Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In Memory of Al Williamson: Flash Gordon 1 (Sept. 1966)

Flash Gordon 1, published in 1966 by King Features, was a much-lauded comic book by the international mid-60s readership, according to an interview with Al Williamson that I was reading in a back issue of The Comics Journal. Issue #1 of Flash Gordon caused a lot of stir, and looking at the artwork it's not hard to see why. Flash Gordon, with the gorgeous Dale, and their chaperone, Zarkov, is that fearless, dashing male hero traversing the universe in search of adventure and multiple situations in which he can rescue his damsel in distress. There are other classics of the same ilk - John Carter of Mars, Buck Rogers. Adam Strange in DC's Mystery in Space from the late 50s/early 60s, edited by Julius Schwartz, written by Gardner Fox, and penciled by Carmine Infantino (with Murphy Anderson inks) is, for me, the best later clone, but Flash Gordon goes way, way back. Al Williamson's 1966 revival captured the feel of the Alex Raymond original.

Flash Gordon is a decidedly chauvinistic heterosexual male hero, one that innocently embodies the fantasies of patriarchal males of the early and mid-20th century. Ultra-heroic, masculine, the savior and protector of womanhood. Although undeniably appealing to males of my generation and older, it is an image that does not sit comfortably alongside the reality of exploitation and abuse of women at the hands of controlling and domineering men. When the Women's Movement took steps to expose and challenge the latter, the classic swashbuckling, maiden-rescuing hero also faded somewhat into cultural history. A modern Dale would probably have to be kicking some serious butt and pulling incredible ninja moves to satisfy today's consumers, unless a Flash Gordon comic or movie was set up as a deliberate piece of retro.

Anyway, enough of me rambling on. Here's the sumptuous artwork of the wonderful Al Williamson from the first story in Flash Gordon 1:

Those were the days my friends. The days when artists like Al Williamson could take our minds Out Of This World!

The Humorous Side of Romance Comics: Mad Annual 4 - "Blue Confessions"

Although I really enjoy reading romance comics, and find them to be portals into the mindsets and societal norms of earlier times, I also acknowledge that there is a certain unintentional humor to be found within their ranks. I think that humor actually bottom lines at taking a laugh at ourselves as a society, because those same things that are at times funny when we read romance books, are so because they contain grains of truth. One of the characteristics of romance books from the 40s and 50s particularly is the sensationalized title - one that suggests there may be more in the book in terms of frank or explicit content that readers knew would actually be the case. It's this that an early Mad Magazine picked up on in the late 50s, reprinted here in More Trash From Mad Annual 4, of which I have only a coverless copy, from 1961.

Mad Magazine, as everyone should know, was a kind of Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but for western society of the 50s and 60s. It was pretty much the only source of truth about the way things really were, and as for many others of my generation, it had a profound impact on my world view. At once light-hearted and deadly serious, the often satirical and cynical Usual Gang of Idiots exposed every falsity in the lifestyle promoted by corporate headquarters.

This post here, though, just picks one of their gentler deconstructions. Those romance books did lead their readers on with enticing titles apparently promising spicier content. Here Mad, as usual, and with art by Wally Wood, goes the whole way in lampooning those romance story titles, with the trademark Mad twist.
Those Mad writers and artists knew the comics business so it was easy for them to pick up on some great examples of the way romance titles mislead, and then exaggerate them to the nth degree.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Intergalactic Romance: The Lost Worlds of Al Williamson, 1931-2010

Flash Gordon 1, page 12, panels 1 and 2

I just came across the sad news that comic book artist extraordinaire, Al Williamson, passed away recently, on June 12. Al Williamson has been one of my favorite artists ever since I read Flash Gordon 5 (King, 1967). So in memory of one of the greatest of the greats, here's the cover and one of the stories from that book:

Al Williamson must have really enjoyed drawing Flash Gordon and by the effort put into it, seems to have treated it as a privilege and an honor. It's done with such care and attention to detail, almost as if in tribute to Alex Raymond, who was clearly a major influence on his style. While he worked in various genres, to me his forte and perhaps his greatest achievement was science fiction/fantasy.

Above: Flash Gordon 1 page 4 panel 1 and Flash Gordon 5 page 25 panel 3

His passing reminded me of the last page in Barry Smith's Conan the Barbarian 3, so this post will finish with that, as a kind of epitaph to the man, the artist, one of the stalwart warriors who helped establish the greatness of the sequential art medium through the beauty and grace of his own work, Al Williamson:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Body Image Psychology and Romance Comic Ads: Wertham Revisited

This great L.B. Cole cover for Popular Teen-Agers Romances 9 shows a blissful couple in love, both man and woman sporting the body beautiful. Romance stories typically have ideally built female protagonists. The script itself, however, doesn't usually carry an overt message pressurizing the reader to take action to make her body shape conform to the norms the fashion, entertainment, and even pharmaceutical industries attempt to establish. Not so the ads within and on the back cover of romance comic books from the 40s and 50s. Using the movie industry to establish the impossibly perfect body template, reference back to Hollywood periodically reminds the consumer just what they need to be aiming for and ultimately where this oracle of image wisdom is enshrined. Take the inside front cover of True War Romances 1, for instance. Here the reader is granted access to the fashion secrets of Hollywood starlets - that's how they look so pretty. But part of the picture is the body shape required to show those clothes off to their best effect. The tiny waist, the curvy hips, the perky bosom that's not too big or too small:
So what's a girl to do? Once she's forked out for these clothes, tried them on, and realized that, like 99.9999% of the female population, she just doesn't have that ultra-glamorous body that makes her look like the women in the ad when she's wearing them, she may find help elsewhere in the comic. Here's an ad from Young Love 31 that's the same as or similar to one discussed by Frederic Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent:
Here's part of what Wertham wrote about body image ads in romance comics:

"... there are full-course lessons in hypochondriasis. In a comic book with stories of love's frustrations there is a full-page advertisement (found in many other comic books too) with sets of photographs: "Before" and "After". The "Before" look like average girls; the "After" have noticeably protruding breasts. Accompanying these pictures are three sets of diagrams, each purporting to show profiles of women's bust lines. Any girl, of course, especially after she has been alarmed by the text, can identify herself with at least one of these diagrams and brood about the corresponding information: "SELF-CONSCIOUS ABOUT YOUR FLAT-LOOKING BUSTLINE?" (Wertham, 1954, p.201).

Wertham had quite a bit to say on this topic in Chapter 8 of Seduction of the Innocent, "Bumps and Bulges".  And whereas his attempt to establish a causal relationship between comic book reading and juvenile delinquency failed to garner long term support, modern knowledge of the impact of this kind of advertising, and the associated body image presented by fashion magazines, on both females and males, leads to the conclusion that Wertham was indeed right on this topic. With its link to eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem, and backed up as it is by incomprehensible corporate power, the ideal body image we are fed from every direction possible from the moment we are born molds us into consumers hell-bent on looking like Gisele Bundchen or Brad Pitt. Going back to 1950s romance comics, was there anything else available then to help young women compete for that ideal man? On the subject of boobs, on the inside back cover of True War Romances 1 there may be the answer:
But of course, boobs are only part of every girl's problem: her inability to achieve somatic conformity with the screen goddess or super model of the day. What about her waistline!!!!??? Her worries were soon to be over in the 1950s, thanks to technological developments made possible by international cooperation and scientific know-how. There was special chewing gum of various kinds:
 [from the inside front cover of Lovelorn 42]
[from Young Love 31]
[from back cover of Romantic Hearts 3]
Then there was candy, in case you weren't a gum chewer:
[from True Life Secrets 23]
Or tablets:
[from inside back cover of Darling Romance 1]
Or there were drops you could pop into your afternoon cocktail (once you'd been convinced elsewhere that regular consumption of alcohol was a prerequisite for social acceptance, happiness, self-fulfillment, and success):
[from the back cover of Great Lover Romances 13]
Now just in case you already tried the gum and weren't happy with that, the inside front cover of Wedding Bells 19 presents the reader with a handy alternative, a spot massaging device:
Or you could simply sweat away that flab with what Hollywood's women were using:
[from Popular Teen-Agers Romances 9]
Those suits must have been really unpleasant! But if none of this does the trick and that midriff bulge still threatens to marginalize the reader in her local community, it's time to resort to mechanical means to readjust the body, so that externally it appears to meet the required shape and proportions. Yes, those instruments of 1950s female bondage - foundation garments or girdles in their various forms:
[from the back cover of Dream Book of Romance 6]
[from Lovelorn 18]
[from Lovers' Lane 11]
[from Nellie the Nurse 22]
[from the back cover of Romantic Hearts 10]
[from Teen Secret Diary 2]
[from the inside back cover of Young Love 31]
And finally the Abdo-Slim, from the inside back cover of Young Romance 65, and the back cover of Young Romance 78:
You could even just try a simple elastic belt:
[from the inside front cover of True Love Pictorial 4]
The regular reader availing herself of one or more of these sure-fire remedies for her unshapely excuse for a woman's body would, the ads assure, then attain the desired form over which to drape those fine clothes (remember those?)...
[from Young Love 32]
... and, most importantly, with which to stimulate the required response from the male of the species:
A close look at the text of these ads shows up the persuasive psychological manipulation that was being used to keep that commercial wheel turning - spending makes the financial world go round! And what better way to get women to spend than convince them they are inadequate and unlikely to get a good man, or any man, unless they acquire an impossible to achieve body type? At least from our 21st Century vantage point we can look back at those ads and see them the way Wertham saw them. Nowadays they're gone, right? Of course not! They're just infinitely more subtle, covert, sinister, multi-layered, and omnipresent than ever.

But back in the 1950s, what if you were too skinny!!??? Well, that's the subject of a future post right here on Out Of This World!