Monday, April 23, 2007


Now this was a super hero with a difference! Here was a crime fighter who was a ghostly spirit sent down by The Almighty to thwart evil. Actually, in the hands of Golden Age comic writers, the premise is presented in a more mundane way than it sounds. Detective Jim Corrigan is killed in the line of duty, but the Big Guy won’t let him into heaven because there’s too much crime on Earth to be dealt with, so he brings Jim back to life with a spirit inside him which periodically escapes to capture bad guys. Pretty quirky stuff, but that’s what made the Golden Age so great!

I was familiar with The Spectre long before I had heard of the JSA because the character had been resurrected (he’s a spirit after all) in the Silver Age with his own comic. However, it was the Golden Age stories which really interested me more since they were usually handled with a lighter touch than the later incarnation.

My custom action figure of The Spectre once again starts with a costume from Rauty’s Toy Shop. I wanted a face that would capture the haunted, grim expression of the ghostly crime fighter, but I couldn’t find a 12” figure that quite fit the bill. Then Hasbro came out with a G.I. Joe character called Faces, whose gimmick was that he could disguise himself as Cobra villains. Therefore, the figure came with had a set of masks as accessories. One mask for a character called Zartan exhibited just the right expression, so I painted the mask white and affixed it to an action figure. The short boots were courtesy of a Civil War costume that I had purchased around the same time. The figure already had molded gloves, so the whole figure came together pretty quickly.

Monday, April 16, 2007


While wandering through a book store the other day, I was pleased to find that a small publishing company was reprinting old Doc Savage novels in the same format as they appeared in the original Doc Savage Magazine some 70 years ago. Doc Savage is one of those characters that has faded from the pop culture collective unconscious, which is a shame because he really was the prototype for so many super heroes that came later. His exploits were chronicled in a series of breezy, action-packed novels published in Doc Savage Magazine between 1933 and 1949. Once comic books got rolling in the late 30s, the young comic writers borrowed heavily from pulp adventure heroes like Doc, The Spider, and The Shadow. In my opinion, Doc Savage was the best of the lot.

Clark Savage, Jr., or “Doc” to his friends, was a supreme representation of human kind. In an effort to create the most perfect man, Doc’s father raised his son in isolation, trained by the best minds in every field of study. He was also taught to maintain a rigid exercise regimen which kept his body in peak physical condition. After his father’s death, the adult Doc chose to use his inherited wealth to help mankind and fight crime. Along with his old Army buddies, each an expert in his own chosen profession (law, chemistry, archeology, etc.), Doc and his gang became globe-trotting adventurers, often helping decent individuals who were preyed upon by evil-doers.

Doc probably would’ve been forgotten after his magazine run ended had it not been for Bantam reprinting the novels in paperback form, starting in 1964. This was the era of James Bond and Batman and campy adventure, so Doc Savage fit right in on the book shelves. The books became enormously popular and Bantam continued to release new paperbacks on a regular schedule right into the mid-80s. I discovered Doc Savage through my Uncle Melvin, a voracious reader who remembered the stories from his adolescence. I soon started buying the books from a neighborhood second-hand book store, and I was hooked. In the 70s, Doc was at the height of his comeback with a Marvel comic book and a feature film in addition to the books. Okay, the movie was a piece of crap, but it never hurt his popularity. Although the broad characterizations and far-fetched plots are cringe-worthy to an adult, this stuff was right up my alley as a teenager. Also, in an era when a pocket calculator was high-tech, the clunky pre-WW II technology did not seem as out of date as it would today. With over 100 paperbacks published by the late 70s, I stockpiled Doc Savage books and picked one up whenever I was in the mood for a fast-paced thriller.

I was still reading my back log of paperbacks in college when Bantam decided to cease publication of the old pulp stories. A huge outcry from fans caused Bantam to rethink their decision, however, and the company reprinted the remaining stories in large, omnibus format books containing several novels in one volume. The last of the omnibus volumes came out in the early 90s, but Bantam tried to continue the series with new Doc Savage novels written by various authors. While I was excited to finally see all the original stories reprinted, I wasn’t too keen on the new books. I guess others felt the same way because Bantam discontinued publishing new novels after a couple of years. Not that they were poorly written, but by the early 90s, it seemed rather pointless to continue writing about a character who was stuck in a by-gone era.

Which is why I think Doc Savage has faded while his off-spring like Superman and Batman have flourished. When the novels were originally written, Doc Savage represented something new and exciting. His crime fighting techniques and the technology he used were state-of-the-art or even futuristic. He and his friends were dynamic and talked in the lingo of the day. However, once his stories ended in 1949, Doc remained stuck in the past. The super heroes he spawned, however, continued to grow and evolve, remaining eternally fresh. Ol’ Doc never got a regular update and became an anachronism. I’d love to see a Hollywood hotshot like J.J. Abrams or Sam Raimi take a crack at creating an updated version of Doc Savage, but I guess there wouldn’t be much point since there’s no market gain in the name other than among the over-40 crowd.

Anyway, to preserve the memory of the world’s first and greatest super hero, I created a custom action figure using one of the basic G.I. Joe figures that they were selling a few years back. I know that the Bantam paperbacks always showed Doc in a ripped-up shirt, but I don’t think he actually walked around all day in ripped-up shirts like the Hulk, so I chose to portray him as I assumed he looked most of the time, in a properly intact shirt. I repainted the head to reflect Doc’s bronze complexion, close-cropped haircut with widow’s peak, and his gold-flecked eyes. Although Doc usually avoided using guns, I pretend that it’s loaded with knock-out bullets. Long live Doc Savage!

Thursday, April 12, 2007


This is really too much. No sooner do I find out that my favorite spy novelist, Donald Hamilton, has died, and now I learn this morning that my favorite all-time literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut, has died. I’m feeling quite undone.

Along with Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut was the first serious literary type that I truly admired. In junior high and high school, while my English teachers were trying in vain to convince me that people like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ernest Hemingway were literary giants, I was actively seeking out Bradbury and Vonnegut in the local second-hand bookstore, all the while completely baffled that my teachers made no mention of these guys.

Of course, what probably attracted me to them was that they combined observations on the human condition with whimsical fantasy elements. As a teenager, these stories were like comic books with pathos. Vonnegut was especially appealing to me because he also incorporated earthy humor, which is right up any adolescent’s alley.

At that stage of my life, I didn’t have the life experience to fully appreciate the messages that Vonnegut was trying to convey. I was more attracted to the absurdities, which were so abundant in popular entertainment of the era, like Monty Python and Robert Altman’s films. I loved his summaries of the plots in Kilgore Trout’s numerous science fiction novels, the suicidal Martian invasion of Earth in Sirens of Titan, or in Slaughterhouse Five when William W. Campbell, Jr. addresses Billy Pilgrim and the other P.O.W.s dressed in a star-spangled outfit reminiscent of Captain America.

I related to these books like the comic books I was reading at the time because, not only were they wildly imaginative, they had a cast of characters which would cross-over from book to book. Just as Spiderman might encounter the Hulk, Eliot Rosewater would worship the works of Kilgore Trout, and Kilgore Trout would meet up with Billy Pilgrim. It was the Vonnegut Universe, and it was far more interesting than anything Stan Lee could ever come up with.

Although I was able to gain more from his books later in life than I could as a teenager, I do remember being profoundly changed by them in terms of how I viewed writing. When I read Cat's Cradle (still my favorite), I was completely blown away with his apocalyptic ending, not so much because the world as we know it ended, but that it occurred so matter-of-factly. I realized that the writer had an obligation to provide different points of view rather than just following the boilerplate laid out by others.

I was also greatly moved by Slaughterhouse Five. As the son of an alcoholic who regularly attended A.A. meetings, I was quite familiar with the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” However, to me it was just something you recited. The words had no meaning to me. Toward the end of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut mentions that the Serenity Prayer is on a locket around Montana Wildhack’s neck. After reading to that point and vicariously experiencing the life of Billy Pilgrim, I suddenly got what that prayer actually meant. As a teenager with a drunken father and a shattering family, there was a great deal I couldn’t change. But with my whole life ahead of me, there were still opportunities to make tremendous changes. When I reached the end of Slaughterhouse Five, I felt like I finally had the wisdom to know the difference.

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Hourman was one of DC’s earliest super heroes, rushed into duty shortly after Superman made a big splash with the reading public. His gimmick was fairly straightforward – by taking the drug Miraclo, he could have super powers for exactly one hour. Not the most exciting hero, Hourman was bumped from the Justice Society of America fairly early on, though he did return as a member in the 60s during the JLA/JSA crossover stories.

I attempted a custom figure of Hourman simply because I thought he would be a relatively easy project. For his leotard, I took a black body suit from a G.I. Joe figure (Snake Eyes) and cut out the legs. I then took the legs from a white body suit belonging to another G.I. Joe (Storm Shadow) and dyed them golden yellow. After I sewed the yellow legs onto the black suit, I had the basic costume. The gold cape came from Rauty’s Toy Shop (what can I say, his suits are amazing).

For the head and body, I used the Storm Shadow G.I. Joe and cut the face out at the point where it protruded from the hood. I replaced the face with the face from a Playing Mantis Kato mask. After gluing the two pieces together, I painted Kato’s face to look like a black mask and I painted Storm Shadow’s white hood golden yellow to match the suit and cape.

The boots were standard black boots from a generic figure. I wrapped red electrical tape around them to create stripes. The hourglass necklace was created with some gold cord and a sterling silver hourglass charm I purchased on eBay. Just to make him a little different, I swapped out the bulky G.I. Joe hands for some 21st Century Toys hands which I bought in an accessories pack. The belt was made from red foam rubber and the clock face in the center I cobbled together from various bits of plastic I had on hand.

One of the easier customs, but fairly effective, I think.

Friday, April 06, 2007


I just learned this week that Matt Helm creator Donald Hamilton died November 20, 2006, at the age of 90. I was surprised at how the news affected me, or I should say the degree to which it affected me. Although I only knew the man through his writings, the fact that he was still alive out there gave me a tangible connection with a bygone literary era which I love so much, that being the early years of the dime store paperback thriller. Now that he’s gone, along with so many writers who thrived in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, I feel like that fertile era of gritty fiction has slipped away for good.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I started reading the Matt Helm novels shortly after college. I had already read most of the James Bond novels and I was curious to see how the so-called “American James Bond” fared by comparison. What I found startled me. There really was no comparison. Matt Helm was a completely different animal, born from an entirely different style of writing.

My take on James Bond was that Ian Fleming took the essential elements of the old pulp magazine adventure stories (i.e., global sweep, fast-paced action, colorful villains, exotic love interests, etc.) and elevated the genre with sophisticated details about fine wines, the best restaurants and casinos around the world, proper customs, and frank sexual descriptions. For young men who had grown up reading pulp magazines, then experienced the world during WW II, the James Bond novels provided a comfortable blend of the adolescent and the adult for the post-war audience.

Matt Helm’s world was rooted in the shadowy alleyways of the private eye novels. His character was more in keeping with the Sam Spade or Mike Hammer tradition. While James Bond would occasionally fret over the messy business he fell into, Matt Helm had no such worries. This was the Cold War, and there were plenty of commies and commie sympathizers out there who wanted to undermine our democratic way of life. Helm knew his job was to take these people out regardless of how dirty or underhanded his methods had to be. Bond would hold himself to certain rules of behavior like never shooting a man in the back; Helm would shoot a man anyway he could if the dirty bastard deserved it. In short, James Bond inhabited a fantasy world where the villains were polite enough to let themselves be caught; Matt Helm existed in a dark world where the bad guys would take you out without even introducing themselves, so you’d better be prepared to do the same.

Another element the Matt Helm novels shared with the hard-boiled detective genre was that they were written in first-person, allowing the reader an intimate look into the man’s psyche. In addition to understanding his approach to his job, we were treated to amusing ruminations on everything from Helm’s aversion to women wearing pants to his hatred of cheap gimmicks on American automobiles. Donald Hamilton was an ex-Navy man who also enjoyed many outdoor activities, so Matt Helm would provide lengthy monologues on manly topics like sailing, fishing, camping, and hunting. I suspect Mr. Hamilton used Matt Helm as a way to present many of his own opinions about the world around him. The result is a richly detailed character that seemed quite real and surprisingly likeable for an assassin.

While the Matt Helm books were my main exposure to Donald Hamilton’s work, he also wrote numerous novels and short stories, as well as nonfiction pieces on his outdoor interests. One of his better known Westerns is The Big Country, which was turned into a big-budget movie starring Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. Recently, one of his old crime thrillers, Night Walker, was reprinted by Hard Case Crime. I can only hope that this new publisher, specializing in crime stories from the 40s and 50s, will choose to reprint more of Mr. Hamilton’s work.

I suppose it seems odd to feel such a tremendous loss over someone I never knew and who lived longer than most. For me, Donald Hamilton represented an era when average people read novels and fiction magazines as everyday entertainment. To feed that need for rich storytelling, a generation of terrific storytellers like Louis L´amour, Lawrence Block, Frank Gruber, and Donald Hamilton rose to the challenge and left a legacy of amazing fiction. The stories are still out there if you make the effort to find them, but the era is gone. With so many other entertainment distractions, reading has become an activity for the truly dedicated. Never again will we see such a diverse wealth of published material, created solely to entertain a mass market, devoid of the cynical marketing mentality so heavily plaguing today’s publishing world. I mourn the loss of a great writer, but I also mourn the loss of the era that spawned him.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Dr. Fate was one of those Golden Age characters whom I never fully understood, mainly because I never saw an origin story and the old comics weren’t prone to repeating origins like they did in the Silver and Bronze Age. His powers (and nifty costume) were drawn from some ancient Middle-Eastern mystic named Nabu, but other than that, he was just another hero with cool duds as far as I was concerned.

My custom action figure of Dr. Fate started years earlier when my wife bought me a Dr. Fate costume from Rauty’s Toy Shop. I loved the costume, but I had no idea how I was going to make the helmet. My first attempt involved taking the back piece of a helmet from the Marx Silver Knight set and gluing the face shield from a G.I. Joe Cobra Commander figure onto the front. The seams where the two pieces joined looked pretty crude and never really glued together properly. Also, I couldn’t find a paint that would adhere properly to the slick vinyl pieces. I knew I would have to resort to Sculpey.

To create a mask out of Sculpey, I first needed a 1/6th scale head to build the clay around. I chose to use one of the busts that came with Captain Action costume sets. I positioned the bust in a coffee mug stuffed with newspaper so it wouldn’t move around. Then, to keep the clay from sticking to the head, I wrapped it in plastic wrap, secured the wrap to the head with a rubber band around the neck, and greased the whole thing with petroleum jelly. Although it looked like something from a G.I. Joe S&M party, the rig was perfect for sculp
ting the mask to its proper size and shape.

Next I had to determine how I wanted the mask to look since Dr. Fate’s helmet evolved over the years. I definitely was not going with the “half-mask” version used in later JSA stories where his grinning teeth could be seen. I always preferred the menacing nature of the early full-mask design, as do the modern comic book artists. I was never crazy, however, for the odd, soft-serve ice cream curl the early masks had on top. I chose to go with the design used in a Dr. Fate mini-series put out a few years ago where the front of the mask has a sharp, axe-like point. I know it’s not strictly Golden Age, but it’s my figure and I like it this way.

It took two attempts to create a mask that looked right and was sturdy enough to not collapse while I transferred it from bust to baking tray. As you may know, after modeling something in polyvinyl clay, you must bake it in an oven to firm up the piece. Once it was baked and solid, I painted it with yellow acrylic paint and coated the whole thing with a clear varnish made specifically for Sculpey. After it dried, the helmet was pretty similar to a solid plastic mask.

The Golden Age Dr. Fate comics showed the hero both with and without gloves. I may invest in some yellow gloves for my figure from Classic Plastick. The yellow boots are Captain Action boots which I repainted yellow (don’t worry, I used newer Playing Mantis boots and not vintage ones). The necklace is a hubcap from a car model, painted yellow and attached to some yellow yarn.