Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Great M. C. Gaines

In the history of the American comic book, perhaps no other figure is as important as M. C. Gaines. Born in 1896, Maxwell Charles Gaines would go from being a salesman to one of the pivotal figures in the comic industry. Many credit Gaines as the father of the American comic book as we know it today; others at least credit him with being its midwife. At any rate M. C. Gaines certainly had a hand in its creation. As if that was not enough, M. C. Gaines is also the man who recommended an unpublished comic strip called Superman to Detective Comics Inc. and he was the founder of both All-American Comics and E. C. Comics as well.

Prior to 1933 newspaper comic strips were sometimes published in anthologies. These anthologies often sold quite well. It is perhaps for that reason in 1929 George Delacorte (later of Dell Comics) published The Funnies through the New Fiction Company, a publisher of pulp magazines. The Funnies was the first periodical dedicated solely to comic strips; however, it was not, strictly speaking, a comic book. It was tabloid in format, roughly the same size as the comics supplements which accompanied American newspapers. The Funnies was originally 10 cents an issue. The price was reduced to a nickel with issue 25. With issue 36 The Funnies ceased entirely. It would be up to someone else to develop a periodical dedicated solely to comic strips that would be a success.

In 1933 M. C. Gaines was a salesman for the Eastern Color Printing Company, a company which printed many of the Sunday comic strip supplements for newspapers across the nation. M. C. Gaines, Leverett Gleason (later a comic book publisher in his own right), and Eastern Color sales manager Harry L. Widenberg observed sheets of comics being printed on seven by nine inch plates. They figured out that sheets from these plates would make a tabloid sized book when folded. Widenberg experimented making books of comic strips and discovered that a standard newspaper sized sheet could be cut to produce 16 pages worth of material. They also learned that comic strips could be reduced in size and still remain legible. Widenberg worked out a deal with the McNaught and McClure Syndicate to reprint several of their more popular comic strips, including Mutt and Jeff and Joe Palooka, in this new format (essentially, the modern day American comic book). Gaines then made an arrangement with Proctor and Gamble to provide them with comic books to use as premiums. Ten thousand copies of Funnies on Parade: a Carnival of Comics were printed for Proctor and Gamble. And all 10,000 copies went almost immediately. Fresh with the success of the Proctor and Gamble promotion, M. C. Gaines persuaded Eastern Color that there was a good deal of money to be made in providing comic books to manufacturers as promotional items. And Gaines proved to be right. He was soon selling 100,000 to 250,000 copies of comic books to such companies as Milk-O-Malt and Kinney Shoes Stores.

The success of comic books as promotional items convinced M. C. Gaines that people might actually be willing to pay for comic books. As an experiment he took some of the books intended as premiums and distributed them to newstands to be sold at 10 cents apiece. Gaines' assumption that people would actually buy comic books proved correct; every copy he had distributed to newstands had sold. With proof that the comic book was a marketable commodity, Eastern Color then turned to George Delacorte (the man who had published The Funnies) to publish Famous Funnies, the first regularly published comic magazine. Famous Funnies started in 1934 and ran until 1955. It was not long before other publishers entered the field and soon comic books were to be found on newstands everywhere.

Not only was M. C. Gaines largely responsible for the modern American comic book, he was also responsible for the first comic book dedicated solely to one character. Gaines struck a deal with the producers of the radio show Skippy to print a comic book based on the character. The comic book, Skippy's Own Book of Comics, was given away as a promotional item to customers who bought Phillps Toothpaste.

From the Eastern Color Printing Company, M. C. Gaines would move on to the McClure Syndicate, the same company which had given Widenberg and Gaines permission to reprint their comic strips in Funnies on Parade. There he would again make comic book history. It was in 1938 that Harry Donenfeld, publisher of National Comics, was about to launch a new comic book to be called Action Comics. In need of comic strips for his new magazine, Donenfeld approached Gaines to see if he had anything which Action Comics could use. Among the comic strips which the McClure Syndicate had rejected was one by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster called Superman. Gaines did not particularly care for the comic strip, but his assistant Sheldon Mayer thought otherwise. Since the McClure Syndicate would not publish Superman, Mayer persuaded Gaines to recommend the strip to Donenfeld. Donenfeld then showed Superman to National editor Vince Sullivan, who thought that it would be successful with children because it had a lot of action. Siegel and Shuster were paid ten dollars a page by Donenfeld for the first Superman story. Having tried to sell the character to a number of newspaper syndicates and failed, they sold the character outright to National for $300. Fortunately for Donenfeld, but perhaps unfortunately for Siegel and Shuster, Superman proved to be a phenomenal success. M. C. Gaines and his assistant Sheldon Mayer were then responsible for directing National to its most successful character of all time and what many consider to be the world's first superhero.

Of course, M. C. Gaines' association with National Comics. would not end with Superman. In 1939 Jack Leibowitz, Harry Donenfeld's partner at National, wanted the company to publish more magazines; however, Donenfeld felt that National was already publishing enough comic books. Leibowitz then formed a partnership with M. C. Gaines to create All-American Comics Inc., a publisher which could rightfully be called National's sister company. All-American was a separate company from National, with its own offices and its own staff, but its magazines bore the DC imprint and National characters appeared in All-American comic books and vice versa. Accompanying Gaines from the McClure Syndicate was Sheldon Mayer, who became the editor of the new line.

The first comic book published by All-American Comics Inc. was All-American Comics, in April 1939. Not only was it the first comic book published by the new company, but it was also the first reprint anthology book to bear the DC imprint. The first issue featured reprints of Skippy (star of the first comic book dedicated to a single character) and Mutt and Jeff newspaper strips. Eventually All-American Comics would use original material, including a superhero comic strip called Green Lantern. Also in April 1939 All-American Comics Inc. published Movie Comics. Movie Comics had a unique format. Motion picture stills were tinted and presented in comic strip fashion. Unfortunately Movie Comics did not prove to be popular and it was cancelled within a year.

While All-American Comics Inc. was just getting started, National was seeking to repeat the success of Superman with more superheroes. Their first attempt, a character called The Crimson Avenger who appeared in Detective Comics, had proven less than successful; however, their second attempt, a character called Batman who also appeared in Detective Comics, proved to be a smash hit. Clearly superheroes meant good business for comic book companies, so M. C. Gaines decided that All-American Comics Inc. would publish its own superhero magazine. Gaines looked to writer Gardner Fox to provide material for the new book. Among the artists who worked on it were Harry Lampert and Stan Asch. The end result was Flash Comics #1, January 1940, arguably one of the most important comic books of the Golden Age of comics. Flash Comics featured what were to become some of All-American's most popular characters: The Flash, Hawkman, and Johnny Thunder. With the success of Flash Comics, more superheroes were to follow at All-American Comics Inc.

All-American Comics would receive its own resident superhero with issue 16, July 1940. Like The Flash and Hawkman before him, Green Lantern became one of All-American's most popular characters. With issue 19, October 1940, another superhero was added to All-American Comics, The Atom. In the summer of 1940 All-Star Comics was launched. All-Star Comics was meant to promote characters from both the National and All-American lines. The first issue featured The Flash and Hawkman from the All-American line and Hourman, The Sandman, and The Spectre from the National line. From a magazine which featured several different heroes from several different titles, it was a small step to a comic strip that would feature several different heroes side by side as part of a group--the Justice Society of America. The Justice Society of America was originally meant to showcase those characters from All-American and National who did not have titles of their own. For that reason the Justice Society of America included two characters from All-American's Flash Comics (The Flash and Hawkman), two characters form All-American's All-American Comics (Green Lantern and The Atom), two characters from National's More Fun Comics (Dr. Fate and The Spectre), and two characters from National's Adventure Comics (Hourman and Sandman). The Justice Society of America made their debut in All-Star Comics #3, winter 1940-1941. Sheldon Mayer is most often credited with having conceived the Justice Society of America, although many believe that it may have been at M. C. Gaines' suggestion. Regardless, with The Justice Society of America as its central feature, All-Star Comics became what may have been the second best selling title for either Natinonal or All-American.

All-American continued to expand their superhero line following the success of the Justice Society of America. With issue 25, April 1941, All-American Comics received another superhero, Dr. Mid-Nite. The Flash received his own title in the summer of 1941, while Green Lantern received his own title in the fall of that same year. With other heroes All-American broke new ground. In All-American Comics #20, November 1940, in the pages of Sheldon Mayer's comic strip Scribbly (which was about a boy cartoonist of that name), Ma Hunkel donned a t-shirt, a cape, red longjohns, and a saucepan as a helmet/mask to become The Red Tornado. Not only was The Red Tornado one of the first parodies of the superhero genre, but The Red Tornado herself may well have been the first superheroine created solely for comic books. The Red Tornado would be followed by a superheroine cast in a more serious mould. In All-Star Comics #5, July 1941, Hawkman's girlfriend Shiera Sanders became Hawkgirl. While The Red Tornado and Hawkgirl would both prove popular, neither would have the impact of All-American's next superheroine. Dr. William Moulton Marston, psychologist and educational consultant to both DC and All-American, was talking to M. C. Gaines one day and noted that there while there were many male superheroes in the pages of comic books, there were few if any superheroines. Gaines then asked Marston to create a superheroine. Assuming the pen name of Charles Moulton, Marston created Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman debuted in All-Star Comics #8, December 1941-January 1942--a portion of her origin was added as an extra eight pages to the magazine. Her entire origin appeared the following month in Sensation Comics #1, January 1942. Wonder Woman became a smash hit, easily All-American's most popular character. She received her own title in the summer of 1942 and even had a newspaper strip for a short time. Also debuting in Sensation Comics #1 were Wildcat and Mr. Terrific.

Not only was M. C. Gaines a shrewd entrepreneur, he was also a man with a social conscience. He was well aware of the power of comic books to educate as well as entertain. In addition to its superhero titles, All-American Comics Inc. also published comic books meant primarily to educate the reader. Gaines both published and edited Picture Stories from the Bible and Picture Stories from World History.

Despite the success of All-American Comics Inc. or perhaps because of it, M. C. Gaines and Jack Leibowitz increasingly found themselves in disagreement. By 1944 the two were so much at odds that All-American Comics Inc. and National Comics . actually broke off relations with each other. For a short time comic books published by All-American Comics Inc. did not bear the DC imprint, but an All-American imprint instead. Even the line up of the Justice Society of America was affected. In All-Star Comics #24, spring 1945, the two members from National, Starman and The Spectre, were temporarily replaced by guest stars from the All-American line, Wildcat and Mr. Terrific. The following issue the two National characters, Starman and The Spectre, would be permanently replaced by two All-American characters, The Flash and Green Lantern. It seems that with the schism between the two companies, the policy that no character with his own title could be a member of the Justice Society of America had been done away with! The disagreement between the two companies was eventually settled when Jack Leibowitz bought M. C. Gaines out for a reported $500,000. Thereafter National and All-American were merged into one company to be called National Periodical Publications Inc.

Although the All-American line was now officially part of National Periodical Publications Inc., M. C. Gaines was not yet finished in the comic book business. In 1945 he founded Educational Comics or E. C. for short. Gaines brought with him Picture Stories from The Bible and Picture Stories from World History from All-American Comics Inc. and continued to publish them under the E. C. imprint. E. C.'s output was not confined to educational comics, however, as it also published funny animal and humour titles as well. Among the titles published by E. C. in its early days were Tiny Tot Comics, Fat and Slat, Animal Fables, and Dandy Comics. Eventually E. C. would even make an attempt at its own superhero. Although Moon Girl was created by one of the legends of the industry, Gardner Fox, she appeared to be a blatant rip off of Wonder Woman (without the feminism and bondage). This hardly pleased M. C. Gaines' former compatriots at National Periodical Publications Inc., who made their displeasure known to him.

Despite M. C. Gaines' previous success in the comic book industry, the titles published by E.C. Comics did not sell well. In fact, by mid-1947 the company was near bankruptcy. Unfortunately, no one will ever know if M. C. Gaines, the man who helped create the American comic book, who recommended Superman to Detective Comics Inc., and founded All-American Comics Inc., could have turned E. C. Comics around. On August 20, 1947 M. C. Gaines died a hero's death worthy of any of the superheroes published in his various magazines. He was killed in a boating accident in which he saved the life of a little boy. The company he founded, E. C. Comics, passed into the hands of his son, William Gaines, who would take it in far different directions than his father had planned.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

40 Years of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

It was forty years ago tonight that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. followed the adventures of two agents of the international crime fighting organisation U.N.C.L.E. (the United Network Command for Law Enforcement). The American half of the two agents was Napoleon Solo, who was a bit of a romantic, quite a bit of an idealist, and more than a bit of a womaniser. Despite his skill with weapons and various martial arts, Solo's most devastating asset was probably his charm. The Russian half of the two agetns was Illya Kuryakin. Kuryakin was the intellectual of the duo, with working knowledge of chemistry, physics, mechanics, and a number of languages. He was a master of disguise and an expert gymnast. Like Solo, Kuryakin was skilled with both weapons and in the martial arts. Unlike Solo, however, Kuryakin was a bit of an introvert. The two reported to Mr. Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E.'s Section One. The men from U.N.C.L.E. fought a number of power mad megalomaniacs, although their most frequent opponents came from the criminal syndicate known as THRUSH.

The origns of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. rest with producer Norman Felton, then executive producer of Dr. Kildare. Felton approached Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond himself, with the prospect of creating a similar action series. Fleming wrote a rough outline about a spy called Napoleon Solo. Fleming did not get any further than that, as his obligations to Eon Productions (who owned the film rights to 007) forced him to withdraw from the project. Felton then brought Sam Rolfe onboard. Rolfe was the co-creator of Have Gun Will Travel and had written for such series as Playhouse 90 and The Twilight Zone. Earlier Rolfe had failed to sell a spy series called St. George and the Dragon. Rolfe took Fleming's rough outline (using little more than the names of characters) and material from St. George and the Dragon to create The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as we know it. Rolfe would also produce the series' first season.

Initially, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. suffered from low ratings. In fact, as of December 1964 it was not a part of NBC's preliminary schedule for the fall of 1965! Fortunately, generally good reviews, a publicity campaign on the part of the show's producers, a change in time slots, and the word of mouth of its loyal viewers saved the series. The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a series which was failing in the Nielsens in the fall of 1964, was a bona fide phenomenon by the spring of 1965. It became one of television's top rated programmes. It also produced an enormous amount of merchandise, perhaps surpassed only by Batman in the amount of products associated with any one show. The series was also successful enough to produce a spinoff, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. featuring Stephanie Powers as April Dancer.

Unfortunately, it would not last. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. did fantastically well during its second season, but faltered in its third season. The reasons the series fell in the ratings are a matter of debate. Some theorise that The Gril From U.N.C.L.E. may have hurt the original show; that is, there was simply too much U.N.C.L.E. on the air. A more commonly held theory is that the poor quality of many of the episodes of the third season may have seriously injured the series. In its first two seasons, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a serious adventure series, albeit one with fantastic adventures and one played with tongue deftly in cheek. With its third season, however, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. shifted to episodes played purely for laughs. It is difficult to say why The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took this path, although it could well have been due to the success of Batman, the campy series which was a phenomenon in its own right. It is perhaps significant that just as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. went "camp" it began losing viewers in droves. Of course, a third possiblity is that the U.N.C.L.E. fad had simply run its course. Regardless, by the end of the 1966-1967, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. had been cancelled and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was ailing. The fourth season saw the series return to its more serious roots. Unfortuntely, viewers did not return to the show. In January 1964, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. left network television. Fortunately, for U.N.C.L.E. fans, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. proved succesful in syndication and would later air on both the Christian Broadcast Network and TBS in the Eighties.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. proved to have a lasting impact on television, despite running only three and a half years. Between the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the Bond movies, American television would be overtaken by a spy craze that lasted until 1967. It must also be pointed out that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was one of the earliest series that was highly stylised. In this way, it would influence other shows in the Sixties and even later. Part of the series' "style" was in the transitions between scenes, in which a whip pan was used to simulate someone rapidly moving through a bunch of pictures. These transitions were imitated on other series, most notably Batman (in which a spinning transition was used). The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was also one of the first series to identify its settings with superimposed caption. For instance, there might be a shot of the United States Capital and the caption would read "Somewhere in Washington D. C." This device has been used on many series since, one of the most recent being The X-Files (which not only identified the place, but the time of day as well).

Today The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is not seen nearly as often as it once was, which I feel is a real shame. While its third season was dreadful, the rest of the series places it alongside other television classics. Only a few other American series before or since have been written with the wit and sheer sense of fun as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was. I have to say that I would be more than happy if TVLand or some other cable channel would start rerunning it again.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

This weekend I went to see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I can't recommend this movie enough. In the press there has been a good deal made of the fact that everything in the movie is computer generated, with the exception of the actors. Through the use of computers, first time director Kerry Conran gives the audience imagery never before seen in a "live action" motion picture. We see giant robots and later flying machines attack an art deco New York City which never existed, even though we are told the year is 1939. We see Shangri La, as beautiful as any of the settings in the Lord of the Rings movies, except that it is entirely computer generated. We see incredible devices and incredible sites, all through the miracle of CGI.

Despite the fact that its CGI has been publicised better than any other aspect of the movie, it is not what makes Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow such a good movie. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is at the same time nothing we haven't seen before and yet everything we haven't seen before. It is a wonderful combination of the old aviator comic strips such as Terry and the Pirates, the movie serials of the Thirties and Forties, Golden Age Superman comic books, and screwball romance. The heroes, Joe Sullivan (AKA Sky Captain) and Polly Perkins could have come from any number of Golden Age movies or Golden Age comic books. Sky Captain (Jude Law) is the head of a mercenary squadron of fliers, often called upon when the world is in danger (shades of Captain Midnight...). Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is an ace reporter for a major New York newspaper and Sky Captain's on again, off again love interest (shades of Lois Lane...). The villain, Dr. Totenkopf (Sir Laurence Olivier through the miracle of archival footage), is a megalomaniac villain who builds giant robots and flying machines; he could have come from any number of comic books from the Forties. Even lady flier Capt. Francesca "Franky" Cook (Angelina Jolie) could have come from any number of movie serials or comic books from the era.

Indeed, I don't think any modern movie so successfully captures the spirit of 1930s media quite a much as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The movie feels even more like an old time serial than Raiders of the Lost Ark or any of its sequels. Joe and Polly's romance could have come straight from any number of screwball comedies. Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), Sky Captain's gadgeteer, could have appeared in any number of radio shows, serials, or comic books. The plot, in which the world is threatened by a megalomaniac, is original, although it is very much in keeping with any number of plots seen in movie serials and comic books from the Thirties and Forties.

Of course, all of this would be for naught if Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was not a great movie. Many times before directors have tried to do something different, yet failed, because the script or the performances were inadequate. This is not the case with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The script is well written, a fitting homage to the media of bygone days. The plot unfolds with nothing unnecessary and without poking fun at its source material. The performances, from Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, are first rate. Both make their characters three dimensional and believable, even when they are in unbelievable settings. Conran's direction is quite impressive for a first time director as well. Not once does he hit a wrong note.

As I said, I cannot recommend Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow enough. If you love movie serials, comic books, radio shows, old adventure comic strips--heck, if you simply love movies--you must see this movie!