Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Stand-Up Comics

If you've been wading through the waters of The Underworld for a long time now, you know that I periodically do a little feature on classic comic book covers, ones that I find either amusing for some reason or that feature stars I like or that I happen to find appealing in some way (or feel that maybe one of my readers will enjoy.) In my many travels through the worldwide web, I come across these things from time to time and stick them away for a future grouping. I very well may have come to the end of this sojourn (which may delight some people out there who are sick to death of hearing about them!), but I do have enough for a third go 'round! Some of these shows are repeats, but not the covers themselves.

I have long sung the praises of these vintage comic books, sometimes dotting my tributes with them, not so much for the (often pedestrian) art and storytelling inside), but because they offer a wonderful chance to own a keepsake of a favorite celebrity, TV show or movie. Often, the photographic cover is a rare picture that is difficult to find elsewhere. Look at this vivid cover featuring Chuck Conners and his TV son Johnny Crawford of The Rifleman.

Take this comic book based on the popular series Bewitched. Made during the earliest stages of that show, it clearly plays up the supernatural, almost scary, aspect of the (then) black & white program. It's a far cry from the colorful, campy, light-hearted product that the show eventually morphed into. How can anyone not love that shot of Agnes Moorehead's imposing face?

Less imposing (I guess!) is this shot of Miss Eve Arden. Known to millions of younger fans for her role as the school principal in Grease, she was, prior to that, an indispensable feature film supporting actress (in Mildred Pierce, to name only one) and then the star of her own television situation comedy, Our Miss Brooks.

The show first saw life as a radio program in 1948. Shirley Booth and Lucille Ball were considered for it first before Arden was signed. A big hit from the start, it was adapted for TV in 1952 and ran through 1956. Then a feature film version was put together in which Miss Brooks was finally married to her longtime object of affection Mr. Boynton, a fellow teacher. This particular comic book even gives readers a photographic backstory page that makes sure they understand the premise of the series prior to reading, making it even more fun and collectable!

The portraiture of actors and actresses on these covers is one thing that gives certain issues special meaning to collectors. Look at the striking shot of Jonathan Frid (as Barnabas Collins) on this issue devoted to Dark Shadows. The mysterious, gothic soap opera amassed a sizeable cult following during its relatively brief five-year run. Note, too, the ornately carved handle on Frid's walking stick. When the series was revamped for prime-time TV years later, there was another round of comic books issued.

Back when comics were big, westerns were big, too. It was rare for a western series to not be represented in comic form, for one issue at least. These gave young fans a great opportunity to have pictures of their favorite cowboy heroes (in color, too, when so many shows were in black & white.) Nowadays, they give fans of good-looking cowboys and wranglers a chance to see them in their prime. Wagon Train ran for eight seasons and included several shifts in the regular cast over the years. This shot (I believe from season seven) has a nice shot of Robert Fuller's trousers (which couldn't get too much “fuller!”)

I all but worship Clint Walker, but I prefer him with some more meat on him than he displayed in the early seasons of his hit series Cheyenne. This shot is from his lean days, but I'm including it because it shows a surprising bit of crotchery. (Yes, I made that word up!) I also like the caption, “It was a different kind of MANHUNT, with Bodie the hunted.” Indeed, many men had been after Walker during his heydey, but he seems to have escaped their grasp (most of 'em anyway!)

During Walker's contract dispute with Warner Brothers, a couple of other cowpokes were brought in to fill up the missing space. One of them, Bronco, was played by Ty Hardin (who is profiled elsewhere here) and the other was Sugarfoot, played by Will Hutchins. Hutchins was not my type, per se, but he definitely had (and has) fans out there. Hutchins' time in the sun was relatively brief and by the early '70s he was playing unbilled pit parts. For four years in the late '60s, he was Carol Burnett's brother-in-law (married to the “real” Chrissie, who was played in a fashion on The Carol Burnett Show by Vicki Lawrence.) In time, he became a professional clown (!) and made only the most sporadic appearances as an actor. Still with us today, he is eighty-one as of this writing.

You know, I have always wanted to like The Lone Ranger, but I just can't seem to get there. I love his li'l blue outfit and this particular cover shot is pretty, but somehow the popular series always winds up leaving me kind of cold. One of these days, I'm going to get around to seeing the horrifically dismal feature film redux The Legend of the Lone Ranger with Klinton Spilsbury. I have a feeling its hapless ineptitude will appeal to my love of bad movies.

This comic book based on the TV western Laramie gives folks a chance to see actor John Smith. Born Robert Van Orden, he was a client of notorious talent agent Henry Willson, who gave most of his young, male clients snappy new names like Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Chad Everett, Dack Rambo, Rad Fulton and so on. When it came to Van Orden's turn, Willson was almost fresh out of ideas and, instead, pendulumed the opposite way, giving him the most generic name ever, John Smith! This resulted in a certain amount of publicity in its own right, though. A Native American named Pocahontas Crowfoot was in attendance when he signed the papers to change his name and he also got mileage at Thanksgiving with publicity pictures in line with his pilgrim-ish moniker. Like a lot of his peers, his screen career petered out in the mid-'70s. Smith passed away of cirrhosis in 1995 at the age of sixty-three. Shown with him is Robert Fuller, from the aforementioned Wagon Train. It's surprising that Laramie isn't a more popular western in reruns (especially given the anatomically correct pants shown on this eye-opening DVD cover, from Smith in particular!) I'd rather see some of it than the never-ending Bonanza and Gunsmoke currently running (and re-running) on TV(Waste)Land.

Speaking of tight pants, check out Lee Majors' on this cover from one of the few The Big Valley comic books. This was my own favorite western for a variety of reasons. I did a tribute to it way back in the early days of The Underworld (before I started doing posts that rambled on and on and ON!) Likewise, there's a tribute to Majors himself here, which can be found by clicking on his name in the column to the right.

One of TV westerns' most beautiful men ever was the tan, tightly-packed Robert Conrad of The Wild, Wild West. Every issue of that show's series of comic books cruelly places a block of verbiage over his crotch. This one is the same as the rest, but at least we get a nice view of that amazing, tan, chiseled face. You can find further info on Mr. Conrad by clicking on his name to the right as well. In his day, he was one very stunning specimen!

Segueing from cowboys to the Indian front, we move to film and to young Sal Mineo as White Bull in the Disney movie Tonka. Mineo, who was nearing twenty at the time of this film, but was able to stave off aging for quite a while thanks to his inherently youthful looks and build, played a brave whose love for a horse coincides with General Custer's conflict with the Sioux. Ultimately, the Battle of the Little Big Horn comes about with both Mineo and his horse coming into play.

Eve Arden and Sal Mineo are hardly the only movie stars to appear on the cover of a comic book. Many times, major stars can be found in this area whether they were on the way up at the time or, perhaps, on the way down. One who was entering the twilight years of his career was Robert Taylor. Once the dashing love interest of Greta Garbo and a major movie star in his own right, he eventually turned to TV as a means of keeping himself employed (his ex-wife Barbara Stanwyck had done the same with her own anthology series and, later, The Big Valley.) This cover is from his moderately successful show The Detectives. If I were going to watch it, I'd want to do so in the second season when future Lost in Space star Mark Goddard was in the cast or the season after when a pre-Batman Adam West came on board as well.

A star who was on the up (up and away!) is Sally Field. She'd been starring in Gidget, which was prematurely cancelled before anyone realized just how popular she and the show were, and next rushed into The Flying Nun. To her dismay, Nun was a hit as well and ran longer than Gidget, making her something of a joke for a time thanks to its goofy premise. It wasn't until she won an Oscar (or perhaps, two, according to her own feelings) that she corrected her career trajectory and become an accomplished actress.

Popular TV shows were great fodder for comic books, especially ones that appealed to youth. When you consider the enduring fame of The Brady Bunch, it's really surprising that there weren't more editions published. I know of only two! Surely, the simple stories performed on the show could have translated into more books. This one has a rather fun publicity portrait on the cover, taken from the earliest days of the series' production, but there's a glaring error on it. Indicative of how meagerly known the child actors were at the time, Christopher Knight (who played Peter) and Mike Lookinland (who played Bobby) have each other's names placed next to them! Also, note Bobby Brady's dark wig, intended to drive home the fact that the boys were all related... God forbid that one's hair is lighter than the other two!

Another family show from that same period (as a matter of fact, it was scheduled in between The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family!) is Nanny and the Professor. Juliet Mills and The Big Valley's Richard Long starred in the show, with one of the three children being little Kim Richards. Richards would later grow up to be one of the hot mess ladies starring on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills with her sister Kyle, who had also been a child actress. The show has devoted fans even now, though it only managed to last for 54 episodes stretched across three different television seasons when it first aired.

A more topical program from that same era was Room 222, running from 1969 to 1974. (It eventually took over Nanny and the Professor's time slot, nestled between Bunch and Partridge) The quartet depicted on this cover stayed with the show for all five of its seasons with the show, Michael Constantine and Karen Valentine all winning Emmys in 1970. The high school setting allowed for a gallery of characters to rotate in and out while facing a myriad of social and political problems. Miss Valentine became almost as famous for her appearances on Hollywood Squares, cracking up at everything Paul Lynde said, as she did for her work here. (Strangely, she seemed to disappear entirely, long before one might expect such a performer to, with only the rarest of TV guest shots since the dawn of the 1990s.)

Richard Chamberlain as young, idealistic Dr. Kildare was a major player in early '60s TV, but not to be forgotten was the alternative Ben Casey. A slightly older, more combative and more hirsute figure, Casey (as portrayed by husky Vince Edwards) was decidedly more intense than Kildare. Both shows premiered around the same time and lasted just about as long as each other (from 1961 to 1966.) Pertaining to nothing, why does it bother me that Miss Ackerman spelled her name Bettye?

Fantasy shows translated very well to the form, too. There have been countless issues of Star Trek comic books made from a variety of publishers. I like this cover the best because, unlike so many others, it includes the entire primary cast (the ladies, in particular, never seemed to make the cover of the issues that featured photographs.) I can never say enough about how much I loved these original costumes/uniforms and how unaccepting I've been of virtually any others that have come down the pike since! I think I mentioned in a long ago post how, as a bored (and warped) sixteen year-old working the dining room attendant shift at Wendy's (back when such a thing existed!), I would picture the diners in these uniforms, deciding which color and style would best suit each person! HA!

Another very colorful and adventuresome (yet fun) science-fiction show was Land of the Giants. All about seven people and a dog stuck on a planet where everything was similar to Earth except that the inhabitants were ginormous (and often very threatening and dangerous), it was produced by Irwin Allen. Here, years before MacGyver, Don Marshall seems to be creating something out of a thimble and an aerosol spray can. Meanwhile, hunky leader Gary Conway poses next to a huge pocketwatch. The two-season show boasted a different, bouncy, John Williams theme song for each year it was on and I dearly love both of them.

My Favorite Martian was a sitcom that starred Ray Walston (of Damn Yankees! and South Pacific fame) as a man from Mars with extraordinary powers who finds himself stranded on Earth and passes himself off as the uncle of Los Angeles newspaper reporter Bill Bixby. The caption on this amusing comic book says “A real live Martian visits Earth and out-of-this-world things begin to happen” (such as being mounted from behind by a guy in a navy blue suit while a trio of soldiers looks on?? Sounds hot!)

Bixby went on later to star in The Courtship of Eddie's Father (the show itself being based on a prior movie that starred Glenn Ford and Ron Howard.) At the wonderful blog Stirred, Straight Up, with a Twist, there is a follower who delights in answering most any “Guess Who?” question with the response “Helen Twelvetrees.” Likewise, I have a friend who tends to toss out the name Miyoshi Umecki at the drop of virtually any showbiz trivia question. Thus, I couldn't resist posting this cover, which prominently features Miss Umecki.

Though it wouldn't be long before comic adaptations of TV shows fell out of favor (only to be resuscitated years later with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the trend did continue through the late '70s with Happy Days. The primary cast is shown here with Henry Winkler's The Fonz taking center stage. Back in the day, Fonzie seemed so cool. Looking at the show now during an occasional rerun, Mr. Winkler often comes off as one of the least cool things I have ever witnessed! Thank goodness he is surrounded on the show by comparative buffoons so that he can at least come off in a better light than they often do. Also, you can see the oncoming lack of charm and quality in the cover art as the classic era of comic tie-ins was drawing to a close.

Back to the movies for a bit, I give you the comic version of John Paul Jones, starring Mr. Robert Stack, the first of several epic films made by producer Samuel Bronston. I'm going to be watching this movie for the first time pretty soon as it is recorded on my DVR. It is there chiefly because Miss Bette Davis has a role in the film (as Catherine the Great.) Seeing as it is a two and a half-hour motion picture, I'd love to know how they whittled it all down into a single issue comic. I may be checking in again later with an update on the film once I've seen it.

Another lengthy film that I saw once long ago and doubt that I will subject myself to again anytime soon is The Happiest Millionaire. An all-star cast that included the promising cast of Fred MacMurray, Greer Garson, Geraldine Page (!), Gladys Cooper, Lesley Ann Warren, Hermione Baddeley and John Davidson was rendered nearly unwatchable by the over-the-top antics and presence of Tommy Steele, a bouncing, braying Brit whose personality (an acquired taste to be sure, that I have yet to develop) soiled a few musicals in the 1960s. This one laid an egg upon release despite being the last personally overseen movie of studio founder Walt Disney.

You never know just who you will see on the cover of a vintage comic book. Why, here “I” am, Poseidon, Ruler of The Underworld, threatening the hell out of the Argos in the adaptation of the adventure movie Jason and the Argonauts! Ha ha! If you've gotta go, I guess there are worse ways than by a wet, shirtless, hairy-chested, salt 'n pepper daddy with an axe to grind.

More hysterical is this copy of David and Goliath, a 1960 Italian feature that boasted Orson Welles in a supporting role (with top-billing) as King Saul. Someone named Ivica Pajer played David while a person who went by the name Kronos (actually real-life circus giant Aldo Pedinotti) portrayed Goliath. Get a load of that hideous, fake muscle suit that he's wearing!! Interestingly, Pajer went on a couple of decades later to play Meryl Streep's father in Sophie's Choice... Folks, there is no other world like the world of show business.

Movie adaptations continue to this day, though comic books have changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. More traditional was this tie-in to the cinematic version of Annie (haplessly directed by a dispassionate John Huston), though it eschews a photo cover for illustration. I always wish for people to click to enlarge all applicable photos at The Underworld (for some unknown reason, those that are “centered” in the posts do not enlarge, but all others usually do), but in this case I demand it. Look at the ungodly shitty artwork offered up in the depiction of Sandy the dog! Someone basically chose a human face with hair on it, like Star Wars' Chewbacca, in lieu of a golden retriever or whatever type of canine Sandy was in the movie!! This Sandy looks more like Burl Ives or something. How tacky!

Our tour of vintage comic books is going to end on what I consider to be a high note. Perhaps I'll make believers of you yet! One of the most common subjects from the movies to be covered in comic strip form is that of Tarzan the Ape Man. Though Johnny Weissmuller is the actor most closely identified with the character, he was rarely, if ever, depicted on the cover of a comic book. By the time it became commonplace to use pictures on the covers, he'd departed the role. Here, we have the primary TV Tarzan, Ron Ely, trimly tied to a tree and perhaps about to be rescued by his loyal chimpanzee pall Cheeta.

Before Ely had taken on the role for TV, Denny Miller and, more importantly, Mike Henry had played the role in the movies, but they never made it on to comic covers for some reason. Their predeccessor, Gordon Scott, did though. Scott was one of the most muscular and stocky Tarzan's, but a very handsome one. (He was also the onetime husband of Miss Vera Miles!) It's not hard to picture him in this shot sitting naked in his little grass hut!

He was actually quite tall at 6'3”, but, strangely, seemed to come off shorter than that on film and in still photos. One reason could be that, unlike many of his fellow Tarzan's, Scott was frequently photographed in a crouching position and tended to be shot from below. Maybe because he was so broad, carrying all those thick muscles, it made him look less lanky, as 6'4” Ely certainly did.

One benefit of having Scott depicted crouching and from below was the great glimpses we sometimes got of his behind. In this cover, his ass is practically bare! No wonder someone held on to this issue for all time and kept it in such stellar condition. While I certainly appreciate Scott and most of his fellow Tarzans, my own personal favorite is Weissmuller's immediate successor, Lex Barker.

To most people, Barker may not have been the best Tarzan, either in acting or authenticity, but, for my money, he was the most beautiful. That face! He looked stunning from practically any angle. I never, ever tire of looking at his sleek, classic features. Of all the comic book Tarzans, Barker appeared on the most covers.

Some of his pictures were beautiful, some flattering, some sexy, but there were more than a few that were corny or even bordering on humiliating! Look at the coy, hilariously affectionate way he embraces Cheeta in this one. Not to mention it was rather rare in the staid early '50s to show this much male skin. No wonder he ran into severe type-casting issues when he finally vacated the role. A movie to Germany in the late '50s led to major stardom there. But we will end this post with some of his Tarzan covers, the glorious and the goofy. Do enlarge them in order to fully appreciate his handsomeness!


CharmedLassie said...

Anyone who doesn't appreciate the genius of Eve Arden isn't human in my view!

Excellent post, thanks for sharing all the covers.

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks for leaving a comment. Yes, Eve was one of a kind. Welcome to The Underworld!

Unknown said...

Love this blog!
Just want to shout-out to Will Hutchins fun work in forgotten "Hey Landlord", NBC sitcom in that pesky 8:30-9:00 Sunday time slot after Walt Disney and before "Bonanza".

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks, Unknown, for the compliment and for the info on Mr. Hutchins' show.