Quick Reviews: 'Space Family Robinson v3,' 'Journey Into Mystery v4,' 'I ... Vampire'

Space Family Robinson Volume Three (Dark Horse, $49.99)

Reprinting Space Family Robinson: Lost in Space #15-22 (Jan 66-Jun 67)

Written by Gaylord DuBois, drawn by Dan Spiegle

When this series started, it was awful, and I made fun of it. I have to bow my head in shame now.

By the time Space Family Robinson became Space Family Robinson: Lost in Space, the TV show that forced the name change was gone, but the comic book had gotten pretty good. 

When I first got into comics, Dan Spiegle was a legendary artist, who only showed up once in a while to show the rest of the world how it was done. I guess, like every kid, I thought these legends were born that way. But Space Family Robinson demonstrates how Spiegle started as a green kid, and grew into an artist. And by the time of this volume, he's pretty darn good. Not as good as he would be, but better than he was.

The same is true of the writer, DuBois. I know the stats; he wrote a lot of comics. And I've read a lot of them, and most of them were crap. I assumed that DuBois was some advertising copywriter or freelance magazine article writer who knocked off comics scripts in his spare time, and started off awful, wrote a lot of awful comics, and ended up awful. 

But that isn't true. When DuBois started writing this series, his science education was pretty much "let's turn our space-watches to noon, so we can have space-lunch!" I am not kidding. His early issues were awful. 

By this issue, he's not only talking the accepted science of the 1960s -- I know, I was there -- he was also guessing at some of the wackier theories of the time. He was setting his watches according to galactic-subjective time, lunch was whatever material matched their digestive tract according to exacting examination, and their navigation was dealing with what we would call today super-strings. 

And that is so cool! Yeah, some of those theories have been chucked by the science community since, but he was trying! He was learning! And where the first issues were plodding along in 1950s SF writing, by this volume DuBois is actually moving forward and leaving his peers behind. This is getting to be pretty good stuff, even by 2012 standards. Heck, I've read Isaac Asimov novels of the same time frame, and DuBois was a step or two ahead.

In other words, this book holds up pretty well. And not many books from this period do. I look forward to Volume 4.

Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Journey into Mystery Volume 4 (Marvel Comics, $64.99)

Reprinting Journey into Mystery #31-40 (Feb 56-Nov 56)

Featuring diverse hands

This is one of a series of books from the Atlas period after the Comics Code, with a Foreword by the dean of the period, Michael Vassallo. The fact that I've read a lot of these Forewords doesn't make them any less fascinating.

Vassallo is a terrible writer, but an amazingly thorough and accurate researcher. As a journalist, I deplore the former and admire the latter. And he really can't be beat in his research. But he's such a terribly boring writer, it's easy to zone out and skip over the Forewords.

Don't. This material is dynamite.

Then there are the stories themselves. As common sense suggests, right after the Comics Code the writers were scrambling to figure out how to meet the new rules and not get fired and write the most innocuous stories they could. And, yes, they are awful.

Honestly, awful.

But toward the end, you can see writers figuring out how to engage readers despite the handcuffs of the Code. They aren't named very often, but the ones who make it are the names we know: Stan Lee. Gardner Fox. The world we know was shaped by the fierce winnowing of the '50s.

The artists never fail. It's a wonderful education to see the many artists who didn't make the cut after the distribution collapse of 1958. (Evidently you had to be personal friends with Stan Lee or Julius Schwartz, or you didn't get a job after '58.) What happened to Ed Winiarski or Jay Scott Pike after '58? Unknown. But they do a pretty good job here.

And some artists that I despised as hacks in the '60s were trying hard here, and now I understand why they were hacks in the '60s. John Forte, Paul Reinman ... those guys were awful in the 1960s. And EC legend Johnny Craig, who I met on Iron Man in the late 1960s, and who got fired from that job ... wow, he was good in the '50s. I had no idea. 

But they were so, so good in the '50s. I guess guys like Reinman and Forte just gave up. They had to draw superheroes, and they had to look like Jack Kirby, and that wasn't what they were good at. They were good at drawing mood and mystery ... which was wiped out in the 1950s. They had to draw the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Mighty Crusaders, and they weren't any damn good at it. And then ... they were unemployed.

That's an education, I guess.

So, this is a mixed, and interesting, bag. Right after the 1954 Code, the stories are awful, and the art varies from pretty good to pretty confused. But over time -- as this book shows -- the better talents rouse themselves, and become masters of this new world. 

It's not great, but it's still a powerful testament of talent over circumstance.

I ... Vampire (DC Comics, $29.99)

Reprinting stories from House of Mystery #290-319 (Mar 81-Aug 83) and The Brave and the Bold #195 (Feb 83). 

By Tom Sutton and various

I wanted to hold any review of this book until the new series based on it got collected, but I just learned that it won't be released until six months from when I write this, so phooey.

Especially since I've read some of the new series, and it's amazingly good. Josh Fialkov (Tumor) is writing it, and ... well, wow. But the old series? Not so much.

The new series is I, Vampire, a much easier thing to type than the old series "I ... Vampire," which ran in the old House of Mystery for a few years and was a name that was painfully difficult for the writer to work into the copy at the beginning of every first page every month. (I know -- I was there reading it, and as a nascent copy editor, wincing at the clumsy type thrown at me.)

This original series was kinda stupid, and changed directions a few times to try to find some footing. I bought all the original issues, not because I enjoyed the series, but because I had decided to collect House of Mystery -- and, honestly, I wanted the non-vampire issues more than this tripe.

So, yes, it is bad. There's not much that "I... Vampire" has to offer today's comics fan, especially since it failed to engage the comics fans of 30 years ago. Really, it's not very good.

The salient element of the series is the art of Tom Sutton, who draws most episodes. I run hot and cold on Sutton and mostly cold; most times I don't like him. But sometimes I think he fits the content of the story he's illustrating.

Anyway, some people like him, and maybe you're one of those. If you are, here you go.

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Jay Scott Pike continued doing romance stories for Marvel for a bit, and then did them for DC for a number of years. Apparently he also drew the third "Automan" story for Tales of the Unexpected #97 ("Automan vs. Mutant Man!"), along with the issue's cover, and wrote and drew Showcase #79, which introduced Dolphin. According to Wikipedia he lives in Florida.

 

I think John Forte worked for DC until he died in 1965. In the latter part of his career he also did stories for ACG. I've grown to like his Silver Age work. It was stiff, but it has a strong character all its own.

My introduction to John Forte was his Legion of Super-Heroes stories of the early 1960s -- and "stiff" doesn't being to cover it. Geez, all of his characters stood around looking off-panel with one hand on their belts. Even in flight! 

So I thought he was the worst artist I'd ever seen, until I started reading these 1950s horror/suspense books. Now I see what he was before the early '60s, and now I feel a little sorry for him. You indicate he died in 1965; that means he spent the last few years of his life drawing things he hated to draw, and doing it badly. 

But that's the kind of thing I'm learning from these reprints. I mean, I used to think Paul Reinman couldn't draw a straight line, based on his Mighty Crusaders work, which is all I knew of him.

Now I know different.

Captain Comics said:

My introduction to John Forte was his Legion of Super-Heroes stories of the early 1960s -- and "stiff" doesn't being to cover it. Geez, all of his characters stood around looking off-panel with one hand on their belts. Even in flight! 

 

So I thought he was the worst artist I'd ever seen . . . .

 

 

That had pretty much been my impression, too.  Until a curious thing occurred.  I was assigned to my first command, USS Forrestal, as a young ensign---this would have been in the late '70's---and there was a space cluttered with old pamphlets and books and training manuals that I wanted cleared out.  As the stuff was being hauled out, I leafed through some of the stuff.  One of the things I took a look at---because I was surprised to find it there---was an old Army Officers' Guide from the mid-50's.

 

What happened was one of those experiences like, when you're a kid and you see your teacher in town or someplace else outside of your school.  Most of the illustrations for that old Army guide were drawn by John Forte.  It rather took me off guard.

 

Even then, you'd never put him in Curt Swan's class, but it was obvious that Forte had put especial effort in drawing those illustrations and the nature of the material leant itself to the peculiar stiffness in his art.  For the first time, I realised that Forte was not as bad an illustrator as I had always felt.  Again, he was no Alex Ross, but I saw he could be a lot better than his Legion worked showed.

 

Forte did, indeed, die in 1965.  In 1964, he discovered that he had colon cancer and late that year, he underwent an operation to remove the tumour.  That's the reason for the four-issue run of Adventure Comics (# 328-31) drawn by Jim Mooney in that appeared early in '65.  Forte recuperated enough to return to the series in spring of '65; however, his cancer had metastasized and nothing more could be done for him.  He died in late 1965; he was only forty-seven years old.

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