Saturday, August 30, 2008

How Original Was Stan Lee?

There can be no doubt that Stan Lee revolutionised the comic book industry in the Sixties. Prior to the creation of The Fantastic Four, most superheroes were idealised and nearly perfect. On the other hand, Lee made his heroes flawed, with realistic personality traits. The Fantastic Four bickered among themselves. Spider-Man was basically a nerd who was plagued with self-doubt even when in costume. The X-Men were mutants who were hated by the rest of society. Lee showed unusual originality in giving his characters actual personalities and challenging storylines.

But in some respects the characters Stan Lee created were not particularly original. Often their super powers had been used before for comic book heroes. In some cases they seemed very similar to previous superheroes. While Lee was very original in his treatment of superheroes, he was sometimes not particularly original in the powers he endowed them.

Examples of this can be found in The Fantastic Four. As most comic book fans know, Johnny Storm was not the first Human Torch. The original Human Torch was created by Carl Burgos and appeared in the first Marvel comic book ever published, Marvel Comics #1, October 1939. Unlike Johnny, the original Human Torch was not a human who gained his powers through an accident, but an android created by Dr. Phineas T. Horton. The original Torch appeared in his own magazine until March 1949. He would eventually appear in the Silver Age, meeting his namesake in Fantastic Four Annual #4, 1966.

Of course, creating new versions of old characters was nothing new at the time. In fact, the Silver Age had begun when DC created a new version of The Flash in 1956. They would follow up that success with new versions of Green Lantern, The Atom, and Hawkman. But Johnny Storm was not the only Fantastic Four member whose powers were nothing original. Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, has the ability to stretch into any shape he wants, precisely the same power that Quality Comics' Plastic Man possessed. Plastic Man was created by Jack Cole and first appeared in Police Comics #1, August 1941. He was probably Quality's most popular character besides Blackhawk and was one of the few Golden Age heroes to actually survive the Golden Age. Reed Richards was even pre-dated by DC Comics' own stretchable hero, the Elongated Man, who first appeared in The Flash, vol. 1 #112, April 1960. Even then, the only reason Julius Schwartz created the Elongated Man is that he didn't know DC had acquired Plastic Man among their takeover of Quality characters. It must be pointed out that even Mr. Fantastic's genius and invention of gadgets has precedents. Doc Savage, like Reed Richards, was a multi-talented genius.

While members of The Fantastic Four duplicated powers of previous superheroes, Spider-Man not only duplicated the powers of a previous hero to a degree, but even the background of the hero. In fact, there has even been some controversy over the creation of Spider-Man, even though Stan Lee is usually given credit. The Fly was the creation of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon and the first successful Silver Age superhero of Archie Comics. He first appeared in The Adventures of the Fly #1, August 1959. Even then, The Fly may not have been an original creation. According to Kirby, earlier in the Fifties Simon and Kirby had created a similar character called The Silver Spider for Black Magic, a title published by Crestwood Publications (who also published Kirby and Simon's Fighting American). For whatever reason, the character was not published. Jack Simon disagreed with Kirby's account, saying that The Silver Spider was originally called "Spiderman" and was not created for Black Magic. The name was later changed from "Spiderman" to "The Silver Spider." The one thing that Simon and Kirby both agreed upon is that when Archie Comics had hired Kirby and Simon to create new characters for the company, they dusted off The Silver Spider and reinvented him as The Fly.

Of course, Stan Lee's account of the creation of Spider-Man differs from that of Kirby and Simon. According to Lee, he was inspired to create Spider-Man by the pulp hero The Spider. He also said that he was inspired to create the character by by seeing a fly climb up a wall. Steve Ditko claims that Lee liked the name "Hawkman" from DC Comics and that the hyphen was added to Spider-Man's name to avoid confusion with Superman.

Regardless, The Fly is remarkably similar to Spider-Man. That having been said, The Fly was also similar in some respects to Captain Marvel. Tommie Troy was an orphan hired by Mr. March. One night while in March's attic, he found a fly shaped ring. Placing the ring on, Tommie inadvertently summoned Turan of the Fly People. The Fly People had chosen Tommie to be their champion and granted him the ability to become the superhero The Fly. All he had to do was say "I want to be The Fly' and he would be changed into the adult hero, The Fly, endowed with the powers of insects. Not only does Spider-Man's spider powers resemble those of The Fly, but it must be pointed out that the two both started out as young boys (although Spider-Man was a teenager at the time of his origin). Whether Spider-Man was, as some insist, a plagiarism of The Fly or whether Stan Lee developed the character independently, the two are remarkably similar.

The same accusation as been made with regards to The X-Men, which some believe was a plagiarism of DC's Doom Patrol. The Doom Patrol first appeared in My Greatest Adventure #80, June 1960 and was created by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani. The Doom Patrol was a superhero team assembled by a genius in a wheelchair known only as "The Chief." They were also outcasts whose super powers had left them rejected by society at large. While The X-Men resembles The Doom Patrol in that both are teams of outcasts assembled by a genius in a wheelchair, it must be pointed out that The X-Men first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #1, September 1960. With only three months separating the debut of the two teams, there would not have been sufficient lead time for anyone to have plagiarised the concept behind a new superhero team, written the first issue, and seen it published. Quite simply, the resemblance between the two teams is most likely a great coincidence.

Regardless, in some respects the powers of some members of The X-Men are not particularly orignal. Cyclops' ability to produce optic blasts from eyes was one of the powers possessed by an MLJ (now Archie) character called The Comet. Created by Jack Cole, The Comet debuted in Pep Comics #1, January 1940. The Comet was a young scientist who gained the power to fly and to emit rays that disintegrate anything from his eyes. He even had to contain the rays with a special pair of goggles, much like Cyclops. The Comet did not have a long run and is probably best remembered for being the first superhero ever killed. In Pep Comics #17, July 1941, gangsters murdered The Comet after he put their boss in prison. His brother became The Hangman to avenge him. The Hangman proved a bit more successful, lasting until 1944. As to other members of The X-Men, Iceman was obviously a reversal of The Human Torch, generating ice instead of fire. The Angel, who had wings that actually work, obviously owes something to the Golden Age All-American (and later DC) character Hawkman.

Here I must stress it not my intention to make Stan Lee out to be a plagiarist. While the powers of his characters may not have always been original, his treatment of them was. Before The Fantastic Four's debut, it was rare that comic book characters had problems that people in real life do, or even had flaws. This was then largely a revolution started by Lee. It must also be pointed out that by the end of the Golden Age there had been so many different superheroes that it was probably very difficult to develop a new character who did not have powers that had been used for a superhero before. It must be pointed out that the bulk of DC's Silver Age characters were new versions of Golden Age characters. It was not until the Sixties (many years after the introduction of the new Flash) that DC saw any characters with original powers, such as Metamorpho (introduced in The Brave and the Bold #57, January 1965) and Deadman (introduced in Strange Adventures #205 (October 1967).

And while various characters created by Stan Lee may have not been particularly original in their powers, he created others that were starkly original. While The Hulk owes a great deal to Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde and Frankenstein's Creature, it was the first time that the idea of a normal man transforming into a monster was used for a superhero. Iron Man was even more original. He was the perhaps the first superhero whose powers were derived from powered armour. While many of Lee's characters did not have particularly original powers, this could be said of many comic book creators after the Golden Age. And Lee showed more than enough originality in the creation of characters like The Hulk and Iron-Man and in giving his heroes flawed personalities.

Friday, August 29, 2008

'It's Only Love" by Cheap Trick

When comes to their albums, Cheap Trick's The Doctor was not a big seller. At first it only sold 80,000 copies--dismal when compared to the days of At Budokan and Dream Police. Its lone single, "It's Only Love," only went to #89 on Billboard's Hot 100. Regardless, I have always liked the album, and "It's Only Love" remains one of my favourite Cheap Trick songs. Here is a link to the video to "It's Only Love," courtesy of IFilm.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gone With the Wind Actor Fred Crane Passes On

Fred Crane, who played Brent Tarleton in the classic Gone with the Wind passed on August 21 at the age of 90. He had been hospitalised a few weeks ago for complications from diabetes. The cause was a blood clot in his lungs. He was the oldest surviving male cast member of the classic film.

Fred Crane was born as Herman Frederick Crane in New Orleans on March 22, 1918. He attended Tulane University and Loyola University. He acted in local theatre productions. At his mother's request Crane went to Los Angeles to try his hand in Hollywood. Once in Hollywood Crane contacted his cousin, former silent film actress Leatrice Joy, who took him to see the Selznick studio, where her daughter was auditioning for the part of Scarlet's sister Suellen. She didn't get the part, but Crane's Southern accent caught the attention of the casting director who called director George Cukor. Cukor and the casting director took Crane to meet Selznick, who set up a screen test with Vivien Leigh. As Brent Tarleton, one of Scarlet's suitors, he had the honour of uttering the first lines in the film. While on the set he made friends with future Superman George Reeves, who played Stuart Tarleton, Brent's twin. He was friends with Reeves until his death and still believed the star's death was not a suicide.

Crane's acting career would be sparse after Gone with the Wind, although in 1946 he would become an announcer of classical music at Los Angeles radio station KFAC. He became the station's programme director in the Seventies. He would remain with the station until 1987 when the station's owners fired many of the station's older employees. Thereafter he successfully won a age discrimination lawsuit.

In addition to his work as an announcer on KFAC, Crane also acted on various radio shows. Most notably, he appeared on The Lucky Strike Show, with Jack Benny.

Crane was also a talent instructor at Crossroads of the World for quite a while. Often called America's first modern shopping mall, he worked there with future Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon.

As to Crane's acting career, following his role in Gone with the Wind, he did not appear in another film until The Gay Amigo in 1949. Crane would appear on television, making his debut on the medium in a 1961 episode of Surfside 6. He also appeared on Lawman, Lost in Space, and provided voices for cyborgs on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Crane also owned a registered historic 1846 Confederate home and Civil War hospital in Barnesville, Georgia, which he and his wife converted into the Tarleton Oaks Bed & Breakfast. It operated for many, many years.

Fred Crane may not have had an extensive acting career, but having played in Gone with the Wind (even having the first lines in the film) and having been a classical radio announcer for years, he left his mark on pop culture nonetheless. Indeed, he was the oldest surviving male cast member of the classic film. With his death, it seems yet another generation has passed.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Classic Car Quiz

Before anything else, I want to thank everyone who congratulated me on my 1000th post yesterday. It is truly an accomplishment of which I am proud. And I want to wish Toby a happy 4th anniversary for Inner Toob, which also fell yesterday. Truly a great blog and well worth reading!

Anyhow, onto post 1001! As regular readers of this blog probably already know, Beth of the lovely voice laid down a challenge for me at the first of the year. The challenge was simply this: I must create and post one pop culture quiz a month in A Shroud of Thoughts. The quizzes can have a single theme or simply be a collection of random things. At the end of 2008, the reader who has accumulated the most points throughout the year will win a pop culture related prize. For those of you curious about the prize, I decided that it will be a pop culture related key chain of the winner's choice, to cost no more than $5.00 (minus sales tax). The price limit is for the simple fact that I can't afford platinum plated key chains... I'll provide the answers around the end of the month.

Since the new car models were traditionally released in September, I though the theme for this month's quiz should be classic cars. Since this quiz is a day late, the answers will come out September 1 (Labour Day to Americans).

1, In a classic 1905 song what make of car did Johnny Steele own in which he loved to spark in the dark old park with his girl?

2. In what colours could people buy the Ford Model T?

3. What model did Ford follow the Model T up with?

4. What model of car was owned by both Clark Gable and Gary Cooper and was popular with movie stars and the wealthy?

5. What was the first Diesel powered automobile in the world?

6. What was the last Studebaker to have styling influenced by Raymond Loewy's studio (he designed Studebaker's modern logo and various other Studebaker models)?

7. What model of car was Christine in the Stephen King novel of the same name?

8. For what TV commercial promoting what model of Ford were the gang from the comic strip Peanuts first animated?

9. What classic pony car did Ford first manufacture in 1964 and became one of the company's most popular models?

10. What Plymouth model figured in the movie Duel?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The 1000th Post

It is hard to believe that I have been writing this blog for four years and two months. It is harder still to believe that I am at this moment writing the 1000th post of A Shroud of Thoughts. This is particularly the case given that the average blog does not last much longer than one or two posts.

Of course, over the years A Shroud of Thoughts has undergone some changes. The most obvious of these was in its template. The initial template was only two columns and green in colour, looking considerably different from the current template. Here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine is a screen capture of that original template.

Sadly, the Wayback Machine did not spider any of the templates in between that initial one and this one. That having been said, I can describe them to you. The next template looked more or less like the first one, save that it featured three columns. I had to abandon that template when Blogger made changes which resulted in that particular template starting in the middle of the page, for whatever reason. I then switched temporarily to Minima Black, one of Blogger's templates. In a few weeks I had developed the current template, which was created through combining Blogger's Minima Black with Eris Design's Faintly Victorian and throwing in some modifications of my own, such as the way comments are handled. This template has served me well since July 2005.

The blog has undergone a few other changes as well. Originally I was a bit more willing to discuss my private life, although I usually did so obliquely. I cut this out except for personal reminiscences of my interactions with pop culture, as I figured a.) this is a blog about pop culture, not me, and b.) people probably are not interested in reading about my problems. Another change that developed is that I think A Shroud of Thoughts was once a bit more nostalgic than it once was. Oh, I still wax nostalgic about old TV shows, old movies, old comic books, old rock groups, but I do not write about the places that were once important in American society. In this blog I wrote about department stores, dime stores, barber shops, cinemas, drive in restaurants, and so on. The reason I stopped writing about such places was not a conscious choice, but simply the fact that I ran out of places about which to write! Quite frankly, those are among some of my favourite posts I have ever written.

Perhaps the biggest change in A Shroud of Thoughts is that the posts would grow longer and more detailed, until finally I was doing entire series of articles. The earliest posts tended to be briefer and less detailed. That would change quickly. The blog started in early June 2004. By mid-June I had done my first series, on the British Invasion. It was the first week of September that I did what I feel was my first truly detailed two part article, "The Vanguard of Mars." I have always been proud of this article, especially as I've never seen anything else like it on the Web--a history of Martians in pop culture!

Do I have any regrets regarding A Shroud of Thoughts? If I have one regret it is that I have not done enough with regards to literature. While I would say that not all literature qualifies as pop culture, there is a good amount of it that does. Basically, if the average person has a passing familiarity with a literary work, then it is part of pop culture. I have dealt with the works of Dickens and I think I have written about Wuthering Heights as well. I know I have discussed Tolkien, Howard, and pulp magazines. But I have never covered Mark Twain or Shakespeare or Edgar Allen Poe. For that matter, I have not dealt in depth with Lord Byron, even though A Shroud of Thoughts takes its name from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage canto iii stanza 113.

At any rate, I am particularly proud that I have reached 1000 posts. It is an accomplishment that not many bloggers have ever made. Now here is hoping that I can just write 1000 more!