Saturday, May 22, 2010

The 151st Birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It was on 22 May, 1859 that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Not only would he become a pioneer in detective fiction, but he would also create one of the earliest superstars in pop culture, the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle's writing went well beyond Holmes, however, as he also wrote historical novels, science fiction, romances, and poetry. He also created another memorable character in the form of Professor Challenger.

Born to a father of Irish descent, Victorian artist Charles Doyle, and a mother who was Irish, Mary Foley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of ten children  He attended the Jesuit school Hodder Place, Stonyhurst, and then Stonyhurst College. Although educated by Jesuits, by the time he left Stonyhust College in 1875, he had become an agnostic. From 1876 to 1881 he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. It was during this period that he first started writing short stories. In 1879 he sold his first short story, "The Mystery of the Sasassa Valley," to Chambers Edinburgh Journal.

In 1881 he set up a medical practice at Plymouth with a classmate, George Budd, but their partnership would not last. It was only after a few months that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set up his own practice at Elm Grove, Southsea. With only a very few patients, Conan Doyle took to writing again. It was in 1887 that his novel A Study in Scarlet would be published in Beetons Christmas Journal. The novel marked the first appearance of consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick and biographer Dr. John H. Watson. It would also be the first novel in which a magnifying glass is used as  a tool in a crime investigation. Surprisingly for so historic a work, A Study in Scarlet attracted very little attention when it was first published.

Despite the fact that A Study in Scarlet drew little notice, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a second novel featuring Holmes and Watson. The Sign of Four was published in the February 1890 issue of  Lippincott's Montly Magazine under a slightly different title, The Sign of the Four. Since Lippincotts Montly Magazine was published on both sides of the Pond, the novel debuted in both London and Philadelphia at nearly the same time. Once the novel was serialised in other journals and when it was published in book form in both the United Kingdom and the United States, it was given the title by which it is now known: The Sign of Four. Surprisingly, it also met with little success.

Fortunately for both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, their fortunes were about to change. Starting with the January 1891 issue, publisher Sir George Newnes began publishing a new magazine called The Strand. Conan Doyle's agent A. P. Watt struck a deal with the new magazine to publish a series of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. The first short story featuring Holmes to be a published in The Strand would also become one of the most famous stories in the Canon. "A Scandal in Bohemia" first appeared in the July 1891 issue of The Strand. It would be the short story which would introduce a character whom Dr. Watson would eventually describe as the only person to have beaten Holmes and an individual Holmes referred to as The Woman: Irene Adler. While both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four went unnoticed, Conan Doyle's short stories featuring Holmes which appeared in The Strand became incredibly popular. The stories would appear in the New York edition of The Strand, usually the month following their appearance in London, in addition to being syndicated to newspapers across the United States. Sherlock Holmes was soon a superstar on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not have to look far for the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle had worked for Dr. Joseph Bell while a clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Dr Bell was a pioneer in the field of medical diagnoses who utilised close observation, even of the smallest details, and logic to make his diagnoses. It is to Dr. Bell that Holmes owes his keen powers of observation. While Dr. Bell was the primary inspiration for Holmes, another sources of inspiration came from a similar, fictional character. The first was C. Auguste Dupin, the first detective to ever appear in fiction, created by Edgar Allan Poe in the short story "Murders in the Rue Morgue, " first published in 1841. In fact, in A Study in Scarlet, Watson even compares Holmes to Dupin. The second fictional character who may have served as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes may have been Monsieur Lecoq, created by Émile Gaboriau in the story L’Affaire Lerouge in 1866. He is also mentioned in A Study in Scarlet, although Holmes describes him as "a miserable bungler." Both Dupin and Lecoq were in turn inspired by a real life individual, Eugène François Vidoccq. Vidoq was the first director of France's La Sûreté Nationale and the founder of the first known detective agency, Le bureau des renseignements.

The phenomenal success of Sherlock Holmes brought Conan Doyle both fame and wealth. Unfortunately, he also felt restrained by that success. As early as 1891 he wrote to his mother and told her he was considering killing Holmes off, as "He takes my mind from better things." Those "better things" were his historical novels. Conan Doyle's first historical novel, Micah Clarke, was published in 1888 and followed the character of title in adventures during the Monmouth Rebellion. His second historical novel, The White Company, was published in 1891 and followed a free company of archers during the during the years 1836 and 1837 when Prince Edward sought to restore Peter of Castile to the throne of Castile. Conan Doyle would publish five more historical novels.

It was in December 1893 that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did the unthinkable--he killed off Holmes. In the story "The Final Problem" Sherlock Holmes faces his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, for the first and only time in the Canon. In the climax of the story Holmes and Moriarty struggled atop Reichenbach Falls, only to fall to their apparent deaths. Public outcry was swift and immediate, so much so that Conan Doyle found he could not escape his creation so easily. After several years of pressure from the reading public, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to write about Sherlock Holmes again. In 1902 a new Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was serialised in The Strand. The novel was set before the events in "The Final Problem." It was in 1903 that Conan Doyle brought Holmes back from the dead. The short story "The Adventure of the Empty House" is set in 1894, a year after the climactic battle between Holmes and Moriarty. In the story it is explained how Holmes survived the fight with Moriarty and faked his death to protect himself from enemies other than Moriarty. In the end Conan Doyle would write over thirty more short stories featuring Holmes and one more novel, The Valley of Fear (published in 1914). The last short story by Arthur Conan Doyle to feature Sherlock Holmes was "The Adventure of Shoscombe Place," published in 1927.

Sherlock Holmes would not be the only famous character created by Sir Conan Doyle. He also created the character of Prof. George Edward Challenger. Professor Challenger first appeared in the novel The Lost World, published in 1912. Challenger was a very different character from Holmes, although both could be called scientists. While Holmes was reserved and contemplative, Challenger was outgoing, more than a bit arrogant, and even aggressive. Like Holmes, however, he was also a genius. He had studied at the University of Edinburgh, where he majored in medicine, zoology, and anthropology. While he could be impolite and even demeaning to others, he also had a keen mind which could figure a way out of any situation. He was also incredibly loyal to his friends and hopelessly devoted to his wife.

Like Holmes, Professor Challenger was based on a real person. While at the University of Edinburgh Conan Doyle studied under William Rutherford, Professor and Chair of Physiology . Rutherford was a brilliant lecturer, a fact for which Conan Doyle and other students admired him. Like Challenger , Rutherford was also a large man with a booming voice. And like Challenger, his behaviour was not always socially acceptable in Victorian Scotland.

While Sherlock Holmes was featured in mystery stories (although at times they bordered on horror, as in the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles), Professor Challenger's adventures could best be described as science fiction. In The Lost World Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in South America where prehistoric creatures, including dinosaurs, still live. In the novella The Poison Belt, published in 1913, the earth passes through a belt of poisonous ether, a fact which only Challenger seems to know. In The Land of Mist, published in 1926, Challenger is only a peripheral character and the work deals primarily with spiritualism. In the story "When the World Screamed," published in 1928, Challenger is convinced the earth's mantle is a sentient being and sets out to prove it. In the story "The Disintegration Machine," published in 1929. Challenger encounters a scientist who has developed a machine which can disintegrate and reassemble any object, including human beings.

In addition to his writing, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also politically active. After the Boer War, when the world condemned the United Kingdom for its actions, Conan Doyle wrote the pamphlet he War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, in which he argued that the UK's action were justified. He also wrote a book on the war, The Great Boer War, published in 1900. He also ran for Parliament twice and fought for reform of the Congo Free State.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a fervent supporter of justice. Because of his efforts, he successfully had two men exonerated of the crimes for which they had been convicted. It was in part Conan Doyle's efforts to correct miscarriages of justice that led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

Later in his life Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became interested in Spiritualism. Eventually he would even write a book, The History of Spiritualism, published in 1926. Convinced that the Cottingley Fairies appearing  in series of photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths were real, he brought the photos to the attention of The Strand, who published the photos alongside an article by Conan Doyle on fairies in the magazine's Christmas 1920 issue. His book, The Coming of the Fairies was published in 1921. It was in the Eighties that the photos were proven to be a hoax.

At the age of 71 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died from a heart attack on 7 July, 1930. He left behind a legacy which few writers can boast. Sherlock Holmes became one of the first pop culture superstars. By 1894 Holmes had already appeared in two stage plays. At the turn of the century actor William Gilette would have enormous success with the play Sherlock Holmes, or The Strange Case of Miss Faulkner. In 1900, the first film was made featuring Sherlock Holmes, a one reeler released by American Mutoscope and Biograph Company enitled Sherlock Holmes Baffled in 1900. By the time Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce appeared as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in 20th Century Fox's production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes had already appeared in close to 100 films. As of 2009 Holmes has appered in around 200 films. The only pop culture figure to appear in more movies is Dracula.

 Not only was Holmes popular, but he has also been influential. Although not the first fictional detective, he would prove a role model for many of those who followed, from Hercule Poirot to Nero Wolfe. Conan Doyle's novels and short stories featuring Holmes also brought forensics to the forefront of mystery novels and short stories, so that in some respects Holmes is the forerunner of such police procedurals as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The Sherlock Holmes novels and stories also provided character archetypes who would reappear in the mystery genre. The exceedingly loyal and less intelligent assistant, Dr. Watson, would be the forerunner of Poirot's frequent sidekick Arthur Hastings and Nero Wolfe's legman Archie Goodwin. The less imaginative and intelligent police officer, Inspector Lestrade, would be the ancestor of all police baffled by crimes in mystery novels from his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet onwards.

In creating Sherlock Holmes and his milieu, then, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a character who would be incredibly influential and whose stories would impact nearly every mystery written ever since. Indeed, only last year, the year of Conan Doyle's 150th birthday, yet another Sherlock Holmes movie was released. It would seem that as we move towards Conan Doyle's 200th birthday, his creation continues to an important force in pop culture.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Law & Order R.I.P.?

It was a week ago that NBC made an announcement that was nothing short of shocking to many. After twenty seasons on the air, Law & Order had been cancelled. As of this season the series was tied with Gunsmoke as the longest running primetime drama on American network television. What is more it also spawned no less than five spin offs  (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal IntentLaw & Order: Trial By Jury, Conviction, and the upcoming Law & Order: Los Angeles), as well as a British adaptation (Law & Order:; Order: UK). The final episode is set ot air on this coming Monday, May 21, 2010.

Law & Order was created by Dick Wolf in 1988. The concept of the series was in some way simple--for the first half of the show cover detectives investigating a crime, while the second half would the prosecuting attorneys as they tried the suspect of the crime. Of course, the concept was hardly original. After Wolf took his idea to then president of Universal Television, Kerry McCluggage, who pointed out its similarity to the 1963 show Arrest and Trial. The first half of the show covered Detective Sgt. Nick Anderson ( played by Ben Gazzara) as he investigated a crime and the second half covered defence attorney John Egan (play Chuck Connors) as he defended the suspect that Anderson had arrested in court. The hook on the series was that each week one of the leads would have to be proven wrong. What set Law & Order apart from Arrest and Trial was that it focused on the prosecution rather than the defence attorney (as only a few legal dramas have) and Wolf wanted a much higher degree of realism as the show proceeded from police investigation to prosecution of a crime.

On the basis of the idea of the show alone, Dick Wolf was able to interest Fox in Law & Order, who ordered thirteen episodes. Unfortunately, this would be reversed by then Fox president Barry Diller, who felt that Law & Order was a poor fit for the network. Wolf then went to CBS, who actually ordered a pilot "Everybody's Favourite Bagman (which would be aired as the series' sixth episode on NBC)." Although CBS liked the pilot, they ultimately turned the show down as they felt it had no actors who could become big stars. It was in the summer of 1989 that Brandon Tartikoff, then the head of NBC's Entertainment Division, and Warren Littlefield, then Vice Presdident of NBC Entertainment, viewed the pilot. Despite some initial doubts, they ordered a full season of Law & Order to air in 1990.

Law & Order debuted on September 13, 1990. The original cast included George Dzunda as Sgt Max Greevey, Chris Noth as Detective Mike Logan, Michael Moriarty as Chief Assistant District  Attorney Ben Stone, and Richard Brooks as Assistant District Attorney Eriq La Salle. The first of many cast changes occurred at the end of the first season. Dzunda left after first season ended, his place being taken by Paul Sorvino as Sgt. Phil Cerreta. He would leave at the end of the second season due to the show's exhausting shooting schedule. It was with the series' third season that Jerry Orbach replaced Sorvino as Detective Lennie Briscoe, possibly the series best known and best loved character. He remained with the show until the show's twelfth season, after which he appeared as a supporting character on the spin off Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Sadly, it would be his last role, as he died from prostate cancer shortly thereafter.

Interestingly enough for a series which run twenty years and produced five spin offs, Law & Order was not a smash hit from the beginning. The series received respectable, but not spectacular ratings in in its first three seasons. It was with the series' fourth season that it broke into Nielsen's top twenty five shows for the year, at #23. For the next several seasons Law & Order would remain in the top 25, even breaking into the top 10 at #7 in its twelfth season. Unfortunately, Law & Order would not remain so high in the ratings.The ratings began to decline after Jerry Orbach's death. The show's sixteenth season would be the first that Law & Order did not to rank in the top twenty five in eight years. In its seventeenth season Law & Order would drop even more dramatically. Scheduled in a Friday night death slot, it only ranked #54 out of all primetime shows on the air for the year. While its ratings rose to respectable numbers in its 18th season, it would suffer another dramatic drop in ratings in its 19th season, ranking only 64th out of all primetime shows on the air for the year.

While Law & Order was still a high rated show it produced several spin offs. The first was Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which centred on the NYPD's Special Victims Unit which investigates sex based crimes. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit debuted on September 20, 1999. The second was Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which centred on NYPD's Major Case Squad. It debuted on September 30, 2001. The third was Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Centred on criminal trials, it was much more of a legal drama than Law & Order. It is perhaps for this reason it only lasted thirteen episodes. It debuted on March 3, 2005. Conviction was the first and only spinoff not to bear the "Law & Order" name. It centred on a group of young district attorneys headed by Alexandra Cabot, with Stephanie March reprising her role from Law & Order. It too only lasted thirteen episodes. The latest spin off, Law  & Order: Los Angeles, is set to debut on NBC this fall.

Sadly, it would seem that the underlying reason that Law & Order was cancelled was its ratings. As to why a series that for long time very high rated fell preciptuously in the ratings, I suspect that came down to a number of reasons. Among these was the death of Jerry Orbach. Even though Law & Order was an ensemble, for many of us Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe was the show's undisputed star. For many fans of Orbach and his character, then, watching Law & Order following his death may have simply reminded them of what the show, and to an extent themselves, had lost. Law & Order would not be the first show whose ratings to suffer a result of the death of a star. Bonanza also dropped dramatically in the ratings following the death of Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright.

Another factor which contributed to falling ratings for Law & Order was the Friday night death slot NBC assigned it in its 17th season. It can be no coincidence that the show's ratings dropped disastrously that season. The simple fact is that Friday night is one of the rated nights for television in the whole week. It is the night when many go out for dinner or a movie. At the very least they are not watching television. Indeed, if ratings for Law & Order were not what they should have been this season, it is perhaps because the show once more began this season in a Friday night death slot.

Of course, ratings are not the only reason Law & Order was cancelled, demographics probably played a role as well. The past many years NBC has claimed that it wants to reach the 18-49 year old demographic. Unfortunately for Law & Order, 64% of its audience are fifty years and older. In other words , out of the 7.3 million viewers who watch Law & Order, 4.7 million are over fifty, leaving only 2.6 million viewers that NBC claims they want to attract. Speaking as one of that 18 to 49 years old demographic that NBC claims they want to watch their shows, I would be very unhappy if it turned out that NBC cancelled Law & Order because of the age of its audience. Not only do I think that programming only younger people (even if I am one) is none too wise from a programming standpoint (it is the folks over 50 who have disposable income, not those of us under 50), I think it would be downright, (fill in with the obscenity of your choice) hypocritical for NBC to cancel Law & Order because of its audiences' ages. After all, this is the network who in their folly kicked Conan O'Brien off The Tonight Show (who appeals to those of us under the age of 50) and reinstated Jay Leno as host (whose appeal is strictly limited to those over the age of 60).

As to the future of Law & Order creator and executive producer Dick Wolf has not given up hope. Monday Wolf said Law & Order " in a medically-induced coma, and we are hoping for a cure." Indeed, it seems possible that Law & Order could simply move to a cable network. The USA Network has shown reruns of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and  Law & Order: Criminal Intent for years. When it faced cancellation in 2007, USA picked the series up and has been showing new episodes ever since. It would seem that USA could then pick Law & Order up. TNT has been showing reruns of Law & Order for years as well, so that the series could find a new home on that network. Indeed, it has been reported by some sources that in the wake of the cancellation, Dick Wolf has shopped the series to TNT among other places.

Regardless, even if Law & Order does not find a new home, it has had the longest run of any network drama besides Gunsmoke. It also produced five spin offs, which may well be more than any other series in the history of American network television. While its many loyal viewers may lament its passing, reruns of the series will be airing for years to come.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New Yorker Cartoonist Bernard Schoenbaum Passes On

Bernard Schoenbaum, who created hundreds of cartoons for The New Yorker, passed on May 7. He was 89 years old. The cause was cancer.

Bernard Schoenbaum was born in New York City and was raised in Manhattan and the Bronx. He attended James Monroe High School in the Bronx. He received his training in art at the Parsons School for Design

Much of Mr. Schoenbaum's career was spent as a freelance commercial artist, although he had long wanted to be in a cartoonist. After his wife took a job as a librarian, Mr. Schoenbaum devoted more of his time to cartooning. From 1979 to 2002 he began contributing cartoons to The New Yorker. Mr. Schoenbaum's cartoons lampooned the rich, the socially conscious, and the upper classes in general. He could be topical, but more often than not he simply pointed out the ugly truths in society and the follies of being human. Mr. Schoenbaum also contributed work to Barrons and The Wall Street Journal.

Bernard Schoenbaum also worked creating portraits on cruise ships.

Over the years The New Yorker has featured some of the greatest cartoonist of all time: Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, William Steig, and James Thurber among them. Bernard Schoenbaum ranks in their number, not simply because he was published in The New Yorker, but because he had the same incredible level of talent. He was among the funniest and wittiest cartoonists to ever grace The New Yorker, with a sharp eye for basic human nature and a sense of humour that was often sardonic. With Bernard Schoenbaum's passing, we have lost one of the true greats of cartooning.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Heavy Metal Singer Ronnie James Dio Passes On

Ronnie James Dio, the heavy metal singer who performed with Elf, Rainbow, and Heaven and Hell, passed yesterday at the age of 67. The cause was stomach cancer.

Ronnie James Dio was born Ronald James Padavona in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on July 10, 1942. When he was very young his family moved to Cortland, New York. He graduated from Cortland City School in 1960. While still a boy he played trumpet. In high school he played bass guitar in a band called The Vegas Kings. He eventually became lead singer of The Vegas Kings, who changed their name to Ronnie and the Rumblers and finally to Ronnie and the Red Caps. From 1958 to 1960 Ronnie and the Red Caps recorded three, 7 inch singles., although one was never officially released.

In 1961 Ronnie James Padavona took the stage name of Ronnie James Dio, taking his last name from mobster Johnny Dio. He attended the University of Buffalo from 1960 to 1961, but never graduated. Ronnie and the Red Caps changed their name to Ronnie and the Prophets. Between 1962 and 1967 they released twelve, 7 inch singles. Ronnie and the Prophets disbanded in 1967. Dio and guitarist Nick Pantas then formed a new band called The Electric Elves, later shortening their name to The Elves in 1969 and then Elf in 1970. The Electric Elves/The Elves/Elf released four albums between 1967 and 1974.

The Elves had been an opening act for Deep Purple in 1969. In 1974, when Ritchie Blackmore left Deep Purple, he asked Dio and other members of Elf to form a new band called Rainbow. Rainbow released their first album, Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow in 1975. In the United States the album went to #30 on the Billboard album chart and #11 on the British album chart. The album created a minor hit with the song "The Man on the Silver Mountain. Rainbow releaesd their second album, Rising, in 1976. It went to #48 on the American albums chart and #11 on the British album chart.The band released their first live album, On Stage, in 1977.

In 1978 Rainbow released the album Long Live Rock 'n' Roll, which would be the final Rainbow album to feature Ronnie James Dio . Dio left the band, citing creative differences. Having fired lead vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath asked Dio to join them as their new lead vocalist. In 1980 Black Sabbath released their first album with Dio on lead vocals, Heaven and Hell. The album went to #29 in the United States and to #9 in the United Kingdom. It also produced radio hits in the form of the songs "Neon Knights" and "Heaven and Hell." In 1981 Black Sabbath released their second album with Dio on lead vocals, Mob Rules. It went to #29 in the United States. In 1982 Black Sabbath released their first official live album, Live Evil. It would be Dio's last album with Black Sabbath for several years. Dio abruptly left he band in October 1982 while Live Evil was being mixed.

After leaving Black Sabbath, Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice formed a new band called Dio. The band released their first album, Holy Diver, in 1983. Holy Diver went to #56 on the  Billboard albums chart and #13 on the British album charts. It also produced hits in the form of "Rainbow in the Dark" and "Holy Diver." Dio released their final album in 1984, The Last in Line. Their third album, Sacred Heart, was released in 1985. Their fourth album, Dream Evil, was released in 1987. It went to #43 on the Billboard album chart and #3 on the British album chart. It also produced a hit with "I Could Have Been a Dreamer."

Dio's final album of the Eighties was released in 1990, Lock Up the Wolves. It saw a nearly complete change in membership from the line up of Dream Evil. It also did not perform as well, going to #61 in the United States and #28 in the United Kingdom.

It was in 1992 that Ronnie James Dio rejoined Black Sabbath for the album Dehumanizer. Dio would not stay with Black Sabbath this time either, as he quit after Tony Iommi suggested they open for Ozzy Osbourne at the end of his 1992 tour. Dio would record five more studio albums with the band Dio: Strange Highways (1994); Angry Machines (1996); Magica (2000); Killing the Dragon (2002); and Master of the Moon (2004).

In 2005 Ronnie James Dio provided the voice for Dr. X on Queensryche's album Operation: Mindcrime II. In October 2006 Dio rejoined Black Sabbath members Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler and one time Black Sabbath drummer Vinnie Appice under the name Heaven and Hell. The group released a live album Live from Radio City Music Hall in 1987 and one studio album, The Devil You Know, in 2009. It would be Ronnie James Dio's last appearance on a record.

I think there can be no denying that Ronnie James Dio was one of the all time greatest heavy metal vocalists. He had a piercing,  nearly operatic voice that could hit notes both lower and higher than most singers in any genre. He was also a talented songwriter. I liked many of the songs he did with Elf, Rainbow, and Dio. And while I never considered Black Sabbath with Dio as the lead vocalist to be Black Sabbath (it's only Sabbath if Ozzy is singing lead), I liked the work he did with Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi. I must admit that I count both Heaven and Hell by Dio, Geezer Butler, and Tony Iommi and Holy Diver among my favourite metal albums. Ronnie James Dio was truly talented with one of the most impressive voices in all of rock music.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Harvey Comics' Dark Secret

Today Harvey Comics is best known for publishing innocuous, sometimes even bland children's comic books featuring such characters as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Wendy the Good Little Witch, Little Audrey, and Richie Rich. Even Archie Comics, well known for their wholesomeness,  was not as squeaky clean as Harvey Publications (as the company called itself for much of its history. Despite the company's reputation today for wholesome entertainment today, this was not always the case. In the Fifties Harvey Publications published horror comic books that were so violent, so graphic, that they made EC Comics' more famous titles look tame by comparison. Casper the Friendly Ghost would have been terrified by them!

Harvey Publications was founded by Alfred Harvey. A cartoonist by trade, Alfred Harvey began his career at the age of 15, drawing advertising cartoons. It was in the late Thirties that Detective Comics Inc. (one of the companies that would become DC Comics) published Action Comics #1, June 1938, featuring Superman was published. The comic book and the character of Superman would be a smash hit, leading to a boom in the comic book industry, with new companies swiftly joining in the boom. This was not lost on Alfred Harvey, who took a job at Fox Feature Syndicate (the notorious publisher best known for The Blue Beetle). By 1940 Harvey had tired of working for someone else and founded what was then called Alfred Harvey Publications.

Harvey Publications first comic book would be a digest sized title, fittingly called Pocket Comics #1, August 1941. Not only was Pocket Comics #1 historic as the first Harvey comic book, for also featuring the first appearance of  The Black Cat. The superheroine would become Harvey Publications' most popular character in those days before Casper and Richie Rich. While Pocket Comics would fold after four issues, The Black Cat would be a mainstay at Harvey Publications, receiving her own title in 1946. Harvey Publications also acquired Speed Comics from Brookwood Publications, along with the superheroes it featured (such as Shock Gibson and Captain Freedom). Speed Comics #14, September 1941 would be the first issue published by Harvey. Harvey also acquired Champion Comics (later known simply as Champ Comics) from Worth Publishing.

In addition to publishing its own superhero anthology titles, Harvey Publications also published comic books featuring licensed characters. Originally published by Helnit Publications (later known as Holyoke), Harvey took over The Green Hornet with issue #7, June 1942. In 1945 Joe Palooka became the first newspaper strip licensed by Harvey Publications. His comic book lasted from 1945 to 1961. Harvey Publications would eventually license several newspaper strip characters, among the most successful being Dick Tracy (1950 to 1961) and Blondie (1950 to 1964). By far the most successful Harvey title featuring a licensed newspaper strip character would be Sad Sack. Originally created by George Baker in the pages of Yank, the Army Weekly in August 1942, Sad Sack was first published by Harvey in September 1949. It ran until 1982, and at times Sad Sack was featured in upwards of six different titles Here it must be noted that it would be Harvey's licensing of established characters that would eventually save the company in the wake of the moral panic over comic books in the late Forties and early Fifties.

Aside from newspaper reprints, Harvey Publications would also enter other genres in the Forties. They would make their first foray into humour in the mid-Forties, with litle success with such titles as Clown Comics and Dotty Dripple. In the late Forties they entered the romance genre with such titles as First Love Illustrated (1949-1963), First Romance (1949-1958), Hi-School Romance (1949-1958), Love Lessons (1949-1950), and Sweet Love (1949-1950). Unfortunately, romance would not be the only trend in the comic book industry that Harvey would choose to enter.

It was in 1950 that William Gaines would launch EC Comic's "New Trend" series of titles, including Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, and other titles. EC Comics' titles were intelligently written, well drawn, and often extremely violent. Seeing the success at EC, Harvey would also enter the war comics genre, with such titles as Warfront (1951 to 1958), War Battles (1952-1953), Fighting Fronts (1952-1953), and True War Experiences (1952). They also emulated EC Comics' Mad with their own humour title Flip. The success that EC Comics had with its horror titles would also lead Harvey to publish its own horror titles. Not only would Harvey Publications' horror titles meet with a good deal of success, they would also meet with a great deal of notoriety.

It was in January 1951 that Harvey Publications published their first horror comic book, Witches Tales #1. In June 1951, Harvey launched another horror title, Chamber of Chills. With issue #30, July 1951 Black Cat Comics became a horror anthology entitled Black Cat Mystery, and The Black Cat was banished from her own title. In April 1952 Harvey debuted their final horror title Tomb of Terror. Of the four titles, it would be Chamber of Chills that would become the most notorious. The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide entry on Chamber of Chills notes that, "About half the issues contain bondage, torture, perversion, sadism, gore, eyes ripped out, acid in the face, etc." While Chamber of Chills has often been singled out for its high degree of depravity, it must be pointed that out that all of Harvey's horror titles had more than their share of gratuitous violence. In fact, one issue of Black Cat Mystery may have more gore and brutality than any six issues of Tales From the Crypt combined.

Indeed, some of the stories featured in Harvey's titles seem extreme even for horror comic books of the early Fifties. The web site Oddball Comics spotlighted Chamber of Chills #23, May 1954, which featured a story called "Heartline" In the story a young surgeon has discovered a technique whereby he can replace any diseased organ with one from a corpse. When his fiancée had a heart attack, the surgeon swiftly replaces her tatally damaged heart with a heart from a cadaver. Unfortunately, the operation had one unexpected side effect--his fiancée and the cadaver from whom he retrieved the heart now want to be together! An article in the June 13, 1954 issue of The Florence Times Daily (as in Florence, Alabama) by Roger McCrary, one of the many articles condemning comic books written in 1954, describes a story from Tomb of Terror (he does not tell which issue). In the story a young boy named Robin despised working in his father's butcher shop because he hated the sight of blood. For this he was roundly abused by his father, who calls him "gutless." After taking his father's abuse one too many times, Robin had a psychotic break and butchered his father with a meat cleaver. The end of the story featured Robin staring at his father's guts strewn before him on a counter and saying, "..who's gutless now?"

The covers of Harvey's horror titles could often be more graphic than the stories contained within their covers. Black Cat Mystery #50, June 1954 featured a cover in which a man's face is rotted away as he holds a bar of radium. The cover of the aforementioned  Chamber of Chills #23 featured a rotting corpse assaulting a young woman, something Oddball Comics describes as "..a case of nauseating reverse-necrophilia..." Tomb of Terror #15, May 1954 featured a cover in which a man's face was literally exploding. Wtiches Tales #25, March 1954 had a cover in which a man is ringing a bell whose clapper has been replaced by a rather gruesome severed head.

Without having read entire issues of Harvey Publications' horror titles, it is difficult to access their quality. It would seem that they would often have a high degree of quality, as such men as Lee Elias (best known for his work on The Black Cat), Bob Powell (best known for his work on Blackhawk),  and Howard Nostrand (who  illustrated several classic Western titles) all worked on them. That having been said, Oddball Comics describes the art in the story "Heartline" from Chamber of Chills as #23 "poorly drawn," and I must say I have been less than impressed with some of the covers I have seen for Harvey's horror titles (particularly Witches Tales).

Unfortunately for Harvey Publications and every other comic book publisher in the early Fifties, moral watchdogs had begun targeting comic books for what they considered objectionable content as early as 1947. By the years of 1953 and 1954 there was a full scale moral panic centred on the content of the average comic book. As hard as it is to believe now, some communities even burned comic books! Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the comic book industry was Dr. Fredric Wertham, a liberal leaning psychiatrist. Dr. Fredric Wertham had targeted comic books as early as 1948, and it was in 1954 that his book Seduction of the Innocent was published. Although written by a respected psychiatrist, Seduction of the Innocent was filled with a priori assumptions, ad hoc hypotheseis, several instances in which Wertham interprets things out of context, and several instances in which he jumps to conclusions. Regardless, the book galvanised much of the public against comic books.

It should not be surprising that Harvey's horror titles are mentioned by Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent. Black Cat Mystery was mentioned twice in the book, once on pages 270 to 271 and again on pages 386 to 388. Chamber of Chills was surprisingly mentioned only once, on page 389. Of course, Black Cat Mystery and Chamber of Chills were not the only Harvey comic books mentioned in Seduction of the Innocent, although the other references to Harvey comic books may have to be taken with a grain of salt. One of the comic books which Dr. Wertham mentions is Harvey Library #1, April 1952, which featured the story "Teen-Age Dope Slaves." Here it seems possible that Dr. Wertham was simply overreacting to the rather exploitive cover of the magazine, which features a teenager begging for a shot from syringe apparently containing "dope" and the rather sensationalistic title. "Teen-Age Dope Slaves" was actually a reprint of a story that had ran for a few weeks in the newspaper strip Rex Morgan M.D. It is doubtful that it would have been considered objectionable to most people at the time, especially as it was an anti-drug story! An illustration from First Love Illustrated #35, December 1953 also appears in Seduction of the Innocent.

 The moral panic over comic books, stirred into a frenzy by Dr. Fredric Wertham and other comic book critics, would result in a Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency hearing, chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver, took place on April 21, April 22, and June 4, 1954. Even though there was no real threat of government censorship, comic book publishers banded together to form the Comics Code Authority, a self regulatory body that would oversee the content of comic books, in October 1954. The original Comics Code was so strict that it banned the words "horror," "terror," and "crime" from the titles of comic books, as well as portrayals of vampires, werewolves, and the walking dead. Not only did the Comics Code put an end to such titles as Harvey's own Tomb of Terror, E.C. Comics' Vault of Horror, and Lev Gleason's Crime Does Not Pay, but many comic book publishers would shut down entirely in the years following implementation of the Comics Code.

Alfred Harvey, whose horror titles were even more extreme than those published by E,C., would not be one of them. Alfred Harvey opposed the Code on principle and remained an outspoken critic of it for years afterwards, but he complied with it nonetheless. It is for that reason that  Chamber of Chills became Chamber of Clues, concentrating on more traditional mysteries, in February 1955. It folded after only two issues. Tomb of Terror became a science fiction magazine Thrills of Tomorrow in December 1954, lasting for four more issues. Witches Tales became the rather oddly titled Witches Western Tales in January 1955 and lasted for only one more issue. Black Cat Mystery would continue as a more traditional mystery magazine until July 1959, whereupon it switched to a Western format. In July 1960 it underwent another format change to become Black Cat Mystic. With the Silver Age well underway and superheroes once more popular, The Black Cat returned her own magazine in October 1962. It lasted two more issues before it was cancelled in March 1963.

While Harvey's horror titles would not survive after the implementation of the Comics Code and changes in formats, Harvey Publications would thrive into the Eighties,  almost entirely due to the company's practice of licensing characters. It was in 1948 that Paramount first licensed Famous Studios, animated characters such as Little Audrey, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, and so on to comic book publisher St. John. It was in 1952 that Harvey Publications, anxious for success in the children's humour market, received the licence for the Famous Studios' characters. Harvey Publications picked up Little Audrey with issue #25, June 1952. They picked up Casper the Friendly Ghost with #7 in December 1952. Eventually Harvey would publish nearly every character featured in the Famous Studios shorts except for Popeye (who as a newspaper strip character was owned by Kings Features Syndicate). Harvey's titles based on the Famous Studios characters would prove so popular that in 1959 they bought the characters and the shorts outright from the studio. Harvey Comics would even produce new shorts under the heading of Harveytoons.

Harvey Comics would also create its own humour characters. Richie Rich first appeared in Little Dot #1, September 1953. Harvey would go onto create other new characters such as Wendy the Good Little Witch, Hot Stuff the Little Devil (who surprisingly raised no objections from Christian Fundamentalists), and Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost. Along with Sad Sack and the Famous Studios characters, these characters lasted until Harvey Comics ceased publication in the Eighties.

Harvey would attempt other sorts of comic books over the years. In the Sixites Harvey launched an imprint they called Harvey Thriller. This included a new superhero line with characters created by Joe Simon (Piranha, Jigsaw, Spyman, and others), as well as their own originals (Beeman, Man in Black, and so on). They also revived Warfront and received the rights to publish The Spirit. Launched in October 1965, the line would be gone by March 1967.

Supported by their children's humour titles, Harvey Comics continued publishing until 1982, when the market for such titles was virtually non-existent. In 1989 Harvey Comics (except for The Black Cat and Sad Sack, who were retained by the Harvey family) was sold to HMH Communications, which renamed itself Harvey Comics Entertainment. Harvey Comics Entertainment would sell its properties and the rights to the Harvey name to Classic Media.

It was in the early Fifties that Harvey Comics first entered the children's comic book market by licensing the Famous Studio characters. It would be the licensing of these characters that would allow the company to survive the implementation of the Comics Code when many other publishers failed. By the late Sixites many comic book readers had no idea that Harvey Comics was not always a purveyor of wholesome entertainment for children. There was a time, from 1951 to 1954, that Harvey Publications published some of the most violent, most gruesome horror comic books ever to appear on newsstands. Their turnaround from one of the most notorious publishers of horror comic books to a company derided for their wholesome and even bland children's titles was one of the most remarkable in comic book history.