Thoroughly Modeling Millie

Millie

I’ve written this before, but since that blog no longer exists the sentiment bears repeating: Dan DeCarlo is the Jack Kirby of teen humor comics.

Like the legendary King Kirby, DeCarlo’s distinctive style defined the way a certain genre of comics is drawn to this very day. During his 43-year tenure on Archie comics, DeCarlo modernized creator Bob Montana’s take on the characters and played a major role in ensuring the Riverdale teens remained relevant to generations of readers.

Along the way, DeCarlo created such memorable characters as Josie And The Pussycats, Sabrina The Teenage Witch and Cheryl Blossom.

Much like Jack Kirby, DeCarlo also left Archie comics under less than ideal circumstances with the artist unsuccessfully battling the publisher over ownership rights of his characters.

(The dispute is summed up in this rather condescending New York Times article, which notes the comic book industry’s sales decline but fails to anticipate the licensing boom major and some not-so-major publishers currently enjoy.)

Before Josie, Sabrina and even Archie, however, Dan DeCarlo made his mark on another famous teen-ager who starred In Marvel Comics’ longest running humor title: Millie The Model.

Debuting in 1945 and drawn by pioneering female cartoonist Ruth Atkinson, Millie and her friends were guided by DeCarlo’s talents from 1949-1959. As is the case with Archie, the cartoonist provided a template that was closely followed for the majority of Millie’s run until her numerous comics finally ended in in the early 1970s.

While Timely/Atlas/Marvel’s humor titles weren’t always particularly original, DeCarlo – like Al Jaffe on the publisher’s other teen icon, Patsy Walker – added substantial flair to what otherwise would have been run-of-the-mill adventures.

As an example, here’s a tale from the early ’50s that was signed – and probably written – by Stan Lee and “anonymously” drawn by DeCarlo. It originally appeared in Millie The Model #50 (Atlas, January 1954).

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Gotta love Chili!

They Broke Spider-Man!

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Amazing Spider-Man 100 - 19

From Amazing Spider-Man #100 (Marvel, Sept. 1971)

Script by Stan Lee, Art by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia

The first time I read this comic, I thought this particular scene was the stupidest thing I had ever seen in a comic book. Believe me, if Spidey survived growing four arms, the ’90s Clone Saga, whatever the heck “The Other” was supposed to be and a satanic divorce, he’ll survive the current “Superior” incarnation.

The Joker

Like such veterans as Don Heck and George Tuska, Werner Roth is an underrated comic-book artist who owes his relative obscurity to the fact that most didn’t see his work until long after the creator had passed his prime.

Many fans point to Roth’s unspectacular work on the Superman Family titles of the 70s and  groan, but fail to note he did solid work for years on Roy Thomas’ X-Men and truly shined on non-superheroic comics published by Marvel’s predecessor, Atlas Comics, in the 1950s.

The Time Bullet’s Four-Star Fright Fest continues with a good example of Roth’s Pre-Code output, “Poor Mister Watkins” from Menace #1 (Atlas, March 1953).

The story was written by none other than Stan “The Man” Lee himself.

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With Great Chutzpah …

In the midst of the imbroglio over Alan Moore and Before Watchmen, Rob Steibel’s Kirby Dynamics blog reminds us that Marvel’s record of caring for creators isn’t any better.

In a new documentary about Stan Lee, “The Man” takes sole credit for creating the Black Panther when history indicates that some guy by the name of Jack Kirby had just as much – if not more – involvement in conceiving the character.

Lee also claims credit for The Falcon, when the idea – as originally revealed in the forward to a Marvel Masterworks Captain America volume – apparently originated from the mind of Gene Colan.

Guess those constant cameos in every single Marvel film, cartoon and video game weren’t enough to stroke Stan’s ego…

All The King’s Men

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Still more Gene Colan!

This story was published eight years after the artist’s “Clipper Kirk” strip, yet it seems as if a lifetime had passed.

By this point, Colan had moved beyond crude imitations of Milton Caniff and forged a distinctive identity of his own. The noir elements readers would later associate with Tomb Of Dracula, Daredevil and Doctor Strange is present in this short horror tale by Stan Lee, a then-obscure writer-editor who would move on to bigger things himself.

From Menace #6, Atlas Comics (August 1953), here’s “Checkmate!” The story is by Lee and Colan.

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Dancing Queen

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Menace was Stan Lee’s attempt to replicate the success of William Gaines and Al Feldstein’s phenomenally popular horror titles by tailoring the duo’s darkly humorous tales of vengeance to his own particular style and recruiting such top-notch freelancers as Bill Everett, Joe Maneely, Gene Colan and John Romita.

Although Lee would later dismiss his efforts as pale imitations of the EC formula, history has judged Menace much more kindly and many Pre-Code enthusiasts regard the title as one of the better horror comics of the early 1950s.

The following tale, entitled “On With The Dance,” is a good example of just how well Lee and his collaborators understood the factors that made the EC titles so memorable: namely sharp artwork, high-concept villainy and a strong punchline that didn’t stint on the gore.

The story originally appeared in Menace #2 (Atlas, 1953). It was written by Lee and drawn by a young artist named Russ Heath. Wonder whatever happened to the kid?

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Hmmmm …. well I guess a dancing skeleton would make an interesting conversation piece at the next cocktail party.

House Of Used Ideas

Kathy The Teen-Age Tornado

Cover of Kathy The Teen-Age Tornado #22
April, 1963
Pencils & Inks by Stan Goldberg

Mad About Millie

From Mad About Millie Queen-Size Special #1
November, 1971
No credits available, but most Millie the Model stories from this era were attributed to Stan Lee and Stan Goldberg.

In defense of the two Stans, they did wait eight years before recycling their joke!

Amazing Slayer-Girl

Buffy In Simpler Times

Thanks to my Virtual Friends™ I recently learned of Geoff Klock’s Remarkable blog, an interesting pop/geek-culture site hosted by the author of How To Read Superhero Comics And Why.

What I find interesting about the site, other than the subject matter of course, is the wide range of guest writers Klock recruits to write about such myriad topics as Chris Claremont’s X-Men, Twin Peaks, Harold And The Purple Crayon and even the finale to Will & Grace.

(Natch, there’s plenty of Grant Morrison references as well. This is the Internet, you know!)

Taken as a whole, the blog makes for interesting and varied reading. While I strongly disagree with some (actually many) of the writers’ assertions, I admire Klock’s crew for providing ample food for thought.

Which brings me to today’s topic: Season One of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Reading through a generally positive review of the beloved series’ fourth season (not my personal favorite, but there were some great moments …), I was more than a bit surprised to see several commentators refer to Buffy‘s first year as the worst of the lot.

I can understand their position; the characters were fairly simplistic and there weren’t any epic musicals or creepy, silent demons in those early episodes. To be quite frank, though, the first season is just about the only era of Buffy I find palatable these days.

I watched the series faithfully for seven years and even felt a bit of remorse when Ms. Summers and the Scooby Gang signed off forever, but as the years passed I found many of the episodes haven’t worn all that well over time. Much like Claremont’s X-Men circa “The Siege Perilous,” the characters grew too dark and the plot lines too labyrinthian to appeal to those outside of creator Joss Whedon’s devoted fan base.

The character of Buffy, in particular, was so full of angst, anger and misplaced arrogance by the seventh season that it’s surprising anyone found her remotely likable let alone relatable.

It wasn’t always that way, however.

Although Whedon has stated more than once that Buffy’s character was strongly influenced by Kitty Pryde – both were conceived as average girls coping with extraordinary circumstances – the Slayer’s portrayal from the first season is more reminiscent of another Marvel Comics icon: Peter Parker.

Specifically, Peter Parker as conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

You’ll never hear this from Joe Quesada, but Mr. Parker wasn’t always a free-swinging bachelor who broke supermodels’ hearts and struck deals with Mephisto. Back in the Lee/Ditko era, Peter was a social outcast who found his “great power and responsibility” a burden that brought him little satisfaction.

Sound familiar, Buffy fans? Remember when our heroine longed for her days as a popular cheerleader? The reluctant sacrifices made in the name of duty?

Like Peter, Buffy always did the right thing … but there was a personal cost. She was misunderstood by her mother, tormented by the school’s principal and scorned by the omnipresent clique of “Mean Girls,” yet the Slayer persisted because – and there’s no other way to put it – with great power comes great responsibility.

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We’ve all felt like misunderstood misfits at one point or another. Yet, just like our fictional heroes hoped, there is always the possibility that acceptance can be achieved with enough persistence.

Coupled with Whedon’s ever-present theme of “high school as horror show,” the first season of Buffy had enough conceptual kick to stand out from a television landscape that … well … had never really seen anything quite like the show before.

(Perhaps the multitude of kick-@ss women who’ve invaded our screens since Buffy and, yes, Xena were introduced has made viewers forget just how novel the characters seemed at the time.*)

Of course, we can’t stay in high school forever. Peter received a make-over from John Romita and found himself the object of two beautiful women’s affections. Not bad for a self-described loser, but the lovable schlub routine never quite rang as true again.

Similarly, Buffy’s angst grew as the seasons progressed to the point where it became easier to root for reformed rogue Faith instead of the show’s supposed heroine. In the final season, the adult Buffy wept over a photo of her high school days, a reminder to this viewer at least of what had been lost over the years.

Those early adventures definitely represented simpler times, but perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to toss those episodes into the dustbin. The crushing weight of adult cynicism and self-absorption can’t be so all-encompassing that we’ve lost the capacity to appreciate the eternal hope of youth.

* No, I haven’t forgotten such proto kick-butt characters as Mrs. Peel, Wonder Woman and Leela from old-school Doctor Who, but such strong women were very few and far between.