Saturday, 17 January 2015

Three words: Giant Robot Hitler.

I spend a lot of my time reading old comics, hoping to find those bizarre little forgotten oddities I can share with you, my faithful reader. Sometimes I get an inappropriate selection of uncomfortable racial stereotypes or tarnished childhood icon.

And sometimes I get a GIANT ROBOT HITLER.

The following strip is taken from The Beano and The Dandy: The Comics That Won the War, last year's annual collection of archive comics from DC Thomson. As you can tell from the title, it is mainly strips published during World War II which in some way reflect the war effort. This collection has content from The Hotspur, The Rover, The Magic and others as well as the ever-present Big Two but, as usual is a bit sparse on information.

However, "Wild Boy of the Woods" was a strip drawn (and presumably created) by Richard "Toby" Baines, who was particularly skilled at animal art, being also responsible for "The Ape's Secret" and "Black Flash the Beaver". Go on, snigger at the word "Beaver" and get it out of your system, we're off on a long journey.
 In spite of a logo which made him look more like the unbeatable Squirrel Girl (no bad thing), Wild Boy was billed as "a picture story of a young Tarzan", albeit one who lived in the forests of "Barchester" rather than African jungles. It originally ran in The Beano from 1938 to 1942, with a couple of revivals (the last in 1958) and concerned a young boy who was found in the woods by a hermit (known only as "the hermit") as raised with the ways of the animals.

By this point he had developed the ability to talk with the animals (or grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals) as well as some magical "Peter Pan Pipes" with which he could call them (like Tarzan's yell, only created by someone who confused the Roman god with the beloved children's character) and, in this two-part story he also had A GIANT ROBOT HITLER! Oh, and his name is Derek. Derek the wild boy.
 Our story begins during the early years of the war (can't be specific but 1942 at the latest) and, for some reason, the British government has followed the advice of a child raised in the woods on military strategy. "Somewhere in England, in a secret underground factory, a giant statue of Hitler was being built." Everything I put in quotation marks will be taken directly from the captions beneath the images you will see.
 We are told that the statue is "a giant Hitler so lifelike as to be terrifying." And that the steel frame was covered in "a thin rubber-like substance that looked like real flesh" as well as having bullet-proof glass eyes! It was towed out to sea...
 When it was far enough out in the North Sea, Derek and the hermit climbed aboard and "touched a secret spring" opening a door in the chest where they entered and took control...
 They walk the mechanical maniac to the coast of Germany where they leave it in a saluting pose and wait to be found...
 "A few of the braver Nazis returned the salute" before someone told the Gestapo of this strange arrival at the "little German town of Goeringshaven". Which is making me picture a shaven Goering. Tanks arrive and some officer who has no knowledge of the Iliad decides to transport the thing to Berlin...
 When Derek determined they were far enough inland he "thrust over a switch, turned a wheel" and brought Giant Robot Hitler to life...
 "Three sentries who tried to stop it with their guns were crushed underfoot"! Imagine the Wilhelm Scream now. Remember: It's okay to kill people in a children's comic as long as they are Nazis.
 So we find the true purpose of Operation Giant Robot Hitler: rescuing British RAF prisoners of war! Bullets cannot stop it as it smashes through the barbed-wire fence!
 "Derek appeared in the statue's mouth and when he had explained matters to them they climbed into the statue one by one."
 On the way out it destroys a machine-gun nest and steps on a tank...
 However, forces were gathering to stop Giant Robot Hitler. Dorniers came dropping bombs...
 As Derek pulls at controls to protect his human cargo from the Heinkel attack we can reflect on what it would have been like to be Hitler's Numskulls.
 Now we get this pretty awesome picture of Giant Robot Hitler fighting a Messerschmitt. Baines must have really wanted to draw every German warplane. We have reached the sea, having defeated the air force but now we at risk from an approaching battleship!
 Gah! That's going to give me nightmares! It's like a lesser Dali painting. Derek has called on some eagles to help and is giving them lit dynamite sticks...
I'm sure this sequence was only added to remind us what Wild Boy's deal is meant to be: Talking to animals. Also, we should remember, that "the hermit" is somewhere on board even though we only see him in the beginning and end panels of this story. Derek persuades the eagles to carry the sticks over to the battleship...
 "[T]he dynamite went off with a roar that shook the earth for miles around"! Hoorah, more mass death!
Derek is informed "through the statue's speaking tubes" the Messerschmitt damage has been repaired... by... someone. So Giant Robot Hitler stomps across the water to get home. And if you can see that image without imagining Godzilla's screech then you and I will never truly be friends.
 But then! As they are further out at sea, they are spotted by a U-boat! Now only the head is above water and luckily "the U-boat commander's aim had been bad" but we might not get lucky twice!
 Now THAT is a great album cover. The sub needs stopping and it is brought to an end "merely by shaking the U-boat till the engines stop throbbing."
 Das Boot is considered a cheeky bonus and carried home: "it could be taken apart and examined by naval experts." But given the achievement of this particular all-terrain amphibious craft I doubt it is necessary... Look there's Blighty!
And so our story ends with a ceremonial burning of the giant, steel-framed engineering miracle. Inside are chicken, goats and Edward Woodward. This won't bring back your bees!
I am also imagining the Ewoks' victory song here.
Apparently it had to be destroyed because "Now the Nazis knew about it, it was no longer of use." And not because it had developed sentience and believed it was the real Hitler. That was just a rumour.
I'm also interested in the man with his hand on Derek's shoulder. "The hermit" is to our right and the other chap appears to be wearing a yarmulke. Which adds an interesting historical dimension.
And so ends one of the more bizarre stories I've ever seen. I know it's only January but I think I won't see anything better this year.
Bonus: In the interest of balance, here is a picture of Giant Robot Churchill from Sparky Book 1976:

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Yet another internet opinion about blasphemy, freedom of speech and comics

I've been catching up on some of the comics that came out last year that have been recommended to me.

On Wednesday afternoon I was reading the first collected volume of Ms Marvel by G Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona.
Trumpeted by Marvel as their first Muslim character to headline a comic, I was truly surprised by how fresh and interesting it was. Page one introduced us to at least two Muslim characters with distinctly different attitudes to their faith plus one ignorant white girl asking insensitive questions.
This set off alarm bells with me, thinking the whole thing might get a bit too "worthy", making points about prejudice or force-feeding us with Islamic facts, nudging non-Muslims and going "See?"

Fortunately that was not the case at all and the book is a delightfully-handled teen superhero romp with well-rounded and believable characters who happen to be (for the most part) from a different background from almost all other "heroes". The family interaction all felt very real and I can only see good things coming from it.
It also has a realistic female lead character, something that even a few years ago seemed unachievable. In fact 2014 was a great year for Strong Female Characters (tm). As well as ongoing stories in the likes of Captain Marvel, Saga and Chloe Noonan, we got Gotham Academy, Lumberjanes, a great new creative team on Batgirl and more.
I put the book down and planned to write a piece about this welcome new trend in the previously blokes-only world of comics. Then I saw the news.
Then the other important aspect of Kamala Khan's identity seemed more relevant.
I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that twelve people, including five cartoonists were killed
in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a Paris-based satirical magazine, in apparent vengeance over cartoons that were seen as mocking Islam.
In the four days that followed I have read so many editorial pieces and blogs on this event that I'm having trouble keeping all the opinions in my head. It's taken me till now to swim through the quagmire of information, misinformation and disinformation.

You have probably read quite a few of them too if you are the kind of person who has read this far. So here's another one. From a bloke who mainly does snarky commentary on 1970s girls' comics as a hobby.

All parts of the debates seem to have very strong valid points on either side. First off there is the issue of free speech. More people have quoted Voltaire since Wednesday than there are people who have ever actually read Voltaire. (I own a really nice Penguin Deluxe edition of Candide with Chris Ware comic strips all over the cover. I have still not read it.)

Of course it is an important part of a free society that people should be allowed to say or write whatever we want. But even that statement comes with many caveats. We should not be allowed to verbally harass people or print malicious lies, for example. So there are reasonable limits to "free speech" even in the greatest fantasy liberal society.

But we don't want to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia, for example. This is a cartoon by Mahmoud Shokraye, of a politician (Ahmad Lofti Ashtiani ) who had been accused of interfering in Iranian sports, published in Nameye Amir in 2012:
It might seem pretty tame but offended the target enough to take Shokraye to court over it. The result: A cartoonist got a sentence of 25 lashes. Which seems more than a little harsh.

Even today, in the good ol', freedom lovin' USofA enough comics creators are taken to court to require a charitable foundation to help them. The CBLDF (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) are a great organisation who do very valid work keeping artistic expression free in a land where you'd expect it never to be needed.

The best recent example of a European publication stretching the boundaries of acceptable "free speech" was, of course, the Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper which, in September 2005, published a similar extremist-baiting set of cartoons of The Prophet. Outrage, stirred up by some irresponsible Imams, lead to mass rioting across the Middle-East and parts of Europe.

The worst offender, arguably, was this one:
Now, one can read at least two different meanings from that and, not knowing the cartoonist in question, I wouldn't want to guess his intentions. However it still makes me wince even eight years later. Which may have been the point.

Other cartoons went a more interesting route around the paper's brief to "draw Muhammed".
See? That's a joke about the sensitivity of the cartoon itself.
And that's a joke whose target is the Jyllands-Posten, calling the whole affair a "PR stunt".

In September 2005 I was running the magazine section in the bookshop in which I worked. I remember being disappointed that no British magazine was daring to show the cartoons, even in a news context. I just wanted to see them for myself to make my own mind up on whether I thought they were offensive. Even Private Eye, a bastion of free speech, known for publishing that which others dare not, made an excuse not to.

In the end, they were published in one magazine that we carried (I cannot remember the name of it now and Google is proving unhelpful). A magazine that the bookshop's head office decided we were no longer stocking. A decision I found miserably cowardly at the time.

However, as with so much, context is appropriate. At the time it was hard to find accurate opinions on the agenda of the Danish daily (I did not have regular internet access waaaaaay back then and our chief entertainment was a hoop and a stick) but I now know it was (indeed is) a sort-of equivalent to The Daily Mail. It is frequently accused of being anti-immigrant and pro-Israeli, for example. You may draw from that according to your own politics. Its regular comic strips are Ziggy and Fred Bassett, which would definitely make me avoid it.
Charlie Hebdo, it seems, is much more of a left-leaning, anti-establishment magazine but on my first perusal of their cartoon style I was particularly struck by the front-page of heavily-pregnant Muslim women demanding benefits:
Seems pretty offensive, right? Well, probably not. According to some people who're actually readers of the magazine the context was more about satirising the Western attitude towards African Muslims, specifically the lack of concern over the kidnappings by Boko Haram last year.

As an experiment: go to Google. Type in "Charlie Hebdo racist" and that is the first image that comes up. Type in "Charlie Hebdo raciste" and it does not appear. It seems French-speakers get the point.

While we're on the subject of Boko Haram, it's worth reminding ourselves that a reported 2,000 people were killed in Nigeria on Friday. Which gives us an overwhelming perspective problem.

Charlie Hebdo, according to those defending it, was an equal-opportunity offender. Nothing was sacred and all sides were attacked. It's easy to find images of cartoons they published mocking Christianity and Judaism, for example. And these cartoons were specifically commissioned because they were threatened not too. Sort of like that image of Andrew Neil that has appeared in almost every issue of Private Eye for over twenty years now after Neil told them not to print it.
The problem, for me, comes with the target of satire. Satire should only be punching up. It's not funny to attack those less powerful than you. If you disagree then you are probably a really unpleasant person. Like the guy I saw encouraging his daughter to shout at a homeless man a few weeks back.
Recently we have heard Nigel Farage complaining that no comedians are on telly making jokes in favour of UKIP. He doesn't understand that that would not be funny. Imagine a medieval peasant complaining "Why can't we have a jester who supports the king?"
It can be argued that the terrorist organisations supporting these appalling acts are powerful and need to be mocked. Or indeed the extremist nation states like Iran, Saudi and Qatar. Wait, not Qatar. We support them. For some reason.
The problem is that when we mock Islam, the Prophet himself or Muslims as a group we not only offend all, the high and the low, but we perpetuate the idea that it's okay to do that. And in many people's minds that just creates an equivalence.
See, some folks still only see the world like a 1950s cowboy film where we can tell the goodies from the baddies by the colour of their hats. So for many Islam=terrorism. And most Muslims are brown. Therefore brown people are terrorists.
At the same time, a young Muslim growing up with a mass media telling them that their religion is for terrorists may end up thinking that. When George W Bush said in 2001 "You're either with us or against us" it had the unintended consequence of making lots of otherwise ambivalent young Muslims say "I guess I'm against you then."
That's why I liked this image:
Love: Stronger Than Hate. After the first firebomb attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices (you can see the symbolic smoking remains) they came back with this cover showing the magazine's mascot (the equivalent of Alfred E Newman, I guess) embracing a nondescript Muslim. Simultaneously showing a message of love and support while also deliberately annoying the more hardline fundamentalist types. A double whammy.

So, I guess I'd like to see the media lay off Islam for a while. The extremists are doing a fine job of bringing bad publicity all by themselves. And anyway, how much are we really supporting free speech?
We seem free to mock the people that those in power are okay with us mocking, but where are we stopped? Sony pulled the movie The Interview because they were scared of reprisals from North Korea and no one supported them or told them not to back down when threatened.
They weren't even threatened with bombs or guns. They just caved after a cyber-attack. No #JeSuisSeth.

You could argue that no one really cares about another comedy from the people who brought you The Green Hornet but, in the words of comics legend and free speech advocate Neil Gaiman, "if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost."

Ms Marvel, we could do with someone to knock some sense into the world.
Bonus: Lots of cartoonists have produced works in sympathy for the cause of cartoon freedom and for the lives of their fellow artists. Among those I admire have been Martin Rowson and Steve Bell. The more remarkable ones I've seen are:
Robert Crumb:
Albert Uderzo, coming out of retirement:
...Not sure who Asterix is meant to be hitting there (those aren't Roman sandals) but I'll take it.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Oh Mandy, you came and you gave me a turkey....

Well, it's twelfth night so I'm going to allow myself one more Christmas issue this year. Mandy No.310, dated Dec. 23, 1972.
I'm not counting this as a Christmassy blog as, unlike all the humour titles I've covered so far, the story comics, both boys' and girls', don't tend to focus on Christmas in the same way.
This may be due to most of the strips being serialised and hence hard to crowbar in a festive story without derailing the narrative a bit, but nary an issue of Battle or Warlord seems to feel the need to put tinsel up on a tank.
Mandy's title cover star is at least seen here taking a Christmas tree home before indulging in some typical banal low-jinks on the back cover.
Then it's off for some of the weirder strips in the Girls' Comics pantheon.
As always, let's start off with some facts. Mandy was one of the most successful girls' comics, a DC Thomson stablemate of Debbie, Judy and Bunty. It ran from 1967 to 1991, when it merged with Judy (just like Topper and Beezer at around the same time) to form first Mandy and Judy, then M&J which surprisingly lasted until 1997.
Like those other comics, Mandy largely consisted of stories about girls of around 14 years being plucky in the face of hardships. I don't know why this formula was adhered to with such slavish devotion in these comics whereas boys' comics featured grown-up menly men punching their problem as well as small boys (and occasionally girls) causing problems.
Anyway, the 1970s were the heyday for these and in this issue the first story inside is this:
 Yes, The Truth About Banjo Belle is that it is a terrible hybrid instrument.


The actual truth is that Belle is not really a 70-year-old former music hall entertainer, out of retirement to perform again, she is Belle's 15-year-old granddaughter, wearing old-lady make-up as a gimmick!

And if anyone finds out the truth, her career will be ruined! It's like an age-bending Hannah Montana!
 Has anyone checked if this is what Angela Lansbury is?

Weirder still is Valda in the Secret City, with a girl protagonist kept mysterious even to the readers. In this story there is a lost city in Africa. Normal so far. It's a culture based upon ancient Greece, which is a bit weird. It's divided up into Athenians (goodies) and Spartans (baddies). Into this came outsider Valda, whose origins are kept from us.

Ordinarily, Valda would come from the story trope of the great white saviour, but this African city is already entirely populated by white people.
 In this chapter Valda saves the Olympic games for the Athenians but at a terrible cost to herself before doing an Aslan.
Letters page next and here's a charming misunderstanding, marred by an unnecessarily racist response:

And now: Readers' Pets:That Guinea-pig is long dead.

 The next girl we meet also has a double life: The Double Life of Dana. She works as a maid at the Arden Ballet School while secretly auditioning as Ann Smith! As with a lot of these strips she has to put up with almost superhuman levels of snobbishness from the rich students.
 My second-favourite strip in this issue is The Star with the Statue, 14-year-old Paula Pastaza lived in a remote South American village with an unnaturally superior talent! For tennis!

Discovered by a travelling sports promoter for the Rupert Racquet Company, Paula is persuaded to go on a world tour as a means of fulfilling a prophecy.
 Oh, Paula, you and your silly primitive god!

In this issue Paula finds herself in Las Vegas where her fish-out-of-water status marks her apart.
 What? How could you not know the Vice President?

Show of hands: Who would recognize the present US Vice President if he got out of a car in front of you right now? Be honest. Thought so.

Excitingly, less than half-way through this chapter, Paula rescues the Veep from an assassination attempt by hitting the would-be killer with a tennis ball. MID-GAME! And she still wins straight sets!
 Incidentally, the Vice-president at the time would have been the well-known anagram Spiro Agnew.
 As Nixon's right-hand man history has not judged him kindly. He was even portrayed as an actual supervillain in Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams' Green Lantern Green Arrow No.83.
In that comic, one of the less subtle issues in the now-legendary series that introduced political commentary to the DC Universe, a sinister figure (clearly based on Agnew) is the puppet-master behind a bunch of children with psychic powers, one of whom happens to look like Nixon. With pigtails.
I'm not advocating assassination, obviously, but Paula could have saved the world a lot of trouble.
Also: I have no idea what "The Statue" in "The Star and the Statue" is.
Next up: Have-a-Go Flo, a child with a writer father who, er, tries out the stuff in his stories? I think?
 More snobby shenanigans in The Outcasts of Underwood School, where two (ugh) scholarship students are bringing the tone down for the worthy rich kids.
 Melinda - You're a Marvel! is a strip about a remarkable fix-it girl who works as PA to the owner of a cosmetics company, along with her boss' niece Tilly, who doesn't always have faith in Melinda.
 As so often, the day is saved through the use of horses.
 I like horses.

Best of all the animals.

There is a three-page text story of Dickensian poverty and girl who tries to sell her teeth like Fantine.

There's brolly-based African adventures in The Girl with the Umbrella (not as fun as it sounds) and humour strip Hockey Hannah, about a girl and her hockey stick.

Hannah can do anything with that stick. Hang the decorations:
Restrain a dog:Or stir the Christmas pudding:
Er.. None for me thanks.
My favourite strip, however, is Netta's Newshound.
The introduction paragraph starts as follows: "Only Netta Norris knew that Sam Bates, an ace news reporter, was turned into a dog by unfriendly creatures from outer space." I am sold already.
In this week's strip, Netta and Sam visit an airshow with Uncle George. Netta's concerned that this won't be nearly interesting enough. Then they meet a former WWII Spitfire pilot and then...
 ...his German equivalent. But it's okay, I'm sure he's not an actual, literal Nazi. That would be weird, right? No, there were millions of young men in the war who did not realise the extent of the cause for which they were fighting.
 However, this guy seems to be proudly wearing a swastika armband. In 1972. Pretty unambiguous that. Sam knows better than Netta, who is too young to truly be aware of the Holocaust.

But then Sam attacks the RAF chap with a hose, seemingly to start a fight.
 And before long the two pilots have taken to the air in what the public think is a fun display until...
 Who the aitch-ee-double-Hannah's-hockey-sticks gave them bullets? In 1972?

Then the story goes completely Tonto when Sam flies a WWI biplane in order to bring them down!

 I am not making any of this up!

And this is the exact sort of comics craziness I love.

And with that, Christmas is definitely over.