As I mentioned last time, fans of comic books have to maintain an abundant suspension of disbelief to accept the fictional universe of their four-colour heroes. To some degree, that’s true for fans of any medium’s fiction. Even television dramas touted for their attention to realism, such as Dragnet, have to make concessions to reality; limitations in casting and budget will force them, even if the writers know better.
But comic books---super-hero-themed ones, in particular---especially require the reader to turn a blind eye. And, most of the time, it’s not all that difficult for him. Many things which would defy physical laws or common sense are hand-waved as long-standing conventions, and veteran readers know that going in.
But, on occasion, a story will deliver a plot development or resolution that just can’t be swallowed. Something so stupid or ridiculous or bizarre that it shatters even the most resilient fan’s sense of acceptance. He rolls his eyes and thinks, “Oh, come on!”
I put together a small list of what were---to me, anyway---the most outlandish of those moments and talked about the first two of them in my previous entry. It’s time to look at the next two bits of inanity that somehow eluded the editor’s blue pencil.
3. Ant Got Your Tongue?
“The Voice of Doom”, Tales to Astonish # 42 (Apr., 1963)
In the early 1960’s, Marvel Comics was a poor second to the powerhouse DC Comics, known then as National Periodical Publications. The Silver Age of Comics began when DC re-launched the Flash, one of its old Golden-Age headliners, thus reviving the popularity of super-heroes. Marvel publisher Martin Goodman knew a bandwagon when he saw it and told his editor, Stan Lee, to jump on.
If super-heroes were going to break Marvel out of the pack of also-ran comics companies, then, Lee decided, it wouldn't be by following the mould of DC’s costumed stars. Where DC patronised its readers, Stan respected their intelligence. So he created super-heroes that ignored the conventions. He gave them personal problems and personality flaws. This soap-opera approach resulted in striking characters that grabbed the interest of the fans.
Well, except for the Ant-Man.
To most Marvel fans, the Ant-Man was rather . . . well . . . lame. As readily guessed from his nom du guerre, his super-power was that of being able to shrink to the size of an ant. That was it. Oh, O.K., he retained his normal-sized strength while tiny and, thanks to his cybernetic helmet, he could talk to ants, but that didn’t do much to improve his image.
Super-heroes who could shrink were nothing new. Back in the Golden Age, chemist Darrell Dane could shrink to a six-inch height, by “concentrating his supreme powers of will.” As Dollman, Dane fought crime for a healthy run of fourteen years. DC lifted the shrinking-hero concept when it introduced the Atom in Showcase # 34 (Sep.-Oct., 1961), a good eighteen months before the Ant-Man caught his first Commie spy.
The Atom had considerable versatility in his reducing power---he could shrink to any size, even sub-atomic, and he could alter his weight as necessary---which expanded his plot potential. But as the Ant-Man, Henry Pym could shrink to only one size. And as hard as the scripts tried to show that as a formidable ability, there was something vaguely ludicrous about an insect-sized super-hero who palled around with his six-legged foster-brethren.
Maybe Stan Lee figured that was handicap enough for the diminutive hero, as the Ant-Man wasn’t saddled with the standard cross-to-bear that all of Lee’s other super-heroes endured. Or that might have been due to the fact that Stan dumped the scripting of the series on his brother, Larry Lieber. Lieber was a journeyman writer, more or less competent, but lacking the inspirational spark of his big brother. No matter how often Larry’s captions and dialogue tried to persuade the reader that the Ant-Man was a mighty force for justice, the mediocre stories with their tepid villains told us otherwise.
With the bar set so low, it was difficult to find a true “oh, come on!” moment in the series. Everything in the series seemed insipid and slightly absurd. Still, there was one occasion when even the mild expectations of an Ant-Man fan were insulted.
“The Voice of Doom” pits the Ant-Man against the mesmerizing voice of Jason Cragg. Cragg was an unsuccessful radio announcer, whose dull, droning voice was driving listeners to other stations. That is, until one fateful day when Cragg finds his voice has changed, thanks to Stan Lee’s favourite power-bestowing device---radiation!
No, Cragg wasn’t bitten by a radioactive microphone, but it was something almost as tough to swallow. He is struck by a tiny beam of contaminated electrons emitted when a near-by research laboratory suffers a leak in its atomic pile. Cragg quickly learns that his voice has been dramatically altered; it now possesses an irresistible power of suggestion. People are compelled to do anything he says.
Initially, Cragg uses his newfound power to cadge free meals, transportation, and other services. (It was probably unwitting, but one panel subtly but disturbingly hints that one of those “services” Cragg obtained was sex from random housewives.) Eventually, he decides to go for the big time and rule the city proper. However, Cragg realises that only one man can stop his plan for takeover---the Ant-Man, of course!
Cragg shows up at the Ant-Man’s next public appearance and uses the power of his voice to turn the public against the mite-sized crimefighter. This causes Our Hero a few pages of grief, culminating in his own submission to Cragg’s commands. The villain orders Pym to walk to the waterfront and drown himself in the harbor. Fortunately, a colony of his ant buddies rescue him before he can go under.
The next step in Cragg’s scheme is to make a nationwide television broadcast that night. While drying off in his private lab, Pym learns of this and makes plans.
Cragg arrives at the studio. At the appointed time, the cameras go on and Cragg begins his broadcast. A few minutes into it, the Ant-Man shows on stage and interrupts the villain’s speech. Cragg returns to the microphone and angrily orders the studio audience to attack the super-hero.
And just why has Jason Cragg’s voice lost its power of irresistible influence?
Because the Ant-Man had coated the microphone with microbes of laryngitis. Really. Laryngitis germs that, I guess, Pym just happened to have lying around his lab.
Somehow, the idea of being bitten by a radioactive microphone doesn’t seem as silly, now.
4. She Should Have Bought a Lottery Ticket While She Was at It.
“Lois Lane, Super-Telepath”, Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane # 56 (Apr., 1965)
I know, I know . . . I promised I wouldn’t go the easy route by taking any examples from the Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane titles. But it was this story which gave me the idea for this Deck Log entry. “Lois Lane, Super-Telepath” stands out from the usual Lois fare for two reasons:
For once, we see a Lois Lane who isn’t detestable or malicious. She isn’t scheming to expose Superman’s identity or get him to the altar. She doesn’t take up with a new boyfriend, only to dump him for some minor imperfection. She doesn’t deceive the people close to her, or exploit their friendship. No, the Lois we see in this story is quite decent. In fact, she demonstrates ingenuity and bravery to a good end, for once.
As if that didn’t make the story distinctive enough, “Lois Lane, Super-Telepath” cleverly hangs a lampshade on the usual DC-contrived explanations for the unusual events that take place. At the end, Lois adeptly explains a newfound power of telepathy, drawing from her knowledge of the Superman mythos. It’s almost as if she’d read the last fifty-five issues of her own title.
So it comes as a shock to her---and to the readers, who had probably guessed the same thing as Lois---when she discovers that she’s wrong!
But, it’s why she’s wrong that puts this story on the list. You’ll see . . . .
The tale opens in media res, with a disguised Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen performing a mentalist act on a nightclub stage. Lois is the “sensational” Miss Telepath, while a bearded, turbaned Jimmy poses as her assistant. Relying on standard “head act” tricks---key words and coded phrases from Jimmy---Lois impresses the audience with her abilities. One of the patrons, gangster Long Odds Larkin, is convinced that Miss Telepath’s power is the genuine article.
After the act concludes, we learn that this was the idea all along. Lois’ plan is to get Long Odds Larkin interested in her. If she can get close enough to Larkin, she hopes to find the evidence needed to get him arrested. As insurance, Jimmy lends Lois his signal-watch, so she can summon Superman if things get sticky.
Larkin takes the bait. He kidnaps Lois and takes her to his secret hide-out in an abandoned subway tunnel. With piles of money and valuables from Larkin’s previous crimes lying around, Lois figures it's enough to put the crook and his gang away. She presses the stem on the signal-watch . . . .
Unfortunately, Superman is off-Earth, on one of those space missions he goes on whenever it’s convenient to the plot to have him out of the way. And the ultra-sonic signal from Jimmy’s watch cannot penetrate into outer space.
Larkin tells Lois that the Metro Bank uses five armoured trucks to deliver its nightly cash shipments. Only one truck carries the actual shipment; the other four are decoys. The gangster forces “Miss Telepath” to tell him which truck is carrying the cash on to-night’s delivery.
Lois makes a show of using her “power”, then makes a WAG: “It’s . . . uh . . . truck number three!”
Long Odds sends his goons off to rob truck number three, and there’s the customary warning to Lois that, if she’s wrong, it’s curtains for her.
To Lois’ relief, the gang returns with the stolen shipment. It was truck number three, the hoods tell Larkin. “The dame was right!” Lois figures she just made a lucky guess.
Long Odds plots more crimes based on Lois’ phoney power. He demands to know the combination to a company payroll safe. Lois makes one up. And the gang comes back with the payroll. Lois was right, again!
And she’s on the nose yet again when Larkin wants to know the unlisted number of the richest man in Metropolis. The next morning, Lois is put to the test once more. This time, she divines the place in a local forest where a bank robber had buried his loot. And, for the fourth time, Lois nails it. She begins to wonder if she really does have telepathic powers.
Lois gives the signal-watch one more try. Luckily for the undercover newshen, Superman has returned from his space mission. The Man of Steel makes short work of Larkin and his henchmen. And the money from their recent robberies is enough evidence to lock them up.
That leaves only the question of Lois’ telepathy. Superman tests it by having her guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, and she misses it by a mile. “You never had any telepathic powers!” says the Man of Steel.
“If Jimmy told them I was Larkin’s prisoner,” Lois explains, “they could have projected long-range, telepathic answers to me, solving the crime riddles!”
And, if this had been the usual Lois Lane script, that’s just what the solution would have been. But, as I said, this wasn’t the usual Lois Lane script. Superman brings Lori and Comet and Saturn Girl to Lois, who reveals her clever deduction.
Except that they have no idea what she’s talking about!
Lori and Saturn Girl and Comet were all busy somewhere else, doing something else, during the time Lois was held captive. They never heard of Long Odds Larkin.
To this point, I actually enjoyed this story. Lois wasn’t a shrew. She wasn’t stupid. Her plan to expose Long Odds Larkin was well within the comic-book standard for how such things were done. And I chuckled at the bit where Lois assumed that one of Superman’s telepathic friends was responsible for her mental feats. Because it’s just what veteran readers would be thinking, too. Mort Weisinger and writer Otto Binder were poking fun at their own plot formula.
So, just how did Lois manage to pull off those telepathic stunts? Mort and Otto had a really clever explanation, right?
I only wish
Superman thinks he’s figured out the reason and whisks Lois to his Arctic retreat. There, the Man of Steel uses one of his super-computers to calculate the odds of other near-impossible occurrences, like winning the Irish Sweepstakes. (14,437,342-to-1, in case you were considering buying a ticket.)
Superman tells Lois that, despite the near-impossible odds, sometimes these occurrences do happen. “Every year,” he points out, “that one chance of winning the top sweepstakes prize does come true for some lucky person!”
The Metropolis Marvel feeds all the data about Lois’ situation into the machine and it calculates the odds---326,454,839,047-to-1. And that’s the answer, he tells her. Lois’ four correct WAG’s in a row was just a gazillion-to-one coïncidence.
For crying out loud! Couldn’t Lois’ telepathy been part of Proty II’s latest contest to determine the Legion leader? Or Mon-El helping her out from the Phantom Zone? Or the ultra-sonic vibrations from Jimmy’s signal-watch reacting to the metal plate Lois has in her skull from all the times she beat her head against the wall after Superman outwitted her efforts to prove he was Clark Kent?
Anything would have been better than trying to sell us that Lois got out of her jam by being really, really, really lucky.
* * * * *
Arrrrgh! Once again, I let myself get too long-winded and ran out of space and time. But next time around, I’ll give you the absolutely, bar-none, most ridiculous “Oh, come on!” moment of the Silver Age. Promise!