Comic Cards Project: Day 50 • Ace the Bat-Hound

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Krypto the super dog’s first appearance in March 1955 must have been a success, because just a few months later readers were introduced to Batman’s canine comrade, Ace the Bat-Hound. Robin made a mask for the dog to cover a distinguishing mark on his forehead—but should he have even bothered? If the citizens of Gotham City weren’t clever enough to realize Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, and Ace looked exactly like Batman, Robin, and Bat-Hound, would that little mark really have given him away?

Bat-Hound was nowhere near as popular as Superman’s pet pooch though, and was prominently featured in only a handful of stories. It could have been that readers weren’t as interested in Batman’s dog because he lacked super powers. More likely, it stemmed from the fact that Krypto’s thought balloons revealed him to be a rational being with a personality, while nobody ever knew what regular dog Bat-Hound was thinking.

Ace popped up occasionally for almost 10 years but when a new editor took over in 1964, Batman’s supporting cast took a hit. Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and Robin made the cut but BatwomanBat-Girl, Bat-Mite, and Bat-Hound were all shown the door.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Next: Robin, the Boy Wonder!

Comic Cards Project: Day 49 • Krypto

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When Superman was still a baby on the doomed planet Krypton, his father Jor-El built a rocket to safely transport the infant to Earth. While testing a prototype, Jor-El sent Krypto, the family’s puppy, into space. Unfortunately, the spaceship was knocked off course and it drifted aimlessly for years. When it finally reached Earth, Krypto was reunited with Superboy, the last surviving member of his family.

Krypto was a popular addition to Superman’s childhood adventures, although in their initial encounters the playful pet with superpowers ended up being more trouble than anything else. Fortunately for Superboy, his dog liked to romp around the universe far from home, keeping him from being a nuisance on Earth for long stretches of time.

He eventually became a reliable ally for the Boy of Steel and although he couldn’t talk, thought balloons revealed that he could think as clearly as any human. In addition to frequent appearances as a supporting character in tales about SuperboyKrypto regularly headlined his own adventures and occasionally turned up in stories after Superman had grown up. He was even featured on the Saturday morning Superboy cartoon from 1966-1969. All this notoriety for a superhero’s super pet was not that surprising given the kitschy comics environment of the 60s.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Tomorrow: Ace, The Bat-Hound!

Comic Cards Project: Day 48 • Robotman

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An accident on a European racetrack left wealthy international daredevil Cliff Steele with a body damaged beyond repair. His brain escaped injury, though, and a surgical genius transplanted it into a scientifically-advanced metallic body. It wasn’t until Cliff was recruited for the Doom Patrol that he learned that their leader, The Chief, had been the surgeon who turned him into Robot Man.

Elasti-Girl and Negative Man rounded out the members of the Doom Patrol, a group of outsiders who banded together to use their unusual abilities for good. Wisecracking, hot tempered Cliff was the most cynical of the bunch, at least on the surface, but he sometimes let his soft side show—especially when it came to his feelings for Elasti-Girl.

The Doom Patrol came along in 1963—about a year after the debut of The Metal Men—but Robot Man’s design seemed primitive compared to that band of artificially intelligent robots. Perhaps The Chief should have consulted with Doc Magus, the Metal Men’s creator, for a little help in crafting Mr. Steele’s body. Maybe with a sleeker physique Robot Man would have been a little less discontent with his situation.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Tomorrow: Superman’s dog, Krypto!

Comic Cards Project: Day 47 • Batgirl

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The Batman TV series that debuted in 1966 was a huge success, but by the second season the ratings had started to slip. The producers wanted to introduce a female character for the third season, so DC Comics created Batgirl as a new character for both the comics and the small screen.

Batgirl was really Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Police Commissioner Gordon. Having received her Ph.D. in library science form Gotham State University, she was the head of the Gotham Public Library. Like Supergirl, she was older than conventional sidekicks but still younger than typical suprerheroes.

While this new character was more popular than Betty Kane, the original Bat-Girl who appeared in comics from 1961-1964, she was unable to save the television series. And though it seemed that things had improved somewhat for female heroes since the day of the hyphenated Bat-Girl, Barbara still had to deal with the misogyny of Batman and Robin—and the writers.

One entire story revolved around the fact that Batgirl, as a woman, was inherently and irrevocably vain. This weakness impaired her crime fighting, and the only way to make up for it was to use her feminine sex appeal to distract her enemies long enough to get the upper hand. The mind reels!

Chauvinism was commonplace in comics of the 50s and early 60s, but it surprised me to see an entire plot based around it in 1968. Considering that the struggle for women’s rights continues over 40 years later, I probably shouldn’t find it so astounding.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Tomorrow: Robot Man of the Doom Patrol!

Comic Cards Project: Day 46 • Elongated Man

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The Elongated Man. Worst. Name. Ever. Even Nameless of the Metal Men who didn’t have a name was better off than the Ductile Detective also known as Ralph Dibny. Editor Julius Schwartz later said he’d never have used such an unwieldy name, if he’d known DC had acquired the rights to Plastic Man in 1956.

But the Elongated Man debuted in 1960 as a supporting character for the Flash, awkward name and all. He got his stretching powers from an elixir he created and had to drink regularly or he would lose his elasticity. He was the first hero to get married, tying the knot three years before Aquaman, and the first superhero at DC Comics to reveal his secret identity to the public.

Having made a fortune in show business, Ralph retired from working and traveled the country with his wife Sue, encountering and solving mysteries like a nomadic Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man movie series. Whenever Ralph would “smell” a mystery his nose would start to twitch and within 10 pages or so he would have the case all sewn up.

The Elongated Man stories were well drawn and fun, appearing regularly in Detective comics from 1964 through the early 70s. He even eventually joined the Justice League, but it’s hard to believe that silly name didn’t hold him back at least a little bit.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Tomorrow: Batgirl!

Comic Cards Project: Day 45 • Congo Bill and Janu

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Congo Bill is probably a surprising choice to illustrate for these cards, even to the most devoted comic fans. Although moderately popular in his heyday, today he’s nearly forgotten. Plus, it’s almost impossible to draw a fully-clothed grown man next to a nearly naked boy without it looking inappropriate. However, Bill has an interesting history.

His long-running adventure series debuted in 1940, detailing his escapades as an investigator for Worldwide Insurance Company in the jungles of Africa. An unusual (if not baffling) premise for sure, but I guess it worked. Columbia Pictures released a 15-chapter Congo Bill film serial in 1948.

In spite of this, his comic series was never a huge success, running consistently as a secondary feature in the back of comics headlined by bigger names. In 1954 Congo Bill acquired a sidekick, Janu the Jungle Boy (who called him “Master”), and shortly after that, his own comic that lasted for only 7 issues (drawn by future Aquaman artist Nick Cardy).

In 1959, with the popularity of superheroes on the rise, some changes were made in an attempt to raise Congo Bill’s appeal. A dying witchdoctor gave Bill a ring that would temporarily swap his mind with that of a rare golden gorilla. When necessary, this transformation afforded Bill the use of the powerful primate’s body. Unfortunately, the monkey’s consciousness was also transferred into Bill’s body in the process, which could be quite embarrassing and required Bill to be restrained until the transformation was reversed.

That’s a superpower that sounds like it was dreamed up on a drunken dare by a writer with an impending deadline. The resulting stories often showed Janu tying Bill to a tree while the ape performed tasks that baffled the other characters. “How is that gorilla flying a plane???” The series, now called “Congorilla”, was kitschy comics at their finest.

Congo Bill appeared monthly in his own stories for over 2 decades, even crossing paths with Superman and Jimmy Olsen a couple of times, but it all abruptly came to an end in 1961. And for better or worse, Bill, Janu, and Congorilla have been virtually ignored for the past 50 years.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Next: The Elongated Man! Seriously, that’s his name.

Comic Cards Project: Day 44 • The Chief

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The Chief was the genius who brought together three victims of fate who had become outcasts of society and turned them into the Doom Patrol. Elasti-GirlNegative Man, and Robotman would never have become heroes without his leadership. In fact, Robotman wouldn’t have existed if The Chief hadn’t invented his metallic body and transplanted his brain into it.

Confined to a wheelchair, The Chief convinced the Doom Patrol to use their unique powers to be his legs and aid mankind. Communicating with the Patrol remotely from their scientifically-advanced headquarters, The Chief guided his teammates as they tackled each urgent situation.

Given his superior intellect and scientific knowledge, it’s curious that The Chief never came up with a way to regain the use of his legs. At the very least he could have invented some swanky flying wheelchair that would have been more useful than the traditional model he used. Of course, if your looking for logic, you probably shouldn’t be reading comic books from the 1960s.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Tomorrow: Congo Bill!

Comic Cards Project: Day 43 • Nameless

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The robot Tin of the Metal Men, though timid and shy, yearned for a companion. Lonely and dejected, he one day aimlessly wondered the streets of the city until he stumbled upon a do-it-yourself robot kit in a toy store window.

Tin quickly purchased the kit and assembled it incorporating one of Doc Magnus’s discarded “responsometers.” (Doc Magnus was the inventor of the Metal Men and a reponsometer was like a brain inside each of his robots.) Tin’s construction turned out to be a “female” version of himself, complete with his characteristic insecurity and stuttering.

Tin instantly fell for his new girl robot and she returned his affection. Unfortunately, he couldn’t think of a name for her, nor could the rest of the Metal Men, so it was left to the readers of the comic to name her.

Though fans sent in hundreds of names like Tinette, Tinsel, and Tin Lizzie, a name was never chosen. The most obvious choice, Tina, didn’t work because it was already the nickname of teammate Platinum. Tin’s girlfriend became a permanent member of the group and he always called her “Beautiful”—but to everyone else she remained Nameless.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Tomorrow: the Doom Patrol’s Chief!

Comic Cards Project: Day 42 • Zatanna

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Zatanna is the daughter of Zatarra, a character that debuted in Action Comics #1 (1938), the same issue that featured the first appearance of Superman. Like her father, Zatanna was a stage magician who also cast magic spells by talking backwards.

Introduced in a 1964 Hawkman story about her search for her missing father, Zatanna popped up from time to time over the next three years and met various heroes as she continued her quest. This story line culminated in a 1967 issue of The Justice League of America where all the characters she had encountered came together and finally helped her find Zatarra.

Later on her exploits were featured in Adventure Comics and Supergirl—and in the late 70s she joined the Justice League. It’s interesting that in those days, besides Wonder Woman and Black Canary, there were virtually no female heroes who weren’t spin-offs of an established male character.

I suppose to avoid redundancy, these characters (like Batgirl, Supergirl, and Hawkgirl) weren’t admitted into the League since their male counterparts were already members. Perhaps the fact that she was the spin-off of a character not already in the organization made her a prime candidate for membership once the editors decided to increase the female presence in the club.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Tomorrow: a character who will remain Nameless!

Comic Cards Project: Day 41 • Superman

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If you’d never read a Superman story from the late 50s to early 60s, you’d probably think they dealt with Superman fighting crime or fending off some threat to humanity. But you’d be wrong.

Back in those days, Superman spent a lot of time protecting his secret identity, being pulled into romantic dramas, and investigating situations more perplexing than menacing (Why was the ghost of Lois Lane haunting him? Why did the entire planet forget he existed?)

When the writers ran out of these silly premises they came up with the “imaginary story” concept. These “what if” stories were a way to address situations that would dramatically alter Superman’s life, without having to deal with the narrative complications of their actually happening. What if Superman married Lois Lane? What if Lois Lane died? What if Lois had super powers and Clark Kent didn’t?

Occasionally Superman foiled a robbery or kept a meteor from flattening a city, but these episodes were secondary to a larger plot of, say, Lois trying to best Lana Lang for Superman’s attention. Examples of Superman primarily using his powers to stop criminals or save people from natural disasters were few and far between.

But you really can’t blame the writers. They’d invented a character who was practically indestructible and could physically do almost anything. Besides possessing godlike strength he could fly, shoot x-rays from his eyes, or even use his ridiculous “super ventriloquism” to throw his voice. It was pretty hard to come up with anything that might be any kind of a challenge to him—except perhaps for navigating human relationships.

Illustrating one playing card a day using characters found between 1957-1967 in DC Comics. Tomorrow: Zatanna the magician!