Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Three early Silver Age covers, three related mini-posts

First cover, by Curt Swan, for Superman #146. It’s a full-length retelling of Superman’s origin from1961, but it feels about 20 years ahead of its time.

“The Story of Superman’s Life” reminds me a lot of later miniseries such as Untold Legend of the Batman and Secrets of the Legion of Superheroes. Both of those retold the origin and history of those characters, but incorporating the extra material that had been added over the years. The Batman miniseries, for instance, works in “The First Batman,” which revealed Joe Chill wasn’t a robber, he was carrying out a hit for mob boss Lew Moxon.I associate that kind of story with the late Bronze Age and pre-crisis 1980s, when so much extra material had accumulated about characters’ pasts. It’s a real surprise to see it in 1961, but there it is. Otto Binder’s retelling of Superman’s story includes lots of stuff added to the mythos since Bill Finger first told Superman’s expanded origin in 1948: Zor-El. Krypto. The origin of Clark’s costume and his glasses. How Superboy learned to fly. His last day in Smallville. Discovering green kryptonite. That it’s Earth’s yellow sun, not just Earth’s lighter gravity, that empowers Superman.

For kids who were new to Superman, it must have been fascinating. Maybe even more for fans old enough to remember some of those stories.

Second cover, artist unknown. Not a brilliant cover and I don’t know the story inside, but to me this 1961 image is eye-catching by how anachronistic it looks now.Seriously, would anyone putting out a kids’ comic today have two of the three characters lighting up on the cover? Smoking is one of those things where American society has undergone a huge sea change since my childhood. Back then it was normal and accepted: smoking was common, it was fun, it was unremarkable to see it everywhere. There was nothing wrong with it — the surgeon general’s report stating that smoking could kill you was a couple of years in the future — and asking someone not to smoke was often shown in fiction as being silly or wimpy.

While I’ve never liked smoking or being around smoke, I don’t like that stories set in the past often ignore how common it used to be. We laugh at older SF novels that show people 500 years in the future smoking, but showing a past where nobody smoked is just as ludicrous (actually more, because we know they smoked). “The New Deal,” the first episode of Agents of SHIELD‘s final season, has a scene in a speakeasy, and while the place is awash with bootleg booze, nobody’s smoking; even a pre-presidential FDR doesn’t have his cigarette holder.

Is it that there are fewer actors who smoke and they’re unwilling or unable to do it on stage? Do workplace smoking restrictions make a difference (theater productions here in Durham use e-cigs)? Or is it simply that it’s now regarded as so gross nobody wants to deal with it? After all, most Westerns spare us the sight of people constantly chewing and spitting tobacco (I once had to interview someone doing that and it’s damn disgusting) as they did back in the day. But that’s only a guess.

Third cover, by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. While I’ve always been a Metal Men fan, encountering “The Flaming Doom” again as part of my Silver Age rereading gave me fresh appreciation for their debut.

The difference is that before I got to this point I read through the Kanigher/Andru/Esposito Suicide Squad series and the monster on the cover here — a prehistoric flying manta ray with laser vision! — would have fit right in with the bizarre monsters Rick Flag and his team kept running into. It wouldn’t have worked as well, though — the Metal Men story is so much better than any of Task Force X’s adventure. To paraphrase Mark Twain, this team is as different from its predecessor as lightning from the lightning bug.

Part of that is that a team of shapeshifting robots plays at an entirely different, more interesting level than ordinary humans. Visually, they’re a lot more memorable too. And where Rick and his team were colorless characters, the Metal Men have personalities — not complex ones, but listening to them banter is a lot more interesting than when the Suicide Squad does it. Plus the Suicide Squad never actually die; the Metal Men do, leaving Doc Magnus wondering at the end whether the world will ever see their like again (his military contact reminds readers that the world will, if enough people write to DC and ask).

And then there’s Will Magnus, known here as “Doctor Will” before later issues settled on “Doc.” He’s Tony Stark before Tony Stark was a thing: millionaire inventor and researcher with a vast, automated scientific complex to work in. He’s a stronger, more vibrant character than anyone on Task Force X.

Small wonder Metal Men got a Silver Age series and the Suicide Squad did not.




  1. Greg Burgas

    It depends on the show and, I think, the network. Agents of SHIELD is a Disney show, after all, so they’re not going to show anything bad that the kids might emulate. But I’ve recently watched The Queen’s Gambit and I’m currently watching Fargo, and people are smoking all over the place. It’s just who the audience is and if kids might be part of that audience (or nervous parents who think their kids are just that impressionable).

    1. Smoking is really a verboten topic now. I was watching THE CROWN the other night, and the TV rating in the corner said it was “TV-MA” due to “Sex, nudity, language, and smoking.” It turns our Netflix has added smoking as a category to determine appropriateness of content; if there’s a certain amount of smoking and isn’t portrayed negatively, it’s pretty much an automatic “14+” rating.

      1. Once you mentioned Netflix, I recalled that the MPAA supposedly factors in smoking into movie ratings. Just a quick google of “MPAA smoking ratings” brings up an NPR link from 2007, when they apparently first started, as well as a couple links from anti-smoking activist websites that claim up to 90% of PG and PG-13 movies that have smoking in them aren’t labeled as such (hence the “supposedly” in my last sentence). I wonder how much the anti-tobacco activists have influenced moviemakers, and how much of an influence there might be from lawsuit settlements with Big Tobacco that might put the kibosh on smoking. If the companies can’t make money with product placement, they might not provide cigarettes to productions, and couple that with smoking restrictions like what Fraser pondered in the post, and you’ve probably got a fair explanation of what’s happened. Who knows if I’m right, though 😉

        1. Le Messor

          This all reminds me, I’ve always been a little disturbed by a subtle push for smoking in The Mask (Jim Carrey, not Cher).

          I don’t mean his ‘Smmmooooookin’!’ catchphrase, but the way he gets humiliated irl, then dreams the scene again later and he’s suave and cool – and the cool version is smoking and the uncool one isn’t.

  2. Le Messor

    I agree with Greg above that impressionable kids might have something to do with why they don’t smoke on TV; but another possibility is that it’s become so alien to so many people that they just don’t think of it anymore.
    But Greg’s is more likely.

    So, the Metal Men die, but people with Suicide in their name do not?
    Oh, the ironing.

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