Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Other Times, Other Places

In the Phillipines in 1950, a young girl named Narda swallowed a stone and transformed into DARNA, superhuman warrior woman from the planet Marte. Since then, she and supporting heroes Captain Barbell, Lastikman, Dyesebel the mermaid and more have battled villains like Valentina, Lucifera, Mambabarang king of insects and assorted vampires, zombies and aliens in movies, tv and comic books. Even today she is as beloved an icon as Wonder Woman or Buffy.

Since the 1940s, Mexico's greatest luchadore was EL SANTO, "The Man in the Silver Mask." Along with his wrestling career, Santo was a superheroic champion of justice in comics, and in movies like Santo Vs the King of Crime, Santo Vs the Vampire Women, Santo Vs the Martian Invasion and many more. He was an idol of children and the common man alike, the first and maybe only superhero in fiction and in real life.

In 1971, Takeshi Hongo was kidnapped by a terrorist organization called Dai Shocker, that turned their victims into mutant-cyborg warriors for evil. Hongo escaped and used the powers Dai Shocker had given him as the motorcycle-riding, grasshopper-helmed hero KAMEN RIDER ("Masked Rider"). He was the first in a long line of Kamen Riders in successive live-action tv series, manga and toys. In 2009 ten incarnations of Riders from alternate realities (and previous tv series) teamed up to save the universe.

From the 1930s through the early 50s, DOC SAVAGE - the Man of Bronze - was the hero of the average man. For 10 cents an issue his monthly pulp magazine adventures took readers on globe-hopping adventures to exotic places like the Phantom City, the Valley of the Vanished and the Land of Always Night in pursuit of supercriminal masterminds along with Doc's five aides, whose amiable roughneck nature belied their genius in chemistry, law, engineering, archaeology and electricity. Doc himself, raised as a perfect mental and physical specimen, was a genius in everything. He was always three steps ahead of his enemies. Doc's cousin, Patricia, was an early example of a heroine who could hold her own in the company of their rowdy crew.

In 1929, a Belgian cartoonist known as Herge created a young reporter named TINTIN. His adventures appeared in serial form in Belgian comics magazines like PILOTE. and when the serials ended they were collected in graphic albums. Not only are these still in print, but they are sold in many languages worldwide including English. Tintin's adventures with his dog Snowy and companions like Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and the detective twins Thompson and Thompson (most names altered for English) are a mix of humor, mystery, suspense, political commentary and even science fiction. Though he is little known in America, Tintin is one of the most beloved characters in comics around the world. Steven Speilberg is a fan and is producing a major motion picture version.

Adventure or continuity strips are all but dead in America, but there was a time when people followed them avidly. The characters were part of our lives. The marraige of Dick Tracy and Tess Truehart, the death of Raven Sherman in Milton Caniff's TERRY AND THE PIRATES (which brought in sympathy cards for years after), the birth of Sparkle Plenty in DICK TRACY were like society events for the middle class - and not just the middle class. When Little Orphan Annie's faithful dog, Sandy, was run over, her creator Harold Grey received cards and letters begging him to let Sandy live, including a telegram from Henry Ford. During a newspaper strike in 1945, New York mayor Fiorello Laguardia read the comics on radio so people could keep up. Most of the artists reflected the holidays in their continuity, either in-story or with special strips with the characters wishing everybody happy holidays and making them feel even more like part of our lives. I'm currently reading hardcover collections of ANNIE, and despite the crude-by-today's-standards art it is a masterpiece evoking the spirit of the Great Depression era. Grey's philosophy is an intergral part of the strip. Annie, "Daddy" Warbucks and more display an honesty, ethics and common sense that helps me understand the conservative mindset.

In the days before tv, radio was filled with adventure series. People followed THE SHADOW, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT, THE LONE RANGER, CHANDU THE MAGICIAN and radio versions of characters like TARZAN, ORPHAN ANNIE and BUCK ROGERS faithfully. CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT and others were interactive shows. Kids could join Captain Midnight's Secret Squadron and receive a Code-O-Graph to decode messages that were vital to the plot, and hope to be called on when the Captain needed help.

In 1961, PERRY RHODAN, commanding the first lunar expedition, discovered a crashed spaceship from the mostly degenerated Arkonide empire. With his crew and Arkonides Crest and Thora, he united the warring nations of Earth and went on to found the Solar Empire. His adventures in time and space have been published weekly in Germany by a team of writers ever since, and are currently at issue #2553. The superintelligence ES made him immortal early on - Perry and his companions are currently living in the year 5050AD by our reckoning (although they have gone through several different calendars by now). They have met with the highest known powers in the universe, the Cosmocrats and the Chaotarchs. The series predated a lot of concepts made popular later: Rhodan's Mutant Corps appeared two years before X-MEN, and the Posbis (for positronic-biological) were forerunners of STAR TREK's Borg, including the cube-shaped ships. There are spinoff series like ATLAN (the immortal Arkonide who founded the colony of Atlantis 10,000 years ago), models ships, collectible card games and video games.

I like reading the old books and the international ones, watching the films and listening to the radio shows. Like Charles Dickens and Sherlock Holmes, they evoke the spirit of other times and other places. Not just the descriptions and customs, but what people thought and felt. Somehow it lets me connect with the people of those times and places, and understand that they were not so different.

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