or-didn't-it-really-happen? It's called "When Superman Lost His Powers!" and begins with Clark, Lois, Jimmy, and even Perry White exploring an ancient Aztec Tomb for an article. Clark finds an inscription saying "Whoever enters the king's tomb is doomed to spend two days in a world so dangerous that no one has ever returned from it." Of course, what happens is:

I swear, if Superman would just let Lois die instead of saving her all the time, he'd only have half as many problems to worry about.

They all wake up in a strange world filled with strange creatures. First, they get attacked by a giant bee:

Superman basically loses his shit upon finding out he has no powers in this world:

They then encounter a giant spider:

Lois is referring to the spider being excited by the color purple for some reason.

Then a dragon:

Sigh…where do I even start? How can Superman hear the ultrasonic signal if you are not on Earth, Jimmy? And if you thought it would work, why haven't you activated it already? If I were Perry, I'd've fired your ass right then and there. Meanwhile, Clark struggles to contain his panic.

The next thing they encounter is Lois being a stone bitch:

Jimmy tries to summon Superman with his watch but "Superman must be on some mission in outer space, where the signal doesn't reach." I hope you never escape this world, Jimmy.

When they leave (where are they going anyway?), Clark changes to Superman, then goes to absolutely ridiculous lengths to make the others think he still has powers. 

That leads to:

Later, we get:

Then, when Superman fights a giant eel:

Dig those crazy fish indeed. Because the mere fact that I was in another dimension wouldn't be enough to convince me not to eat anything there. Not so Jimmy.

Finally, when the 48 hours are up: 

The whole time they were in that other world, Lois never stopped being a snoopy bitch:

When they get out:

Check out the creepy expression on Superman's face.

I really hope one of these volumes has a story where Lois is kidnapped by someone who thinks she knows who Superman is, and is tortured to death. Even if it's just an imaginary story. That would be really nice.

There is another story worth mentioning here, where Lois does suffer a lot of emotional harm. Not as good as flat out death, but I'll take what I can get. It's called "Mighty Maid":

At least Perry realizes Lois's feelings aren't worth caring about.

One of the first panels has Clark thinking, "Knowing Lois as I do, I'll bet she's in the thick of trouble, right now!" He's not wrong, of course, but before he can get to her, a super-powered chick calling herself Mighty Maid shows up to save her. She then immediately starts hitting on Superman, hardcore:

They go around together for a while:

"His eyes are beautiful!" What is this, a romance comic?

Somehow, this happens:

No, I didn't skip a panel there.

Things progress to the point that they start making out for passing helicopters:

Above Milwaukee…?

Eventually, they announce that they are permanently leaving for the fourth-dimensional world that Mighty Maid comes from to get married. What are surely some of the greatest Lois Lane panels of all time follow:

But then, after they supposedly leave for the fourth dimensional world:

Why is Supergirl wearing her costume under her other costume? And that last line has to be one of the greatest Superman lines in history. This story is on a roll!

Superman explains that the whole thing was a ruse to make angry aliens think he had left so they wouldn't attack Earth. I don't believe that for a second, but Supergirl seems to buy it.

Then the story ends with:

Look at Superman's expression in the second panel...

I like how Lois's attempted suicide is passed off as "accidentally" falling off a building. Then again, it is Lois we're talking about, maybe that's really what happened. Also, look at how pleased with himself Superman looks in that last panel.

So Superman's plan to avert an alien attack just conveniently happened to involve making out with his underage cousin, huh? Even though it didn't have to, at all.

He explained that the aliens couldn't sense him when he was underwater. All he'd have had to do was say "I'm leaving forever for another dimension" and stay underwater until they left. Which I guess is what he did. But all the falling in love with his cousin stuff and all the intense emotional pain caused to Lois were completely extraneous. I'm not even going to bother trying to find an explanation for the "His eyes are beautiful!" line.

There is one final story that really stuck out to me in this volume, but I won't get into it too much. It's called "Superman's Return to Krypton!" and it's a "3-Part Novel," meaning it took up an entire Superman issue. It involves Superman accidentally traveling into the past and becoming stranded on Krypton, without Earth's yellow sun around to give him his powers. While there, he befriends his parents, gets a job as an actor, and falls in love with his costar, Lyla Lerrol (the fact that Superman's love interests always seem to have the initials 'L.L.' comes up a lot, but is never explained, at least not here). Of course, Superman ends up leaving the planet before it explodes:

That silent panel alone would set this story apart, but the entire thing is unusually well-plotted and genuinely moving, making this probably the best Superman story in either of the first two volumes.

As I said, this volume is basically more of the same as the first, but the minor differences make a big difference by the time you finish. There were very few stories in the previous volume that would pull you in at all, but, believe it or not, there were quite a few moments in this one that made me pause and think.

That said, there are obviously still tons of goofy moments. I could honestly go through every story, but I'll sign off with some of my favorites: