Opus Fourteen:

Big Baloney.  The Big Bang boys have trotted out another
fascinating variation on their usual theme.  I'm not sure what their
usual theme should be called, actually.  It ain't parody.  The Knight
Watchman, for instance, is treated with some care and consideration
that approaches seriousness.  (Well, as serious as you can get when
chronicling the derring-do deeds of dudes who were underwear outside
their clothes.)  All their titles revive "old time" comic book
superheroics with "shadow" superheroes who remind us vaguely of other
superheroes in the funnybooks of yore.  
      If it's not parody, then, let's call it "proximate."  Something
close to something else.  And the proximity is intended not to
ridicule but to amuse, to entertain, by raising friendly specters of
another albeit bygone reality.  Our risibilities are tickled when we
can figure out the allusions and connections.  
      So here comes The Big Bang History of Comics 1.  The cover, a
wrap-around depiction of some of the superheroes of the Big Bang
Universe, conjures up visions of the Steranko books.  Inside, the
Steranko format again prevails--columns of type enlivened by
reproductions of comic book covers in black and white and occasional
sketches and model sheets.  The creation of all this supporting
illustrative material seems a daunting task, but it has been done
lovingly, and it certainly does its job: it gives the exercise a
convincing patina of realism.
      Also inside, we find a vaguely familiar but not quite precise
retelling of the history of comic books--particularly focusing on
such characters as Ultiman by James Ziegler and Jonathan Schuler, who
had submitted their creation to a newspaper syndicate only to have it
rejected; after which, the comic strip found its way into the hands
of a comic book editor, George Edwards, who, upon seeing the strip,
exclaimed, "This is what we're looking for!"  And before you could
say Chris Kelly (Utiman's civilian name), the boys had a hit
funnybook on their hands.
      And then there's Tom King, who was working for Chester Gould on Dick
Tracy while concocting a knock-off feature for Big Bang Comics called
Skip Tracer.  King, seeing the success of Ultiman, promptly invents
Knight Watchman--or "Night Watchman," as the character was dubbed
until King's editor put a K in front of the Night.  The editor,
sensing King needed help with stories, put the artist in touch with a
writer named Joe Kong, and King-Kong Studios was born.  Its chief
product was an endless series of stories about the Knight Watchman,
all drawn "in a variation of King's Dick Tracy style, with a nod to
Jon Schuler."  And, as usual in these shop-produced features,  "Who
came up with what was never disclosed, but the strip always bore the
'created by Tom King' legend."
      The second volume of this ersatz history is out, too.  And in it we
get the history of the Venus, goddess of "love and laughter"--a
superheroine concocted by Charlene Marsland and drawn by P.G. Harris
(whose earlier attempts to render Ultiman made the character look
"like a sissy").  Harris, it turns out, is Petra Harris, a woman, who
had been using her initials because editors were reluctant to hire
women to do comic books.  And so Venus is the first superheroine to
be produced by a female team.  The editor of the book never tired of
hitting on the women until he discovered that "the actual object of
their affections had been each other and that they were partners in
more ways than simply producing Venus."
      Then there's Veronica Prescott, the Shadow Lady, drawn by pulp
illustrator Rudolph Hapsburgh in "pin-up style."  Rudy, we read,
"paid particular attention to when Shadow Lady 'suited up,' often
using a full page or two showing Veronica undressing, bathing or
lounging around in sexy lingerie."
      Incidentally, the Big Bang Gang did a salute to "good girl" heroines
of the Olden Times a few issues ago.  And Shadow Lady, Jerry Acerno's
take on the Phantom Lady of yore, is among the salutations.  She is
introduced in No. 16 (four pages), with a longer story in No. 17, and
Acerno seems to have combined Matt Baker's concept with Bill Ward's
Torchy, following the title's custom of creating homage characters by
combining characteristics of past creations.  The artwork is entirely
satisfying albeit a trifle overwrought--as was, indeed, most of the
good girl art of the Golden Age.  But my chief reason for bringing
this up here and now is to applaud Gary Carlson's short title for No.
17,  his "all girl issue": it's a "She-Bang," he says, and he doesn't
even wince.
      Back with the history spoof, we have Rura the Tiger Girl who could
transform herself into a fuzzy half-girl/half-tiger hybrid.  "Stories
were pretty silly but [had] the bonus of the heroine ripping out of
her clothing when she became Tiger Girl and running around naked
(albeit very hairy).  When Rura changed back to her human form, there
was always a lot of exposed flesh as she looked for something to
wear."  Just the right touch of reality to create a comic grace note.
      Oh--and according to this history,  Ziegler and Schuler, after
losing a court battle for ownership of their creation, actually
acquire the whole company--and their character, too, of course.
      This is revisionist history with tongue firmly in cheek.  Maybe it's
not history as you might want it to be exactly, but it's history as
it might have been.  And it's oddly provocative: it inspires one to
sit back, after reading these $3.95 tomes (which are actually Big
Bang Comics Nos. 24 and 27), and to imagine some other favorite topic
and then invent a new history for it, a history that includes all the
nuances and connections you might have liked real history to include.
 A little weird maybe, but fun.
      There was this cartoonist, see, named Harold Kelly, who drew a comic
book about an orphan possum and his pet Mexican hairless dog, Albert.
 Kelly, who thought Franklin Roosevelt was God's gift to the planet
Earth, put an orange wig on his possum and trained him to eat spinach
for good luck.  Suddenly impervious to bullets and other flying
objects, the possum, Valiant by name and violent by disposition,
started smoking cigarettes in a cigarette holder, gripping it in his
teeth at a jaunty angle sure to inspire confidence among the
Depression-wracked readers of the day.  Valiant and Albert set off
across the country and wound up in China amongst the bumboat wimmin,
one of whom, the Lizard Lady, proved so popular with readers that the
strip was re-named entirely, becoming Possum Valiant and the Lizard
      And so it goes.
      Stay 'tooned.

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