Friday, October 30, 2009

1970's Batman

Recently, I was reading Michael Eury's terrific book The Batcave Companion, which covers Batman's history from the beginning of the "New Look" era in 1964, through the Batmania of the TV series, and into the bronze age period when Batman returned to being a dark and mysterious avenger of the night. This is my favorite period of Batman history because I was born in 1964 and Batman was the first super hero I was aware of thanks to the TV show. By the time I was old enough to read comics (or at least look at the pictures), Batman was already morphing into a character 180 degrees different from the goofy guy on television.

The first Batman comic I talked my father into buying for me was Batman #220 with a cover date of March 1970, which means it probably came out in January 1970. This was only three months after Dick Grayson had gone off to college to deal with war protesters, acid droppers, and hippies while Bruce Wayne ditched Wayne Manor for a penthouse at Wayne Enterprises and started chasing after drug dealers and corporate criminals rather than the Joker and the Penguin. The story for issue #220 dealt with a crusading journalist named Marla Manning whose series of articles under the title "Victims Anonymous" were not going down well with the corporate fat cats she was skewering. Someone was out to kill Ms. Manning and Batman scrambled to track down the guilty party before it was too late. Quite a long way from the silly capers I was used to seeing on the TV show and a more serious story than a five-year-old was used to, but I still loved it.

I was always ambivalent about the bronze age because, by this time, the new generation of comic book writers and artists were baby boomers who had grown up reading comic books. The comic books they read as kids were written for their reading level and their understanding of the world. When they grew up and got the chance to write for comics, they were creating stories for people of their own age group (i.e., teenagers and young adults). That was fine for the baby boomers, but for those of us who were cutting their teeth on Where the Wild Things Are and Encyclopedia Brown, the comic book writers of the 1970s seemed to be thumbing their noses at the new generation of readers. On the other hand, perhaps these more complex stories challenged us to read at a higher level and absorb concepts us younger readers may not have encountered until later in life. Maybe I wouldn't have read Jaws at the age of 10 if I hadn't already been reading these nuanced, character-driven Batman stories in the early 70s.

Anyway, as a kid, there were always two Batmans: the Adam West version on TV and the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams version in the comics. Both were equally great in my mind, but for different reasons. The duality extended to the toy industry where all Batman-related merchandise in the 70s tended to reflect the Silver Age version of Batman rather than the one I was reading in the comics. For example, the Mego 8-inch Batman action figure sported stubby ears on the cowl and a friendly, smiling face even though the artwork on the box showed the grimacing, tall-eared version. Also, Mego always presented the Batman figure with Robin despite the fact that, in the comics, both characters were solo acts at this point. I guess Mego figured that more kids were familiar with the TV show than the comic and the TV version created a friendlier tone. I didn't agree, and during my whole childhood, I longed for a Batman action figure that looked like the Batman in the comics.

Last Christmas, my wife Kathy gave me a 1970s Batman costume made by Rauty, so that sort of put the pressure on me to create the figure I had been longing to have. The costume consisted of the unitard, the cape, and the bat symbol for his chest. That left the cowl, gloves, belt, and boots to create. The boots were relatively easy since Captain Action's boots are shaped in a similar way to Batman's, and I had plenty of those on hand. I just needed to paint them the right color. The belt could be made from yellow, foam-rubber sheeting with the tubes and buckle fabricated in some way. The big challenge was the gloves and the cowl. Classic Plastick makes Captain Action-style gloves which look basically like mittens. That wasn't the way I wanted to go. Most modern super hero figures have painted hands with cuffs on the wrists to simulate gloves. That seemed a better route, so I decided to fabricate finned cuffs out of polyvinyl clay.

While I was at it, I made small tube shapes out of clay which could be painted and glued to the belt. I also made a buckle out of PVC, but I didn't like the result, so I opted for a plastic buckle I cut off another action figure belt. It didn't glue on exactly the way I wanted it to, but it worked okay.

Next came the major issue: the cowl. I thought about making a cowl from PVC, but as with my Iron Man custom, I was afraid it would be too big and unwieldy. Then one day, while I was working on a different custom, I accidentally snapped the head off one of my figures. Kathy witnessed the event and said, "Now you have an excuse to try and fabricate an entire head out of PVC." If I was going to do that, I thought, why not make a head that had a mask on it so I wouldn't have to fill in all the facial details. At that moment, I committed myself to making a Batman headsculpt for my 1970s Batman custom.

I started with a wadded up ball of aluminum foil over which I layered PVC to make an oval head shape roughly 1/6th scale. I later discovered that this was a mistake because, as I layered on more pieces of clay to build up the face and mask, I found the head was growing slightly larger than what I wanted. Still, I was surprised that the head actually looked pretty life-like.

After baking the finished headsculpt, I painted it, trying hard to match the color of the cowl with the cape. The gloves and boots I painted a slightly darker shade of blue since I figured, in reality, they would be made of leather and have a deeper shade.

I think I'll take another shot at the headsculpt at a later date when I am feeling more confident. While it's far from perfect, it does bring to mind the caped crusader of my youth.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rack Toys From Space

I'm sure everyone has heard the story about the child who gets a big, fancy toy for Christmas and then spends the entire morning playing with the box it came in. Sometimes the simplest toys evoke the most excitement and playful activity. That's probably true because many simple toys are fairly generic, allowing the child to impose whatever storyline he or she wants and encouraging full use of the child's imagination. That's what I always loved about the much maligned rack toys. You know, the cheap items on metal hooks in that one row of the drug store or convenience store devoted to children. They're colorful enough to get a kid's attention and inexpensive enough that a parent will buy it if the kid whines enough. These are certainly not "wait until Christmas" items, but they can often be more loved and played with than any of the high ticket items at the Toys 'R Us.

While digging through a box of old stuff the other day, I came across three tiny spaceships. I didn't even realize I had saved them, but given how much fun I had with them, I'm not surprised. One was a stubby red ship with a clear plastic top, exposing its engine room. The other two were long, slender ships somewhat akin to jet aircraft. One was blue with silver wings along the back; the other was yellow with silver turbine engines mounted on the rear.

I first laid eyes on these little ships at my friend's house. He told me he got them as a "five-fingered discount" from the local department store. I think the fact that they were obtained through illicit means made them even more appealing to me. He had paint racing stripes on the ships with model paint and added the Roman numeral II to the red ship and the numeral III to the blue one. Although I never asked, my assumption was that he had been playing with the ships as if they were like the rescue ships from Thunderbirds, each bearing a number designation.

Every time I went over to my friend's house, I would dig out these little ships and fly them around the room. Finally, he told me I could have them. I guess he was bored with them and could see that I enjoyed them more than he did. There was no argument from me, and I quickly squirreled them away in my pocket.

Originally, each ship had landing gear, but I thought that detracted from their sleek looks, so I broke off the tiny wheels. The more I looked at them, the more they reminded me of the ships in the old Flash Gordon movie serials. In the old cliffhangers, Dr. Zarkov's ship was short and stubby while Ming the Merciless's ships were long and sleek. Soon, I found myself playing Flash Gordon with these ships.

Of course, in my imagination, it was never as simple as just playing. I had an imaginary television network, and the ships lead me to produce a Flash Gordon summer replacement series during the summer of 1977 (what it was replacing, I have no idea). Every weeknight at 7 p.m., I went into the basement to act out a new episode. Playing the role of Flash and reacting to imaginary characters around me, I made use of whatever was available to perform the story, so a car antenna became my sword, my brother's grease gun became my ray gun, and an old floor-model radio from the 1920s served as the controls of my space ship. When it came to the point in the show where special effects shots of the space ships were needed, I would pick up my tiny plastic craft and zip them around the basement in epic dog fights.

Influenced by the chapter structure of old serials, I planned for the series to end at a specific point, which I believe was around the end of July, if memory serves. I can still recall bouncing around on the day beds in our "club" basement area during the climatic sword fight between Flash and Ming. Just like in the serials, Ming met with some inconclusive fate (fell into a pit or something), thus leaving an opening for Ming to return for future battles with Flash. Unfortunately, the series was never renewed. I guess I lost interest in playing the blonde adventurer.

A few months later, I started a new series called Aurora, and used the blue spaceship as the eponymous interstellar craft. Since most of my TV show ideas were rip offs of other shows or movies that I liked, Aurora was a variation on Star Trek. More specifically, I was influenced by the early Star Trek comic books produced by Gold Key where the gadgets and interior design of The Enterprise were much cruder in appearance than the show itself. My idea for Aurora was to have a ship exploring the galaxy which was of an earlier era when the technology was less advanced and the characters more fallable. It actually bore a striking resemblance to the Enterprise TV show which aired a few years ago.

After acting out a full season of the series in that format, I decided it needed a radical change, so I brought on board an entirely new crew. At this time, I was really digging M*A*S*H, so I based the characters vaguely on the personnel at the 4077th. The captain was a Frank Burns-type and the helmsman was a Hawkeye-type, so they were constantly clashing on how to best resolve that week's crisis. The yeoman was like Radar, the first officer was sort of like B.J. Hunnicutt, and on and on. I enjoyed this mash up (pardon the pun) so much that I wrote a novel based on this idea when I was 14 years old. I still have the hand-written story in a composition book somewhere, but I don't have the nerve to read it.

Like most toys, the little spaceships eventually lost their appeal and they were shuffled from one storage box to another. I had lost track of them until the other day, when they brought back a flood of memories. Pretty amazing what a trio of shoplifted rack toys can do for a kid's imagination.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Captain Action Gets No Respect...

but this is funny as hell!

Catch more adventures with Joe, Hamish, and Cappy on YouTube.