Wednesday, April 25, 2012
COLLECTOR'S EDITION Excerpt #7: Comic Book Crushes
I think I reacted more positively to DC’s editorial sensibility, even though it was very much in flux at the time. DC’s Bronze Era books reflected a creative struggle between the old guard (comics veterans who often disdained their field as disposable pap for children) and the new breed of hippie upstarts (who saw comics as a vital and vibrant art form capable of tackling sophisticated subject matter), and this infusion of energy into a formerly staid universe created a sensibility that was simultaneously comforting and challenging, searing itself into my consciousness. Also, DC’s covers often featured their super-stars in iconic poses, creating indelible poster-like images that this wannabe cartoonist loved to redraw.
As for the other publishers, I read a bunch of Harvey Comics’ kiddie fare through elementary school. Gold Key Comics often utilized paintings for their cover art, which always put me off, predicating a life’s preference for low art over high. I liked the mid-70s run of Atlas Comics, the company begun by ex-Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, but that only lasted a few years. Charlton Comics, with one big exception, always felt substandard to me, with their often inferior artwork, cheap printing, sloppy lettering, weak design (even as a kid, I thought their logo was clunky) and mostly forgettable characters and titles.
E-MAN, a truly groovy Charlton superhero comic that premiered in 1973. Created by writer Nicola Cuti and artist Joe Staton, E-man was a parcel of pure energy that wandered the universe for thousands of years before landing on Earth, ending up trapped in a light bulb in the dressing room of exotic dancer Nova Kane.
You heard me right. A superhero comic where the female lead was a buxom, red-headed stripper (her first line in #1: “It’s going to feel good to get into clothes”). The energy makes Nova smash the light bulb with her high heel and upon release, takes human form (it can assume any form of energy or matter, which is convenient), fashioning an orange and yellow costume with Albert Einstein’s E=MC2 equation as his chest emblem (which must’ve been a pain to draw in every panel).
E-Man often played like a cosmic Plastic Man, fashioning utilitarian tools from his limbs, altering his shape to battle otherworldly giant brains, underwater despots and omnipotent farmer’s daughters. It was a truly weird combination of sci-fi, superheroics and sex. Implied, to be sure, but E-MAN featured more sexuality than any other superhero comic of its time. In issue #2, Nova makes breakfast while wearing only jeans and a purple short-sleeved shirt, completely unbuttoned and hanging open to show a hint of breast.
Certainly, Nova Kane awakened something in me, but she was hardly the only comic book female to nudge my pubescence into bloom. Not so much the ladies of DC and Marvel, as, clad in skintight spandex or not, they usually lacked any kind of sexual identity due to the moral restrictions of the self-imposed Comics Code Authority. Sure, Wonder Woman may have spent a lot of time being bound and gagged while wearing a bustier and high heels, but everyone knew that Steve Trevor had been suffering from a case of blue balls since he began relentlessly pursuing his “angel” in 1941.
No, my comic book crushes mostly lived in Riverdale, in the seemingly chaste and innocent world of Archie Comics. Anyone who’s never actually read an Archie comic probably has this image of a LEAVE IT TO BEAVER kind of whitewashed, suburban, sexless milieu, but that wasn’t exactly the case, thanks primarily to an artist named Dan DeCarlo.
pin-up cartoonist for the Humorama line of girlie magazines. When he moved to Archie in the late 1950s, his clean, expressive cartooning style quickly became the new model for the Riverdale gang. But Dan brought his pin-up sensibility along for the ride as well—albeit with the necessary breast reductions—as well as a modern esthetic that put the gang into actual contemporary fashions (a rarity in comics). For the first time, these characters felt real.
Betty and Veronica—and let’s not forget Josie, Melody, Sabrina and THAT WILKIN BOY’s girlfriend Samantha—modeled bathing suits and mini-skirts and ran around barefoot in cutoff jeans and peered coyly over their shoulders through batted eyelashes as the boys fell over each other trying to win their affections. On many a comic book cover, the girls posed seductively on beach blankets while Archie, Reggie and dozens of anonymous extras literally knelt at their feet to do their bidding.
There are a few particular DeCarlo covers that resonated so strongly with my budding pubescence that they still make me feel a little… odd… when I see them. One of them, LAUGH COMICS #269 (Aug. 1973) depicts Archie and Reggie preening in front of two nameless bikini-clad hotties, asking, “How would you chicks like to meet the handsomest dudes on the beach?” The women are distinctly unimpressed, as the brunette with her hair in a bun and a flower appliqué just above her knee dismisses, “Fine! Are these HANDSOME DUDES your friends?” (Meanwhile, in the background, the girl-hating Jughead races towards the water with his surfboard). Even at the tender age of nine, I shared Archie’s priorities. These girls were hot, and since they weren’t any of the established cast of characters, their personalities were left to the reader’s imagination. Were they really aloof… or just playing games? My mind boggled.
As I graduated from elementary school to junior high, peer pressure began to mount to abandon such childish pursuits as THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and SWAMP THING. We were almost teenagers, we were supposed to ditch the kid stuff and start caring about rock music and boobs. I kinda liked rock music. I definitely liked boobs. But I still liked comic books more. And I really didn’t care what anybody else thought.
from the forthcoming book, COLLECTOR'S EDITION: Confessions of a Pop Culture Obsessive-Compulsive by and ©Karl Heitmueller Jr.