Friday, January 7, 2011

It's Still Comic-al!

The last gap between posts was one of my longest and I do apologize about that. What with many holiday events and an avalanche of work (including the roll out of a new program that took up most of my work days – imagine that!), I wasn’t able to squeeze in very much time at The Underworld. With that in mind, and with the weekend fast approaching, I’m gonna pop out a quick novelty posting to keep the ball in the air until I can return early next week with another tribute.

I did a posting on amusing or appealing or otherwise intriguing vintage comic book covers quite a while back and have since amassed a few more to share. This whole topic begins and ends with one of the classic notorious covers, one for a book on the western TV series The Rifleman. About the adventures of reformed gunman Chuck Connors and his young son Johnny Crawford, this cover placed a hilariously phallic log into little Crawford’s hands that was right at crotch level on Connors. What tops it off is their hilarious expressions, which were likely meant to demonstrate a father’s pride in his son, but comes off like a father’s pride in his massive tool that the song has to help carry around! That’s not enough… The copy writers felt the need to add this blurb to the cover: “A mysterious bag holds the secret…” Does it now?

On the animation front (which I don’t usually feature here, but will this once) is another screamer that has become legendary. One of the countless number of Archie comics, this one called Betty and Me, it has the stalwart redheaded hero rescuing blonde Betty from a near drowning. But the caption is the kicker. Betty asks, “Archie, did you have any trouble rescuing me?” to which her replies, “I sure did, Betty. I had to BEAT OFF three other guys!” And the words are emphasized just that way. That’s the kind of lifeguard job I could have used in my summers of yore.

These Dell and Gold Key comics were produced as tie-ins for so many television shows and motion pictures. True, the artwork inside might range from rudimentary to barely average, but the color photo covers gave kids the opportunity to obtain a keepsake of their favorite show or star. Now, years later, these books have become highly collectible, though not to the extent that I would have thought they’d be. After all, so many of these things were crumpled up, tossed out by mom on cleaning day or otherwise disintegrated, never to be made, or perhaps even seen, again. Take The Munsters, a two-season black and white sitcom that featured distilled versions of The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and The Wolfman fashioned into a suburban family. A comic like this was the only way to see the actors/characters in color (though, arresting as they are, I must admit I always preferred seeing them in black and white, maybe because that’s how I am used to seeing those old Universal Studios horror movies.)

There might even be a comic for a show that barely caught on and which was rarely ever seen again. Take It’s About Time, a Sherwood Schwartz sitcom about astronauts that wind up stuck in The Stone Age, with one of the cave dwellers being a bug-eyed Imogene Coca! Seeing the limited possibilities of the concept, the producers decided to flip the scenario around, bringing the astronauts home, but with two prehistoric people in tow! Almost no one knows about this show, but to a select few who do, this comic is a great find. Reportedly, the theme song for the show was a jaunty and memorable one, which isn’t hard to believe when you realize that Schwartz produced Gilligan’s Island and, thus, knew the importance of such things (even if this time the show didn’t last.)

Did you know that there were also I Love Lucy comic books? I don’t know how well her brand of physical comedy, accented by that legendary wacky voice, translated to the page, but there were more than a few issues printed, all of them featuring the famous redhead in color shots that allowed one to actually see the color (keep in mind, TV sets were almost exclusively black and white, at least in the American homes, until the mid ‘60s.)

Some of these comic books offer up beautiful portraits of the stars. Hugh O’Brian, the handsome and elegant star of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, was the subject of many comic books, but this one eschewed the usual action pose and focused on his pleasing face. (Again, his show being black and white, it was a nice opportunity to see him in color.) And look at that big ol’ gun! Actually, a whole article could be written about the placement of guns and rifles in promotional photos and comic covers… For the girls (I suppose… Do you see many 1950s-‘60s teen boys heading up to the drug store counter to pay for their copy of a book like this?), there was the dreamy Ricky Nelson. America watched him grow up on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, a show that was unusual in that it was a sitcom about a family in which the actors really all were a true family, not just performers brought together and pretending! They had begun on radio way back in 1944 and about five years in, the boys began to play themselves. (And there had been a comic book about them even way back then.) Then the show moved to TV in 1952 and stayed on the air until 1966. Even the wives, once the time came for that, were scripted in to play scripted versions of themselves, making this an almost quasi-reality TV show long before the term was coined! (Admittedly, the Nelsons were not exactly the same off screen as on, but you get my drift…) Incidentally, this was the longest running sitcom for ages until The Simpsons came along and broke its fourteen-year record.

Sometimes a close-up would have the added bonus of featuring the star shirtless, as in this cover for Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges (later of Airplane! fame.) How burly to have such a furry subject on the cover of a kid’s comic book. (The last time I mused about comic covers, Jeff Bridges had won an Oscar the evening before. This time, I have just come from seeing True Grit, for which he is almost surely going to be nominated again! Lloyd would be proud.)

Occasionally, a cover might sport an unusual shot, such as this one for Gunsmoke, with Marshal Matt Dillon (played by James Arness) on his back with his legs spread, offering a glimpse of his rounded crotch, gently tugging at the fabric of his tan trousers. (Ha ha! And they say the Marquis de Sade was sexually descriptive in his writings. He’s got nothin’ on me!)

If more blatant beefcake is your cup of tea, you need look no further than Tarzan. Gordon Scott, one of the most muscular vine-swingers and also one of the handsomest, was featured on the front of many comics. It’s not hard to imagine him completely naked in this portrait as he stands behind a fallen tree. Though the skimpiest loincloth of the classic Tarzan’s probably belonged to Johnny Weissmuller in the first film (with Buster Crabbe’s bun-revealing one a close second), TV Tarzan Ron Ely surely seems to have been given the shortest! It gave more side coverage, but rode low and was cut high, fully exposing him to every conceivable twig, bramble and thorn (and, trust me, he was positively ravaged by nature during the harried, get-it-in-the-can shooting schedule of the show!) Later, he would become the host of Face the Music, a TV game show and a far safer manner of occupation.
Vera Miles was married to Gordon Scott and she was also married to Keith Larsen, the star of several short-lived TV shows including Brave Eagle, the first series ever to have an American Indian as the primary focus. The show also strove to present Indians in a positive, intelligent light (this despite the fact that Larsen, as Brave Eagle, was a Caucasian of Norwegian descent, born in Salt lake City, Utah!) In any case, Miss Vera got to head home to some decent looking men in her day! "A Ride for Life," indeed!

We all know Lassie and most of us are aware of her days living with June Lockhart, Hugh Reilly and little blonde six-year old Jon Provost. Note the possible implications of the hysterical, unintentional (?) pedophilia and bestiality present in the caption "Desperate men lead Timmy and Lassie to an old empty barn...!" (As an aside, and why I reveal these things, I still don’t know… I was watching Lassie once as a kid in a rerun on a UHF channel. The print was old and creaky. As the announcer was running down the cast members’ names – something I have always loved – the film crackled when it got to June Lockhart’s and it came out “Jockhart!” Thus, dear June will always be Jockhart to me. But anyway…) Here is a cover of Lassie with “her new masters.” I’d say she traded up! She went from the dusty old farm with The Martins and the kid who was always tumbling into trouble into a new life with two grown men, one so-so and the other rather handsome! The downside is that she probably got store-bought canned dog food instead of the scraps from Jockhart’s table.
Speaking of male twosomes that pique interest, check out this snap of Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, used for the cover of an issue of an I Spy comic book. They are supposed to be secret agents (the show being the first to feature a black actor with equal billing and social standing as the Caucasian counterpart), but from this you’d think they were an interracial gay couple posing for a picture between tennis rounds while on a vacation to Catalina!

Frequently, a one-shot issue would be published in order to promote a certain project or to capitalize on the hot career of a relative newcomer. Such was the case of David Ladd. David, the son of major film actor Alan Ladd, became a sensation for a while after having a significant role in his father’s film The Proud Rebel. He continued to act, with moderate frequency, until the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and was married to a young actress who took (and kept) his name, Cheryl Ladd. He eventually became a highly successful executive at MGM, though none of this would be found in this comic book, published when he was still a sprite. Anyway, the REALLY difficult story belonged to his older half-brother Alan Ladd Jr., but there was no comic book about him! The product of Ladd’s first marriage, he was kept a virtual secret from the fans, being forced into the shadows for all of his pre-adult life, only emerging later as a young man to a mystified public. Much to his credit, he also grew into a respected and highly successful executive in the motion picture business.

Other comic books, usually one-shot deals, were adaptations of important movies, or, in the case of this one, movies that have since taken on reputations as hopelessly miscast camp spectacles! John Wayne as Atilla the Hun in The Conqueror, a notorious slice of cinematic craziness produced by Howard Hughes. These things were often written and drawn before the film came out in an effort to coincide with the release and capitalize on it or help promote the movie (this is also why sometimes the inside storyline varies from the finished product, because they were based on scripts that may have been revised during shooting.)

Speaking of conquerors, here is another hooty classic: an adaptation of the hilariously bad Santa Claus Conquers the Martians! The rotten film, featuring a pre-teen Pia Zadora and made for $2.73, now has a significant cult following. There are probably quite a few fans of the movie who would like to have a copy of this gem, most of which, sadly, have probably been tossed out or otherwise lost/destroyed over the years.

Then there’s Lord Jim starring Peter O’Toole, an ostensibly adult story based on a novel by Joseph Conrad, and a seemingly odd choice. Perhaps the makers wanted to obtain a certain level of Classics Illustrated credence to their line or maybe they just wanted to try to cash-in on an upcoming Hollywood movie. In any case, the movie tanked and critics thought pretty little of it, too. Hopefully, the adventuresome aspects of the tale lent themselves to some good reading material for the kids who bought it.

Even harder to understand is the comic version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (also starring Peter O’Toole), not that the story isn’t appealing to boys of a certain age, but this was the MUSICAL remake! How on earth does one convey the art of music to a comic book?! On the other hand, this major flopperoonie was considered by many to be devoid of any aural artistic qualities and would surely have succeeded better as a straight drama. The reviews upon release contain some of my favorite scathing remarks. The National Review critic John Simon said, "The music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse conquer new depths of ineptitude, and having these nonsongs done mostly in voice-over as interior monologues adds pretentiousness to their basic awfulness.” Then ever-snarky Rex Reed chimed in with, “to insinuate that Leslie Bricusse's plodding score is merely dreadful would be an act of charity,” though to be honest, the musical “score” was actually done by John Williams. Vincent Canby said of the songs, “Like unbeaten egg whites in a soufflĂ©, they do nothing for the cause of levitation” while Rogert Ebert called them, “sublimely unforgettable.” By the way, do any of my fellow fortysomethings and beyond out there think that Mr. O'Toole, on the upper right of this cover, resembles the professor on the old Yahtzee scorecards?

The project had been kicking around for a while, initially meant as a reunion for Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews (though it would have been their first pairing on a movie screen.) It then morphed into a Richard Burton/Samantha Eggar vehicle, but she was replaced by Lee Remick, then she was dumped for Petula Clark! This angered Burton and he fled the project only to be replaced by O’Toole. At least the leads O’Toole and Clark were granted good notices for their acting. Miss Clark undoubtedly should have had a more substantial Hollywood career, in my opinion.

These movie-oriented comics make wonderful additions to the memorablilia of collectors of classic Hollywood. Neverheless, it would have been quite cool for a kid in 1966 to get to read the adaptation of Fantastic Voyage, the Stephen Boyd/Raquel Welch movie about a team of scientists shrunken down to microscopic size and injected into the bloodstream of a man. The fantasy aspects of the story would have translated well to the medium.

Less cool would have been the rendition of 1960’s The Story of Ruth! Can you imagine?! “Where’s Eldon, dear?” “Oh, the last time I saw him, he was curled up on his bed upstairs reading his Story of Ruth comic book…” LOL! Good Lord. Literally! At least there was a (not so great) photo of yummy Tom Tryon on the cover. If I remember right, Stuart Whitman got a lot more screen time in the actual movie, though.

Finally, I give you another movie adaptation. I know times have changed and many people now seem to instantly apply a perverse or sexual connotation to the word “naked” when it used to be used in a lot of cases to simply indicate bare-ness, but I think I would have been a little embarrassed to totter up to the counter and plunk down my dime and two pennies for a book called The Naked Prey, only because of what I feared the clerk might think, rather than from any sense of shame of my own. Think about it. I once had to ask a video store rental person if they had The Naked Jungle (a perfectly clean and upstanding film about a plantation overrun by army ants) and was looked at like I was requesting pornography! And I think my grandma would have sharted if I dragged a comic book into her house called The Naked Prey! She once informed me that “comic books should be comic. That’s what comic means… comedy!” So, I’m doubting that this one would have gotten the stamp of her approval! Ha! That said, the movie does contain a couple of truly vicious killings in the beginning. I wonder if they were rendered in the comic book. Not to mention the fact that star Cornel Wilde was implied to be actually naked (though he really was covered in a fleshtoned thong) for a stretch of the action! Surely that was handled tastefully in the book. Besides, how many people really even opened it with a cover like that one?!

I hope you found this post diverting. I will be back soon with more from The Underworld!


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