The Hidden S in Phone Booth

Welcome to "The Hidden S in Phone Booth." Your writer is Mark Rhodes, a man known within many magazine circles including The Christian Science Monitor, Opera and Wizard. He runs a site called the European Film Report that looks at the art of filmmaking, and will tackle whatever he feels like writing about (similar to Tedd in Hank McCoy (Before the Fur) except with less love of Dazzler). The History of Superhero Serials: The Good, the Bad and The Ugly... When Action Comics #1 debuted the cover featured one of the genuinely iconic cover images in comic history. The image, as even the most casual comic fan knows, was an electrifying picture of Superman lifting a car high above his head as thugs and criminals fled. The character of Superman helped usher in the modern era of comics with this cover. Batman, Wonder Woman and many other second tier DC stars (then called National Comics) like Hawkman, The Flash and Doctor Fate were created in short order. The Harry Potterish popularity of comics in the late 30's was quickly noticed by Hollywood. At the time, comics were strictly kids stuff and there was no real possibility of making an "A" production of a superhero film. There were no debates about which Oscar winning actor or actress should be cast in the new Hulk movie, for instance. However, at the time, Hollywood typically cranked out serials (films made cheap and fast and shown in installments or "chapters" for several weeks) for genre material like Westerns, thrillers, and the Tarzan series . Naturally, Hollywood made the connection that serials would be a perfect match for the superhero craze as the serials were often structured in the same way that comics were with story arcs that stretched for several issues. Ironically enough, the first superhero to be immortalized on the silver screen was not Superman or even Batman but the hero Captain Marvel. Marvel was Fawcett Comics' top hero and a genuine competitor for Superman's alpha male standing in the comics' world. (DC sued Fawcett in a well-publicized suit about this in the 40's). In any event, Republic Studios was a major Hollywood studio of the time mainly known for churning out inexpensive features (usually Westerns) and serials. Initially, the studio wanted to buy the rights to Superman but for whatever reasons DC comics was not interested in having the Man of Steel brought to the silver screen at that point. Republic was serious about bringing a superhero to the screen and petitioned Fawcett to buy the rights to Captain Marvel. Fawcett agreed and the popular and reliable screen actor Tom Tyler was cast as Captain Marvel. This was particularly good casting as Tyler had the appropriate superhero physique (he was once considered the strongest man in America according to IMDB) and he had acted in some serious films as well such as Gone With the Wind and Stagecoach. The resulting serial is often considered the best made of all time. It still holds up well and the portrayal of Marvel has been a strong influence on comic artists like Alex Ross (who has used the shiny lightning bolt on Tyler's uniform in some of his Captain Marvel portraits). Superman finally made it to the silver screen in 1948 (Superman) and 1950 (Atom Man VS. Superman) with the Columbia Studios serials based on the Superman character. Again, the series benefited by some good casting with Kirk Alyn, an actor with a strong physique and a powerful voice. The villain was not Lex Luthor but a sexy female villan called The Spider Woman, a striking and unusual antagonist for this series. Surprisingly, the special effects were not as good as the Captain Marvel series and the flying scenes are basically spliced in animation. In addition, Alyn's performance as Clark Kent helped form the template for the wimp persona that the Clark Kent character has often been burdened with. Despite some of these barriers, the series remains popular with old school Superman fans mainly for Alyn's striking resemblance to the Golden Age Superman in the pages of DC Comics. Alyn also played a more obscure comic hero in the Columbia serial Blackhawk: Fearless Champion of Freedom. Blackhawk, a Will Eisner created character and super team, was the leader of a squadron of uber-aviators of all nationality who were headquartered on Blackhawk Island. The comic attracted a large number of exceptional artists, most notably Reed Crandall whose offbeat covers are still striking even today. The serial was not as well done as some of the others here and the Blackhawk character has always been one of DC Comics' "B" titles, so fondness for this particular serial is not terribly great. Budget concerns limited the serial Blackhawks to a single plane (each flyer had their own in the comics). The serial did retain the great looking Blackhawk uniforms from the comic and also benefited from Alyn's heroic persona. Tom Tyler of Captain Marvel fame starred in another fine serial for Columbia based on the Phantom character (also known as "The Ghost Who Walks"). This character was fairly popular in his day, predating Superman and Batman as a costumed superhero character by several years. The origin story of the Phantom had him being part of multiple generations of crime fighters in the jungle who swore to fight "cruelty, piracy and greed." The Phantom continues to be an ongoing comic character, but he has always been more popular as a newspaper strip character rather than a comic book character. The serial is pretty faithful to the comic strip with the intro having The Phantom die and pass along his mantle to his son Kit (Tyler) who becomes the immortal Phantom. As was stated earlier Tyler was a reliable second tier leading man who was used to performing in "A" list Hollywood films with "A" list leading actors and directors. So, Tyler brought some real authority to the role and his athletic silhouette helped bring the respectability of the serial up a notch or two. The Batman serial of 1943 is actually pretty well done with really good personnel such as director Lampert Hillyer, who directed a fine, underrated horror film called Dracula's Daughter for Universal in 1936. The serial has some of these horror touches in its dark corridors and Bat Cave which is designed with some expertise. The main problem with the film (and the only problem that truly matters in this production) is the faithful Batman and Robin costumes are ridiculous looking in the context of the film; a reminder that realism in comics and superhero films is not necessarily a good thing. A note about finding some of these titles-many of these serials are not widely available-VCI Entertainment is a company that has filled a niche rereleasing some of these titles (many of the studios have let the copyrights on these "B" productions lapse into the public domain). Warner's rereleased a nice box set of the Kirk Alyn Superman serial and the Batman serial about the same time.