Daily Archives: May 24, 2012

“Cower Before My Mood Ring of Power, Captain Groovy!”

11 Fads, Movements and Cultural Milestones That Inspired and Influenced Comic Books in the 1970s

1. Kung Fu
By the early 1970s, the North American comic business was in a major slump. Sales were down from the lofty heights of the Silver Age, the Batman TV show’s cancellation in 1969 sent superheroes back to the edge of the pop-culture radar, and new stories pitting superheroes against real-life villains like drug abuse and overpopulation just weren’t catching on with fans. So it’s not surprising that publishers looked to boost sales by pushing out comics based on the big cultural trends of the time — and in the early ’70s, they didn’t come any bigger than kung fu. From Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon to television’s Kung Fu, it seemed like everybody was kung fu fighting (all together now: “those cats were fast as lightning…”). While millions of parents were signing their kids up for martial-arts classes, Marvel introduced both the black-and-white Deadly Hands of Kung Fu magazine and The Hands of Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu in 1974; DC followed with Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter in 1975 and promoted Karate Kid, previously a third-stringer for the Legion of Super-Heroes, to headliner status in 1976. Master of Kung Fu was the only one of the bunch to last longer than three years, outlasting the kung fu craze to spend a solid decade on the spinner racks of America thanks in no small part to the efforts of writer Doug Moench, who wrote more than 100 issues of the series. Widely hailed as the first non-stereotypical Asian to star in an American comic series when he debuted, Shang Chi has been seen “kicking” around the Marvel universe ever since. (And that sound you hear is me putting another quarter in the “bad pun” jar. It’s a big jar.)

2. Disco
Ah, disco. Even those of us who can barely remember the heyday of the Bee Gees and KC and the Sunshine Band bear some scars from growing up during that dark era in music history, but at the time it was hard to deny disco’s popularity among the booty-shaking masses. The challenge for comic writers was the inherent difficulty in depicting a musical style in a visual medium, which is probably why most disco references in ’70s comics were limited to scenes in which the heroes were seen in a disco club with friends, or to rarely seen villains like the Hypno-Hustler. But never underestimate the gods of marketing and synergy; according to legend, Casablanca Records (a record label behind many of disco’s biggest acts) approached Marvel in the late ’70s with the idea of creating a singing superhero that the two companies could cross-promote. The first brainstorm session produced the Disco Queen, a hero with the power to make people tell the truth, but she soon became the Disco Dazzler, a mutant with the ability to convert sound into light. Casablanca pulled out shortly after Dazzler’s debut in 1980’s Uncanny X-Men #130, leaving Marvel with a much-publicized new character and nowhere to stick her. Worse, the bloom was quickly coming off the disco rose by the time Marvel finally got her own title to market in 1981. No matter; the “disco” part was quietly dropped (though it took a while for her to lose the roller skates and disco-ball accessories), and she moved on to join the X-Men after her titled folded in 1986.

3. Blaxploitation films
If Wikipedia is to be believed — and why the heck wouldn’t it be? — the blaxploitation film genre kicked off in 1971 with the arrival of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft in movie theatres. The first film focused on the harsh treatment of a black man at the hands of police and society in general; the second was a more straightforward action film starring a private detective on the hunt for a missing girl in Harlem. Both were hailed as revolutionary for putting the “urban experience” up on the screen; more importantly, Shaft was one of the top-grossing movies of the year, inspiring dozens of similar films featuring black protagonists fighting The Man and bad guys, usually in that order. With the rising number of movies focusing on the (admittedly not-always-accurate) black experience in America, it was only a matter of time before the comic publishers rushed to cash in on the trend (it also didn’t hurt that a new generation of comic writers and editors saw the wisdom in diversifying their companies’ lily-white line-ups). First up: the introduction of John Stewart in Green Lantern #87 (DC, 12/71), an architect and former Marine who started out, in Hal Jordan’s words, with “a chip on his shoulder bigger than the rock of Gibraltar” when it came to authority figures. Marvel countered one angry black man with another by launching Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Cage went to jail for a crime he didn’t commit and ended up with super-strength and bulletproof skin after volunteering for a typical comic-book science experiment that results in those kinds of powers. Like a good number of heroes in the blaxploitation genre, Cage spent most of his days making Harlem a better place by busting heads and saying his trademark phrase (“Sweet Christmas!”) every chance he could; Stewart mellowed a bit, but he was always good for a pointed comment about racial relations when the script called for it.

4. Truckers/CB radios
Who would have thought an oil embargo would give America a hit TV show about a trucker and his chimp? CB radios exploded in popularity in the ’70s as drivers, and truckers in particular, used them to locate working gas stations with fuel, inform each other of police speed traps, and organize convoys and blockades to protest new trucking regulations. While millions of pre-Internet Americans turned to CB radios for companionship and entertainment, pop culture mirrored the nation’s love affair with the trucker lifestyle with such films as Smokey and the Bandit and Convoy, and by offering up TV shows like Movin’ On and B.J. and the Bear. Marvel catered to the apparently huge trucker/comic fan demographic by introducing heroes with bona fide trucker credentials. Razorback first appeared in a 1977 issue of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man; a burly trucker from Texarkana, Ark., he arrives in New York in search of his sister and teams
up with Spider-Man to find her. He’s easily spotted by the highly impractical boar’s-head headpiece he wears, and his super-power is — no joke — “the mutant ability to intuitively pilot, drive or operate virtually any vehicle or mode of transportation, even if he doesn’t know how the vehicle operates.” Not to be outdone in the you-gotta-be-kidding-me sweepstakes, Al Milgrom and Herb Trimpe came up with US 1, a 12-issue series based on the US 1 Electric Trucking toy line introduced by Tyco in 1981. That series told the gripping tale of Ulysses S. Archer, trucker and electronic genius who, after a terrible trucking accident, rebuilds his skull with an experimental allow that grants him the ability to intercept CB radio signals when he touches one of his fillings with his tongue. And it just got crazier from there. It’s probably the trippiest book Marvel ever published, and it’s a little freaky to think we have OPEC to thank for making it possible.

5. Women’s lib
The feminist movement began long before the ’70s rolled around, but that decade was undoubtedly an important time in the struggle for gender equality. Ms. magazine, the Equal Rights Amendment, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Roe v. Wade, “I Am Woman,” Title IX, the “Battle of the Sexes,” Maude, The Female Eunuch, new laws protecting women from wage discrimination and marital rape — all this and more happened during that decade, forever changing American society and opening up new opportunities for millions of women. As I noted in a past list, that included bringing more female characters into the comics… although that didn’t always turn out to be a good thing. True, the renewed attention on women’s rights in the ’70s meant comic publishers were more willing to put out titles starring women, but only if they starred in traditional roles (Night Nurse) or swung from vines while wearing leopard-print bikinis (Shanna the She-Devil) or had superpowers “like an embodiment of the mythical quality known as woman’s intuition” (The Cat) or had the built-in brand awareness of a far more powerful male hero (Supergirl). Even the mildly interesting characters with feminist overtones were drawn too broadly to be anything but caricatures of women involved in the feminist movement: I give you Thundra, a super-strong “Femizon” from an alternate future whose mortal enemy is the man known as “Makizmo” (subtlety, thy name ain’t comics). Even designating an issue of Wonder Woman a “special women’s lib issue” couldn’t gloss over the irony of having a temporarily powerless Wonder Woman use her martial-arts mojo to deal with such opposite-of-earth-shattering issues as a sexist department store owner exploiting his all-female workforce. One heroine they (sort of) got right: Ms. Marvel, whose very name was enough to suggest attitudes towards female heroes were changing… but even then, they couldn’t resist listing “super-intuition” among her super-powers and sticking her with a costume that showed plenty of skin. “This female fights back!” exclaimed the cover of her first issue… though it looks like she caved pretty fast in her first fight with her tailor.

6. Evel Knievel
Ghost Rider could only have happened in the ’70s. For you younger kids, Knievel (real name Robert Craig Knievel) was a stunt motorcyclist who wowed America with his death-defying motorocycle jumps — about 75 between 1965 and 1980, if the internet is to be believed, including a career-high leap across Idaho’s Snake Canyon. And hard as it may be to believe today, jumping over buses and canyons and not dying while doing it was enough to make him one of the most famous stars in the world for that decade. Meanwhile, the start of the ’70s also saw the Comics Code Authority (the industry-appointed body set up to regulate content in comics) ease up on its restrictions about horror-themed characters, giving publishers freedom to produce stories starring vampires, werewolves, and all other manners of supernatural creatures. So why not kill two birds with one stone and give all the horror and motorcycle stunt fans the one hero they never knew they were looking for? As recounted in the recent Ghost Rider movies, Johnny Blaze was a stunt rider who sold his soul to Satan to save his father, only to find himself possessed by demonic powers that he used to terrify people (which, while cool, was definitely not part of the deal). Marvel has modified the story somewhat over the years (it was actually Mephisto; it was part of a plot to entrap a particular demon within Blaze’s mortal shell; he can call on his powers at will, not just at night; the Ghost Rider mantle passed on to a teenager who just happens to find a mystical motorcycle in a graveyard one night…) but the kick-ass essence of the character (dude who rides a motorcycle turns into leather-clad vengeance skeleton with fiery skull) endures, despite Nicolas Cage’s best efforts.

7. The Exorcist
Speaking of the Prince of Darkness. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was the publishing sensation of 1971, in no small part because a novel (and subsequent film in ’73) based on an actual 1949 exorcism of a young Maryland boy was in the perfect position to tap into the decade’s growing fascination with Satanism and the occult. This fascination came about in part because of the 1966 establishment of the Church of Satan in San Francisco, and in part because of church leader Anton LeVay’s frequent public appearances in which he advocated in favour of hedonism and indulgence (both easy sells during the Me Decade). Always eager to throw a superhero veneer over the latest fad, Marvel trotted out the Son of Satan in an issue of Ghost Rider in 1973, before adding him to the Defenders’ lineup. Daimon Hellstrom is literally the son of Satan (later retconned into a demon who isn’t the actual Christian devil), a man who has sworn to turn his back on his father and defend humanity from the dark forces that would destroy us. Never an A-list character, Son of Satan had the good fortune to be scripted by Steve “Howard the Duck” Gerber during his early years, establishing him as someone on the very edge of heroism, with his ends-justify-the-means attitude and arrogant demeanor often putting him at odds with the more strait-laced heroes on the block. But then, would you expect anything less from Daddy’s little hellraiser?

8. Star Wars
What can be said about Star Wars that hasn’t been said a million times before? People who weren’t around to experience the original trilogy when the movies first came out in theatres (in 1977, 1980 and 1983) simply cannot comprehend just how much of an influence those films had on… well, everything. Their massive success caught almost everyone completely off guard, and everyone — and I mean everyone — raced to grab a bit of Star Wars magic for themselves. Battlestar Galactica, Space: 1999, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Black Hole, Flash Gordon, the revived Star Trek franchise, The Last Starfighter, Alien, E.T. — and those are just the obvious attempts to cash in on America’s renewed love affair with lovable aliens, robots, blasters and spaceships. While Lucas and company were rewriting the rules in Hollywood, comic publishers (who, as a general rule, are no slouches in the fine art of bandwagon-jumping) were busily adding “space cowboy drama” wherever they could. Marvel’s Star Wars was the most obvious example, and the most successful, with its first issue selling in numbers not seen since the height of Batmania in the late ’60s. Meanwhile, Green Lantern ditched his Green Arrow co-star to return to his original star-spanning adventures; Jack Kirby’s New Gods and Mister Miracle books (which shared more than a few thematic ideas with Lucas’s space saga) were revived by DC in ’77 despite being cancelled just a few years before; the Legion of Super-Heroes got updated wardrobes and started fighting bigger and badder menaces to the galaxy; and even the X-Men, an unlikely team to get mixed up in interstellar battles, ventured into space to fight aliens almost as often as they fought evil mutants. Then there were the many, less fondly remembered titles featuring rogues and heroes in hostile galaxies: Atari Force, Spanner’s Galaxy, Sun Devils, Rocket Raccoon, ROM: Spaceknight, Micronauts… it’s hard to imagine any of them seeing the light of day without a few sabers lighting the way.

9. The Six Million Dollar Man
Just to be clear, there are many levels of influence when we’re talking about cultural impact. Star Wars? Off the chart. The Exorcist? Way up there. The Six
Million Dollar Man
? Meh, not so much. Still, as far as mid-’70s guilty pleasures went, it was one of the more enjoyable ones. Debuting on ABC in ’74, TSMDM starred Lee Majors as Col. Steve Austin, an astronaut rebuilt with bionic body parts (“we can rebuild him… we have the technology”) after surviving a horrific crash. Why, you ask? Why, so he could go to work for the fictional OSI and beat up dirty spies and bad guys, of course (though you have to wonder how long he would have had to work for the
government to pay for his $6-million operation). Equipped with a bionic eye, bionic arm and bionic legs, Austin bionically dispensed bionic justice wherever he went, and even picked himself up a bionic woman along the way (played by Lindsay Wagner, who got her own spinoff, The Bionic Woman, in ’76). There was the requisite comic-book adaptation of the show, a Charlton Comics series that lasted nine issues before both it and the show were cancelled in ’78, but that wasn’t the show’s only impact on comics. Debuting in early ’78, DC’s Steel (not to be confused with the character introduced during the “Death of Superman” storyline) starred Henry Heywood, a WWII-era Marine who suffered massive injuries when a saboteur attacked his base. He survived thanks to a scientist who inserted mechanical devices into his body — devices that also happened to give him superhuman strength and speed (and probably cost a lot less than $6 million, too, if inflation has anything to say about it). The character never really took off — his book lasted five issues, and he made a few guest appearances before dying in an heroic manner — but that seems only fair, given how fast TV fans got over the cancellation of both bionic shows in ’78.

10. Jesus Christ Superstar
Everything I know about the works of Andrew Lloyd Weber can fit into the period at the end of this sentence, so let’s get busy with the wiki: the rock opera detailing the final days of Christ’s days on Earth debuted on Broadway in 1971 and closed in 1973 after 711 performances, the same year a film adaptation of the story was released, and the show has seen many revivals since then. To the surprise of absolutely no one, turning the life of Christ into a musical didn’t sit too well with a lot of religious people, especially those who thought Judas Iscariot was portrayed in too positive a light and took offence at lyricist Tim Rice’s comments that Jesus was more “the right man at the right time” than the son of God. No doubt aware of the potential for protests, Roy Thomas nonetheless found inspiration in the musical’s soundtrack to create his own messianic superhero. In a 2009 issue of Back Issue magazine, the veteran writer and editor explained he wanted to do his own modern re-telling of Christ’s story in a superhero context. To that end, he took an artificial character last seen in the pages of Fantastic Four, rechristened him Adam Warlock (“Adam” for the Biblical connection, “Warlock” for no other reason than it sounded like a cool surname), and sent him to a godlike scientist’s “Counter-Earth” to redeem that planet’s population from the taint of evil introduced by a failed genetic experiment known as the Man-Beast. And if that wasn’t messianic enough for you, Warlock was also betrayed by someone before dying and resurrecting to save Counter-Earth from its sins. “I had some trepidation about the Christ parallels,” Thomas told Back Issue, “but I hoped there would be little outcry if I handled it tastefully, since I was not really making any serious statement on religion… at least not overtly.”

11. Death Wish/Dirty Harry/The Executioner
The late ’60s and early ’70s were not good times for New York City. The postwar population shift and tough economic times led to the city becoming notorious for high crime rates, social decay, and widespread police corruption (the latter immortalized by the ’73 film Serpico starring Al Pacino). Even beyond the Big Apple, there was a sense the system was breaking down: Watergate, stagflation, the oil crisis, terrorism… it was a tough time to believe things were going to get better, and readers and moviegoers responded to characters that, to borrow a line from a famous movie, were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Marvel’s editors and writers, most of them living in New York City, were obviously aware of what was happening to the city around them, and they surely weren’t alone in feeling the kind of frustration that leads to someone wishing they could take matters into their own hands. Debuting in 1974’s Amazing Spider-Man #129, the Punisher was a Vietnam vet who used his military training to wage a one-man war on the Mafia after his family was gunned down in Central Park by mobsters. As Punisher creator Gerry Conway later said in an interview: “At that time there was a cultural movement in America with the [1974 movie] Death Wish phenomena, the vigilante character The Executioner [who debuted in ’69 and had a back story very similar to the Punisher’s], the Dirty Harry notion — the idea of the lone outsider striking against the system — and I thought it would be interesting if a character like that was manipulated into taking action against Spider-Man.” Intended at first as just a throwaway character, the Punisher was an instant hit among fans — “it was clear that we hit a nerve,” Conway recalled — and the rest, as they say, is history.