Whether they realise it or not, that’s pretty much the creed of comic-book fans. In order to buy into the drama of the story, they are required to accept as real any number of impossible things. And not just the big things, such as characters who can fly or lift automobiles or see through walls. Comic books have a host of small conventions, things that would not stand up to common sense, but the readers accept them and move on.
Conventions such as a pair of eyeglasses successfully keeps someone from being recognised. Or that wearing a plastic mask of another’s face is completely undetectable. And, of course, that Bruce Banner must wear the most expandable and durable trousers ever made.
But every once in a while something comes along which makes the reader moan, “Oh, come on!” In other words, maybe Joe Comicsfan’s suspension of disbelief worked well enough on the first six impossible things in the story, but he just can’t sign off on that seventh one. It’s just too absurd.
And that’s what I’m going to talk about to-day---a handful of the more notable “Oh, come on!” moments of the Silver Age.
Now, I’ll grant you, some Silver-Age titles were practically composed of such face-palm moments. Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, anyone? I’ll tell you up front, I’ve avoided going to those wells. First, because that kind of stuff was virtually stock-in-trade for those two series, and second, because, well, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel.
Also, I’m not talking about Mopee stories here. They fall into a class of their own. A Mopee story purports to tell of a significant change or development in a character’s fundamental history, but the idea is so poorly conceived that both the fans and the talent mutually agree to forget it was ever written and never speak of it, again. In fact, a Mopee story may not even contain a stand-alone ludicrous event, at least no more so than in the usual comic tale. It’s the idea that the story is trying to put over that generates such rejection.
Nor am I poaching the well-settled territory of the esteemed Mr. Silver Age and his annual “Mopee awards”. He bestows those awards on stories which are preposterous from the get-go. Nobody could do it better than Mr. S.A. and I don’t mean to step on his toes.
I’m looking at a narrower field---those stories which proceed along nicely, no more or less unbelievable than usual, but suddenly, from out of nowhere, the reader is hit with something so absurd that it knocks him right out of the story.
I’ve put together a little list of five of these groaners. Now, we all have different thresholds for what is too ridiculous, even for a comic-book plot. Some of you, no doubt, roll your eyes every time Superman dons his glasses and Lois says, “Hello, Clark.” So I set the bar high, aiming for the moments which made even an über-tolerant Silver-Age fan wince.
O.K., here we go!
1. I’ll Be a Human’s Uncle!
“The Scientific Crook Catcher”, The Adventures of Rex the Wonder Dog # 29 (Sep.-Oct., 1956)
There are those who consider the very concept of Bobo, a.k.a. Detective Chimp, as too stupid for words. Bobo, along with the featured star of the mag, Rex the Wonder Dog, were products of that doldrum following the end of the Golden Age, when DC was looking for the next Big Thing. The company took a shotgun approach, green-lighting titles of as many genres as it could think of.
DC pelted its readers with titles about the Wild West, about crusading newspapermen and district attorneys, and about licenced television characters. They tried science fiction and World War II magazines, and---taking a page from Rin Tin Tin and Lassie---produced series about heroic animals.
In Rex and Bobo’s case, their adventures proved popular enough that, even after Showcase # 4 launched the next wave of super-heroes in 1956, the two furry stars were able to hang on until 1959. Fortunately for me, “The Scientific Crook Catcher” hit the stands the same month as Showcase # 4 did. So Bobo’s “Oh, come on!” moment snuck in right at the very start of the Silver-Age.
For those of you who have, incredibly, never heard of Detective Chimp, the premise was this. Bobo was an abnormally intelligent chimpanzee raised by famed animal trainer Fred Thorpe. When Thorpe is murdered, Bobo is the only witness. He's smart enough to lead the local lawman, Sheriff Edward Chase, to the killer and help capture him. Chase takes custody of Bobo, who helps the sheriff on subsequent cases, earning the nickname “Detective Chimp”.
It’s not quite as outlandish as it sounds. The series writer, John Broome, took pains to depict Bobo with all the normal traits of a chimpanzee. Bobo was incorrigibly playful and easily distracted by food or shiny objects or anything new. But what he brought to bear on a case was his innate animal abilities, such as his agility and sense of smell, guided by a greater-than-normal intelligence for a chimp.
Most of the time, especially in the early stories, Broome wrote Bobo’s thoughts in the simplistic manner one would expect. While his instincts for mystery-solving were keen, the little ape was childlike in his thinking, despite his exceptional (for a primate) intellect. On occasion, though, Broome would push the limits and Bobo’s intelligence would shoot up a bit too high, turning him into, essentially, a midget in a chimp suit.
This I.Q.-boost especially showed up in the cases narrated by Bobo, rather than Sheriff Chase, such as "The Scientific Crook Catcher". While Sheriff Chase is out of town (which happened a lot in Detective Chimp stories; Chase showed up about as often as Lieutenant Hanley did in Combat! on TV), Bobo discovers that Larry the Lynx, “a dangerous crook and master of disguise” is in the area.
Bobo takes up Larry’s trail, which leads him to a scientific convention being held in town. But he runs into trouble at the convention hall. Apparently, it’s known enough that he belongs to Sheriff Chase that the guards don’t have Bobo hauled off to the Oscaloosa animal shelter, but they do prevent the little ape from going inside.
Since he cannot gain admittance as a chimpanzee, Bobo decides to disguise himself---as a human being! He puts on stilts, a wig, a false beard, some eyeglasses, and one of Sheriff Chase’s old suits and, honest to God, folks, the guards at the front entrance invite him to go right in. Hijinx ensue, particularly after Bobo is mistaken to be one of the guest scientists.
Thankfully, this farce only goes for two pages---otherwise, I’d have left this story, and the certainty of its receiving a future Mopee award, to Mr. Silver Age. It doesn’t take too long for Bobo to sniff out Larry the Lynx. The chimp sheds his disguise and takes off after the fleeing crook. After that, the story is monkey business as usual, as master criminal Larry is no match for Detective Chimp.
Shades of Lancelot Link!
2. And the Mister Magoo Award for Art Appreciation Goes to . . . .
When Stan Lee came up with Marvel Comics’ first team book, he was determined to break away from all the stereotypes about how super-heroes were supposed to function.
There would be none of the baggage that the hero typically dragged along. No secret identities, no costumes, no fancy headquarters. The Fantastic Four wasn’t all cozy with the authorities. In fact, they didn’t get along with each other all that well. This wasn’t a happy, smiles-all-around team, like the Justice League. Huh uh. The Fantastic Four did little but quarrel. One of the members could barely stand to be in the same room as the other three. Of course, he had the most reason to be bitter. He was the victim of another of Stan Lee’s twists on the classic super-hero---that gaining super-powers could bring tragic consequences.
Some of those departures would eventually cave in to convention, but at the time, it was a starkly novel approach. It also made the situation presented in the second issue of Fantastic Four that much tougher for Our Heroes to deal with. This is the story that introduced the shape-changing Skrulls to the Marvel universe and they weren’t getting ready to do the Fantastic Four any favours.
The Skrulls, a savage race from another planet, intend to conquer the Earth. Already, their invasion fleet is poised on the fringe of outer space, ready to launch a world-wide assault. But the aliens, fearing the “dread powers” of the Fantastic Four, dispatch an advance team to New York City to eliminate the super-heroes as a threat.
Using their natural transformation ability and aided by a few scientific gimmicks, the four earthbound Skrulls pose as the members of the Fantastic Four and launch a wave of robberies, sabotage, and vandalism. Given that the public had a vague distrust of the F.F. to begin with, the reaction is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. They’re declared public enemies, the police and military troops hunt them, and the citizens scream for their blood.
Thoroughly discredited, the real F.F. takes refuge in a woodland cabin, but the Army tracks them down. With troops surrounding the place, Our Heroes have no choice but to surrender. Reed and Sue and Ben and Johnny are locked in individual cells, specially constructed to withstand their super-powers.
But not specially constructed enough. All four manage to escape their imprisonment and make a run for it. But the Army isn’t kidding around. Soldiers train their rifles on the fleeing foursome and only a huge firewall thrown up by the Human Torch prevents them from being shot.
Hunted and desperate, the Fantastic Four cook up a plan. They manage to pass off the Torch as one of the Skrull saboteurs. As soon as Johnny is brought to their hide-out, his cover is blown. Before the aliens can overcome him, he manages to get off a flare which brings his teammates down on their pointy, green ears.
The monstrous Thing coërces the aliens into divulging the invasion plan and the location of the Skrull fleet in space. After Reed makes some quick preparations, the F.F. board the aliens’ shuttle craft and blast off for the Skrull flagship. The idea is a simple one. They will pose as the four advance-team Skrulls who impersonated them and try to persuade the Skrull warlord that conquering the Earth is impossible.
It’s a tense moment, as the F.F. is brought before the warlord. The heroes are in an unfamiliar place, dealing with an unfamiliar culture. In fact, the whole story so far has been pretty tense and moody. There’s been a raw edginess to the events throughout. And now Reed has to tell the Skrull chief that there’s no chance of taking over the Earth.
Being a single-minded sort of leader, the warlord demands, “Give me proof! Do you hear? Give me proof!”
That raw edginess I mentioned? This is when it all goes out the window.
To prove that the Earth’s defences are invincible, Reed Richards shows the Skrull warlord photographs of towering monsters, hidden space mines, and armies of gigantic insects, all designed to crush an alien invasion.
Wow, that's some defence budget, right?
Nope. Those “photographs” are simply panels that Reed has clipped from the pages of comic books! Specifically, two other Marvel titles---Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery.
Say it with me, folks . . . “Oh, come on!”
Fortunately for the Earth, the Skrull leader didn't have a subscription to either magazine. He falls for Reed's "evidence" and orders the invasion fleet to hightail it out of there. Still posing as the alien advance team, the Fantastic Four volunteers to "sacrifice" themselves and remain behind to remove all signs that the Skrulls had been on Earth.
I didn’t even know that Reed Richards read comic books.
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Next time around, we'll discuss a couple more of those "seventh things".