« Dennis the Menace was probably the most realistic comic book ever done. No space aliens ever invaded! » — Gilbert Hernandez
Is it already October? So it is. Well, here we go again with our annual Hallowe’en Countdown. We’ll kick this edition off by featuring that pint-sized bundle of toxic toddler masculinity, Dennis the Menace (I can’t help but think that his French name, Denis la Malice, is a far more accurate description of his sociopathic essence).
Here at WOT?, we’re both (amble over to ds’ earlier DTM spotlight) huge fans of Hank Ketcham’s cartooning finesse… I mean, these are beautiful! But… drawing skill aside, the stuff is hard to take is large doses. To quote one frazzled babysitter to Dennis’ parents: « how can you stand it? »
« I think the most gruesome thing in life is people — if they let themselves go. I’ve been letting myself go for years, and I’m beginning to feel gruesome. I want to entertain and communicate. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I have to be honest — like that old baseball umpire — and call ’em like I see ’em. My drawings aren’t as bad as the models themselves. » — Basil Wolverton
Here at WOT? headquarters, we’re both card-carrying, fervent Basil Wolverton* fanatics, but we haven’t devoted the column space commensurate with our affection for his work. Why? Because Wolverton, despite toiling in underpaid obscurity for most of his career and inevitably never becoming a household name, was always a critic and historian’s darling, insofar as there was a scholarly press to express its appreciation. Things began to turn around in the early 1970s, just in time.
Whatever subject or genre he put his hand to, Wolverton’s singular style shone through, and not as a handicap: his funnies were hilarious, his horror was harrowing… but they were distinctly from that same, most gifted of hands.
Most of Basil’s humour work was (with the partial exception of Powerhouse Pepper, 1942-49) relegated to ‘filler’ features, generally hidden gems glittering in the mediocre midst of loads and loads of higher-profile rubbish. Don’t just take my word for it: here’s a typical example of the sorry setup.
From this thrilling new assemblage, I’ve picked a pair of short samples, both featuring my favourite Wolverton protagonist, Mystic Moot (and his Magic Snoot). Sadowski informs us that:
« In July 1945, editor Virginia Provisiero invited the artist to submit ideas for a four-page ‘magic or mystic character’. He responded with Champ Van Camp and his Magic Lamp, but the editor suggested ‘a weird magician who had hocus-pocus powers instead of this lamp and genie affair‘. Wolverton hit the bull’s-eye with his second try, Mystic Mose and his Magic Nose, though Managing Editor Will Lieberson came up with a catchier moniker. »
Historian Henry Steele, in his indispensable overview of Wolverton’s career (published in Bill Spicer‘s blandly-titled but most excellent Graphic Story Magazine‘s issues 12 and 14, circa 1970-71), eloquently describes Mystic Moot as :
« Basically a kindly and almost simple soul, he is eternally cheerful and never at a loss. He is perennially helping others, usually unfortunate nobodies liked the jobless glutton, the bankrupt small businessman, the farmer with no crop, the henpecked husband, intimidated lumberjacks and prospectors, widows, orphans and kindred down-and-outers. He uses his magic powers only in the most haphazard ways, and never relies on them on his own behalf unless it is absolutely necessary.
Perhaps because of the passive Eastern philosophy of its subject, Mystic Moot strikes one as being the most minor key of all Wolverton’s features — which, while it implies difference, does not mean inferiority in any sense. »
The tentacled well of funny animal insanity from the Golden Age is nearly bottomless. Just when I think I’ve more or less covered it all, some new goofy octopus cover that I have never seen before pops up, or an unhinged inside story swims by and waves a cheerful ‘hi there!’ with a free tentacle.
Next up, two pages from The Daffy Diver, published in Dizzy Duck no. 32 (November 1950, Standard Comics), artist once again unknown:
I promised some bunny action – but not the kind that springs immediately to mind! Enjoy this 2-page tentacled tussle in this Hoppy the Marvel Bunny story illustrated by Chad Grothkopf and published in Fawcett’s Funny Animals no. 5 (April 7th, 1943, Fawcett).
For dessert, two covers, because a man does not live on inside pages alone!
« Then — when O’Flaherty turned on the light, his blood crystallized! »
Its classic cover aside, this Fawcett one-shot is barely worth reading, save for the utterly bizarre Footprints on the Ceiling.
The gangsters O’Flaherty and Flitcher train a revived dead dog to be a trick dog on stage. But they have to fight off hordes of skeletal zombies coming after them to bring the dog where it belongs – in the province of the dead.
Who came up with that scenario? (it’s not merely a rhetorical question: no one seems to officially know). Might its loopiness have in some small way inspired Bob Burden’s gonzo Flaming Carrot epic The Dead Dog Leaped Up and Flew Around the Room? It’s not such a stretch, given that Burden is no stranger to Golden Age comics, having been a-dealing in such goods, with a marked (and healthy) predilection for the oddball. Obviously.
And after all these dead dogs, what do you say we enjoy the sight of a curious and healthy live one?
By now, we have surely established that in the compendium of made-up monsters, tentacles are an artistic short-cut for evoking an especially terrifying creature. As it turns out, if there’s one way to make an already spine-chilling abomination even scarier, it’s to equip its gaping maw with teeth. Be it fangs borrowed from some unfortunate vampire, the implausibly symmetrical dentures of a TV show host, or clearly carnivorous, sharkish chompers, artists have been inserting teeth where no teeth should be long before you or I were born.
« But Grandmother! What big teeth you have! », once quipped Little Red Riding Hood in the 19th century, and this fear of teeth has clearly followed us into the Modern Age.Take a look —
Sheldon Moldoff was probably thinking of a snake’s fangs when he came up with this cutie:
This cross between a dinosaur and a mole (or is that more of an ant?) boasts an enviable set of sparklingly white dentition:
One thing you can say about tentacled monsters, it’s that they sure keep their denticulations (yes, it’s a word) impeccably clean. Maybe they choose their victims based on that, like cats gleefully enjoying the crunch of a good teeth-cleaning croquette?
On the other hand, some monsters could have used a set of braces (this one is an orphan, which is why it had to make do with a British set of teeth).
A somewhat similar (but a lot less overcrowded) set of ivories for gnawing and gnashing can be spotted in water:
This toothy post is now at its end – happy brushing (and flossing — it’s important!) to all, and ’til next Tentacle Tuesday!
p.s. Not particularly related to comics, but I found this photograph distinctly on the side of scary:
« A slithering tentacle now seizes Billy, and a shuddery voice pours into his ears! »
Previously, we’ve talked about Captain Marvel (the original, the best, the… dare I say, unique!) in a post about his co-creator C.C. Beck. Today, I’ll concentrate on the World’s Mightiest Mortal’s exploits with all manner of tentacled monsters.
« When I looked at the first Captain Marvel story, I knew at once that here was a story worth illustrating. It had a beginning, a carefully constructed development of plot and characters leading to a climax and an ending, and nothing else. There was no pointless flying around and showing off, no padding, no “Look, Ma, I’m a superhero!” Out of 72 panels, Captain Marvel appeared in 18, or one-fourth. »
The green, proudly toupée-d fellow appears in the opening panel of Terror Stalks the World’s Fair, but as it turns out, he has nothing to do with the rest of the story, really.
The cover story features an actual kraken with evil, myopic eyes! I rejoiced.
In an interesting plot twist, it is revealed that gigantic vampire bats and the Kraken (who has the gift of speech, sounding like somebody’s rather eccentric uncle) have struck up a partnership.
While we’re at it, Captain Marvel Battles the Legend Horror is a perfect demonstration of a point C.C. Beck made well:
« Billy Batson was the real hero of all the Captain Marvel stories, from the first issue until the last. Without Bill Batson, Captain Marvel would have been merely another overdrawn, one-dimensional figure in a ridiculous costume, running around beating up crooks and performing meaningless feats of strength like all the other heroic figures of the time who were, with almost no exceptions, cheap imitations of Superman. In fact, I have always felt that flying figures in picture form are silly and unbelievable, and I would much sooner have never drawn them, but the publisher insisted on them. Most of the time Captain Marvel’s ability to fly had little or nothing to do with the plots of the stories in which he appeared. Billy Batson started every story and ended every story. In between, Captain Marvel appeared when he was needed, disappeared when he was not needed. The stories were about Billy Batson, not about the cavortings of a ridiculous superhero for whom the writers had to concoct new and more impossible demonstrations of his powers for each issue. »
And our last encounter with tentacles for today…
The Invasion From Outer Space, plotted by Otto Binder and drawn by C. C. Beck, offers us lots of cute little alien guys:
«Men!! They are a worse menace than any octupus [sic] or shark that ever swam…»
Oh, poor octopuses. Authors use them as a (not very original) symbol of a terrifying, all-powerful force, and then get them (not very creatively) destroyed. An octopus is lucky to “just” get stabbed; everything seems to be fair play in this violent spree – dynamite, torpedoes, even freakin’ nuclear weapons. In most cases, the problem is definitely Man: man who enslaves sea creatures and makes them do his bidding with varied gadgets, man who intrudes on the octopus’ territory, man who sticks his nose where only tentacles should be.
« I only have to give him the claws of the killer lobster… the teeth of the tiger shark… and the heart of the barracuda! That is all! » Because any normal doctor has this stuff just lying around his operating theatre, obviously.
Spectacular, deadly monster created? Next thing to do is to rip an octopus to shreds, in a particularly gory eyeball-wrenching, tentacle-mincing scene.
Next up, your standard slashing-at-tentacles-with-a-kitchen-cleaver. The guy must have been stashing it in his swimming trunks; there’s really no need for wearing an actual diving suit. That sap getting squeezed by a tentacle wore one… and look at all the good it did him.
I love the idea of an eight tentacled obstacle, and shall aspire to insert that phrase into completely irrelevant conversations.
I have to admit that Don Winslow (not the author) is the kindest octopus handler we’ve seen today. It must be part of those Naval traditions and courage Martinek insisted on. (He was quoted as saying “Since Don Winslow of the Navy is approved by the Navy Department, I cannot allow him to do anything that is contrary to the ideals, traditions or motives of the Navy.“)
“It takes cold, raw courage to step up to… This is the grandfather of all octopus… or is it octopi…?” Only a true hero starts fretting about the properness of his English while in proximity to a giant octopus. Are you wondering why that octopus looks distinctly fake? He’s actually made out of rubber, as Don Wallace, a.k.a. Torpedo Man discovers when he punctures the counterfeit cephalopod.
In the 1950s, “atomic” was distinctly a cool word, which clearly inspired the creation of this Atomic Submarine (nuclear powered, that is) and its Atomic Commandos… a crew of, like, four people. To quote Toonopedia, “The real atomic sub was apparently a bit more complex and challenging to deal with than the comic book one. Commander Battle’s got along with only four men aboard — Bill Battle (the boss), Champ Ruggles (“the most powerful man on the American continent”, and maybe even the other American continent as well), Doc Blake (the scientific genius) and Tony Gardello (only mildly ethnic).”
“The atomic commandos didn’t know that the way to the island was barred by an awful defender… by a gigantic nightmare creature that staggered the imagination! They didn’t see it as it rose from the depths behind them, flaring tentacles ready to pounce, clutch…” The octopus went from red to green – is that for better camouflage?
The weird threat from the center of the earth is actually a nation of sea-dwellers who demand humans cease using atomic weapons, threatening to burn Earth’s surface if this is not done (and unleashing their almost-indestructible octopus, as well). When Commander Battle triumphs at the end of the story, all the “giant attackers” die from a radioactive cloud. “And so it came to an end, this civilization of titans at the center of the earth… for now, not a single on was left alive! Let it be said that they were not evil! Destiny had willed it that they cross man’s path...” In today’s Tentacle Tuesday, this story takes the cake for its number of gratuitous deaths.
« It’s difficult to know just what to make of C.C. Beck. He’s crusty and curmudgeonly in the Cleveland Armory mold. He’s virulently opinionated, yet insists that he doesn’t take himself seriously. His aesthetics are inflexible if not reactionary, and not entirely consistent at that. He also happens to be one of the most endearing and original cartoonists ever to breathe life into a super-hero.“*
Charles Clarence Beck was born on June 8th, 1920 and left this world in 1989. The world is a stodgier place without him!
Here are a few covers which showcase A) C.C. Beck’s stylish art B) the lovely goofiness of it all. To quote the man, « When Bill Parker and I went to work on Fawcett’s first comic book in late 1939, we both saw how poorly written and illustrated the superhero comic books were. We decided to give our reader a real comic book, drawn in comic-strip style and telling an imaginative story, based not on the hackneyed formulas of the pulp magazine, but going back to the old folk-tales and myths of classic times. » Well, to be honest, aside from the so-called Greek origins of Captain Marvel (“Shazam”, the catalyzing cry which allows ordinary Billy Batson to transform into his superhero alter-ego, stands for “Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury”), there’s little in these stories that evokes classic folk tales *or* mythology. I know the Ancient Greeks were into some kooky shit, but I don’t recall any myopic worms with a Napoleon complex nor talking tigers in suits. Ultimately, Captain Marvel comics are family fun. “Old-fashioned” values are the backbone of these stories: friendship, loyalty, kindness to those weaker (or stupider) than us. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. Beck had a cartoony style that make his stories fucking adorable, especially when coupled with the often surreal and delightfully wacky plots.
“Quote! Mr. Tawny is not a tiger – he’s a worm! Unquote!”
C.C. Beck co-created Captain Marvel with writer Bill Parker in 1939. The Big Red Cheese made his first stellar appearance in Whiz Comics #2 (cover date February 1940), published in late 1939. Captain Marvel was a huge hit, and so Fawcett put out a number of spin-off comic books – as for Beck, he opened his own comic studio in 1941 that provided most of the artwork in the Marvel Family line of books.
« Special! Baby dinosaurs! New! Different! Be the envy of your friends! »
« Wait! This isn’t oil! It’s dense, black and real sticky! »
« Did you hear that, ma? We’re on another – uh – world! Ma, aren’t you scared? » « Land sakes, pa, why get scared? At least my wash will dry nice and fast with two suns shining down! »
IGN ranked Captain Marvel as the 50th greatest comic book hero of all time. You know how they qualified it? “Times have changed, and allegiances with them, but Captain Marvel will always be an enduring reminder of a simpler time.” If there’s one thing I hate, it’s people who assume that generations before theirs were naïve or that the world was a “simpler” place (take a peep in any good history book and see if that was the case). This kind of condescension poisons any compliment.
There’s a beautifully conducted interview with Beck by Tom Heintjes, published in Hogan’s Alley. I highly recommend it. Heart-breakingly, Heintjes explains in the introduction that “when Beck died of renal failure on November 23, 1989, my inability to complete a book celebrating Beck’s life and career—to my mind, one of the most commercially and aesthetically successful in the entire history of comic books—was a source of acute regret.”
*Gary Groth’s introduction to an interview with C.C. Beck published in Comics Journal #95 (February 1985) and conducted in 1983.