Visionary Meets Mundane: Richard Powers at Western Publishing

« Are all your projects this dangerous, Dr. Solar? »

Dateline: 1962. Printer-packager Western Publishing had just dealt its biggest client, Dell Comics, its slow death sentence (by mutual agreement, it is diplomatically claimed), though Dell should have seen it coming: for decades, Western Publishing Co. had « secured the rights, created the comics, printed them and shipped them out for Dell. Dell acted as the publisher and distributor and did the billing and paid Western for its creatively manufactured products*. » In 1962, Western cut out the middleman and launched its Gold Key imprint (1962-1984.)

Enter, briefly, revolutionary illustrator Richard M. Powers (1921-1996), who successfully wed representational and abstract art for his paperback covers of the 50s and 60s, bringing science-fiction visuals an unprecedented visual maturity. Don’t merely take my word for it: treat your peepers to a gander at his work. You may well find that you know it already.

What with a Cold War on, in the early 60s, atom-powered heroes were understandably in vogue. Charlton even had two: after Al Fago‘s 1955 creation Atomic Rabbit, came Joe Gill & Steve Ditko‘s Captain Atom. In 1962, the newly-founded Gold Key threw their hat into the nuclear furnace with the advent of Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom. He was created by writer Paul S. Newman and editor Matt Murphy.

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Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom no. 1 (October, 1962)
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Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom no. 2 (December, 1962)

So far so good, right? And then… we may never know exactly what transpired, but I assume that some art director at Western Publishing chose to second-guess Mr. Powers… smothering the tonal and compositional balance of his painting (« can’t… bear… negative space! »), and likely depriving the outfit of Powers’ further services. He was at his peak, was being offered assignments than he could hope to fulfill, assignments surely more lucrative and friction-free. He wisely scooted along.

The printed version:

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Boris Karloff Thriller no. 2 (January, 1963.) It was decades before I realized that this ho-hum comic book cover was the work of Richard Powers. In truth, the scales only fell from my eyes when I caught a peek of the original art. The printed version is so tame, so drained of its power(s) that the issue didn’t even appear in Jane Frank’s checklist of book covers in her fine The Art of Richard Powers (Paper Tiger, 2001).
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See? Now *that* is clearly Powers. « Just slap a 60% cyan overlay over the dang thing, Gertrude. It’s too effin’ artsy! »

And the tale might have ended there, but here’s the curveball: in the mid-to-late Seventies, Powers provided the fading publisher with a pair of gorgeous, but seldom-seen cover paintings.

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A lovely Rorschach blot of a cover for the inaugural issue of Starstream, issued in 1976 under Western’s Whitman imprint. Starstream‘s four issue-run offered sober adaptations of smartly-chosen science-fiction short stories by the exalted likes of Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Bloch, A.E. Van Vogt, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Jack Williamson, et al.
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Let’s hear it for unearthly-looking extraterrestrials. With their translucent skin, these guys remind me of unhatched fish. The fifth and final cover created by Richard M. Powers, this is UFO & Outer Space no. 17 (continued from UFO Flying Saucers), published in September, 1978.

See what I mean?

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If memory serves, my own Powers epiphany took place in the autumn of 1982, in Lennoxville, a small college town in the Eastern Townships of Québec. There was this little bookstore… and its fine selection of 60s horror and science-fiction paperbacks, priced in the 35-to-50-cents range. The kind of place book lovers dream about stumbling upon, and wake up dismayed to find themselves in the real world… empty-handed.

My favourite (inside and out) of the lot I picked up that day? Fritz Leiber’s Night’s Black Agents (June 1961, Ballantine Books). If you’ve had a similar thrill of discovery with Powers’ art, please do tell us about it!

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-RG

*quoted from an interview with Gold Key’s Matt Murphy.

Tentacle Tuesday: Planet of Tentacles, courtesy of Fiction House

In today’s Tentacle Tuesday, I’d like to demonstrate that Planet Comics, a sci-fi comic series published by Fiction House from 1940 to 1953, liked to tantalize its rapt audience by featuring tentacled monsters as often as basic decency permitted. Not to say that they limited their cheap pandering to tentacles; other tropes reared their ugly head, too. Faithful to its pulp magazine roots (Planet Comics was a Planet Stories’ spinoff), there’s always some stunning damsel in distress on the cover, and often some dashing muscle-head to rescue her. Mike Benton summarized Planet Comics’ raison d’être beautifully, if somewhat cruelly, in his Science Fiction Comics: The Illustrated History (1992) as «the barest smattering of sense and substance».

In its defence, P.C. also often ran stories in which female protagonists saved their friends’ bacon. How oddly progressive: the gals were clearly dressed to impress, but their skills and smarts repeatedly allowed them to overcome the odds while the big hunks stood helpless. Between that and all the tentacles, there’s a warm spot in my heart for Planet Comics.

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Let’s start with no. 42, which features Gale Allen, a Venusian princess with a knack for getting into trouble and the courage for getting herself out of it. Her Girl Squadron, comprised of female pilots and soldiers, may have been an excuse for drawing yet more pretty girls, yet in the stories the squadron was still a force to be reckoned with, by friend or foe.

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Planet Comics no. 42, May 1946. Cover by Joe Doolin, adept at depicting the female form in an aesthetically pleasing way. Here Gale is being rescued by some dark-haired stud with a laser gun (who cares about him?), but let’s peek inside…
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This is what Gale has to deal with in « Slave of the Hydra », also drawn by Doolin. This toothy beast is supposed to be a Hydra. Hydra of the Hydridae family, or the Greek many-headed serpent? Neither supposition makes sense.
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Our plucky heroine manages to save the day by escaping a certain drowning! It’s a little known fact that girls can actually store extra oxygen in their boobs. Kidding aside, I can understand why Planet Comics had a female readership that must have enjoyed reading about women who don’t crumble under pressure, and sometimes even kick monster tush.

Moving on to the next cover, an odd one even by Golden Age sci-fi standards:

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Planet Comics no. 44 (September 1946), cover by Joe Doolin. She’s a generic damsel-in-distress, I get that, but the alien is strange – even for an alien. I imagine that the artist’s internal conversation went something like this: “okay, I’ll give him arms that double as tentacled snouts, and snail eyeball stalks. Oh, and I’ll make him a cyclops while I’m at it. And he’ll be drooling. And I’ll make him look black because that’s more exotic.” Yikes.

A glimpse at the stories inside quickly proves that the cover has nothing to do with Mysta of the Moon, or any of the “many others” advertised on the cover. There is, however, an octopus in the Futura story. Futura was another recurring heroine, an ordinary girl abducted by Brain-Lords of Cymradia and “improved” into a stronger, smarter version of her old self. Smart, resourceful and a damn good fighter, Futura is fun to watch in action. Especially when tentacles are involved! Take a look:

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Officially signed by John Douglas; pencils and inks by Chester Martin. I feel oddly sorry for the crocodile.

Let’s have a look at several covers where tentacles are actually used as the good lord has intended, i.e. for grabbing pretty girls:

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Ah, yes, the old “reptiles with tentacles” scare. Planet Comics no. 51, November 1947. Cover by Joe Doolin (again). Man, his girls are pretty delectable.
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Planet Comics no. 67, summer 1952. Cover by Maurice Whitman. There are absolutely no tentacles in any of the stories. Boo, I say.
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Planet Comics no. 70 (spring 1953), cover by Maurice Whitman. I like the alien’s get-up in general: his flappy ears, the motorcycle helmet, the hip lip piercings… He’s one cool cat. I am equally impressed by how he’s managing to fire a gun when he doesn’t have opposable thumbs (maybe the pistol is specially tentacle-adapted; instead of a trigger, some sort of squeeze sensor). Disappointingly, the insides of this issue don’t have any tentacles whatsoever, although there are some dinosaurs and giant man-eating spiders (and most of us will be happy to settle for that).

Oh, perhaps I have been neglecting burly heroes a tad. Those of us who prefer muscle to curve deserve some eye candy, too! So here’s good old Reef – and some green men in Speedos.

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Planet Comics no. 17, March 1942. A Reef Ryan story, possibly pencilled by George Appel and inked by Al Gabriele, though it’s credited to Hugh Fitzhugh, a funky nom-de-plume for parties unknown.

And men get grabbed by tentacles, too:

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Planet Comics no. 32, September 1944. Art by Lee Elias.

There’s about 10 more Planet Comics covers with tentacles left, and quite a few more interior pages showcasing the beauty of the octopus, or tentacled alien, or cephalopod reptile, or whatever else the kooky minds writing and drawing for Fiction House have dreamed up… but that’s enough for now. There’s only so much probing appendage the human mind can take in one go, so I’ll say Auf Wiedersehen.

Until the next time our paths (and tentacles) cross again!

~ ds