Murphy Anderson, RIP

Comic book artist Murphy Anderson¬†passed away on Oct. 23, and while I always knew I liked his work, it hadn’t¬†occurred to me¬†until now just how many of the most powerful and best-remembered images of my childhood flowed¬†from his brush.

I was a “Bronze Age” kid, introduced to comics in the early 70s when Mr Anderson was teamed with the¬†late, great Curt Swan¬†on the Superman family of comics.¬†Their styles melded together so seemlessly, they became known¬†as the blended entity¬†“Swanderson,” producing not only memorable covers and interior art but also figural icons used on the comics of the era as well as countless pieces of Superman merchandising, including a good half of my school supplies.

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Decades later, the covers Anderson produced with (and without) Swan still have the same pull they did when they first appeared on the spinner racks, calling out to me, “Buy this book!”

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On the inside, “Swanderson” specialized in distinctive, expressive faces, something not even the best comic artists always truly¬†master. ¬†A great example occurs in the much-celebrated and often-reprinted story, “Kryptonite Nevermore.”

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I’d missed out on the “Silver Age” of Comics by a few years, but the images Anderson created with Carmine Infantino in the ’60s for Batman and related characters were omnipresent well into the 70s.¬† So again I knew Anderson’s work long before I figured out who he was.

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One of the things that made me a “DC Kid” when most of my friends were Marvel Zombies was the more “polished,” elegant “house style”¬†of DC art, which seemed tied to the tradition¬†of classic magazine illustration, compared to the more hi-octane, cutting-edge¬†Marvel style. ¬†In retrospect probably the best exemplar of “DC polish” was Anderson, who paired with Swan created Norman Rockwell-like imagery of life “not as it is but as it ought to be.” More vitally, for me, he smoothed out the rough edges of artists like Infantino and Gil Kane; each were brilliant at drawing figures that conveyed power, speed and agility, but those figures were often saddled with¬†faces too sharp-edged and stylized (even “cartoony” at times) for my taste. ¬†If I had a criticism of Anderson, it was that when he did both pencils and inks, his figures could be a bit on the stiff, posed side, so when he was paired with Kane and Infantino, we got the best of both worlds; dynamic, kinetic figures but with added elegance and attractive faces.

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This ability to, let¬†us¬†say, tame the wilder tendencies of some artists led to Anderson’s most controversial gig, re-drawing faces of Superman family characters in Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics. Wooing Kirby away from Marvel was a coup for DC (although by the end, he couldn’t have needed much of a “push”), and for months his arrival was touted with house ads proclaiming “Kirby Is Coming!” But when he arrived, he seems to have been more than the company was ready for, so they covered up his signature style¬†with something closer to what it was felt the DC readership¬†would accept.

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This infamous editorial move is often cited as one of the many injustices done to Kirby by various publishers, though no one blames Anderson, who just did what he was told. ¬†In all honesty, for me it worked. ¬†I likely never would have pestered my folks to buy me¬†Kirby-era issues of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” without the comforting presence of Anderson’s handsome Superman. ¬† As it was, the books were already crammed¬†with trippy psychadelic vistas and creepy creatures like “The Four-Armed Terror” that alternately intimated and thrilled grade-school me; ¬†Anderson’s reassuring inks were like having a trusted parent along on a walk through a Halloween “haunted house.”

Over the years, almost every major DC character was drawn by Murphy Anderson, and they always looked the better for it.

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I never got to meet Mr Anderson personally (I missed my chance at a convention once, and I’m still kicking myself for it), but he had a big impact on my youth and helped spark a lifelong love of comics. ¬†If nothing else, his consistently excellent artistic output ensures he’ll live on through his work, as long as classic old comics are reprinted.

RIP.

RIP Patrick Macnee

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I couldn’t let the recent passing of actor Patrick Macnee go by without at least a tip of the bowler.

My memories of Macnee go way back. ¬†It’s likely I heard¬†him¬†before I saw him,¬†thanks to¬†his ominous¬†narration¬†at the beginning¬†of¬†every episode of the original Battlestar Galactica. Later, he was¬†the voice of the Cylon’s¬†“Imperious Leader” in the same series, before finally showing up in (sort of) human form as the evil Count Iblis. ¬†By then, I’d probably seen him as British agent John Steed on The New Avengers, running at 11:30 EST on the CBS Late Night Movie.

Naturally it was the Steed role that made the biggest impression, as James Bond had already predisposed me in favor of secret agents and all things British. ¬†Though paired in The New Avengers with two more contemporary, youthful and “hip” agents, it was the comparatively anachronistic (if not fantasy-based) Steed who most interested me. ¬†With his Edwardian outfits and ever-present umbrella, his impeccable manners and cultured ways, he was exaggeratedly “British,” which I suppose satisfied me in the same way that foreigners want all Americans to wear cowboy hats and talk with a twang.

Post-Avengers, Macnee went on to¬†memorable roles in the horror film The Howling and the cult-favorite comedy, This is Spinal Tap, and practically¬†innumerable guest appearances on TV shows. ¬†He starred as Dr Watson¬†opposite¬†two Sherlock Holmeses, Roger Moore (!) in Sherlock Holmes in New York and his old school chum Christoper Lee in two other films. ¬†Macneee also played Holmes himself in The Hound of London, making him one of very few actors to play both roles. ¬†In the wake of his passing, I sought out the Magnum, PI episode titled “Holmes Is Where the Heart Is,” in which Macnee guest stars as a former British agent who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes¬†in a sort of “two for one” package of Macnee specialties.

Indeed, the Steed role was the gift that kept on giving for Macnee, keeping him steadily employed from 1961 to 1969¬†opposite¬†various screen partners on the original series, then again in 1976 in¬†the aforementioned New Avengers revival, plus in-character cameos on talk shows, variety shows, music videos and commercials. ¬†Even when he was “done” with Steed, he pretty much turned “ex-British agent” ¬†into a second career; you could just imagine producers saying, “We need a former spy in this episode. ¬†Get me Macnee!”¬†¬†In 1983, he replaced the late Leo G. Carroll as Napoleon Solo’s boss for the Return of the Man from UNCLE¬†TV movie, and if his precise status was somewhat unclear in the 1985 Bond film, A View To A Kill, his casting opposite Roger Moore was obviously meant to capitalize on the nostalgia appeal of pairing¬†two former icons of 60s British adventure TV.

In the 90s, I finally got to see the original Avengers series on AMC, and it became a bit of an obsession for me.¬†¬†Almost every episode had at least one moment for Steed to shine, but near the top of the list, for me, was a scene in “A¬†Touch of Brimstone.” ¬†Chiefly famous for a¬†skimpy and suggestive outfit Mrs Peel wears as “the Queen of Sin,” (contributing mightily to the decision by American networks not to air the episode at the time), the episode also features the immortal¬†scene where Steed applies for membership in the mysterious Hellfire Club, and is put through a tension-filled initiation by the wonderfully evil Lord Cartney, as played by Peter Wyngarde.

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Steed is first challenged to drink¬†a ridiculously huge mug full of some sort of alcoholic spirit,¬†which he does with aplomb (asking for a bit more as “the drive down seems to have given me quite a thirst.”) Then, with his wits and reflexes thus (presumably) impaired, he’s challenged to remove a dried pea from a chopping block before a club member can cut it in two with an axe. ¬†Another member, and a veteran of this particular test in the past, holds up his two prosthetic fingers as a warning of what could happen. ¬†Steed agrees gamely, with the air of a fatuous aristocrat out of his depth and blind to his peril. ¬†Lord Cartney looks on with a cruel leer, al but licking his lips at the prospect of witnessing a gruesome maiming. ¬†The signal is given, the axe swings down and Steed — puff! — blows the pea off the chopping block, thus meeting the challenge of removing¬†it,¬†and¬†without ever risking his digits.

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Wyngarde, still a couple of years away from iconic superspy status himself as Jason King in Department S,¬†is perfect here, projecting first an¬†oily sadism, then a fuming¬†disappointment at Steed’s clever dodge. ¬†Macnee handles the scene perfectly as well, playing up his¬†“clueless fop” act¬†while underneath he’s acutely aware of his danger, and Cartney’s treachery, and determined to outwit him. ¬†By literally “blowing off” Cartney’s “ultimate test,” he makes a mockery of the whole exercise, and gives Cartney a figurative poke in the eye without ever dropping the pretense of fun and games. ¬†¬†Here we have Steed in a nutshell, the eccentric, flighty facade¬†concealing a center of hard, English steel. ¬†It’s no coincidence that¬†the bowler secretly has a steel brim and the umbrella conceals a finely honed sword.

At the height of my infatuation with The Avengers, I bought a full-size umbrella to replace my collapsible version. ¬†I wanted to practice all the “stage business” Macnee was so great at when he used his as a cane, a pointer or a hook (rarely did Steed’s brolly¬†actually get opened). ¬†In my defense, I never carried it unless their were rainclouds out, and ultimately I abandoned it as too hard to wrestle in and out of my car. ¬†Plus I could never roll it even a fraction as tightly as Steed did. ¬†Even at my most intense stage of fandom, I didn’t buy a bowler, but I definitely sympathized with Niles and Frasier Crane when they defended their love of Steed to their dad Martin¬†in an episode of the sitcom, “Frasier:”

Martin: My point is, you guys could never resist putting on airs. ¬†Even when you were in junior high, you used to love that¬†TV program, “The Avengers.” You used to run all over the¬†neighborhood pretending you were that guy with the umbrella…Steve.
Frasier: Steed!
Niles: (rolls his eyes) Dad!
Frasier: There were worse role models. Steed was dapper and witty.  When anyone tried to give him grief, he gave them a sound thrashing with the umbrella.
Martin: Well, that’s great, admire him if you want. But did you have¬†to run through the neighborhood in bowler hats? I mean,¬†you were just begging to get beat up.
Frasier: Come to think of it, it was rather a rough summer that year,¬†wasn’t it?
Niles: I remember getting a chin strap so the bowler wouldn’t fall¬†off when I ran.

It’s worth noting that much of what we associate with Steed are traits native to Macnee himself; the cheery¬†good humor, the charm and pleasant manner and gentlemanly conduct. ¬†In his book, “The Avengers And Me,” Macnee noted that it was largely up to him what form his character would take (not least because, at first anyway, it had been meant as just a supporting role):

“Nobody told me how I¬†should play steed, or relate to other people. ¬†I never, ever, got a brief. It was never written down. ¬†The script for ‘Hot Snow,’ the first episode in December 1960 said; ‘Keel is about to push the bell button when the door is flung open. ¬†Steed stands there.’ ¬†Just that, nothing else. ¬†No description, nothing. ¬†So I just made him up….[Steed] was never a character in literature, like Bulldog Drummond, Simon Templar or James Bond, or a persona somebody else had first created in another medium. ¬†Steed was never written down — “Steed stands there.”– and I was the man. ¬†I’m awfully proud of that. ¬†As time went on, Steed and myself just grew together.”

Even in his heyday, Steed was an anachronism, and more’s the pity. ¬†Macnee, likewise, seemed one of the last exemplars of a more civilized and decent era, a time either long past or maybe just imagined in the first place. ¬†We’re a bit the poorer to have lost them both.

 

RIP Leonard Nimoy

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Long ago, before the geeks inherited the Earth, before “Big Bang Theory” ruled the airwaves and superhero movies ruled at the box office, before everyone and his brother had a Dr Who t-shirt, “nerd” was not a label we wore¬†with comfort,¬†let alone bragged about.¬† Being a nerd meant being ostracized, teased and bullied. ¬†Back then, your love for¬†science fiction or comic books was something you kept to yourself, until, through some secret signal or other, you connected with a fellow traveler, thereafter to spend your lunches in the school cafeteria together, gleefully — if quietly — comparing notes on favorite Bradbury or Asimov stories, debating whether the Flash¬†could outrun Quicksilver, or trying to figure out the science (if any) behind warp speed and photon torpedoes.

If there was an icon for us in those days, it was undeniably Mr. Spock, the ultimate outsider, the only one of his kind on a crowded ship where everyone else fit in. ¬†Like us, he was defined by his otherness. His brain worked differently from his peers, which gave¬†him satisfaction and a sense of identity but also¬†loneliness and pain. ¬† Where we stuck¬†out as different with our thick glasses or braces or bad skin or never-quite stylish clothes, for him it was those pointed ears;¬†at once cool and unsettling, weird and mesmerizing, they set him apart from everyone else, which could be a good and bad thing, often at once. ¬†And that’s why we “grokked” Spock. ¬†We may not have come from the planet Vulcan, but we knew what it was to be alien. ¬†In the end we were vindicated as Spock’s logical mind¬†often saved the ship, or whole worlds, and intelligence was revealed not as a liability but in fact a superpower. ¬†(And just for good measure, he was the strongest guy on the ship, even if his pacifism kept all that power in check.)

Under the makeup and ears was Leonard Nimoy, an actor of considerable intellect and ability who worked hard to preserve his character’s dignity and saw it pay off as he and Spock grew into cultural icons. ¬†Fifty years later, with Star Trek¬†such an integral part of popular culture, it’s easy to forget what a hugely courageous act it was to put on those ears for the first time. ¬†Like any actor, Mr. Nimoy must have wanted to be respected for his work, and to get more work, but both respect and future employment were on the line if the gamble failed, if no one would see¬†beyond that odd makeup to the soul of the character. ¬†Today even Academy Award winners line¬†up to shave their heads,¬†paint their faces and apply fake noses, brows, ears and hair for superhero and science fiction films, but Nimoy took up the challenge in an age where¬†most celluloid science fiction¬†involved zippered, rubber monster suits, giant insects and wobbly flying saucers. There were no guarantees he’d come out on the other end of Star Trek with any kind of career at all. ¬†It was to his great credit that he saw the potential in the character and was willing to put so much on the line to bring it to life. ¬†Everyone making millions today off of nerd-friendly movies and TV owes him a Vulcan salute.

Of course, there was a lot more to Nimoy than Spock. He was a talented poet and photographer and directed non-Trek films like Three Men and A Baby and The Good Mother, for starters. ¬†But it’s a testament to the talent and sincerity he poured into Star Trek that, for once, it doesn’t seem disrespectful to link a¬†real person¬†to a¬†fictional¬†character. ¬†For many, thanks to Nimoy, Spock was as real as anyone they knew. ¬†Which, on the downside, kind of makes this a double loss.

The last reel¬†of Wrath of Khan, still and probably always the best of the Trek films, is filled with three-hanky moments as ¬†Spock sacrifices himself for the ship, says goodbye to his best friend and is given a “burial in space,”¬†but the moment that always hits me hardest is when McCoy calls up to Kirk, still on the bridge, and tells him he’d better come running. ¬†Until now, Kirk has been so wrapped up in his battle with Khan that he hasn’t even noticed Spock’s left the bridge, but as soon as he hears that cryptic plea from McCoy, he knows what’s happened. ¬†He looks over to the science station to see Spock’s empty chair and the truth hits him like a punch to the gut.¬†That image of the empty chair is more powerful in its understatement than all the gory makeup or teary dialog that follows. ¬†Today the chair is empty again, but unlike in the movies, and with due respect to Mr. Nimoy’s nominal successor in the role, that’s the way it’s going to stay.

Rest in peace, Mr Nimoy, and godspeed on your new voyage.

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Carmine Infantino

It’s likely the first images I ever saw of Batman were created by Carmine Infantino. ¬†Sometimes I try to remember my first exposure to the character and I’ve just about decided it wasn’t through the comics, the TV show or cartoons, but through the merchandising. ¬†By the time I was old enough to toddle around, the live-action TV show was winding down, but the tidal wave of related toys, lunchboxes, trading cards and sundry other gee-gaws it had inspired was, if not still cresting, then leaving the shores thoroughly littered with bat-this-and-that’s as it receded. ¬†And a lot of that material featured imagery created by Mr Infantino, who passed away this week at 87.

When he was roped into re-vamping Batman in 1964, Infantino had already played a key role in launching comics’ “Silver Age,” having re-introduced The Flash with a deceptively simple-looking costume that broke with “cape-and-shorts” tradition and actually looked like something a guy could comfortably run in. ¬†His fluid designs, nimble figures, space-age skylines and dynamic layouts were about as far as you could get from the stiff, flat, lantern-jawed take on Batman that Bob Kane’s ghosts had been churning out for decades, and considering the Caped Crusader’s sales were in the toilet, just the shot in the arm he needed.

It’s probably hard for modern Bat-fans to appreciate how huge a deal the shift in art styles was back in 1964. ¬†Batman has attracted so many stellar artists for so long that it’s easy to forget he was locked in one art style for an incredibly long period, and that that style could most charitably be described as “primitive.” ¬†Infantino’s comparatively realistic and far more contemporary style — known then and now as ¬†“New Look” Batman — was such a jolt it sent fans into two camps; those more than ready for a change and those who thought Batman, like Dick Tracy, could only be drawn properly by his creator (a debate that played out in the pages of fan magazine “Bat-Mania” which, if you’re off a mind, can be downloaded for free here). ¬†It was in that same forum that fans would soon learn Batman’s “creator” had in fact not drawn the strip in years, and may not even have been the “creator” at all, but that’s another story.

The point is, Infantino helped give the character the boost he needed to reverse his sales slump and get him back on the map with readers, which in turn led to the TV show, followed by a cartoon series that used Infantino’s designs, and all that groovy bat-gear.

As I get older, it gets ever harder for images to stick in my mind, but certain ones from early childhood remain as vivid now as they were the first time I saw them: Oddjob throwing his bowler hat, the Beatles in their Yellow Submarine, Steve Austin running in slow-motion, and comic images like the one below, created as a pin-up by Carmine Infantino and recycled endlessly on posters, album covers, statues and the cover to one of the most-prized books in my collection, “Batman From the 30s to the 70s,” not to mentioned being, along with the covers to Action Comics #1 and Spider-Man #1, one of the most imitated, parodied and plain old ripped-off comic book images of all time:

Then there was the “arms akimbo” pose that was used on tons of merchandise, including a version that was embossed on the bottom of everyone’s favorite die-cast vehicle toy, the Corgi Batmobile:

Infantino’s pin-ups of Batman villains the Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler were, likewise, the definitive images of those characters for a generation:

None of which is to imply that Infantino’s career began and ended with Batman. ¬†He was one of the few talents to be around almost from the beginning and stick with it for decades, starting in the “Golden Age” of the 40s by introducing the Black Canary, evolving his style through the 50s with work on fantasy, sci-fi, adventure and Western strips and in 1956, as noted, ushering in a second era of superhero dominance with the re-imagined Flash. ¬†As the 60s gave way to the 70s, he took the unusual post of “cover editor,” drawing roughs for the covers of almost all of DC’s titles and establishing a “house style” to be followed by such luminaries as Nick Cardy, Neal Adams and Murphy Anderson. ¬†In the early 70s, with DC more or less on the ropes as Marvel Comics dominated the field, Infantino became the first artist ever to serve as Publisher of a major comics line, hiring on a new generation of artistic talents and creating an atmosphere of creative freedom that eventually wooed even Jack Kirby away from Marvel. ¬†In short, he created “my” DC, the comics I started with and which inspired a lifelong interest. ¬†More recently, reprints of his Silver Age work on The Flash and Adam Strange have made a comics fan of my son, Jason.

Of course the down side to being a constantly evolving artist is that sometimes you evolve too far for your audience, and as Infantino’s art became more and more stylized and quirky, he left a lot of readers behind, including yours truly. ¬†By the late 70s and early 80s, I started actively avoiding his work on titles like Star Wars because it was just too angular and cartoony for my tastes. ¬†Back on The Flash again in the 80s, he drew what seemed to me an utterly interminable storyline called “The Trial of The Flash,” which between lasting literally for years and featuring that ever-more oddball art style pretty much led to the character being killed off in 1986’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths.”

And so he became a sort of poster boy for the cycle that defines all truly innovative artists with an individual style and a desire to keep growing; ¬†you start off with folks calling you an ¬†“exciting young talent,” progress if you’re lucky to “genius” and “giant in the field” and end up with “meh, I liked your old stuff better.” ¬†But oh, that old stuff!

I was lucky enough to meet Mr Infantino at a late 90s convention and got him to sign, among other things, a poster of that “rooftop” image, which was pretty awesome. ¬†He seemed like a nice guy, if a bit tired, but then I’m guessing he had that image shoved in front of him about a zillion times over the years. ¬†To him, it was old news, one of countless jobs he cranked out in a long career, if for some reason just more popular than a lot of the others. ¬†But to me, it was one of the most powerful images of childhood, one that unlocked a whole universe of imagery and adventures and a lifetime love of comics.

I’ve often thought it must be awesome to connect, really connect with an audience on a meaningful level, whether through a portrayal, a song, an artwork or whatever. ¬†I hope Mr Infantino knew that he made that kind of connection with a lot of readers. ¬†Either way, he’ll live on through his work, and that’s not a bad legacy to have.