Sunday, January 22, 2012


Venus Vol-1
Variant cover

As a comic book fan who is fascinated by all eras of comic book history I’m always happy when I have the extra cash to pick up the occasional DC Archives or a Marvel Masterworks. One area of comic book history that I enjoy exploring is the late 40s and 50s. It’s an interesting era in that superheroes were on the wane after the end of WW2 and comic book companies were trying their hand at virtually any and every genre they could think of to keep their readers interested. So I was very excited last year when I found out that Marvel put out a masterworks volume on the 50s heroine Venus.

I first became aware of Venus in the late 70s. She was featured in a story in Marvel Comics “What If?”. What If was a magazine that told tales of parallel worlds where we got to see such stories as “What if Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four” and “What if the Avengers had never been?”. What If #9 told the story “What If the Avengers had fought evil in the 1950s?”. 

It featured several characters from Marvels “Atlas Era including Venus, Human Robot, Gorilla Man and Marvel Boy. During that time Venus made sporadic guest appearances in such titles as The Champions and Submariner. We ran into these characters about a decade later in Kurt Busieks 1998 seminal Avengers epic “Avengers Forever” in which the Avengers travel to the alternate earth from What If #9 and meet the 50’s era Avengers. 

It was eight years later when Venus and the 50s era Avengers returned in Leonard Kirk and Jeff Parkers “Agents of Atlas” in which it turned out that the team existed in the Marvel Universe proper (known as universe 616) during the Eisenhower era and was led by another 50’s Marvel character Agent Jimmy Woo who was joined by late 40s Marvel character Namora. The series also featured a guest appearance by yet another 50s era character Jann of the Jungle. The character of Venus popped up again in a story that was part of Marvels anthology mini series “Girl Comics”. 

Stephenie Buscema's Venus from Girl Comics #1

The Venus story was written by Trina Robins and drawn by Stephanie Buscema. However, it’s the first 9 of 19 Venus stories that are collected in Marvel Masterworks Atlas Era: Venus that I’m here to review today.

The stories in Venus are generally romance/humor. Venus had more in common with other teen romance titles of the time such as Patsy Walker than she did with other female superhero contemporaries such as Sun Girl and Namora, two titles released at the same time that Venus outlived by about 16 issues. Venus was the goddess of love who lived on the planet named after her. Venus had grown bored after thousands of years being idolized and worshipped. There were many who loved her but no one for her to love. 

Tired of living without love, she wishes herself to earth. However, once there she realizes that while on earth she has no power. Only the ability to travel back and forth from earth to her home planet. Once on earth, Venus is swarmed by infatuated men and meets the publisher of “Beauty Magazine” Whitney Hammond. This doesn’t make Hammonds secretary Della very happy as she had her own designs on the handsome publisher and she becomes intent on getting rid of Venus. Della becomes even more infuriated when Hammond gives Venus the job of editor. A job that Della wanted for herself.

In Venus #1 we get two Venus stories, a two page text romance story (something that 40s and 50s era comics were required to have) that is not credited. There’s also a story featuring “Hedy de Vine”, another character from Marvels comedy/romance stables who went on to have her own comic. The Hedy stories only appear in the first three issues of Venus. There is also a one page comedy strip titled “Hey Look!” by the co founder of “Mad” magazine Harvey Kurtzman. Kurtzmans “Hey Look” stories only appear in Venus #1 and Venus #4.

The stories from this era are certainly quaint when compared to today’s standard comic book fare and there is rampant sexism throughout. One such example is in the last of three Venus stories in Venus #2 entitled “Between Two Worlds”. Venus boyfriend and boss Whitney Hammond wants to know where Venus disappears to from time to time. Venus is honest with Whitney and simply tells him that she returns to her planet to check in on her subjects. Whitney thinks she’s lying and this causes a rift between them that Whitney’s secretary and rival Della is more than happy to exploit. Della hires private detectives to follow Venus and make a report that she can give to boss Whitney. But Venus ends up scaring the detectives who give Della her money back as well as a good spanking to which Della, bent over a chair, responds “Harder! I deserve it!”.

The stories are simple but cute, lighthearted fun and a nice snapshot into the times. In a few of the Venus issues we get “True To Life Romance!” stories. I found one in particular to be a rather interesting look into the attitudes of the times regarding relationships. A woman named Kathy falls in love with a man named Larry who shares her fondness of sailing. When he returns from the war they are married. One day they each get a sail boat and go racing with each other and run into a bad storm that ends up taking Larry’s life. After an indeterminate but seemingly short grieving period, Kathy tries to resume her life but keeps a torn piece of sail from Larry‘s sunken ship to remember him by. After returning to work she meets new employee Dale. Dale comes on strong. Kathy is polite at first but grows tired and angry after one too many passes and throws him out of her house. One day, Kathy comes home to find Dale in her house, kneeling next to the fireplace and burning the torn piece of sail as well as Kathy’s photographs of Larry. Kathy is furious and tells Dale that he had no right. Dale tells Kathy “Of course I had no right..except that I love you..” Yup, nothing says love like sneaking into the house of the woman that dumped you and burning her personal belongings.
Dale shows that grief counseling isn’t exactly his forte as he tells Kathy “I DO understand! I understand that he’s dead! You’ll never see him again and no amount of grieving’s going to change that!” Yeah, good one Dale. Dale keeps the pressure on as he continues to declare his love for Kathy who finally succumbs to his “charms” and gives him another shot out of, I can only assume, pure exhaustion from all the emotional scarring she has no doubt suffered thanks to his “sensitivity” to her tragic loss.

Venus also affords us a glimpse into one of comic book histories more darker moments when psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Wertham and the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency headed by Senator Estes Kefauver felt that comic books were one of the main factors leading to juvenile crime. Gruesome depictions of decapitated heads on covers of Crime and Horror comics as well as scantily clad super heroines in scenes of bondage were accused of stunting the emotional growth of and corrupting the youth of America. Martin Goodman and Stan Lee published several editorials in Venus to address the attack on comics. Here’s an excerpt….

“The editors of this magazine would like to ask you an important question- Why are you reading this magazine?”
“We believe the answer is that you enjoy comics, and that you enjoy reading this particular comic.”
“We want to help protect your right to buy and read your favorite magazines, as long as they contain nothing that might be harmful to you. That is why we are writing you this open letter.”
“Lately, lots of people have been criticizing comics. They have been saying that comics teach you youngsters things that are not good for you, things like violence, cruelty, immorality, etc.”

They even fight fire with fire (would you expect any less from the company that produced The Human Torch?) by hiring their own psychiatrist, Dr. Jean Thompson with the Child Guidance Bureau of the New York City Board of Education. Apparently Dr. Thompson was giving her seal of approval on Marvels books. A second letter appeared in Venus #4...

“Just as the critics of the 18th century rapped the books which are now classics, in the same way there are critics of today, screaming and tearing out their hair, because a new kind of magazine, still in its infancy, is not to their liking. And as in the case of the novel, it is still too early for any man to pass judgment on the comics. And let the people of America decide if they want to be swayed by the critics exercising premature judgment..”

 I found this next excerpt from the editorial in Venus #5 sort of interesting in the context of being written in a post war America…

“The grown-ups of this world owe you young people an apology, because we haven’t made the world a very secure and peaceful place in which to live. Our comics portray, it is true, some of the unhappy things that happen in the world. But they are things you know about anyway-and in the stories, at least, the good people always win. All of us wish it were that way in real life as well.”

 The editorial continues on saying basically the same thing as the previous editorials and continues to throw around Dr. Thompson’s name. But these editorials are a rather fascinating window into the times and one of the reasons that this era of comics is so interesting from historical perspective.  Another entertaining thing about Atlas Era Venus Vol-1 is the introduction by Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, an authority on Marvels Atlas era. He gives a great history of the character and the events going on at Marvel that led to the creation of Venus and contemporaries such as Sun Girl and Namora. Regarding why Venus survived when Sungirl and Namora didn’t, Vassallo chalks it up to the ability of the character to easily change…

“Evidence points to the fact that Venus was able to subtly change plot and characterization to conform to whatever was selling best on the stands at any particular time, which at that point would have been teen humor and the nascent romance comics that were gaining traction around the industry. During the entire 19-issue run, Venus did this several times, morphing along the way from teen humor-styled adventure to romantic fantasy to mythological fantasy, and lastly from sci-fi to horror, all while maintaining theh gorgeous “goddess of Love” as the main character.”

Vassallo also tells an interesting detective story of sorts regarding the artists who drew Venus, some of whose identities are still a mystery to Vassallo. Vassallo does a good job of deducing some of them but as he points out, the methods used by the Marvel Bullpen at the time lead researches to speculate on obscure pencil and ink separation of duties and jam sessions where many different hands pitched in. One artist he is able to verify within a small margin of error thanks to his singular style is George Klein, a prolific cover artist who drew very lovely women and who ranks up there with golden age giants such as Alex Schomburg.

Venus in the 21st century
All in all this is a very entertaining volume. Also included in the back of the book are house ads for Venus from Miss America Magazine and Marvel Tales. If, like me, you are fascinated by this bygone era of comics when the industry was struggling to find an identity as it limped along to the creative renaissance of the Silver Age, and if you are able to appreciate the quaint stories, art and editorials as the windows into a post war era that they are, or if you’re just a sucker for a few unabashedly sappy love stories, then Marvel Masterworks Atlas Era Venus Vol-1 is definitely for you.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


There is a rather amazing line up of great classic films this week on Turner Classic Movies. It starts Monday with a marathon of six films from director Max Ophuls. Ophuls was best known for his films about illicit love, passionate affairs and his wonderfully fluid and sweeping camera movement. The first film in the marathon is a TCM premier, The Reckless Moment (1949) about a women who is blackmailed after going to great lengths to keep her daughter out of prison. After that is Caught (1949), another noir about a model (Barbara Bel Geddes) who marries an eccentric millionaire (Robert Ryan) only to find out that there’s a fine line between eccentric and insane. Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) is next, about a woman’s tragic, lifelong love for a callous concert pianist. Next up is another TCM premier, The Exile (1947) starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as an exiled Charles II, hiding from Oliver Cromwell’s assassins. But the best is saved for last with two Ophuls masterpieces.  La Ronde (1950) and The Earrings Of Madam De(1954).

La Ronde is a beautiful film about a mysterious raconteur (Anton Wallbrook) and his magical merry-go-round that turns the viewer into a voyeur and takes them into a world of sex, scandalous romance and affairs. A stunningly beautiful film photographed by Christian Matras and a playful musical score by Oscar Straus. This movie is as close to perfection as it gets. 

The Earrings Of Madam De… is another visually stunning film that also stars the lovely Danielle Darrieux. The film is about the journey of a pair of diamond earrings that change hands as well as meaning. The journey of the earrings plays out against the backdrop of a rocky marriage between a General (Charles Boyer) and his wife (Darrieux), both of whom are having affairs. The scenes between Darrieux and her lover as the camera follows them on the dance floor are sublime. Not to be missed. The Ophuls marathon starts Monday at 8pm Eastern.

On Wednesday TCM gives more of Star of the Month Angela Lansbury. At 8pm Eastern they’re showing an episode of “Private Screenings”, the series that has TCM host Robert Osborne interviewing various stars of classic film. In this episode he interviews a very animated Lansbury who gives a very enjoyable and informative interview in which she discusses her amazing career and more iconic flims such as The Manchurian Candidate. This is followed by a few Lansbury films including the fun, star studded Agatha Christie mystery Death On The Nile (1978).

On Friday we get a marathon of films by director James Whale that include a couple dramas THE GREAT GARRICK (1937) and ONE MORE RIVER (1934) as well as two of his more iconic Universal horror films, the Claude Rains tour de force THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and the one that really started it all FRANKENSTEIN (1931).

The week ends on a high note with the terrific Ida Lupino film THE HARD WAY (1932) about the rise of an ambitious young woman (Joan Leslie) and her even more ambitious stage Sister (Ida Lupino), both of whom leave a path of ruined lives in their wake. The film is loosely based on the life of Ginger Rogers and her mother and, ironically, the role was actually offered to Rogers first but she turned it down. Good thing too as this is one of Ida Lupino’s greatest and, unfortunately, rarely seen performances. Personally I think it’s her best role, topping other great performances in films such as HIGH SIERRA.  The Hard Way aires on Sunday at 6 am Eastern.  This is a must see. Check your local listings for schedule and time changes. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. All times are Eastern.