August 27, 2008

The Marvel of Our Comic-Strip Heroes

By Dan O'Neill

WELL, we're coming to the end of what's been billed as the Summer of the Superhero. Talk about men in tights. Hollywood can't get enough of 'em. So far Iron Man's been followed by The Hulk, that far- from-jolly Green Giant; Will Smith's Hancock, a sort of perpetually- sozzled Superman; Hellboy returning this week.

Meanwhile, Spiderman and Superman will be back, we've had the Fantastic Four and X-Men and let's not forget sub-superheroes like Indiana Jones, the Mummy-hunters, with James Bond and young Potter on their way.

But right now the new Batman movie is causing more bother off- screen than our Caped Crusader ever did in Gotham City. Too violent, say parents. Too dark. With Heath Ledger's psychotic Joker certain to give our little darlings nightmares.

They're lucky Tales From the Crypt isn't being filmed. Now those comics WERE the stuff of nightmares.

Big box office, then. But how did it all start? No, not with Clark Kent and kryptonite. Nor Batman. You could make a case for the Greek myth-makers, the Marvel Comics men of their time, coming up with superheroes like Hercules and Achilles (mind you, the Old Testament's Samson was no slouch). Meanwhile, we had Arthur and Galahad, and every other nation's past features mightier-than- average mortals - and immortals, of course, the Norse god Thor getting his own comic book.

But the superhero as we know him (or her, Wonder Woman fans) sprang to life from the comic strips in American newspapers 70-odd years ago.

Tarzan's first comic strip appearance was in 1929 - on the same day that Buck Rogersmade his bow-but as he made it tothe screen in 1918, he could claim the number one superhero film spot.

But since we're talking screen superheroes of the pants-outside- trousers type we go back only as far as 1941 when the first of whatwould becomeaflood came to the cinema. No, not Superman or Batman, the two comic book titans of the time, but a rival called Captain Marvel. So The Adventures of Captain Marvel, a Saturday morning serial, kick-started it all and you have to wonder why he hasn't been back big time. Maybe because his biggest battle was with the Superman stable who accused his creator C C Beck of coming up with a Superman Mark II. The courtroom fight went on longer than Superman's struggles with Lex Luther.

But the name lives on, when every leader of a successful soccer side is Captain Marvel, as patented by Brian Robson and appropriated recently for Kevin Pieterson.

Anyway, next on screen was Batman. Thiswasa15-part serial captivating the kids on Saturday mornings; Lewis Wilson the Caped Crusader with Douglas Croft as Robin the Boy Wonder. Batman was back again in 1949, Robert Lowery and John Duncan as - comic speak, please - the Dynamic Duo. A movie compiled from the first serial, An Evening With Batman and Robin, was released at the height of TV Batmania in the sixties when Adam West wasn't so much a Caped Crusader as a Camp Crusader.

George Reeve was the first screen Superman, again in a succession of cheap serials for kids, with creaking special effects, and there was also The Phantom and his pet wolf, Devil. He has the honour of being the first costumed crime-fighter to appear in a newspaper strip (in 1936), his identity known only to a tribe of pygmies and, naturally, millions of comic strip fans. He starred in a 1943 serial, his pet transformed from Devil the Wolf into Ace the Wonder Dog.

Four years later one of the all-time greats kept the kids crowding into Saturday morning cinemas. Captain America, in his stars'n 'stripes costume, swung into action in 1941 when President Roosevelt asked for "a comic book hero" to fight Hitler.

So geeky Steve Rogers was turned into just that by a secret serum and played on screen by Dick Purcell, who flung himself into the part so enthusiastically that he died of a heart attack straight after finishing filming.

Now the most popular costumed crime fighter of all: Spiderman.

Peter Parker was bitten by that radioactive spider in 1962 to become - well, let him tell us himself as he swings from a building, villain tucked under arm: "Though the world may mock Peter Parker, the timid teenager... it will soon marvel at the might of SPIDER- MAN."

That hyphen was soon dropped.

And Spidey came to the cinema when Nicholas Hammond played him in big screen versions of TV episodes made in 1977, 1978 and 1980. Landmark films, but pretty much unnoticed at the time.

Maybe that's because the world was gaping in wonder at the first of Christopher Reeves' hi-tech Superman adventures, the start of superhero as money-maker - which is where we came in.

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