Tentacle Tuesday: Hand Me My Helmet, Harry

The first helmets were used by Assyrian soldiers in 900 B.C., and they were made of thick leather and bronze to protect the head from blunt objects, swords and arrows during combat. Research shows that helmets can significantly reduce the severity of injuries sustained from head trauma. That’s why it’s so important to always wear a helmet when taking part in a potentially dangerous activity.

You may argue that helmets are just a way to be able to breath underwater, a compromise between the bulky scaphandre (less elegantly ‘diving suit’ in English) and the scuba diving mask. Breathing, ha, that’s just a distraction to the real purpose of a helmet during an octopus encounter: it makes the diver’s head look a little like an octopus’ head, thus confusing him and giving a much necessary advantage.

Install yourself comfortably following the example of this happy family of cephalopods, and let’s have a look…

I first encountered David Wiesner when I bought his Mr. Wuffles! book on a whim (it had cats!), but Flotsam, a collection of underwater life illustrations published in 2006, is also clearly of some interest.

Out first helmet of the day is a reasonable imitation of a diving suit! The following page is from Prisoner of the Undersea World!, scripted by Gardner Fox, illustrated by Sid Greene, and published in Strange Adventures no. 155 (August 1963, DC).

I am not sure how he could drink and eat without taking his helmet off, and taking it off would surely mean drowning – luckily, the frogs were smarter than him!

I am pleased to report that not only did the octopus come out of that encounter in one piece, no frog denizens were seriously harmed, either (which makes this tale pretty special, since human heroes tend to go and annihilate anything they don’t understand).

Actual attempts at establishing communication? Colour me impressed!

Our second is a helmeted beauty (albeit twisting in a way that isn’t anatomically feasible) and some of her teammates from U.N.D.E.R.S.E.A. (or United Nations Department of Experiment and Research Systems Established at Atlantis).

Undersea Agent no. 2 (April 1966, Tower Comics), pencilled by Mike Sekowsky and inked by Frank Giacoia.

The cover story is rife with tentacles, but unfortunately doesn’t feature the scene depicted above at all.

Panel from The Return of Dr Fang, scripted by D. J. Arneson, pencilled by Ray Bailey and inked by Sheldon Moldoff.

On the other hand, Buried Under the Sea, a fun read nicely illustrated by Mike Sekowsky on pencils and Joe Giella and Frank Giacoia on inks, has plenty of sea-helmets… but no cephalopods. One can’t have everything, alas!

One easily understands why she made it onto the cover of the comic!

From helmets that are actually connecting to some diving equipment and oxygen canisters, we move on to ones which are just like an upside-down fish bowl somehow magically sitting on the wearer’s shoulders. Style always takes priority over silly things like actually being able to breathe. For more Adam Strange, scoot over to Tentacle Tuesday: Tangles with Adam Strange!

DC Super Stars no. 8 (October 1976, DC), cover by Ernie Chan (signing as Ernie Chua). This issue features a bunch of reprints, mainly reprinted stories from Mystery in Space.

Speaking of Mystery in Space, no. 21 (August-September 1954) has a very appropriate story… proving that the ol’ anti-cephalopod helmet can be used out of water. This is a page from Interplanetary Merry-Go-Round, scripted by Otto Binder and illustrated by Sy Barry… who’s still with us and about to celebrate his 93rd birthday!

Maybe the Martian monster is going ‘beserk’ (sic) because it’s a sentient creature who’s been chained and used for the amusement of stupid crowds?

~ ds

Tippy Teen in “The Fright Before Xmas” (1967)

« … there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
tore open the shutters and threw up the sash. » ― Clement C. Moore, A Visit From St. Nicholas (1823)

Not too long ago, we glanced at the interesting case of Tower’s teen line, another instance of works insufficiently popular to be properly reprinted, yet still sought after by collectors and aficionados and consequently on the pricey side. And so it is within this limbo that Tippy Teen and Go-Go and Animal find themselves consigned, in the rather fine company of Sugar and Spike and Angel and the Ape. Let’s not strand them there for the duration, please.

So why do I consider Tippy Teen superior to Archie? For one thing, while there’s some underwhelming artwork to be found here and there (sorry, Doug Crane), there’s nothing dismal (no Al Hartley, no Dick Malmgren, no Gus Lemoine, no Stan Goldberg…), and the writing is generally superior, thanks to, among uncredited others, the great Jack Mendelsohn (recycling and updating his old scripts, but that’s not the end of the world).

Here’s a little seasonal piece I find quite witty and charming. The well-paced work of an anonymous scripter and my beloved Samm Schwartz, it appeared in Tippy Teen no. 18. The whole issue’s quite solid, and since it’s in the public domain, you can enjoy it right here.

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This is Tippy Teen no. 18 (March 1968, Tower). Cover artwork by Samm Schwartz.

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What kind of a grinch would I be if I failed to include the Monkees pin-up promised on the cover? I shudder to even entertain the notion. In the usual order, Messrs. Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones and Michael Nesmith.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown III, Day 26

« Welcome to the house of horrors! Brought to you by Grippo Denture Adhesive! »

A little while back, we made a brief detour through artist Samm Schwartz’s Silver Age Archie comics covers and touched upon the time he took the last bus out of Riverdale and headed for the greener pastures of New York… and an art director gig with Tower Publications.

Robert Klein and Michael Uslan, in their foreword to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives Volume 1 (DC Comics, 2002), stated: « With Samm Schwartz not very familiar with or comfortable editing super-hero adventure books, publisher Harry Shorten cut a dream deal with Wally Wood. Samm would handle the Tippy Teen titles as well as the Undersea Agent comic book and the war comic book called Fight the Enemy. He would be the managing editor of the company and its day-to-day office executive. »

So that’s that. Schwartz’s books, Tippy Teen (27 issues), Tippy’s Friends Go-go and Animal (11 issues) and Teen-in (4 issues), Undersea Agent (6 issues) and Fight the Enemy (3 issues) actually comprise the greater part of Tower’s output, though they’ve received far less attention since, were easily of comparable quality to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its spinoffs. Certainly, the humour titles’ wit was a passel of notches above the Archie line’s, what with such heavyweights as Jack Mendelsohn on board*.

Interestingly, Tippy Teen was the first Tower material to be reprinted: in 1975, four issues of Vicki (a renamed Tippy) were issued by the *very* short-lived Atlas/Seaboard, featuring ugly new covers by Stan Goldberg. These issues rank among the most scarce and priciest Atlas releases. Most of the line’s books can still be easily found and acquired dirt cheap… but not Vicki.

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This is Tippy’s Friends Go-Go and Animal no. 7 (Dec. 1967, Tower). Cover art by Samm Schwartz.

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This is Penny Century no. 5 (June 1999, Fantagraphics). Cover art by Jaime Hernandez, with colours by Chris Brownrigg. Now, you won’t convince me that this cover isn’t a fond homage to Schwartz’s Hallowe’en-themed Go-Go cover… hey, maybe he *thought* this was a DeCarlo.

When I hear about Dan DeCarlo‘s would-be artistic influence on Jaime Hernandez, I can’t help but wince. If I squint real tight, I can kinda-sorta-maybe see a flicker of it in the wholesome sexiness of Betty and Veronica circa 1960-63, but no more. DeCarlo was soon reduced to such a state of hackdom that I can’t fathom how Jaime would have been driven to imitate and absorb the lessons of such hastily-executed, formulaic drivel. There, I’ve said it. On the other hand, Hank Ketcham, Steve Ditko, and, dammit, Mr. Schwartz’s touches are evident all over, though perfectly amalgamated into Jaime’s own singular vision. The way Schwartz and Hernandez draw clothing folds, the beautifully expressive comedic body language… it’s unmistakable.

And as a bonus, this helpful feature from Tippy’s Friends Go-Go and Animal no. 3 (June 1966, Tower), illustrated by Samm Schwartz. And yes, the boys can also come as beautiful victims.

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-RG

*though he was recycling and updating some of his old scripts.

Steve Skeates’ “… and the Dog Howls Through the Night!” (1974)

« Who’d ever believe a story like that? »

On this fine day, we pay tribute to shifty scribe Chester P. Hazel (who sometimes goes by the unlikely nom de plume of Steve Skeates). It is whispered that Stephen, along with his nefarious twin Warren Savin, first invaded this plane of existence on January 29, 1943. That would make him/them/it seventy-five earthly rotations old, should these windblown tattles hold any credence.

Happily, in this case, picking out a Skeates favourite to share was no ordeal: I’d been meaning for some time to shine a light on one of his neglected gems, one that salt-rubbingly ran without proper attribution in The Phantom Stranger no. 34 (Dec. 1974-Jan. 1975, DC Comics.)

The cases of Dr. Terrance Thirteen, ghost breaker, must have been easier to write back in the 1950’s, when DC Comics’ default setting in its mystery titles was to explain away the supernatural element before the curtain call. DC’s resident skeptic first shared his insights in Star Spangled Comics, his feature lasting from issue 122 (November, 1951) to issue 130 (July, 1952). He then moved to The House of Mystery for a handful of appearances, then faded away. He returned to action, along with his also long-dormant colleague  and foil The Phantom Stranger, in 1969’s Showcase no. 80. In the Supernatural Seventies, all poor Dr. Thirteen could do is vainly and stubbornly play the cards of reason and logic against a house deck stacked to inevitably favour the uncanny and the unreal. He was doomed to be a comic book version of The X-Files’ Dana Scully, Fritz Leiber‘s Norman Saylor (Conjure Wife, 1943) or Night of the Demon‘s Dr. John Holden, all skeptics coming off as hopelessly obdurate and clueless in light of the “facts”.

Sounds like today’s so-called post-fact world… in which we need true skeptics (as opposed to deniers) and cool, rational minds more than ever.

Anyway, it wasn’t the first time wily Skeates had faced such a storytelling impasse: he’d had to ring the changes on pacifist character Dove (of Steve Ditko’s eternally-squabbling Hawk & Dove) within a universe of hard-slugging super vigilantes.

Dr. Thirteen bounced around various DC titles in the early-to-mid 70s. This is the series’ last bow in the back pages of The Phantom Stranger, and ironically its finest hour, alongside the penultimate entry, The Ghosts on the Glasses, which ran in Adventure Comics no. 428 (August, 1973.) In both cases, the inspired artwork is that of Filipino master Tony DeZuñiga (1932 – 2012), who was clearly in his element.

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A character likens the dead scientist’s ill-fated velocity experiments to comic book character The Flash… but it’s a cinch that what the impish* Mr. Skeates really had in mind was Virgil “Guy” Gilbert, aka Lightning, whose début, The Deadly Dust! he had scripted back in 1965 (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 4, April 1966). Here’s a relevant excerpt, featuring art by Mike Sekowsky and Frank Giacoia.

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In closing, a biographical blurb from DC’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives, circa 2002: « A native and longtime resident of the Empire State, Steve Skeates began his work in comics as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics in 1965 – a job which he quickly abandoned in favor of writing comics as a full-time freelancer. Over the next twenty years he did work for nearly every major comics publisher, including DC, Marvel, Charlton, Tower, Warren, and Gold Key. Since leaving mainstream comics in the mid-1980s, he has worked as a reporter, bartender, and Zamboni operator, as well as publishing his own comics titles, which he continues to do from his home base in Fairport, New York. »

Happy birthday, Mr. Skeates, and thanks for everything!

-RG

*I mean to refer to Mr. Skeates’ undisputed status as King of the unofficial inter-company crossover. Naughty!