Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chest Straps and Leather Gloves, Oh My!

Back in my message board days, that dark and lonely time when flame wars were a kick, there were a slew of learned commentators trying to piece together all of DC Comics' history into a single, logical timeline. That way lies madness, I assure you, but it can be fun to investigate. For years, I heard about this elusive "Golden Age Martian Manhunter" called Roh Kar, as well as this or that random, never reprinted story involving Martians. I gave up on trying to work out all those details in that bygone time, so when a discussion broke out about Joe Certa possibly swiping the look of J'onn J'onzz, I kept my trap shut.

According to Wikipedia,
In Action Comics #16 (September 1939), the Zatara story is called "Terror from Saturn". A teleportation beam plucks Zatara from Earth to Saturn where he meets Porra who is the spitting image of the Martian Manhunter.
Honestly, it isn't as though the Martian Manhunter's costume is particularly strong or original, and we've had green men from the red planet since the pulps that inspired adventure comic strips. When you get down to the conceptual core, J'onn J'onzz is just John Carter traveling in the opposite direction, heavily influenced by his pal Tars Tarkas.

However, Idol-Head regular LissBirds chimed in with a pair of nice scans from the Zatanna story, and by gosh, that really does look like J'onn J'onzz! His colors are reversed, so that the straps across his chest are blue, while his cape and trunks are orange/red. Rather than a circular belt buckle, its a neck clasp. Like Michael Netzer and Mike Sekowsky before him, there are blue gloves over his green hands, with boots to match. Curiously, like the primordial Batman, this alien action star has a holstered pistol, plus a knife and whip! What a find!

LissBirds' images sent me scurrying for more reference on the internet. The Martian Manhunter Fotolog had a side-by-side comparison of the two aliens. Even accounting for paper stock, J'onn J'onzz is much more brightly colored, with solid black trunks, and cavalier boots. Aside from the differences noted, the costumes are strikingly similar. However, you'll notice J'onzz's oversized head, somewhat flat nose, overbite, and pronounced brow. The Golden Age character is much more classically handsome than the bizarre Martian in his earliest appearances. Facially especially, but also in general build, the resemblance doesn't really come into play until the 1960s. By that point, Joe Certa had reach his third reworking of the Martian Manhunter, beginning with the skinny, Simpson-headed initial model, through a bulkier, thuggish look, and ending with the svelte, handsome leading Manhunter that most resembles the Zatara villain.

The Fotolog also provided scans of "Terror from Saturn" in its entirety, if rather small, so I hope copyright laws are a bit looser in Spain. The first thing revealed is that Zatara was a pimp who put Superman's powers to shame, and Fletcher Hanks' Stardust the Super Wizard wasn't created in a vacuum. The next thing is that, like J'onn J'onzz, this story is centered around stealing from Edgar Rice Burroughs (more directly, in fact.) The Saturnian Porra greets Zatara with his whip, but is easily trounced, and revealed to be the Prince of Saturn, like Jemm: Son of Saturn. Porra's father Ool even looks like Jemm's uncle Jogarr, and has a similar warlike disposition. Zatara punks them both, convincing them that invading Earth isn't in Saturn's best interest.

Considering the links made between Mars and Saturn in the John Ostrander Martian Manhunter series, these green-skinned Saturnians could go a long way toward explaining the disparities between Silver Age Martians and the "Natural Form" version introduced in the 1980s. The story is definitely an intriguing artifact I'd love to see explored further by competent hands. Still, the Saturnians exhibit no superhuman powers, and are only superficially comparable to the Manhunter from Mars. Unlike Roh Kar, I think it's safe to say the two projects were created independently from one another, and connected only by coincidence and common inspiration.


mathematicscore said...

Vexation over. I really like the connectedness, but prefer the Johns/Morisson route of taking liberties where necessary. Some recent research revealed that I was wrong in thining Malacandra came from Burroughs, when in fact it came from C.S. Lewis's space trilogy, which I had loved as a younger lad. I really like the Bat-villian Bane, at least in his initial conception of Doc Savage as villian.

Long story short, I like the idea that there is a golden age appearance of Saturn that fits in without too much rearranging into the modern conception. At least my modernconception.

LissBirds said...

I'm glad I could help contribute to the Idol Head and it's great to see my name "in lights." :) Frank, if you want some higher-resolution scans, let me know.

All of this has only made me ask more questions about how comics were created 50 years ago. Did they keep archives of Golden Age comics at the DC offices and did J'onn J'onnz's creators look through them for ideas? Or had they read this when they were younger and it stuck in their memory? Was it unintentional or planned? Was it common to recycle character designs? I know so little of the "behind the scenes" of how comics were created in the Silver and Golden Ages. I'll have to do some more reading.

It's too bad Showcase didn't reprint this as a "prologue" of sorts to the Detective appearances. They reprinted the Roh Kar story, but not this.

mathematicscore said...

I was going to say I thought it better to tie him to classic literature than cheesy 50's sci fi, but I'm actually not that sure. Both have merit, (though I'd still side with Lewis and Burroughs if forced to choose) and at the end of the day he's more than the sum of his parts.

I forgot to comment on it before, but you are correct, Zatara is ridiculously awesome. In my scattered searching for that story, I haven't been able to find any reprints, which I think is a crime.

Oh, and I'm too lazy to edit this in properly, but I was going to draw attention to Ellis's love of Sherlock Holmes permutations and how is small doses it's cool, but after a while sort of loses me. Planetary was enjoyable, but I guess Alan Moore probably deserves the credit/blame for this sub genre of literary/historical reference.

Tom said...

Liss, DC used to have bound volumes of all of its comics. (Apparently many of them have been stolen over the years. I'm not sure what state their bound library is in nowadays.) Certa could have used the Zatara story as reference, but I doubt he would have. How would he know to seek out this one obscure story of the thousands of stories published by DC? The costume isn't very original; it could have been swiped from just about any science fiction magazine or paperback cover. As Frank said, hairless, green-skinned aliens are a dime-a-dozen, and the Golden Age character doesn't have J'Onn's distinctive head-shape or facial features.

Sometime in the mid '50s DC began saving artwork on film. The line-art was saved before it was colored. (Black & white film is cheaper than color film. Whenever a story was reprinted in color, it had to be re-colored.) This makes it possible to reprint stories from the last 50 years or so in cheap black & white paperbacks. Reprinting the Zatara story, or any other Golden Age story, is more difficult. Pages from an actual copy of the comic have to be scanned, then the coloring has to be removed and the line-art touched up. It's a difficult, time-consuming, and costly process. DC is willing to go through this effort for an expensive hardcover, such as an Archives volume, but not a cheap paperback. The Roh Kar story from Batman #78 must have been in DC's film library, but the Zatara story obviously wasn't.

Diabolu Frank said...

"Frank, if you want some higher-resolution scans, let me know."

LissBirds, I spent entirely too much time blowing up and attempting to decipher the Fotolog pages for use here and beyond, holding the two pieces you sent along for later. For the love of God, I want better scans! :|

"Did they keep archives of Golden Age comics at the DC offices..."

There were drawers full of file copies, but I doubt they were made available to the talent then. I don't think DC had a "library" available until the '60s or so, and I'm not sure if that was print or something like microfiche.

"...and did J'onn J'onnz's creators look through them for ideas?"

Editor Jack Schiff worked with a lot of old pulp sci-fi guys going back to his own days there, so I always figured they were recycling from memory out of the dime novels. Artists are trickier to figure.

"Or had they read this when they were younger and it stuck in their memory? Was it unintentional or planned? Was it common to recycle character designs?"

According to Jules Feiffer and others, all of the above. Everyone in the earliest days of comics was lifting directly from the comic strip greats like Hal Foster and Alex Raymond, and those that came after lifted from Will Eisner and so on. I understand you can set the oldest Joe Kubert work next to Flash Gordon strips and follow from swipe to swipe. Wally Wood is famous for recycling his own stock poses and heavily referencing others'. Robbin' and thievin' is an industry tradition.

"I know so little of the "behind the scenes" of how comics were created in the Silver and Golden Ages. I'll have to do some more reading."

The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones

The Comic Book Makers by James Simon

The Comic Book Heroes: The First History of Modern Comic Books - From the Silver Age to the Present by Gerard Jones & Will Jacobs

The Steranko History of Comics by Jim Steranko

"It's too bad Showcase didn't reprint this as a "prologue" of sorts to the Detective appearances. They reprinted the Roh Kar story, but not this."

...and bless them for doing so! That certainly surprised me. You could fill a book with "off-brand" DC Martians.

I broke the individual post character limits with this one, guys!

mathematicscore said...

I like both connotations, but mathematics-core is it's original conception. Thanks for asking!
Re: Dematteis, I just reread the MM miniseries by him, and it is lyrical as all get out.
While Georwell sounds painfully on the nose, I find Malacandra a nice touch. Part of the reason I enjoy comics so much is for the shared universe aspects. I find it less offensive tying this to another work since, like most of superhero comics it's part of a large narrative of decades with many different contributors. Again, my remembered fondness for Out of the Silent planet may have a lot to do with it, but it was one reference I can dig.
And as far as Bane's look goes, while few but Nolan have done it justice, I can't really see much room for improvement. I mean, wouldn't the bat comics be cooler if they were more like this?

Diabolu Frank said...

glad we got that straight, m.c., but Google's html limitations on comments ate Bane's YouTube defense. My #1 problem is the muscle shirt, though I also prefer him with a partial or no mask.

I was looking forward to covering the DeMatteis mini-series, but opted out of JLI era coverage until I wrapped up all my other stalled initiatives. Whether or not anyone cares, I've got to get that damned Jemm series done! :(

LissBirds said...

Frank, thank you for providing all of those links and information. I ordered a book on comics history recently, but browsing through it doesn't seem all that comprehensive. (Superhero by Peter Coogan.)

I can post the link to the torrent for the scan of Action Comics #16 but I don't know if that will upset the copyright police.

As for swiping C.S. Lewis...I'd rather comics creators make up their own words. I hadn't realized it was taken from C.S. Lewis because I never read anything beyond the first Narnia book. Though it was probably an homage, I can see how it can be jarring.

I'll have to start looking at some old pulps to see how aliens were drawn back in the day. The one thing that always confounded me about J'onn J'onnz's look is the cavalier boots. I don't know what that's a reference to, but those boots bring up connotations (to me) of pirates and Captain Hook, et al, not aliens.

And DeMatteis's mini special made an impression on me with its style and atmosphere. The art was hard to get used to at first, but looking back it made sense and fit with the psychological tone of the story. My only problem was the retconning of Erdel...I know it makes logical sense, but to me it waters down the impact of J'onn's arrival on Earth.

mathematicscore said...

Crap. It was El Santo and the Blue Demon beating up on zombies and then getting revolvers that some who shoot flame to finish them off. Delightful.

I care about Jemm, if only because I've never read it and want to know if it's worth finding in back issues or not.

Tom said...