Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Gorillas, Dinosaurs, and Aliens, Oh My! DC Comics in the Early Silver Age

If there was one thing that separated the Silver Age of Comic Books from the Golden Age, it was the prevalence of science fiction themes. This was particularly true of DC Comics. When DC Comics rebooted many of its Golden Age characters in the late Fifties and early Sixties, they provided the new characters with origins rooted in science fiction. The power ring of the Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott, was created from a magical lantern. In contrast, the power ring of the Silver Age Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, was provided to him by the Guardians of the Universe, who operate an intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps. The prevalence of science fiction at DC Comics through the Fifties into the early Sixties was so great that science fiction tropes could even be found in titles that originally had not been sci-fi, most notably Batman.

DC Comics' first science fiction title, Strange Adventures, debuted with a cover date of September 1950. It would be followed by Mystery in Space, which debuted with a cover date of April/May 1951. The two titles proved fairly popular. In fact, they proved so popular that they outsold many of DC's other titles. This should come as no surprise, as science fiction was fairly popular in the Fifties. The late Forties and early Fifties would see such juvenile science fiction TV shows as Captain Video and His Video Rangers, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, and Space Patrol. For much of the Fifties movie theatres were filled with such sci-fi films as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1961), The Thing from Another World (1951), and This Island Earth (1955). Science fiction was so popular that it would have been surprising if DC's sci-fi titles had not sold well.

While it seems likely that it was the success of DC's science fiction titles that led the company to inject science fiction into many of its titles (even ones where it doesn't belong), it cannot definitively be said who decided DC should do so. The credit for that is generally given to Irwin Donenfeld, editorial director of DC Comics and son of the company's founder Harry Donenfeld. That DC's science fiction titles were outselling many of their other titles would not have been lost on Irwin Donenfeld. While Irwin Donenfeld is usually credited with steering various DC titles towards using science fiction tropes, according to Batman--the Complete History by Les Daniels, Mr. Donenfeld couldn't remember exact details, saying, "I like to take credit for everything, but truthfully I just don't know."

Regardless, science fiction began playing a greater role in DC's titles in the late Fifties. Aside from the various superhero titles, DC Comics' House of Mystery would be among the first titles in which science fiction began playing a large role. Originally a  horror anthology, after the introduction of the Comics Code in 1954 House of Mystery shifted more towards mystery and suspense. It was in 1957 that House of Mystery, along with the recently launched House of Secrets, began featuring science fiction stories. House of Mystery would more or less remain a science fiction title until 1964 when, with the renewed popularity of superheroes, it became the home of the Martian Manhunter (a superhero with a decidedly science fiction bent). Of course, by 1968 it would return to being a horror title.

Of course, DC Comics' remaining superhero titles would also begin featuring science fiction oriented stories. For the various Superman titles this would not present much of a problem. After all, Superman was already a science fiction character to a large degree (in the words of the TV series, he was "a strange visitor from another planet") and even in the Golden Age stories with science fiction themes appeared. That having been said, science fiction tropes began appearing in stories featuring characters who were not rooted in the genre. A notorious example of this is Batman.

Upon his debut Batman was an at times brutal vigilante influenced by such pulp characters as The Shadow. With the introduction of his sidekick Robin, Batman's character was softened a bit, although he still operated primarily at night and fought dangerous criminals. By the Fifties Batman had drifted further away from his pulp roots, actually operating in daylight. That having been said, he still mostly fought his rouge's gallery and various other criminals. All of this changed in 1957. While science fiction-type stories had appeared in the pages of the Batman titles as far back as the Golden Age, they were infrequent. It was the story "Batman's Super-Enemy" from Detective Comics #250, December 1957 that began around a six year stretch in which Batman fought aliens and monsters, travelled to other planets, and was transformed into everything from a giant to a baby.

Over the years many fans have blamed editor Jack Schiff for the abundance of science fiction stories in the pages of the Batman titles from 1957 to 1964. That having been said, Jack Schiff had edited the Batman titles since 1942. During those 15 years Mr. Schiff made very little use of science fiction tropes. What is more, Jack Schiff himself was uncomfortable with science fiction being injected into the Batman titles. In a 1983 interview in The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, he said, "I was having disagreements with the management about the 'monster craze' everybody was into.  I fought the introduction into Batman and Superman of this trend, but I was pressured into using them." Ultimately sales for the Batman titles would drop and would not recover until Julius Schwartz took over as their editor and introduced the New Look for Batman. The science fiction stories, as well as such characters as Batwoman and Ace the Bathound, disappeared from the titles, replaced by stories that placed an emphasis on detective work.

As strange as the science fiction bent in Batman's stories from the late Fifties and early Sixties might seem, DC Comics injected science fiction into titles where it even more obviously had no place. The character of Tomahawk had been introduced in Star-Spangled Comics #69, June 1947 and earned his own title in 1950. Tomahawk was a Revolutionary War era character and throughout the late Forties and most of the Fifties his adventures were appropriate to that era. This changed in 1960 when Tomahawk began facing giants, dinosaurs, aliens, and gorillas. Tomahawk would not start having more appropriate adventures until 1967.

The Batman titles and Tomahawk certainly wouldn't be the only DC Comics titles in which science fiction was introduced where it really should not have been. The Blackhawk Squadron had been introduced at Quality Comics in Military Comics #1, August, 1941. Led by the mysterious Blackhawk, the Blackhawk Squadron was a multi-national fighter squadron who originally fought the Nazis during World War II and later Communists following the war. With the very first issue of Blackhawk published by DC Comics, the Blackhawks began fighting a variety of science fiction menaces that would become more prominent as the Sixties progressed. It was with Blackhawk #228, January 1967 that the Blackhawks shifted to being superheroes, which was arguably even less appropriate for the team than fighting science fiction monsters...

For the most part DC's war titles would remain unscathed during the company's "monster craze." G.I. Combat and Our Army at War (the home of Sgt. Rock) would continue to publish stories appropriate to World War II or, more rarely, World War I. This would not be the case with Star Spangled War Stories. With Star Spangled War Stories #90, May 1960 the series "The War that Time Forgot" began. "The War that Time Forgot" featured soldiers fighting dinosaurs on an uncharted island in the South Pacific. The series ran until 1968, when Enemy Ace (a World War I German pilot) replaced it. "The War That Time Forgot" wasn't the only example of science fiction to be found in Star Spangled War Tales. "Goliath from the Western Front!," from Star Spangled War Stories #93, November 1, 1960, featured American soldiers facing off against a Nazi giant.  As might be expected of a DC comic book during this era, even a gorilla made an appearance in Star Spangled War Stories. In the story "You Can't Pin a Medal on a Gorilla" from Star Spangled War Stories #126, May 1966 a gorilla trained to entertain the troops helps take out an enemy gun post.

Of course along with the emphasis on science fiction stories in Silver Age DC comic books, there was also a proliferation of gorillas in DC comics of the era as well. The large numbers of gorillas that appeared in DC comic books actually pre-dated the Silver Age. Reportedly, the whole trend towards gorillas in DC Comics throughout the Fifties and well into the Sixties began with Strange Adventures #8, May 1951. The lead story for that issue was "The Incredible Story of an Ape with a Human Brain." Quite naturally, the ape of the story was featured prominently on the cover. Strange Adventures#8 sold very well, something that made Irwin Donenfeld curious. Editor Julius Schwartz guessed it was because it featured a gorilla on the cover. Mr. Schwartz then decided to try featuring a gorilla on another cover. Once more it sold well. Gorillas then began appearing regularly on the covers of Strange Adventures and would eventually spread to other DC titles, from Batman to Tomahawk.

The popularity of gorillas at DC Comics would eventually see gorillas who were recurring characters in their titles. The character of Congo Bill had first appeared in More Fun Comics #56, June 1940. Originally he was an adventurer based in Africa who owed a good deal to the newspaper comic strip character Jungle Jim. In Action Comics #248, January, 1959, one of Bill's friends, a dying African chief, gave him a ring that would allow him to enter the body of a legendary golden gorilla for an hour. It was then that Congo Bill became Congorilla. The second recurring gorilla to appear in DC Comics in 1959 was an opponent of Superman, Titano the Super-Ape, who first appeared in Superman #127, February 1959. The third recurring gorilla character to appear in DC Comics would also be the most famous. Gorilla Grodd, the super-intelligent, telepathic ape who is also the enemy of The Flash, first appeared in The Flash #106, May 1959.

It would be for similar reasons that dinosaurs would appear so frequently in DC Comics of the early Silver Age. At some point later in the Fifties a tyrannosaurus rex appeared on the cover of a DC title. That particular title sold well, so soon dinosaurs were appearing in a diverse variety of DC comic books.

Here it must be pointed out that there were some lines of DC Comics that went through the Fifties and Sixties without featuring science fiction stories, gorillas, or dinosaurs. With the exception of Star Spangled War Stories, DC's war titles continued publishing the same straight-forward war stories they always had. Neither DC Comics' Western titles nor their romance titles embraced science fiction, let alone gorillas or dinosaurs. DC Comics' humour titles tended to be a mixed bag with regards to the "monster craze." The Adventures of Bob Hope more or less continued as it always had. The Adventures of Jerry Lewis frequently featured gorillas, but then it had done so when the title was still The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Sugar and Spike only rarely used science fiction tropes (well, beyond Bernie the Brain's various inventions, anyway), so that for the most part it continued as it always had. Of course, Angel and the Ape (which was first published in 1968) obviously featured a gorilla prominently.

DC Comics' love affair with science fiction, gorillas, and dinosaurs would fade as the Sixties progressed. The science fiction plot lines would be excised from the Batman titles in 1964. Tomahawk would go back to fighting the British and American Indians in 1967. Star Spangled War Stories would return to being a more typical war comic book in 1968. Blackhawk would shift to being a superhero title in 1967 and then back to being a paramilitary group in 1968. House of Mystery shifted to being a superhero title in the mid-Sixties before shifting back to horror in 1968.

While the trend towards science fiction (not to mention gorillas) would fade at DC Comics as the Sixties progressed, its legacy is still felt to this day. Such science fiction oriented characters as The Flash and Green Lantern still appear in the pages of DC comic books. Not only has The Flash appeared in two live-action TV shows, but Gorilla Grodd has appeared regularly in the latter. DC Comics has even revisited "The War that Time Forgot" from time to time. As goofy as some of the stories from DC Comics' early Silver Age might seem (particularly those published in the Batman titles), the impact of that era is still being felt at DC today.

(Credit Where Credit is Due Department: While I am familiar with DC Comics during the Silver Age, this article did require a bit of research. I owe a debt to the books Batman: The Complete History by Les Daniels, Comics Gone Ape! by Michael Eury, and Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed by Brian Cronin. I also owe a debt to Commander Benson for his excellent write-up on the late Fifties/early Sixties Batman science fiction stories, "From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 21 The Science-Fiction Batman---BEM's in His Belfry." )

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