Thursday, March 11, 2010

Newspaper Comics - Prototypes - A 'Slight' History of Golden Age Comic Books: Super Heroes: What is a 'Super Hero'?

As I've discussed here before...and will many times again...and again...and again, the comic strips you find in the daily newspaper USED to be cool!

I no longer have any illusions that they will ever be cool again, if only because I don't anticipate newspapers to even exist in 10 years, but they really used to be a valuable part of peoples lives and of the newspapers themselves. They used to be a real selling point for newspapers. When large cities had 4 or 5 newspapers to choose from, the features inside are what made them a loyal reader...after all, they ALL provided the same news. A feature with a large audience ensured that the reader would buy that same newspaper again the next day. Since there are no longer any competing newspapers in any given metropolitan area, people who are want to buy a newspaper, are stuck with only one choice anyway.

Thus the feature loses it's selling point, and with increases in printing costs (paper, ink, mook labor to print the pieces of shit) and with reduced advertising revenues (advertisers pay less as less readers buy the paper) the newspaper grows smaller and smaller every day.

End result, the space for the comics gets smaller every day. Back in the heyday of newspaper comics, strips were almost double the size they appear now, and the color Sunday funnies at one point were 5, 6 even 7 times larger than they are now.

So back in the day...and more specifically the 1930's that we are discussing right now...there was room to tell a story. Room to develop characters. Room for adventure and suspense.

The newspapers had by the 1930's embraced the adventure strip. It was a perfect way for a strip to have a continuing story which kept readers coming back the next day to see what happens to their favorite characters. Captain Easy, Smilin' Jack, Prince Valiant, Tarzan, Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon, Terry and the Pirates...all fit the bill and told great stories that rewarded the reader who "came back for more!".

Eventually, the strips stumbled across the "super hero". The two most prominent and successful were even created by the same guy!

Mandrake the Magician:

Lee Falk created and wrote and drew this comic strip about a stage magician who fought against everything from gangsters to creatures from other dimensions, mad scientists to extraterrestrials.

The strip premiered on June 11, 1934 and still runs today in a few papers. Lee Falk turned over the art chores to Phil Davis early on and Davis stayed with the strip until his death in 1966 at which time Fred Fredrickson took over the art chores to Falk's scripts. When Lee Falk passed away in 1999, Fredrickson took over the reigns of both art and story.

Mandrake's one true magic trick was kind of a hypnotic gesture which causes his target to see illusions. He uses this ultimate of all misdirections to overpower or distract them. He has a team of loyal sidekicks who aid him in his battle against evil. The most prominent being the following two.

Narda, the Princess of Cockaigne (a mythical European "land of plenty") whom he met on his second ever adventure, she fights side by side with one another and though they have been in love since that fist meeting in 1934, they didn't marry until 1997. THAT's comic book-y stuff in and of itself!

Lothar, once the "Prince of the Seven Nations" in Africa, Lothar abdicated his crown as King to fight alongside his best friend Mandrake. Lothar is often looked at as the muscle of the group, and rightly so, he's often referred to as "The Strongest Man in the World"!

Super Hero traits of Mandrake:

1. A loyal sidekick/sidekicks who unquestioning join him at every turn.

2. A recognizable costume, in this case a tuxedo, top hat and red-lined cape.

3. Super power of ability with which to thwart the evil-doers.

The Phantom:

Lee Falk also created "The Phantom" which premiered on February 17, 1936 and is, like Mandrake, still running to this very day.

In the strip, the story goes as follows. In 1536, the father of British sailor Christopher Walker was murdered during a pirate attack. The only survivor of the attack, Christopher was washed ashore on a Bengallan beach, and swore an oath on the skull of his father's murderer to dedicate his life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice, with his sons and their sons set to follow him. Making a costume based on the image of an old jungle idol, he became the Phantom. When he died, his son took over the role of the Phantom, and such the mantle would be passed down to new generations, leaving people to give the mysterious figure nick-names such as "The Man Who Cannot Die", "Guardian of the Eastern Dark" and "The Ghost Who Walks", believing him to be immortal. The current Phantom and star of the comic strip is the 21st Phantom in succession.

Super Hero traits of The Phantom:

1. An identity or persona which instantly intimidates the criminals. An immortal "Ghost Who Walks" and can't be killed.

2. A calling card. The Phantom wears a "skull" ring, which leaves an imprint of a skull on his adversaries after he socks 'em one on the jaw! Bitchin'!

3. A secret lair. The Phantom lives in "Skull Cave". Currently with his trained wolf "Devil", his horse "Hero", his wife Diana Palmer and two children Kit and Heloise. Sound comic-book-y? Yer darn tootin'!

4. The first hero to wear a skin-tight costume. That's right the first. And if there was ever a hallmark of the comic book super hero, this is it!

5. Fights against evil, at first for vengeance purposes (at least his great-great-21 times-grandfather did) then for the cause of justice itself. Always protecting who cannot protect themselves.

NEXT: It's time!!!

This path we've wandered through British Penny Dreadful's, the dramatic stage, pulp magazines and novels and newspaper comics pages will finally converge on the main point of our journey!

The comic book super hero!

Join me, won't you?

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